The International Year of Cooperatives: The Change We Have Been Waiting For

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It would seem that when a systemic crisis arises, the problem is identified as either the market (the Banks!) or the state (entitlement programs!). Yet, in a perversely twisted line of logic, the corrective solution for such crises is either market or state-oriented. The reality is that the market is broken, and the state doesn’t represent us.

So what are we to do?

We must break this narrow dichotomy, that public policy is relegated only to the state or the market; society is so much more. It’s also civil society, where we live the vast majority of our day-to-day lives. However, our civil society’s institutions are broken. Well-meaning social movements have put all of their energies into the broken state-political process. When civil society becomes too dependent upon for-profit enterprise or self-serving politicians, we reap what we sow, namely a system of chronic patronage politics, employment dependency and self-serving agendas. We need an alternative.

Luckily, we have a remarkable corrective just under our noses: the cooperative model.

Now more than ever, we need to look toward cooperatives as a viable model of institutionalized social change. Cooperatives exemplify the best in self-help community development, as well as the building of solidarity across diverse communities. The cooperative principles, as outlined by the International Cooperative Alliance, promote autonomy, networked solidarity, and a complete system comprised of cooperative firms.

Across the United States, the potential for true empowerment is immense.

Credit unions in North Carolina joined together to ban payday lending, forging an empowering solution. In 2001, the North Carolina State Employees’ Credit Union offered members monthly $500 loans at a modest 12 percent interest rate. Additionally, the credit union deducts 5 percent of the loan toward a “rainy day fund” for the borrower.

A system of perpetual debt was turned into a system of wealth creation through mutual aid and non-corporate solutions.

Nationally, electric cooperatives power the rural countryside. Investor-owned utilities refused to develop rural America due to low profit margins, so rural residents, farmers and laborers bootstrapped what are now 900+ electric co-ops, owning 40% of the electric grid. These groups have turned to growing telecom as well as agricultural co-ops to enhance the material needs of folks in forgotten areas.

But we also see examples of this locally in Urbana-Champaign. Instead of accepting the mainstream notion that small, art house movie theatres are destined to be eaten up by corporate conglomerates, local community leaders have banded together to convert the Art Theater in downtown Champaign into a cooperative owned by those who use it. Such initiatives are critical to guarantee that diverse artists and their mediums have accessible outlets.

Common Ground Food Cooperative (of which I serve proudly as a board member) has experienced rapid growth, jump-starting the local food movement. The almost 40% per-year growth has necessitated a member-funded expansion through owner-loans that could not have happened if left to the banksters.

Know that with cooperatives, you govern it. If you have a problem with how your cooperative operates, or want to be a part of making your co-op think bigger, it’s your right! Ask the general manager, your board member, anyone. Encourage them to grow more cooperatives, to teach the next generation.

I believe we need to divorce ourselves from the notion that well-connected politicians or Ivy League-educated “job-creators” have power over us. Let’s show them that we don’t need them. We have us. Go co-op for lasting social change.

About Keith Taylor

Keith Taylor is a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois in the Department of Human and Community Development. Keith’s research emphasis is on the utilization of the cooperative institutional model for community development. Keith also serves as a director on the board for the Common Ground Food Cooperative.
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