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Thursday, March 1, 2012 03:54 am

Cooperatives over corporations

We’re being told by today’s High Priests of Conventional Wisdom that everyone and everything in our economic cosmos necessarily revolves around one dazzling star: the corporation.

This heavenly institution, the HPCW explain, has such financial and political mass that it is the optimal force for organizing and directing our society’s economic affairs, including the terms of employment and production. While other forces are in play (workers, consumers, the environment, communities and so forth), they are subordinate to the superior gravitational pull of the corporate order.

How nice. For the wealthy few. Not nice for the rest of us, though. We’re presently seeing the effect of this enthronement of self-serving corporate elites. Millions of Americans are out of work, underemployed and tumbling from the middle class down toward poverty. Yet excessively paid and pampered CEOs are idly sitting on some $2 trillion in cash, refusing to put that enormous pile of money to work on job creation.

But wait. The choices for our country’s rising forces of economic and political democracy are not limited to corporate or government control. There’s another, much better way of organizing America’s economic strength: The Cooperative Way.

Cooperatives can (and do) provide a deeply democratic, locally controlled, highly productive, efficient percolate-up capitalism. Co-ops are wholly in step with the values, character, spirit and history of the American people.

While socialism has been cast by the corporatists as a destroyer of our sainted free-enterprise system, the cooperative approach is not an -ism at all, but a democratic structure that literally frees the enterprise of the great majority of Americans – which is why the co-op movement is fast spreading throughout our country.

While it’s rarely mentioned by the conventional media and completely missing in the political discourse, there are 30,000 cooperatives in America (with 73,000 places of business).

There are several types of co-ops, including those owned by workers (there are 11,000 of these, with 13 million worker-owners). Also, there are cooperatives owned by consumers, producers, local businesses, artists and communities, as well as hybrids of those categories. They function in every sector of our economy. Co-op businesses do everything that a corporation can do, but with a democratic structure, an equitable sharing of income and a commitment to the common good of the community and future generations.

You might be surprised to learn that such national brand names as ACE Hardware, Best Western Hotels, Organic Valley, REI and True Value Hardware are organized as co-ops, rather than as corporations. The strength of the movement, however, is in the limitless number of local cooperatives flowering all across the country.

Cooperatives are a big, structural reform that ordinary Americans can implement right where they live, giving small groups a pragmatic and effective way to push back against the arrogance and avarice of the centralized, hierarchical corporate model. Not only do co-ops work economically, they also make people important again, offering real democratic participation and putting some “unity” back in “community.”

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist and author.

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