Cathy-SmallMeet Cathy, the Cooperative Development Institute’s new answerwoman! She can take on any co-op questions you might have, big or small. Today we ask: what is the role of co-ops in the new economy? See all of Cathy’s answers and ask your own on her home page.

To answer this question we need to look backward, at old–and older–economies.

The New Economy, according to the New Economy Coalition, is “restorative to people, place, and planet,” and “operates according to principles of democracy, justice and appropriate scale.” That’s in contrast to our current or “old” world economy, which for a few millennia, and especially the last several hundred years, has operated on principles that are extractive rather than restorative, without regard to democracy, justice, or appropriate scale. But for millennia before that, most people lived in economies that were mostly not harmful to places or the planet, and in the formative years of our species, most human groups lived according to egalitarian and cooperative principles (see “The Sociobiology of Democracy” by Peter Corning for one take on the role of genes and evolution in political outcomes). Appropriate scale was achieved through federation, extensive trade networks, and occasional large social and productive gatherings. The “new” of new economy refers to the application and development of very old ways of doing things in our modern day lives.

Cooperatives in their current, modern form were developed as a form of resistance to the effects of the Industrial Revolution on workers, consumers, and farmers (see John Curl’s book, For All the People). But cooperation, reciprocity, mutuality — working together to achieve joint aims that benefit all — have been widespread in many cultures for as long as there have been humans. People brought to the Americas from Africa as slaves, for example, formed mutual aid and burial benefit societies, arranged to buy the freedom of slaves, and cooperatively purchased land. This behavior was ingrained in their culture, as demonstrated by the Akan (Ghanaian) proverbs “The well-being of man depends on his fellow man (onipa yieye firi onipa)” and “The right arm washes the left arm and the left arm washes the right arm (wo nsa nifa hohorow benkum, na benkum nso hohorow nifa).

Cooperatives today are a strong and flourishing strand of economic activity with history, support networks, and enabling legislation. While not all cooperatives may fit perfectly into the “new economy” rubric, many do, and all cooperatives create the possibility of doing so. For people who are looking for ways to actually put into practice the new economy, cooperatives are a ready-made vehicle for satisfying economic needs democratically and according to values and principles.

So the role of cooperatives in the New Economy is several-fold. On the one hand, they are a good demonstration that “new economy” structures are viable and effective at everything from providing food to delivering healthcare, organizing ski resorts to managing international trade. Furthermore, given their established stature, cooperatives as an organized group can advocate in support of the new economy. Cooperatives also hold out promising possibilities for addressing difficult economic and cultural problems, such as unemployment, poverty, ecological degradation, and exclusion.

That said, cooperatives also need to play a role of students in our common quest to re-learn and newly apply the knowledge and structures of older economies. We’ve got a ways to go before we even know how to have a whole new economy.

So – what do you think? Share your thoughts about the subject in the comments below, or ask your own question for Cathy!

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Ask Co-op Cathy: What is the role of co-ops in the New Economy?
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