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The “Cooperative Theory Dialogue” Continues
Jaques Kaswan Replies:

With hardly any urging from us, Jaques Kaswan agreed to comment on the Forum responses to his initial call (in GEO #38) for more and better developed cooperative theory. His comments, we think, can help sharpen the issue of what sort of theory cooperators need to develop. In addition, they can serve as a renewed invitation to others to join in this important cooperative dialogue: send us your thoughts on the need for, and best form of, cooperative theory by January 17, 2000, and we’ll include them in our first new millenium issue.

On the “Experimental” Approach to Theory

We in the cooperative movement do need, as emphasized in all three responses, to learn from one another, and to learn by “walking,” that is, from ongoing cooperative practice. On occasion, this may be assisted by the sort of actively experimental perspective advocated by Bill and Len, one that intervenes to invent novel initiatives, and moves into terrain that hasn’t yet been explored, much less researched. But, like the founders of Mondragon, we need to be mainly aware of our own history, and of the lessons which that history—150 years of it—provides. Otherwise, we may simply re-invent what’s already been tried and found wanting, or neglect what has proved stable as well as highly democratic. For example, there may well be lessons we can learn from recent careful research on India’s Kerala Dinesh Beedie cooperative, or on the labor-supported cooperatives in Canada, as to how unions can be active and enthusiastic partners in cooperative development. Moreover, there is a danger that, left unrestricted, our experiments will take us far afield and diminish our focus on developing a sound framework for cooperative enterprises. Len and Bill, for example, both appeal to DSNI, and to be sure, we may learn something of importance by studying or helping to replicate this excellent example of local community empowerment. But we will not learn from DSNI how cooperative business enterprises can become financially secure nor how they can enhance their degree of democratic organization. DSNI, and many other community-based or environmental groups are, of course, wonderful allies, but they are not on my view a useful place on which to focus our theoretical energies. To base “experiments” on them would, I think, distract us from building our own road, our own theoretical frameworks, our own conceptions of what democracy means and should mean (and how to enhance it) in the cooperative workplace.

Cooperative Theory vs. Mainstream Market Economics

Is “cooperative theory,” to any extent, comparable or similar to mainstream market economics? As we all agree, numerous contrasts need to be kept in mind here; e.g., cooperativists work with explicitly value-laden concepts such as social justice, democratic integrity, accountability of capital to labor, etc. But there are also some important similarities. In both cases, one aim of theory is to guide practice or “rationalize” policies, though to be sure this can only be done imperfectly and cautiously. Market economists can make short term predictions about prices; they have a framework that helps identify factors that influence prices and which can to some degree keep them under control. Their market-based theories guide the FED in adjusting interest rates, so as to reduce the risk of inflation. We in the cooperative community, however, have not yet developed any workable analogue to this, no framework for grounding or rationalizing shorter term predictions. If we want to see policies promoting democratic worker ownership and management become part of any broad agenda, we need to be able to spell out (again, cautiously and imperfectly) how a cooperative sector would determine and control prices, assure workers of liveable wages, keep inflation from undermining cooperative firms, etc. If (with Betsy and Bob) we propose a worldwide cooperative bank or labor-based fund, what do we now know about keeping such an institution accountable, about procedures for detecting and minimizing internal corruption, waste, bureacratization? Don’t we first need to develop some sort of theoretical framework—one itself open to correction and change—that can shed light on the sort of ”global Caja” that has a decent chance of avoiding the risks of insolvency, of irresponsible policies, of oligarchical control?

On Deconstructing the Market Economy

As for Bob and Betsy’s idea to eliminate commodity production in favor of a non-market economy based on mutual aid: though this is a conceivable goal, the current market economy is far too powerful to be simply wished away. It makes more sense, to me, to discover how co-ops can best operate within a market economy, while at the same time increasing their capacity to offer genuine and increasingly democratic workplace alternatives. In addition, focusing on the vision of a wholly de-commodified and non-market economy will, I think, deflect us from a most crucial, and badly neglected, theoretical task: spelling out in rich detail, and on many levels, what democratic organization involves in the workplace. Our own “models,” Mondragon, Emilia Romagna and the rest, have themselves not gone nearly as far as they can in this regard. They have rarely examined the meaning of democracy (a) within the firm as a whole (are once-a-year, one-person-one-vote general meetings enough here?), (b) with respect to management level decisions (how do workers influence these without displacing manager expertise?), and (c) on the shop floor (see my discussion, in issue #38, of the lack of democratic participation in co-ops). Nor have they identified (d) how individual firms can have a real voice in shaping large-scale cooperative networks or national associations. A central task for cooperative theory, as I see it, is to address all of these gaps—in this way strengthening cooperatives within the current economy. To do this, we need to develop a framework, or possibly a number of frameworks, that clarify what democracy can mean in these distinct arenas while indicating how progress might be made towards realizing it. And this in turn requires, as I suggested above, a focused examination of our own cooperative history, drawing out its negative and its positive lessons. Taking this direction, we probably won’t completely dismantle the market economy, but we may help to create a more viable, a more widely attractive, and a more democratic alternative to the corporate form of it which now prevails. Include the citation below and GEO Newsletter grants permission to copy, use, and distribute this article.
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