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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

The Politics of Cooperation and Co-ops. New Book

March 23, 2015
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Published by Nova Publishers, New York, 2015.

ISBN: 978-1-63482-407-1



The Politics of Cooperation and Co-ops: Forms of Cooperation and Co-ops, and The Politics That Shape Them



Carl Ratner, Ph.D.

Institute for Cultural Research & Education

Trinidad, CA 95570







This book identifies political currents that underlie the organization and practices of contemporary co-ops. The politics of co-ops and cooperation generate distinctive, important insights into the characteristics of co-ops and the reasons for them. Three currents of cooperative politics are identified: populist politics, market politics, and capitalist politics. Extensive examples of these cooperative politics are presented. They include the leading co-op organizations such as the American National Cooperative Business Association, and the International Cooperative Alliance, all the way down to local co-ops.

The three cooperative politics that dominate the landscape of contemporary co-ops are shown to be problematical. They are all inadequate to guide genuine, complete cooperation. Their weaknesses are manifested in problematical cooperative practices that shall be elucidated.

Because co-op practice is grounded in political theory and practice, weaknesses in cooperative practice must be overcome by implementing a new cooperative politics. I articulate socialist politics of cooperation and co-ops as a valuable candidate for this corrective . This politics will be explained and assessed.





Table of Contents




Preface: Politics and politics


Introduction: Cooptation and Corruption in Social Movements


Chapter One: Capitalist politics of Cooperation and Co-ops

The Structure of The Western International Cooperative Movement

The International Cooperative Alliance

The National Cooperative Business Association

          U.S. Agency for  International Development

         National Cooperative Business  Alliance’s Neoliberal Employees

                Purveying Capitalist Co-op  Politics to The Grassroots

Credit Unions, Capitalist Cooperative Politics, and NCBA

The National Co-op Bank

Association of Cooperative Educators

The Texas Agricultural Cooperative Council

The Austin Cooperative Business Association

Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI)

Land O'Lakes Dairy Co-op 

The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives

The U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council

CHS Co-op

National Rural Electric Cooperative Association

Federation of Southern Co-ops



Chapter Two: Populist Politics of Cooperation and Co-ops

           The International Cooperative Alliance’s Statement on the Co-operative Identity

Grassroots Economic Organizing Collective

Gar Alperovitz’s Cooperative  Proposals

Richard Wolff’s Cooperative Proposals

The Red Herring of 20th Century Socialism

Can Co-ops Transform Capitalism and Bureaucratic Socialism?

Solutions Depend Upon Causes: Looking Behind Co-op Problems to Their Politics In Order to Look Ahead to Discover Their Solution

       Non-capitalist is not tantamount to pro-socialist or pro-cooperation


The Unnoticed, Unexplained Shortcomings of Cooperation and Co-ops

Occupy Wall Street as Poster Child of Failed Populist Politics

The Insidious Convergence of Populist and Capitalist politics of Cooperation and Co-ops


Chapter Three: Toward A Socialist Politics of Cooperation and Co-ops

The Illusion of Abstract, Apolitical Cooperation

A Socialist Politics Of Cooperation And Co-Ops Grounds Cooperation and Co-Ops In A Socialist Mode Of Production, Or Socialist Political-Economy

Marx’s Critique Of Capitalist Social Relations As The Basis Of An Alternative Socialist Mode Of Production And Cooperation

Marx’s Alternative Socialist Mode Of Production And Cooperation As The Possible, Necessary, Viable Concrete Negation Of Anti-Cooperation

Marx’s Analysis of Co-ops 

Cooperative Psychology

Marx’s Objectivistic Theory of Socialist Cooperation

Actuality, Possibility And Necessity: A Philosophical Exegesis

Socialist Democracy Vs. Populist    Democracy

Levels Of Cooperation

Chinese Socialist-Cooperative Villages








Politics and politics



This book argues that cooperation, like all social behavior, rests upon cultural politics. That means that cooperation, like all social behavior, is rooted in specific political values, ideals, objectives, and power relations concerning the organizational form (structure) of social relations. Cooperators devise cooperation and cooperatives to institutionalize particular forms of social relations that are objectified externalizations and extensions of political conceptions of freedom, rights, obligations, fulfillment, opportunity, social participation, decision-making, power, sharing, privacy, sociality, the nature of the individual, the relation of individual and sociality, modes of government (governmentality) and social principles. 

These are political in the broad sense, not in the narrow sense of political parties. Politics is far broader than simply Democrat, Republican, Christian Democrat, Labor Party, Social Democrat, etc. For the sake of clarity, we may designate formal politics in political parties as Politics (with a capital P), while broad, general politics is designated with a small p.

Foucault (2014, chap. 1) employed this approach in defining the term government. He distinguished formal Government from government “being understood, of course, not in the narrow and current sense of the supreme authority of executive and administrative decisions in the statist systems, but in the large sense, and the old [sense] of the mechanisms and procedures intended to conduct men, to direct the conduct of men, to conduct the conduct of men.”

Foucault’s ideas underlie this book. For Foucault emphasized that the ways of thinking about issues tacitly rest upon and promulgate political concerns, a political rationality, a political logic, or a political a priori (Miller & Rose, 2008, chapter 2). That is exactly the point of this book: to elucidate the politics of the way cooperation is conceptualized and practiced in co-ops. Conceptions and practices of co-ops are neither natural, universal, or purely intellectual (i.e., neutral). They are stimulated by, organized by, and functional for particular political concerns and rationality. Understanding and changing particular forms of cooperation and co-ops requires understanding and changing their underlying political rationalities – that are rooted in political economy. In other words, the political rationality of co-op praxes reinforces a corresponding political-economy. This is a vital insight into understanding the potential that any particular co-op praxis has for emancipating people from the status quo. Since genuine, fulfilling, viable cooperation and co-ops require a new political economy that negates the anti-cooperative features of the status quo, the politics of cooperation and co-ops are powerful indicators of their capacity to achieve genuine cooperation and co-ops. 

 American cooperation and cooperatives are motivated and guided by politics, not usually by Politics. (The Italian case is rather different. Until recently, Italian co-ops were associated with the Communist Party and the Catholic Church. Ratner, 2013). The absence of Politics from the movement does not imply an absence of politics. Cooperators sometimes conflate these, and believe that cooperation is apolitical altogether. This is false. It obfuscates the broad politics that organize and direct cooperation and co-ops. It leaves cooperators influenced by powerful politics that they do not realize and cannot control. 

Because the political basis of cooperative politics does not originate internally to them, but rather in the political system in which they function, improving cooperative politics requires transforming the political system that forms them. Co-op reform thus requires broad societal reform, focusing upon the political-economic core of society. Co-ops and cooperation cannot be enhanced via internal, technical adjustments. 

My political analysis of cooperation and co-ops resonates with Naomi Klein’s analysis of environmental policy (Klein, 2014). She traces climate policy to politics, and she traces inadequacies in climate policy to exploitive political economics in the world’s countries today. She emphasizes that genuine change in climate policy -- that will make human life sustainable in the future -- requires transformation of the political-economies of the world’s countries. Failing this, the given political economics will continue to generate environmentally destructive policies. Exactly the same is true for cooperation and cooperatives. Her subtitle: “Capitalism vs. the Climate” can be paraphrased as “Capitalism vs. Cooperation.” Capitalism prevents cooperation, and this antagonism requires that capitalism be transformed in order to effect cooperation, just as it must be transformed in order to effect a humanly sustainable ecological system. Anti-cooperation cannot be solved within capitalism because it is a product of capitalism (as well as virtually all other social systems today). Anti-cooperation is a structural problem of capitalism which logically requires a structural change in capitalism. 

The movement for cooperation and climate sustainability are not simply parallel with regard to the causes and solutions of the different problems; the movements are organically linked. Klein argues that the political-economic transformation necessary for sustainable climate policy and practice is the same transformation that is necessary for a cooperative society: solving pollution requires a cooperative political economy that is owned and controlled by the citizens rather than by corporate executives. This makes her analysis of climate policy/practice inextricably related to my analysis of cooperative policy/practice.

Klein criticizes major environmental groups which act as though technical changes can save the environment, without the need for restructuring the political economy. She argues that they abet environmental destruction by denying the necessary political changes necessary to stop it.  Likewise, major cooperative groups act as though cooperation can be constructed within the parameters of capitalism, to co-exist with capitalism. This makes them an impediment to cooperation because they deny the political action necessary to realize it.  

I shall use a political analysis to analyze and critique the contemporary cooperative movement in the U.S. In other words, I shall link the concrete quality of cooperation and cooperatives to their implicit political conceptions of freedom, human rights, fulfillment, opportunity, social participation, decision-making, power, sociality, the nature of the individual, and modes of government. 

Mine is the only political analysis of cooperation and co-ops. It offers unique insights into the practice, problems, and avenues for the advance of cooperation and co-ops. My analysis derives from my book Macro Cultural Psychology: A Political Philosophy of Mind(2012) that analyzes the political foundations of psychological phenomena and the discipline of Psychology.

The co-op movement seeks to be a structural alternative to capitalism. It seeks to develop new forms of economic ownership and management, social responsibility, and sustainable use of natural resources. I ask whether co-ops in their current direction and organization can accomplish this task. In Foucauldian terminology, I problematize co-ops as a form of social organization or governance. 

I demonstrate that the current, predominant organizations (and conceptual ideals) of co-ops are incapable of realizing cooperative, progressive ideals. Despite their good intentions to implement economic democracy, social responsibility, and ecological sustainability, local co-ops and powerful co-op associations have adopted conservative, reformist politics that are complicit with political and economic institutions of capitalism. These politics may be dubbed 1) capitalist cooperative politics, 2) market cooperative politics, and 3) populist cooperative politics. 


Capitalist cooperative politics are practices by co-op organizations that collaborate and partner with capitalist corporations and their government agencies such as the State Department. Capitalist politics subordinate co-ops activities to capitalist corporations, merge with capitalist corporations, hire corporate and governmental officials, allow corporations to infiltrate cooperative associations and even write co-op policies, and take on the form of capitalist corporations. Capitalist cooperative politics thusly generate a degraded form of cooperation and co-ops. Yet capitalist politics dominate the cooperative movement, as I shall prove in chapter one. Capitalist cooperative politics refer to the practices that these co-ops engage in. I call this kind of cooperation “neoliberal cooperation.”

Yet the co-ops that practice capitalist cooperative politics are not capitalist organizations. They are not owned and controlled by capitalists and investors for their private enrichment. The irony of capitalist co-ops is that they are technically co-ops that abide by cooperative principles – of each member owning one share and having one (equal) vote on policy matters, and receiving no significant financial enrichment from their single share. The irony is that these co-ops practice capitalist kinds of activities. They pay their CEOs $6 million compensation packages, they lobby against environmental regulations, they produce genetically modified food, their executives are drawn from notorious capitalist companies such as Monsanto, they contribute to reactionary politicians, they accept funding from capitalist government agencies such as U.S. Agency for International Development, they endorse these agencies, and they partner with capitalist agencies and corporations on many projects. They invite them to underwrite co-op conferences, sponsor them, and write documents for the co-op movement. These capitalist practices are often difficult to criticize for they occur under the banner of cooperation and co-ops. 

It is important to keep in mind the distinction between capitalist co-ops, and capitalist corporations that are owned and controlled by capitalists, and operate according to capitalist economic principles. 


Market cooperative politics are expressed in the phrase “markets without capitalism.” This denotes commodity production and exchange among producers and consumers, without capitalists owning and controlling enterprises and exploiting employees and expropriating the surpluses they produce. I have discussed market politics in my previous book (Ratner, 2013, pp. 109-132). I therefore do not discuss them here, although I do review some of that material. Suffice it to say that I have found market cooperative politics to be plagued with the alienation and instability of market political-economy that Marx criticized. Market cooperative politics generate a degraded form of cooperation and co-ops.


Populist cooperative politics advocate common people coming together to collectively and democratically meeting their needs. It is a form of “people power” where people own and control institutions and figure out how to solve problems and meet their own needs. Co-ops are the main devices for accomplishing these populist objectives. Co-ops are defined as "an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise” (“The Statement on the Co-operative Identity” by the International Cooperative Alliance in 1995). 

I shall demonstrate that populist cooperative politics have eliminated the worst excesses of capitalist exploitation in their small enclaves. However, they do not challenge the dominance of the anti-cooperative social system, which leaves co-ops and the populace constrained by the dominant system. 


Because these three cooperative politics are insufficient to generate genuine, fulfilling cooperation, a fourth cooperative politics is necessary to accomplish this: 4) socialist politics. 


Socialist cooperative politics champion a thorough critique of class society and a concrete negation of it as the basis of cooperation. Cooperation is grounded in a socialist mode of production and embodies its social relations. This eliminates the anti-cooperative social system that negates cooperation. It provides the social and material and philosophical basis for establishing a cooperative mode of production. Socialist politics generate a concrete, viable, fulfilling cooperation that populist politics, market politics, and capitalist politics do not. Socialist cooperative politics take their lead from Marx’s statement: In chapter five of The Civil War in France: "if co-operative production is not to remain a sham and a snare; if it is to supersede the capitalist system; if united co-operative societies are to regulate national production upon a common plan, thus taking it under their own control and putting an end to the constant anarchy and periodical convulsions which are the fatality of capitalist production, what else, gentlemen, would it be but communism?" (



My critique of the three existing politics of cooperation and co-ops (capitalist, market, and populist) does not say that they do no good. They do good in limited ways. They assuage some of the destructiveness that capitalist wreaks around the world. They palliate its problems. Cooperatives provide better working conditions than private firms do; they treat the environment much better; they provide better quality, organic goods; they engage in stable, secure business practices (for the most part – e.g., they suffered far less than corporate banks and businesses during the recession, and they did not cause the recession in contrast to capitalist institutions which did); and they provide some opportunities for marginalized people to raise their standard of living. These advantages are admirable. They prove that non-capitalist socioeconomic relations are viable and beneficial. Marx & Engels praised co-ops for this: “We acknowledge the co-operative movement as one of the transforming forces of the present society based upon class antagonism. Its great merit is to practically show, that the present pauperising, and despotic system of the subordination of labour to capital can be superseded by the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers” (

However, the benefits of co-ops are small and inadequate relative to the breadth and depth of social problems that need correcting. These inadequacies are due to inadequate politics. 

Politics are structuring structures of behavior, in Bourdieu’s words. They embody a logic that drives behavior in particular directions and away from other directions. They animate certain behavior and they impede, or resist, other, contradictory behavior. They provide coherence to behavior, they explain behavior, and they are the mechanisms of behavior. (Politics also structure the way in which people understand behavior, as in the discipline of Psychology.) Politics are important psychological constructs (Ratner, 2012, 2015a, b, c).

The logic of politics means that logic is an ontology, logic is ontological, a real force that drives behavior. Logic does not act on its own, of course. Logic is the requirements that must be met by people in order to maintain the politics that are useful to them. If people want to develop fulfilling cooperation they must apprehend the logic of socialist cooperative politics, which are the corresponding social relations, concepts/values, and conditions. that they require, represent, and advance. And these socialist cooperators must oppose contradictory politics, social relations, conditions, and concepts/values. The same holds for the other three politics of cooperation and co-ops.

The ontological logic of politics leads to continually asking why behaviors occur. When a cooperator acts uncooperatively we look for the logic that generated it. “Why would the International Cooperative Alliance write co-op principles in that way?” “What kind of politics do these principles represent and benefit?” “Why would the International Cooperative Alliance invite a conservative militarist like Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to address a Co-op Summit?” What political values and interests do this represent?” Why do populist co-ops reject Marxism and socialism? “Why would the International Cooperative Alliance invite a corporate criminal like Ernst & Young to sponsor a Co-op Summit and write a document about cooperative issues?” “Why would the National Cooperative Business Association honor the CEO of a producer co-op that perpetrates capitalist-type activities and crimes, and partners with corporate criminals and polluters?” “What kinds of political interests and values does this represent?” “Why would NCBA partner with a corrupt, imperialist agency such as US Agency for International Development?” “What is the logical connection between these? Conversely, “Why do USAID, Albright, and corporate criminals partner with co-op organizations such as ICA and NCBA? What do they find appealing about co-ops?” What is the logical connection here?

A political perspective on co-ops and cooperation does not treat anti-cooperative acts as isolated, ignorant mistakes that are readily corrected by some training or sensitivity or “dialogue.” We search for their logical, rational causes that are deeply rooted in fundamental politics. These politics make uncooperative behavior functional for certain political ends, and they make uncooperative behavior necessary to achieve those ends. Elucidating the political logic of anti-cooperative behavior provides us with the most rigorous explanation.  This may be called the politics of cooptation and corruption. It is elucidated in this book through a hermeneutic of cooptation and corruption

Elucidating the political logic of anti-cooperative behavior is also the clue to changing it. It can only be changed by thoroughly rejecting those politics and adopting alternative politics of cooperation whose logic embodies and leads to cooperation. And this new politics of cooperation must be rooted in structural changes in the political economy. This shall be revealed through a hermeneutic of genuine cooperation

This political analysis of cooperation and anti-cooperation has value for understanding and changing all behavior. Consider the rampant police brutality against the poor and especially poor minorities. We ask what is the political logic of this? What are the political interests the require this and benefit from it, and make it functional. We look at the ways it is institutionalized in laws, codes, training, and the availability of cultural artifacts such as surveillance cameras and military weapons for police. We look for how it is embedded in the social structure and how it emanates from that structure and how it is functional for maintaining that structure. We also elucidate fundamental changes to the structure and its politics that are required to eliminate police brutality. We do not treat the problem as rooted in psychological dispositions such as police aggressiveness, or police feelings of threat from indigent people, or police lack of understanding of the poor and their customs. Nor do we accept personalized solutions such as sensitivity training for police, or dialogue between police and poor minorities in order to increase mutual understanding (which makes the victims equally responsible for police brutality). All of these personalized causes and solutions overlook and obfuscate the real, objective, systemic, structural political interests that are the cause and the solution. It is not a matter of dialoguing to creatively discover novel solutions. It is a matter of presenting demands that are based upon objective analysis of the structural politics of police brutality.


The contradiction of liberal reformism

Conventional cooperation and co-ops epitomize the contradiction of liberal reformism: reformism is valuable compared to the status quo, however, it is obstructionist and obscurantist to full, genuine emancipation. It is not simply incomplete change that can be extended; rather, liberalism resists the praxis of a complete emancipation. Liberal reformism is a strategy of the status quo that sustains the status quo by adding a small humanistic element. It never seeks to transform the system. This why it is ultimately acceptable to the system. Liberals often attack radicals who wish to negate or supersede the capitalist mode of production. Radicalism is not a continuous, quantitative extension of liberalism. It is qualitatively different political philosophy. Liberalism is not simply a stunted form of social change that needs a little push to move it further along to deeper change. Liberals must learn a new social philosophy in order to support social transformation.

This is true within the co-op movement. Current co-ops are liberal reformists. They do not challenge the State and leading capitalist institutions. They are largely apolitical, as I shall demonstrate in chapter two. In this sense co-ops renounce and denounce strategies and objectives that are necessary for social transformation. The fact that co-ops are acceptable to the status quo indicates that their version of cooperation is more conservative than it is transformative and emancipatory. This failure to challenge the status quo is why co-ops have been incapable of achieving genuine cooperation. 

For genuine, fulfilling, liberating cooperation to be implemented, the character of cooperation must become radical, militant, and oppositional to the anti-cooperative status quo. Cooperation must be developed as a radical mode of cooperation within a radical-cooperative mode of production that is based upon a socialist politics of cooperation and co-ops. That is the theme of this book.

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