A Reply to Dr. Wulker by Toby Johnson

This document has been made available in electronic format
     by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA
                     January 1996

     The Social Economy: A Reply to Dr. Wulker

Perhaps Hans-Detlef Wulker (volume 88 no. 2, page 128) intended to provoke
- well he succeeded. I, for one. He even contradicts himself: one the one
hand "Member-oriented solidarity means self-help" but on the other
"Co-operatives have very little in common with ... self-help groups". His
thinking, I said to myself, is one reason the movement is in the state it
is today - that is, discredited and struggling for survival in many fields.
I finally put finger to keyboard at the assertion "Co-operatives do not
have any direct social or socio-political tasks." This is simply not my
experience - and I have worked in, banked with, and at times lived in, the
co-operative movement for 18 years.

There are many examples of the fine work done by co-operatives. In the
first co-operative in which I worked - for 8 years - our constitution did
indeed explicitly mention our social objectives; at registration we adopted
what at that time was known as a "preamble" to he Rules. This "mission
statement" - voluntarily assumed - gave the co-op a real sense of where it
was going - and it was going far further than Mr. Wulker seems to think
possible: today it is ten times the size it was then. A survey in 1985
showed that it was the largest single source of help for other
co-operatives in the region too.

What is remarkable about his article is that he totally overlooks the
fastest-growing sector of them all - worker co-ops: these do not appear in
his list of the supposedly disparate sectors which he says are incapable of
collaborating under the social economy banner. They are invisible to him
precisely because his federation refuses to admit them, forcing newer forms
of co-operation to incorporate under company or association law; and this
reduces, rather than increases, the movement's solidarity, resilience and

Mr Wulker evidently fears that to exhibit solidarity with society at large
is a sign of weakness - in other words that the only way to compete is to
selfishly serve one's members and them alone. In what century is he living?
Even the largest capitalist corporations nowadays make some concessions to
being a good neighbour - some even make a virtue of their ethical stance.
Co-ops got there first. Serving multiple stockholders is very much the
coming trend. And as for his fears of  loss of independence, to serve
social goals is not to be "used" - it is simply a higher form of being, a
recognition of the interdependence of modern citizens.

Mr Wulker needs to open his eyes. Society is changing, and the co-operative
movement must not be afraid to change with it. And one does not change by
shutting oneself off in an airtight compartment: the most creative
developments often happen at the interface between two ideas. Examples: the
tremendous growth of employee ownership (11 million Americans own shares in
the company that employs them through ESOPs), social co-operatives (over
2,000 in Italy alone - and they are true co-operatives - bringing the
providers and beneficiaries of social services together in the same
organisation). Thee new organisational forms are solving economic and
social problems by creatively combining the best features of two other
organisational forms: employee-owned companies apply the fruits of
management efficiency in an equitable way, and social co-operatives apply
entrepreneurial flair in place of state bureaucracy. Society needs these

Please note that it is these new forms of co-operation which are gaining
market share, opening up new markets, and being a creative force in society
- not the old-established consumer co-ops, which often do little to
distinguish themselves from any other supermarket chain. The movement needs
these innovations too!

Defensiveness is not getting the movement anywhere. Co-operatives need to
make new alliances. It is right and proper to sacrifice a little bit of
autonomy in this quest. The social economy, which is a spectrum, not to be
defined in the oppositional way which Mr. Wülker uses, should be seen as
just that - a route to greater power and influence. Not a threat, but an
opportunity that must be seized.

Toby Johnson
National Expert for European Commission