Riccardo Petrella on the role of cooperatives

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We recently had the pleasure of speaking with economist, political scientist, and alter-globalist Riccardo Petrella, who will be one of the featured speakers at the 2012 Summit. While in Montreal, he sat down for an interview and shared his expertise and passion about alternative solutions to major world issues.

What do you think about the contribution of cooperatives to sustainable development initiatives?

Historically, cooperatives have always tried to influence the human and social condition. The environment, however, didn’t figure much in cooperative culture before the 80s and 90s. The concern was there, but it was never at the forefront. Then, two trends began to emerge that led cooperatives to become interested in sustainable development issues in a more structured way: eco-cities and new farming.

Eco-cities—sustainable cities that balance urban development with nature—led to the transformation and revitalization of abandoned neighbourhoods and the construction of new urban areas. That’s when we saw a large number of eco-housing cooperatives begin to emerge. Another development was the appearance of initiatives to preserve and revive urban ecosystems, especially in shantytowns, where the goal was food self-sufficiency, social reintegration, and the restoration of community conventions.

As for farming cooperatives, a large number of them have become “de-agriculturalized,” meaning that they’ve returned to a more traditional form of agriculture, with a focus on local food and environmental sustainability. This type of agriculture is known by various names: sustainable farming, organic farming, local farming, the zero km movement. But it’s not necessarily an environmental trend. More recently, what’s motivating people to create farming co-ops is the desire for access to healthier food—which is a perfectly legitimate and understandable reason—rather than a desire to protect the environment.

So yes, globally, today’s co-ops are having a positive impact on sustainable development, even though they weren’t necessarily the first or most innovative in this regard. But they can—and should—do more!

What role will cooperatives be asked to play in the future, in particular from an economic and social point of view? Do you think they’ll play a larger role?

To give a clear answer to your question, the key is knowing whether the promoters of the cooperative model believe that the prevailing economic system—the capitalist market economy—is really in crisis and has failed in its ability to guarantee a good, fair, equitable and constructive administration of the “house rules” for the “eco”-nomy.

Do they believe that the economic crisis—which isn’t the only crisis, currently—is temporary and that it will be resolved by stimulating global growth through the green economy? And do they believe that there really is no alternative to the capitalism/financialization/market-economy equation, and that, in this context, a cooperative must also adhere to an entrepreneurial culture based on objectives of financial performance, effectiveness and efficiency, and on competitive innovation in the local, national, and even international markets?

If that’s the case, it seems to me that a cooperative model, following the same paradigms of the capitalist market model, wouldn’t be all that different from the private companies that claim—almost unanimously—that their mission is based on humanistic, social and environmental values. Really, the difference co-ops would make would be minimal.

However, if cooperatives realize that the capitalist market system—which is responsible for today’s dire human and social situation and the destruction of our planet—is structurally flawed and is no longer meeting the needs of humanity, then we might witness the emergence of a new form of cooperative that would encourage the production of wealth—collective wealth—by promoting common ownership and delivering general-interest public services that are necessary for us to live together.

Cooperation needs to become the real answer to our needs, because the last 40 years have shown that competition is a flawed approach that has caused so many social, economic, and ecological catastrophes.

The capitalist market economy is bankrupt and unable to solve the problems it has created. It’s the financialization of this economy and the commodification of life imposed by capitalist logic and the markets that have been the leading causes of the ongoing crises of the past 20 years—not citizens, consumers, the Greeks, government spending, or public debt!

And so the role of cooperatives shouldn’t be to bandage the wounds of capitalism or come to the rescue of the market economy: they are common-ownership businesses. We can’t get out of the crisis by reinforcing the system that created it.

If cooperatives could deliver a message to the world’s economic decision-makers, what should it be?

The vocation of cooperatives is “living together.” Their tool is common ownership, and their objective is collective security and wealth.

At a time when governments are distancing themselves more and more from their social responsibility to share the wealth, and dispossessing citizens in favour of a handful of rich corporations, it’s clear that cooperation is more necessary than ever.

Cooperating is giving new life to a concept of “work” (oeuvre) that was abandoned in the 20th century—the concept of producing works through collective action: “to all work together for the benefit of all.”

“Work” in this sense should take the form of a cooperative that works for the good of its members and its community, in the spirit of inter-cooperation and from a humanist perspective—humanity as a whole.

What is the most important aspect to include in the Common Declaration that will be presented at the end of the Summit?

The right to a safe existence is universal. It’s either for everyone or it’s not.

There can’t be inequality in safe existence, because every person is a rightful inhabitant of this planet, and no one can be considered an illegal resident of Earth.

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About Martin LaSalle

To mark the united Nations’ International Year of Cooperatives, decision-makers and influential figures from the international cooperative and mutualist community will be meeting in Quebec City, Canada, to participate in the 2012 International Summit of Cooperatives. To find out more and book your place for the event from October 8th-11th, visit: www.2012intlsummit.coop