Let’s try affirmative action for cooperatives — instead of for fossil fuel businesses

Mauril Belanger is a member of Canada’s Parliament and chairing its Special Committee on Cooperatives. Belanger tells PostMedia cooperatives are good for communities, have a high rate of job creation and are steady during times of crisis:

They offer a model which has more resilience. And at times when you have turbulence, it may indeed be a model that would traverse such turbulences more readily than private-sector enterprises. There are some values that inhabit and animate the co-op world that I believe we should be paying attention to.

Considering this statement, shouldn’t Canada be working to promote cooperatives?

I disagree with William Watson, an economics professor at McGill University who says government should not favour co-ops with supportive policy, regulation or subsidies.

Every action by government encourages different organizational forms and practices. Even a position of “scrupulous neutrality,” as recommend for governments by Watson, will favour one form or practice over another. Beyond that, what does Watson mean when he says “neutrality”? Inaction supports existing organizational arrangements and any dangers or harms caused by them them; withdrawing from government regulation or expenditure benefits some organizational forms while penalizing others. What is “neutral” about withdrawing government from action or taking acting to maintain a dangerous and unjust status quo?

Tax laws, land-use zoning, building codes, and other regulations favour some types of organization over others and encourages certain practices. Permitting, bidding processes, and public auctions can be abused and subverted by powerful cartels and conspiracies. Yet, mindlessly undoing all intervention in public life by government would be unduly disruptive and end up favouring some forms over others.

We are in a perilous situation ecologically and socially, one caused by our prevailing organizational forms and practices. Large industrial corporations have radically damaged the bisophere, harmed people and communities, and have used other organizations, including governments, to conceal and fund many harmful activities. There is little accountability for such practices and people who take action to reveal bad practices are tortured and imprisoned.

Worringly, government action and policy is skewed to favour large corporate organizations and many harmful practices (like fossil fuel extraction and use). The power and productive capacity of these organizations encourages people to maintain this arrangement and accept the risk and abuse that come along with it.

Instead of this, government should intervene to favour organizational forms and practices that stabilize and enrich communities while sustaining quality employment and promoting resilience. We also need to better deter crime, corruption and practices that endanger or harm people, including the young and those who aren’t born yet.

In light of how far we are in the other direction – favouring large corporations that generate surplus through biosphere damage or financial speculation – what we need is something like an affirmative action program for more resilient organizational forms. To survive the economy’s apex predators, new cooperatives will need the support and protection currently reserved for powerful extractive and financial corporations.

Let’s start by ending government subsidies for fossil fuel businesses. This money could be better spent supporting the formation of local cooperatives, especially in the areas of food, housing and energy production. Imagine what Canada’s car sharing cooperatives could do with the type of support Canada’s government provided to Chrysler in 2009. Or a national energy plan committed to funding decentralized renewable energy production through locally-owned cooperatives. What might $1.3 billion/yr in federal support for decentralized renewable energy projects accomplish?

Simply not doing anything to change course is supporting the suicidal business as usual trajectory we’re on now.