Cooperative Movement in Century 21

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* Article: The Cooperative Movement in Century 21. John Curl


From the Special Issue: Affinities Journal, Vol 4, No 1 (2010): The New Cooperativism,


"The cooperative movement was one of the first social movements of modern times, with roots at the beginning of the industrial revolution, and was an integral part of the early labour movement. The movement for worker cooperatives, workplace democracy, and social enterprises is resurgent around the world today. The cooperative movement of the present and near future operates primarily in the spaces that the corporate system cannot and will not fill. Cooperatives can provide a dignified living for the many millions who would otherwise be unemployed or marginalized. Grassroots social movements have turned to cooperatives in response to the depredations of globalism and the worldwide deep recession, to improve people’s living conditions and to empower them. Many of the new social enterprises are arising from spontaneous initiatives of grassroots groups, and many are being organized, coordinated, and backed by non-profit development organizations, governments, and communities. Cooperatives and social enterprises are the world’s best hope of achieving peace, prosperity, and social equity in this new century, and it is there that the eyes of the world need to turn."


John Curl:

"Today’s movement is not primarily focused on transforming large corporations into cooperatives, although it does put workplace democracy and social equity squarely on the table. Larger enterprises are the territory of the labour movement, which has been reduced to an extremely weakened state in the US; only when workers force changes in the labour laws will American unions win the space to put workplace democracy in large enterprises on the immediate agenda. I will not deal with the questions of workplace democracy in larger enterprises in this paper.

Cooperatives are both a natural formation of human interaction and a modern social movement. They are probably the most integral and natural form of organization beyond the family. Without simple economic group cooperation and mutual aid, human society would never have developed. On the other hand, the cooperative movement was one of the first social movements of modern times, with roots at the beginning of the industrial revolution, and was an integral part of the early labour movement.

A dynamic has always existed between cooperatives as a natural social formation and cooperatives as a social movement. The social movement is based on the natural formation, and on the widespread perception that modern society has interfered with and denied the natural work democracy that humans crave. Market capitalism lauds the employee system as the basis of human freedom but, as most employees understand, the system has also almost always been a tool of oppression and bondage. The cooperative movement aims for liberation from oppressive social stratification and alienation.

What makes the new resurgence of the cooperative movement different from what came before? To elucidate that question, we need to take a brief look at some of the history of the movement.

Today’s cooperative movement has centuries of history behind it. At the same time it is also a new movement of a new generation. Like every social equity movement, the cooperative movement rises and subsides, and its deeper goals cannot be permanently achieved because society is always changing: all social goals must be constantly renewed, and all social movements must go through cycles of renewal.

In sum, here are some of the tendencies in today’s movement that differ in several aspects from the cooperative movement as it was not long ago:

(1) it has returned to its mission of democratizing the workplace;

(2) it encompasses experimental structures of social enterprises;

(3) it is included by diverse non-profits as part of their mission strategy;

(4) it has increased its worldwide character, with the international movement having stronger influence over national movements;

(5) it is re-forging a close alliance with the labour movement;

(6) it has returned to direct action activism with housing, land, business, and factory occupations;

(7) it is achieving the backing of government in creating a supportive and enabling environment for the development of cooperatives; and

(8) it is part of an international strategy, supported by the UN, to reorganize the world economy with the cooperative sector a permanent part, helping to provide full employment for the unemployed and marginalized of the world." (