Cooperation above Competition

GREAT article in the current issue of Ode Magazine, highlighting the virtues of cooperatives (aka co-ops), covering some of the extensive history, and focusing on how co-ops tend to particularly serve a need and therefore thrive during times of economic turmoil.

Ode contributor Steven van Yoder writes:

The economic meltdown and subsequent global recession have exposed crucial flaws in the way the economy operates, foremost among them the realization that economic growth alone isn’t enough; to be sustainable, growth must be harnessed to social goals. Co-ops have been tying the two together since the late 18th century, when the ventures started appearing as a way for city dwellers to secure affordable food during the Industrial Revolution.

Bellingham, I’m happy to say, is home to a variety of thriving co-ops, from a natural food market (Community Food Co-op), to a variety of credit unions (I do my banking at the Industrial Credit Union), to a local REI store, and I’ve been a proud member of all three for many years.

I’ve also been an admirer of Rabbi Michael Lerner for many years, whom, in addition to being a spiritual leader, is a brilliant activist and writer. For the nearly 20 years that I’ve been reading him, Lerner’s been preaching a complementary idea, that of the establishment of a new bottom line:

A central part of such global thinking requires a new conception of efficiency, rationality and productivity. The old bottom line measured productivity and efficiency by how much money or material goods were produced. We need a “new bottom line” that evaluates corporations, government programs, laws, social policies, and even personal behavior by how much love and kindness, generosity and caring, ethical and ecological sensitivity, are produced and how much we are encouraged to respond to the universe with awe and wonder at the grandeur of all that is. Hundreds of years of capitalist excess made the old more narrow utilitarian attitude seem like “common sense,” because it worked to generate an ever increasing accumulation of material goods.

But the societies that have bought into that old bottom line are now reeling from the economic collapse generated when tens of millions of people acted on the assumption that trumping all ethical and spiritual concerns was the obligation to maximize one’s own material well-being regardless of environmental and human-relationship consequences.

The notion that van Yoder writes about, that sustainable growth must be harnessed to social goals, is quite a puzzler for a capitalist, free market system. After all, according to the U.S. Constitution, corporations are considered people and accorded the same rights as individuals. Additionally, the Constitution requires for-profit corporations to maximize profits for their shareholders.

Now, a lot is made of the latter, as it seems in direct conflict with co-ops and a new bottom line. And yet, the troublesome thing is that there is actually a consumer protection logic to the requirement to maximize profits. After all, many investors are working and middle class folks whom have retirement accounts, managed by state pension boards or mutual fund providers, and they need the corporations they invest in to make a profit, or else they stand to lose their hard-earned money.

So, is it possible to develop a new bottom line, one that prioritizes cooperation over competition, one that is accountable to social needs, while also being required to maximize profits in order to protect investors?

I really don’t know, but it’s a nice idea.

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