Economics: Doing Business as if People Mattered

When politicians talk economics these days, they argue a lot about the budget deficit. That’s crucial to our economic future, but in the contemporary workplace there’s an equally threatening problem — the democracy deficit.

In an economy dominated by corporations, most people spend their work lives in hierarchical settings in which they have no chance to participate in the decisions that most affect their lives. The typical business structure is, in fact, authoritarian — owners and managers give orders, and workers follow them. Those in charge would like us to believe that’s the only way to organize an economy, but the cooperative movement has a different vision.

Cooperative businesses that are owned and operated by workers offer an exciting alternative to the top-down organization of most businesses. In a time of crisis, when we desperately need new ways of thinking about how to organize our economic activity, cooperatives deserve more attention.

First, the many successful cooperatives remind us that we ordinary people are quite capable of running our own lives. While we endorse democracy in the political arena, many assume it’s impossible at work. Cooperatives prove that wrong, not only by producing goods and services but by enriching the lives of the workers through a commitment to shared decision-making and responsibility.

Second, cooperatives think not only about profits but about the health of the community and natural world; they’re more socially and ecologically responsible. This is reflected in cooperatives’ concern for the “triple bottom line” — not only profits, but people and the planet.

The U.S. government’s response to the financial meltdown has included some disastrous decisions (bailing out banks to protect wealthy shareholders instead of nationalizing banks to protect ordinary people) and some policies that have helped but are inadequate (the stimulus program). But the underlying problem is that policymakers assume that there is no alternative to a corporate-dominated system, leading to “solutions” that leave us stuck with failed business-as-usual approaches.

It’s crazy to trust in economic structures that have brought us to brink of economic collapse. But even in more “prosperous” times, modern corporations undermine democracy, weaken real community, and degrade the ecosystem. New thinking is urgently needed. Politicians who talk about an “ownership society” typically promote individual ownership of a tiny sliver of an economy still dominated by authoritarian corporate giants. An ownership society defined by cooperative institutions would be a game-changer.

None of this is hypothetical — there are hundreds of flourishing cooperative businesses in the United States. The United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives provides excellent information and inspiring stories. In Austin, a cooperative-incubator group, Third Coast Workers for Cooperation offers training and support for people interested in creating democratic workplaces.

Putting our faith in institutions that have become too big to fail has failed. Institutions that are too greedy to defend can’t be defended. Cooperative businesses aren’t a magical solution to the critical economic problems we face, but a national economic policy that used fiscal and tax policies to support cooperatives would be an important step on a different path.

Robert Jensen is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and collaborates with the New Perennials Project at Middlebury College. He is the author of It’s Debatable: Talking Authentically about Tricky Topics, coming this spring from Olive Branch Press. This essay is adapted from his book An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, co-authored with Wes Jackson. Follow him on Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on October 7th, 2010 at 9:24am #

    The first ‘state’, the citystate of, say Ur, Eridu had been founded on ownership of land, water, and people.
    And every uncivilized people [some blacks and ‘indians’ were highly civilized] emulated such behavior.
    This is more evident in kurdistan, india, pak’n, US than in many other countries.

    So utter emancipation of, say, 80% of americans is a must; we are not going anywhere without it.
    No, patching, [de, re]forming, [de]regulating [mal, re ] educating, supervising, checkandbalancing, or chequeandbalancing wld change that!

    Btw. Socalled the Clash of Civilizations amounted to one of the great snake oils sales. People really believed and believe now that US is civilized society.
    This observation is valid also for the fictive “End of History”.
    It really meant and means now that fascists can be freer than ever before to continue owning people and to even increase it.
    Which, of course, [to me] represents the greatest evil ever perpetrated against humans, nature, and animals.

    I know that to most commenters and writers, it’s zionism, lack of backbones of some people, capitalism, taxation, some ‘jews’, etc., that are the actual causes for our and planet’s miseries and not in fact mere symptoms.

    One can make good money treating symptoms. Is any wonder that all MSM columnists do just that only. And not all symptoms, but the most trivial ones!
    Do we have to? tnx

  2. Deadbeat said on October 7th, 2010 at 12:11pm #

    The problem with Jensen’s suggestion is that he refuses to get to the heart of the problem — Capitalism. What he says is that the economy is dominated by “corporations”. What are corporation if not a more efficient form of organizing capitalist economic activity. If there were no “corporaton” it would just be a big capitalist. No difference.

    Now Jensen offers up a “kinder and gentler” Capitalist arrangement — “Cooperatives”. Cooperatives unfortunately will suffer the same problems as any corporation — the profit motive. Who’s going to decide whose going to get fired when the cooperative sees their profits decline? Jensen doesn’t say.

    Workers may agree to take cuts but the worker’s debtors won’t. The problem here is that Jensen is using a nice sounding axiom but hasn’t thought through all the implications. That is why his suggestions are yet just another Liberal bromide to the Capitalist system rather than a radical transformation which is what is needed.

    What is needed is a system that places human needs ABOVE the commodity fetish. Don’t you think that its time to stop working for money and start working for the betterment of society.

  3. hayate said on October 7th, 2010 at 6:49pm #


    “Don’t you think that its time to stop working for money and start working for the betterment of society.”


  4. siamdave said on October 8th, 2010 at 1:42am #

    – the biggest cooperative of all, so far – Green Island .