October 4, 2009
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Why do conservative Christians in the US favor healthcare co-operatives? Speakers at the Family Research Council's values voters summit this month unanimously opposed any government-run options, which they believe may lead to "European socialism". But they endorsed collectivism in another guise: health co-operatives. This differentiation is the logical outcome of crass, Christian right exclusivity.
Manchester, my adopted home, is the birthplace of the British co-operative movement – a place, at the coalface of the industrial revolution, that experienced extreme inner city poverty and depravation. A place where working-class people, struggling with a multitude of 19th-century problems in health and housing, collectively sought to help each other in times of crisis.
Co-operatives enabled those of like minds and similar situations to weather storms in which, through no fault of their own, good working men and women simply needed a little assistance: an illness that temporarily lowered the family income, the expense of healthcare and even funeral costs. Co-operatives were a common-sense solution to the occasional crisis of the common man.
In a similar fashion, co-operatives seem one common-sense solution in America's healthcare debate. They offer an alternative to individually purchased private health insurance or to limited employee schemes with high deductibles, both of which are costly for the average citizen. Healthcare co-operatives could bring together individuals, increasing their purchasing power and driving down the cost of health insurance. It isn't the glorious NHS, but it's a good idea with a solid history.
Of course, a part of that history is the context in which it was given birth. The industrial revolution, as the coming of the age of capitalism, was the thesis to which the co-operative movement was the antithesis. The individualism, the force of the market, produced a level of squalor, a level of personal insecurity and a fundamental disregard on the part of business, for the collective need. For that moment in history, the most famous (adopted) Mancunian was named Marx. He wrote much of his critique of capitalism as he sat watching the factories billow smoke into the Manchester air above and the sewers running through the streets below.
Co-operatives were a better alternative to parish councils. Those traditional ports in a storm were overwhelmed by capitalism, and Protestant pragmatism led to prioritizing poor relief. The "deserving" poor were delineated from the "undeserving" poor. Those deserving of help were those familiar to the parish councillors, those known to be of moral standing, those who could be trusted, upon receipt of help, to do better. The landscape around Manchester is dotted with workhouses that gave refuge, employment and some education to those less deserving and more fitting for a life akin to indentured servitude.
For all their invocations of fear of "European socialism", it is somewhat surprising to find American values voters endorsing a policy so anathema to free-market capitalism – a significant shift for those normally endorsing individual responsibility. The ideological Petri dish for co-operatives was the recognition of the limits of individualism and capitalism. Undoubtedly, values voters endorsing co-operatives would not share this ideological moment of conception. So what is motivating this new-found recognition of the benefits of collective bargaining?
Given their penchant for delineating categories of "us" and "them" – those who speak the Truth and those who do not speak with God's voice – values voters seem more like traditional English parish councils, with a clear message of who is deserving and undeserving. During a breakout session at the values voters summit in 2007, Hillary Clinton's healthcare plan was dismissed as a means for the "gay lobby" to ensure healthcare for all homosexuals – who, because of their sin, would eventually die of Aids.