Blog | Co-operative

Co-operatives in a time of Covid-19

Centre member Carl Rowlands, asks whether a new paradigm is needed to respond to the challenges of our time

By Catherine Evans · 18 September 2020

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Arguably the defining characteristic of the 2020 pandemic, which seeps into all responses and consequences, is uncertainty. Uncertainty permeates every aspect of life, but especially economic uncertainty.

For many of us, this comes on the heels of severe political setbacks, an economy which by the beginning of the year was already looking unsteady, and an ecological crisis which presents stark challenges to what any sustainable business model might look like.

I don’t think stock answers will apply. Some of us have advocated co-operatives for many years, and this has led us to particular approaches and arguments, many of which have been genuinely effective and creative. But now, when faced with the scale and depth of this crisis, the same arguments may not resonate.

I’ve followed the work of the Wales Co-operative Centre since the 1990s and the Tower Colliery buyout, and it is exemplary, but it seems that we are all in a new world.

The effects of this crisis cut right across business and communities. It affects, as the economist James Meadway has pointed out, both the supply and demand-side. Existing models of competition in local business may cease to apply. Waves of insolvency are possible, created by problems in service industries such as tourism.

In many countries, but especially in South Korea, ‘shared service’ co-operative models – effectively secondary co-operatives for individuals and small businesses – have supported business ecosystems for many years, enabling artisan production and services within a reinforced infrastructure. What might this mean, here and now? It might mean that restaurants and cafes which are struggling with reduced revenue can share facilities and waiting staff to maintain viability, whilst retaining their most crucial elements like menus and preparation.

Perhaps the question here is really about transition.

In a nutshell, it is possible that individual businesses will only be able to survive with community support. The model means, essentially, businesses propping each other up through common resources. But to even get to this point would require support from local government, constant surveying of premises and prospects, time to develop new business models and plans – a much more cohesive approach to economic planning.

So it is a question for all of us: if this is perhaps the Great Recession of our lives, with upheaval which demands a new model, will we be able to respond? Can we adjust, both within the public sphere, but also through building new ramps towards co-operation for what have been, up until now, distinctly individualistic models of private entrepreneurship?

As with many things, I can’t say for sure what will happen, or exactly what needs to happen. Certainly facilities such as Derby’s Market Place might point towards a different mix of private and public ownership. In any case, I suspect a new paradigm is going to be needed.