Can co-operatives provide an alternative to capitalism?

Shaking Hands

Aidan Jones under a Creative Commons Licence

As the world crawls back from near total economic meltdown, only to teeter on the edge of the climate change abyss, people are increasingly asking: is there an alternative to capitalism?

The good news is a newly resurgent global co-op movement is now limbering up as a serious challenger. But can co-ops realistically provide an answer to some of today’s most pressing problems – from rampant inequality and austerity politics to economic turmoil and climate chaos?

To help answer these questions, Ethical Consumer magazine ran an essay competition in 2012, which was the UN-backed International Year of Co-operatives, and invited people to submit responses to the question ‘Is there a co-operative alternative to capitalism?’

People Over Capitalism bookMore than 40 essays were submitted, from around the world. The best and most thought-provoking are now being showcased in a new book published by New Internationalist, People over Capital: The Co-operative Alternative to Capitalism, which is being launched at a public event in London on 27 September 2013.

‘Written by an eclectic mix of academics, campaigners and active members of co-ops, the essays represents a lively debate that examines and highlights what co-ops can offer the world economy and crucially how we can extend their benefits to more people,’ says Rob Harrison, co-editor of Ethical Consumer magazine and the book’s editor.

With inspirational examples of how co-ops are helping people to transform battered economies and communities around the world, the book positively shouts out its key message that yes, an alternative to capitalism does exist – and if we’re smart enough then we just might be able to save ourselves from a market-driven oblivion.

Leading the charge of the co-ops is Ed Mayo, secretary general of Co-ops UK, the trade body that promotes co-ops in the UK. He smashes the perception that co-ops have a mere walk-on part on the world stage. ‘Globally, co-ops employ over 100 million people, 20 per cent more than multinational businesses, whilst the largest 300 co-ops in the world have an annual turnover of over $1 trillion,’ he writes.

Mayo argues that the time is right for co-ops: ‘What is interesting is that the context is perhaps better suited to co-operative enterprise than for many a year. The sources of business value are now more around innovation, creativity and relationships. Technology is creating more and more opportunities for ordinary people to participate and collaborate.’

The success of co-operatively created open-source software and internet infrastructure such as OpenOffice and Wordpress are cited in the book as glittering examples of how co-operative projects can out-compete capitalist businesses on their own limited terms of price and quality.

But even if the world were run by large co-operative businesses, would there still be downfalls?

‘A couple of authors believe that scaled-up co-ops have just as big a negative impact as big multinationals,’ says Harrison.

Other authors point out that you don’t necessarily need to be a co-op to be a sustainable business, given that there are a number of privately and sustainably run companies such as Café Direct, Good Energy and Marks and Spencer, as long as you have a progressive social and environmental agenda embedded at your core.

Overall though, the abiding message of the book is that co-ops may be underplaying their potential significance, says Mayo: ‘The values of co-operative self-help and mutual aid are more relevant than ever for those who wish to see shared prosperity and the emergence of a sustainable economy.’

All are welcome at the launch of People over Capital: The Co-operative Alternative to Capitalism in London on Friday 27 September. The event will include talks from Rob Harrison, Ed Mayo and other leaders from the UK's co-op movement. For more details, click here.

This blog originally appeared on the Guardian website.