How cooperatives are leading the way to empowered workers and healthy communities
Pushing my grocery cart down the aisle, I spot on the fruit counter a dozen plastic bags of bananas labeled “Organic, Equal Exchange.” My heart leaps a little. I’d been thrilled, months earlier, when I found my local grocer carrying bananas—a new product from Equal Exchange—because this employee-owned cooperativeme outside Boston is one of my favorite companies. Its main business remains the fair trade coffee and chocolate the company started with in 1986. Since then, the company has flourished, and its mission remains supporting small farmer co-ops in developing countries and giving power to employees through ownership. It’s as close to an ideal company as I’ve found. And I’m delighted to see their banana business thriving, since I know it was rocky for a time. (Hence the leaping of my heart.)
I happen to know a bit more than the average shopper about Equal Exchange, because I count myself lucky to be one of its few investors who are not worker-owners. Over more than 20 years, it has paid investors a steady and impressive average of 5 percent annually (these days, a coveted return).
Maneuvering my cart toward the dairy case, I search out butter made by Cabot Creamery, and pick up some Cabot cheddar cheese. I choose Cabot because, like Equal Exchange, it’s a cooperative, owned by dairy farmers since 1919.
At the checkout, I hand over my Visa card from Summit Credit Union, a depositor-owned bank in Madison, Wis., where I lived years ago. Credit unions are another type of cooperative, meaning that members like me are partial owners, so Summit doesn’t charge us the usurious penalty rate of 25 percent or more levied by other banks at the merest breath of a late payment. They’re loyal to me, and I’m loyal to them.
On my way home, I pull up to the drive-through at Beverly Cooperative Bank to make a withdrawal. This bank is yet another kind of cooperative—owned by customers and designed to serve them. Though it’s small—with only $700 million in assets, and just four branches (all of which I could reach on my bike)—its ATM card is recognized everywhere. I’ve used it even in Copenhagen and London.
With this series of transactions on one afternoon, I am weaving my way through a profoundly different and virtually invisible world: the cooperative economy. It’s an economy that aims to serve customers, rather than extract maximum profits from them. It operates through various models, which share the goal of treating suppliers, employees, and investors fairly. The cooperative economy has dwelled alongside the corporate economy for close to two centuries. But it may be an economy whose time has come.
Something is dying in our time. As the nation struggles to recover from unsustainable personal and national debt, stagnant wages, the damages wrought by climate change, and more, a whole way of life is drawing to a close. It began with railroads and steam engines at the dawn of the Industrial Age, and over two centuries has swelled into a corporation-dominated system marked today by vast wealth inequity and bloated carbon emissions. That economy is today proving fundamentally unsustainable. We’re hitting twin limits, ecological and financial. We’re experiencing both ecological and financial overshoot.
If ecological limits are something many of us understand, we’re just beginning to find language to talk about financial limits—that point of diminishing return where the hunt for financial gain actually depletes the tax-and-wage base that sustains us all.
Here’s the problem: The very aim of maximum financial extraction is built into the foundational social architecture of our capitalist economy—that is, the concept of ownership.
If the root of government is sovereignty (the question of who controls the state), the root construct of every economy is property (the question of who controls the infrastructure of wealth creation).
Many of the great social struggles in history have come down to the issue of who will control land, water, and the essentials of life. Ownership has been at the center of the most profound changes in civilization—from ending slavery to patenting the genome of life.
Throughout the Industrial Age, the global economy has increasingly come to be dominated by a single form of ownership: the publicly traded corporation, where shares are bought and sold in stock markets. The systemic crises we face today are deeply entwined with this design, which forms the foundation of what we might call the extractive economy, intent on maximum physical and financial extraction.
The concept of extractive ownership traces its lineage to Anglo-Saxon legal tradition. The 18th century British legal theorist William Blackstone described ownership as the right to “sole and despotic dominion.” This view—the right to control one’s world in order to extract maximum benefit for oneself—is a core legitimating concept for a civilization in which white, property-owning males have claimed dominion over women, other races, laborers, and the earth itself.
In the 20th century, we were schooled to believe there were essentially two economic systems: capitalism (private ownership) and socialism/communism (public ownership). Yet both tended, in practice, to support the concentration of economic power in the hands of the few. More