Open co-ops

Michael Bauwens, founder of the P2P Network and an activist and thinker on the digital commons has developed the concept of ‘open co-ops’ to refer to a new kind of co-operative which operates in a non-capitalist way.

It’s an excellent concept and one that needs to be taken up and developed and implemented by the co-op movement.

His explanation – and arguments about why and how it can develop – is in the film, and here in a nutshell are the four principles of of open co-ops.

  • Common good written into the co-op’s constitution
  •  Multi-stakeholder – all interested parties have a say in the governance
  • Produce commons – things that are owned by all, not just by the co-op
  •  Global, not just within local or national lines

You can read his explanation here too, and some examples of open co-ops in practice from Josef Davies Coates here.

It also seems to built, intentionally or not, on the idea of Parecon developed by Michael Albert, which suggests that workers and consumers together need to decide what is needed in order to provide for the common good through a co-operative alternative to the market.


How the co-op movement can find allies

This is a written version of a short presentation and exercise I did yesterday with Co-operatives East. It offers a strategy or framework for identifying and prioritising potential fellow travellers that co-operative organisations could team up with. Thought I’d post it up here to see if it’s useful . . .

 When I first got involved in the co-op movement I didn’t do it because I thought the co-operative model was an end in itself.

It was a means to an end. This will be different for different people but for me that end was, and largely still is, an economy run for and by the people, one in which we have control over the business and public institutions that exert such a powerful and undemocratic influence over our lives.

Co-operatives are one important route to doing this. But they are not the only one, and there are a whole range of similar and allied organisations – community run organisations, artist collectives, user-led mental health groups, the online peer-to-peer movement, and many others, all of which have similar goals.

But when you get involved heavily in a movement, an organisation or what Seth Godin calls a ‘tribe’, it’s easy to forget this – to focus on the rituals and intricacies of that tribe, to get engrossed in the details and forget the bigger purpose that made this important in the first place.

The co-operative sector is as guilty of this as any other – we, by which I mean those who are active and play an organising role – spend a lot of time debating legal forms, governance and member engagement, but in doing so easily forget the purpose, the reason we were involved in the first place.

So, what I want to do here – and what I’ve done periodically in the past – is to try to stand back from the co-operative movement as we know it and think about what other organisations, networks and groups are out there who have similar purposes.

I don’t have any simple answers, but what I hope to offer is a framework for discussion.


The reason for doing this is two-fold.

The first is for reasons of organisational strategy. I was asked to talk at Co-operatives East, a membership body, about reaching co-operators rather than co-operatives, in order to get people at Co-operatives East thinking about how it, as a regional grouping of co-ops, can best meet its purpose of promoting the co-op economy.

Should it open up its membership to people interested in co-operation? Who are these people? And how can it reach them? This is obviously not just of relevance to Co-ops East but also to other co-operative campaign bodies more widely.

The second reason is about campaign strategy. Successful campaigns are nearly always coalitions rather than single-interests. A campaign to promote the co-operative economy could have marginal successes on its own; a campaign to create an economy run for the people by the people, that involves co-ops, social enterprises, development trusts, the online peer to peer movement, the commons movement, and so on, is much more likely to have a success, assuming a common purpose and message can be found.

In the UK, the Social Economy Alliance is an excellent example of this – it brings together social enterprises, co-ops, trading charities and others and combines their weight to lobby government for common asks. In the US the New Economy Coalition is a broader coalition of organisations involved in grassroots community and economic development, from co-ops to community organisations.

The scale of co-operation

So, what’s the best way to think about, and discuss which networks – which other tribes – are closely aligned with the co-operative movement?

One way is to take the ‘scale of co-operation’ proposed by Co-operatives UK a couple of years back in its publications on practical tools for identifying co-operatives.

The scale looks at two axes: the member ownership axis, which is based on how far an organisation has open membership, how far the members control the business and how far they benefit from it (basically, the first three co-operative principles); and the co-operative ethos axis, based on whether the organisation is autonomous, educates members, co-operates with others and has a community purpose (the last four co-operative principles).

You can see an application of it, from the Co-operatives UK publication, here:


Co-operatives UK developed some questions to ask to help plot where an organisation fits on the scale, and we can see a range of positions on the scale, from Tesco through to Suma, based on this. It provides a broad, but useful, way to think about which organisations are close to the co-operative model in terms of both ownership and ethos, and which are less so.


A second way is to map the networks, groups or ‘tribes’ around the co-operative movement. I’d initially done this to look at where there were overlaps between the purpose of the groups and the co-operative movement in order to identify networks on social media where we, in the co-op movement, could make synergies and links.

But you can also use the scale of co-operation to structure this in order to see which networks are closest to the co-operative movement, and which are further away.

Here’s an example:


What we see here from this rough application is that the commons movement, development trusts and community energy are closest to the co-operative movement, with other organisations such as open business or user-led services further away.


What does this tell us? I think this is a framework to determine which networks or tribes, or which individual organisations or businesses, are close enough to the co-operative movement for closer working and which you should therefore prioritise.

It’s very much a working idea rather than a complete one – there are many more networks to consider, and the ones that have been considered here might not be the right ones, and you can drill down into more detail.

But I think it provides a useful starting point for discussing who could be useful partners in campaigns or, if like Co-operatives East, you are looking to widen membership, who should be eligible for membership.

Once you’ve used this as a mapping exercise and identified who you should focus on, there is then a whole further set of questions around what you want to do with them and what the best way of connecting with them is.

But hopefully this framework can help you understand the networks or organisations on which you should focus your energies.


Get into groups to discuss where you would focus energies if you were opening up membership or looking for partners outside the formal co-operative movement. I would like you to:

  1. Identify the kinds of organisations that are allied with, but just outside, the co-op movement.
  2. Plot them on the scale of co-operation below
  3. Identify where you would focus your energies in terms of recruiting new members, highlighting the three that would be at the core of your strategy


Everyday and transformational co-operation

For some time now, I’ve been trying to find a way to characterise two different kinds of co-operation: one that is a constant of our social life, another that aims to bring about social change.

Having thought about in different ways, I wonder if the simplest way to express it is to talk about everyday co-operation and transformational co-operation.

Everyday co-operation

Everyday co-operation is the idea that life is underpinned by instinctive and generally unacknowledged co-operation between individuals: from tacit agreements about letting one another past on pavements or the unconscious decision not to hoard the spoons at work to the reciprocity that allows people to trust one another, lend books to one another, and so on.

Everyday co-operation is an essential part of everyday life. Many of those people studying the ‘science of co-operation’ – an area of study now encompassing evolutionary biology, game theory, economics, sociology, political science and much else besides – tell us that the reason for everyday co-operation is because people are rational and self-interested, and therefore will pursue the strategy that best realises their interests.

Short-term it might be most beneficial to hoard spoons, not return a book your friend lent you or renege on an informal agreement with a colleague. But long-term these strategies will backfire, so it makes sense to co-operate. It’s what also called reciprocal altruism and I’ve referred to as economic co-operation.*

This idea – that it’s in the long-term best interests of people to co-operate and work together – is not only an important part of the functioning of society, arguably awareness of it is also behind some recent business thinking: the increasing interest in employee ownership as a way of engaging and increasing the productivity of workers, for example, Michael Porter’s concept of businesses delivering ‘shared value’ to suppliers, customers and staff, Unilever’s ‘enlightened capitalism’ or innovations that involve customers or users in ‘co-producing’ a good or service.

Everyday co-operation is everywhere and pretty much non-controversial. It’s a good thing. It makes things run smoothly. And it makes our lives better than a world where short-term self-interest ruled all (which would probably be “nasty, brutish and short” as Thomas Hobbes put it in 1651). Few people would disagree that the world needs everyday co-operation.

Transformational co-operation

The other idea of co-operation is transformational co-operation. This is a rarer form of co-operation. It takes places when people try to transform their workplace, or their community, in a way that enables people to work together in a fairer and more equal way.

It takes many forms: graduates starting a worker co-op to take control of their jobs, workers collectively recuperating their factory, locals starting a community supported farm to take control of their food, students buying a building together in order create a housing co-op. It might also go beyond formal ‘co-operative’ structures and include arts collectives trying to control their work, local people campaigning to keep a park in community ownership or even a political movement aiming to give a group of people democratic control over their area (I’m thinking of the Zapatistas in Mexico, or even the Occupy movement).

Transformational co-operation is based on what Hilary Wainright calls transformational politics, where “self-organized citizens . . . resist and transform” power relations, whether that’s the state, in the economy or in society more widely. Transformational politics, she says “can be used against capital and in ways that can facilitate self- organization and support democratic and decentralized management of public resources, including as ‘commons’.”

For her, transformational politics is different from two other political strategies: revolution and reform: transformation seeks to create alternative institutions and practices within the existing system rather than gradually changing the system or trying to overthrow it.

As I’ve quoted elsewhere, the aim of the original Rochdale Pioneers was not to open a shop but to start to create a better world within the existing one. They were, in other words, co-operating in order to bring about transformational social change.

As GDH Cole puts it in A Century of Co-operation:

“If, in 1844 or some time afterwards, a well-informed Englishman or Sctotsman has been asked to say what he understood by the word ‘Co-operation’ . . . the answer would certainly not have been mainly in terms of the benefits of mutual store-keeping.

“For Howarth and his fellow pioneers store-keeping was but a means – one among a number of means – of forwarding the Co-operative ideal; and that ideal was the foundation of Co-operative Communities, or ‘Villages of Co-operation,’ in which the members could live together on their own land, work together in their own factories and workshops, and escape from the ills of competitive industrialism in a world – a ‘New Moral World’ – of mutual help and social equality and brotherhood.”

Transformational co-operation is at the heart of those parts of the co-operative movement (and, in fact, the wider movements for the commons and economic democracy) that explicitly aim to bring democracy into the economy, that want to give people equal and collective control of resources, that see co-operation as a challenge to capitalism, and that subscribe to what is sometimes called ‘cooperativism’.

The task

In light of the above, there are three things that I think the co-operative movement could be doing.

1. Those within the existing co-op movement that advocate transformational co-operation could begin to distinguish it from everyday co-operation and encourage those within the movement to recognise that co-operation is not just a business strategy, but that co-ops can help play a transformative role.

2. It could identify and seek alliances with other movements and groups practicing transformational co-operation. The commons movements, the online peer-to-peer movement and activists aiming for more participatory economic democracy are very closely aligned.

3. It could campaign more widely for transformational co-operation. Rather, than simply limiting itself to advocating for co-operative business, the movement and its allies could begin to campaign on the basis that co-operation allows people, together, to control the things that affect them. It needs to show people that co-operating is not just a way to ensure our existing economy and society function well, but that it is a way to that people can take control of our lives.


* In fact, I think there’s more to everyday co-operation than this. Social expectations, culture, norms, discourses and so on arguably determine how we act as much as calculated self-interest. Rightly, I think, John Elster points out in his 1989 Social Norms and Economic Theory that we may “be guided by instrumental rationality” but our behaviour is equally “dictated by social norms” – “both norms and self-interest enter into the proximate explanations of action.”

The ‘unknown knowns’ of the co-operative movement


I’ve just finished reading Slavoj Zizek’s short book the concept of the ‘event’. It’s his usual whistle stop tour of philosophy, psychoanalysis and pop culture via a series of distasteful jokes.

Early on he refers to the idea of ‘unknown knowns.’ He is referencing the famous quote from the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used to justify the US-led invasion of Iraq:

There are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

‘Unknown knowns’ are a category Rumsfeld doesn’t refer to but Zizek sees as the essential one he missed: they are those things which we unconsciously follow (like habits or prejudices), the things which structure much of our lives without us even realising it. For Zizek, philosophy’s role is to unmask unknown knowns.

It takes major events, transformation and eruptions to bring unknown knowns to the surface. And if the co-op movement has experienced anything over the last few months its those.

So, what unknown knowns have the last few months brought to the surface for the co-op movement?  What are the big assumptions that the co-operative movement blindly follows?

My view is that we’ve been following a number of mistaken assumptions.

 Unknown known one: we think we’re better than other businesses

We seem to have been working under the assumption that co-ops are ‘better’ than other businesses. But we don’t seem to have been clear how co-ops are better.

We say co-ops build a better world and try to find empirical proof, but do we really understand what makes co-ops different, how they build a better world? What framework should we use to show the difference co-ops make? What makes co-operation different from charity, or CSR?

When co-ops were politicised organisations they provided workers with fairer conditions or practical alternatives to industrial capitalism. What are co-ops now? Businesses? Social movements? Capitalist? Anti-capitalist? A-capitalist? Anarchist? Socialist? Something else?

Unknown known two: we can play the capitalist game

We seem to have been assuming that co-ops can compete with conventional businesses in a market whilst also remaining true to the things that make them better.

Is this right? Can co-ops manage this balance? A number of flat pay worker co-ops indicate yes; the troubles at Mondragon or the Co-op Bank suggest not.

Unknown known three: we’ve lost our purpose

The big one, which perhaps incorporates all of these: ultimately, what we’ve known for some time but seem to have been unable to articulate, is that today’s co-operative movement lacks a clear sense of what it is for, and just as importantly what is against.

This is what the leading Cambridge economist  Ha-Joon Chang was telling us earlier this year:

“My interpretation is that the co-operative movement has lost faith in its own identity. If you don’t take pride in the fact you’re a co-op, you don’t tell other people and therefore people don’t know who you are or what you stand for. If you don’t have faith in yourself, why should other people take you seriously? I think that’s the trouble. There is an identity crisis.”

What would Zizek do if he identified a mistaken assumption? Make a bad joke probably.

What should we do? We need to make a plan, something that sets us on the path to answering these big questions about what co-ops are and aren’t.

We need a different narrative

The last year has revealed that the co-operative movement needs a different narrative.

Since the start of the financial crash in 2008 we have seen the gradual rise of a certain narrative about co-operatives. We might call this the ‘performance narrative’, which says, in short, that co-ops are successful businesses that can outperform their non-co-operative rivals.

Whilst this wasn’t necessarily a co-ordinated strategy across the movement, it has become the dominant narrative, with many of the loudest voices in the movement using it in their communications and, in fact, reflecting it in their commercial strategy.

The Co-operative Group’s attempt to grow through acquisition and merger is the most visible example but the problems at Rabobank and Mondragon, the regular claims in the UK, Europe and internationally about coops being more resilient than other business models and the large number of pieces of research commissioned to explain the productivity gains and competitive advantage of co-ops and employee ownership – all these point to the dominance of the performance narrative that tells us that ‘through good times and bad’ co-ops are a more resilient form of business than other models.

There was always, though (and, of course, still is) a different narrative being pursued by other coops that haven’t got such a loud voice.

This narrative, which we might call a ‘people narrative’ as opposed to a ‘performance narrative’ doesn’t
emphasise the conventional business and economic benefits of coops. It focuses on something fundamental and unique to co-ops – on the fact that they offer of an alternative to conventional businesses by putting businesses under the control of people, rather than vice versa. In this narrative, whether co-ops are better than other businesses in conventional terms is by the by. Their significance lies in giving people control.

It’s the subtle narrative we’ve seen from worker coops in particular, like Suma in the UK or New Era Windows in the States, where the stress is on creating decent work and giving people voice. It’s also something we see in the growing community shares movement. And it’s evident globally around the role of coops in international development.

If the coop movement – not just a small number of coops – is to genuinely offer an alternative in line with this people narrative some significant changes in the way many coops operate May be needed – we may need to think about the size and structure of coop businesses, as well as their democracy, governance and member control.

But what it needs first and most of all is for the coop movement to move away from the narrative of resilience, productivity and success. That’s not to say that co-ops aren’t all these things. But they are not what set co-ops apart.

What makes co-ops unique is that their structure gives people control.

So let’s focus on this. We need to establish a different narrative around co-ops being a genuine alternative which puts people in control of business and the economy.

Is the co-operative movement a social movement?

I’ve just returned from the International Co-operative Alliance’s Global Conference, spending a week with 1,000 supporters of co-operatives from around the world.

One of the most fascinating parts of the events was hearing large businesses explicitly aligning themselves with a movement for social change. It wasn’t unusual to hear people like the President of the largest healthcare insurer in France say, for example:  ‘We are kidding ourselves if we think we can be a social movement without a stable economic footing.’

Yet I left the conference feeling a little troubled. Not troubled by the people who were there, or what I heard and felt there. Everyone I met believed in a co-operation, in the possibility of a fairer world, and in co-operative business as a means to the bigger end of social change. It was incredible.

But troubled about the fact that there is a big difference between those attending this conference – and their passion for social change – and what you see day-to-day in the wider co-operative world.

And on reflection, I think that sense of trouble stems from the distinction that we in the co-operative world don’t draw clearly enough: between co-operative businesses and the co-operative movement.

Co-operative businesses are individual businesses, trading in the market and doing what they can to give their members, ownership, control and a share of the profits.

The co-operative movement is a collection of people who share similar ideals of what a better world would look like, and see co-operative businesses as a means to achieving this fairer, co-operative world. You might say they subscribe in form to the ideology of ‘co-operativism’.

Co-operative businesses have certain elements of that ideology written into their constitution – member control, democracy, sharing profits and so on. And some of them are incredible, inspiring examples of businesses committed to their members AND to something far, far bigger. But unless a co-operative business explicitly allies itself with others and this wider vision of a better world, it is simply an isolated businesses.

You can’t really call these isolated businesses part of a movement for a better world when they don’t advocate such a better world.

I don’t know how many co-operative do promote or subscribe to this vision of a co-operative society. But I’d guess there are a lot of co-operative businesses – perhaps even most – out there that don’t. And if this is true for the founders, directors and managers of these businesses, it’s likley to be even more true of the wider membership.

There are, I think, a few very important implications here.

First, it means the co-operative movement is probably not as big as we say. There may be 1 billion co-operative members worldwide, but how many subscribe to a vision of a co-operative society? If we’re honest, how many actually know there is such a movement, or that co-operatives provide an ideological alternative?

Second, and out of step with the now-dominant idea that co-operative businesses should be ‘mainstreamed’, we should see the co-operative movement as a political movement, Not party political, but a movement that aims to bring about a shift in the way the economy is organised. Individual co-operative businesses are important, but they are actually just the means to a much bigger and more important end.

Third, whilst advocating and campaigning externally is crucial, a campaign by the co-operative movement aimed at co-operative businesses and their members is just as urgent; perhaps more so. If we can persuade those co-operative businesses – and perhaps even their active members – that co-operation is not just a good way to run a business but is a good way to arrange society and the economy, then we will start to build a bigger and stronger co-operative movement.