The Basic Soundness of Co-operation – Fr. Virgil Michel, O.S.B (May 1939)

Fr. Virgil Michel, O.S.B

[Originally published in The Christian Front, Vol. 2 January, 1937 No. 1]

Consumer co-operation has the purpose of organizing men as consumers so that by mutual aid they may attain for themselves the means of livelihood without the excessive tributes exacted by middlemen and profiteers under the competitive system of individualistic capitalism. If it is possible for consumers to band together successfully for this purpose, then it is folly to pay a special tribute to these middlemen and profiteers; such payment is then entirely incommensurate with the services rendered by them. Because of the unbalanced structure of the cutthroat competitive system, the average consumer was quite unable to get his money’s worth of the ordinary necessaries of life, since much of the sums he spent on them were eaten up in payment of the needless services which exacted toll everywhere in undue proportion to the actual service they rendered. Consumer co-operation arose primarily as a defense against the injustices of the top-heavy competitive system of modern capitalism in favor of the fundamental right of individuals to acquire necessary good for themselves in proportion to the labor they expend for getting these goods. Consumer co-operation is not organized for profit as such but for decent livelihood above all else. And it is organized to attain this livelihood through voluntary association and voluntary co-operation, through which all members receive according to their contribution to the whole activity or enterprise. This is the principle according to which dividends are distributed according to the amount of purchases made by any member of the co-operative.

That this principle is ethically most sound need not be stressed. But unless previously adverted to, the fact may come quite as a surprise that the fundamental principle of consumer co-operation is the very principle that has been basic philosophically to the existence of the state or of civil society according to the Christian tradition which takes its rise out of the Aristotelian heritage. Both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas put down as the basic principle and justification of the organization of men into civil communities or states the fact that individual men as are unable to acquire for themselves all they need to live as persons, as moral beings endowed with intelligence and free will. The economic goods needed for a decent living should be attainable by all men with relative ease, so that they may be sufficiently free to give themselves over to further moral, religious, and intellectual development. Hence the purpose of the state is first of all the establishment of the conditions needed for the co-operation among men towards the attainment of the economic goods necessary for each, since these are basically instrumental to the higher development that is the purpose and duty of human life on earth.

The purpose of acquiring economic goods is the support of life. And the further purpose of this is the fulfilment of one’s possibilities, of one’s rights and duties, as a moral personality. The whole purpose of economic activity is thus very instrumental and subservient in human life. The evil of modern civilization, in this regard, has been to make this instrument an end in itself, to regiment all the abilities of man towards the ever greater individual acquisition of economic goods, to live for ever greater profit. Over against this perverted purpose consumer co-operation exists not for profit as such but to provide with maximum ease a decent economic livelihood for all men having the good will to co-operate. Consumer co-operation is concerned primarily with the economic side of human life; it does not concern itself directly with the higher activities and aspects of human life. But it does so indirectly by keeping man’s economic activity in its proper subservient role, that of providing a decent livelihood for all, thus leaving the way open to all for higher development and expression of personality. Thus it tend to free men from the economic slavery of the competitive system, which slavery made it virtually impossible for the multitudes caught in its meshes to give much thought to the development of the higher aspects of human life and personality–those that distinguish man from the brute animal.

The value of consumer co-operation for man goes far beyond this more purely economic aspect of human life. Even within the economic domain, the organization of all other economic activities, such as production and distribution, to the needs of consumption, the concept of human brotherhood and mutual fraternal aid, the subservience of the materialistic profit-motive, have their high moral value and are philosophically most sound. They realize the soundest philosophical principles of human life and human society. But the service rendered by consumer co-operation should have its wholesome repercussions also in other fields of human life, notably the political. We have already seen that its purposes are identical with the purpose of the state according to the Christian tradition. The fundamental error of modern un-Christian liberalism, or of un-Christian democracy, has been to consider man as an isolated individual, as an abstract citizen or political animal, apart from all social aspects of being (family, economic, etc.), and as divorced from all traditions. Such an abstract concept of man as an isolated individual, for whom not social relations should count politically, was highly artificial and unnatural. Man is properly not an isolated individual, but a human person naturally living in the society of his fellowmen, he is naturally a member of a family, a community, an economic association, etc., with abundant cultural and religious traditions. He is therefore a functional person in human society. Yet out politics has divorced man from all these aspects and considered him merely as an abstract political animal, a voter, whose essential nature politically is the mere fact that he is arithmetically one.

Consumers’ co-operation should help the citizen to realize that his natural position in life is that of a member of a group, and that, as all men have fundamentally common interests, so each is benefitted most by helping to co-operate at the attainment of the common interests, and primarily at the attainment of the basic economic necessaries without which all else would be instable, and all other effort fruitless for the attainment of the good life by each and all. If political life can again be imbued with the principles and attitudes permeating consumer co-operation, we shall be able to lift ourselves above the chaos of un-Christian democracy, the brute competition of each against all, we shall tend step by step to approach the ideal of a Christian democracy where all co-operate for the attainment of the best human values of life, and thus escape the inhuman and brutalizing alternative of the totalitarian state, in which the human person is reduced to a mechanical and impersonal cog in a gigantic mechanism.