The economics of social change
of Social Change
Rarely has there been a time when such profound changes have become so deeply embedded in our society. We live in an age when traditional certainties about the role of government, about work, about human relations, seem to be reinvented and recast according to the whims of a force which is operating beyond anyones control or consent. Everywhere it seems, everything is being reduced to the value of a commercial commodity.
But it is also clear that more and more people, from all walks of life, are searching for real alternatives to the direction in which our society is heading. People are thirsting for positive change.
At the heart of this desire for change is the feeling that our economic institutions are beyond our control. That decisions that affect our lives every day are made not for our benefit, but for the benefit of the powerful and the privileged. And that the social values that are the lifeblood of community are constantly corroded by an ideology that says all things are subservient to the market. This simplistic "economism" is not only deeply flawed and profoundly destructive; it has also assumed the trappings of an infallible dogma.
Perhaps the most dangerous outcome of the triumph of corporate capital and the ideology of unfettered commercialism is the erosion of people’s capacity to imagine an alternative. When the local hospital or sawmill is shut down, or the encroachments of globalization undermine local culture and community, we are told there is no alternative. This is the way of the world. Adapt, or perish.
But alternatives do exist that embody an approach to economics and social relationships that is broader, more humane, and more capable of distributing economic benefits fairly while preserving a sense of human solidarity and community.
The cornerstone of a viable alternative to corporate capitalism and its fixation on economic hierarchy and unfettered individualism is co-operation and the economics of reciprocity.
I have been a co-op activist and organizer for 10 years. And I believe there has rarely been a time when the values of the co-operative movement were more relevant than they are today. And if the co-op model has served as a powerful and practical ideal in the past, it has even more to offer for the future.
For those of us who believe that a more humane world is possible, it is our responsibility to show what such an alternative might look like. What does it mean to build a co-operative future?
The glimmerings of such a future are present and thriving all around us, both at a global level and in our own communities.
Recently, I was in Argentina to learn more about the phenomenal efforts on the part of unemployed workers in that country to resurrect the thousands of factories that had been bankrupted and then abandoned by their previous owners. This is a country that was once touted as the golden example of capitalism in Latin America. That is, until the practices of a corrupt elite conjoined with the policies of the IMF to generate the world’s largest- ever bankruptcy of a national economy in 2001.
With unemployment hitting record highs and the bank accounts of citizens frozen, a mass movement demanded economic reform, and local control over the levers of economic power. And one of the most powerful symbols of this resistance was the recovered factories movement in which 200 factories were expropriated by their workers and turned into worker-owned co-operatives. These co-ops became the means by which workers could stake a legal claim to their work and show that there was another, more creative, and democratic response to plant shutdowns than passive acceptance.
Today, many of these factories are beginning to show profits in exactly the same markets that previous owners had abandoned. (Editor’s note: This movement inspired Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis’s documentary “The Take”)
Another example that has gained international attention is the co-operative economy of Emilia Romagna in northern Italy. Using co-operation as their foundation, the people of this region have generated a powerhouse economy that not only delivers the highest per capita income in Italy, but thanks to its 15,000 co-operatives, the lowest unemployment, the best social safety net, and the highest quality of life index in the country.
There are countless other examples of how people and their communities have decided that economic power can just as easily be employed by average citizens as by the traditional elites. Today, the co-operative movement worldwide is the most enduring economic alternative to capitalism, with over 1/4 of the world’s people receiving everything from health care and housing, to fair prices for their coffee and cocoa. For millions, co-ops are their only access to the market.
In Canada today, there are 12,000 co-operatives with 15 million members in communities from coast to coast. Many of these co-operatives were the economic engines that developed local economies, from agriculture on the prairies to the fishing industries in coastal communities.
Today, 40 cents of every dollar earned by a farmer comes by way of a co-operative. There are still nearly 1,000 communities in Canada where credit unions are the sole financial institutions.
In BC alone, there are more than 700 co-operatives and credit unions with one in every four people as members. Collectively, the co-op movement in BC employs 13,000 people and holds $20 billion in assets.
In all these enterprises, whether they provide jobs for workers, distribution of produce for farmers, or home care to seniors, the members own and operate these co-ops to serve their interests and the interests of their communities.
So the alternatives to corporate capital are already with us. Which is not to say that capitalist firms don’t have a fundamental role in our economy. It’s only that they are not the only kind of enterprise that can succeed in the market, despite the best efforts of right wing ideologues to make it appear so.
For those of us who believe that co-operation and mutual benefit is a superior alternative, the challenge is to find new ways in which the co-operative form can meet the changing conditions of economies while responding to the evolving needs of people, both as citizens and as consumers.
And, just as the displaced workers of Argentina decided that by acting together they could turn an economic tragedy into a story of triumph, so too the thousands of mill workers, fishermen, and health care providers can look to co-operative solutions as a way of running enterprises where maximizing profit isn’t the only objective. There are many examples of viable enterprises that are shut down because they don’t deliver the bloated returns expected by investors. For workers, these same enterprises could provide decent employment while producing needed goods or services to their communities.
This is a lesson that needs to be relearned by British Columbians who have come to believe that the workings of the market are somehow beyond their control. Or, that the only responses to plant shutdowns are passivity, protest or the hope that some benefactor will ride to the rescue.
Co-operatives remain a potent tool for economic and social reform. And although we live in a different age than the industrial revolution when co-ops were created to address mass unemployment and consumer and worker exploitation, the fundamental issues are still with us: unaccountable economic power, monopoly, unethical behaviour, and the manipulation and exploitation of consumers and workers.
Unlike that age however, people today expect more. They expect that corporations should behave responsibly to communities, respect the environment, and treat their workers fairly. It is no longer enough that quality products and services are made available on the market. People care how those products came to the market, and whether workers or children were exploited in the process. The mass boycotts of corporations like Nike and Nestlé are proof of this.
More and more, consumers today are making economic choices in their identity as citizens in a human community, both locally and globally. And it is in this tension between consumer individualism on the one hand, and the desire for fairness and community on the other that the opportunity for building a co-operative future rests.
Co-ops offer the most convincing alternative to consumer alienation that I know of. And so the new role of co-operatives is to show how enterprises, owned and operated by those who use them, can satisfy both the demands of the marketplace and the human needs of people in community.
That is a real alternative for a humane future.