Steve Herrick

An indiano blog

Grupo de Cooperativas de las Indias

How are cooperatives and the commons alike?

Worker cooperativism has to recover the old mutual objectives to be an alternative to the poisonous game of over-scaled capitalism.

This is the second installment of my four five-part interview with David, in which I ask: How are cooperatives and the commons alike and how are they different?

The transition between the commons and cooperativism, which, as we’ve seen, starts in the seventeenth century, wasn’t homogeneous.

Some, like the forest commons, irrigation systems, or grazing lands, are, in many cases simply resources that each communard exploits, in the times and ways that the communal system lets them. They work alone, and the result of this work is theirs and theirs alone. Those commons, which look a lot like the “platform cooperatives” that now are becoming fashionable in the English-speaking world, barely evolved, and in many cases, were absorbed by local State institutions (confederations of irrigators, town halls, etc.)

But there were commons that were linked to collective work, like the fishing brotherhoods. We’re talking about groups of families that share boats and gear, markets where the fish are sold to the public, and almost always mutual systems that covered, at a minimum, widowhood and orphanhood. The gains from the sale of the fish were distributed between compensation for work and these systems of basic social cohesion.

Their similarity to worker co-ops is complete. In fact, since the last decades of the twentieth century, we can say that we’ve gone backwards, to the extent that the objective of creating large parallel mutual systems—which was a declared objective of worker cooperativism until the Second World War—has blurred. It is now associated with a cooperative model—the one promoted by the Catholic Church after the WWII in Belgium, northern Italy, or Mondragon—that was born ideologically defenseless against the illnesses of over-scaled capitalist industry, like financialization or failing to consider workers in the developing world to be equal in rights when the time came to “globalize.”

This Catholic model of worker cooperativism, idealized in the Anglo-Saxon world, is in a crisis today that is not only economic, but fundamentally moral. But, fortunately, it is not the only one, or even the most numerous.

Worker cooperativism has to recover the old mutual objectives to be an alternative to the poisonous game of over-scaled capitalism that can only understand competition in a globalized economy as a succession of “social dumpings.” That only will be possible if it recovers its roots in the commons at the same time that it adopts the ways and ethic of the new knowledge commons.

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