Conference Overview

‘Socialism has a serious dispute with Political Economy. Or rather with its present teachers. The founders of the science taught many truths; truths which are acknowledged and on which Socialism, indeed, builds. But its professors claim that it tells nations how to become prosperous. It does no such thing. It tells individuals how to get rich: and it has found apt pupils in every civilized country’ (Gronlund, 1884, p. 31).

In 1884, Laurence Gronlund outlined his vision for a ‘modern socialism’ and the development of a social economy in his treatise entitled ‘The Co-operative Commonwealth’. There was, Gronlund suggested,’ something wrong’ with society that became more acute in “hard times”: a strong propensity towards individualism, with the call for unrestricted growth for private enterprise, and the undermining of solidarity in and between communities. He was equally critical of new co-operative associations that ‘compete among themselves just as ordinary concerns do’; accusing the Rochdale Pioneers of ‘fleecing labourers after the approved fashion of the age’ (p. 65). Consumer co-operative associations were perceived as successful and acceptable but only in so far as they could prove a ‘prudent thing’ for individuals. ‘Commonwealth’ called for a state of equality, freedom, democracy, a declaration of interdependence, and mutuality where ‘all important instruments of production have been taken under collective control; in which citizens are consciously public functionaries’ (p.118). While there is not one best way of achieving a ‘Co-operative Commonwealth” and later conceptualisations, from the founding of the modern Co-operative Movement in the 18th and 19th centuries onwards, have been less well defined than that of Gronlund, the idea remains a powerful vision of what a more co-operative world might look like.  

Today a broader concept of ‘common wealth’ has resonance with debates about the nature of commons, governance of new technologies and social media, environmental threats to common pool resources such as clean air and water, and a re-framing of the geopolitical environment in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, "Brexit", post-truth, and the rise of populist political leaders in the USA and elsewhere. The concept of ‘common wealth’ takes as its starting point issues of prosperity, well-being and resilience. It requires a re-thinking of ownership, management and control of public, social and private institutions; place-shaping, polycentric governance structures; and processes that eschew individualised property rights and commodification of public goods. Is common property ‘shared private property’ that promotes sustainable and responsible stewardship of resources for individual and collective benefit (Ostrom, 1990; McKean, 1996) or a different property regime altogether that promotes a social, rather than public or private economy (Ridley-Duff and Bull, 2016)? So is it, as Bollier (2003, p.4) suggests, not ‘market versus commons [but] how to set equitable and appropriate boundaries between the two realms - semi-permeable membranes - so that the market and the commons can each retain its integrity while invigorating the other’. Or is it, as Ellerman (1990), argues an entirely false dichomony that ignores the nature of social property and the assumptions that drive directly democratic firms?

So, can co-operatives and multi-stakeholder owner and managed enterprises continue to provide a ‘public’ alternative to the McDonaldization (Ritzer, 1993) and Uber-ization of society (Scholtz, 2014)? To create common wealth? A ‘shared society’? Can they influence business practice to promote and showcase sustainable and responsible enterprise? Does working co-operatively make for more meaningful jobs and lives?

We invite contributions from co-operators, academics, practitioners and individuals/groups interested in exploring the theory and practice of common wealth, co-operativism and new economies: ideas, concepts, empirical research, examples and case studies.


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