February 28, 2017
Cross-posted with the P2P Foundation blog
David Bollier and I (see David’s post from yesterday) had the pleasure of meeting Janosch Sbeih and Jérôme Birolini (“The Reciprokans”) at the Open 2017: Platform Cooperativism conference in London. We were very impressed with their overall concept and presentation, it aggregates and puts a fresh spin on some of the proposals we have been discussing over the last few years regarding open cooperativism and mutalization. It also draws from Telekomunnisten’s idea of the Venture Commune for “commonifying” productive assets. The model needs refinement, careful development and feedback so it can mature into an actionable proposition, but we fully support it and are eager to see how it progresses. Here is their brief introduction to the project. — Stacco Troncoso
All over the world, inequalities are reaching alarming levels. The structural reproduction of economic inequality lies in the unequal ownership of productive assets as it maintains a distributive mechanism in which owners accumulate ever more wealth while the majority of salaried workers remain in precarious positions of dependence. At the same time, the current growth-dependent, extractive economic model is bringing us to the brink of socio-ecological collapse.
By facilitating the transfer of ownership from privately owned corporations to their employees, we can provide an opportunity for employees to accumulate more wealth through their newly acquired ownership (hence reducing inequalities) and provide greater opportunities for workers to participate in decision-making process (hence allowing for a more democratic culture). Simultaneously, local owners gain access to a mechanism to “cash out” when they want to retire, while resting assured that that their enterprises remain active and anchored in their local community, managed by the very people who have built it up over their lifetimes. Since this transition of ownership already involves an organisational restructuring, why not simultaneously rethink the organisation’s business model to make it work not only for the people who create the wealth, but also for the planet from which all wealth ultimately originates?!
A timely opportunity
The coming retirement of millions of baby boom entrepreneurs around the world represents an enormous opportunity to grow worker ownership. In the US alone, an estimate states that 671,000 middle market businesses (worth an estimated US$ 2.47 trillion) will have to be sold, closed, or otherwise disposed of between 2011 and 2029, by baby boomers. This generational transfer ahead can prove to be a once in a lifetime historic opportunity to catalyse a transition towards a sustainable and community-empowering economy by providing mechanisms to transform these private enterprises into sustainable open co-operatives. The conversion of these businesses into democratic ownership models would mean a tremendous reduction of inequality and the dawn of a new co-operative and democratic era.
To achieve scale, new forms of co-operative lending coupled with technical and process support are necessary. While several organisations are already working to provide that type of service, we believe that a more systematic approach is required if we are to create an ethical and federated counter-economy able to perpetuate itself on its own.
Isolated transfers of ownerships are not enough
Unless co-operatives can be federated as a unified, ethical, entrepreneurial coalition organised around the shared goal of sustaining the commons and the commoners, we believe that isolated transfers of ownership will not be enough for the open co-operative movement to gain sufficient traction to become autonomous, therefore leaving the issue of livelihoods and social reproduction unresolved and the movement dependent on the capitalist economy (i.e. fragmented, exposed to exploitation and overall highly precarious).
In a similar vein, isolated transfers of ownership do not guarantee nor encourage the weaving of links among newly-formed open co-operatives, leaving essential features to accomplish a comprehensive economic transition – such as co-operation and solidarity – outside of their strategic scheme.
Inspired by Mondragon’s internal capital account (ICA) and Dmytri Kleiner`s concept of “commons-based venture funding”, Reciproka holds in its core an innovative co-operative accumulation mechanism which allows for the self-propelling build-up of an ethical counter-economy while gradually providing each of its members with increasing cash transfers, representing a new kind of basic income.
Instead of assisting working people to acquire their enterprise (as most financial services organisations that invest in worker- and community-owned operations currently do), Reciproka acquires the SMEs in transition for a commons (i.e. a trusteeship legal structure) in which both consumers (i.e. citizens) and producers (i.e. co-operative workers) become members.
In addition to assuming 100% of the financial risks linked to the operation, Reciproka assists traditional privately-owned enterprise in their organisational conversion to open co-operatives, while leaving managerial autonomy to the workers. A network of experts and mentors provide the technical and process support necessary to assist with the organisational transition both from a legal, social and sustainability point of view. The enterprises in transition gain thus access to the necessary facilitation, education and mentoring resources to ensure that their newly formed co-operatives are well equipped with the governance and business models that suit their particular needs and desires.
Reciproka will look to ensure the viability of each project as well as its commitment to a low-carbon future where the well-being of people and planet are primary. Reciproka has thus written into its DNA to effectively address the core challenge of our time: the transition to an equitable society that meets everyone’s needs while living within the limits of one earth.
The result is an integrated network of mutually co-owned open-co-operatives working towards that goal, where each co-operative is at the same time autonomous while being co-owned by all other members of the Reciproka common.
This type of structure offers several benefits:
The system gives citizens the opportunity as well as financial and social incentives to play an active part in the transition to a co-operative, ethical and sustainable economy (see www.reciproka.cc for further information on the incentives and benefits for the various stakeholders).
The mutual ownership structure aligns the interests of the newly formed co-operatives to collaborate with each other for their own interests and the greater good of the overall coalition.
By holding the assets in a trusteeship legal structure, Reciproka protects the ethical entrepreneurial coalition from external investors, as its assets can never be sold out.
Last but not least, Reciproka also contemplates the creation of a co-operative incubation centre for the development of new products and services and the integral support of young open co-operative entrepreneurs.
We are currently in the early stages of designing Reciproka and building up alliances for collaboration once we start operating. If you are an experienced facilitator of co-operative ownership transfer, organisational transition, interested in funding Reciproka and/or want to discuss further possibilities to collaborate, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
 Dennis Roberts, “Middle market investment banking offers opportunity for trained valuators, accountants,” Accounting Web, May 10, 2010, http://www.accountingweb.com/aa/auditing/middle-market-investment-banking-offers-opportunity-for-trained-valuators-accountants
 A system in which co-operatives needing capital for machinery, post a bond, and the other co-ops in the system would fund the bond, and buy the machine for a commons in which both funders and users would be members. The interest paid on these loans create a fund that would gradually be able to pay an increasing income to their members, constituting a new kind of basic income.