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Synthesis/Regeneration 23   (Fall 2000)

Co-ops: The Post-Corporate Activism

by Keith Wright, Freedom Hills Green Party of North Mississippi

A cooperative is a business controlled by the people who use it. They come in a variety of forms. Seven hundred million people around the globe participate in cooperative enterprises, ranging from credit unions to taxicabs. While the benefits of cooperative businesses vary according to the type of cooperative, all are a potential force for serving community needs. The extent to which they do depends on how closely they adhere to the Rochdale Principles, a set of principles governed by the International Cooperative Alliance since 1895.

The principles include nondiscrimination and democratic member control. They say that capital is the servant of the cooperative, not the master. Cooperative activities are organized to serve the needs of its members in a way that doesn't harm the larger community in which it operates.

Cooperatives in their modern form began in 1844. A group of 29 weavers, seeking to gain control over their economic destiny, pooled their savings and opened the first successful consumer co-op in Rochdale, England. The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society existed at a time when people were rioting in the streets over the high prices and poor quality of food. The activists protested against the merchants of their day, whose desire for profit meant others were starving. The Pioneers' first act was the purchase and equitable division of a large bag of meal. They were motivated by terrible living conditions, but also by a desire to support weavers, who were striking without pay in an attempt at better working conditions.

A comparison of cooperative principles with the inherent rules of corporations (as described in Jerry Mander's In the Absence of the Sacred) reveals that cooperatives offer a life-affirming alternative to the corporation. Corporations place the value of profit over all other concerns. When the choice is between world peace and profit, corporations choose profit.

They also choose growth. Corporations have to continuously grow in order to maintain good relationships with investors. This imperative fuels the corporate goal of exploiting increasingly scarce resources and markets around the globe, regardless of the environmental or cultural consequences. To accomplish these imperatives corporations must be mean, aggressive, competitive, and amoral, with strong, centralized leadership. Their byproducts include dehumanization and exploitation.

Some cooperatives operate more like a corporation than like descendants of the Rochdale Pioneers.

Some cooperatives operate more like a corporation than like descendants of the Rochdale Pioneers. For example, the cooperative Land O'Lakes is owned by and serves more than 11,000 producer-members and nearly 1,100 local community cooperatives. All of its members participate in a democratic process by which they have direct connection to the policy decisions of the organization. Sounds like a cooperative, but what about concern for community? The community principle was added to the Rochdale Principles in 1995 out of international concern for sustainability. It states: "While focusing on member needs, cooperatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies accepted by their members."

Land O'Lakes received several thousand phone calls from concerned citizens regarding its use of rBGH, the biotechnologically engineered hormone produced by the Monsanto Corporation. Consumers are concerned that rBGH has potential human and bovine health risks. A spokesperson for Land O'Lakes told a reporter that consumer complaints had no impact on Land O'Lakes practices because the company does not listen to consumer complaints. Putting profit over community is no way to achieve sustainability, and is not very cooperative.

Despite this disgusting disregard for community by one of the largest cooperatives in the US, cooperatives can be part of an organizing strategy that encompasses many of the goals that activists pursue. A good example is Madison Community Co-op (MCC) in Madison, Wisconsin, a not-for-profit cooperative community of 10 jointly-owned households whose motto is "Housing for People, not Profit."

In addition to providing some of the best low-income housing in the midst of a citywide housing shortage, the organization subsidizes families with children, pays a living-wage to its staff, and even has a bail fund for activists who get arrested. Members work on diversity issues, conflict resolution, and house maintenance. They pool resources so they can afford to buy environmentally friendly products that are made by people and organizations with similar values. Members are provided with information and training so that they can be active participants in all aspects of cooperative management.

It's easy for residents to forget that they are a part of a social movement. Many would not even describe it as such. Living cooperatively involves a lot of the same things that any group-living endeavor might, such as shopping, cooking, cleaning, and hanging out. However, the lifestyle of cooperative living is not one that most people grow up in. For example, houses have house meetings, in which anyone who has an issue to discuss can do so before the entire house. At such meetings everyone is required to be respectful of everyone else. Only one person speaks at a time, and a facilitator monitors the flow of the meeting. If an issue is emotionally charged, the facilitator does a meeting dynamics check to make sure that everyone's voice is being heard and everyone's feelings respected.

Working through consensus and living in a shared community brings people together in ways that aren't so common in mainstream housing options. These interpersonal dynamics coexist with composting, organics, nontoxic cleaning supplies, and sustainable consumption. Cooperatives are democratic and egalitarian models of business ownership and decision-making. The synergy that all of these factors create significantly undermines corporate myths. The profit motive is not necessary for human achievement. People can live sustainably and be better off for it.

Are cooperatives a social movement? Arguably so. This past October cooperative members from across Canada and the United States came together in Ann Arbor, Michigan under the theme "Economic Democracy: Working Together for Change." The conference was the 27th annual institute, a conference hosted by the North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO). Workshops examined the role that cooperatives play in struggles for social and economic justice. They also explored multiculturalism, anarchism, community supported agriculture, organizing strategies, as well as many aspects of cooperative management and involvement.

What better way to show the illegitimacy of the corporation than with a positive alternative that increases the quality of life.

"I am committed to this movement," wrote Jeremy Feigenbaum in The Rubber Chicken: The Unofficial Publication of the NASCO Institute. "This way of life isn't new; it's primal and ancient, and I feel it takes us back to our tribal roots. Integrating our tribal heritage, along with our present fast-advancing human evolution, is very balancing. I think that it is necessary for the healing of our human family and of the earth." Feigenbaum noted that alternative living arrangements such as cooperatives, co-housing, and intentional communities have been experiencing a period of growth over the past 10 years.

Cooperatives that are good for people and communities are not limited to housing cooperatives. People around the world have organized different kinds of businesses around the Rochdale Principles, including pizzerias, bookstores, cafes, and child care centers. The list of possibilities is as endless as human need. "We have a retail store, a coffee roaster, and a restaurant. Those are the activities. They're not that important. It's how we do it that's important," wrote Bill from Speed River Worker Co-op in Guelph, Ontario.

The world has seen how corporations affect the earth. In our global economy people and communities face uphill struggles to provide basic services, never mind doing so in a sustainable manner. Cooperatives provide a medium by which people who are concerned with economic democracy and sustainability can structure their lives accordingly. It is incumbent upon people committed to social change to build these countervailing institutions. A strong, viable alternative to the corporation could convert at least as many people as the best structured argument or anticorporate action.

What is the attraction of a post-corporate world? Life. Wonderful, beautiful life. We need to rid the planet of corporations because they suck the life out of workers, out of culture, out of ecosystems, all in the name of profit. What is the alternative to the corporation? Many people believe that corporations are a necessary evil because they provide jobs or goods in an efficient manner. They believe that the profit motive is necessary to induce people to act.

In this light, housing cooperatives around the country—in Madison, Austin, Berkeley, and nearly 200 other communities—can provide living proof that people can come together in community, not motivated by greed or profit, to provide a basic service like housing. In doing so, the wealth of the community is reinvested directly into the quality of life of its members, and not a stockholder's portfolio. What better way to show the illegitimacy of the corporation than with a positive alternative that increases the quality of life.

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