Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Is there bravery enough to slay the gnashing beast of profit?
Man is born free but everywhere is in chainstores. It’s an old rewrite, but one that Rousseau himself may have preferred had he witnessed, as we have, the glorious pre-dawn obscenity of Boxing Day 2008. It was a tribute, a veritable paean – an elegy, even – to our heroism in hard times. The raft of capitalism may be rickety, it may leak like a cabinet callgirl, but so valiant are we, so devoted to keeping it afloat, we will clamber from our beds, still sleep-soaked, heavy with hedonism, to resume the interrupted work that is the driving circadian rhythm of our lives. Shop go the shears, boys, shoppity shop shop.
Christmas, once a mere manger of a thing, a mere god’s birthday, has become a towering two-peaked affair that demands our frantic participation in one climax before the event, and another immediately after. Pretty soon the peaks themselves may merge, leaving Christmas proper as a minor depression, a smoko, a Berocca between orgies.
That’s possible. But so is the opposite. What if, now the financial bubble has resoundingly burst, the consumer bubble should follow suit? What happens to Christmas then? What happens, period? What other models are on the shelf?
Roelof Smilde is an anarchist. Now 78, he has never owned a credit card and still lives in the small Glebe commune he set up in the ’70s (a good decade after Germaine Greer left him for England and The Female Eunuch, although the two events are almost certainly unrelated). His children are now in their 30s but when they were small, Smilde and his partner, with other like-mindeds, ran a child-care co-op next to the Camperdown Children’s Hospital – currently under occupation by the gentrifying classes – where each parent would do half-day shifts.
Until recently, such tales sounded a bit naive and more than a bit old-fashioned. Now they sound wise to the point of prescience. As banks, car makers and child-care providers delaminate into the drifts of Christmas detritus around our ankles, the new year looks like a good moment to examine alternative models.
And as anyone knows who has paid hugely for flavour-free tomatoes, queued years for soulless child care, flailed against the deliberate impenetrability of bank and telecom statements, attempted to switch private health insurers, been pressured to pass paying uni students or sought a ready-made house that plays to an IQ higher than that of the average cruciform vegetable, capitalism lied.
Quite apart from worsening global inequity and puking on the planet, capitalism couldn’t even keep its entry-level promise: to improve service by increasing competition. Indeed, as we now know, the freer the market, the worser (and worser) the service.
Market freedom may, as theorised, produce a proliferation of small competitors but it also has two other counter-effects. First, the conglomeration of said small competitors into vast corporations with immense power to suck, sway and seduce (rather than serve) the market. And second, relegating control of these corporations to a shareholder regime that is systemically incapable of holding any value higher than profit.
This may (or may not) work for cabbages or iPods. But in service provision it has been a catastrophe. The obvious question now is not only why we ever believed the market could look after babies, invalids, prisoners or term essays, but why there are so few successful instances, here in brave DIY-Down-Under-land, of you-and-me types setting up co-operative alternatives?
In Europe co-operatives account for 8 per cent of the economy, big enough to start calling the shots. Sweden has 300,000 child-care co-ops. In Denmark, where renewables are big business, 23 per cent of the wind energy is co-op- owned. The green energy producer Greenpeace Germany has 100,000 members. The Japanese agricultural co-op Zen-Noh has a turnover of $81 billion. In Britain, Gordon Brown is linking bail-out to remutualisation, and in the US co-op banks are mopping up the subprime spillage.
Australia, by contrast, made only three appearances in the top 300 co-ops of 2008, and one of those, Dairy Farmers, has since demutualised, selling out for $910 million in November.
What’s the difference? Culture, yes. History, yes. But crucially, says Co-operatives Europe director Rainer Schluter, the difference is legislative. Throughout Europe it is illegal to do what so many loved Australian companies (AMP, NRMA, Golden Circle, Dairy Farmers) have done – get greedy, flog the golden goose, divvy up the proceeds. In Europe you can sell the goose, even eat her. But the egg, formed over generations, stays in reserve.
Like height limits in cities, this doesn’t so much remove the profit motive as civilise it, by excising the temptation of huge windfalls. Allied with consumer (rather than shareholder) control, this allows other values – such as decent child care, organic tomatoes or green energy – to flourish alongside.
The co-op, a la Europe, is neither socialist nor capitalist but a genuine third way, and it can happen here. But it won’t, until we have a law that is strong where flesh is weak.