Open Co-operatives (1)

In the last few months, there’s been an emerging discussion around the idea of ‘open co-operatives’ as a new model of co-operatives, alongside the existing models of worker, multi-stakeholder, consumer and housing co-operatives. Notably, Ed Mayo, Secretary General of Co-operatives UK, predicted that 2014 will see the emergence of ‘open co-operatives’. The basic idea is that the P2P and co-operative movements have much to learn and gain by being combined as a constituted form of democratic  production and distribution of the commons.

Earlier this week, Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation published a short statement arguing for Why We Need a New Kind of Open Cooperatives for the P2P Age. I have exchanged a couple of emails with Michel in response to the document and wanted to write up my thoughts so far here. [the mailing list archive is closed to non-members, otherwise I would quote Michel more extensively below].

I am very much in favour of bringing the P2P movement and the Co-operative movement together to learn from each other and even create a new, additional model of co-operative that exists alongside other co-operative models. When setting up the Co-operative Universities mailing list, I suggested early on that we consider how the P2P and Co-op movements could focus on education together. That was a year ago and although a number of us have been working regularly on the idea of co-operative higher education, I have not followed up on my initial proposal that we seek to combine P2P and Co-ops, when thinking about higher education. I know that my friend, Richard Hall, has also recognised the need to think this through more urgently, too.

At the moment, because of an article I am writing, I am thinking about how a convergence of P2P and co-operativism could develop the idea and practice of ‘open education’, something I return to, critically, now and again (here, here, here, here).

My main issue with open education is that it largely relies on the existing system of education to support it, through the creation of OERs and publishing of Open Access research. The sustainability of each of these is still being worked out. The P2PU is an exception, I think, where an organisation has been developed to research and provide open education by co-ordinating volunteers, though I don’t know how autonomous or democratic it is (that’s not to suggest it is not democratic or autonomous, I genuinely don’t know). In my view, the co-operative movement has been tackling this issue for over 150 yrs: how to create open, democratic, autonomous, social institutions with eduction as a core principle; and how to institute ‘common ownership’ in a legal and social sense.

In this latter sense, a co-operative for free, public, higher education that I am involved in called the Social Science Centre, could be considered a form of open education in the way that I have in mind. It is constituted on co-operative values and principles; common ownership is written into the constitution; we share our work widely and it is free and open to anyone who wants to be involved. We share the product of our work and the assets of the co-operative are ‘social’ or ‘common’ in the sense that no individual member owns them and that should we dissolve, they will be passed on to a similar cause. It is small, experimental and its assets amount to very little, but in terms of its social form, we are trying to achieve open education as I would like to see it developed, beyond the desire to widen participation.


Michel Bauwen’s statement on open co-operatives for the ‘P2P Age’ outlines four recommendations, which he elaborates on in his document:

  1. That coops need to be statutorily (internally) oriented towards the common good
  2. That coops need to have governance models including all stakeholders
  3. That coops need to actively co-produce the creation of immaterial and material commons
  4. That coops need to be organized socially and politically on a global basis, even as they produce locally.

In principle, I agree with each of these, although as I have pointed out to Michel in our email exchange, much of this already exists in the co-operative movement (with one major exception) and the extent that the detail is worked through depends on the degree to which this is seen as a transition to something else, or the objective itself. I think that Michel sees this as a transitional step. Good.

1. ‘Common Ownership’ as defined in the UK satisfies the first point, I think. Pages 656-663 of this article discuss why. Basically, in the UK, the Industrial Common Ownership Act (1976), later reinforced by the Companies Act 2006, legally defines a form of social property called ‘common ownership’ that, should a member of a co-operative leave, they cannot take a share with them (since they don’t ‘own’ any shares), and should the co-operative dissolve for whatever reason, the members as a collective, cannot divide the assets among themselves but must, rather, pass those assets on to an organisation constituted in the same way. In effect, there are no ‘owners’ of the co-operative, only ‘members’, who act as Stewards for a later generation. I have discussed this at more length from p.27 of my recent conference paper on the ‘co-operative university’.

Co-operatives UK’s worker co-op model includes this provision. Radical Routes require this of all co-operatives that they fund.

Therefore, I think the statement in Bauwen’s document: “they work for their own members, not the common good” is wrong in many cases, although I recognise there are plenty of coops that operate on an individual equity model, such as Mondragon.

The really radical decision that an ‘open co-operative’ as Bauwen has defined it would take, is that in some or even many situations, the product of the co-operative, and not just its assets, would also, from the point of production, form part of the commons, too. This is achieved through the use of an open license, following the precedent of the open source, P2P and free culture movement. It aims to promote sharing between individuals and like-minded co-operatives, with the exception that “for-profit companies that do not contributes to the commons have to pay for the use of the license.” In his email, Michel clarified this by saying that “what I proposed to be common is both the immaterial output and the material means, but not the rival products.” That is, the ‘rival‘ products continue to be sold (unless a different form of exchange is agreed with the consumer), but the non-rival, immaterial products as well as the means of production (the co-operative’s assets), are constituted as a commons through a combination of legislation (in the UK at least) and license agreements.

The Industrial Common Ownership Act does not require the co-operative to openly license their product, but is only concerned with the co-operative’s capital, not its output. This is the really distinctive and challenging feature of ‘open co-operatives’, especially for those that aim to produce material goods, rather than immaterial goods or non-rivalrous goods. With the provision that we acknowledge the material foundations of the immaterial social world, we know that a commons can exist for immaterial products (FLOSS) and we know that a commons can exist for the means of production (‘Common Ownership’), but can it be extended to rivalrous goods?

For clarity, here is Michel’s own words from the email:

i) no artificial scarcity, so the knowledge, code and design are indeed commons

ii) but the rival products can be sold on the market (of course, other methods would be possible within a cooperative network)

iii) what is new, and it comes from dmytri kleiner, is the idea to also try to create ‘material commons’ that transcend the ownership by only the owners of the coop, but is an attempt to create more powerful global material commons; I am myself not sure of all the exact details of how the latter would work (see

2. On the next point in his article, Michel proposes a model whereby all people who come in contact with the co-op are recognised as members in some way. Currently, the ‘multi-stakeholder’ model aims to accommodate this type of co-operative, where producers, consumers and service users, are involved in the democratic governance of the co-operative. I have recently learned about a version of this called ‘Solidarity Co-operatives’ in Quebec, which in my mind is a more appealing way of describing the model.

My concern with recognising the various stakeholders involved is that it reinforces the roles of capitalist society, rather than abolishing them. If there are producers and consumers, then there is a division of labour and, according to Marx and Engels at least, the result of the division of labour is private property. They are one and the same thing (I also discuss this in my conference paper above). Again, Michel sees the Solidarity model as a transitional one, rather than the end objective. Good, although we should be careful about confusing fundamental compromises with the idea of a strategic, transitional move. Co-operatives have been blamed for their ‘degeneration’ into capitalist forms before (see Egan’s paper) and it remains a serious risk.

In his email, he gave the example of a doctor and patient each of whom have clear roles as stakeholders in a health co-operative. For me, the example of doctor and patient is interesting as, perhaps more than any other social relationship, it assumes that the needs of the patient and the capacity/ability of the doctor is non-reciprocal. If ever there was a relationship that was unequal in a positive sense, it is that of caring for someone.

It seems to me that the open licenses and governance structures of the ‘open coop’ are intended to create a substitute to the social role of money, in the sense that they create a different form and measure of reciprocal equivalence (money being the universal equivalence today). This seems like a good transitional step towards social relations which are not required to be based on any universal form of equivalence (i.e. From each according to their ability to each according to their needs: positive, non-reciprocity).

Time and again, we assume that a radical politics should aim for equality and reciprocity, yet this is the logic of capital and its expression in money. For Marx, full communism (which is not to be confused with the state capitalism of China, Soviet Union, etc.), was “from each to each”, recognising the natural differences between people and their respective needs and abilities. As Marx said in his Critique of the Gotha Programme,

“But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only — for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal… In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

I recognise that we are far from a society where the principle of “equal right” has been overcome. Marx saw this as a feature of capitalism, one which will gradually be stigmatized and regarded as incompatible with the increasingly abundant productive forces of society.

“Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.”

If we isolate the way that free and open source software is produced and distributed today, I think that we can see a prefigurative form of this future society, where it seems absurd to many people that we should require a reciprocal relationship between the producer of software and the consumer – in fact these two roles are to some extent abolished in thriving open source communities. What is required – and I think this is what Michel and the P2P Foundation are attempting to do, is generalise this positive form of non-reciprocity – from each to each –  beyond the confines of the digital, immaterial social world.

To put it simply: Reciprocity is the logic of (imposed) scarcity. Non-reciprocity is the logic of abundance.

I will address points three and four of Michel’s proposal in another post soon, when I’ve had a chance to look at the specific P2P licenses and Venture Communism in detail. Comments here are very welcome.

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