Millennial Musings on Dot Co-op and Democracy

Acknowledgments

Writers in Cooperative Grocer, I like to think, are voices that speak from the heart of our industry and that present the best of co-op experience to date. Thanks to improved revenue here, these writers now receive better pay than formerly, although it seems that most of them don't expect any at all and agree to write because of solidarity -- and perhaps desire for a little notoriety.

Sponsors of Cooperative Grocer provide the extra margin of support that makes this publishing and networking effort possible. I'm proud to be affiliated with these leading cooperatives. And I'm pleased to note the addition of a new sponsor, Alvarado Street Bakery, a worker owned cooperative.

Dot co-op!

Great news for cooperatives arrived recently with the approval of a co-op internet domain name. Soon cooperatives around the world will be able to use a unique .coop suffix in their address to identify their unique ownership structure and principles.

The new co-op domain name was approved in November by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), after lobbying by the National Cooperative Business Association and Poptel, a British worker cooperative internet service provider. Their efforts were supported by letters to ICANN from hundreds of co-ops and co-op members. (For more information, see the link to .coop at www.cooperative.org.)

Dot co-op addresses will be a reminder of two things:

  • Ownership through a defined, democratic structure and set of principles, is what cooperatives are fundamentally about. Democratic ownership -- of credit unions, of food stores, of housing, of production and services generally -- is the thread that ties these organizations together. These .coop addresses will signify democratic ownership.
  • Dot co-op won't just signify here, it will do so internationally. Global addresses reflect a global economy, and in that international economy cooperatives are a longstanding and increasingly popular form of maintaining control of resources and services in the hands of those who produce them and those who use them.

Many readers will be familiar with my reiterations of the fundamental cooperative mission of democratic control of capital. (Much of what follows is from my editorial at the end of 1995, "Past Year Fast Here.") Despite the weakening market position of a product-centered identity, co-op newsletters and staff education materials that I happen to see seldom emphasize an ownership mission. As seen in the credit union experience described in this edition's member linkage article, co-ops need to be very clear on how they are different. Food co-ops and others should recognize explicitly the co-op mission of democratic control of capital, of resources and services.

Again, ownership is what fundamentally defines cooperatives. That means not only that annual earnings, after reinvestment benefiting the whole co-op, are distributed in proportion to each member's purchases. Being a cooperative also means that owners have a well defined responsibility to capitalize the business and a well defined claim to the assets, should it be dissolved, acquired, or merged with another cooperative.

It's strange but true that co-ops still are mastering the fundamentals of a way of doing business that we wish to spread. That's partly from confusion and partly because the world keeps changing. But co-ops -- especially successful ones! -- do embody a different way of owning and managing resources, and a powerful array of private and public forces discourages the advancement of any serious alternative to the present maldistribution of capital and power. Consider, for example, how much of what passes for "news" or "debate" reflects the views of the powerful and the needs of investors versus how much reflects the values of conservation and community and the world experienced by the working class, disadvantaged minorities, and by other nations in the international family.

There is more need than ever to understand thoroughly and to promote with pride the full import of our cooperative vision. The "cooperative difference" stems from ownership. Cooperative ownership and its attendant values of equality, equity, and mutual self-help are powerful, and with effective management and governance give powerful inspiration. We need such inspiration in a time when financiers and corrupted politicians sway desperate citizens into thinking that the source of our society's problems is not the elevation of private over public interests but rather the few begrudging efforts to legislate and institutionalize those values of equality, equity, and mutual aid.

Capitalism has been aptly described as "the war of all against all." Year in and year out, it is a global war for ownership and control, one which only occasionally erupts in explosions. Living in the heart of the beast -- a real rogue nation: the chief weapons supplier, the superpower that won't pay its U.N. dues, won't sign a land mines treaty, won't sign a war crimes treaty, won't sign a global warming agreement -- it is heartening to have the new Dot co-op domain name to remind us of where our loyalties should be directed: toward international solidarity and real democracy.

See other articles from this issue: #092 January - February - 2001