Here's the definition of capitalism: an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market. (Merriam Webster, emphasis mine.)
If our economy is based on private decisions regulated by a "free" market, then who is taking the waste and neglect into consideration? Who is taking into consideration the fact that the ones with money create the market to their advantage? Who is seeing the larger picture? We are seeing the limits of capitalism very clearly now. Capitalism's fatal flaw is the fact that it doesn't have a value system, it is amoral. It purports to regulate human greed by relying on a free market to keep it in check. Seeing the degradation of our environment, the quarter of our people who live in poverty, the widening wealth gap, and the push for deregulation of the very businesses that got us into trouble the last time, where is this "free" market? Under capitalism a "free" market is an unachievable ideal! What capitalism does instead is normalize greed, not regulate it.
Fortunately there is an alternative to capitalism that has been practiced by businesses for over one hundred and fifty years, and practiced informally for millennia before that. These businesses function not as capitalist enterprises but as cooperatives. Here's the definition: A cooperative 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. (International Cooperative Alliance, emphasis mine.)
Cooperatives nourish a free market and they have ownership. The difference is that they also have a value system and include and empower rather than exclude and amass. Cooperatives are owned by the people who use their services and are therefore controlled by a community, not a single individual. Their goal is to meet needs, keep the wealth in the community and offer meaningful work at good pay. Cooperatives bring people together, capitalism tears them apart. Capitalism pits one against the other while cooperatives nourish our better natures and allow communities to build businesses that support deep values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. Capitalism does not build true character, it simply teaches that those that have will get. Cooperatives educate their members in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others. All these values arise out of the fact that the business is built cooperatively by those benefiting from the business. Shared ownership can only work when the owners all understand the work of cooperation.
What if we started to view America as a cooperative enterprise? What if we thought of our taxes as going toward our common good the same way our shares in our co-ops go for our common good? What if we accepted that good government and wise regulation is a requirement to protect our country from harm, be it from external threats or internal greed the same way our co-ops develop structures and processes to create the most good? What if we accepted that a free market is only possible when everyone has an equitable way to participate in that market? What if we considered a way to include all voices in our decision making the way our coops do rather than the current winner-take-all and losers just get over it attitude? What if we trusted each other to have everyone's best interest at heart? How could that even be possible?
I believe it could be possible if cooperatives were the dominant business model. Working together to build a business that meets a community's needs trains the people involved in the very work that it takes to become a community. This is hands-on, project-based learning at its very best. Crafting a profitable business together is probably the hardest work there is and the most exciting because it is building up something precious, needed and real that is shared with others. In a capitalist business enterprise, the work is shared but the profits are controlled by the owner. What is the difference between that and the old feudal system? In a cooperative the work is shared and so are the profits.
I believe the time has come for cooperatives to get the attention they deserve. Business schools should start teaching this model of business on an equal footing with capitalism. Laws should reflect the value of cooperatives in our society and support their healthy development. They should become the norm and in that normalization, they will heal our democracy in the most profound way. Through the building of cooperative enterprises, we will learn how to be a community again, we will learn the work it takes and the rewards it offers. Deep values will be nourished and the human tendency toward greed will be replaced by the human tendency toward generosity. Cooperatives include and empower, just the things we need today.
Linda Jones, Founder and Co-President.