a different kind of cooperative
If one happened to see a cooperative around today (not a very widespread species), it is most probably a workers’ of farmers’ one. This type is predominant now and sets the standards in public thinking.
Workers’ Coop peculiarities1
Workers’ (or employees’) cooperative emerged as a way to counterbalance capitalism. As a logical extension of the concept of guilds, when artisans became workers and the owners (and, later, financial investors) took the power. As such, this kind of cooperative is focused on (and limited to) the workplace area. Its goal is to change the internal governance of the company, so the actual employees have dominant voice in management. It takes away (or redistributes evenly) the power of ownership, be it direct or through financial investment, and transfers it to those who are directly involved in the work process. In context of the most generic definition (A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.2), the primary need this type of cooperative caters for is employment, and the way to fulfill it is self-management.
In the generic form, worker’s cooperative not necessarily interacts with the economy any different way that a family business or a limited liability partnership next door. The difference is internal – in governance and redistribution of financial surplus. In practice, it influences business strategy and sometimes the tactics, but it is still tactics and strategy of a business entity, fully immersed in the mainstream economy. Worker’s cooperatives tend to underperform (in financial gain terms) during prosperity, but they are resilient survivors of every, but the most disastrous, crises.
Workers’ Coop limitations
The traditional class approach, that is the foundation of workers’ cooperative concept, comes from the wage labour centric world. It struggles to heal the wound, inflicted by the industrial revolution, when free artisans and yeomans, purged by the land grab from their neigbourhoods3, became the first proletarians. As much as trade unions, workers’ coops are specialised response of the society to the imbalance inflicted by capitalism. It is a cure to a very clearly defined disease.
As such, the workers’ coop can only exist where workers exist and where there is already an economy as we know it now. No capitalism, no workers, no workers’ cooperatives (nor the unions4). When the disease’s gone, we need the cure no more.
If one struggles to operate in a different economy, to limit one’s interaction with the state and capitalist institutions and to create vernacular space of social life, one needs a different kind of cooperative.
Enter Social Cooperatives5
If a workers’ cooperative focuses on quite a narrow need of its members: safe, fulfilling and fairly paid employment. The rest of one’s social life is actually unchanged – not by design.
Social cooperative do not assumes any kind of need to be primary. So it is up to the members’ community to decide what is on the priorities’ list. It may be housing, food, shared social services6, having fun together or subversive political activity – or all of the above. This is the community that decides. What we are talking about is in fact an intentional community7, consciously adopting the communal use of economic („business”) tools to achieve their goals.
Surely such level of freedom makes things a bit more complex, but at our disposal we have knowledge and tools needed to deal with it8.
Anyway, we see that social cooperative is a two-faced beast: a business association catering to a wide palette of its members’ needs or an intentional community, running a collective business to finance itself.
Due to the context of this article, I will stick to the first perspective and point out several features that make social cooperatives distinct among other coops.
- „Internal market” first. It all starts from participants’ needs. It may even be that the core business of the coop will be adjusted to dominant need. A building and housing cooperative may start from building houses for its members, and later expand as a commerial entity. It may also be that the coop diversify, providing various services to the members’ population, employing cooperatists themselves and keeping costs low. It all depends on the social structure of membership group and on the rules and needs included into the coop activity.
- Volunteer work by default. While a social coop can employ wage labourers, this is the complimentary option. Priority is to make members involved as much as they are keen and able to be9. The contribution for the coop is supposed to be unpaid – not directly. It means that every kind of work is considered equal, be it web development for a commercial project, baby-sitting shift in cooperative kindergaten, or pastry production for a community picnic.
- To each according to their needs. As the statutory goal of the coop is to cater to the needs of its members, this is to an extent unrelated to the quality or quantity of their contribution. There are various incentive systems, rewarding those who contribute more. But, by definition, certain standard access to the resurces of cooperative should be equal among all members. That is why we call it „social” one.
- Making the difference. A great Polish anarcho-cooperatist Edward Abramowski said „A cooperative without radical political or social goal is no better than a merchants’ partnership.” The very basic standard of such goal is to help other cooperatives emerge and develop, as well as to improve coop’s immediate social and political surrounding. In practice it means that a share of yearly surplus – in kind or in money – would be used to support political projects outside of the coop itself.
- Hybrid funding system. Due to the social aspect, the coop will be able not only to perform business activity10 but also to accept (also tax-exempt) donations11. In normal circumstances, donations would be used directly for the needs of community (typically for improving any infrastruture the coop uses for these functions). Commercial effects would then first cater to commercial infrastructure (that can also overlap with the social one) and costs. If any of „sectors” generates surplus, the redistribution process would allocate it according to the will of coop members.
Caveats and limitations
There is no magic bullet, right? By assuming responsibility for creating our own social environment we get rid of fake safety, provided by the state and its law. If the cooperative gets to the point, when an external legal intervention is needed, it has been dead long time already. So we need to take care of ourselves.
There are some, almost trivial, guidelines that are worth following.
- People, stupid. A small group of dedicated people, poised for continuous work on the quality of relationships is crucial. If people are aware of it and make it their daily effort, the hard part is already done.
- Start small, grow naturally12. Due to the way we are „wired”, the best number of people in the initiating group is somewhere between 6 and 30. Theory of management says that 12-15 is the biggest group that is able to „self-manage” without setting up commitees, official delegation of duties etc. Adding new people has to be very well planned and prepared as well. Success – measured with new members – often is the moment when the community starts falling apart. That is why it is important to look for some mentoring from those who succeeded – and to do it early, before any problem arises.
- Learn, train, learn, train. This is no magic. This is skill. Some people are better talented to maintain the community, but the basic level is available for almost everyone. Theoretical knowledge (learning) and practical exercise (training) in turns – and you will be ok.
- It won’t go as planned.But it doesn’t mean failure. Be mindful, be watchful and be ready to change plans as needed. That’s called life.
- Better split than fight. If there is tension between two factions that cannot be peacefully released, it is better to agree on split and „velvet divorce” and still cooperate – as two separate entities – than to grow feuds.
Social cooperative as a political project
Some of us work and live in „politically incompatible” environment. We’d be happy to join a community of likeminded people and gain some distance to the mainstream reality that we consider toxic. We’d be happy to create a cohousing group of people sharing the same values we see as defining ourselves13. We’d be happy to create a vernacular bubble of better world within the world such stubbornly bad. But it means money. It means infrastructure. It means finding job. And stable income.
Social cooperative of the kind I presented here gives robust framework for such endeavour. The only fully mandatory prerequisite is a group of people keen and able to use certain amount of their time and energy to build the cooperative and underlying community. Thanks to the Internet, all relevant knowledge is available (almost) for free. Good and bad examples, testimonies, how-tos and mentoring – it is all out there. Success is not guaranteed, but is achievable.
As you probably see it, this kind of cooperative is more like a village than a business company. Setting up a village and keeping it alive for, say, three years, is a real challenge. But it can be done14 – and the reward is sweet…
* * *
There are more articles and other online resources, related to the social cooperative topic, published by FreeLab.
- The Seed – a concept of European Social Cooperative entity used as a „bulletproof umbrella” for independent activities throughout Europe15.
- The Octagon – a concept of secure financial interface between the solidarity economy ecosystem and non-solidarity world.
- The Settlers – a preliminary project and discussion group16, related to the grassroots support for the integration of refugees in Europe.
1 Good generic description of workers’ cooperative is – as usual – given by Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worker_cooperative#Definition_of_worker_cooperative). Wikipedia’s Portal:Cooperatives (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portal:Cooperatives) is a good one-stop shop for the information. However one needs to remember that it is the positive, rather than normative, source.
3 A process, formidably described by David Bollier in his book „Think like a commoner”. Available in Library Genesis http://gen.lib.rus.ec/book/index.php?md5=024f42de50747e7690ab0c6bacfc1ba0
4 We can see a bit of such situation in practice, as I noted in https://freelab.libtech.website/2015/06/26/rojava-bakur-and-pitfals-of-economic-revolution/, commenting weakness of trade unions in the areas where capitalist industry is not developed.
5 There is a legal entity of the same name (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_cooperative and http://www.cicopa.coop/IMG/pdf/world_standards_of_social_cooperatives_en.pdf ), which can be used as a formal framework, but in this text I am consistently using the term „social cooperative” in its political and economic, rather than legal sense.
6 Like education, health, security and any kind of communal consuption, cooperatists decide to include.
7 Traditionally, intentional communities are assumed to be territorial (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intentional_community and the most well known in the West http://www.twinoaks.org). However, with the advent of Internet and social networks, the territorial criterion looses its importance.
9 The fallback solution is always standard commercial outsourcing. [Please remember that all these recommendations are generic. Every community is slightly different and every one will decide on the proportions of this mix].
10 If a legal social cooperative framework is used, spendings on the statutory social activity are tax-exempted, even if they come from commercial operations.
13 And to have morning coffee conversations much less traumatizing.
14 The oldest ecovillage in Europe has been established in 1958. I was there. https://freelab.libtech.website/2013/06/12/meltemi-the-jewel-of-the-commons/
15 There is a working group online for those more practically interested (registration necessary) https://libtech.website/groups/the-seed-workgroup/