It’s time for the people to Occupy co-operatives

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As the co-op movement gears up for celebration of the UN International Year of Co-operatives in 2012, a very different movement has burst upon the scene, taking shape and occupying plazas, parks and other urban spaces in over 2,000 cities around the world.

The Occupy movement, sparked with little more than a hope and a prayer in the streets of New York, flared into a global phenomenon and gave voice to a profound sense of rage and resentment at an economic system that betrays the vast majority by enriching an ever shrinking and entitled elite. For the first time in generations, the grievances of the 99% were being voiced in terms of class and inequality and people heard what was said and knew it was true. The wonder is that it has taken so long.

Across Canada and the US, the tent camps sprouted like mushrooms. And at sites like Occupy Vancouver, the camps took on a life of their own as the media shifted attention from the grievances propelling the movement to a focus on the camps themselves. Soon, the camps became a divisive wedge that opened a gulf between the Occupiers and a growing portion of the public that had, until then, been sympathetic. Events then played out like a script. First came the ultimatums and injunctions, then came the defiant calls to resist and then came the police. We had seen this film before.

But the predictions of the movement’s demise were premature. The questions and the anger that gave rise to Occupy aren’t going away anytime soon.

Secondly, the crackdown on the tent camps across the US and Canada was inevitable and the movement would sooner or later have to figure out what to do after the camps. The preoccupation with the tent camps that had come to symbolize the movement was a near fatal distraction. The main message, unclear and unfocussed at the best of times, was buried beneath the struggle to defend the camps and fend off the media attacks that focused obsessively on camp conditions, drug use and an increasing collection of homeless.

Following the decamping, a space has opened up allowing the movement to reflect on its experience and to plot a strategy that will serve its purposes for the long term.

But the question is what are its purposes? Aside from the most generalized of slogans, no one could yet say what particular demands the movement has. And this has been one of the main criticisms of Occupy from friends and foes alike.

Which seemed just fine with many of the Occupiers. The vagueness and diffuseness of their demands seemed in keeping with a sense that specificity or a platform would narrow what was essentially a moral cause to a set of issues that could then be attacked or discredited. Those fears are, of course, well founded, as evidenced by a recently leaked document outlining a fully developed PR campaign for the Bankers Association of America to discredit the movement. But this will happen regardless.

Another cause for the absence of focus is that a platform entailed a level of organization and cohesion not yet possible in such a grassroots and localized movement. The speed and spontaneity of the action didn’t allow the time necessary to develop and hone an organizing message. Nonetheless, one proposal to emerge was support for the campaign to get people to transfer their money from banks to credit unions.

Occupy is at a crossroads. With the demise of the camps, the movement has entered a stage that calls for a shift from the tactics of opposition to those of proposition. Those who support Occupy need to know which alternatives the movement is proposing. If not the status quo, then what? How do we realize a system that is fundamentally different? What kind of organization will allow Occupy to mobilize the power and the ideas it needs to move it forward? These are the questions that have to be grappled with.

And this is where the co-op movement comes in.

At first sight, the bank transfer campaign seemed to provide a welcome bridge between two very different political and cultural realities. On the one hand we have an Occupy movement that is young, anarchic, angry, energized, individualistic, inclusive, irreverent and deeply suspicious of leadership. The co-op movement seems like the polar opposite. It is mostly middle-aged, highly structured, very white, cautious and polite to the point of painfulness.

Across such a cultural divide, what could these two movements have to offer each other? The answer, as made plain by the bank transfer campaign, is plenty.

The Occupy movement has to propose answers to the mess we are in. Not to do so merely raises the suspicion that, in fact, it has no solutions. And on this crucial point, the co-op movement is invaluable. It has the keys to a real alternative. Despite its more staid and cautious character, the co-op movement represents an economic and social model that actually embodies the values that the Occupy movement cares so deeply about. The proposal to shift money from banks to credit unions was a stroke of genius. It gave people something concrete they could do. It raised public awareness by focusing attention on a financial model that was democratic and accountable and a real alternative to the banks. Unlike the tent occupations, it was an action that everyone could be part of. Best of all, the tactic had the potential to really worry the banks.

But that’s just a start. The Occupy movement could point to the ways in which economic democracy is not only more just than capitalism, but also more viable. Co-operatives routinely outperform capitalist firms. Occupy could show that the survival rate of co-ops is double that of conventional businesses. It could highlight how credit unions, by responding to the actual needs of their members, didn’t engage in the fraudulent financial speculations that bankrupted the economy. Credit unions came through the financial crisis even stronger than before and had no need of massive public bailouts. Co-ops reduce inequality.

On a global level, the movement could point to how fair trade, based on the return of profits to small producers through their co-ops, represents an entirely different logic for international trade that isn’t based on the extraction of profit by exploiting the weak. And at a time of global economic recession, the experience of the recovered factory co-ops of Argentina, Uruguay and elsewhere shows how workers and the communities in which they live can take back control of shuttered factories and provide a living for workers and their families. And there is much, much more. With an effective research and communications strategy, Occupy Vancouver could be issuing media releases on these issues every day.

For its part, Occupy has shown the degree to which people are fed up and very pissed off. The language of Occupy captures the moral outrage that lies at the heart of the movement. It is an outrage that the co-op movement needs to recognize and to respond to, in its own right. Not to do so is to signal that the co-op movement is no longer relevant, or even worse, indifferent to the issues raised so powerfully by Occupy. To Occupy’s energy, the co-op movement can contribute solidarity and a framework for change. The two movements are like the two parts of a single equation. Both movements share a commitment to a world in which money doesn’t rule. Both aim to humanize our economy by making economics serve the well being of society and not the other way round.

What is needed here is an understanding that we don’t need to start from square one. That others before us have been where the protesters of the Occupy movement are today. The struggle against corporate greed and social injustice is not new. What is new is that we have the experience of 170 years of co-operation to see that the tenets of democracy can be applied to economics just as in politics and that they work. It is this heritage of economic democracy that is invaluable to the movement that so ardently seeks an alternative to the status quo.

The Occupy movement and the Co-op movement need to start a dialogue. There must be a conversation about how the present capitalist system can be challenged and ultimately transformed, by democratizing our economies. The Occupy movement needs to grapple with what the alternative to the present system might actually look like, be able to point to examples and be lucid in articulating a new economic model that embodies its values. And at this point in its life, Occupy needs a strategy and a structure on a scale to match its ambition. It needs leadership. In this, it can learn not only from the experience of democratic decision making in the co-op movement, but also from the experience of other movements that learned how to develop leadership and articulate demands without compromising their values. The Civil Rights movement that has served as such an inspiration for Occupy is a good example. And if the Tea Party “movement” can launch a mass march on Washington to protect the privileges of America’s 1%, could the Occupy movement do the same for the 99%?

For its part, the co-op movement has some soul searching to do. It should look carefully at what the Occupy movement has accomplished in so short a time and why. It should understand that the discontent with our present economic system is deep and wide and that the protesters have unearthed a reservoir of public feeling that is profound. And it should ask itself why, with all its resources and experience, it is not in the vanguard of such a movement.

On November 17, I was in Manhattan to witness the Day of Action called to celebrate two months of occupation in New York and to protest the violent eviction of occupiers from Zuccotti Park. Despite the vitriolic press, ridicule and ambivalence that many had felt about the tent camp, the response was powerful. As dusk came, so did New Yorkers, in the thousands. Filing down the streets and emerging from the subways, flag bearing crowds made their way to Foley Square to hear the stories of anguish and resistance told by ordinary people that had been screwed by the American Dream. At its peak, well over 20,000 strong had gathered to show their support and solidarity.

And they were not just the young. It was parents and grandparents and teachers and construction workers. They were Black and Latino and Asian and living testament to the human tapestry that is America. And in that gathering dusk, as the throng began to push against the police barriers and make its way down Broadway, it felt like something had shifted, that the opening overture of the Occupy movement had been sounded and that the substance of the music was still to come.

2012 is the International Year of Co-operatives. With over one billion co-op members in 127 countries, there is much for the co-op movement to celebrate and so many successes to point to. In Canada alone, over 9,000 co-ops have more than 10 million members. Globally, co-ops and credit unions provide livelihoods to more people than all the multinationals combined. From the Vancitys and MECs of the world to the fair trade co-ops of Africa and the worker co-ops of Latin America, the co-op movement has continued to build a vision of economic democracy and social equity that was once dismissed as utopian. It has flourished and it has lessons worth learning.

The co-op movement can tap into and help to articulate and give direction to the deep discontent and longing for a better future that now animates the Occupiers and their supporters around the globe. There has rarely been a better time.

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About John Restakis

John Restakis is Executive Director of the British Columbia Co-operative Association and author of Humanizing the Economy — Co-operatives in the Age of Capital.