My previous column discussed our need to recognize a cooperative as something larger and more enduring than our individual stake in it, greater also than the sum of present members' stake in the co-op. This larger meaning is underscored by the concept ofsocial capital: what is owned by all and used for the benefit of all.
Here I wish to extend the discussion about social capital to its broadest reaches, to statements about purpose: Why we are here? What is our mission?
My version of life's meaning or "why we are here," reflecting my pragmatic bent, is simply that we are here to help one another, and in the course of doing that to enjoy living as much as possible. As for the equally important issue of the means or method for attempting these aims: with as much effort and risk as our circumstances allow, we should live as closely as possible today to the world we want to see come about.
(Averse to cosmic explanations, I have thus far not found it necessary to go beyond these notions: aren't they enough to keep us busy for our brief lives?)
Of course there are a thousand daily and lifelong ways in which we can help one another. The strong appeal of cooperatives lies both in their structural answer to the abuses of private capital and in their determination to actually practice democratic economics. A cooperative is a business that enables us to help each other and thereby help ourselves. Co-ops aim to control capital and were succinctly described by Jerry Voorhis (a hero whose successors might now be embarrassed to quote him) in the subtitle to his book, Cooperative Enterprise: "the little people's chance in a world of bigness."
In co-ops, a specific form of social capital is unallocated reserves or reinvestment in the cooperative of some portion of net savings. Overemphasis on member discounts and return of 100 percent of the net from operations are practices which handicap the co-op's ability to serve member needs in the future. These practice often are deeply rooted in the organizational culture and reflect our larger cultural pattern of a low rate of savings. In co-ops, this neglect occurs at the expense of prudent management of earnings and undermines the formation of capital in the cooperative.
Social capital more broadly equates to a common community resource that is built or maintained, something "owned" together that improves our lives, embodied in public spaces and institutions and in the natural environment. Such social capital is absolutely essential, yet again is undervalued. The very recognition of our common lot contradicts the private market's drive to atomize the consumer and subvert all relations except that of the individual in the market. In the dominant world of investor-driven commerce, motivations such as community, solidarity, and care for the natural world (as well as courage, romance, etc.) are subordinated to and manipulated in the service of commerce. "Privatization" is merely the latest code word for hegemony by private capital and attacks on social capital and social solutions.
But cooperatives make possible an alternative to capitalist concentration only if we practice sound economics, including attention to the growth of capital. Enjoying our accomplishments may be short-lived if members and leaders have an understanding of their co-op's purpose that does not extend beyond certain products, and if they fail to realize their mission as cooperatives.
Understanding of cooperatives' purpose on this level -- what I regard as their fundamental mission of expanding the democratic ownership and control of capital -- helps us recognize our commonality with cooperatives in other sectors. Examples of the importance of cross-sectoral ties are numerous:
- The co-op training and development groups discussed in this edition all benefit from resources and experience in other co-op sectors.
- As one of these development groups points out, next year's electric industry deregulation threatens to become the latest rip-off by private capital unless we build consumer energy cooperatives, based on already existing consumer trust, appropriate structure, and industry experience.
- Credit unions continue to be by far the most common form of co-op membership by consumers, and their fee and service levels continue to beat those of private banks. Credit unions are under attack again, as they have been periodically for decades, by the world of private capital and its government allies. If you are unaware of the threat to one of our most important forms of cooperatively controlled capital, if your food co-op does not have some kind of positive relationship with a credit union, I urge you to improve that picture.
The previous social capital editorial prompted a note from Sid Pobihushchy and a copy of a paper he co-authored on the same topic. Sid is a director of the Fredericton, New Brunswick retail co-op and former board president of Co-op Atlantic, the largest consumer-owned food distribution system in North America:
|"There is no issue of greater moment to the Co-operative movement than the matter of share and social (co-operative) capital. You have performed a valuable service to your readers, of whom there are too few, and the co-operative movement. . . . Unless co-op leaders, directors and managers, seriously address the matter of developing social (co-operative) capital, the co-operative enterprise will never extend itself beyond the periphery of relevance in the present global free market economy. This will certainly require a lively and continuing education program for which substantial budgetary allocations must be made."|