Winston Churchill is purported to have said: “Capitalism is not the best system, but it is the best so far.” The quote seemed out of character for someone who was openly critical of a system so given to greed and corruption. Fact is, he actually said this about democracy, not capitalism – the capitalists “borrowed” Churchill’s “political capital” to support their cause.
As I searched quotes about capitalism, I soon realized that there were significantly more quotes against capitalism than for it. They came from renowned politicians (including Churchill), economists, business leaders, gangsters (Al Capone) and even US founding father, Thomas Jefferson. Yet, we are told all the time in the media that there is no better system than capitalism. In fact, you may be branded a communist and or even a threat to a successful, progressive society simply by questioning the fairness of capitalism. In light of the melt-down of capitalism in 2008 and the world-wide repercussions which we are all still feeling today, it is appropriate, maybe even prophetic, that 2012 is the United Nation’s International Year of Cooperatives.
Cooperatives are an alternative to the idea that capital (money) is the most important ingredient in an enterprise and therefore deserves the majority of the rewards (profits). Alternatively, cooperatives are founded on the premise of people working together for their mutual benefit. They are unofficially defined as “an organization owned by its members who use its services”. Cooperatives first appeared in the UK in the mid 1800s. They differ from other organizations in that they benefit the members based on the amount they use the services of the organization rather than on the basis of their capital input. This frees the organization to serve members’ needs rather than focusing on returns for investors.
There are many examples of large scale cooperatives in Canada and around the world: ACE Hardware, Mutual of Omaha Insurance, State Farm Insurance, True Value, Piggly Wiggly (USA), Mountain Equipment Coop, Co-operators Insurance, Gay Lee Foods, Desjardins Group, United Farmers of Alberta, and Coop Atlantic (Canada). There are over 9000 cooperatives in Canada employing 155,000 people with more than 18 million members. In most regions, you can buy general insurance, life insurance, and banking and financial services from credit unions. Cooperatives provide energy services, food production, housing, and mutual purchasing, to name just a few. Almost any service can be acquired through a cooperative in most cities. Cooperatives are an alternative that is based on the principle that there is a synergistic effect which benefits all the participants when they work together.
When the banking system collapsed in Argentina and owners deserted their businesses and their workers, they were taken over by cooperatives (groups of workers) and run very successfully – even to this day. After the economic storms subsided, the owners and managers tried unsuccessfully to regain control.
Families are the simplest form of a cooperative, and when any group works together, large or small, and the parties mutually benefit, it’s a cooperative. Cooperatives place value on all the components that make an enterprise successful, not just capital. Most corporations’ sole objective is to make as much money as possible, any way they can. Corporations have no conscience and rarely are they prosecuted for their crimes the way individuals are. Every day in the news, we see the consequences of unconscionable greed by multi-national corporations. Could cooperatives be an effective alternative to the unbridled self-interest that threatens to destroy the planet and our financial systems?
Capitalism’s greed is considered “tolerable” in part because we don’t believe there is another alternative. Its values and objectives are in direct conflict with the environment, the public, and governments whose mandate it is to serve the common good. Cooperatives offer an alternative and a model for people to accomplish almost anything. They are the way of the future and the past. They benefit the 100% rather than the 1% and they are capable of stimulating innovation, creativity, and efficiency without overly exploiting the planet or its workers.