Building a Paradigm
February 2013

I recently discovered that several 19th century economists first viewed cooperatives as a model for the future. John Stuart Mill, for example, one of the era's most influential thinkers, believed that cooperatives should occupy a place of choice in the economic landscape. He also noted that cooperatives promoted democratic values and human dignity, all the while efficiently helping to sustain a decentralized and competitive economy. Surprised? I myself was taken aback because it seems that this positive view of cooperatives has completely deserted the interests of 20th century economists.

Stefano Zamagni, of the University of Bologna's Faculty of Economics, proposed a very interesting rationale. In his opinion, this occurred in 1958 when Benjamin Ward published a work discrediting cooperatives. The hypothesis being that Man is essentially selfish– a premise that has been disproved thanks to research on behavioural economics –, Ward stated that cooperatives were, sooner or later, destined to be demutualized, with each member seeking their own profit to the detriment of the group, thus cooperatives were inherently unstable. The first nail was in and a few years later it was pounded even deeper upon the publication of Garrett Hardin's article "Tragedy of the Commons". This view, which did nothing good for the development of cooperatives, slowly became rooted in the mindset of the economic elite without further resistance.

This is how a paradigm is built! An idea is put forward, it is disseminated and creates connections with other deeply rooted beliefs, and then it sets its own deep roots until it becomes an undeniable truth that is no longer questioned. And the whole process is over: A road has been traced in our mind in which all of our thoughts are drained into a ditch where we no longer have the reflex to exercise our own judgment. I believe that this is exactly what happened when the notion of cooperation was rejected.

It is important that we provide a historical perspective to these events. This allows us to better understand the present. In this particular case, it looks like cooperatives had to develop against all odds, weighed down by the burden of an ill-gotten bad reputation in terms of economics. However, we must admit that today's neoliberal model, introduced as the best model of the 20th century paradigm, has yet to fulfill its promises. Instead, it has pushed humanity to its latest decline. Furthermore, it barely responds to new social demands, which are many and highly pressing. In fact, in the business world as is the case everywhere else, model diversity is still the better option. Diversity ensures stability, resilience, a response that is better adapted to a wide range of needs. Now is the time to break the neoliberal paradigm that has occupied so much space. The time has come to give other formulas, which provide innovative and sustainable solutions, a fighting chance.

Warning: Don't judge a book by its cover. The cooperative model cannot perform miracles. It can quickly become an empty shell if it is not sustained by true cooperative believers. That's why Jacques Attali, economist and former special consultant to François Mitterrand, insisted on clarifying his statement following the International Summit of Cooperatives. He boasted the huge potential of cooperatives to improve world governance. But in the newspaper Les Affaires, Attali reaffirmed that cooperatives could change the world but on one condition: They should act and operate as cooperative businesses, which, as he noted, was not always the case.


Colette Lebel, agr.
Director Cooperative Affairs
and Board Secretary Assistant
La Coop fédérée
Fax: 514 850-2567


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