Central Concepts

words mean things




Throughout this toolkit there are three key concepts leveraged to explain a number of phenomena within cooperativism:

  • Once You’ve Seen One Cooperative...
  • First-Next Step
  • Master’s Tools

These serve as conceptual guidelines for cooperative practice. The first comes from within the cooperative development community of the United States, the second is a humbling orientation of cooperativism that aligns with an element of Marxism, and the third comes from Audre Lorde, a writer and activist from the United States - all three have considerable application within the Cooperative Movement and beyond.   


A common refrain heard within cooperative development conversation - “once you’ve seen one cooperative, you’ve seen one cooperative” - refers to how there is no one-size-fits-all system design, structure, or solution for every cooperative or any challenge a cooperative may face. It is a simple reminder to development practitioners, or people who help other people set up their own cooperatives, that it is imperative to “meet people where they are at” and not impose any pre-scripted solutions. What system, structure, or solution will be most applicable in a given situation depends on many factors: size of the cooperative group, age of the cooperative, capacities of those involved, location, culture, legal and regulatory realities, etc.

A companion concept to this adage is a reminder that, like cooperatives, people are unique, as are their needs and the various ways they can meet those needs. As a result, people are necessarily experts about their own lives - they understand their own unique needs and ways to meet them better than anyone else. If given sufficient information and opportunity, individuals will always be able to identify what will work best for themselves and their group. This adage acknowledging uniqueness then leads to a call to acknowledge, respect, and uplift the agency of the people with whom you are organizing to identify their unique needs and methods. This is an especially important reminder when working across power imbalances created by education, economic status, age, race, or gender. For elders working with youth, this is something that is often not upheld, resulting in uncooperative, paternalistic relationships. You will see this sentiment employed through the toolkit in a variety of capacities, though its application to intergenerational relationships is the strongest in the context of coopyouth work. 


Cooperatives are not a panacea, they are not an end - rather, they are a “means.” A means to what end? The concept of the “first-next step” does not prescribe an end. A core tenet of cooperativism in this context is “striving,” the “work” of cooperation is a consistent progression towards ends that we can perhaps name, but do not (yet) know. In the words of Father José Arizmendiarrieta, cooperativist and co-founder of Mondragon - the largest worker cooperative federation in the world, cooperativism “tends towards order which is not static, but is in constant evolution towards a better form. It is equilibrium in motion. An inert action is a contradiction, and cooperativism, which was borne from action and experience, rather than theory, is something that we must conceive of and desire in the constant search for better forms of expression” (Arizmendiarreta, 1999, 55). The first-next step paradigm perceives cooperativism as the next knowable action towards a better form of expression of humanity; of sentient life.

"Cooperativism is not something we should live out as if what is accepted and settled at a given moment were unchangeable. Rather, we should be open to it as an experimental process in which modifications that contribute to updating the means can and should be adopted, while safeguarding the nobility and worthiness of the high ends being pursued. Our own personal evolution and the evolution determined by everything around us, our relationships and coexistence with others, the degree of integrity, seriousness, responsibility, and initiative consolidated through organizational arrangements and experience itself, are new factors that can prompt us to once again review everything about the organization, to better serve the humanist goals we have set" (ibid., 56).

The orientation towards cooperativism as a striving for the yet unknownable suggests a hopeful, and not necessarily immaterial, metaphysics. It helpfully humbles the work of cooperation while simultaneously orienting cooperative work within a much grander scope and aspiration. The promise of cooperation is that, as a first-next step, it will take us somewhere better than where we are today. We do not yet know what kind of enlightened, truly egalitarian, and expansive reality it can bring about, we know only that it is the path of broad-scale transformation for a world and society that has based its functioning on inequity, material wealth, and “today, the revolution is called participation” (ibid., 81).

The first-next step conception, too, proffers a compassionate viewpoint of all and who have come before this point in our expressions of cooperative thought and practice. “Circumstances, in themselves, are neither good nor bad, simply a reality which we must take into account to be able to act upon them” (ibid., 92). While coopyouth have significant critique for the Cooperative Movement and movement elders, that criticism is not divorced from a compassionate comprehension of what it is to toil for liberation within capitalism and oppressive societal systems. We are where we are at, and together we strive for a better world.


The "master’s tools” adage has great bearing on the work of cooperativism within a society in which other conflicting value systems are predominant. The term comes from a speech and essay of Audre Lorde’s titled, The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House. The text was authored for an event convening representatives within the 1970s feminist movement in the United States. In the context of the essay, Lorde critiqued how the feminist movement was still using patriarchal and racist paradigms to shape its work, thereby ensuring its ultimate failure. Within cooperativism, using capitalist models and mechanisms is using the master's tools. An adjacent analogy to Lorde’s is that of using a nail instead of a screw to install a cabinet into a wall. The nail is arguably easier and faster to install, and will likely achieve what a screw would accomplish initially and superficially. However, over time and use of the cabinet, the nail is not able to hold up the weight of the cabinet, especially as its doors are opened and shut. “Use the right tools for the right job” is a common adage in multiple cultures and languages, and Lorde powerfully expands upon this very simple concept to elucidate that using - not just the wrong, but - oppressive tools will not only never work to yield sustained liberation, but will also inflict further harm.

In the Cooperative Movement, there are several examples of how the employment of capitalist tools and practices have led to the demutualization of organizations (e.g. agricultural cooperatives and insurance mutuals in the USA during the turn of the century)1 or the degradation of their character beyond recognition:

"In the cooperative sector context, cooperatives do not stand and are not thought of as a modification of capitalism, but essentially as an alternative to it. But in the past, it must be admitted, too much of the development pattern of cooperatives has been dictated by the example and models of capitalist business, as seen by the terminology, structures, methods, and even the titles adopted into the cooperative system" (Laidlaw, 1980, 42).

Laidlaw, in his report to the 1980 Congress of the International Cooperative Alliance, articulates how the use of capitalist tools and concepts – the master’s tools, do not apply in the cooperative context, despite similar nomenclature or other instances of seeming overlap:

"It should be noted too that the very nature of a cooperative changes many concepts and methods adopted from other forms of business. A share means one thing in capitalist business but something different in a cooperative. Strong reserves may yield a handsome capital gain in a conventional corporation, but no such gain in a cooperative. So also with profits, competition, dividends, and even advertising, the nature and purpose of cooperatives have the effect of changing these or may do away with them entirely. In the years ahead, the growth and survival of cooperatives will likely depend to a great extent on how faithfully they adhere to certain characteristics that identify them as cooperatives" (30).

Various corporate statuses or lack thereof are represented within the case study sample in this publication. The reasons behind the choice or lack thereof to incorporate one way or another are similarly varied. To many, the question of corporate status is somewhat irrelevant, as a large but unknowable number of cooperatives exist without formal legal designation and regulation by the state.2 It is worth noting that the Cooperative Identity does not speak to corporate status or government partnership, beyond the Fourth Principle which has its historical roots in acknowledging the necessity for autonomy from the government in order for a cooperative to maintain integrity.

Corporate status and governmental relationships are just two examples among many of the master’s tools within cooperativism, however, they are especially important because they are the tools most regularly and necessarily employed by cooperatives trading in fiscal capital. While the master’s tools concept, advises against using any non-cooperative mechanisms or tools, it is sometimes impossible to entirely opt out of their usage. Following, if a cooperative must employ tools counter to its philosophy, it must do so with an explicit awareness and careful intention. For strategies and stories of how coopyouth have engaged with such realities, review the key issue section “Relationships of Coercion.”

  • 1 Birchall, J. (2000), Some Theoretical and Practical Implications of the Attempted Takeover of a Consumer Cooperative Society. Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics, 71: 29-53.
  • 2 According to a study published by the International Labor Organization in 2018, “Women and Men in the Informal Economy: A Statistical Picture,” 61% of all workers work within the informal economy.