A Co-operative Web Portal
[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
As we build our social movements and fight to reform and even replace oppressive structures with new ones, we should not neglect the task of developing and debating, beyond vague ideals, what the new basic social structures in our envisioned society will look like. This is not only useful, but perhaps even critical in guiding our decisions today, thinking about strategic choices and using as a basis for experiments.
Inspired by the participatory planning model outlined in Parecon, this essay intends to suggest a tentative initial proposal concerning the creation of an internet portal website for producers and consumers to come together and engage in a variety of services including trade that will be used as a medium to strengthen the alternative workplace movement, the long term objective being to remove the dependency on the market and guide us along the path toward a participatory economy.
Creating a serious challenge to capitalism will involve looking beyond the establishment of isolated pockets of democratic structures each fighting to repel the commercial pressures of the environment that they are compelled to survive in, towards the development of a movement that has a shared commitment to replacing the market with an alternative way of coordinating economic activity.
Rejecting the Market
To change the environment in which our alternative workplaces operate in means, first and foremost, being crystal clear in our rejection of markets - they will never be able to deliver what we want as they are fundamentally opposed to our set of values. Hanging on to the idea that a more tightly regulated or tamed version of the market should remain in our future society is at best counter-productive.
The market theory involves buyers and sellers coming together under competitive conditions in which each actor bargains to buy or sell goods and services each trying to get the best price they can. Gordon Brown, the current Prime Minister of Britain, believes markets only need a little tinkering to get back on track. Speaking at the recent G20 conference he said:
“Markets Need Morals”.
Quite a frank omission on his behalf. If markets need morals then they must not have morals. If we want a system with morals then we can’t have markets. Facetious rhetoric aside, literature on the pernicious effects of the market system is, I think, overwhelming and compelling and which I will not go into here. Essentially, the outcome of this competitive act of bargaining is to produce undesirable values within human relations and so in our vision of a good society we must reject markets. We must remove them from our vision.
Transcending the Market
Efforts at creating cooperative ventures face serious limitations in a market system. Workplaces that implement structures that encourage participation and equity that operate in the current environment are at a considerable disadvantage when it comes to surviving as they must compete with capitalist firms whose sole purpose is to make profits. Pressures exist which impel workplaces to compete against others by cutting costs, lowering wages, externalising costs, etc.
We need to not only recognise the constraints workplaces are subject to, but we must work towards strengthening ties in the alternative economic movement to gain advantages in our favour, and ultimately create an alternative way to coordinate economic activities that remove dependancies on the market system to form the initial beginnings of a cooperatively planned economy.
The participatory planning system presented in Parecon is such a proposed system - a compelling model of how economic planning can be accomplished in a co-operative process decided upon by workers and consumers who have accurate information and are able to influence decisions that affect them. It is not a reform of the market system, not centralised planning, and is also not one big meeting. Workers and Consumers make and revise proposals on their own and within their local councils.
With all this in mind, how does this bear on the movement seeking to replace capitalism with a democratic equitable economy?
The seven principles of cooperatives are:
Voluntary and open membership
Democratic member control
Member economic participation
Autonomy and independence
Education, training and information
Cooperation among cooperatives
Concern for community
I consider the sixth principle concerning cooperation among cooperatives as becoming ever more crucial in determining the success of a movement to replace capitalism. It states:
‘Cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional, and international structures.’
Organisations do exist which seek to unite coops, such as the international co-operative alliance which centres its priorities and activities in helping co-op enterprises compete in the marketplace. However, in the long term for actual cooperation among cooperatives to work there must be a cooperative system and this means transcending market relations.
Do all participants recognise the flaws of markets? do they feel the urgency to replace it with an alternative system? if the answer to these questions is no, then I think this is a shortfall that must be addressed. Forming a network of cooperative groups all committed to transcending market relations will involve efforts on many fronts and take on a number of transitive phases along the way with structures that are not ideal.
A co-operative web portal
A web portal is a website that presents information from diverse sources in a unified way and that acts as a doorway or entrance to a broad array of resources and services.
Based on the idea put forward in Robin Hahnel’s book ‘economic justice and democracy’ of an ebay exclusive for cooperatives, I am proposing the creation of a cooperative website portal that includes an e-trading feature for buying goods and services from coops. A co-operative web portal would also act as a gateway to an array of services with the long term objective of replacing market exchange with an initial form of participatory planning.
One can imagine that this transition will need to take a number of stages. The first being solidifying and strengthening cooperative networks, winning more favourable conditions politically, and laying the necessary foundations for an eventual participatory planning experiment.
The following is a list of initial ideas and requirements relating to the website portal that will need to be discussed, added to and thought through in more detail.
The portal would have a comprehensive main e-trading section containing products sold by cooperatives that could be bought online by individuals or groups. Workplaces would need to be able to access an administration end to enter goods they are selling, manage stock, process orders, etc
Similar to amazon, e-bay or other e-commerce sites goods will be organised by categories, such as type of product, workplace or region.
Consumer coops representing the interests of regional groups could use information here to learn about goods produced and make recommendations to their consumer groups. Workplaces could be contacted for bulk order enquiries.
Consumers using the site would do so in the knowledge that they would be purchasing goods made by workplaces that are run on democratic means and would be helping support a movement towards a democratic economy.
A cooperative web portal would be a useful and accessible tool for information, a central place for the public to learn about alternative workplace structures. Materials can be created, hosted and be made available, such as handbooks, guides, brochures, etc.
A place for dialogue and debate
It could serve as a medium for discussion and debate and for learning from each others’ experiments and experiences. A place to discuss and compare how different workplaces implement fair remuneration, balance tasks and make decisions. A place to debate and raise consciousness on alternative economic allocation such as participatory planning.
gather information needed for participatory planning
Each workplace would be required to provide descriptive and quantitative information about their workplace including industry, region, working conditions, inputs (natural resources, capital, labour) they use and the outputs they produce. A user could access information on the workplace and get a good feel for the working environment and gain knowledge such as how the products are made.
The same would apply for consumer co-operative groups. A database would list cooperative groups based on region. Information can be recorded on participants of a group, history of purchases they have made, decisions and a list of external factors that effect them.
a co-operative employment service
Users would be able to sign up and create profiles adding general information about themselves and adding a resume. The portal could be used by those looking for employment or wanting to join a consumer group to apply for membership at a consumer cooperative, apply for employment at a co-operative workplace or list an interest in starting a co-operative.
co-operative training schemes
Training courses could be run on how to setup a cooperative business with help on legal issues, tax and accounting, grading tasks, dispute resolution, etc
consumer research teams
The creation of research teams that search for ethical purchases based on criteria of worker standards, environmental, etc. they should buy from other democratic workplaces and make suggestions to consumer groups.
Resources created by participants can be downloaded by others that could be particular useful for cooperatives. For example, software to keep track of spending that produces summaries for the year, spreadsheets for sharing tasks, working out timetables, e.t.c
sources of finance
Lists of credit unions that assist with providing loans.
activist and political group alliances
Groups working to claim spaces and bring property under social control. Political campaigns to win grants and loans from political bodies to finance co-op ventures, pressure governments to win tax incentives and participatory budgeting in local councils.
As a future goal we can imagine going beyond market type exchanges of goods between co-ops and the development of an alternative way of planning that would initially sit beside the market. Workplaces would have in tandem production to fulfill throughout the year for the participatory planning community as well as goods to produce for the market.
Assuming the situation will exist sometime in the future where sufficient number of workplaces and participants believe that the market must be replaced and that the participatory planning model is a viable alternative that we should attempt to implement.
The necessary groundwork would need to have been done involving much work, debate, and planning. I won’t attempt a detailed outline of how it will work or identify the difficulties that will need to be overcome. However, the initial formation of a website hosting various services, acting as a medium of trade and collecting data of relevant information would, I hope, move us towards being in a position to attempt such a venture.
We know that a group of facilitation workers would need to be formed who would make adjustments to prices based on excesses in demand and supply and help in the flow of information. Using the data on workplaces gathered during initial phases, we can envisage a planning process occurring over a period in the year that will involve consumer groups submitting proposals for consumption that individuals and the group as a whole have decided upon from a list of goods and services. Descriptive information about products and workplace conditions would be available.
Workplaces will list inputs they need and what they will produce based on the information they receive from consumers and up to date prices of inputs. Not all inputs will be available from within the participatory network and will have to be purchased from outside. Workplaces will need to be able to change production of certain goods to others depending on what is requested.
Members of consumer groups would need to belong to worker co-operatives and receive their income in the form of credits that are expendable within the participatory planning network. The process would repeat a few times until a viable plan is reached.