I think about economics a lot lately thanks to the Platform Cooperativism conference at the New School in New York. This is my second blog post about the cooperative topics discussed that ultimately address for me the all-important topic of wealth distribution. Prosperity can spread by borrowing the best qualities of today’s businesses and then structuring them democratically. Some innovative cooperative platforms already exist; capitalism can be modified as we can potentially teach corporations new and valuable forms of transaction; and government can help, too.
The Democracy at Work Institute, a sister organization of US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC), released a report this year called US Worker Cooperatives: State of the Sector that gives an overview of US worker-owned co-ops. The report observes that much has been said about worker co-ops internationally, but that US worker co-ops as a whole have lacked analysis. The report tallies 256 worker co-ops in the US. A small number, likely an underestimate due to lack of data, but the report concludes US worker co-ops — known for delivering social, democratic, and community benefits — deliver impressive profits and growth.
Richard Wolff, the author of Capitalism at Work: A Cure for Capitalism, is a popular economist right now. He recently presented in a video, linked here, posted on the Democracy at Work website where he emphasizes that people are looking for an alternative to capitalism. Then he presents a solution: democratically run work places.
The video is 2 hours and 19 minutes long. At the 1 hour, 35 minute mark, he discusses co-ops and shared profits. One interesting approach he mentions is giving consumers an option to buy co-op produced consumer goods with explicit labeling.
Political backing is an important asset for a successful co-operative movement, and Wolff points to Italy where the government will give unemployed people the option of opening a co-op with a cash incentive. Instead of unemployment payments, a lump sum is given to those that are willing to gather a group of people and start a co-op.
The distribution of capital is an approach endorsed by Wolff. But, as I mentioned in my last post, this is the thinking of other economic thinkers, too.
Wolff sounds like Gar Alperovitz (Books: What Then Must We Do? and America Beyond Capitalism) who stresses the impending necessity for systemic change to capitalism. Dating back to September 2012, the video linked here, is one of many where Alperovitz points out the requirements for an alternative. He says: “It begins with the question: who owns the capital?” Worker ownership and the experiments are important. He starts talking about this at about 17:42.
But what is important to remember, as Alperovitz points out in a recent Real News interview in January, is that co-ops are practical idealistically. That is, they are politically practical. This quote is from the January 27th interview, linked here:
“[The] Interesting other thing about [co-ops] which is very important, particularly for liberals and the left to think about: if you’re doing this kind of work and it’s practical and it really is serious, not rhetoric and slogans, you find people who think of themselves as moderates and conservatives — small business people — who say: that’s a good thing to do at the local level. These [co-op worker/owners] are not the national ideologues. And you find…people working hard, they’re trying to better the neighborhood, trying to better themselves, they’re doing productive work. That’s a good idea. And we’re surprised at how you break through ideologies if it’s practical.”