Workshopper, Tim Wallace offers us his thoughts on the recent CoopWorkshop, Buying back the farm … with Senator Madigan and Assistant Secretary Moase and Fish Farmer Chignell. CoopWorkshop was inspired by the deep values expounded the Senator, the vision of the union official and the hope for new co-operative enterprise outlined by the farmer at the Kelvin Club in Melbourne. We are very grateful to Tim for his reflection. 

Do not go gentle into that good night

begins the Dylan Thomas poem that ends

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Those lines came to mind during Senator John Madigan’s address to the CoopWorkshop forum on the future of co-operatives in farming. Madigan, whose focus on farming and manufacturing are represented in the name of his new party, recalled with more than a touch of lament the lost landscapes of his youth. It was more sorrow than rage – which came to the fore only on the subject of free-trade agreements. It was somewhat disappointing he had less to say about the future than the past, but he nonetheless made one very important point. Invoking the words of his late father, the fundamental question he said should be asked of the economic system – with its preoccupation on competitiveness, productivity and efficiency – was whether people were happier. His answer (a putative no) and conclusion (the need for a reinvigorated cooperative sector to balance the deficiencies of profit-obsessed competition) left substantial territory and many more questions for the two subsequent speakers to address.

Dylan Thomas’ poem was on my mind mainly due to a recent viewing of Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi flick Interstellar, in which human life on earth has been rendered unsustainable by a blight progressively destroying global agriculture. The best science fiction is, of course, metaphorical. One could argue global agricultural is already suffering from a type of blight: a hegemonic mode of economic organisation that has achieved the goal of increased food production through concentration, specialisation and intensification – mechanisms all sowing the seeds of their own-self-destruction, with long-terms consequences that threaten the long-term environmental and social sustainability of farming. In the past half-century a third of the globe’s arable land is estimated to have been abandoned as a result of degrading practices. For all the increases in food production from the “green revolution” (more accurately a fossil fuel revolution), the benefits remain distributed in a manifestly inequitable ways. In Australia, as elsewhere, primary production supports fewer and fewer jobs as family farms are squeezed out by corporate agribusiness and supply-chain oligopolies, with dire consequences for the prosperity and cohesion of regional and rural communities.

Tim is reminded of Interstellar by one of the speakers. (image: wikipedia)

So what is to be done? To this end, Godfrey Moase of the National Union of Workers provided a hopeful segue to the present from a remembrance of things past. The assistant general branch secretary of the NUW described his frustration at being able to offer little more than “palliative care” to workers losing their jobs workplaces were shuttered. There was a need to do more than squabble over the bones of corporate carcasses. Thus his union’s support for the Fleurieu Poultry workers co-operative project, an initiative by the workers at the Aldinga Turkey processing factory in McLaren Vale, South Australia, to take over an operation that owner Ingham’s had announced its decision to close, with the aim of saving about 80 jobs in the factory and up to 350 jobs in the local community.

With union membership rates already down to 15 per cent of the workforce, a creative approach to maintaining jobs is something the union movement must grapple with as technological disruption threatens a tsunami of redundancy. The Committee for the Economic Development of Australia suggests, in its report Australia’s Future Workforce, that automation is likely to replace five million existing jobs – or about 40 per cent of the nation’s current workforce – in the next 10 to 15 years.

The biggest hurdle to co-operative formation is, of course, access to capital. This problem was addressed by Moase and expounded in more specific detail by Stuart Chignell, who related the tribulations of achieving a long-held ambition to establish a sustainable aquaculture venture using the co-operative structure.

But other crucial issues were also illuminated by the combined presentations of Madigan, Moase and Chignell. There is the extant cultural mindset that co-operatives are an anachronism in the modern economy. In principle a co-operative economy should appeal to values across the political spectrum yet there is a distinct absence of any serious policy commitment or substantive legislative framework to promote its growth.

That lack of consideration is echoed in business and management circles, in which the non-economic aspects of economic activity barely register as anything more than aspect of “stakeholder relations” to be managed as part of a marketing strategy to maintaining market share. So education, as emphasised by the Mondragon model, is key.

Connected to the educational agenda is a need to spread the message of co-operative values using the tools of modern marketing. One might note that successful co-operatives often draw little attention to their essential distinctiveness in the name of appealing to a wider customer base. Arguably this has not helped the sector overall to grow. Yet given the resources deployed by the marketing and advertising industries to confect entirely imaginary emotional relationships between consumers and products, the emotional resonances of the actual human relationships that co-operatives represent should not be undervalued.

– Workshopper Tim Wallace