Like the commons, co-ops are organized around consistent and well-defined principles, and decision-making power is in the hands of the people affected by those decisions. Unlike the commons, however, co-ops are market actors.
Last week, I talked about how co-ops are largely a modern take on the commons, even though we’ve forgotten about that in the English-speaking world. As we reacquaint ourselves with this idea, one of the important ways we cooperators can re-engage with our commons heritage is to participate in the knowledge commons, which distributes useful information in ways that empower anyone with enough initiative to make use of it.
But what use does the commons movement have for co-ops? Commons are for managing resources democratically. This is conspicuously different from the intense competition and ruthless acquisitiveness of the market.
However, most commons throughout history have been the source of the commoners’ livelihood. That’s why the resource needed to be commonly managed in the first place, to make sure its consumption was sustainable and equitable. So, while the commons itself exists outside the market, there’s no inconsistency in taking the resulting product to market. If a shepherd grazed his sheep in the common pasture, no one told him he couldn’t sell his wool for a fair price. If a programmer licenses her code with the GPL, no one will tell her she can’t charge a fee to train people on it or write plug-ins for it.
To the surprise of no one, the entity that best bridges the divide between the market and commons is the cooperative. Like the commons, co-ops are organized around consistent and well-defined principles, and decision-making power is in the hands of the people affected by those decisions. Unlike the commons, however, co-ops are market actors. Being democratically operated means that co-ops can pick and choose which market forces they will respond to, in contrast to the dominant corporate model, with its planned obsolescence, labor exploitation, and rent-seeking.
It’s not that a commons has to surround itself with co-ops. Common resources can be managed in a variety of ways, and some models may well avoid the market entirely. But, to the extent that the common resources can be used to create jobs, the business model most consistent with the commons is co-ops, and worker co-ops in particular.
Two follow-up points I should have been emphasizing all along.
First, any conversation about the commons will be full of historical references, mostly to medieval England, which is the best-documented example in English (for obvious reasons), but which is also cited by writers from other countries, even when they have their own commons traditions. This could give the impression that the modern commons movement is wistful and nostalgic, pining away for some misty, picturesque past. Such is not the case. Copious historical references notwithstanding, the modern commons movement is not trying to go “back” to anything. It is trying to reinstitute a widespread understanding of a living tradition that goes as back far back as records exist, and apply it to the digital era.
Second, both commons and co-ops are much more stable and prosperous when they are surrounded by other co-ops and commons. One co-op in isolation might struggle on for years, but it will never be as successful as if it had other co-ops in its supply chain. Mondragon is a conspicuous example of that, as are the co-ops of Emilia-Romagna, and to a more limited extent, the recovered businesses of Argentina (and other countries). This is another reason co-ops and commons are important to each other.