Dirty Words?

words mean things
In the face of good and evil, or justice and injustice, there can be no hesitation.
Father José Arizmendiarrieta




Throughout the cooperative movement today, you will not find much explicit conversation of capitalism, colonialism, globalization, and related topics outside of youth, poor, and worker -oriented spaces. Why is this the case, when these are the very systems that have created the ills of institutionalized poverty, oppression of identities, and destructive individualism that the movement works to address? There are several potential explanations for why certain segments of our cooperative movement do not use systems language to name our shared foes and threats, and may even seek to alienate those who do so. Many of the included explanations work hand in hand with each other - specifically, "Insufficient Education" combines with most, as many of these issues can be addressed with better education.


The latter half of the 20th century was ideologically divisive. During the course of the Cold War, which began in 1947, a faux binary between capitalism and socialism (most often referred to just as a type of socialism, “communism”), as the only two possible economic models possible, became standard orthodoxy, especially among the Baby Boomer generation. Compounding this false notion of only capitalism or communism was the misconception that “capitalism” implied “democracy” and “socialism/communism” implied “authoritarianism.”  When the most powerful socialist/communist states fell in the early 1990s, all communal values and practices were given a bad name, and they were steadily replaced by capitalist values of individualism and meritocracy. As a result, socialism, especially communism, became and remains a persecuted ideology throughout much of the world, even leading to “Red Scares” in capitalist strongholds like the United States in which individuals were blacklisted socially and professionally for allegedly showcasing sympathy towards communist or socialist projects.

This corrupted ideological framework imposed by the Cold War has impacted many of our cooperative movement comrades - both in their likely earnest subscription to an oversimplified and inaccurate “capitalism/democracy vs communism/authoritarianism” worldview, as well as instilling a fear of potentially divisive language as it harkens them back to a sustained period of global, ideological warfare. As an example of cooperative discourse prior to this, A F Laidlaw’s 1980 report to the ICA Congress openly and clearly named and blamed capitalism for many societal ills. Cooperative philosophy coming after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991 largely ceases to do so.

Of incredibly important note on this topic is the stigma still associated with the name "cooperative" in those areas where authoritarian states were in power during the Cold War. Such regimes often utilized exclusively nominal cooperatives to oppress and bring about conformity to the society designed by the regime, giving cooperatives a bad name and fostering distrust of the Identity still today.


Capitalism is so dominant in our world that it is difficult to even imagine another value system driving our societies. Most living people today have spent the majority of their collective lives within social, political, and economic systems shaped by capitalism. Mark Fisher, who coined the term capitalist realism, describes it as “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it” (2009, 6). Despite that those of us in the Cooperative Movement are purportedly working to envision and enact a value system to support social, political, and economic systems that directly conflict with those of capitalism and its underpinning values, some within the movement are still beholden to this sense of capitalist realism. This is because capitalist realism is such a powerful force; it frames all of our experiences no matter who we are or where we are in the world. We see capitalist realism manifest within the Cooperative Movement when cooperators name cooperativism as a "kinder, gentler form of capitalism," or when cooperators argue that simply because cooperativism can operate in a marketplace it *is* capitalism.


A subset of capitalist realism that is insidious within the Cooperative Movement is “business ontology” or the notion that everything must be a business. Neoliberalism, with its endeavors to shrink the state – often through privatization of essential services – is an example of the “business-ification” or commercialization of society. Mutual aid and all the organizations, networks, events, enterprises, and relationships that are created out of instinctual cooperation are not inherently or necessarily businesses. Cooperative enterprise is not synonymous with business, though it does not necessarily preclude businesses from being cooperative enterprises. “The real difference between cooperation and other kinds of economic organizations resides precisely in its subordination of business techniques to ethical ideas. Apart from this difference, the movement has no fully satisfactory reason for its existence” (Laidlaw, 1980, 38). There is nothing within the Cooperative Identity that implies a cooperative must be a business, must be a legally regulated entity, or must be incorporated. Overtime, due to the all encompassing onslaught of capitalist realism and business ontology, many in the Cooperative Movement simply began to assume and imply that cooperatives are synonymous with businesses. The business ontology aspect of capitalist realism has been, perhaps, the most harmful to the cooperative movement throughout the last century.


Ultimately, it has been and must continue to be stated explicitly that there are many cooperatives and cooperators in the world only nominally embody the Cooperative Identity. There are enterprises legally incorporated as a cooperative and/or using “cooperative” in their name or marketing, but they behave in ways that are counter to the Cooperative Identity and its extensive and coherent philosophy.1 Some individuals involved in these enterprises may truly believe they are cooperatives due to insufficient cooperative education, as well as the overwhelming predominance of capitalism as an unchecked inherency and ideal within all forms of economic education. Many cooperators “are not usually disposed to enquire deeply into the beliefs which they spread, for they assume they already have the true faith and need search no further" - this has been referred to as a ‘system of presumed virtue’” (Laidlaw, 1980, 32). In other words, just because what they are doing is called or named cooperative, people assume what they are doing is comprehensively in alignment with cooperativism when it, in fact, is not. Others may be fully aware of their practice of nominal cooperativism, but may be doing so in order to benefit from "coop-washing" their endeavor or may be actively working to demutualize the cooperative. It is, then, of no surprise that these individuals will – consciously or not - defend and resist the naming of their behaviors as uncooperative or capitalistic because they are operating within a "system of presumed virtue."

  • 1 “The Wyoming-Minnesota Model: Two Case Studies” David Massaglia, Bemidji State University, Minnesota; presented at the ACE Conference (Austin, Texas; 2016).


Much of the defensiveness and discourse around whether or not cooperativism is in opposition to or seeking to transform capitalism simply comes from a lack of sufficient understanding of concepts such as economy, marketplace, value systems, corporatism, and their histories.

Capitalism is a type of value system that drives exchange via a marketplace. Cooperativism is another value system that drives exchange between people and institutions in market-based systems. When it is suggested that cooperatives are a “kinder, gentler form of capitalism,” what is most often being acknowledged is that these two value systems both compel the development of a marketplace for exchange. Often people over-account for that single similarity and conflate the two incredibly distinct and ethically contrary systems simply because they do not understand that a “marketplace” is a general expression of several economic systems, not a fundamentally unique feature of capitalism. 

Lamentably, throughout many cooperative texts following the Cold War, the usage of "marketplace" or "competition" became commonplace to eupemistically describe capitalism rather than naming it directly. Given that both of these things can exist in some fashion in a cooperative context, it has created additional confusion among cooperators, as well as added to the defensiveness of cooperativism as part of the inherent and ideal system of capitalism. This glossary and its inclusion of Definitions of basic concepts such as work and enterprise, alongside an exploration of Isms that often get thrown around without precision such as capitalism, colonialism, globalization, and more endeavor to change this pattern within cooperative discourse.


As is clearly outlined within the concept of capitalist realism, the values and mechanisms of capitalism are insidious - they have seemingly impacted everything from our languages, societal structures, and how we related to one another and ourselves. Given this challenging reality, it is nearly impossible not to engage with some of the master's tools of capitalism in most things that we do - even when we practice cooperativism.

As a result, cooperatives or individual cooperators may hesitate to name their opposition to capitalism because of a discord between their theory and practice - that is, that it is hypocritical or inaccurate to say you are opposed to capitalism if you are working within it. There is a difference between theory and practice, or how we think we’re going to do things and then how we ultimately are able to do them. See the key issue chapter on “Social Transformation” for more information on youth cooperatives explicitly and actively managing this reality.


The majority of society's major political and economic institutions (e.g. governments, United Nations, grantmakers) are aligned with and actively promote capitalism and its values - especially nationally, regionally, and globally. As the Cooperative Movement endeavors to coordinate across borders or advocate for its legitimacy and autonomy, it frequently and sometimes necessarily must navigate relationships with institutions and organizations that uphold values and practices in opposition to cooperativism. Most of these relationships are entered into because the cooperators involved genuinely feel these connections can have great benefit to the Cooperative Movement or, less admirably, to specific individuals or a specific cooperative.

Most of these institutions with which cooperators align not only consider capitalism a fine, but ideal, value system. Following, they might choose to refuse new or sever existing relationships with others they feel are in opposition to their beliefs. A fear of losing these relationships or losing credibility within those relationships drives semantic choices (e.g. what words to use to discuss capitalism and other concepts) for some within the Cooperative Movement. Sometimes these relationships promise great benefit, which incentivizes cooperators in those situations to be vague in their communications or weaken their integrity to the Cooperative Identity. For how coopyouth have managed integrity challenging relationships, review the key issue section on "Relationships of Coercion."   


The role of capitalism in the work of cooperation has been discussed in varying ways throughout the movement's history. However, it has been consistently identified - directly or euphemistically - as a threat to cooperative integrity, alongside the threat of the nation-state. While much of this section has been dedicated to untangling why capitalism is considered a dirty word within much of the Cooperative Movement, the movement's relationship to naming the nation-state as something other than an ally is also complicated. However, there has already been much discussion on the role of the nation-state, some of which resulting in the creation of the Fourth Principle, "Autonomy & Independence," which explicitly states it is essential to the integrity of a cooperative and the Cooperative Movement to remain autonomous and distinct from government. Additiionally, the threat of the nation-state has evolved over time - from being feared to take on a more controlling role of economic activity (e.g. central planning) to now existing in service to capitalism; making capitalism's threat status somewhat of a representation of the two. For more on this evolution, refer to both the "Isms" section and the Cooperatives in the Year 2000 report outlined in the literature review.

Throughout this piece, capitalism is named explicitly as inherently distinct from and as a direct threat to cooperation, in proper stewardship of our movement’s philosophical discourse. Similarly, the changing relationship of the nation-state and private sector to position the former as servant to the latter is named explicitly as the growth of neoliberalism. To support this initial step of naming and rejecting these systems, the discussions of key issues facing cooperatives endeavor to extract the influences and frameworks of capitalism (e.g. speaking of “work” instead of “employment,” as outlined previously in this session) - which is a difficult task that has surely been done imperfectly.