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Henry Tam

Open Coop Development Agency

A proposal by Henry Tam

“Economic systems and practices that exploit workers, users, communities and the environment to the detriment of our common good have long ceased to command respect. The only reason they nonetheless persist is that most people do not see other, more viable, options as to how they can satisfactorily live and work. But in reality, there are plenty of alternatives.”

Unlike their traditional for-profit counterparts, Open Cooperatives are oriented towards the common good in their statutes. They draw their membership from several classes of stakeholders to co-produce both material and immaterial commons. Another distinguishing quality is that they seek to address the issue of global social and political power. Nascent examples are the Catalan Integral Coop, the FLOK project in Ecuador, the Chantier movement in Quebec, the social co-operative movement in Italy, the Seikatsu movement in Japan and the growing Community Land Trust movements.

What is missing is an Open Coop equivalent of the CERN Accelerator, something to initiate changes with ever greater momentum that will eventually escalate the energy to an entirely new level. We propose to make the social economy hyper-productive, hyper-competitive, hyper-cooperative. This is the mission of the Open Coop Development Agency – a stand-alone or a federated network with existing pro-Open Coop groups and institutions as supporters. The development of such a project would allow the Open Coop Model to federate, scale and establish itself as a major global player for the extension of the Social Economy.

Economic systems and practices that exploit workers, users, communities and the environment to the detriment of our common good have long ceased to command respect. The only reason they nonetheless persist is that most people do not see other, more viable, options as to how they can satisfactorily live and work. But in reality, there are plenty of alternatives.

Alongside the spread of economic democracy, and the renewal of cooperative enterprise as an economic and social model, there is gathering momentum in the building of new forms of Social and Solidarity Economy; the displacement of a myopic conception of ‘growth’ by a vision and strategy for sustainability; the emergence of more inclusive, commons-orientated politics in Greece, Italy and Spain; and grassroots transformation movements encompassing community land trusts, Transition Towns, and ‘Shareable Cities’.

Furthermore, all these alternative approaches share core values and beliefs that place mutuality, power equality, and common stewardship at the heart of productive human relationships. Together they are constructing the route to a different and better future for all.

However, all of us who are involved in advancing these approaches also recognise that there is the issue of scale that we must address. Advocacy for many of these ideas and their adoption in diverse localities have been going on for decades. The championing of commons and cooperative models has indeed been taking place since at least the 19th century. Although they flourish in a variety of locations, they remain a small minority when people look for opportunities to find work, make a fair return on what they have to offer, obtain financial support, or acquire goods and services they seek. Conventional businesses that manage transactions between the many to generate profits for the few remain the dominant model of operation almost everywhere we go.

Advocates for alternative socio-economic models that embrace open and inclusive cooperation are increasingly engaged in collaborative efforts to promote what they have to offer. But to reach the tipping point where their favoured practices become the majority across society, it is necessary that in parallel with such advocacy and knowledge-sharing, a robust organisational structure is put in place to raise the resources needed to support the development of these practices on a much more extensive scale.

We, therefore, call upon advocates, organisations, funders, foundations who share the vision of building open, sustainable, cooperative commons in every sphere of human interaction, to join forces in establishing an Open Cooperativist Development Agency with a Board tasked with delivering the following eight functions:

  1. Promote knowledge-sharing, highlight common ideals, and provide learning on why and how open cooperatives should be set up and developed.
  2. Provide coop business angels to give advice on start-up, consolidation, and/or collaboration with others with shared interests or geographical focus (on a voluntary basis; funded by a central body supported by members’ contributions; or a fee on terms agreed with the advice-receiver).
  3. Raise money from supportive funders and provide low cost loans/investment to pro-open cooperative organisations.
  4. Arrange cooperatisation of non open coop businesses (arranging for discussions/voting sessions, lending money to workers to take over the business).
  5. Work with unions, community groups, democratic campaigners, and political parties to develop pro-open cooperativist policies and secure wide support for their introduction.
  6. Negotiate with local and national govt to set up community owned trusts, and other appropriate policy actions.
  7. Adjudicate/mediate between multi-stakeholders.
  8. Safeguard open coops from sell-outs or unprincipled takeovers.

Ideas are important in changing how people think about how organizations can be made to serve our needs more effectively. Yet we cannot live by ideas alone. Practical outreach, sustained technology transfer, political alliance building, intervention to repel corporate encroachment, and access to substantial funding are indispensable. Relying solely on diverse groups making ad hoc small-scale contributions to run a variety of projects will only take societal transformation so far. With a well funded development agency guided by multi-stakeholder accountability, we would be much closer to a step-change in substituting plutocratic exploitation by authentic cooperation.

The architecture and ethos of such an agency will be shaped by those who see its potential and are willing to take the lead in bringing it into operation. It will not accomplish all that we wish for, but will undoubtedly play a key role in establishing open cooperativist modes of working as the new socio-economic norm.

More Information

An introduction to Open Cooperativism, by Michel Bauwens

Toward an Open Co-Operativism by Pat Conaty and David Bollier


Lead image by Cliff Muller

1 Comment

  1. Orsan Senalp

    If the designers of such an organ would like to foresee it as an autonomous entity -in form and function, from state and corporate prower strcutures, in contrast to similar bodies that are part of the UN or OECD system, like good governance and development agencies, this requires smart built-in mechanisms. One idea can be having majority of such body, like 90%, if not 100%, fromed by directly participants of such coops and communities. Configuration of the body, to be mandated, representing veriety of shared visions, cultures, or ideologies: like communalist commjunites, co-operativists, communalists, libertarians, workerists, autonomists, peer producers, hackers, spiritualists so on. Another idea can forming such body itslef reflecting shared vlaues by such communites, task sharing, agenda setting, functions, and representation needs to be formed by grassroot innovators and cooperative communities? What went wring historically is that it turns out such tasks take over by expert-executive bodies, where grassroot practicioners who do not have enough time can not take part in organs representing them -by generic thinkers. In case practicioner themsleves take main responsibility, there should be working structure not allowing he/she to siezes thier practice and becomes professional expert making living out of mandated tasks. Such an old way of operating creates what is called the ‘agengy problem’. What needs to be avoided is simply that institutional position giving a structural advantage to the mandated repsresentatives to build independent organical ties with exisiting corrput and corrupting state/corporate power strcutures and the elite. Since these turns nice ideas into exploitation for self interest. Those taking part in such bodeis, usually longer, in time turn into professional gate-keepers, neutralised defenders of what is called the ideological appratus of the state. However this is not so hard to hack, if there is a open and strong will and communication in and between communities involved. If you like I would be more than happy to help to desing a build-in mechanism to aviod such.

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