Cooperatives and the Church’s Economic Witness

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Since the industrial revolution it has been necessary to invest large sums of capital to start up new businesses and to attract the resources necessary for production.

In a capitalist society the capitalist (the ones who provides the money) own the assets and the product of the business. Those providing labour are seen simply as one of the cost factors of production, not as partners.

This relationship between capital and labour stems from the earlier feudal nature of society before modern capitalism arose. Then, the aristocracy, landowners and the global trading groups owned the wealth. Society was made up of classes, with very little mobility between the classes. Capitalism gave hope that with loans from banks, enterprise and hard work, anyone could shift up the class ladder. It meant the reduction of class boundaries in our society, an equalization of the society.

This equalization hasn’t eventuated. Or maybe it did for a while, especially after the Second World War, when intervention from governments ensured more equalizing policies. In the 1960’s in Australia a very large percentage of the population owned their own houses. Since the 1970’s this large middle class began to reduce. Today 1% of the world’s population owns 50% of the world’s wealth, many corporations have cosy relationships with governments, so taxes aren’t paid, and offshore tax havens are legal. The labour market now has very little bargaining power, and often people working long hours can’t meet their basic needs.

Since the industrial revolution began, we have not had a tranquil relationship between capital and labour. In Britain the government took away the common land from the common people and this impoverishment meant large numbers of people needed low paying jobs in early industries and mines. Industry and empire prospered, but capital and labour remained divided.

Politics in Britain has mirrored this division, with two main parties, the Conservative and the Labour parties. The Conservatives made up of largely the higher classes and the Labour party mainly the labour workers. The Labour party was inspired by Christians, mainly Methodist and Catholics who cared for the cause of the poor in society.

Noting this disconnect between capital and labour, Communism proposed the solution. In Communism, the state owns the means of production and theoretically shares the product with the whole of society so all benefit. But in this system the workers have no incentive to produce well, because the state pays them whether their industry is competitive or not. A Communist state therefore cannot compete with the more efficient Capitalist systems.

The argument between Communist (left wing) policies and Capitalist (right wing) polices still rages today and this disconnect between capital and labour continues to divide our nations. Not only has Communism failed, but Capitalism is also now failing to bring justice and therefore stability to our wider societies today. This is evidenced by the growing security regulated world we all live in. “Peace” is said to depend upon surveillance, when genuine peace depends upon genuine justice.

It’s unfortunate that this debate has become a “left/ right” debate. That is a diversion from the kingdom of God principles that the scriptures teach. Beginning from Genesis, all humans were made in the image of God. This was a powerful theme in the ancient world, where Pharaoh and many like him refused to honour the image of God in every individual. The economics of the Torah and the Prophets sought to change this, providing policies that would restore individuals and communities, that would prevent wealth from gravitating towards fewer hands. The Jubilee and Sabbath restorative themes were central to this goal.

The policies of John the Baptist address the labour/ capital conflict and make it redundant. John said, he who has two coats should give one to him who has none. He said those who are in the position to take money, shouldn’t take more than is right. And he added that labour should be content with their wages. In this world people care for each other. This is how John described the kingdom of God.

The problem with our economic models today is that we have not healed this rift between capital and labour, in the way that the kingdom of God set out to do.  And those people who join in the Capitalist system often become party to the inequality, insecurity and wars it can contribute to in the world.

Ancient Rome didn’t operate a Capitalist system like the world does today, but it did favour its own elite and citizens above the unfortunate people around them. The church challenged this by making one table, where they all shared justice and restoration with each other. The church was the first place where there was no poor nor rich, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, wise nor uneducated. They were one.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

This family didn’t encourage irresponsibility, like Communism did, nor greed like Capitalism does. It encouraged us to work so we have something to share with those in need. “The one who steals must steal no longer; rather he must labour, doing good with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with the one who has need.” (Ephesians 4:28) Here is dignity and purpose in labour, to share with those in need.

What can this Jesus-following community contribute to our society today, in this grip of a capital/ labour argument and division? The church is called to unite factions, to bring healing to those who have been cast down: the poor, hungry, homeless, refugee, war-torn, sick, imprisoned. This labour/ capital divide is the biggest faction of our time. What solutions does the church have?

Obviously, businesses need to be socially responsible. Corporations need to be “citizens” that provide for the welfare of the whole community, not just for their own financial interest. Today, many business interest own media outlets and have stakes in governments, so you won’t often get media openly stating the problem and offering genuine changes. On the contrary, people who point out these problems are often jeered as “Communists,” where this often is not the case. The Prophets of the Old Testament who called for justice (and this was their number one call) where not Communists.

Communism doesn’t raise people into responsibility. Nor does it give dignity to the individual, the way the creation narrative of Genesis does. Capitalism doesn’t provide this dignity for many also. The labour market formed unions, which became competitive institutions that finally lost out, with claims they made corporations uncompetitive.

A solution to the war between capital and labour is needed. Can we suggest something along the following lines? If capital has value, so that those who own the capital own the control of production, can labour also have equal value as a unit of production? Can labour own the process of production equally with capital? Can they share with equal dignity as human people in the production process and community life?

That is, if labour owns the process of production just as capital does, then labourers have incentive to responsibility and to ensure the efficiency of the corporation. Labour is not then pitted against capital in competition but is a full partner and fully concerned that the product succeeds in the market. In this scenario, the state doesn’t own the process of production, as in Communism, nor do the capitalists, as in Capitalism. But the process of production is shared by the people who have the responsibility to succeed for the common good, like a family caring for each other.

There are several corporations that function in this way already, with all people involved owning shares in the company, whether managers or other employees. What we are looking for is a way in which labour can be valued as a part owner in the company just like capital has shares. Labour is valued equally with capital, so neither is pitted against the other. Then the company pays dividends to all participants, from the company’s productivity.

Maybe you would call this kind of arrangement a Cooperative. Those who contribute cash, other assets such as land and property, or labour, all obtain shares at the value of their contribution. Labour would have to be valued with equal dignity and humanity as the cash that other humans provide to the process.

Obviously, in a cheap labour market, such as we have in today’s world, this is unlikely to happen. But this is exactly where the church should be stepping in. Our values aren’t to be governed by the values established by the opportunism of the marketplace. Instead, our values are established by the behaviour of the church in the book of Acts, in how they treated each other. It says there that “no one lacked among them.” (Acts 4:34) Their relationship was economic as much as it was “religious.”

That is, if the church is to be a witness in all areas of life, as it should be, then we are not to adopt the winner/ looser ethic of business, but instead a cooperative mentality that encourages the responsibility of all, as well as the dignity of all. Labour in this case has meaning and the people have respect. Labour is not then a throw away factor in the process of production, but part of the human family, whose lives are educated and developed as they work. Their development is possible as the work we do as a team is productive and marketable.

Labour isn’t just to be seen as the receiver of a monthly wage, but as humans to be raised by family into a future of personal growth and partnership in the leadership process, in the social development of our community and the flourishing of our natural environment. We are partners together in this wider aim of our lives, not just to make money from each other, from the market and from the resources God has blessed us with. We are to nurture each other and our environment with God’s image of Jubilee and Sabbath restoration.

The details of these kinds of corporations may be complex to work out, but the road of travel makes a lot more sense than a road of brutal “economic realities,” as the world calls the alternative.


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