Cooperation in the Age of Google

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* Report: Co-operation in the Age of Google. By Robin Murray. Co-operatives UK, 2010

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See also our entry: Cooperatives in the Age of Google


"What is the way forward for the co-operative sector? Commissioned by Co-operatives UK, Robin Murray – a co-operative innovator and key thinker behind Fairtrade, Twin Trading and much more besides – has produced a radical vision of the how the co-operative sector can expand in the 21st Century.


Robin Murray in discussion with Jeremy Gilbert and Andrew Goffey:

"* Jeremy Can you say something more about the arguments in your 2010 paper ‘Cooperation in the age of Google’?

Robin: I was asked to offer some perspectives for the co-operative movement in the coming decade. The co-operative economy in this country had been inspired by the 1844 Rochdale Pioneers, and the working-class co-operative network that grew from it, to become by the 1880s one of the largest set of enterprises in the world. Many of the co-ops from the early period had had difficulty in keeping pace with scale-based Fordism, but over the past twenty years there has been a new wave of co-ops that have some of the features of the Italian industrial districts like the one in Poggibonsi. The question I looked at was what the future holds for the new and older strands of the UK’s co-operative economy.

My starting point was the potential for more lateral and democratic forms of production and circulation as the result of the internet and growing civil socialization. The potential for co-operation is startling. If anyone says to me, ‘co-ops are over’, the response has to be ‘What about Linux?’. Open source is a contemporary form of cooperation. With open source projects you don’t need to set up a coop, because there’s nothing bought or sold. But if you think that the majority of software in the world is now dependent on open source, co-operation has now reached a scale that William Morris could scarcely have dreamt of.

How does this translate into the material world of food and energy or expanding services like education, or health and social care? All these have the potential to develop as distributed post-post Fordist systems. Already Germany’s remarkable growth in renewable energy has been driven by local energy co-operatives (as was Denmark’s wind industry). Similar patterns have emerged in social care (in Italy over 14,000 social co-ops involving families, care workers and volunteers have been established in the last twenty-five years). In Japan, food co-ops, based on box schemes, now involve 12 million households, organised around local cells of 6-12 households. These food co-ops have now diversified into health, social care and a myriad of worker co-ops. In all these systems, and in similar ones in the wider social economy, platforms, grids and common services are crucial to the effectiveness and economy of the constituent parts. What marks them out is that the infrastructure and support services are directly controlled by the productive ‘cells’ they are there to service. So the first recommendation of my study was to move away from the pyramidal structures that marked many of the larger twentieth-century co-ops, and towards developing such platforms and common services for distributed co-operative systems.

Secondly, if co-ops are driven by wider social and environmental goals, what holds everyone together and ensures that democratic structures remain inclusive and constructive? This has been a problem for the co-op movement. As co-ops grow in size, you can see a common tendency: after initial enthusiasm and expansion, pyramids based on knowledge often develop, with power moving to technicians and managers. In Fordist co-operatives, the managers tend to be sucked in to the methods and ideologies of their corporate competition. The economies of system clash with the economies of cooperation. How to marry the two?

The distributed systems of German energy or Japanese food are one answer. Another is ideological. The Mondragon network of 220 worker coops (with 85,0000 workers) has a Lego-like structure, with the individual co-ops encouraged to remain small and specialise, and spin off operations as they grow. But their distinguishing feature is their emphasis on education, or ‘formacion’ as they put it. Launched in 1956 from a training course, Mondragon now has a university serving its members, whose purpose is both technical and ideological, so that the values of co-operation are embodied in all its parts. Its founder, the priest Jose Arizmendierreta, when asked why they place such importance on education in an economic project, replied ‘No, no - this is an educational project with an economic component’.

Another post-post Fordist feature of the co-operative landscape is the appearance of co-operative platforms as a way of marrying autonomy and scale. The One-Click platform allows you to set up a co-op or other social venture in ten minutes, and then enables members to come in and out of discussions normally reserved for a Board according to each person’s time and interest.

What is fascinating about how it works in practice is that there’s rarely a nonconsensus decision. If there are differences those involved are encouraged to sort it out offline and return online to take formal decisions. Charles Armstrong, who developed One Click, describes it as ‘emergent democracy’.

One way of looking at these developments is to focus on how knowledge and information are generated and shared. One of my arguments in ‘Cooperation in the Age of Google’ was that co-ops with social and environmental goals have an incentive to share their knowledge with other social organisations with similar goals. We can think of it as a potential co-operative commons of information. This is one element of the economics of co-operation, and it gives co-ops, like others in the social economy, a decisive advantage over private corporations,

I suggested a number of ways in which the movement as a whole could establish systems for the collection and sharing of their information and knowledge, as one part of a wider strategy for the British co-operative movement to embrace the emerging features of post-post Fordist production - distributed systems, platforms, formation, and open information.

I also raised the issue of developing a cooperative currency. As Amazon and Google have both recognised, currency is a great tool for socialisation. As with ‘open source’ collaboration and its socialisation of information and knowledge, so a co-operative currency is a way of directly connecting (that is ‘socialising’), the different parts of a co-operative system." (

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