Neoliberal Co-Optation of Leading Co-Op Organizations, and a Socialist Counter-Politics of Cooperation

By Ratner, Carl | Monthly Review, February 2015 | Go to article overview

Neoliberal Co-Optation of Leading Co-Op Organizations, and a Socialist Counter-Politics of Cooperation


Ratner, Carl, Monthly Review


Many people think of cooperatives as small, locally owned businesses, such as groceries, cafes, or bicycle shops, where people can work in an equal and participatory non-capitalist organization. In reality, the U.S. co-op movement is tied to U.S. federal agencies whose agenda is promoting neoliberalism, both domestically and abroad, and the co-op movement itself has neoliberal leaders. Many co-ops in name are profit-driven capitalist corporations in practice. And even in the abstract, the co-op principles of smaller co-ops enable neoliberal cooperative politics. All of this, however, raises the question of what a co-op based on socialist values would be, and China's Nanjie village provides a living example of that.

The U.S. Co-op Movement's Structure

At the top of the institutional structure of the U.S. co-op movement is the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA). NCBA is the major resource center for the North American movement-although it is itself not technically a cooperative. It organizes webinars, seminars, conferences, co-op development services, the Cooperative Hall of Fame, the Cooperative Development Research and Resource Center, and regional co-op business associations. It reaches deeply and intrusively into municipal co-op associations, in some cases controlling the executive director positions.1 NCBA's reach extends even to establishing, advising, and administering rural co-ops in Africa.

But NCBA is not an independent association; it is heavily funded by the U.S. State Department through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). NCBA's Cooperative Development Research and Resource Center was funded by a $1.3 million grant from USAID, as are NCBA's African co-op projects. USAID also funds other cooperative projects, such as one that assists national cooperative movements in developing countries in creating legal and regulatory environments.2

Where does USAID money come from? Its budget is part of the national security budget; USAID has an office called the Office of Civilian Military Cooperation, whose mission is to cultivate cooperation (with the Defense and State Departments) regarding development and security in humanitarian efforts.3 USAID in turn works under the military's U.S. African Command (AFRICOM), and as the public face of the CIA in foreign countries. It contains an Office for Transition Initiative that promotes "regime change" in independent countries such as Cuba, Ukraine, and Venezuela.

USAID does assist with some cooperative development, just as it helps with some programs to bolster elections and reduce human trafficking in underdeveloped countries. However, this aid is always auxiliary to and accommodated with the broader, dominant focus of USAID: to promote corporate economic and political hegemony. For instance, the USAID program for strengthening the rule of law includes funding police departments in reactionary countries such as Paraguay.4

As an instance of the agency's capitalist framing of cooperation it is useful to quote the statement by USAID's Ethiopian mission: "We share the vision that cooperatives can grow to become efficient, professional organizations that operate like businesses and focus on profitability. For example, in terms of maize we are supporting several farmers' cooperative unions in transactions with the World Food Program and with DuPont/Pioneer and the government to assist some 35,000 farmers to access training, high yielding maize seed and storage over the next three years."5 In short, USAID's "cooperative vision" is profit-oriented businesses who partner with the worst capitalist corporations.

In tum, NCBA endorses this neoliberal cooperativism in its public announcements; one press release enthused:

On August 9, 2009, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presided over the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between NCBA/CLUSA [Cooperative League of the USA], Chevron and USAID to continue to work together to assist Angola in diversifying its economy by revitalizing small and medium scale commercial farming. …

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