The New Belgium sale, however, has one good consequence—it has clarified the essential difference between ESOP 100% employee-owned companies and worker cooperatives. ESOPs are capitalist enterprises where individual values dominate, while worker cooperatives are collective ventures struggling to maintain their values in a hostile environment. This may seem an obvious distinction, but the past practices of cooperatives have ignored the implications of this distinction. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised since the dominant cultural expectations reinforce individualism and simply disregard any activity in the realm of economics outside those expectations. Cooperative activity within traditional business practice is, at best, subsumed as team-work—it serves the interest of generating better individual solutions.
The fatal error of cooperatives decades ago was to emphasize ownership in imitation of the ESOPs. Almost from the inception of cooperatives as collective economic projects in the early 19th century, they were characterized as urban commons, duplicating in those new settings the centuries old practice of rural lands held in common by an exclusive group, like the families of a village or parish. So, the operative term for participants in cooperatives isn’t owner, but member. Retail co-ops serve consumer-members, housing co-ops have members whereas condos have owners, and worker-members manage worker cooperatives.