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Cooperatives and the Good Life

by Elmar Altvater Tuesday, May. 01, 2012 at 10:21 AM

The rights of businesses in exploiting resources end in the rights of nature according to the constitution of the bien vivir. This understanding of the person-nature relation surpasses the rationalist model of rule over nature realized in capitalism's globalized praxis. Art 395 of Ecuador's constitution affirms sustainability.



By Elmar Altvater

{This article published in: Blaetter fur deutsche und internationale Politik, April 2012, is translated from the German on the Internet http://www.blaetter.de/archiv/jahrgaenge/2012/april/genossenschaft-und-gutes-leben.

Elmar Altvater is an emeritus professor of political economy at the Free University of Berlin and a prolific author of books on globalization and the economic crisis.]

The attention of all climate- and development decision makers is directed at the coming mammoth UN conference “Rio + 20.” Although hardly anyone noticed, we have been living in the UN Year of Cooperatives since January 1, 2012.

The UN Secretary General Ban K. Moon reminded the international community that economic efficiency and social responsibility can be realized at the same time. [1] Cooperatives are merely a variation of his eulogy of the “global compact.” Its principles of “corporate social responsibility” and profit-making are “two sides of the same coin.” Growth can be “sustainable” and “bring social progress alongside profit.” [2]

The free markets with their shareholder value logic maneuver capitalism to the edge of collapse, namely to a destructive financial-, state debt and monetary crisis. Hunger returns, a constant attendant of humankind that the UN challenged in its “millennium goals” in the 21st century. The supplies of fossil energy come to an end and an energy crisis threatens. CO2 emissions fall much too little to prevent climate collapse. In this way, the systemic prerequisites of the capitalist production method – natural resources and the institutions of social cohesion – are systematically undermined by this capitalism. Even Klaus Schwab, the head of the World Economic Forum in Davos, admitted in 2012: “The capitalist system no longer suits the world.” [3] Concrete capitalism as we know it has obviously reached the end of a cul-de-sac of its development. [4] The “victory in the Cold War” first gave free rein to the capitalist forces. However the euphoria about the supposed “end of history” did not last long. Allegedly “without alternative,” the development of concrete capitalism leads increasingly into crisis. In this morning-after feeling, the UN recalls the cooperatives that accompanied the acquisitive capitalist society from the beginning as a “moral economy.” [5] The statistics published by the UN [6] are quite impressive: 800 million persons in 100 countries are comrades in rural and industrial, housing- and credit cooperatives. Energy cooperatives are in vogue in the exodus from massive fossil and nuclear power stations and in the entrance into a de-carbonized solar and therefore decentralized energy economy. Doctors also increasingly organize cooperatively in praxis communities. After being reduced under the pressure of state debt crises, communal services are now becoming cooperatives in many cases. Even the so-called creatives, the models of the new individualism of the Internet galaxy idolized by neoliberals, often offer their services in a cooperative form. The reasons for all this are obvious. One can save costs, distribute the risk on several shoulders, mobilize synergies and have fun.


Even if the society is not changed when individual enterprises are carried out cooperatively as non-profit institutions, collectives of labor represent the “moral economy” against the contemptible “morality of acquisition” (Karl Marx) of the capitalist current of profit maximization and exploitation. [7] Cooperatives have traditions deeply rooted in social history. In and with capitalism, they experienced an upswing. They demonstrate that all spacers are not commodified and that collective economies are “embedded in society.” Economies in the “niches” are different and not individualist and private. Their form is not always the same everywhere. German cooperatives and Italian cooperatives, the “good life” (“buen vivir”) of Indian communities in Latin America and the artisan cooperatives in pre-revolutionary Russia and modern exchange-rings in crisis-shaken Greece are considerably different. For that reason the term “solidarity economy” may be more appropriate for grasping the diversity of cooperative and communal economies. [8]


Cooperatives are often “children of distress,” an organized collective self-help against hunger, unemployment, loss of the dignity of work and human dignity. In his “Report from Germany” (1946), Willy Brandt wrote: “When we were still rich, we didn’t want to be socialist. Now after becoming poor, we are forced to become socialist.” [9] Therefore the solidarity economy arises again and again as defense of the dignity of the “indignados,” the humiliated and enraged. The boom of cooperatives in Argentina at the beginning of the 21st century was a direct consequence of the economic crisis at the end of the Menem era with its brutal neoliberal economic policy of expropriating the little people. The “dollarized” market economy did not function any more as in the late 1990s. The upgrading of their currency on account of the bond of the peso to the US dollar blocked exports and lowered the price of imports. The currency reserves melted away. The movements of the land- and factory occupations first spontaneously and successfully reorganized production until the occupations of social (territorial) spaces were given a legal form through a sovereign act as cooperatives. Thus the “Occupy” movement from the US that also occupied the banking district in Frankfurt and Paris has a Latin American pre-history. The movement of the landless took possession of land; factory-occupiers took possession of factories, the “Piqueteros” the Argentinean streets, the so-called “socio-territorial” movements the territories with the mineral resources and the water. [10] In the European crisis, new solidarity forms of economics are developing today. Every year 300 are added in Germany to the 5500 registered cooperatives, the German cooperative association reports. [11] Local and Internet-based exchange rings are sometimes understood by their protagonists as pre-forms of a new society that ward off the distress of the grave crisis. This is manifest in the loss of jobs, in the reduction of incomes and in deep cuts in social state benefits. In Greece, life for millions of persons became even more desolate after the cut-orgy forced by the Troika when there was no “solidarity economy.” The movement is advancing in Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and elsewhere in Latin America where it has gained the support of governments and institutions of the political system in the form of so-called “incubadoras (publically financed “incubators”) to support social initiatives. Therefore the question whether cooperative solidarity activities should be organized by the state or against the state inevitably comes on the agenda. [12] How can cooperative production and state (re-) distribution form a unity and join forces in a political project? How can the nation, state and social initiatives constitute the future social model of“socialism in the 21st century”? With the help of these questions, the historical range of the current “leftist” governments in many Latin American countries opens up.


Franz Oppenheimer's “transformation paradox” [13] seems confirmed in the present crisis. Conversely economic success in cooperatives, Oppenheimer says, is transformed into capitalist enterprise. Cooperatives can also be successful when they organize themselves in a cooperative way and at the same time compete on the market like well-managed capitalist enterprises. The Basque Mondragon cooperative is a good example. Organized internally as a cooperative, they act outwardly like transnational combines. Therefore the cooperative enterprise can obviously become a capitalist enterprise. The transformation then follows the “capitalist gradient.” All alternatives ultimately land in a capitalist pot where they become a mixed economy. This increased entropy can only be prevented with great social and political energy. Social movements can only amass this energy with great effort and often fail. Therefore it is simpler, one can interpret Oppenheimer, to yield to the strange attraction of capitalism and become “similar” to the capitalist enterprise as cooperatives. Many cooperative initiatives had this experience in European “alternative enterprises” as in the land occupations by the Brazilian landless movement. However the transformation is also obviously carried out in an opposite way today. Needy persons or capitalist enterprises are transformed into cooperatives. In short, many blocked tr4aditions of the “moral economy” come to light again when the veneer of the capitalist growth- and prosperity model fades. Therefore it is no wonder that the non-profit sector now flourishes and offers more jobs in all OECD countries – and not only in “developing- and threshold countries” than in traditional industry as the OECD discovered in a study on the third sector. [14] This is not only reason for rejoicing since many of the new jobs are precarious. However these initiatives also reveal their attractiveness in making possible life and work beyond the pressures of capital exploitation and in harmony with social traditions and nature. That is the reason for the excitement that the revived cooperative movement, the experiences of the “solidarity economy” and the concept of “buen vivir” from the Andes area far beyond the original geographical region.


The (negative) experiences of the socialism of the 20th century must also be recalled: the collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union after 1928 destroyed the old cooperative approaches while producing new designs in the form of the collective economy (Kolchose). As Alec Nove wrote in his classic about the Soviet economy [15] these designs were vehicles of “original socialist accumulation” – the transfer of resources from agriculture to industry, training part of the rural population as paid laborers and the provision of cities by the countryside. This was not fundamentally different in principle from the original capitalist accumulation. With the help of the collectivization of agriculture, the goals of the Five-year-plan from 1928 were met. Nove expressly emphasized that “no doubt existed about the rationality of these measures.” [16] However reason could only prevail with authoritarian pressure against the rural resistance. The cooperative idea was damaged by the Soviet experiences. Therefore much that had central significance for the socialism of the 20th century cannot be dragged into the 21st century. The deadwood includes the united party and political centralism, the c comprehensive nationalization instead of the socialization of the means of production, the censorship of public opinion, the cult of persons, atheism as a kind of new religion, the centrality of the working class in relation to “alliance partners” and the dissolution of the tension of freedom and equality in favor of equality with limited freedom. The uncritical adoption of the Fordist consumer model, surrender to “system competition” and the implicit bond to non-socialist standards were also fatal. The capitalist West to be overcome could set norms in the future that were decisive for socialist development. That is one of the reasons why recourse to the old inheritance of Latin America’s indigenous people and the emphasis on solidarity and cooperation against competition as a surprising “new vision” [17] are recommended for the 21st century. To Sumais Kawsay, the “good life” is found in diversity and harmony with nature” (as in the Preamble of the 2008 Ecuadorian constitution) in a solidarity community of people who cooperate instead of compete, who do not prescribe individual and short-term pursuit of profit but rather want to form collective life sustainably and in the long-term. [18] In the meantime the “good life” (buen vivir or vivir bien) is anchored as a constitutional principle in Bolivia and Ecuador. More participative elements are also found in the Venezuelan constitution. Nature is understood as an independent legal person, as “pachamama” in the “cosmological order of good life.” [19] This is a breach with the western tradition in which nature is subservient to people, the feminine gender is subordinated to the male gender. Thus bien vivir is more comprehensive than the “good life” in Aristotle. [20] In the Andes tradition, the happiness of people is incomplete since it can only be reached in harmony with the legal subject nature.


This understanding of the person and nature and of people in nature has very practical aspects. The rights of businesses in exploiting resources end in the rights of nature according to the constitution of bien vivir. This understanding of the person-nature relation surpasses the rationalistic model of rule over nature realized in capitalism’s globalized praxis. The uninterrupted commodification of natural resources, the transformation of the wealth of nature of everyone into the economic prosperity of individuals transferable, individualizable and measured in money. Thus individuals can be made happy – or not. Economic prosperity becomes the privilege of a few distinguishing them from the collective. Especially in Latin America, the plundering of the wealth of resources and the exploitation of people are not accepted any longer. A comprehensive de-colonialization is underway. Therefore the desired “good life” is always gained by fighting. The subject of struggle is the model of development and the morality of the economy. There is not only one model and one morality as we have seen. In Ecuador’s constitution, article 395 declares: “The state guarantees a sustainable development model balanced in relation to the environment, which respects cultural diversity, maintains biodiversity and the capacity of the natural renewal of the eco-systems and insures the well-being of present and future generations.” [21] At the same time interests are effective everywhere in Latin America which – as Gunther Anders emphasized – “view the earth as an exploitable mine” and form relations to nature correspondingly.


The ambivalence between solidarity and oppression, between collective and private property which Marx already identified for the Russian village community also continues in the Latin American reform countries. The constitution text of bien vivir in Ecuador and Bolivia is not translated !:1 in constitution reality. Rather this is characterized by a “new extractivism” of the same governments. [22] The “old” extractivism of the 20th century was marked by raw material exploitation by transnational corporations and the “secular case” of exchange relations of raw materials for industrial products (terms of trade). The consequence was that people in raw material countries except for the “comparado-bourgeoisie,” became poorer and poorer the more wealth was taken from the ground. In the 21st century, the trend of the terms of trade seems reversed in light of the rising raw material prices. The increasing demand for raw materials occurs in a time of peak everything. [23] At least the “leftist” governments in Latin America have successfully contained the power of transnational corporations and ensured the largest piece of the cake of raw material exploitation for the population. The currency revenue from raw material exports is also used for social projects of the poorer population and no longer only enriches transnational corporations. Minimum wages are introduced, old age provisions improved, school education promoted, universities built, neighborhood- and regional groups financed, unions all over the country are subsidized, public services revived and privatized public goods socialized again. All this is not trifling but doesn’t go beyond what Raymond Williams [24] called “socialism of redistribution,” which a significant part of the western socialist left made their program in the 20th century. Just before his death, Tony Judt recalled: “The first task of radical dissidents is to remind their public of the achievements of the 20th century – and to speak about the likely consequences of the light-minded zeal with which these achievements are dismantled. “The Left has something to preserve.” [25] This should be underlined. Nature with her “rights” which can be interpreted as limitations on human conduct is not respected enough in this anthropocentric view. Too little consideration is given to the laws of evolution and to thermodynamic principles and the threshold values for toxic substances. The natural, social, economic and cultural restrictions are a sign that the moral resources in acquisitive capitalist society are used up (aufgebraucht). A moral economy must be built today that “limits itself.”


The fossil age will inevitably end in the course of the 21st century. The conventional supplies of oil, gas and coal are already nearly consumed today. Peak oil is reached, peak gas is approaching in the next years and peak coal is also foreseeable. There are still non-conventional supplies whose production entails very high ecological and social costs. The 2010 catastrophe of the Deep Water Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico was writing on the wall. Polar oil and the oil from the tar sands in Canada and Venezuela can only be produced with massive expenditure of energy and with acceptance of gigantic ecological destruction.

Whether the energy expenditure for the production of fossil energy is less than the “harvested” energy – not to mention the necessary regulation measures – is also uncertain. The increase in the concentration of climate gases in the atmosphere is another argument that dependence on fossil energy cannot be overcome any more by opening up new coal-, oil or gas deposits. Nuclear energy is not an alternative since Fukushima. Therefore the transition to a less energy-intensive mode of economics on the basis of renewable solar sources of energy is the only way out today. The socialism of the 20th century was essentially fossil. The socialism of the 21st century can only succeed with the help of photo- and thermo-voltaics, water power, wind- and wave energy and bio-mass. Thus the socialism of the 21st century will be solar and ecological. Conversely ecologists can only come near their goals if they are socialist. However ecological socialism is only possible if the highest possible economic growth is not sought any longer. This has far-reaching consequences. More goods need to be produced for use and consumption and fewer for investment. The whole development of science and technology is affected by this decision on direction. In the 20th century, capitalist- and socialist rationality did not see nature and her limits. Firstly, the limits of burdening nature still seemed far away, in any case outside the horizon of the active generation. Only a few sensitized ecologists grasped the limits. Secondly, blind industrialism and growth-fetishism dominated especially since the beginning of “system competition” after the Second World War. The command socialist development was deeply corrupted. The development of productive forces was over-emphasized and the restrictions of nature misinterpreted as obstacles from capitalist times to be overcome. The critical Marx- and Engels’ statements on the nature question were forgotten. In the “system competition,” only gaining victory was crucial. To that end, growth had to be increased - on a path on which the developed capitalist nations had a considerable advantage and on which it was easy for them to prevent socialist planning and the economic guidelines of the command socialist countries after the Second World War.


Socialist planning didn’t change this at all. Socialist planning is more rational than the planning of mammoth corporations in the capitalist West coordinated by the market. Even if the big corporations use methods developed in the socialist planned economy in their planning – like the input-output analysis – they remained imprisoned in the narrow horizon of micro-economic rationality and cannot pursue macro-economic social goals.

Whether capitalist or socialist, individual measures are subject to competition on the world market and therefore plan against one another. Zero-sum games are involved very often. All actors plan rationally. Nevertheless some end on the losers’ bench while others rise on the winner’s side. Who wins in the global space is often due to accidents. However the future’s direction of development is determined by them and is unplanned in a spontaneous way. This is a strong argument against a society of private owners and for collective property. However the prerequisite for a collective rationality is the collective control over the material conditions of work and life, literally over the means of production. The socialism of the 20th century guaranteed this through state ownership. But the socialism of the 21st century requires a greater diversity of forms of ownership: cooperative ownership that takes account of the great significance of the “concrete” cooperative movement, communal and state ownership that guarantees the availability of public goods and common ownership of the commons to which neither private persons nor the state can have exclusive access. Therefore traditional indigenous forms of ownership and use are appropriate. Private property also has its place in a plural order of ownership. Necessary rules must be issued so property does not have its “destructive” effect, as Marx wrote in his letter to Vera Sassulutsch about the role of the Russian village community for the transition to a socialist society. [26] In the socialism of the 21st century, a “planned economy at the height of the times” could prevent irrational malformations. [27] “At the height of the times” means using efficient computers with which the billions of decisions on the labor- and commodity markets can be coordinated. The financial markets must be strictly regulated and will take little storage space on the hard disk drives of the computer networks. However the notion that social reality can be represented on a computer is simply not suitable to the solar solidarity and democratic socialism of the 21st century. This naïve notion underrates the variety of approaches of solidarity economics from which a real and transformational movement emerges out of capitalist conditions. Therefore the economy cannot be simulated in a planned way. If it could succeed, the computer network engaged for the plan would determine production and consumption and would hardly open up spaces for social participation. Therefore the planning must be appropriate to the spatial and temporal range of the produced and utilized goods. Planning must be open on different planes and not only occur centrally or globally. A planned system may not be conceived like a mammoth mono-cultural plantation in which ecological diversity is an irrational nuisance element where democratic discourse about alternatives must fail because of technically given practical constraints. Rather the socialism of the 21st century is only a “real utopia” in the sense of Ernst Bloch when it is tied to the existing movement of cooperatives, solidarity economy and the “good life.” Developing possibilities of social alternatives appropriate to the reality of future societies is vital today.


[1 Vgl. http://social.un.org/coopsyear.

[2] In seiner Rede zur Eröffnung des Leaders Summit des UN Global Compact am 24. Juni 2010 in New York.

[3] Vgl. „Financial Times Deutschland“, 26.1.2012.

[4] Vgl. Elmar Altvater, Das Ende des Kapitalismus wie wir ihn kennen, Münster 2006.

[5] Edward P. Thompson, Plebeische Kultur und moralische Ökonomie, in: Dieter Groh (Hg.), Aufsätze zur englischen Sozialgeschichte des 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts, Frankfurt a. M., Berlin und Wien 1980.

[6] Vgl. www.ica.coop/al-ica/.

[7] Vgl. Karl Marx, Philosophisch-ökonomische Manuskripte, Ergänzungsband I, Berlin 1968, S. 551.

[8] Vgl. Elmar Altvater und Nicola Sekler (Hg.), Solidarische Ökonomie, Hamburg 2006 und Sven Giegold und Dagmar Embshoff, Solidarische Ökonomie im globalisierten Kapitalismus, Hamburg 2008.

[9] Willy Brandt, Verbrecher und andere Deutsche, Bonn 2008, S. 307.

[10] Es ist also kein Zufall, dass die räumliche Dimension sozialer Bewegungen vor allem in Lateinamerika thematisiert wird (vgl. Margot Geiger, Umkämpftes Territorium. Markt, Staat und soziale Bewegungen in Argentinien, Münster 2010).

[11] Vgl. www.genossenschaften.de

[12] Vgl. Anne-Britt Arps und Raúl Zelik, Mit, im und gegen den Staat – Kooperativen im Grenzgebiet von Kolumbien und Venezuela, in: Elmar Altvater und Nicola Sekler (Hg.), Solidarische Ökonomie, Hamburg 2006, S.124 – 131; Raúl Zelik, Nach dem Kapitalismus? Perspektiven der Emanzipation oder: Das Projekt Communismus anders denken, Hamburg 2011.

[13] Vgl. Franz Oppenheimer, Die Siedlungsgenossenschaft. Versuch einer positiven Überwindung des Kommunismus durch Lösung des Genossenschaftsproblems und der Agrarfrage, Leipzig 1896.

[14] OECD, The Non-profit Sector in a Changing Economy, Paris 2003.

[15] Alec Nove, Die sowjetische Wirtschaft, Wiesbaden 1963.

[16] Ebd., S. 50.

[17] David Barkin und Blanca Lemus, La Economia Ecológica y Solidaria: Una propusta frente a nuestra crisis, www.sustentabilidaes.org/revista/index.php?, 2011.

[18] David Cortez und Heike Wagner, Zur Genealogie des indigenen „Guten Lebens“ („Sumak Kawsay“) in Ecuador, in: Leo Gabriel und Herbert Berger (Hg.), Lateinamerikas Demokratien im Umbruch, Wien 2010, S. 167-200.

[19] David Cortez, „El Buen Vivir“ – Ein alternatives Entwicklungsparadigma, Powerpoint-Präsentation während der Weingartener Lateinamerika-Gespräche, Januar 2012.

[20] Vgl. Thomas Fatheuer, Buen Vivir. Eine kurze Einführung in Lateinamerikas neue Konzepte zum guten Leben und zu den Rechten der Natur, Heinrich Böll Stiftung – Ökologie, Bd. 17, Berlin 2011.

[21] Nach Cortez a.a.O.

[22] Eduardo Gudynas , Linke und politische Ökologie in Südamerika. Die Grenzen des Fortschritts und die Erneuerung der progressiven Bewegungen, in: „Emanzipation“, 1/2011, S. 34-50.

[23] Richard Heinberg, Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, Gabriola Island 2007, vgl. auch die Beiträge in: Andreas Exner u.a. (Hg.), Kämpfe um Land. Gutes Leben im post-fossilen Zeitalter, Wien 2011.

[24] Raymond Williams, Resources of Hope. Culture, Democracy, Socialism, London/New York 1989, S. 213 ff.

[25]Tony Judt, Sozialdemokratie der Angst: Was lebt und was ist tot an der sozialen Demokratie? In: „Blätter“, 5/2010, S. 41-58.

[26] Karl Marx, Entwürfe einer Antwort auf den Brief von V.I. Sassulitsch, in: Marx-Engels Werke, Band 19, Berlin 1969, S. 384-406.

[27] Helmut Dunkhase und Dieter Feuerstein, Planwirtschaft – auf der Höhe der Zeit, in: „Junge Welt“, 10.1.2006.

[28] Vgl. Paul Cockshott und Allin Cottrell, Sozialistische Planwirtschaft ist möglich, www.dcs.gla.ac.uk/publications/PAPERS/7954/planprojektb-idx.pdf, 2006.












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