Cooperative Commonwealth

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= "the concept is different from just the co-operative concept because it is based on not just corporate reform via co-operatives but also practical land reform and money and banking reform via co-operatives".


1. Peter Couchman:

"In the UK, from the 1820s to the 1870s, co-operators saw the founding of co-operative societies as the first step towards building highly localised co-operative economies. From Owen's Villages of Co-operation to the Rochdale Pioneer's desire to create a "self-supporting home colony".

As the movement grew, its expansion came in a different way as co-operators sought vertical integration at a national scale. Farms, factories, warehouses and distribution were all a part of this. Whilst lacking the intellectual rigour of the previous paradigm, the idea that co-operation would come to dominate (or even replace) the traditional economy became the central belief. This became known as the Co-operative Commonwealth.

By the 1930s, a number of thinkers began to challenge this, on a number of fronts. Some, such as Beatrice Webb, challenged it on the grounds that it was making the movement merely economic in its aspirations ("They have descended into a movement of shopkeepers"). Others challenged the idea that the Movement could continue to expand and whether it believed it could (my favourite being in one of Virginia Woolf's letters where she says "They are all singing of the coming of the glorious Co-operative Commonwealth, but they all know in their hearts that it isn't going to happen".

Despite this, achieving the Co-operative Commonwealth remained the official aspiration of the British Movement until recent times. Indeed, it is only a few years since the Co-operative Party abandoned it."

2. Jessica Gordon Nembhard:

"By a cooperative solidarity commonwealth, I mean a system of interlocking cooperative ownership structures in all industries and all sectors of the economy, where cooperatives and other community-based enterprises support one another by building linked supply chains, collaborating on projects, and sharing funding. These interconnections start locally but build into regional, national, and international interlocking structures, as needed (and as is rational).

For example, in a cooperative commonwealth, a credit union helps to develop worker cooperatives, provides financial services to cooperative members and low-interest loans to cooperative stores (to buy a building, for instance) and housing cooperatives. The cooperative store deposits its money in the credit union, and increases its reserves so it can make more community loans. The housing cooperative members run their own management, security, and maintenance companies as worker-owned cooperatives that also service the credit union and the cooperative store, and use the credit union for their financial services. The residents also own cooperative sewing factories, catering enterprises, childcare centers, and home care facilities, which sell to, and use the services of, the other cooperatives. The model can also encompass industrial cooperatives in recycling, alternative energy production, laundry services, and manufacturing. The links are made wherever member-owners use the services of, or buy supplies from, other cooperatives and community-based enterprises. In this system, everybody is part of several different, but interlinked, cooperatives. The interlinked cooperatives also help one another out and work together on issues of social need. For instance, in the case that one cooperative goes through financial challenges or additional affordable housing is needed in the community, some of the surplus from a profitable cooperative can be directed towards these needs. Bartering, gifting, and fair trade relationships are all incorporated into these activities and exchanges." (


Henry Tam writes:

"Beyond the conventional notions of liberalism, socialism, conservatism, and neo-liberalism, the ideal of the cooperative commonwealth flows from a distinct tradition of radical communitarian thinking, which is consistently overlooked by mainstream academics and commentators."

For more, see: [1]

The need for an integrative approach

Pat Conaty:

"The Depression between 1873 and 1896 is known as the Long Depression. There are strong similarities to our long recession. Way back then the downturn it was most severe in the USA. This was so and briefly because Lincoln introduced national currency as Greenback dollars for the first time during the Civil War. He in fact spent $450 million into the US economy to pay for the war. The Confederate states did the same. The bankers including the English ones funding the south and the north (via JP Morgan) went along with this early form of Quantitative easing because Lincoln while not redeeming this fiat money with gold and silver (redemption was suspended) during the war he did not say this money would never be redeemed. After Lincoln was killed (and who knows if there was a link here), US presidents went along with the desire of the goldbug bankers for redemption. A process of returning money to only gold in 1873 Coinage Act (which did not make silver a reserve commodity). This hard money legislation triggered huge deflation which lasted decades. Hence the Long Depression.

The expert historian on this period is Lawrence Goodwyn, who was also a Texas activist working under Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement. He just died a few months ago. I have been reading over Christmas his fabulous book, The Democratic Promise. If you have not read it, you should as it provides a political economy roadmap for our time. Basically Goodwyn shows that this long period of US austerity during the era of the Robber Barons triggered massive unrest among a growing precariat then of both workers and farmers.

John you asked me three months ago about the origins of the Co-operative Commonwealth concept and I said in reply that the concept is different from just the co-operative concept because it is based on not just corporate reform via co-operatives but also practical land reform and money and banking reform via co-operatives. In other words the concept is the whole enchilada, not just the sauce. The early Owenite co-operative socialist movement saw the strategic need for land, money/banking and corporate reform from the outset of the early 1820s.

Inspired by the classic 1963 book (on this period), the Making of the English Working Class, by EP Thompson (and Michel he has also did a book on the moral economy and the historic Commons vernacular), Goodwyn's book sets out to explore these same transatlantic origins in mutual aid of the American working class from a somewhat later period in the nineteenth century as the major development of industry and railroads in the USA was after 1865. Largely also financed by British capital by the way. Hence the importance of the House of Morgan.

Goodwyn's book tracks this birth in the USA of the co-operative commonwealth crusade that not reaching full fruition across the USA but in key states like the Dakotas, Kansas, Georgia and Texas (of all places) built transformative momentum through community organising year on year from the 1870s, which fed directly into co-operative scaling up that was huge and federated right down to local levels in each town, and that aimed to link mutuality building between farmers and workers. The emerging co-operative economy strategy was mind blowing as by the late 1880s they aimed to replace the entire US currency with interest free money (effectively) via a reintroduction of either greenbacks via the state or via a national co-operative currency issued by farmers and extended to workers. In 1888-89 they were not just talking about creating but actively and politically organising to introduce an interest-free currency of over $2 billion and co-managed by local, regional, county, state and national alliances.

Goodwyn reveals in detail the plans by Charles Macune (the editor in Washington of the co-operative journal, the National Economist) and seasoned co-operative educationist organisers like RO Daws and William Lamb. John these organisers and what they achieved via co-operative education linked to transformative action Saul Alinsky work look like that of a pussy cat. There are though parallels here with the Civil rights work of the 1960s.

From 1885 three monetary reform plans were prepared for co-operative capital development and in some places in fact these were partially implemented - Texas being the biggest project though this did fail over two years. Wall Street and corporate America saw the writing on the walls here and linked arms with corrupt politicians (among Democrats and Republicans - though the movement had key black Republican allies and many trade union Democrat allies) to kill these off, even the most conservatives plan number 1, but this was more practical and radical then ideas being considered today in relation to monetary reform.

The co-operative education system Goodwyn shows in considerable detail was the key difference state by state for the success of this movement. Where the co-operative educational work was neglected or marginal, the sector strength socially, economically and politically was measurably lower. So as Arizemendi summed up on why Mondragon worked, 'Co-operative education is the seed!', is echoed and indeed evidenced by Goodwyn chapter after chapter." (email, January 2014)

More Information

Bibliographic Summary

Pat Conaty:


"It pops up like a wildflower field when times get really tough. You and find the concept in the Diggers under the first years of the Cromwellian commonwealth. Robert Owen's writings on Villages of Co-operation and Mutual Unity before 1820 and then with the Chartist Land Company in the 1840s, then again in the Long Depression from the 1870s to 1890s when William Morris wrote about this vernacular concept in the 1880s and so did Laurence Gronlund in the USA to go beyond just Henry George. Morris came up with a lovely word, Commonweal.

Lawyers seem to be interesting. Gronlund was a US attorney and so was Henry Demarest Lloyd who in 1894 published his best selling attack on Rockefeller and the Robber Barons, This was called, Wealth versus Commonwealth. Lloyd came to the UK thereafter to study the early work co-ops and the early housing co-ops and then wrote a less known book on peer to peer co-op models in a book about Tenant and Labour Copartnerships. Guild socialists in the 1920s were trying to make it happen. Then in Canada the New Democratic Party takes the CCF name. Some talk in the 1970s again about all this. I think what Mike Lewis and I have argued for in the Resilience Imperative is the most up to date source.

EP Thompson's book the Making of the English Working Class is all about the culture of co-operative commonwealth. In the German speaking world Gustav Landauer, Silvio Gesell and Martin Buber were all writing about this before and after the First World War. Unique in the Frankfurt School, Erich Fromm picks these arguments up in Escape from Freedom and the Sane Society (this book during the McCarthy era of 1950s USA). So we are just rediscovering a vernacular Commonweal." (via email, November 2014)


A few books that I think are helpful on this forgotten concept and topic are:

Stephen Yeo (1988) New Views of Co-operation, Routledge Some material in this book on Ireland also.

Geoffrey Ostergaard (1997) The Tradition of Workers’ Control, Freedom Press.

Peter Gurney (1996) Co-operative Culture and the Politics of Consumption in England 1870-1930, Manchester University Press

Frances Hutchinson and Brian Burkett (1997) The Political Economy of Social Credit and Guild Socialism, Routledge