Cooperatives: Ready for Politics?
Third Sector Views Issue No. 4 July 1996 (a publication of the Cooperative Foundation Philippines, Inc.)
Philippine cooperatives are considered to be a traditional, apolitical lot. Challenging official policy in the streets -- through rallies, demonstrations, pickets -- is simply not their cup of tea. But not anymore. Last July 22, about 3,000 cooperative members marched to Congress to oppose the EVAT. Last October 16, they once again marched to confront the government's liberalization policies. With a base of about 4.5 million and a growing though still modest economic clout, the cooperative sector may be expected to seek new venues to herald its coming of age as an important social actor. The political arena readily comes to mind.
Indeed, a political role does not run counter to the basic cooperative principles but is derived from them. Political action is an extension of the cooperative mission of building its countervailing power and capabilities to respond to the needs of the members and to intervene shaping its environment.
Cooperative political options
Cooperative organization and action in the political arena may take various forms. Several options are in fact already at the disposal of cooperatives. At the local level, cooperatives take advantage of constitutional and LGC provisions on the right of POs to be consulted and participate meaningfully in making decisions. Although cooperatives and the NGO/PO community in general have yet to skillfully maximize these provisions, it is also true that the current participatory mechanisms have their own limitations.
Thus, some cooperative leaders have opted to vie directly for seats in the local councils, either as independent or party-affiliated candidates on a cooperative platform. In Davao del Norte for example, 90 leaders of cooperatives assisted by the Cooperative Foundation Philippines (CFPI) won seats in the barangay councils. In Bataan, coop leaders made their way to a municipal council. Aiming for cooperative-oriented local governments has been proven to be a viable option. It seems that progressives and reformers in general do indeed have a better chance of winning ‘micro elections’ where money politics have less proportionate influence.
At the national level, the cooperative experience is the political lobby, embodied for instance by the Supreme Cooperative Council of the Philippines (SCCP), chaired by former Sen. Manuel Manahan until 1990. The Council advocated the movement’s position for a new cooperative code. This is also the idea behind the Technical Working Group on Cooperative Legislation that has been conducting representations to press for the exemption of cooperatives from EVAT.
Local participation, lobby work and mass pressure politics must remain as important components of a cooperative political strategy. But already there are some indicators of a trend towards a more pronounced cooperative political role. Some groups that keep an eye on the party list system are wooing cooperatives as a major constituency. Under the party list system, a party or a coalition will be entitled to a number of seats in Congress proportionate to the number of votes garnered by the party. Voters vote for the party of their choice, not the individual candidates. The seats due to the party will be assumed by the candidates on the party list according to priority.
A large national labor center is in the process of putting up a labor-cooperative party, with trade unions and workers’ cooperatives as major constituencies. If the envisioned party can harness the votes from all the local unions and primary coops under its wings, it can be assured of seats in Congress. The cooperative movement itself can constitute a party under the party list system. If such party can harness the cooperative vote, it can become a significant political player.
The party list system is just one of the options. A cooperative political party may also opt to enlist as a coalition partner in an existing national party. If it is sufficiently strong and credible, this could be a way of infusing principled politics among the major parties, which are mostly parties of politicos wherein the rank-and-file are treated simply as errand boys, without a say in party policy. Or, the cooperative movement may simply be content at being a machinery for harnessing cooperative votes in favor of candidates or parties that agree to carry the cooperative agenda. Under this option, cooperatives endorse pro-cooperative candidates from whatever party, as was the case during the Aquino (1992) and Pimentel (1995) senatorial campaigns. This, however, defaults coops from developing a political movement of their own and consigns them to being mere riders to the parties of the elite.
The case of the two senators showed how important it is to have pro-cooperative representation in Congress. The movement can build on this to press for a distinct sectoral representation. Sectoral seats in the House of Representatives appointed by the President are presently based on the definition of the basic sectors. The idea is to ensure representation for sectors that otherwise would not be adequately represented. Such representations through executive appoinments would not have been necessary if we truly have an even political playing field. But because our political system fails to be consistently democratic, affirmative action is necessary in favor of the basic sectors and their organizations.
Given the complexity and diversity of our society today, there is also an old-fashioned tinge to the idea that a congressman can adequately represent his district and that congressmen collectively can represent the entire country. The more we move toward diverse representations to reflect diverse constituencies, the better for Philippine democracy.
These same argument goes for a distinct cooperative representation. In general, the more representation for basic sectors, the better. More sectoral representation will always pose a countervailing influence on the rest of Congress, many of whom are from the affluent and powerful sections of society.
Lastly, launching a cooperative party as a national party is another option, although one that would be very difficult to achieve. The experience of other social and popular movements was not very encouraging. The major example in recent history would be the Partido ng Bayan/Alliance for New Politics (PnB/ANP) umbrella, an electoral initiative of the Left and left-of-center forces which was terribly cloberred during the 1987 senatorial elections (Horacio R. Morales, Jr. of CFPI vied for a senate seat under this banner).
Whatever the option or options the cooperative movement may take, the idea of a distinct cooperative political movement has come of age. It would be quite an unnecessary limitation for the cooperative movement to impose on itself the role of a bystander or spectator. Those who still feel uneasy or frightened about the idea of cooperative in politics fail to remember that the original cooperative visionaries themselves (Robert Owen in England or Rizal and Jacinto in the Philippines) were social reformers and political activists at the same time.
The cooperative identity
There are more than 37,000 registered cooperatives in the Philippines. Only 4,516 were registered before R.A. 6938 was enacted in 1990. The rest were registered after the enactment of the law. We have therefore a very young movement. About 65 per cent of the coops are agricultural multipurpose cooperatives, although the share in terms of assets of industrial and service coops is increasing. About 21 per cent are non-agricultural multipurpose cooperatives and the rest are credit, consumer, service, producer and marketing cooperatives. Central Luzon, Southern Tagalog and Southern Mindanao top the list of regions with the most number of coops.
It is tempting to say that a sector composed of 37,000 organizations with a mass base of about 4.5 million individuals constitute an enormous political potential. This view has its own merits and limitations.
One wonders if cooperatives as a whole in the country really constitute a movement or merely a congeries of organizations as diverse as a crowd in Quiapo on a Saturday. But wait, it was a crowd on a Saturday, most if not all sharing a common purpose: to pray to the Black Nazarene.
By adopting a specific social practice and hoping to propagate it, coops has in fact created a movement among themselves, even without central coordination or formal unity. By identifying themselves as coops and by wanting to be recognized as coops, they have bound themselves to certain norms, values and principles that are defined enough to provide a basis for identification and by which they can be morally judged and tested, even if these norms, values and principles themselves are dynamic and changing.
Given a very natural and conservative basis of commonality — the practice and promotion of self-help and cooperation — coops are perhaps even more cohesive than, for example, the peasant movement, or the trade union movement, or the PO/NGO sector wherein specialized orientations may actually pose a hindrance to unified action. Coops as coops as a whole is a sector upon itself, a class upon itself. The cooperative form provides them a common identity and structure that are necessary in acquiring a sense of meaning, which is a fundamental human need. At the practical level, they are so intimately interconnected. They are regulated by common laws and are subject to a wide range of common issues and problems. There is therefore a basis for cooperative action among cooperatives. The point is that for those having the coop sector or coop movement mentality, cooperatives constitute a unique social creed or ideological orientation in itself. Although there are cooperative organizations within this coop movement that also identifies easily with, say, the labor movement or the NGO/PO movement, they maintain still that they are primarily a cooperative movement.
However, if we consider all the cooperatives in the Philippines, we find that not all of them may consider themselves as belonging to the ‘cooperative movement.’ Some of them will identify themselves as part of the labor or socialist movement, the environmental movement or perhaps some general or specific idea of a civic or social movement. Some may not even identify themselves as part of a social movement. Or, worse, as a group with some special relationship with a patron — a government agency, an NGO, or a politician.
This brings us to the concept of primacy of identity. For entities who belong to the ‘cooperative movement,’ cooperativism is the primary social movement — other orientations are just part of it. For other social and political movements, cooperatives is an important but secondary orientation and constituency. Cooperatives organized by TUCP or BMP regard themselves as primarily a part and extension of the labor movement. Workers’ coops organized after the company has closed shop and the labor union deactivated fit in this category, as exemplified perhaps by the taxi coops started by former worker unionists of La Tondeña or perhaps even the NUWDECO.
A well articulated cooperative ideology, existent in some of the coops of the coop movement school, can very well provide the conscientizing and visionary framework for organizing an alternative movement. The adoption by CFPI of the ‘work through partners’ approach is actually an adaptation to realities in the Philippines: that many groups with which CFPI is dealing wanted to ensure that the primacy of their movement as natdems or as AMA or as BMP is maintained.
An overview of ideological orientations
The primacy of identity is related to ideological orientation. These orientations have deep historical roots. We can tentatively identify some of the current ideological strands among cooperatives in the Philippine setting as related to older ideological traditions.
19th century cooperativism emerged as part of a general political response of the working class and socialist movements to prevailing capitalist conditions. The first teachers of cooperativism, among them Robert Owen, King, Charles Gide (Britain), Philippe Buchez, Lois Blanc (France) were intensely involved in campaigns for social reforms. They were also either philanthropists, utopian socialists or radical political leaders. They believe in a Cooperative Commonwealth governed by cooperation rather than competition. They thought that cooperativism can be an organizing principle for the whole of society and that the cooperative principles can serve as the organic laws of a future cooperative society. During the 1920s Ernest Poisson of France even proposed for the creation of a Cooperative Republic.
Although the social experiments of such pioneers as Owen and Fourier failed and proved unsustainable, cooperativism has remained as one of the most enduring working class traditions to emerge out of 19th century Europe. Today, the cooperative tradition is carried on by cooperative movements in most countries. Together they constitute the cooperative sector in their respective countries.
The idea of a Cooperative Sector was articulated by Dr. G. Fouquet (1935). In his view, cooperatives constitute a distinct sector in the economy which can be sectoralized as follows into a public sector, composed of state enterprises; a capitalist sector, which is usually called as the private sector; a "private sector proper," composed of the family, peasant and handicraft economies and other pre-capitalist units; and a cooperative sector, composed of cooperatives although closely intertwined with the private sector proper which its wants to integrate into formal cooperatives.
Rather than imagining the cooperativization of all of society, the cooperative sector school believed that there are activities that can be done more efficiently by other sectors. The coop sector then becomes a counterforce to prevent the capitalist sector from being exploitative. This view is consistent with the welfare state model and democratic liberalism.
In the Philippines, the cooperative sector orientation is reflected in the idea of establishing coops as a strong and significant Third Sector of the economy, without having a articulated line on the capitalist or socialist options. The ‘cooperative movement’ as articulated by the major cooperative organizations or apexes also reflect this stand.
The Marxist-Leninist (ML) concept of socialism on the other hand believes in the predominance of political means before the revolutionary seizure of state power after which educational and cultural means are supposed to predominate. By and large, ML parties believe that coops are some sort of preparation for a more collectivist way of life.
In centralized socialist experiences, as in Soviet Union, eastern Europe and China under Mao, cooperative development was coordinated closely with state plans and purposes. Hans Munkner, a cooperative expert from Germany, said these are actually ‘socialist collectives’ and not genuine coops because they were not autonomous and member-controlled. They had to follow the party line. Cooperatives are considered to fit better such branches in which economic activity is basically decentralized. Otherwise, state socialisation of the means of production is considered to be the superior economic form. In former socialist Yugoslavia, however, cooperative workers’ self-management was considered superior than state control. In today’s China under Deng, cooperatives seem to have relative freedom. After the fall of communist regimes in the former SU and eastern Europe, cooperatives were treated similarly with state enterprises that are subject to privatisation. The cooperatives concerned opposed these moves of the post-communist governments. The ICA intervened in their behalf and argued for their continuance as autonomous entities controlled by members.
In the Philippines, the National Democratic Front (including the CPP/NPA) apparently adopts a mixed economic model composed of the state, cooperative and private sectors. It seems, however, that their current cooperative organizing activities, if any, would have to be subsumed in the context of the revolutionary struggle, a concept known as ‘war economy.’
However, there are also various above-ground socialist movements that incorporate cooperative development in their agenda. They view cooperatives as an extension of workers’ solidarity and as an important but just one among the components of the socialist strategy. They follow the general track of the social democratic movements in Europe that emphasized on building the triad of the socialist party, the labor unions and the cooperatives as forces for socialism.
While the ML and socialist schools see cooperatives in the larger framework of socialist development, the modified capitalism school believes that cooperatives are much a part of capitalism and that coops are the ‘epitome of the capitalist ideal.’ Coops lead the way to a more service-oriented capitalism and enable small producers to become capitalists in the better sense of the term. This school emerged in the 1930s in the agricultural sector of the northern American prairies. Proponents of this view believe that coops provides a decentralizing influence to capitalism and curbs its excesses but, in context of the Cold War, they cannot be on the side of those wishing to destroy it, the communists for example.
There are other orientations that consider cooperatives as an important if not the major or crucial components of their vision. ‘New age’ cooperativism believes that the core problem of contemporary living is the sheer size of social organization. Liberal capitalism, the welfare state and marxism all lead to uncaring, monolithic organizations. The ideal are smaller, humanistic, life-oriented organizations such as cooperatives. (New age thinkers include Paul Ekins, Mark Satin, Ivan Illich, Schumacker and McRobie. This grew out of the protest movement of the 1960s and the oil shock of the 1970s.)
Perhaps also included in the new wave coops are those with environmental orientation. The environmentalist and pacifist Seikatsu consumers’ movement of Japan for example uses the cooperative form as the organizational model for a more sustainable production, consumption and managing of resources. Feminists also adopt the coop model as a form that is more attuned to caring and sharing modes of living as an ideal of the feminist movement.
Lastly, there is also the religious orientation. The parish churches was instrumental in organizing credit and consumers coops that became the more successful wing of the coop movement. Even the El Shaddai and INC are said to also operate mutual economic help among members.
In reality, cooperative movements may have mixture of various ideological orientations. Or they may choose not to express their goals in ideological or visionary terms at all.
The civil society orientation
In Citizens: Strengthening Global Civil Society published by Civicus (1994), the “civil society” concept is based on a set of values by which a third sector (i.e. civil society organizations) distinguishes itself from a first sector (i.e. the state) and a second sector (i.e. the market) which are all assumed to interact in the present-day setting. In this theory, sectoral distinction is indicated generally by the source of action and its purposive direction. Hence, civil society undertakes “private action for the public good” in contrast to the state practice of doing “public action for the public good” and the tendency of the market sector to perform “private action for the private good.”
In history and actual practice, cooperatives are put up by members primarily seeking to achieve a common good for and among themselves (making it a candidate for the second sector). As the cooperative concept gained acceptance in societies, it has also been the tendency of states to either introduce the general rules of operations of cooperative movements through legislated policies and/or directly intervene in local cooperative development through executive programs (making them close to or part to the first sector). Civil society literature however cite cooperative experiences in promoting the third sector model albeit short of concluding that cooperative movements do indeed qualify as agents of civil society.
However, the relevance of the civil society concept is that there should be entities that are non-state (or not even attempting to take over the government), that are non-market, but are primarily out to do something beyond the market mechanism and the mandatory state mechanism. Within civil society resources and decisions are shared and distributed according to the values of solidarity and sharing, voluntary action, caring and mutual help, and cooperation — in short the civic orientation. These are the values and principles that are at the core of the cooperative identity. Conversely, the existence of cooperatives is an indicator of the civic tradition.
Elements of cooperative politics
What we are trying to point out is that cooperative politics must realize that it shares a lot of common ground with the rest of civil society, beyond sectoral identities and ideological orientations.
If we try to put up a party, we don’t expect to harness only the votes of our direct constituents or members, even if we have 4.5 million people to draw these votes from. For all we know our immediate relatives may not even vote for us. Our direct constituency is of course limited but our stakeholders among civic-minded people go much beyond that.
The world’s best cooperative traditions (Rochdale, Raffeisen, Desjardins, etc.) grew out of the social and popular movements and uniquely grounded to culture which perhaps explain their relative success. Cooperativism has a historic and natural affinity to the various popular and social movements: peasants, labor, consumers movements etc. In the Philippines however, the situation is different. We have a cleavage with the so-called NGO/PO movement, believing it to be a hybrid not worthy of our fraternal affection. If ever, we relate to a very narrow section of the NGO/PO movement.
At a time when the ICA itself calls for cooperatives to forge strategic alliances beyond their natural friends, Philippine coops apparently have yet to forge meaningful ties with various other popular and social movements that are also desperately trying to do something to change society in favor of the poor. Building strategic alliances with the social sectors and developing friends beyond our mass base must be an important element of cooperative politics.
Perhaps the dangers and pitfalls of traditional Philippine politics, its guns, goons and gold, are already well appreciated by cooperatives. Patronage and money politics is anathema to the cooperative notion of horizontal relationship among voluntary equals. At this point, what we need to be forewarned about is the pitfall of the traditional ideological party. We don’t seem to have a preponderance of ideological parties competing in the electoral arena here. But what we need to ensure is that if we reject traditional politics of the elite, we do not necessarily adopt the ways of the other extreme.
The old ideological parties pose their alternative in visionary terms. Sometimes they become so agitated about how completely radical their vision is from the status quo that only the most devoted militant could understand what they’re talking about. To win adherents, they have to goad and push and demand complete loyalty after that.
Cooperative politics must be light touch but must appeal to the best side of the rational mind and sensitivities. Rather than promising a new order to replace the old, cooperative politics and ideology must present itself as a set of practical values and norms that altogether constitute an organizing principle for our social and political institutions in the here and now. Rather than being a vehicle for the interests of a particular class or sector, cooperative politics must be identified as a consistent party for equality, justice, transparency and solidarity that are in the interest of all. These are values that are liveable today despite the adverse social context. Not just as something to look forward to only in the future.
- I'm a community organizer and researcher.
Interested in the following:
cooperatives, unionism, new social movements, coproduction, publi
c utilities,municipal services, local governance, skepticism, radica l democracy,new institutional economics, evolutionary economics, evolutionary biology, cosmology physics, er otic art,protest art