Sunday, 29 December 2013

Common ownership

I am amazed by the cooperative principles. They are a practical guide to 'what works now', based on the learning of cooperative activists. Yet they sometimes appear as commandments written in stone. Each principle has a lowest common denominator - democracy, education, sustainability. At another level, understood as a matrix of cooperative theory and practice, they are profound and revolutionary. They throw light on every aspect of the struggle to create a fully human social, economic and cultural life.

The International Co-operative Alliance is calling for responses to guidance papers on the principles. One of these is Jean-Louis Bancel's erudite commentary on the third principle, member economic participation. Like any set of texts with a quasi-talmudic character, the principles are the subject of deep and wide interpretation. Unlike them, the cooperative principles are revised from time to time, to reflect current conditions.

Over the years, I've persuaded myself that particular principles are a magic key to the others. I was mesmerised by principle six between 2004 and 2009 (cooperation between cooperatives) and principle four between 2009 and 2012 (autonomy). The third principle is often seen as the most knotty of the seven. Right now, I'm focusing on principle three, because it talks about common ownership as a characteristic of cooperatives.

Jean-Louis Bancel's paper refers to the particular importance of common ownership for worker cooperatives. Collective stewardship and control of the means of production are fundamental to worker coops' mission to provide 'decent' jobs, maintain the culture of equality and solidarity at work, provide a basis for members to develop their capacities, and underpin workers' autonomy and self-management.

Common ownership is the antithesis of private or state ownership. Creating commons is the opposite of creating enclosures or commoditising everyday life. It's a long time since most of the land and most of the means of production was taken out of common ownership. In the present, we're seeing intensive efforts to enclose, privatise and securitise such common goods as water, clean air, free time, open source technology and personal communication.

Meaningful cooperative action increases the confidence, autonomy, initiative, participation, solidarity, egalitarianism and self-activity of workers, and helps them collectively define their own interests. Sterile and harmful action is whatever reinforces the passivity of workers, their apathy, cynicism, differentiation through hierarchy, alienation, reliance on others to do things for them, and the degree to which they can therefore be manipulated by others, including those claiming to act on their behalf.

Cooperatives are meaningful when they align with the global movement to defend and extend the commons.