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.

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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.

Why?

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:

Slide1

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.

Networks

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:

Slide2

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.

Conclusions

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.

Exercise

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

Slide3

Cooperation and peasants

Interesting to see the significant role that cooperation and collective management have played in the livelihood of peasants through history – probably the livelihood for the majority of people in the world for the last eight centuries.

“By and large the characteristic of traditional peasants is a much higher degree of formal and informal (mostly localised) collectivity . . . perhaps the need for co-operation in the process of labour or the management of resources for common use . . . it is difficult to conceive of a ‘traditional’ peasantry, outside certain very special situations, without this collective element.”

Eric Hobsbawm, Uncommon People: Resistance, Rebellion and Jazz: pp198-9

Do we need a ‘new economy’ movement?

The short version of this post is a question: with so many different movements – co-op, transition, the sharing economy, the commons, etc – aiming for something similar, should we drop our particular concerns and unite as a broad-based movement for a new economy?

Here’s the longer version.

I recently saw a conference in the US for ‘A national gathering for the new economy movement.’

It clarified something in my mind that I’ve been thinking for a while.

In the UK (and in the US too, no doubt) there are lots of separate ‘movements’. All of them seem to be aiming for something similar. Yet they are all operating independently; sometimes even competing with one another.

  • The co-operative movement is one of the largest and most established. It is a broad church, with large businesses, sometimes very democratic, sometimes not easily distinguished from the shareholder model, and radical worker and housing co-ops agitating for change. There is, though, a core set of ideas, held by many in this sector, around creating a more democratic, equitable economy.
  • There is a relatively new movement around the sharing economy and collaborative consumption. Based around developments in technology, it makes use of digital tools to give people control of their lives and free themselves from corporations and bureaucratic institutions. As Evgeny Morozov has argued, there is a strong individualistic – perhaps even neo-liberal – strand to this; but there is also a move towards ‘we’ not ‘me’ and sharing not owning.
  • A more egalitarian version of this movement can be found in the movement for the commons. This is a broad collection of people arguing that certain assets and goods are best kept out of public or private ownership – indeed out of the money economy – and instead should be managed by the people themselves: community buildings, Wikipedia, land, software and so on. It’s informed by the ideas of Elinor Ostrom on managing the commons, but is a practical movement.
  • The transition movement builds on this, but with a distinct environmental edge. It proposes local communities take matters into their own hands and create resilient economies and communities as a way to address impending changes caused climate change and other pressing ecological shifts. Though occasionally associated with certain a smug middle classness in the UK, it is a growing and increasingly global movement.
  • Social enterprise also feels like an increasingly important and relatively distinct movement that wants to use business for social purpose. Until recently it appears to have developed independently of co-operatives – despite the overlaps and similarities – whilst co-operatives have taken a similarly anti-social enterprise stance. The emergence of the Social Economy Alliance, discussed later, is a welcome change to this.
  • And finally there’s the Occupy movement – what felt in 2011 like the start of a new non-hierarchical movement for social and economic change, and lives on in ideas of worker ownership, mutual aid and a growing politicisation amongst students and young people. Whilst there may not be one unifying vision for this movement, as David Graeber’s 2013 book, The Democracy Project: a History, a Crisis, a Movement, argues the value of Occupy was its focus on a radical democratic process and a demand for meaningful democratic control over the world of work.

None of these different movements are monolithic. They often have different strands within them. As Joshua Brustein says of the sharing economy movement in Business Week, for example, “the so-called sharing economy, depending on who you talk to, is either a lightweight form of socialism or an artisanal flavor of capitalism spawned by the Internet.”

But I think you can identify a common vision nestled in many (though not all) of the ideas that inspire movements for co-operatives, the commons, transition, Occupy and social enterprise.

GDH Cole, 50 years ago, puts it like this when talking about the British founders of the co-operative movement in the nineteenth century:

“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.”

And, 150 years later, you get a sense of this in the ideals of the transition movement. As the Transition Network explains on its website: “Transition is a quiet revolution unfolding around the world. People like you and I are seeing crisis as the opportunity for doing something different, something extraordinary. It’s an idea about the future, an optimistic, practical idea. Transition is one manifestation of the idea that local action can change the world; one attempt to create a supportive, nurturing, healthy context in which the practical solutions the world needs can flourish.”

There is, I think, a common vision here: of a new economy where people take things into their own hands, creating an economy run for the people by the people.

It might not apply to every organisation, every activist or every writer in every movement. But I’d argue that it cuts across a significant chunk of each movement and provides a relatively common vision for them.

If this is the case, then I think we can see a few important tasks ahead.

First, articulate the vision. We need to find a way of articulating a meaningful and compelling vision of an alternative economy that all these different movements could sign up to.

Second, make the connections.
Whilst there are some connections between the various movements they tend to be small scale, practical alliances built on specific crossovers.

The best example is  the Social Economy Alliance – an excellent example of primarily social enterprise, but also co-op, bodies coming together to campaign in the run up to the 2015 general election.

This campaign is specifically around raising awareness of business for social purpose; but it has the seeds of a broader alliance if it can include other movements and articulate a vision of a better world.

So the task here is to build on this, to connect at a strategic level around a shared vision through which we can downplay the differences between the movements, identify the similarities and work together as a broad based movement for social change.

Third, find a name. A good, relevant, meaningful name is important for unifying people behind a common cause.

In the US the term ‘new economy’ is catching on to capture this movement. In the UK we already have the pioneering New Economics Foundation, and the ‘new economy’ seems to be a way to incorporate the aspirations and innovations of the various movements.

So, perhaps we need to connect the leaders and activists of the diverse movements, create a shared vision, and kick start a movement for a new economy.