The Social Economy: A Brave New World?
Reuel S Amdur
At a Gatineau Monde presentation in 2015, Patrick Duguay spoke on social economy as one of the three pillars of the economy, along with the profit-making sector and the government. He did not include the voluntary sector in his address, and that would be a fourth.
Consumer cooperatives can be traced back at least to 1761 in Scotland, when weavers opened a store to sell oatmeal at a price lower than that found in local stores. In the following century, weavers again, along with other workers in Rochdale, England, opened a store to sell food at more affordable prices. The Rochdale principle, still in effect in the movement, is one member-one vote, regardless of amount invested.
Worker cooperatives involve worker—owners. These days, they are usually small scale. The worker control principle, however, has ideological roots in radical socialist and anarchist movements. In building up to the Russian Revolution, Lenin raised the slogan “All power to the soviets,” that is, workers’ councils. Once in power, he quickly abandoned that slogan. On the other hand, Communist leader Alexandra Kollontai was prominent in an oppositional group favoring more workers’ control, the Workers’ Opposition. Somehow she survived the purges and ended up as ambassador to a number of countries, including Sweden and Norway.
Cooperatives came out of a reformist, if not radical, tendency in society. In Saskatchewan, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) exemplified this tendency. Especially in Saskatchewan but elsewhere in Canada as well, this reformist stream was part of the social gospel movement. Hence, it has been said that the United Church is the CCF, and now the NDP, at prayer. In the Maritimes, the influence of priests like Moses Coady was paramount, building on a tradition of Catholic social teachings. In Spain, the massive Mondragón cooperative movement was begun by José Maria Arizmendiarrieta, a priest influenced by Catholic personalist thought.
Credit unions are one of the most successful cooperative undertakings in North America. Here in Quebec the caisses populaires Desjardins are a prime example, started by Alphonse Desjardins in 1900. Cooperatives seem to be most successful on the local level and in the consumer type. Some seek out niche roles, for example in natural or health foods. They may also save on labor costs through use of unpaid member labor. There are also associations of co-ops, which can aid by buying in bulk at reduced costs.
Worker co-ops in Quebec tend to be small scale. Child care arrangements are one form. There are also small restaurants. As a participant in a capitalist market economy, even as an alternative, the social economy tends to partake of capitalist characteristics. Desjardins has a brokerage arm. Supermarkets in the Mondragón group have more non-member employees than those who are members. When a British banking co-op foundered, it turned to a hedge fund.
What, in brief, can be said of the social economy? It can serve as a marginal reforming equalizer in the main capitalist system. It usually seems to work best at the local level, usually in the consumer form and especially in the financial sector (credit unions). And finally, the Quebec enthusiasm for creation of new workers’ cooperatives tends to leave them without the necessary administrative and management supports. They tend to provide short-term, low-wage employment with no benefits.