Declaring 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives received a rare unanimous vote from the UN General Assembly. This declaration offers a timely opportunity to promote cooperatives as a proven means of addressing critical social needs. Chief among these needs, along with specific services, are social justice and democracy.
Investor-driven corporations are eroding the world’s human communities and the natural environment that makes those communities possible. Giving primacy to return on investment is key to why privately held corporations are doing so much damage. Cooperatives’ foundation in democratic ownership, with shared responsibilities and benefits, is why they offer a better direction and a more trustworthy structure. Cooperatives offer a well-defined alternate means of addressing social injustice and organizing enterprise that meets basic needs.
However, cooperative and capitalist firms alike, along with public and governing institutions, are challenged to shift their outlook to a recognition of limits: limits to debt, to resource consumption, and even to the god of economic growth. If conservation and governance are not grounded in a more stable and democratic economy, many shared improvements will be lost. Private capital’s social war will spread until its productive forces are themselves destroyed by the collapse of debt-based growth and by climate chaos.
In this watershed moment, cooperatives must take responsibility for winning public recognition and support for their values, principles, and solutions. For now, few public or private institutions will join us in such campaigns.
Economists and political analysts recognize the role of corporations that are driven by private capital. They argue about government correcting injustice or market failures, and they will also praise the activities of nonprofits. But cooperatives—a proven, democratic structure driven by the users of the enterprise—are seldom recognized. The word "cooperative" does not even appear in the index of major economics textbooks or progressive surveys such as Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest. Higher education courses in business simply bypass cooperative solutions.
Again, cooperatives will have to work to change the landscape. A noteworthy exception in institutional education is the program for a master’s in co-ops and credit unions at St. Mary’s University, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Several U.S. food co-op managers are in this program, and I recently had the honor of addressing its latest class of international students during two days of intensive discussions on problems and opportunities for cooperatives. (Readers who would like to read my presentation may contact me c/o this magazine.)
Globally, cooperatives are very diverse yet can be mutually supportive. The International Year of Cooperatives can be used to illustrate building democracy while conserving resources and expanding peaceful relations.
For a shared understanding of cooperative potential, I strongly recommend a remarkable book, Humanizing the Economy: Cooperatives in the age of capital, by John Restakis (2010, New Society Publishers). Restakis provides an informed and passionate analysis of the world of cooperative opportunity. Executive director of the British Columbia Cooperative Association, he will visit the U.S. to address the October annual meeting of the National Cooperative Business Association. From the conclusion of his informative and inspiring book:
"The challenge in our global era is threefold: to mobilize existing knowledge, organizational capacity and resources at those levels where the globalization process is managed; to extend the principles and forms of reciprocity and co-operation at both local and global levels; and to link the co-operative movement’s ideas, experience and resources to the political reform work that needs to be done. This means a much more explicitly political vision for the movement, and a linking of the movement to those social and political currents that are at the forefront of the struggle for social justice."