You Are Not Alone: On Cooperatives and Solidarity

Rafi Goldman and Eran Buchaltzev
Translated by: Margalit Rodgers

For the first time in history more people live in cities than any other type of settlement, and there is a need to make the city a place in which it is worth living. The ability to create this kind of city is closely linked to the ability of the individuals living in it to create community frameworks characterized by solidarity. Cooperative enterprises are a significant  tool for creating economic and social solidarity, because they are based on choosing association with other individuals, and jointly increasing the control citizens have over their economic and social life. Worldwide experience indicates that an effectively managed cooperative framework empowers the individual, builds community, and promotes social justice. Consequently, cooperative organization and action often constitute a meaningful element in the life of individuals, and a sustainable solution for the urban human challenge.

In a city the elements connecting individuals into a community seem arbitrary, with each individual living his own life; masses of people who meet at life’s intersections. The urban individual faces his destiny alone, surrounded by masses of people who are in the same situation and competing for limited resources. The city tends to bring about a decline in human contact, indifference, and the disintegration of social safety nets. Heterogeneity facilitates mobility and substitution, which create constant change, fluidity, and impermanence of relationships, and consequently make instability and insecurity the norm. Thus, personal relationships cease to constitute the basis for connection. Self-government is maintained by interest groups and remote mechanisms of representation, exposing  the individual to economic and political manipulation without protective safety nets in times of trouble.

Despite the difficulties, urban society is not rigid. A different way of living urban life can be created. City life is built on the joint and synchronized rhythm of residents of the city and its environs. Therefore, even in an era of uncertainty, and despite the disintegration of welfare state frameworks, community solidarity can be achieved in the city. In order to adapt city life to people’s needs, conditions have to be created that facilitate solidarity. Such conditions will enable people to maintain a collective framework out of choice, creating limited partnerships for social, cultural, economic, and political needs. Such communities will complete the structure of the city as a way to achieve self-fulfillment and meet needs that are contingent upon partnership with others.

The strength of a cooperative is that it acts in the economic domain, the heart of a city’s activity, in order to provide a solution for various human and social needs. The choice of the cooperative model provides the means for empowerment and renewal, and at the same time subverts the power relations of market forces. Metropolitan diversity enables people holding the same outlooks and aims to form syndicates, and helps to create new frameworks to replace the social frameworks that have vanished from the world. Cooperatives face the challenge of urban life and recreate the urban space for individuals as well as groups..

Collective life is often based on coincidence and opportunity. Conscious choice of collective life requires individuals who have developed abilities of self-organization for the purpose of solving complex problems and issues. For the cooperative business model to serve people’s interests, it has to be jointly owned and managed in a genuinely democratic way. Consequently, there is no substitute for the initiative of individuals and the emergence of a leadership which will strengthen the emerging community’s ability for self-organization; a leadership which knows how to mobilize the public to action, to lead and manage local business development processes, and which is sensitive to the uniqueness and variance of the individuals in the local cultural environment.

The cooperative model has proved itself as a significant tool that helps people to freely organize in order to serve their economic, social, and cultural interests by establishing a jointly-owned, democraticallymanaged business enterprise. It is no coincidence that in every developed country that maintains a welfare policy there is a strong cooperative movement. The cooperative is a fundamental tool for bringing about social change by means of economic and business tools, and is the backbone of social, environmental, and economic sustainability. Examples from around the world prove that cooperatives in the spheres of banking and insurance, housing, retailing, social services, and virtually every other sphere, enable workers and consumers to provide livelihoods, products, and social services in a profitable, just, and businesslike way.

The cooperative enterprise is a business venture that strives to create economic as well as social profits. Economic profit in a cooperative is a means designed to enable its members to attain greater control over their life, and to empower themselves and their community by pooling resources and creating economies of scale. Democratically-managed joint activity enables the individual to increase his ability, and influence factors that shape his life. This is the heart of the empowerment process. Hundreds of millions of people all over the world maintain varied and diverse cooperative systems: according to International Co-operative Alliance data, more than 800 million people worldwide are members of the cooperative movement in some 750,000 cooperatives. According to UN estimates, the activity of cooperatives around the world ensures the quality of life of approximately half the world’s inhabitants. One of every four US residents is a member of a cooperative, and in India there are 236 million cooperative members. The weight of cooperatives in national and world economy is considerable: they provide 100 million jobs worldwide, and in 2010 the aggregate business turnover of the world’s 300 biggest cooperatives exceeded 1.2 trillion dollars (equal to the world’s tenth largest economy).

The cooperative business model offers many advantages to individuals who choose to syndicate: small manufacturers overcome the disadvantages of small manufacturing units by means of joint purchasing and marketing; workers establish businesses in order to create employment and a livelihood for themselves; families join food cooperatives to assure themselves healthy food at affordable prices; people syndicate to provide financial services for themselves and a safe place for their savings, and so forth. In Italy, for example, there are some 250,000 worker-members in some 7,500 social cooperatives that provide community services in the spheres of education, health, welfare, and employment. Their business turnover is in excess of 6.5 billion euros per annum. This is an example of how a community can fulfill its needs in numerous areas, including integration of excluded populations, within the community and in a way that reinforces community solidarity.

Cooperative development focuses on people. A cooperative increases and expands democratic culture in the community from random participation to a lifestyle of active citizenship that goes beyond the cooperative’s activities as well. This kind of citizenship enables people to break free of reliance on state institutions, and encourages partnership between citizens and their representatives in government institutions. Voluntary organization that leads to achieving advantages and fulfilling needs is the basis for the empowerment of the individual and his community. Proximity, variance, and diversity enable the individual to find partners in the attempt to create frameworks for encounter, discourse, and endeavor in his close environment. The diversity of city residents enables the creation of a heterogeneous framework that receives ideas and abilities from its members. Encounters between individuals become regular and profound, increase direct communication, and enable the creation of mutual commitment. The sense of alienation and indifference toward oneself and others, and toward one’s living environment will gradually diminish, and an independent economic power will emerge that provides adaptive solutions to specific needs, as well as the possibility of appropriate representation and joint defence of rights.

The cooperative model is enjoying renewed growth in Israel too. Changes in the socio-economic discourse are creating a renewed platform for establishing collective and cooperative enterprises in a society that in recent decades has sanctified radical individualism and engaged in dismantling the welfare state’s mechanisms of solidarity, trade unions, and cooperative businesses. In their heyday in Israel, there were several hundred manufacturing, service, and financial cooperative societies (not including kibbutzim and moshavim). However, beginning in the 1960s many cooperatives were dismantled, and few new ones were established. Today there is a trend of establishing new cooperative organizations in numerous fields of activity: retailing, finance (credit, pension, and insurance syndicates), services, restaurants, daycare centers, sound equipment for events, fan-owned sports teams, renewable energy, and workers’ cooperatives in the field of alternative therapies and additional spheres.

A cooperative enables many people to create economies of scale and other advantages that would not be achieved if not for syndication. A locally-owned business that serves the needs of the community increases its total assets – financial, organizational, and cultural. Therein lays the uniqueness of the cooperative, which creates social power and develops the community’s economic power. Developing a cooperative enterprise on the basis of its members’ abilities and resources demonstrates to the members their ability to bring about change, to be part of a group, to fulfill their needs in general, and in a way that is suited to them in particular. A cooperative serves as an anchor for its members, and reduces the elements of mobility, fluidity, and impermanence. Permanent relationships will reduce the apprehension of transitory human contact, and increase primary relationships. A cooperative established for a specific need will thus serve as the foundation for a more inclusive solidary framework, an urban community, and a city in which it is worthwhile to live.

Rafi Goldman and Eran Buchaltzev are fromThe Cooperative Development Center at AJEEC – The Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development.