Cooperatives, Commons and Municipal Management


Let’s start with the idea of developing cooperatives. What is a cooperative? And in what way can cooperatives contribute to the creation of a democratic economy? 

Cooperatives have played an important role within radical and popular movements during a much longer period than what is usually chosen as the frame of reference for many current political debates. Cooperatives played an important role within the Paris Commune before and during the events of 1871. In many ways they were both a ferment for radical movements and a tool for shaping political events in those days. 

In more recent times the discussion about and the politics to promote cooperatives is sometimes framed as the challenge to create a New Economy. See for example this piece by Gar Alperovitz on the movement for a New Economy, its ideas and the practical alternatives it tries to create in North America. As we discussed in the previous post in this series, there is also the idea that cooperatives need to play an important role in the creation of a 'zero marginal cost society,' or that they may even be understood as the essential building blocks of a new post-capitalist society. 

In different countries the discussions about cooperatives is being framed differently and it is worth to note that there is not one given interpretation of how we should go about creating, not only more cooperatives, but also a more broader alternative: A cooperative or democratic economy.  For example in Sweden, where we live, there is almost no public discussion about the need or the desirability of creating substantially more cooperatives and a democratic economy. Still,the discussion about the need for new forms of economic democracy was brought up in a documentary that came out last year called “Can we do it ourselves?”.

Please have a look at this movie to grasp where the discussion is at in Sweden and also to learn something about the experiences with “economic democracy” in the US and Spain. The documentary also introduces some interesting discussions on how to think about the cooperative alternative. For example: Can cooperatives thrive within the context of a market economy? Is some sorts of market economy indeed a necessary component of a Cooperative and Democratic Economy? Or is it it’s worst enemy?

Video: Can we do it ourselves? Documentary on economic democracy.

One important objection against cooperatives is that they either risk being outpriced or marginalized in the competition with established capitalist enterprises in a market economy. It is a fact that there have never existed a society that has been completely taken over by cooperatives. But still there are examples of societies and regions where cooperatives have played and still play a major role. What can we learn from these examples in order to achieve a democratic transition to an ecological society? And what can we learn about how to deal with the risk of either risk being outpriced or marginalized? In the interview below Gar Alperovitz discuss these and other questions.  He also points to  the role that municipalities and other social institutions need to play in a democratic transition.

Video: Gar Alperovitz discusses the possibilities and limits of worker cooperatives.

You can also read this interview from Orion Magazine in 2014, where  Alperovitz discusses cooperatives in greater detail, and presents more arguments for his view that cooperatives must play an essential part in the social change that needs to happen in the coming decades. 

From cooperatives to the commons...

In tandem with the growing interest in cooperatives we have witnessed a growing interest in - and many social struggles to defend and develop - what is broadly called 'the commons.' What do we actually mean by commons and how do they relate to cooperatives and a democratic economy? As Yavor Tarinski explains in the article Commons beyond State and Market the concept itself is very old, and points to a paradigm beyond both state and market.

Commons refer to a wide range of resources that are held in common for everyone or larger groups of people to use. It may be streets, parks, forests, the atmosphere or the oceans. Or knowledge, designs for industry, buildings, electricity/the electric grid, internet and many other things.

The initiatives to put formerly private resources into commons have often been referred to as “the sharing economy” and during quite some time now there has been both a lot of hype and some attempts of understanding if this may be essentially the beginning of a new economic model. This question is also discussed a lot by Paul Mason and Jeremy Rifkin whose work was introduced in the previous post in this series. new forms of Municipal Management

Very relevant for our discussion here - on the commons, how it relates to new opportunities for a cooperative and democratic economy, and how all this relates to municipal management - is this post about the development of the sharing economy in Barcelona, The commons collaborative economy explodes in Barcelona

Worth to have a look at is also how Murray Bookchin outlined the role of municipalities in managing our commons and a new municipalized economy. See this summary by Janet Biehl. As David Harvey notes this is “by far the most sophisticated radical proposal to deal with the creation and collective use of the commons at a variety of scales”. 

This is the forth of a series of posts that was originally written for a study group on social ecology in Sweden. Read the first three posts here:

Post 1: The Fundamentals of Social Ecology

Post 2: Future Scenarios

Post 3: Economic Contradictions and New Opportunities

If you want to organize a study group on this series yourself, here are some questions you might discuss based on the material in this post.


  • What do you think of cooperatives as a possible building block of a democratic and ecological economy based on solidarity?
  • What kind of cooperatives would you like to see where you live?
  • What sorts of commons do you have in your city and region? And what types would be worthwhile to develop? How could you go about doing this? What kind of role do you think that commons could play in relation to efforts of creating a more cooperative and democratic economy?
  • How could municipalities promote cooperatives and further a democratic transition of the economy?
  • What do you think about the idea of “municipalization of the economy”?