Friday, May 22, 2009

Politics and the Self-identity of Cooperatives

Most co-ops and their leaders probably are unaware of the origins of the cooperative movement in the socialist and labor movements. 19th century cooperativism emerged as part of a general political response of the workers’ 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 reformers. 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 for cooperative communities 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. Georges Fauquet, former head of the Cooperatives Branch of ILO (1920-33). 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 co-ops as a strong and significant Third Sector of the economy, without having an articulated line on the capitalist or socialist options. The major cooperative organizations use ‘cooperative movement’ and ‘cooperative sector’ interchangeably.

John Craig notes that Marxist-Leninist (ML) concept of socialism believes in the predominance of political means before the revolutionary seizure of state power after which educational and cultural means are supposed to predominate. In an orientation on co-ops produced by an NGO, it is believed that co-ops are some sort of preparation for a more collectivist way of life, which would be more in line with ML thinking.

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 co-ops 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 socialization 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 privatization. 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 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 sees cooperatives in the larger framework of socialist development, the modified capitalism school believes that cooperatives are much a part of capitalism and that co-ops are the ‘epitome of the capitalist ideal.’ Co-ops 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 co-ops provide a decentralizing influence to capitalism and curb 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.

Canadian cooperative writer John Craig identifies a ‘new age’ brand of cooperativism, which believes that the core problem of contemporary living is the sheer size of social organization. According to him, 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 co-ops 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 co-ops 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. (When an organization collects huge amounts of money from believers, it seems proper that at least some of these are not sent as advanced payments for a place in heaven but to make life bearable here on earth.)

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. Some cooperatives and their members believe that their social and political identity lies in the cooperative movement. Others believe that as co-ops and co-op members, they belong primarily to the agrarian/peasant, labor, consumers,’ or other social movements. The primacy of identity is related to ideological orientation. These orientations have deep historical roots.

There are still those who claim that since cooperatives are by nature “non-partisan” and “politically neutral,” cooperatives may not and cannot form a political party. Obviously, such individuals are ignorant of the changes in the appreciation of cooperatives worldwide on the issue of political participation. The issue of political neutrality has been debated over the years within the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) in connection with the formulation of the Cooperative Principles. The first published ICA Principles of 1937 included one about “political and religious neutrality.” This language, however, was abandoned in the ICA Congress of 1966.

In the words of a world-renowned Swedish cooperative author and researcher for the ICA, “certainly cooperative organizations cannot be neutral on political issues, since cooperative activity is, in itself, a political action. Many cooperative organizations have instead made this point clear by replacing “political neutrality” with “political independence.” This implies that cooperatives should carry out their own opinions without undue dependence on other organizations or on political parties. I consider that as the proper interpretation for the future.” (Sven Åke Böök, Cooperative Values in a Changing World, Geneva, International Cooperative Alliance, 1992, p. 50)

In England, the birth place of the modern cooperative movement, cooperatives established the Cooperative Party in 1930 after realizing that they could not count sufficiently on the members of parliament from existing parties (Liberals and Conservatives) to work for their interests. If they did not strive for direct representation, government would simply keep on ignoring them despite their number. In many other parts of the world, cooperatives were part of social and popular movements seeking progressive change. In our own national context, the political reformers and founders of Philippine nationhood, especially Dr. Jose Rizal and Emilio Jacinto, were in fact our first teachers of cooperativism.

The alignments of the major cooperative networks during the first party list elections in 1998 reveal the persistence of historical (and ideological) traditions. The so-called ‘private sector’ savings and credit co-ops, represented by NATCCO and PFCCO, gravitated around Co-op NATCCO and the Alliance of Cooperatives (ALLCOOP) while the agri-based co-ops of the PD 175 tradition supported BUTIL (formerly the Luzon Farmers’ Party). Other farmers’ co-ops supported ABA which was formed mainly through FFFCI. Of the co-op-based parties that vied for Congress seats, Coop NATCCO, ABA, and BUTIL, managed to get one seat each while APEC (based among the electric co-ops) managed to secure three seats. Parties with roots in the major co-op historical traditions made it to Congress.

Party list groups and political parties are the same. Under the Party List Law, parties and organizations of the marginal sectors compete for 20% of Congressional seats based on proportional representation. Voters select for for parties or organizations, each of which are required to put up their respective party list.

Coop-NATCCO represents mainly the privately initiated co-ops performing savings and credit functions. BUTIL – spawned by Sanduguan which is allied with Bangkoop (“Sanduguan is our political organization while Bangkoop is our economic organization,” leaders used to say). APEC – spawned by leaders and managers of electric co-ops; not necessarily supported by PHILRECA. CUP represents the traditional co-op union movement; disqualified after losing the 1998 and 2001 party list elections. ALLCOOP was originally envisioned to include all the major national organizations; vied and lost in the 1998 party list elections as an alliance of PFCCO and KKPPI with CFPI and some primaries. Current status: moribund. PROKOOP was envisioned as a joint political project of NATCCO, PFCCO, and two regional unions that disaffiliated from CUP (UMMC and CUST); in the process of registration as a regular national political party; status: uncertain, especially with the demise of Filmore Dalisay of PLDT Co-op and Union of Metro Manila Cooperatives.

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