What Role for Governments in our Economy?

An interesting debate is happening here in Madison. What role should government play in helping to build the co-operative movement? In the backdrop of the corporatist take0ver of Wisconsin, many might be rather skeptical of the government. Certainly, trusting the Walker administration would be a fool’s errand; however, governments do assist economic development and I think that we would be mistaken to shun that assistance.

The government in the United States (and most of North America and Europe) exist as liberal democracies (liberal in the sense of economics and to some extent social politics). These governments, at least on paper, operate with many of the same principles as the co-operative movement: universal suffrage (one person, one vote), democratic control, voluntary and open membership (although the immigration rules run counter to this), education, information and training, etc.

I think that part of the reason that governments don’t seem to be on our side stems from the basic fact that the co-operative movement is largely invisible to most elected officials. I interviewed Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz a few years ago and he made it very clear: if worker co-operatives want to be a force in the economy, then they need to show up. They need to engage the city and regional planners and educate them as to the value of a strong worker co-operative sector to a local economy. If we aren’t willing to do this on a local, regional and even national level, then we will continue to be a small, unorganized, and easily discounted movement. A novelty instead of the mainstream.

Things are changing, however. This can even be a non-partisan effort. In fact, it should be a non-partisan effort. On March 29th, Republican Representative Jo Ann Emerson (Missouri-8th) and Democrat Chaka Fattah (Pennsylvania 2nd) will be hosting an educational forum for Congress about the co-operative model. This will happen on March 29th. We should all asked our Representatives to attend. In fact, we should approach our local bodies (municipal councils, county boards, etc) and seek to hold similar sessions.

Good people on opposite sides of the nation’s debate tend to share some slogans. One popular one is “I love my country, but fear my government.” However, our government is us. Most of the people in Congress and the Senate (and even the White House) started out in local government. If we fear our government, it might be the result of our lack of engagement. If we really want to change our world, then we need to be, as Ghandi said, the change we want to see. It means real engagement with our local elected officials and all the way up the ladder.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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4 Responses to What Role for Governments in our Economy?

  1. Derek says:

    I don’t disagree that the co-operative movement should accept government assistance, but at the same time we should be aware that the State-capitalist nexus is the primary reason we don’t already have a co-operative economy. See, for example, Kevin Carson’s “The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand.” (http://mutualist.org/id4.html)

    So yes, we should certainly be more visible and even political but I don’t think we should rely on such a political means.

  2. Agreed. I think that the key is that co-ops need to always retain their overall autonomy. Of course, I also believe that co-ops need to be viable. While a start-up grant or low interest loan can help a great deal (as it did with Union Cab and WORT-FM), the organization needs to be able to pay its bills and raise enough capital to replace existing capital without hand-outs. My main argument, is that regional planning can shift its focus from attracting stock corporations to attracting co-operatives.

    I could see some limited cases where the government might participate as a member of a multi-stakeholder co-op (say, the water utility or even a school district), but the government would then need to be limited to its stakeholder group (institutional).

  3. Steve Herrick says:

    I wish I believed the government was us. I certainly did for years, but two things have left me really jaded.

    First, I was an active participant in the Green Party for many years, at the state, national, and international levels. I saw how genuinely alternative candidates have one roadblock after another thrown in their path. A great example of this is the media coalition “We the People,” which includes public radio and TV. To participate in its debates, candidates must meet a list of criteria that are completely out of reach to any minor party. I documented this in great detail at voteeisman.org. And that’s just one example among many. As a result of this, as Chomsky observes, the intensity of the political debate in this country masks the narrowness of its parameters.

    Second, like Derek, I read a lot of Kevin Carson. His thesis is that Big Business and Big Government are not enemies, but rather, are totally codependent. That’s why candidates who look like progressive populists, like Clinton and Obama, always disappoint their base by toeing the corporatist line, and they always will. Closer to home, you find some happy exceptions, but the general rule is that the corporations have the wealth to keep their favorite politicians in power, and those politicians have the power to keep the corporations wealthy.

    I don’t see a place in this equation for genuine, on-going support from the government for a business model whose very existence challenges corporate power. I would expect it to either be sincere but short-term, or long-term, but with some sort of trap built in.

  4. Steve, I get you. I never thought Obama was going to deliver. In fact, I was constantly annoyed at people acting like he was the second coming of Che Guevara or something. I don’t support co-ops ever taking partisan positions (although I might amend that if a true Co-op Party ever managed to get off the ground or if we changed our system to a German Parliamentary style with IRV–neither will be happening in my lifetime, but still a caveat).

    I hope that you don’t see my POV as calling for “on-going” support. However, as long as my tax dollars are being used to kill people in Asia and Africa, I would like to see as least some of them (even a penny on the dollar) come back to my community to help local co-ops establish start-up equity. I’d like to see the IRS have a definition of worker co-ops so that they know how to handle patronage refunds properly and not create asinine rules that will tax worker co-ops more heavily for doing well than corporations or even other co-ops.

    I think that any engagement with government needs to be strategic with the goal of building our capacity as an economic movement. As an example, tonight, Paul Soglin suggested that, as Mayor, he would call a City-wide conference of Co-operatives to discuss how this model can help rebuild our economy. We could do that without his help, but it will be a lot easier with City staffers organizing it and paying for it. It will also be more likely to have more than the usual crowd attend and can help us expand people’s awareness and even see our model as a viable alternative. We could then follow this up with our own worker co-op conference and build off of that energy.

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