Robert Owen: a pirate in our midst

Sam Conniff and Alex Barker ask whether Robert Owen is far more pirate than we give him credit for, in this blog to mark the 250th Anniversary of Owen's birth in Newtown.

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In Be More Pirate, I wrote that piracy is not simply an overblown metaphor for purpose-driven business and social enterprise, it’s a bloodline. And I meant it.

Immodest as it might sound, perhaps the best discovery the book has to offer is the parallel between pirate codes forged by infamous sea rebels, and the principles of the early co-operative movement. The pirate ideals of voluntary open membership, democracy, equal economic participation, and open co-operation between crews, are strikingly similar to the hallmarks of co-operatives, and the fact that Henry Morgan grew up a mere 20 miles from the birthplace of Robert Owen seemed more than coincidence to me.

However, it was soon pointed out by a proper historian that the similarities stop there. Pirates achieved change through direct conflict and were out and proud about it, whereas co-operatives were intentionally peaceful.

But that is why I think Robert Owen is far more pirate than we give him credit for, because he  really did start a fight. One that we’re still fighting. Owen’s approach to employee welfare was nothing short of radical, so much so that it didn’t even gain support from capitalism’s sworn enemies – Marx and Engels. His ideas really seemed to hack people off.

What Robert Owen shared with the pirates was an understanding that when you improve peoples’ quality of life, you also improve economic productivity. This is critical, although I’d never say, (and history will never know for sure), whether the upgrades modelled by pirate crews were driven by a moral rebellion against a cruel establishment, or whether it simply made financial sense to keep the crew sweet; the likelihood is both.

And the same goes for Owen. He spent years on the factory floor observing his workers and so rewrote his rules from a deep understanding of what would make the workforce more effective. By cutting down the number hours worked, introducing education for all and even creches to his factories in an era where the machine reigned supreme, Owen made a bet on elevating people instead. And now in an age of chronic burnout, employee disengagement and zero hour contracts, Owen’s fight is gaining traction, but we ought not to be giving the Harvard Business Review credit for the idea of re-humanising work.

What also puts him on a level with Blackbeard et al, is that rather than criticise or theorise about what changes should be made, Owen was willing to live the idea and put his own profit margins on the line. Much like men such as John Spedan Lewis – white and privileged, who could have easily put their feet up – he made sacrifices to prove radical models of fairness could not only improve the lives of their workers, but their success could improve the wider model of work, society and life.

This willingness to experiment in real time and be part of the solution yourself, is truly pirate.

Oddly enough, the New Lanark mill Owen presided over did prove his point: after everything he introduced it was still extremely profitable yet that didn’t convince other factory owners to adopt the same policies. Which suggests that even when there is robust evidence pointing to a better way, most people are hardwired to stick with the status quo, until it’s too late.

Which is why Owen’s legacy mirrors that of pirates too. He wasn’t a wildly popular figure and we might even deem the majority of his efforts to spread the co-operative model a failure, but that is because of the scope of his ambition. He dedicated his life to a purpose far bigger than himself, fell short, but swung hard.

Piracy burns brightly in the moment, but the rebellion itself is not meant to last. What lasts are the new rules. Society remembers pirates as villains and thieves not social revolutionaries, but there was no need to take credit because the real damage was done, the new precedent was set.

When, in a few years time, not having a clear commitment to robust ESGs means your business doesn’t have a license to operate, I believe it’s Robert Owen we’ll have to thank. Not because every business will become a co-op, but because the force of the waves he created will have extended so far into the mainstream they can’t be retracted. That makes him more pirate, not less.

In Owen’s experiments, there is something for every leader: keep your humility as big as your vision, and know that you might not be able to pull it off in your lifetime, but in reaching, you set the stage for the next pirate, the next pioneer. That is truly something to admire.

Sam Conniff and Alex Barker are the authors of ‘How To: Be More Pirate‘. You can hear them talking about the book that started a movement on the Being Human podcast.

Join with us in celebrating the 250th Anniversary of Robert Owen's birth

14 May 2021 marks the 250th Anniversary of the birth of Robert Owen. Owen is widely acknowledged as the father of co-operation, and the Wales Co-operative Centre is running activities to mark the event.