The elimination of political demands: Ordoliberalism, the big society and the depoliticization of co-operatives

Thomas Da Costa Vieira, Emma A Foster

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This paper focuses on the British state’s attitude towards co-operatives, focusing mainly on the Thatcher (1979–1990) and Cameron (2010–2015) governments. After the 2008 crisis, the Cameron-led government, under the umbrella of its Big Society project, developed measures to shift responsibility on British society for the development of the co-operative model as a contribution to self-help, the pursuit of economic growth and the rebuilding of social bonds. We trace the origins of these efforts to the Thatcher governments, where these attitudes towards workers’ cooperatives were consolidated. In so doing, we find the concept of ordoliberalism rather than neo-liberalism alone, particularly useful for explaining the nuances of the governments’ relationship with the cooperatives; including the symbolic backing of co-operatives for their perfect embodiment of self-help and the entrepreneurial spirit, integrating them into a social policy of total competition and economic growth and the constant legislative and financial control of state support. This exemplified and operationalized a larger governmentality later also pursued by the coalition, aimed at entrenching a competitive order and the bourgeois spirit of self-sufficiency through the deployment of the agenda of popular capitalism. Both the Thatcher and Cameron governments, in the spirit of ordoliberalism, instrumentalized cooperatives as part of a project that sought to govern through society to reshape and depoliticize it. This was an attempt to simultaneously eliminate British society’s political demands while recasting the role that the state is expected to play in social and economic policy.
Original languageEnglish
JournalCompetition and Change
Early online date18 Mar 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 18 Mar 2021


  • British state
  • co-operatives
  • depoliticization
  • governmentality
  • neoliberalism
  • ordoliberalism


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