Open Cooperativism

“Yes coops are more democratic than their capitalist counterparts based on wage-dependency and internal hierarchy. But cooperatives that work in the capitalist marketplace tend to gradually take over competitive mentalities, and even if they would not, they work for their own members, not the common good…”

The cooperative movement and cooperative enterprises are in the midst of a revival, even as some of their long-standing entities are failing. This revival is part of an ebb and flow of cooperativism, that is strongly linked to the ebb and flow of the mainstream capitalist economy. After systemic crisis such as the one in 2008, many people look at alternatives.

Yet, we can’t simply look at the older models and revive them, we have to take into account the new possibilities and requirements of our epoch, and especially of the affordances that digital networks are bringing to us.

Here are a few ideas from the ‘peer to peer’ perspective, as we develop them in the context of the Peer to Peer Foundation.

First, let’s start with a critique of the older cooperative models:

Yes coops are more democratic than their capitalist counterparts based on wage-dependency and internal hierarchy. But cooperatives that work in the capitalist marketplace tend to gradually take over competitive mentalities, and even if they would not, they work for their own members, not the common good.

Second, coops are generally not creating, protecting or producing commons. Like their for-profit counterparts, they most often work with patents and copyrights, doing their part in the enclosures of the commons.

Third, coops may tend to self-enclose around their local or national membership. Doing this, they leave the global arena open to the domination by for-profit multinationals.

These characteristics have to be changed, and can be changed today.

Here are our proposals

1. Unlike for-profits, the new cooperatives must work for the common good, a requirement that must be included in their own statutes and governance documents. This means that coops can’t be for-profit, they have to work for social goods, and this must be inscribed in their statutes. Solidarity cooperatives, already active in social care in regions like Northern Italy and Quebec, are a important step in the right direction. In the current capitalist market model, social and environmental externalities are ignored, and left to the external state to regulate. In the new cooperative market model, externalities are statutorily integrated and a legal obligation.

2. Unlike co-ops that draw their membership from a single class of stakeholders, cooperatives must include all stakeholders in their management. Coops need to be multi-stakeholder governed. This means that the concept of membership must be extended to these other types of memberships, or that alternatives to the membership model must be sought, such as the newly proposed FairShares model.

3. The crucial innovation for our times is this though: Cooperatives must (co-)produce commons, and these commons must be of two types.

a. The first type is immaterial commons, i.e. using open and shareable licenses to that the global human community can build on cooperative innovations and in turn enrich them. At the P2P Foundation, we have introduced the concept of Commons-Based Reciprocity Licenses. These licenses are designed to create coalitions of ethical and cooperative enterprise around the commons they are co-producing. The key rules of such licenses are: 1) the commons are open to non-commercial usage 2) the commons are open to common good institutions 3) the commons are open to for-profit enterprises who contribute to the commons. The exception introduced here is that for-profit companies that do not contribute to the commons have to pay for the use of the license. This is not primarily to generate income, but to introduce the notion of reciprocity in the market economy. In other words, the aim is to create an ethical economy, a non-capitalist market dynamic.

b. The second type is the creation of material commons. We are thinking here of the creation of commons funding for the manufacturing equipment for example. Following proposals by Dmytri Kleiner, cooperatives could float Bonds, to which all cooperative members (of all other coops in the system) could contribute, creating a commons fund for manufacturing. The coop seeking funds would obtain the machinery without conditions, but the owners would be all the cooperators, which would gradually build up a basic income from the income generated by the fund.

4. Finally we must address the issue of global social and political power. Following the lead of the transnational Sociedad Cooperativa de las Indias Electrónicas, we propose the creation of global phyles. A phyle is a global business-ecosystem that sustains commons and their community of contributors. Here is how this would work. Imagine the existence of a global open design community for the design of open agricultural machines (or any other product or service you can imagine). These machines are effectively manufactured and produced in a system of open and distributed microfactories, close to the place of need. But, all these micro-coops would not exist in a isolated fashion, merely connected through the global and ‘immaterially-focused’ global open design community. Instead, they would also be interconnected through a global cooperative uniting the microfactories. The combination of such global phyles would be the seed for a new form of global and social political power, representing the global ethical economy. Ethical entrepreneurial coalitions and phyles can engage in post-market coordination of physical production, by moving towards open accounting and open supply chain practices.

In summary, though traditional cooperatives have played an important and progressive role in human history, their format needs to be updated to the networked era by introducing p2p and commons producing aspects.

Our recommendations for the new era of open cooperativism are:

1. That coops need to be statutorily (internally) oriented towards the common good

2. That coops need to have governance models including all stakeholders

3. That coops need to actively co-produce the creation of immaterial and material commons

4. That coops need to be organized socially and politically on a global basis, even as they produce locally.

Further reading:

TOWARD AN OPEN CO-OPERATIVISM: A New Social Economy Based on Open Platforms, Co-operative Models and the Commons

by Pat Conaty and David Bollier

Together“The power of open source principles, now proven beyond a doubt, is rapidly proliferating into many other areas of culture, production and social life.  The prospect of more participatory, socially convivial forms of production – accountable to communities and mindful of the larger common good – has never seemed more achievable.  Still, there are important organizational, legal and financial hurdles to overcome – not to mention cultural and political differences – that must be dealt with if co-operatives are to find common ground with digital commoners and peer producers.  Fortunately, there are emerging models such as multi-stakeholder cooperatives that could be vehicles for such cooperation.”

Read the full report here

Other Resources:

Title background image by Helen Briggs