Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Unco-operative Capitalism

I see that my local council has moved its account from the Co-operative Bank. I suppose that's one of the many small signs of the beginning of the end. I am truly sorry to see this happening to an institution with whom I have enjoyed banking for about twenty years.Here I'm going to reflect on this in a more philosophical way, while in a companion blogpost I'll look at some practical matters related to banking with the Co-op.

I first joined the Co-op as a postgraduate student. They were one of the banks providing loans for ongoing career training schemes, and I got them to lend me money to do part of my PhD on British black gay and lesbian communities. I'm sure other more commercial banks would have leapt at this golden investment opportunity (wink). Anyway, my confidence that the Co-op would be able to look fairly at supporting this rather outside-left-field project was fully justified. (As was their confidence in me, because building on the support they provided, I managed to get a government grant to continue my research and I paid the Co-op back and I have banked with them ever since.)

What is the Co-op?

The Co-operative Movement has a long and important history, and there is also a Co-operative Party who commission reports and fund (usually Labour) MPs in order to get politics to work better for ordinary people. There is a Co-operative group of businesses, including the bank, and that's what all the recent fuss is about.

In this BBC article you can read all about it, and finish up quite confused. Basically the Co-op is a group of businesses which are not run on strictly commercial lines. They don't have a Board of Directors and shareholders in the same way as other business groups - they are owned by the people who use them. We get to vote in people who manage the important matters to do with the Co-op and supposedly this democratic method means it runs itself with both competence and responding to the needs of most of the people who use it, as opposed to people who have enough money to buy stocks and shares.

Ummm, of course in reality it doesn't quite work out like that. In reality a few people put in a lot of time to climbing the power tree and many people can't be bothered to make their small vote so things get run in the way a few people up the hierarchy think they should be run. The system is very cumbersome and this lends itself to being twisted about by those who might be more interested in their own ideas than in democratic consultation.

Here, btw, are the comments of the guy who wrote a review of the Co-op, attempting to recommend ways to bring it better in line with how things are run today. Good luck, mate!

This is where I think the problem is with the Co-operative business group. This relates especially to the bank, because it's all about capitalism. No, I am not being a boring left-y Marxist mom, LOL. Of course it's about capitalism! we're talking banking here. 

From Bourdieu 1977 p.168.
For the purposes of my discussion, I shall be using Bourdieu's concept of discourse. He calls it doxa, but don't worry your pretty little head about that. You can call it 'stuff' if that helps. Sorry the diagramme is a bit slant-y. If you want to come round and spend the morning scanning things better for me, you are very welcome and I will make a cup of tea and put out biscuits. (Yah, there will be chocolate ones too, of course! I have a packet of Balsen which are on special offer right now - in the Co-operative Supermarket, but you better hurry if you want any of those as they go very quickly mmmm nom nom.) 

Oh sorry, the Balsen have all 
gone. But there is bound to be 
some other chocolate around 
at this time of year.
Bourdieu argues that we operate within confined limits as to how we can manage society. There is a lot of stuff out there, but the way discourse is set up, we can only talk about certain areas of it. So let's imagine there are all kinds of ways of managing socio-economic affairs: communism, co-operation, socialism, liberal socialism, eco-socialism (let's not talk about national socialism - agreed?). However I am suggesting that in our society the only way of discussing managing the economy is capitalism. All other ways of sorting out how people's lives get financed and funded and enabled to get the resources to tootle along, singing a song, are treated as nonsense and not worth taking seriously. Opinion is focused solely on capitalism. 

There are little bits of discussion about how to do capitalism just a little bit differently. A good example of this is what is often called Business in the Community: the way many businesses see it as good business to do charity work. They realise that their image is improved and their sales increase if they look as if they are contributing to society rather than just raking in a profit for their shareholders. So we could redraw Bourdieu like this: 

Based on Bourdieu's figure of doxa (in Bourdieu 1997 p. 168)
As you can see from this, although there are many ways of managing the economy, we only talk about the capitalist ways of doing so. We have discussions, so it looks like we are constantly debating what are the best ways to manage the world financially (and socially - but we focus on finance). Those are actually little fake debates about how to tinker with capitalism, not debates about whether there is something which would work better for 99% of the world's population who don't own stocks and shares, that's if they even have a pair of shoes.

Well now, what about the Co-operative Bank? That is not run along capitalist lines. No, my dears. There is where the problem lies, if you ask me. They are right outside the 'universe of discourse (or argument)'. They can't actually operate properly at all because all around them, everything else is being run along capitalist lines. Their advertising makes them look like nice capitalists, not something completely different, and they were unable to cash in on the recent crisis when the selfish behaviour of other banks led to the other banks seeking short-term profits for themselves at the expense of the rest of us. Their system of management is constantly under threat of being undermined by people weasling in to exploit it for quite other purposes than the proper co-operative management of a financial institution, because there is no framework of thinking and behaviour to support them being run in the way that suits them best. Everything else is being operated to suit individualistic and profit-making practices.

One of the things Lord Myners asks for, is for a wider group of people to be more involved in the Co-operative business group so it can be responsive to ordinary people's concerns. Well, I would love to, dahlink! but I have got my students to teach, my piglet to feed (with food bought from our local Co-op) and the laundry to carry in off the line. When you rely on voluntary effort to make things work, you have to make do with the people who have time on their hands to contribute, and those are not usually ordinary people. In fact, I know you will be shocked to hear this, but they are often not motivated by a wish to make things work for their fellow members of society in a truly co-operative fashion. They often have some private and quite other agenda on the go.

I have in hand the annual financial report of another institution with whom the Fella and I have some dealings. They are not co-operative, although they are democratic - you are allowed to vote on things like re-electing the Board. The Board up for re-election includes one person who is a Lord and has a name which has been famous for generations in the banking world. I'm sure it's a coincidence that there is someone-else on the Board who has that same rather unusual surname. Probably the fact that their families have been in banking for the last four or five generations, and that they have oodles and oodles of money, does give them expertise in how to manage our money. I am a bit vague about these matters but I suspect that they get more than a chocolate biscuit for sitting on that Board. Anyway, that's how things are run in the rest of the financial world.

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