I read about this a few weeks back, and was rather intrigued – the story of the co-operative, told as a graphic novel. How’s that going to work, I wondered, since it’s basically going to be a bunch of meetings followed by a shop opening. Fortunately the book is more than that. It begins with the story of the Rochdale Pioneers, but it’s a much broader celebration of cooperatives and cooperation.
If you’re not familiar with the Rochdale Pioneers, this slim volume is as neat a summary as you’ll find. These were the industrial workers of northern England who got together in the face of considerable obstruction and started a small shop in 1844. It was funded cooperatively, and the shop paid a dividend based on patronage – profits were distributed in proportion to the amount you had spent at the shop. They were just out to provide affordable and decent food for their families, but they basically developed the first viable co-op in the process. They weren’t the first coop, but their model was the one that kickstarted the rise of cooperatives.
The context is important, and the novel does a fine job of explaining it all. The 1840s were a time of established industrialisation. Manchester, and Rochdale on the outskirts, are dominated by industry. Men, women and children all work in the factories. A 15 hour day is normal, organised unions are illegal, health and safety is non-existent – conditions unknown to us today, but still familiar to the sweatshop workers that still supply our cheap goods. The local shops are all owned and operated by the factory owners, who overcharge and sell poor quality merchandise.
The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers got together to challenge that power structure by simply creating an alternative. It sounds ordinary enough, but the idea of a business built on democratic principles was radical for the time. Working men and women had no vote and very few rights, and the government regularly imprisoned those that demanded them. To set up a cooperative, especially one where women could be equal partners, was highly subversive – so much so that local wholesalers wouldn’t sell them any stock for their shop. They had to travel elsewhere to get their first wheelbarrow full of goods. But it worked, and a few years later they started their own wholesaler, then their own factories, where decent wages were paid and profits were shared. “If parliament and owners have locked the door to liberty” says one character, “then we don’t beg to be given the key, or get shot in the street trying to wrest it from them. We build our own liberty, and leave them as fools, guarding an empty room.”
Does this work as a graphic novel? Yes, just about. There are a few pictures of meetings – hard pressed industrial workers plotting together, cooperative workers being turned away by bank managers, etc. But really, the story of the Rochdale Pioneers is just the introduction. The graphic side of things comes into its own as the book goes on.
The middle section explores co-ops today, from Co-op City in New York which houses 60,000 people and has its own police force, to a cooperative of snake catchers in India. There’s the inspiring story of a group of Argentinian garment workers who were laid off by their employers during the country’s collapse in 1999. Instead of going home, the workers carried on the next day under their own steam. The old owners didn’t take kindly to the illegal occupation of their premises, but after a long battle, the workers won the right to stay and it remains in operation today.
My favourite section of the novel is the third chapter, which looks at cooperation in nature. Cooperation, it suggests, is just as much a factor in evolution as competition, something I argued recently. The artist is at his most imaginative here, with beautiful ink drawings depicting flocks of starlings, honeycomb, or jellyfish. Science has come round to the idea of altruism, it argues. (In the second edition of The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins apparently added a new chapter on cooperation. In the third edition, thirty years after the first, he wrote in the preface that he wished he’d called it ‘The Altruistic Vehicle’ or ‘The Cooperative Gene’.)
There’s loads more, but I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice to say that The Co-operative Revolution is well worth an afternoon of your time. It makes a fine case for the role of the co-op, celebrating a revolution that rumbles on largely unnoticed, but is increasingly important in the global economy. Economic democracy has never been delivered, but the fairer alternative is being built as we speak, and it’s bigger than you think.