by Bob Roman
We’re a bit late this year, but October is National Coop Month. It rarely gets much press and gets only rather spotty participation from within the movement, but you can find out more about it HERE.
Back in April, 2006, New Ground #105.4 included a brief survey of the cooperative history and the idea. This is a slightly edited version (updated with revived links).
Some varieties of democratic socialism place a heavy emphasis (and great expectations) on cooperative enterprises. One of the examples frequently used is the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in the Basque regions of Spain. There’s much to admire about its performance and its history, especially since Mondragon was founded during the dark years of Franco’s rule. A good introduction to the Mondragon Cooperative can be found at Chicago’s Center for Labor and Community Research web site. (The CLCR is now Manufacturing Renaissance, located just down the hall from the Chicago DSA office.)
A more critical appraisal can be found at the Center for Global Justice: “Cooperativization on the Mondragon Model as Alternative to Globalizing Capitalism” by Betsy Bowman and Bob Stone.
Part of the fascination with Mondragon is a result of how it combines appropriately small enterprise with an institution the size of a modest multinational corporation. But some countries have succeeded in establishing local economies dominated by a multitude of small cooperative enterprises. For a look at the Po Valley in Italy back in 2003, see “Model of Economic Democracy” by Bob Williams.
Italy, it should be noted, is not the only European country with a large cooperative sector. The “social economy” varies from country to country, but in some it’s quite large. While the scope of the publication exceeds cooperatives (including also non-profits, mutual societies, popular associations, social entrepreneurs, etc.), an interesting survey is the 2012 report The Social Economy in the European Union.
Of course, members of the Mondragon cooperative might be a bit bemused by all this lefty attention. The ideological parents of the institution are more Basque nationalism and Catholic social justice theology. And indeed, cooperatives in the United States also have varied ideological backgrounds. In the 19th Century, for example, the labor movement was very active in organizing coops from a non-marxist “labor republicanism” perspective. They objected to the very idea of workers being “employees” rather than independent craftsmen that presumably form the Jeffersonian foundations of the American republic. Coops were an attempt to preserve the dignity and freedom of the independent laborer. A bit later, coops occupied the attention of the Populist movement as a way of cutting out the middleman between producers and buyers. And today it’s a favored form of organization for capitalists when some measure of equality is desired among investors.
One of the places to find out about cooperatives in the United States today is the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives. The Center for Cooperatives also hosted the International Cooperative Information Center. Another, somewhat more ideological source is the Community Wealth project of the Democracy Collaborative. Along similar lines, Grassroots Economic Organizing is a must-visit.
And finally, there are coops and then there are coops: producer, consumer, and worker. Consumer and most especially producer coops often behave not too differently than conventional capitalist organizations (for example, see “Immokalee Update” in New Ground 124.2 or “The Not So Sweet Truth” in New Ground 138.1). For information about worker coops, visit the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives. For an example of a Chicago worker cooperative, go to Talkin’ Socialism: A New Era.