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Searching for the Next Cooperative Principle

by Len Krimerman


In 1995, the International Cooperative Alliance adopted seven cooperative principles to define and guide cooperatives throughout the world. Briefly stated, the “traditional seven” include: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for community.


These principles certainly seem to be straightforward and worthy norms, and they can help us distinguish cooperative enterprises from ones that are not run cooperatively. But do they go far enough? For a while now, I’ve had the feeling that, good as they are, they leave out an important dimension of what cooperatives are, or should be, about.


Recently, while googling for “cooperative summer camps,” I came upon the website of the Circle Pines, a community in southern Michigan where, for almost 70 years, people of all ages and backgrounds have come together to work, play, and relax in a cooperative, supportive, and creative environment. The history of the Center includes not only the worldwide cooperative movement, but also Danish folk schools, Quaker work camps, music and dance, the civil rights movement, and activists for peace and social justice. The mission today is the same as it was 60 years ago, to show the "superior advantages of cooperation as a way of life."


What most struck me, though, was Circle Pines’ own version of the cooperative principles, which includes an eighth principle:


"8. Ultimate Aim is to Advance the Common Good. The ultimate aim of all cooperatives should be to aid in the participatory definition and the advancement of the common good."


Why might an eighth principle of this sort be needed? The answer I’d give is that the traditional seven, with one very vague exception, keep our cooperative energies focused inward, on how to best organize our own cooperative enterprises or how to behave within the cooperative family. Principle 7, “Concern for Community,” makes a faint-hearted nod outward, but leaves open just what sort of “concern” we should have for what sort of “community,” and says nothing about the need to work together with allies outside the cooperative family “to define and advance the common good.”


This same point can be stated positively: as I read them, the traditional seven express cooperative values of mutual aid, respect for self-reliance and self-determination, social justice, and peaceful resolution of disputes. Why not, then, extend these principles beyond the boundary of our cooperative family; that is, to the whole of humanity or, even, to all living beings? Why not join with others who share these values to build a  just, peaceful, and fully democratic society? If we did make this extension, wouldn’t we come up with an eighth principle along the following lines (and similar to that proposed by the Circle of Pines)?


8. Cooperatives collaborate to build a just, peace-based, and fully democratic society. Cooperatives collaborate with a diverse range of other citizen groups to build, and share power in, a fully democratic society whose institutions, resources, and opportunities are accessible equally by all, and where peace-building and peace-making are widely used to prevent and manage conflicts.


This past July at a center for Popular Economics Conference, I presented my case for an eighth cooperative principle. The response was spicy―very vigorous and very mixed. Some participants felt that one of my stated aims, i.e., for cooperatives to “take power” and have a say in allocating public revenues, was too “confrontational.” A computer graphics consultant from Vermont agreed; her thought was that building a stronger and wider cooperative community should be done not by organizing coalitions or taking power, but through setting an example―i.e., showing the rest of the world how cooperative work makes our lives richer and happier. Others argued that this eighth principle (as opposed to the others?) was not coming from grassroots coop practitioners, and might impose yet another layer of responsibilities on an already overburdened coop movement; why not, it was asked, stick within and amplify the emerging regional (and national) networks of cooperatives?


Supporting my case were two main considerations. Some participants agreed that the struggle for a new and better society, one where our cooperative values and benefits are accessible to all, requires cross-organizational solidarity. And others recognized that “the cooperative principles” have evolved over a century and a half: e.g., the original set included “Cash trading (no credit extended);” there were only six until the seventh was adopted by the ICA in 1995. In short, perhaps it’s time once again to reconsider, revise, or extend what we see as basic cooperative goals.


I think we―the cooperative community―would benefit from adopting an eighth principle, as would the wider social justice and peace-building movements we would join. But I’m not yet satisfied with either my own or the Circle of Pines formulations. What do you think? Write me at:


Len Krimerman is a member of the GEO Collective, a long-time cooperative writer and activist, and co-editor with Frank Lindenfeld of When Workers Decide: Workplace Democracy Takes Root in North America (1992).


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