Coöperation a panacea?
Sharpers have said so, greenhorns have believed them. In reality, coöperation might be, and, if it is desired, will be, a potent peaceful agent of social transformation.
But on this condition,—that the greenhorns shall not let the sharpers put the tool in their pocket.
Juggling is so quickly done! A turn of the hand; presto! and there you are!
Friends of the Coöperative Congress at Tours, this letter is addressed to you. Beware of jugglery!
Ten years ago the wind blew in the direction of coöperation, and it was a good wind. But under the influence of metaphysical clouds from over the Rhine, part of the French Socialists have suddenly lost their footing, put on the air of a cyclone, and have begun to blow collectivism.
That the faithful friends of coöperation should have been thrown into a little confusion thereby was not astonishing; but that, the battalions once rallied, they should have so lost their way that now they seem no longer to know why they started, whence they came, or whither they would go, is a matter that requires a word of explanation. To fall into the beaten path of political economy would be the height of confusion for coöperation. Never again would they get out of that rut! Danger! coöperating friends.
Do you remember the early days when the roll-call of coöperation was beaten and you grouped yourselves in enthusiastic choruses, singing the captivating hymn of solidarity?
You were to replace from top to bottom the old, heavy, burdensome commercial edifice, to renew the worn-out, rusty, dirty tools of exchange which returned scarcely twenty-five per cent. of the force expended and rendered useless millions of intelligent heads, excellent hearts, and skilful hands, occupied in the parasitic labor of a decrepit commerce.
The industry of transportation, which is all of commerce, was so badly organized that the product delivered to it for twenty-five francs was sold for a hundred, though nothing had been added to it save a little dust from the warehouse.
This could not last, and the following reform was proposed.
The consumers should form groups. They know almost surely that they will want boots and shoes, overcoats, food. They should combine to the number of one hundred, two hundred, five hundred, and assure houses established for the purpose that they will regularly buy food, shoes, and coats of them.
On the other hand, these houses should turn to the laboring people in the different productive regions and say to them:
What need is there of a mass of middle-men, monopolists, devourers, adulterators, who thrust themselves between you, creators of products, and us, final distributors of products? Group yourselves, then, for coöperative production, as those who need to consume group themselves to coöperate in consumption; and we, the houses of distribution, will guarantee to purchase of you as we are guaranteed a sale by our consumer-customers. You, producers, will receive the value of your product, of your effort, without having to deal with a mass of hucksters and exploiters, who profit by your crises, by your accidents, and who hold the knife at your throats in order to pay no more for your sweat than they would for clear water. You, consumers, will find on our shelves every thing that you need, at cost, cost of sale included, without having to pour your hard-earned money into the hands of the multitude of middlemen allowed by the present system of exchanging products.
And again, all the activities uselessly devoted to operating the disastrous machinery of exchange would be restored to useful labor, and such labor would never be lacking.
Thus understood, coöperation is a solution of the great problem of social economy,—the delivery of products to the consumer at cost.
Now, this hope from coöperation would be destroyed and coöperation would be compromised, if the vote passed by the Lyons Congress in 1886 should be persisted in. That Congress, in fact, adopted the following principle as one of its formal objects:
To sell at retail price and capitalize the profits.
The ambush was prepared. The economistic serpent, to tempt the coöperators and make them abandon their promised land, has said to them, not
Ye shall be as goods, which is stale, but
Ye shall be capitalists!
What! buy at cost! A vulgar instinct, showing lack of foresight. And then, would you not grievously annoy the parasite next to you, who, added to the parasites who supply him with merchandise, succeeds in extracting from your pocket a fourth or a third of its contents? Leave this commonplace of gross immediate gain; do not annoy parasitism; do not restore to useful labor those who are wearing themselves out in the absurd gearing of the commercial machine; renounce all ideas of emancipation; and follow simply the movement of the day, make profits.
? ? ?
Yes, make profits. You shall establish a coöperative store. When you need a pound of candles, you will go to your store, which will have received this pound of candles with all charges paid and all risks covered, and you will lay down fifteen sous. If you profess Socialistic doctrines, you will give your store the fifteen sous and take away your candles. But that is an inferior way of doing things, and if you are imbued with the healthy doctrines of political economy, you will hasten to pay the price fixed by the old-time parasitism; you will give twenty-five sous. Then you can say that you have made a profit,—that you have gained the ten sous paid by you in excess.
! ! !
Why, yes! since at the parasite’s you never would have seen them again, while by coöperation thus practised you have chances of getting them once more.
But would it not be better to keep my ten sous paid in excess and use them in buying shoes for my baby, who just now needs a pair?
What low instincts you have! Is it not a virtue to become a capitalist? When you have pinched the bellies of your entire family for a whole year by paying too high prices for everything, for a virtuous object and not to annoy those who sell everything for twice as much as it is worth, you will be in control of a small capital.
And this capital?
Ah! be careful not to touch it; leave it religiously in the treasury. It will be invested in bonds paying a handsome income, which you will receive later if you are not dead, or else in real estate the rents from which you will likewise receive in the future provided you are alive.
This is how the coöperative idea can be turned from its path. If the famous pioneers of Rochdale had understood coöperation in consumption to mean the supply of products at actual cost, perhaps English commerce would have been revolutionized. They applied, on the contrary, this principle: Sale of goods at city retail prices and accumulation of the profits as savings, and thus they have simply ended by having a large sum of money in the society’s coffers, by means of which they have increased by several thousands the number of individuals who, by lending money at the highest possible interest, withdraw from other laborers a part of the product of their labor without any effort of their own.
One who had not lost his bearings, however, might say to the tempter at the outset:
Villainous serpent, wicked serpent, lying serpent, why do you advise me thus? I have seen scandalous profits realized, and I have undertaken the task of putting an end to this scandal; I have blushed to think that I live in a time when a gentleman, because he has possessed a hundred francs once, can receive, without ever doing anything more, a hundred sous a year, and that indefinitely, continually, for himself or his heirs forever; and I have become a coöperator, because that seemed to me the first remedy for such a state of things. And, serpent, you come to induce me, by insinuation, not to enter into competition with the old machinery of exchange; and, worse yet, to me who feel the rebellious blood boiling in my veins against all the Vantours and the Gobsecks, you come to tempt me with the promise that—what?—that I shall be M. Vantour, that I shall be Father Gobseck!
The economist would shrug his shoulders, as much as to say:
You understand nothing of political economy.