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John Restakis (in: Humanizing the Economy ch. 2):

“How to start? (William) King advocated the establishment of a shop. Since people have to go to a shop every day to buy food and necessities, why not go to one they owned? The surplus from the co-operative shop would then go toward building the co-operative community that is the ultimate aim. Ever the pragmatist, King proposed that capital be accumulated partly through weekly subscriptions (as in the friendly societies) and partly through the surplus generated from running the shop. Work can then be found for other members until all are employed. Finally, the co-op can afford to pay sickness benefits, pensions, and schooling for the children; it can purchase land, build housing and keep unemployed workers in employment growing food. Eventually, a whole new society-within-society will emerge independent of both capitalists and welfare. The Owenite vision of a co-operative community is thus achieved gradually, from the patient accumulation of capital that comes from using the market in the interests of workers.

King’s great achievement was not merely to present a vision of the future (at this time there was a surplus of utopian visions to choose from), but much more importantly a way to translate this vision into a reality. What was needed to make such a plan work? Unromantically, and at the most basic level, there was a need for rules on how such a co-operative shop should be run: no credit; the selection of three people to act as trustees; a weekly accounting of the business; acceptance as members only people that can be trusted; and the very wise advice that meetings be held in a room, not a pub, otherwise members will be tempted to drink the surpluses before they are earned. On this basis, (save the last - insofar as the directors, showing remarkable restraint, would meet in the committee room of the Weaver’s Arms) a group of weavers and cobblers in the old industrial town of Rochdale created the seed from which the modern co-operative movement would grow.

Much has been written about Rochdale and the name has now acquired a semi-mythical status in the co-operative corpus. All movements need their symbols and Rochdale is one. But it marks a milestone in the movement for economic democracy because the Rochdale story shifts the focus from the creation of socialized communities as the means to reform society to the transformation of market relations in the service of social ends.

With the guidance of King’s rules for co-operation, Rochdale helped transform economics by formalizing reciprocity as an economic principle. When it proved successful, the model became the blueprint for the largest, most durable and most successful mass movement for economic reform in history. It was here that the modern conception of the co-operative as a democratically controlled enterprise took form. Its beginnings were memorably (and very humorously) recorded by George Jacob Holyoake.

At the close of the year 1843, on one of those damp, dark, dense, dismal, disagreeable days, which no Frenchman can be got to admire - such days as occur towards November, when the daylight is all used up, and the sun has given up all attempt at shining, either in disgust or despair - a few poor weavers out of employ, and nearly out of food and quite out of heart with the social state, met together to discover what they could do to better their industrial condition. Manufacturers had capital, and shopkeepers the advantage of stock; how could they succeed without either? Should they avail themselves of the poor law? that were dependence; of emigration? that seemed like transportation for the crime of having been born poor. What should they do? They would commence the battle of life on their own account. They would, as far as they were concerned, supersede tradesmen, millowners, and capitalists: without experience, or knowledge, or funds, they would turn merchants and manufacturers.

And so it was. The small shop, stocked with a tiny inventory of butter, flour, oatmeal, sugar and a few candles opened just before Christmas on 21 December 1844 for two days a week. It had a founding capital of 28 pounds sterling collected from its members on a subscription of two pence a week. It took the 28 founding members four months to pool the money. But despite these humble beginnings there was no dampening the reformist fervour of the society’s founders. Included in the charter, along with the mission to open a shop and to build homes, was the following modest aim: "That, as soon as practicable, this Society shall proceed to arrange the powers of production, distribution, education, and government; or, in other words, to establish a self-supporting home-colony of united interests, or assist other societies in establishing such colonies." Not to neglect the moral side of things, the proposition followed: “That, for the promotion of sobriety, a Temperance Hotel be opened in one of the Society's houses as soon as convenient." It was a grand vision, founded on a two pence subscription. And while the rearrangement of the national means of production, distribution and government had to wait a while longer, ten years later the British co-operative movement had grown to nearly 1,000 co-operatives. The original shop still stands preserved as a museum at 31 Toad Lane.

Located on the boundary of Lancashire and Yorkshire, Rochdale had a long history of activism and labour unrest. It was a tough political town. In 1808, a bitter strike resulted in the stationing of regular troops in the town, which remained there until 1846. In particular, Rochdale handloom weavers were a highly politicized group, born troublemakers, that could be counted on to lead the strikes and be key activists in organizing the community. Reform meetings often attracted ten thousand or more people. Rochdale’s woolen and cotton industries brought it within the influence of other textile districts like the West Riding of Yorkshire and South East Lancashire, both areas of social unrest, and seedbeds of various reform movements. The strategic importance of Rochdale was attested by the fact that a major effort to organize a National Trade Union took place here, and the town played a central role in both the Chartist movement and the Ten Hours movement. The town became an important centre for Owenite activity. In the midst of this tumultuous reform atmosphere there were concerted attempts at co-operation.

The 1840s were a grim time in Rochdale. Economic depression had hit the weaving town particularly hard. Hunger and privation among workers and their families left them vulnerable to disease and of those hardest hit five-sixths had scarcely any blankets to keep them warm, while over a hundred families had no blankets at all. Starvation was in the air. In 1837 for example, an average of one hundred eighty animals were killed weekly to provide for the town’s food needs. In 1841 this number was down to sixty-five, a reduction of caloric intake of nearly sixty percent. The conditions of most weavers from the 1820s to the 1840s and beyond were commonly referred to as “indescribable.” But described they were.

Here is an account from the evidence gathered by the Select Committee on Emigration (1827) of conditions in Lancashire where in the space of 20 years industrialization had driven weavers from relative prosperity to the edge of starvation:

- “Mrs. Hutton and myself, in visiting the poor, were asked by a person almost starving to go into a house. We there found on one side of the fire a very old man, apparently dying, on the other side a young man about eighteen with a child on his knee, whose mother had just died and been buried. We were going away from that house, when the woman said, “Sir, you have not seen all.” We went upstairs, and, under some rags, we found another young man, the widower; and on turning down the rags, which he was unable to remove himself, we found another man who was dying, and who did die in the course of the day. I have no doubt that the family were actually starving at the time …”

In Rochdale, the economic backdrop to the crisis was the crumbling of the town’s industrial heart. The new factory system had turned once proud and independent artisans into dependent outworkers for large manufacturers. Employers succeeded in ratcheting down wages while simultaneously defeating attempts to introduce a minimum wage. By the 1840s automation was putting handloomers out of business and the industries of cotton manufacturing and machine making were supplied by imported, cheap labour, composed mostly of desperate Irish workers fleeing famine back home only to face the hatred of the local townsfolk. The hat industry that used the felt produced in the town was in decline. Making matters worse, the cotton factories had to compete with imported cloth produced at a fraction of the cost with slave labour in the United States. Globalization then, as now, was linking the fates of workers half a world apart. These then, were the material conditions that immediately preceded the establishment of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in 1844.

But the factors that gave rise to the co-operative movement at this time and in this place extend far beyond immediate economic hardship; the deeper roots of the movement arose from the human qualities that made up the unique character of the weaver communities from which it sprang. Understanding this is more than a simple appreciation of historical conditions. It goes to the heart of what gave the co-operative movement its galvanizing power during the latter part of the 1800s and its continuing relevance to the conditions of globalizing capital today.

The weavers that led the Lancashire Radicalism of 1816-20 were a product of the clash between two conflicting ideologies and ways of life. One was the rising swell of industrial laissez faire capitalism which we have already described. The other was the disappearance of an ancient way of life that was characterized by the artisan tradition and the weaver communities that this tradition had woven; a deep social egalitarianism, a spirit of independence, an immense pride in personal skill and a profoundly interdependent community life in which fate’s fortunes were shared by all – in good times and bad. The sufferings of the weavers that resulted from the rise of industrial exploitation were those of the whole community. The deliberate erosion of trade union protections by the state, the loss of status and self-worth that came with deskilling and factory production, and the flood of unskilled labour that employers used to depress wages gave their resistance a particular moral force. The Owenite frame in which they voiced their protest appealed to essential rights and elementary notions of human fellowship rather than merely economic or sectarian interests. They demanded betterment as a whole community and Owen’s ideas provided them the framework that would at one stroke recast the social architecture along lines that they already recognized. Their dreams, which also incorporated the political demands of Chartism, land reform and free trade unions, were centered on the protection of human dignity. They envisioned a mutually supportive community of independent small producers, exchanging their products without the manipulations of middlemen, free of the control of masters. At its heart, this is still the vision that speaks to the aspirations of millions caught in the exploitative web of capitalism today. It is very simply a vision that asserts the primacy of human and social values over those of commerce. And it was precisely these values that were unraveling as industrial capital consolidated its control in the middle decades of the 19th century."

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