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I’m just back from a week in Quebec City where I attended a conference on cooperative economics hosted by Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and an international cooperative summit hosted by Desjardins Group, the largest financial cooperative in Canada and the sixth largest in the world.
During a week when Nobel Prizes were given to the European Union for peace – despite the massive anti-austerity mobilizations across the continent in the past year – and to champions of the market for economics despite the historic and stunning failures of this theory, it was a relief to be amongst thinkers whose work is grounded in reality.
The presentations at Imagine 2012 ranged from large theoretical questions about economic growth and ecological sustainability to the technical issues of how to measure non-financial aspects of the economy and strategies for effective worker coop governance. Despite the dire message of imminent economic and ecological collapse underlying most of the presentations (one presenter referred to themselves as a group of “Canadian Catastrophists”), the energy of the event was vibrant and upbeat.
There was a collective understanding that the only real hope we have for a decent future as a species lies in facing the true social and ecological consequences or our behavior as the starting point to creating a more humane culture and economy that takes into account the health of the planet. Also shared was the understanding that the economy is a human construct and if we created it, we can re-create it.
There is nothing inevitable about the direction the economy is going. The direction is guided by people in positions of power within the system who benefit from its maintenance, and who would like the rest of us to consider it as an inevitable, natural life force about which we can do nothing but compete for advantage within it.
Conference participants argued forcefully for a stripping away of the ideological window dressing around capitalist markets that are driven by the need to extract value from the natural world and human labor in order to create profit for owners and shareholders. They described the resulting ecological and economic overshoot of market economies – reaching the natural resource limits of the planet and reliance on compound interest and speculation to fuel unsustainable financial growth – and suggested that cooperatives must be a critical part of the response to these crises.
Unlike capitalist enterprises, cooperatives do not exist to extract value for owners who then accumulate and appropriate it however they please. Their primary aim is to meet the needs of their members, who democratically decide what those needs are and how to go about meeting them. In worker cooperatives, the basic need being met is the need for human social development through productive activity. When coops exist within the context of a market economy, the coop must also make a financial profit, but only as a means to continue to exist in order to meet member needs, not as an end in itself.
The power of cooperatives lies in their values of democratic participation and concern for the local community. When fully functional, coop organizations make different kinds of choices about investments and business activities, because they are taking into account factors other than just the maximization of profit or building of market share. They are considering maximization of value to members. In worker coops, for instance, maintaining full employment for all members usually trumps maintaining the highest possible wage for some members, or maximizing the end-of-year financial surplus. There is also a high value placed on inter-coop cooperation rather than competition.
The tone of Imagine 2012 was in stark contrast to that set by the high profile events of the Quebec 2012 International Summit of Cooperatives and the resulting declaration, which describes the coop movement in capitalist terms with a thin veneer of optimism as a way to plead with the major power brokers of the global economy for recognition and inclusion. Indeed, Dame Pauline Green, President of the International Cooperative Association, jetted off to Tokyo on the final day of the Summit to attend the annual IMF/World Bank meeting.
This is ironic since these institutions (World Bank, IMF, United Nations) hold much responsibility for the current state of affairs, and since the actual potential of the coop movement lies in creating human-centered enterprises and networks that defend people and communities from the kinds of predatory, extractive “growth” promoted by their policies.
There is general agreement within the international worker cooperative sector – the smallest in the coop world behind agricultural, electric, financial, insurance, consumer, and housing sectors – that our promise lies in our ability to create productive economic spaces that support healthy communities and that can exist outside of capitalist markets. Therefore, our energy is better spent building up more coop enterprises and stronger networks of cooperation amongst them for a stronger future than begging for greater integration into the fragile, crisis-ridden system that is failing us so badly today.
We do live in contradictory, transitional times. The support that the Desjardins Group gave to representatives from the smaller coop sectors to attend, and the space they gave us in which to meet and present our experience and ideas was generous, even if it was in service to what amounted to a $10 million public relations campaign for the event for Desjardins, which wants to replicate it every other year and promote it as, “the Davos of the cooperative world.”
It was also good of them to allow thinkers like Riccardo Petrella (“What’s good about the kind of innovation that creates a world in which more people have access to cell phones than have access to toilets and clean water?”), Jacques Attali (“If we don’t change the rules of the game, the whole world will look like a failed state”), and Stefano Zamagni (“Mainstream economics is like a building whose foundations are crumbling”) to have a voice at the Summit. Those voices were not included in the final political project of the Summit (the declaration), but at least the 2,800 participants were exposed to viewpoints other than those talking about how to market ourselves more effectively on the global stage.
I came away from the week with a deeper conviction that there is great hope in the worker coop movement, and that the keys to our growth lie in organizing, education and commitment to our values. Organizing at the grassroots to educate our current members and potential members of new ventures about the transformative power of cooperation, and organizing networks of cooperation at all levels to build enough collective political and economic power to resist the forces of globalization and to build truly sustainable regional and local economies in solidarity with others around the world.
In North America, we are very far from that goal. In places like northern Spain, Argentina and Brazil they are closer to it. As President of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, I am honored to be part of this dedicated group of people who are not giving up in despair but who continue to fight for the dignity of people and who hold the vision of a more just and healthy world alive in their hearts and in their actions.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.