Co-ops change lives by what they do
Co-ops are often handicapped by the fact that many claiming to support co-ops insist that they form part of their utopian vision or are merely tools to be used for social engineering in pursuit of a partisan political dogma. Authentic co-ops should be helping ordinary people cope with the new reality because they use an economic system that includes the mutual ownership of resources and they are driven by resource optimisation, which is the alternative to the profit maximization that drives commercial businesses. Change will not be triggered by preaching a utopian vision, it will only come when people resolve to take practical action together with others.
Co-ops do have the power to radically change their members’ lives, but they only do this when they are genuine co-ops, and when they act honestly and fairly on behalf of their members. They should build the capacity and resilience of their members and help them to make better decisions about their lives. Whereas most commercial businesses maximise profits when they exploit the weaknesses of their customers, employees, and suppliers.
The concept of the “Social and solidarity economy”
There is no universally agreed definition of the term Social and solidarity economy. The nearest is a provisional one offered by the International Labour Organization (ILO) this is: A concept designating enterprises and organizations, in particular, cooperatives, mutual benefit societies, associations, foundations and social enterprises, which have the specific feature of producing goods, services and knowledge while pursuing both economic and social aims and fostering solidarity. There are also several alternative definitions; most are far more esoteric than the ILO version.
The idea of lumping together self-help enterprises with social enterprises may be a useful way of expanding the market for those with courses, research and consultancy to sell, but it’s not a sensible way of providing services to support genuine self-help enterprises. Not least because it suggests that there is a single body of knowledge encompassing the needs of genuine co-ops along with charities and cause-driven enterprises. Mixing enterprises that so often create dependency with genuine self-help enterprises does nothing to build a consensus around the importance of promoting the self-help mindset.
Social enterprises are not always democratically controlled, many being run by self-appointed trustees or patrons. They are often rooted in concepts that directly contradict the self-help mindset. Many are in fact profit-generating enterprises, where some or all their profits are used to support their cause. Some social enterprises are nothing more than front organizations for major corporate business; also, some significant charities have become marketing-tools used by big businesses. The concept can also provide a cloak of respectability for mutant co-ops and for so-called ‘social entrepreneurs’ who may generate a few jobs but in the main provide themselves with a livelihood.
Movements for social change
Many people actively engaged in co-ops believe that our overall economic system must change if it is to respond to the threats presented by climate change, the worldwide challenge to democratic systems of government and to more fairly distribute resources between the haves and the have not’s. Change will only be brought about by an independent movement for social change, it cannot be a function tacked-on to co-ops or be funded from surpluses that rightfully belong to all their members.