The Big Idea

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					                                    The Big Idea:
     From Corporate Colonialism to a Co-operative Commonwealth
                          Presented by Hazel Corcoran, May 2003
BACKGROUND
I have been working in the worker co-op movement for about 12 years now. We who are
involved in this movement are dedicated to helping develop worker-owned co-ops
because we believe in them; we also believe in other forms of co-ops: housing co-ops,
credit unions, consumer co-ops and so on. Just as we believe in democracy in the
political sphere, we believe that there should be democracy in the economy.

Everywhere we hear people singing the praises of democracy in politics, however in the
economy, rarely is democracy discussed. In co-operatives is where one finds democracy
in the economy: one member, one vote. In business corporations, it’s money which can
vote, not people. Not only this, but our political democracies, especially with the trade
agreements now in place, are increasingly ineffectual.

We worker co-op activists have worked long and hard, over many years to build worker
co-ops. Yes, we are making progress but it has been somewhat slow and incremental.
Often we hear that “co-ops are the best-kept secret around.”

So, after September 11th last year, some of us started to talk about the fact that maybe it
was time to try to get the message of co-operation and what it could mean for all of us,
out into the world in a really big way. The world needs to hear our message. Incremental
increases are not creating any real momentum. We with our co-op institutions and slow
progress are not turning our co-operative vision into a real movement. Generally people
don’t know what “co-operative” means in this sense of the word.

Seeing September 11th and its continual aftermath, we know that it is easy and even
necessary to be against things - against war, against corporate globalization, against
environmental degradation, against the growing inequality in the world. The question we
want to see addressed in the public consciousness is: WHAT ARE WE FOR?

In asking this, it is not that we want to back off from a fight, a fight against corporate
globalization, unfair trade agreements, and the like. It is just that many of us feel, like the
old suffragette slogan had it: “We will not waste our lives in friction when it could be
turned into momentum.”

This paper is one thing that we hope will start to turn this Co-operative Vision into a Co-
operative Movement. We would like to get your input into this vision and see how you
might see yourself fitting into it. It might mean that you will become a person who
develops co-ops; it could mean you look for a job in a worker co-op or join with others to
form a new one. And it could mean that you try to meet as many of your needs as
possible through co-ops: for food, housing, health care, financial services, and on and on.
It might mean that you will join with us in something new, an organization dedicated to
popularizing the co-operative movement.



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FROM CORPORATE COLONIALISM TO A CO-OPERATIVE COMMONWEALTH
At any given time, human history is either a series of progressive developments leading
to a constant improvement in the quality of life for all people, or as a slow descent into
the worst of times. It all depends on whether the powerful acting in the interests of power
have the ascendancy, or whether ordinary people working for the common good, are in
control of the societal agenda. We are of the opinion that the powerful have been able to
act out of their own self-interest without much of a check on them in the last couple of
decades. However, we could be on a path to a world where it is possible for people to
live in justice, with equitable access to the resources that we all need to survive. It is
possible to live in a world that allows us to develop the gifts that each of us is born with
and use those gifts in a co-operative way to build a better world for everyone.

Our history is one of struggle. Our growth has always come as the result of suffering and
sacrifice. Our history is littered with those who would try to build enormous wealth,
whether they are nations, corporations or individuals. These empires always come to an
end. Our real history is the story of how people are able to create alternatives to empire,
struggle against those with the power and wealth, and make lasting changes that improve
the lives of all of us.

There have been some remarkable examples of how the struggle of people to release
themselves from the exploitation with which they have lived has led to a better world.

The people of India chose a path of peaceful non-compliance with the colonial rules
under which they lived and marched to the sea, made their own salt and eventually
regained their country. Gandhi’s example is one that inspires us all to the possibilities of
the human spirit. It is possible to create change and achieve justice without armed
struggle.

In the labour movement, workers fought for many other rights for workers and their
families and today we all enjoy the benefits of the victories of the labour movement.

Women around the world over the last century have stood up and sought equal rights as
persons and citizens. In the vast majority of the world’ s countries, women have
achieved increased equality.

Black people in the United States and South Africa organized themselves to become
equal participants as citizens of their respective countries.

It is simply true that we are much better off to have had the opportunity to witness the
likes of Nellie McClung, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. Like Gandhi, they are
beacons of the human spirit’s ability to transcend inequality and teach lessons of love to
both the perpetrators of inequality, and the victims.




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From the signing of the Magna Carta to the crumbling of apartheid, there is an endless
supply of examples of how the human spirit has triumphed over greed, oppression and
exploitation.

However, what we have been facing in the last 20 years is something new, different, and
quite frightening. The liberal-capitalist model of economics has been unleashed with a
fury. It has found a way to circumvent the abilities of governments to regulate it.

In spite of dwindling resources, a growing gap between the richest and the poorest, and
the exposure of the fragility of our national democratic structures, little has been done to
correct this obvious erosion of collective welfare that was won at so dear a cost. What
we have is a new type of colonial rule. It is corporate colonialism, whereby control by
distant corporate boardrooms has replaced the old form of colonial rule, exercised by
distant governments.

If we don’t rise to meet this challenge, what will the consequences be?

We will, by our silence and inaction give our tacit approval to the further inevitable and
irreversible destruction of our natural environment. There will be continued growth in
the gap between richest and poorest, between rich countries and poor countries.

Why can’t we fix this? Every time that we are faced with a decision that requires a choice
between limiting the ability of corporations to increase their wealth or continuing our
destruction we choose the course of destruction. This is happening despite the fact that
the majority of the citizens of the world would prefer it were otherwise.

We are by our habits of consumption contributing to the ever-widening gap between the
richest and the poorest. We see the result of this gap in the growth of conflict, terrorism,
starvation and death. We are already seeing the new corporate response to this in the new
US foreign policy. We are seeing millions die of AIDS in Africa as drug companies
withhold drugs and they enforce their patent rights to prevent the production of cheaper
generic brands. We see famine and hunger in such overwhelming magnitude that the
images of skeletal children with bulging bellies and eyes no longer move us to pity. That
is the result of the corporate stewardship of this planet.

There are of course many other examples: homeless people freeze to death in our city
streets; suicide rates among aboriginal people in Canada are astronomical; the continually
low literacy and life expectancy in the countries of Asia, Africa and south and central
America.

There are those among us that have already been moved to action. We see young people
standing up to police brutality as they take to the streets to demonstrate in Seattle, Quebec
City and other places. Canadian citizens are being tried today for the crime of catapulting
teddy bears at riot police. What is happening to our Canadian rights to free speech and
demonstration? Rights we had formerly thought of as intrinsic to us as citizens of a




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democratic country are being taken away from us. Those who occupy the colonial
headquarters in the corporate boardrooms are rewriting the laws of our country.

But it is the unquenchable nature of the human spirit to rise up against injustice that keeps
the struggle going. We hear the voice of the human spirit in the songs of Bruce Cockburn,
in books by Naomi Klein, in the writings of Ken Wiwa, in the movies of Michael Moore.

Where can this energy be more constructively channeled? How can we turn the energy of
being AGAINST into the creative force of building an alternative?

People are searching for a better way. We are looking for a fair, equitable and human way
to organize ourselves to use and distribute the limited resources of this planet for the
benefit of us all as opposed to the few. There is a way to do this. We can make the next
big leap and create a system of economic democracy.

Of course there IS an economic system that is based on democracy, equality and mutual
self-help. However, it is virtually unknown among those activists and agents for social
change that are described above.

Described below are the definition, values and principles of the Co-operative economic
system that is possible.

Statement of the Co-operative Identify
Definition
A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their
common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned
and democratically-controlled enterprise.

Values
Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, democracy, equality, equity, and
solidarity. Co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness,
social responsibility, and caring for others.

1st Principle: Voluntary and Open Membership

2nd Principle: Democratic Member Control

3rd Principle: Member Economic Participation

4th Principle: Autonomy and Independence

5th Principle: Education, Training and Information

6th Principle: Co-operation Among Co-operatives

7th Principle: Concern for Community



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Imagine what a different world it would be if all businesses were formed using these
principles and values. Imagine what it would be like living in this world. I often ask
myself, “why are we not living in this world?”

There have been times when this form of human enterprise has taken hold of peoples’
imaginations and regional co-operative movements have sprung up and transformed
regional economies.

There was the Antigonish Movement in the Maritimes in the 1930’s through the 1960’s.
There is the ongoing creation of the Co-operative economy of the Mondragon region of
Basques Spain. There is the Desjardins movement in Quebec, which got underway in the
early part of the last century. Today the Emilia Romagna region of Italy stands as a
current example. In Argentina and in Russia with economies in shambles, bankrupt firms
are being seized by their workers and turned into worker-owned co-operatives. Thus
there are examples of times and places where the Co-operative way of life infused the
public conscience and transformed peoples’ lives. Our challenge is to bring this same
energy, imagination, creativity and drive to a movement that exists on a global scale. We
need to move from the theory of a Co-operative movement to the reality of a Co-
operative movement.

What is required to create a large-scale Co-operative Movement?

The key is that we need to get the message out. There are large numbers of people who
want to see this kind of change occur. They simply don’t know that it is available. We
need to tell the people who are in the front lines of the anti-globalization movement. We
need to tell the leaders of the alternative, political, social and economic organizations that
are springing up in response to disparity that exists in the world. We need to tell the
young people. We need schools at all levels to get involved. We need to get together as
equals with ordinary people in other countries who are facing the same struggles that we
are, only in a bigger way. So, what are the ingredients that we need to get to the reality
of a global Co-operative Movement?

    1. We need clarity of vision and mission, and we need an action plan.
    2. We need leaders such as in the past we had the Rochdale pioneers, Alphonse
       Desjardins, Moses Coady of Nova Scotia and Beatrice Potter.
    3. We need to infuse the popular culture with the Co-operative values. We need
       singers such as Woody Guthrie, Tracy Chapman, Bruce Cockburn. We need
       writers and poets and filmmakers.
    4. We need a network of organizers, Co-operative development activists who have
       the technical expertise and access to resources to assist groups of people to start
       their own co-operatives.

Everywhere I turn I see bright, articulate people describing the problems. They are
simply searching for the solution. The solution is obviously a Co-operative one.
However, they don’t suggest it, because they don’t know it, or they associate it with


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another age or they are stuck in the self-interest paradigm of our current economic model.
We have to show how co-operatives can address the problems we are now facing.

We need to recognize the important role of large existing co-operatives, and invite them
to be part of this movement. However, we must recognize that they are mainly
concerned about looking after their members’ needs. We cannot expect them to lead, but
we can invite them to join us. And if the existing co-ops and credit unions are not
addressing their members’ or community’s concerns appropriately, then each of us needs
to get involved, to vote in their elections, to run for their Boards of directors.

Perhaps more importantly, we also need to empower people to form new co-operatives in
every sphere of life. Co-ops need to be in all areas of life -- work, housing, health care,
seniors’ needs. Then we will have entities that we own and control that can’t be taken
over by corporate colonizers.

The loss of meaningful political democracy to the corporate colonizers means that we
must obtain economic democracy in order to have meaningful political democracy, again.
The political leadership has usually been purchased by the corporate agenda. Obtaining
economic democracy will help ensure that we maintain or regain more meaningful
political democracy.


In summary, the current global economic system has grown into something which does
not serve people; it serves capital. The liberal-capitalist model of economics has been
unleashed with a fury. More and more people around the world are becoming critical of
this global corporatist model, from peace activists, to environmentalists, and most
directly those who have raised their voices against corporate globalization, from Seattle
to Québec City to Porto Alegre to Davos. The chants of these courageous groups -- "This
is What Democracy Looks Like" and "Another World is Possible" -- ring out across the
globe, early sounds of a search for something beyond resistance, for fresh alternatives.

An alternative exists: an economic system based on co-operation. The problem is that
THE CO-OPERATIVE SOLUTION IS VIRTUALLY UNKNOWN, EVEN THOUGH
MORE AND MORE PEOPLE ARE SEARCHING FOR IT. ONCE WE GET THE
IDEA OUT, MAINLY THROUGH POPULAR CULTURE, PEOPLE WILL TAKE IT
OVER AND ADAPT IT TO MEET THEIR NEEDS.

Whether or not we can succeed, our goal is to launch a movement, to use the "theory-of-a
co-operative-movement" to build a TRUE Co-operative Movement.

In our vision, the spirit of the Antigonish co-operative movement would be re-kindled
and spread across the globe. In order to re-kindle this spirit, popular culture would have
to become a central part of the co-operative movement. We feel it is vital to provide a
central place for songs, popular theatre, electronic media, festivals and other creative
expressions. We need songwriters, poets, writers and, eventually organizers. A sample
song is available - "THE BIG IDEA", by Greg O'Neill (see next paper).



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Some questions to think about are written below.

1.Why are there not more co-operatives in your region; in the world?
2.What can we do to popularize the co-operative concept, so that it can play a much
greater role in the economy?
3.Do you know of a song about co-operatives/co-operation? (If so, please send it to us.)
4.What is the relationship of the co-operative movement to other social movements?
5.What is the role of existing co-operatives, credit unions, and support organizations in
helping to build a co-operative movement? and in building links with other progressive
anti-corporate movements?
6. Is there a reason why the entire global economy could not be based on co-operatives?

This is the discussion we started at the University of Victoria Conferences in May, 2003.

If you want to be involved, you could sign the Co-operative Movement Declaration, you
could decide to learn more about the co-operative approach, you could begin to patronize
the co-operatives you already belong to or to form new ones.

It will take all of us to build a co-operative world.




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