If you have the desire to somehow participate in society, you are probably going to have to work for a living. Work seems like the epitome of our existence. From practical reasons for working – like eating and buying property up North (because we can all do that) – or for the half-baked pseudo science that claims that its human nature to want to work.
We are expected to work as soon as we are — in some countries — legally old enough and we set out on a path striving to make some sort of living. Now that university has been hijacked for instrumental value (“you just wasted four years of your life if you ONLY got a B.A!”) instead of having an intrinsic worth, it’s not surprising that a lot of people are pissed off.
We are still promised endless amounts of success and buy into it even if it costs an increasing but arbitrary amount of tuition. Funnily enough, budget cuts are underway in basically every public service, but somehow administrations grow, even when tuition rates climb in the university. At Brock University for instance, 525 employees earn more than $100,000 per year totalling more than $72 million. These salaries are usually reserved for the administrators who manage the bureaucracy.
In Thomas Frank’s article Academy Fight Song, he writes that “The grotesque top-heaviness of the American corporation is an old story: we have more supervisors per worker than any other industrialized nation, and quite naturally we have developed an extensive literature of bogus social theory assuring those supervisors of the rightfulness of their place in the world.”
The sheer lack of creativity in choices related to “work” is suffocating. It is usually stifled by those in charge of our futures, limiting control over how to define what work can mean.
Regardless of the line of work you are in, the seemingly inescapability of those in charge — bosses — is naturalized.
Growing up going to a catholic school made me aware of the unnecessary discipline those with a little bit of power impose on young, impressionable minds. Not everyone will have such experiences, but what I took with me was my resentment for arbitrary authority. Wage labor is no different, as I have the unfortunate pleasure of having bosses who have bosses who have bosses. All of them have the same disregard for workers’ happiness.
What I am getting at is that we have our heads down in fear of authority and miss the alternatives. The working class can’t be blamed; why should alternatives be accessible if they undermine the very notion of gaining profits?
Though I admit that I fail to see alternatives and get caught up trying to understand the complex and contradictory systems of capitalism, I have been wondering why I don’t know more about alternatives like co-operatives.
Johnston Birchall, Professor of Social Policy at Stirling University, writes in the article The potential of co-operatives during the current recession; theorizing comparative advantage that “[co-operatives] provide a counter-narrative to global capitalism that anti-capitalists need if they are to succeed in turning a reactive movement into something more proactive. In this sense, there is already a co-operative alternative to capitalism.”
Janelle Cornwell, who also researches co-operatives, says “if you can’t see through the knowledge you produce, and you are only looking at capitalism, even if you oppose it, then you are never going to reproduce what you want to see in the world.”
So, realizing I lacked sufficient knowledge of co-operatives, I set out to understand what they were about.
Research and literature on the theory and practice behind co-operatives is few and far between, but it is growing and seems to have great potential.
Cornwell understands that they have been typically ignored by business and economics departments, as well as the mainstream media and even activists.
Panu Kalmi has also done research to uncover the reasons why co-operatives are understudied in school.
Kalmi’s article entitled The disappearance of co-operatives from economics textbooks, suggests that the dominant discourse of economics has made co-operatives invisible.
Dominant research has therefore been focusing on capitalist space, even if that means changing it, which may end up reproducing capitalism discourse by making alternatives invisible.
As economists began to be treated as the prophets of a warped, capitalist utopia, the ability to see other solutions have been left by the wayside.
Co-operatives were first a pragmatic response to changes in living conditions, where people required a service that was not being offered.
There are many differences and similarities in co-operatives, like how they are structured and what industry they represent, and who they are run by. For example two popular types of governance are worker co-ops and consumer co-ops.
The history of co-operatives is also diverse, perhaps even beginning with primitive tribes working cooperatively rather than competitively. There is a body of research that debates whether or not cooperation or competition is “natural” in species.
“Behavioural scientists are demonstrating that [a new world order] would not need a new form of human nature to emerge; it is in line with what we know about the human capacity to cooperate, based on ‘strong reciprocity’,” writes Birchall.
Cooperation or mutual aid just seems practical from a social perspective in our current world.
When speaking of the first co-operative, the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers is considered. Founded in 1844, it was a consumer co-operative and created the Rochdale Principles on the governance of co-operatives.
First, Rochdale principles state that co-operative societies must have an open and voluntary membership.
The International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) in 1937 took on those principles, stating that “co-operatives are voluntary organisations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.”
Other principles touch on anti-discrimination, motivations and rewards, democratic member control, member economic participation, limitations on member compensation and appropriate use of surpluses, autonomy and independence, education, training, and information, cooperation among co-operatives and a concern for community.
Although co-operatives have been adopted around the world, some prominent examples are helpful to consider how there is no one size fits all model, unlike laissez faire economics.
The Mondragon Corporativa in Spain is noted in much of the co-operative literature. Perhaps used as an example due to its size and its history, Mondragon as of 2012 employed 83,321 people in 256 companies in four sectors: Finance, Industry, Retail and Knowledge.
There is skepticism whether or not co-operatives can keep up with capitalist output. Cornwell says the research does not support that claim. Using Mondragon as an example, the co-operative owns more than three trillion dollars in assets and generates more than $500 billion in revenue and over $25 billion in wages.
Looking at other co-operatives, most could never be Mondragon’s size. Some may not even want to become that large. In Winnipeg, a smaller worker co-op formed also called Mondragon that has been operating a political bookstore, vegan restaurant and grocery store, showing how some communities prefer modesty.
Worldwide, co-operatives account for nearly $654 billion in revenue, more than two million jobs, $75 billion in wages and beneﬁts paid, and a total of $133.5 billion in value-added income.
Quantitatively, co-operatives are completely overlooked if the numbers above aren’t taken into account.
They are also overlooked for the radical principles that make them unique in regards to their social value. I don’t mean to push the idea that co-operatives are the solution to a world of inequality, but it does make me question why these models aren’t adopted as austerity guts social services that we need in our communities. Perhaps this is changing with the resurgence of interest in co-ops. This can be seen with The United Nations declaring that 2012 would be the International Year of Co-operatives.
“The importance of co-operatives is not solely based on their economic significance, as co-operatives also tackle social problems by alleviating poverty and promoting community development,” writes Kalmi.
The potential for member-owned businesses should also be considered in terms of social importance.
“If the potential of [member-owned businesses] were realized we would quickly come to a new world economic order that is more stable, more trustworthy, more equitable and driven not by profit but by the desire to meet people’s needs. It would be a ‘peoplecentred’ rather than a money-centred economy,” writes Birchall.
Just doing some preliminary research, I was impressed to see that co-ops have abided by the ratio that top and bottom pay in a co-op should not exceed 3 to 1. Comparing that to private industries, where the ratio can be high as 15 to 1, it just seems like the best interest to worker’s well-being in terms of pay equity, allowing workers to leave poverty.
Through Cornwell’s research she has come to understand that there is general agreement in terms of there is no one right way to form or operate a co-op.
Similar to that perspective, as alternative ways to organize society become necessary, it is important to ask, can we move beyond State and pure economic solutions? The State’s role in acting as administrative of lives is outgrowing its usefulness, especially as public services are sold off to the private sector.
Looking at Argentina’s shift towards horizontalism and autonomy as one example, and countless other places around the world, including co-ops, people are looking to each other to work on solutions and rejecting a one size fits all model.
Marina Sitrin’s book Everyday Revolutions describes that people have started to create “new relationships to production and sometimes even exchange, and in the process creating a new set of value relationships – ones that push and break with the rules of capitalist forms of production.”
“Value is, perhaps, no longer something that is defined by the capitalist market or capitalist economic relations. The value of what is created, and how, in the autonomous communities is not measurable by the market or the system of value exchange,” writes Sitrin.
Maybe I would take an economics class if “how to build a co-operative” was offered, instead of “how to extract every last penny of surplus labour” and “why capitalism is good, 101″. Perhaps others would feel the same if they were aware that another world is possible for humans to live.
Vandana Shiva, ecofeminist and anti-globalization activist has written of the strength of biodiversity not only when it comes to agriculture, but in regards to perspectives. A monoculture depletes the nutrients and offers short-term solutions, similar to how society is currently structured. There is not only way to do things. Collectively, we can come to decide what is best for us and that may mean one day not having bosses.