words mean things




Naming “capitalism” and “neoliberalism,” in particular, have been historically taboo within the contemporary Cooperative Movement, with a few exceptions. One such exception was A F Laidlaw, author of a report commissioned by the Board of the International Cooperative Alliance to its Congress in 1980, who openly discussed “grasping capitalism” as one of cooperativism’s two biggest threats and positioned the end of capitalism is a cooperative goal:

“Cooperatives were started solely as an alternative to private business or capitalism. The pioneers of the movement spoke of and planned for the day when the cooperative system of business would gradually win over so many followers, it would be in a dominant position, and would then exert its influence in all fields and finally build a cooperative commonwealth” (41).

The Cooperative Movement uses precise language to explain what it supports and aims to further in its Statement on the Cooperative Identity, but much of it hesitates to explicitly name what our movement works to resist and transform.

Within the worker and youth segments of our movement, there has been far less hesitation to “define and empower.”1 Specifically, during the International Summit on Cooperatives in 2014, the coopyouth contingent issued a statement titled Cooperate to Transform Society -

“We believe that there is an alternative to the capitalist economy. We want to be part of a cooperative movement that critiques the current system and actively rejects its focus on limitless growth. This means not emulating its institutions, looking to its leadership and theory for guidance, or staffing the management teams of our cooperatives with subscribers to neoliberal philosophy.” 

This is just one illustration of coopyouth struggling to compel the movement to be more direct in its language and aims. Often, when coopyouth seek to antagonistically identify capitalism and neoliberalism as value systems that need to be dismantled, they are disrespected, written off as impractical, and they or their views are silenced by elders. Examples of this can be found in key issue sections on “Relationships of Coercion,” “Social Transformation,” and “Capital.”

  • 1 Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider. For more on this concept, refer to earlier in the section “Central Concepts.”


The philosophy and practices emergent from the Cooperative Identity constitute “cooperativism,” which has evolved not only from a more than century long tradition dating back the the Rochdale Equitable Society of Pioneers, but is a formalized expression of instinctually and intentionally cooperative social systems throughout human history.1 While much of the natural human compulsion for cooperation has been eclipsed by society’s prevailing individualism, there are some communities in which a cooperative approach still drives relationships. Many indigenous communities, in particular, have struggled against colonizers, settlers, and modern multinational corporations, while still managing to maintain communitarian value systems.2 Even within communities wholly shaped by capitalism or explicitly non-communitarian value systems, humans will spontaneously or organically cooperate.3, 4 A significant reason for why the work and traditions of RESP were sufficiently preserved over time to shape a global movement is because, while they were economically oppressed, they were “safe” from the violent mechanisms of white supremacy, in particular, ensuring their written history and practices were much less likely to be forgotten or destroyed. 

An early 20th century quote, sourced from a newsletter of a consumers’ cooperative in Great Britain that emerged from the RESP and is included in the Guidance Notes to the Cooperative Principles, speaks to this history clearly: 

“The development of the idea of cooperation in the 19th century can best be understood as an attempt to make explicit a principle that is inherent in the constitution of society, but which has been forgotten in the turmoil and disintegration of rapid economic progress.”

 The need for this natural human compulsion to be formalized and codified in some way is owed to capitalism’s bureaucratizing impulses. In some ways, while capitalism forced cooperativism to formalize itself as an explicit value system, making the model explicit has both allowed for the value system to be interrogated and improved over time, thereby serving as an ideological life raft for many as capitalism has intensified.

As a value system, cooperativism drives individual behavior, which drives relationships, and, in turn, shapes social systems and their norms. Cooperativism is *not* a checklist of organizational or structural characteristics, it is not simply a business model, it is not an economic scheme, nor is it a “kinder, gentler capitalism.” Cooperativism is a philosophy that supports the survival and thriving of sentient life and the life on which that depends, without being prescriptive about what that should look like, beyond how we should treat and relate to one another in a systemized fashion.  

  • 1 For more on the Cooperative Identity, refer to the according section in the Literature Review, as well as the section reviewing Ian MacPherson’s address to the 1995 Congress of the International Cooperative Alliance in Manchester, England.
  • 2 Estes, Nick. Our History Is The Future. Verso Books, 2019.
  • 3 Gelderloos, Peter. Anarchy Works. Ak Press, 2015.
  • 4 Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons. Cambridge University Press, 1990.


Capitalism is a system of personal values that dictate social, political, and – most obviously to most people – economic decisions and behaviors. Capitalist values include: profit above all other things, private property as necessary and good, individualism, and extreme self-sufficiency. Throughout the world today, capitalism is the predominant socio-economic system that defines the institutions which shape much of how our societies function - family structures, government, housing systems, as well as, and very importantly, water management, and food production and distribution, to name a few.  

As a system, it is so pervasive that it has sullied how we conceive of ourselves, others, and our relationships. In many languages, “self-worth” is discussed not as something inherent, but as something that needs to be created by being “productive” - e.g. having a “good” job, earning “enough” money. Similarly, relationships are “invested” in, and that investment is often tracked in a way that is transactional in nature - e.g. “I have invested so much time and effort in my relationship with her, and I feel like that has not been sufficiently reciprocated” or “I, the man, bought dinner on this date, I expect my date, a femme, to have sex with me.” In the latter example, it is especially apparent how capitalism reinforces and is upheld by other perverse and harmful value systems, the patriarchy in this instance. Capitalism has influenced the way we feel, think, and talk about ourselves and each other. The reach of capitalism’s socio-economic paradigm is so extreme, it has resulted in a prevailing sense that the way society is structured and interpreted is the only possible way in which to operate and relate to one another. This phenomenon is called capitalist realism; it and its impact on the Cooperative Movement is outlined in greater detail in the “Dirty Words” section. 


As an international movement, it is imperative to be explicit about discussing the process, impacts, and continued expression and expansion of capitalism on a global scale via colonialism and imperialism. Colonialism was the driving force by which our world became “globalized.” Colonization is the process by which people go to another place to subjugate and exploit the people and resources of that place in order to extract value for personal gain and/or for the benefit of the government or business that financed their efforts. This process often involves establishing a formal political outpost of their home nation in the new location, which is called a “colony.” Outlined later in this section is a discussion of “Corporatism,” including how the Dutch East Indies Corporation, perhaps the most infamous colonizing endeavor that subjected an entire corner of the globe, was the first known corporate structure after which all corporate structures are modeled.

Of important note to the Cooperative Movement, some of the largest cooperatives’ origins, as well as the broader legacy of the movement in certain parts of the world have direct ties to colonialism. Ian MacPherson, in his background paper to the 1995 revision of the Cooperative Identity, notes that “many of the largest cooperatives of the late twentieth century had their roots in th[e] settlement experience” and those nominal cooperative traditions outside Europe “started through the direct action of imperial and colonial governments” (1998, 224). This history cannot be ignored, forgotten, or its enduring impacts underestimated if the Cooperative Movement is to truly live up to its values and progress towards a better world. 


The process by which the exchange of ideas, goods, and services become wholly internationalized can be understood as “globalization.” As this process began via colonization, globalization has created new methods of colonization and, as a result, some of its mechanisms are referred to as “neocolonialism.” This contemporary expansion and increase of exchange globally is the outgrowth of the long and painful process of colonization and the slave trade, both of which shape economic and political dynamics to this day. As testament to this lineage, many of today’s multi-national corporations have roots in the slavery and the oppression of scores of people, by using materials created or processed using slave labor, creating insurance policies for slave owners to compensate them for the death or “loss” of an enslaved person. JP Morgan Chase admitted during this century that previous iterations of their bank accepted slaves as collateral.1  

In the past century, globalization has been spurred by technological improvements in transportation and communications, allowing for people and their conversations to travel great distances in an extremely short period of time. While some scholars conceptualize different branches or types of globalization (e.g. cultural), it is first and foremost a function of economic exchange. Cultural or political extension and expansion were pursued primarily for the financial benefits that could be gained via international trade and exploitation. Following, economic and political philosophy have also become globalized, particularly those that justify the predominant methods and modes of globalization harmful to many (e.g. neoliberalism), in the last several decades. 


Neoliberalism is an ideological revival of “liberalism,” an ideology articulated by Scottish economist Adam Smith. His 1776 book, A Wealth of Nations, called for the cessation of all government involvement in economic activity, in order for all exchange to be “free” or “liberal” (e.g. no exchange rates, tariffs, taxes, restrictions or regulation of commercial activities, etc.). This value of “free exchange” facilitated processes of colonization and violent exploitation of the world by its wealthiest and, most often, whitest nations. This was facilitated not only by the refusal of regulation by government entities, but also in the ideology’s inherent ties to white supremacy and anthropocentrism that supported its assertion that the individual trader was accountable to no one - especially not those people being colonized or exploited, nor to the supporting ecosystem.

Following the Great Depression, there was a resurgence of government intervention in trade, which – for a time – limited the amount of profit that could be made by exploitative economic actors. In the latter part of the 20th century, neoliberal ideology began to shape economic policy in the United States, as legislators crafted legislative responses to the 1970s economic recession. Its employment by politicians brought about the destruction of welfare systems and economic protections for the most vulnerable in wealthier nations (e.g. the United States, Canada, parts of Europe), as well as the intensification of exploitation of the world’s poor by the more wealthy.

At its most basic, neoliberalism is the renewed shift of nation-states and governments to shrink themselves to be wholly in service to the goals and values of capitalist philosophy and practice.1 Neoliberalism is both encompassed by and facilitates capitalism, as it is most commonly employed to refer to the aspect of capitalist philosophy that drives the creation of legislation and policy that entrenches and justifies capitalism in its scarily influential societal role. In recent decades and today, supranational organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are the institutions that introduce and enforce neoliberalism in the “developing world” through programs framed as economic development assistance initiatives.2 Due to these programs and their associated loans, many poor nation-states persist in a state of perpetual debt to these institutions controlled by representatives of wealthy nation-states, preserving a state of extreme inequality and power imbalance in global political and economic systems. Those with the power in these systems have no incentives to relinquish any control, thereby restricting the potential actions that can be taken by the debtor nation-states to achieve any level of self-sufficiency or liberation from external control.

  • 1 “What is Neoliberalism? A Brief Definition for Activists.” Elizabeth Martinez and Arnoldo Garcia, National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
  • 2 Lourdes, Benería; Gunseli, Berik; Maria S., Floro (2016). Gender, Development, and Globalization: Economics as if all people mattered. New York: Routledge. p. 95.


The relationship between capitalism and neoliberalism is very similar to that of colonialism and imperialism, insofar as imperialism is the extension of colonialism’s socio-economic mechanisms into the political and legislative arenas in order to institutionalize and moralize its functioning. By “legalizing” exploitation and violence, it has the complementary effect of “moralizing” the behavior, as many people subscribe to the notion that “legality = morality,” which then excuses a range of violent and oppressive practices. Imperialism's, as well as colonialism’s, history and current operation are of particular relevance to the Cooperative Movement, given its international scope, the essentialism of economic exchange and relationship in its work, and the necessity of navigating international relationships historically defined by the functioning of those systems. As discussed in the other parts of this section, today’s supranational political and economic infrastructure (e.g. United Nations, North Atlantic Treaty Organization) are manifestations of colonization and its modern day heirs, capitalism and neoliberalism. These global institutions are explicitly or implicitly controlled by those nation-states and strongly influenced by the world’s wealthiest individuals and corporations. Cooperativism seeks to build commonwealths, not empires, so engaging with institutions with aspirations for empire can be dangerous - “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” 


A corporation is a type of organization that is sanctioned by the state to operate as a “legal person.” Its etymology is rooted in the Latin word “corporare”: to combine into one body. It is related to the modern word, corporeal, which refers to both having a body and things that relate to having a body (e.g. corporeal pleasure). In a legal context, corporations are people, which affords them the same protections and rights a human would have. A common rallying cry by people in opposition to corporate power is “corporations are not people!” The paradigm of personhood for a corporation has become more complex as time has passed:

“As the medieval baron in his castle held sway over the feudal age, so the business magnate from the corporate boardroom rules society in the modern age. The main difference today is that the corporate power is generally hidden and inaccessible. It may be irresponsible, and no one can be quite sure where this power begins and ends. It is often uncontrollable, and unlike political power cannot be voted out or impeached. Indeed, in Western society corporate power sometimes overrides government and the state” (Laidlaw, 1980, 25).

The origins of the corporate structure are firmly embedded in colonialism and slavery, within capitalism’s lineage. The Dutch East India Company, or Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), is widely considered the first corporation in the world, and it resulted from the government-mandated merger of several trading companies in the Netherlands. The activities carried out by the company involved imposing themselves on East Asian communities, while massacring and enslaving peoples whenever “necessary.” Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the VOC's de facto chief executive, to the the VOC's board of directors, in 1614 -

“Your Honours know by experience that trade in Asia must be driven and maintained under the protection and favour of Your Honours' own weapons, and that the weapons must be paid for by the profits from the trade; so that we cannot carry on trade without war nor war without trade.”1

The VOC reigned in this way in order to exploit the labor and natural resources of those places, and established Dutch outposts or “colonies” in support of those efforts. Their colonizing activities in the region were so intensive that the concept of a “VOC World” took hold, which broadly considers the VOC to be a company-state – comparable to a nation-state – eclipsing other pre-existing distinctions between space and peoples.2

Depending on the jurisdiction, some cooperatives in the world have the option to incorporate into a corporate entity that is specifically designed by legislators according to what they interpret a cooperative to be. It is not uncommon for these “cooperative corporate statutes” to be unfit for actual cooperatives, as there is a well known knowledge gap about cooperatives both within the movement and beyond it in the public realm.3 Even when this is an option, some cooperatives will forego the formal cooperative incorporation because the statute is too restrictive or they are ineligible for some reason other than their relationship to the Cooperative Identity. Those that forego the cooperative statute but still choose to incorporate, as well as those without any nominally cooperative statute option, may use conventional corporate statutes and, as a result, be considered and treated by the government as conventional capitalist enterprises. It is then up to the cooperative to ensure their integrity by imbuing their governing documents and organizational practices with the Cooperative Identity.

“Legal requirements and corporate structure may also distort the true nature of a cooperative, which is essentially much closer to an association than a corporation” (Laidlaw, 1980, 30).

However, an important reason why many choose to take on a corporate designation or advocate for this practice is that it brings the cooperative fully into the “formal” economy, or the activities of exchange in a given jurisdiction that are monitored and regulated by the government. This, on its own, doesn’t sound that appealing, but in more “developed” countries, corporate status can be a requirement for opening a bank account, signing a lease, and all manner of operational transactions. Still further, in some, but not all, countries and regions – becoming a member of the formal economy grants you access to certain social services and safety nets. That said, 61% of all workers in the world operate within the informal economy.4 It is unknown what portion of those working beyond the scope of economic regulation live under governmental regimes that have any form of welfare or social benefit for participation in the formal economy for which they might otherwise be eligible.


Many other concepts related to that of the corporation also came from the aforementioned VOC, including the Board of Directors, which is today a governance structure used by capitalist enterprise, other private sector organizations, non-profit organizations, the public sector, and cooperatives. Its base intention is to buffer the governance and strategic decision-making of the organization from its day to day activities or “operations.” This separation is often made and justified as a protective mechanism, to limit the possibility of corruption and distance the discussion of long-term organizational interests from the short-term demands of running an enterprise. How Directors are selected to the Board vary by organization, though there are general trends across sectors:

  • For-Profit: Typically, the executive staff members of the corporation are placed on the Board automatically, with the remainder of the Directors elected by the existing directors or, in publicly held organizations, the shareholders. Of important note in the election process is that the existing Board, via a nominating committee, most typically selects who is put up for election, i.e. elections are not free and open. As a result, most of those Directors who are nominated are representatives of strategic profit interests of the corporation or majority shareholders. Still further, given that one share equals one vote in conventional shareholder corporations, while all shareholders can vote in an election, minority shareholders have no real power and decisions are effectively made by majority shareholders.
  • Non-Profit: Practices vary widely across these kinds of organizations, but most non-profit Boards perpetuate themselves by recruiting their own new members. Elections for these seats may or may not be held, though if they are held it is often purely symbolic in nature or in order to satisfy a regulatory requirement. The major donors are often recruited to fill seats on the Board. In the instance a major donor is a corporation, a representative from that corporation is placed on the Board. Sometimes seats are given to a representative of the non-profit’s beneficiaries.
  • Cooperatives/Membership Organizations (including some non-profits): Directors are elected from the membership by the membership, typically through a nomination process and committee that varies by organization and is far more transparent than that of for-profit entities. In some instances, membership organizations will appoint an outside director, with full or limited voting power, as a connection to the broader community or an affiliated issue (e.g. student housing cooperative placing a representative from the local college on the Board).    

In most visible and large cooperatives throughout the world, a Board of Directors is installed to supervise and perpetuate the cooperative as its steward of the cooperative’s “governance” activities. However, a Board is not an inherent characteristic of a cooperative and is, as we have seen, an outgrowth of an entirely different value system. As a result, there are an infinite number of other ways in which governance can be apportioned and managed in a cooperative, including ways in which it is not considered necessarily independent and removed from the day to day activities of the organization. Youth cooperatives, often having fewer members and being more innovative due to their nascent phase of organizational life, in particular, have creatively employed a range of unconventional ways to structure governance in their cooperatives in relation to operations, some of which are outlined in the key issue section “Structure and Participation.”

  • 1 Phillips, Andrew; Sharman, J.C.: International Order in Diversity: War, Trade and Rule in the Indian Ocean. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015, ISBN 9781107084834), p. 109
  • 2 This heralds to the Cooperative Movement’s contemporary attempts to be included in some fashion within the G20 and United Nations, which could set a precedent similar to that of the VOC company-state and usher in a world order in which sizable corporations, such as Amazon, may feel entitled to a seat at the global government table due to their economic power.
  • 3 For example, many cooperative statutes throughout the world require a cooperative to have 5 or 10 members in order to incorporate, which prohibits many small, worker-oriented cooperatives ineligible.
  • 4 “Women and Men in the Informal Economy: A Statistical Picture,” ILO (2018)