Commons Cooperative

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A proposal by Richard Moore:

"The co-op has several important characteristics: (1) The co-op owns or leases property (van, land, office, etc.), which we can call 'the commons'. (2) The co-op has members, who enjoy the benefits of the commons, and who accept the responsibilities of membership. (3) All members participate directly in governance / decision-making. (4) All members participate flexibly in the operation of the co-op. (5) The job-rota system is in effect a local currency, in that it replaces the role of salaries in the world of the co-op. (6) The co-op generates a stable level of economic activity and provides a stable level of ongoing services. (7) The co-op needs investment capital from members to get started and obtain its commons.

I see great potential for building the new in the shadow of the old, by making creative use of this model. In particular, it can be seen as a sound business model, applicable to all kinds of businesses. It does not require idealistic people to pursue an idealistic vision: the model makes good sense here and now for practical reasons. Let me suggest an imaginary example, to illustrate why I see so much potential here.

Let's say we have a co-op, following that model, which owns or leases the following commons: – several retail shop spaces – a warehouse-type building, suitable for light industry and other uses – an apartment building – a childcare facility – a wind turbine for electricity (that's a lot of electricity) – a few taxis, a couple of vans, and a truck (all electric) – an acre of arable land nearby – a small supermarket – a fund to provide credit-union-like services, done in a way that escapes government regulation – an accounting system (like local currency) for internal transactions – a few office spaces for co-op administration

Such a co-op could be the provider of quite a few of the things members need, such as housing, food, shuttle & hauling service, space to run a business or manufacturing facility, childcare, electricity, etc. All would be at a considerable discount over market prices, since everything is operated on a non-profit basis for members, and labor is provided by members on a labor-sharing basis, not adding to the cost of services. At the same time, excess capacity of the commons (e.g., unused apartments, unused taxi time) could be used to generate revenue for the co-op, reducing or perhaps eliminating membership dues. The local currency could be used to account for member use of commons services, reducing the need to possess official currency.

If a group of activists wanted to promote such a co-op project, they'd be doing so with a business plan that makes sense in terms of immediate self-interest, rather than trying to promote a project on the basis that it's good for idealistic reasons. At the same time, such a co-op is good for idealistic reasons. It empowers its members to take control over many of the conditions that affect their lives. It helps encourage the emergence of a co-operative, participatory culture. It transforms labor from something repetitive to something that allows flexibility, variety, and choice. And labor becomes something that contributes directly to your life style, rather being some disconnected thing you do for some company, so you can use the salary to support your life style – at full market prices.

I can see hope for a 'co-op commons' movement. Such a movement should make sense to existing activist groups, who support things like Transition Towns, local currencies, community gardens, etc. It provides a vehicle in which those kind of ideas can be pursued. Such a movement should make sense to ordinary people (non-activists) if the activists put together a sound business plan, tailored to local circumstances. Such a movement has growth potential: when the benefits are seen from some initial experiments, others would be inspired to pursue similar initiatives, as I have been inspired by Tex's experience. We'd want to include good group processes in our co-op model, so that the open decision-making meetings would lead to outcomes satisfactory to all members.

The most interesting thing to think about is what would happen if such a movement went viral, if such co-ops grew to become a significant part of the economy, even a majority part. I don't see any legal barriers; there's nothing confrontational or overtly radical about such a movement. The radicalness comes in the subtleties of how the co-op operates, and the culture it engenders. If such co-ops were everywhere, each specializing in some collection of services and resources, we'd essentially have the panarchy model, where people can 'subscribe' voluntarily to various 'partial societies', each of them participatory and operating by direct democracy. " (email, November 2013)