Co-op culture

1 Nov

The Manchester band Angel Square: all the musicians are employees of The Co-operative Group

What is a culture, and does the co-operative movement have one?  At Co-operatives United, there has been a lot of discussion about co-operative identity,and what reinforces identity better than a distinctive and visible culture?

For a social movement, culture has two main benefits, one internal and one external. Internally, it gives the participants in the movement a feeling of belonging and connectedness.  Think of the secret handshakes and rituals of the secret societies that go back to ancient times.  Or the singing of Solidarity Forever at labour conventions.  Or the women’s music festivals that were so popular in the heady days of feminist activism back in the 1970s.

Playing Co-opoly at Co-operatives United

Externally, culture helps familiarize the broader public with your movement and its objectives.  The great American folksinger Woody Guthrie sang about unions and workers’ rights, and his popularity went far beyond union members and activists.  Soul singer James Brown’s anthem, “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” sensitized many white Americans to the civil rights movement.  During the 1960s, the peace symbol became a universal icon, thanks to the efforts of the anti-war movement.

So where does the co-op movement fit into that?  We don’t have a single song; a single icon; a global cultural touchstone we can all relate to.  But at Co-operatives United, there have been numerous examples of what could be considered co-op culture.

At last night’s International Dinner, the entertainment was provided by a band called Angel Square.  Why Angel Square? Because that’s where the new Manchester headquarters of The Co-operative Group is located. And every member of the band is a Co-operative Group employee, including CEO Peter Marks on drums. They don’t necessarily sing about co-ops (although they performed the classic song, Lean on Me, which is about as co-operative as you can get), but their association with co-ops has become well-known to non-co-op audiences.

Artwork from the graphic novel about the Rochdale Pioneers

Games are also a component of culture.  Co-opoly is a co-op themed board game that was published by a US. worker co-op last year; it has now found its way to the UK and a group of enthusiastic co-operators played it at Co-operatives United earlier today.  Many of the participants felt it was not only a good game, but also a useful learning tool about the co-operative experience.  I myself have introduced the game to a number of people who have nothing to do with co-ops, and it was a great way to give them a glimpse of what co-operation is all about.

Some more examples of co-op culture: At last night’s dinner, the International Co-operative Alliance announced the winners of its Coop’Art competition, which was open to young people from around the world; similar competitions, and the creation of co-operative artworks, have taken place during the International Year in Canada and many other countries.

Just before Co-operatives United, The Co-operative Group published a graphic novel about the Rochdale Pioneers, and art panels from the book are displayed in the exhibition hall.  And this evening, I’ll be attending the world premiere of a feature film about the Pioneers, starring some well-known UK actors.

All this augurs well for our movement – slowly but surely, we are seeing the genesis of a co-op culture.  Now all we need is our own version of “Solidarity Forever”.

— Donna Balkan

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