The virtuous cycle of the Natural Economy, described in this earlier post
A co-operative, basically, is a form of organization whose members share a common purpose (not earning a profit) and whose members are all equal. It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t differentiate between the role of the members — residents, employees, managers, customers, devotees, doesn’t matter. There are lots of variations on the theme, and many adulterations, but true co-ops meet the definition above.
They are different from other forms of organization that are hierarchical or have different levels of authority (not all equal). They are different from other forms of organization that have diverse objectives (shareholders, managers, employees and customers of a corporation, for example).
If you’re a member of Mountain Equipment Co-op (a Canadian co-op with three million members) for example, your shared purpose is sustainable outdoor recreation. Its members: the customers, the employees, the managers and the community residents, all meet on the ski trails or the mountain bike paths or the factory floor and talk about this purpose. The result is improved products and services, innovations, process improvements, collaborations, better health, community activities, improved safety, activism, customer satisfaction, and fun. The members work it out, together, as equals.
Co-operatives, mutual organizations and benevolent societies (all substantially forms of the same thing) have been around for nearly a millennium (they existed long before the industrial revolution). In many countries they did, and in some cases still do, make up a significant proportion of the economy. But they have been in decline for a century for two reasons: money, and greed. Hierarchical, limited-liability corporations are much more effective at raising, earning and hoarding, money than co-ops. Greedy self-serving lawyers, corporatists, robber barons and politicians have worked hand-in-hand to give corporations and their shareholders rights, tax incentives and privileges that no other form of organization, and indeed no person, has. We are now seeing the results — a soulless, unsustainable, collapsing, boom-and-bust economy dependent on endless growth of consumer spending and indebtedness.
We have no choice but to migrate to what economist Herman Daly calls a steady-state economy. In such an economy, corporations will have no advantage over co-operatives, and will in fact be disadvantaged by their bureaucracies, hierarchies, internal competitiveness and inherent distrust. And since they’re not-for-profit, co-operatives pay no taxes.
The age of the co-operative is coming, again. We are going to see them as the way to self-organize and self-manage businesses, as Natural Enterprises. We are going to see them as the way to self-organize and self-manage neighbourhoods, as Natural Communities. We are going to see them as the way to self-organize and self-manage learning through unschooling, as Natural Education.
If you want to set up a co-operative, know this: you do not have to incorporate or register in your local jurisdiction or country to operate as a co-operative. Don’t be bullied. Some jurisdictions won’t let you use the word “co-op” in your name unless you’re incorporated or registered. So don’t use the word. Just adhere to the values and principles, used for centuries all over the world:
Values: Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.
If those values and principles aren’t a breath of fresh air to you, just take a look at the articles of incorporation, mission or values statement of any for-profit corporation.
My book Finding the Sweet Spot (see sidebar at right) provides a lot of other guidance for potential co-op founders and members: deciding what you will do, finding partners, doing world-class research, coming up with innovations that meet real human needs, building networks, collaboration, and resilience, and operating on principle (responsible, sustainable, joyful etc.)
Some great potential co-operatives for the 21st century, especially as stuff starts to fall apart:
Co-ops could provide everything we really need to live a comfortable and pleasant life. This is entirely consistent with the relocalization movement, which, thanks to peak oil, global warming, corporatist excesses and unsustainable economics, is gaining ground and likely to continue to do so.
I, however, won’t be part of this important and exciting movement. I’ll write about it. I’ll tell the important stories. I’ll help people connect. I’ll outline the models that work, and those that don’t, and explain why. I’ll help people imagine what’s possible. That’s what I do. Someone else needs to do the spade work: do the research and the innovation, and make it happen, meeting important needs, one business at a time, community by community, around the world.
It’s not that hard, promise.
Category: Natural Enterprise