Firms owned by their members are hardly storming the heights of capitalism, but they never could, could they? Some are doing quite nicely, but others are struggling to find a role now that the concept of community, on which they rest, no longer has the meaning it used to.
The Co-op has lost its way, but Arla, the Danish dairy giant that brings farmers to a secure market, and other not-quite-mutuals, such as employee-owned John Lewis, are thriving.
The difference is one of adaptation. Co-ownership of an enterprise that you work in or that you supply, as with Arla and John Lewis, is viable because it builds a community and neutralises destabilising external forces. But where members are also customers, as with the Co-op (see feature, p48), there is no compelling logic, just tradition and the faded dream of a world of community.
It is capitalism's nature to evolve new forms, and we may yet see novel hybrids emerging that use forms of co-ownership to build competitive advantage through culture.
To see Nigel Nicholson's book, The 'I' of Leadership: Strategies for seeing, being and doing (Jossey-Bass, £18.99), go to iofleadership.com.