Reinventing cooperativism for a world of migrants

Reinventing cooperativism for a world of migrants

Rene Mendoza V., PhD[1]

A thousand mile journey begins with a single step. Lao Tse

Currently surprising is a type of migration, reverse migration, where the destination country is at war (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan), and the country of origin is a developed country: more than three thousand children born in Europe or the United States of immigrant parents (and some non-immigrant converts to Islam), are joining the war against their countries of origin, which in the past were the dream of their parents. Throughout the history of humanity millions of people have migrated from one country to another, crossing oceans, deserts or violence, for reasons that go from the economic attraction of the destination country, to fleeing wars in the country of origin. We are a migrating species.

What is causing this reverse migration? “In school they put me in another group, my mother said in with slower students”, “my native language does not count in school”, “the Europeans form groups of friends from school, later we cannot join those groups”, “they hear my last name and then will not give me work”, “in the Scandinavian countries there is less inequality and you can improve, but in France, Belgium, England, Holland or Germany, you can´t”, “western soldiers are going to Islamic lands”, “we are breathing in the hate they have for us”, “they want us to assimilate while we don´t want them to enter into our reality either”, “those who are recruiting promise that we will be part of something big and forget our “small problems” at home”. In spite of the fact that the countries of Europe, compared to Latin America, are countries with less inequality and even have a strong redistributive system (e.e. free education and health), it would seem that immigrant families feel excluded in the West and enclose themselves in their own cultures; that the educational system – so appreciated for having high world quality and financially accessible – “detains” them (e.g. in Belgium only 2% of higher education students are children of immigrants; in Europe there are isolated“hive” schools just of immigrants); and that “trafficking” has its affects and is expressed in the migration policy that responds to a colonial mentality, where migrants are considered a public burden. Apparently all these elements, and others that I am unaware of, make the children of immigrants, and some non immigrant youth as well, feel that their aspirations are truncated, and lead them to believe that the only ideology capable of challenging the dominant system is Islam in its jihadist expression. How does a more igalitarian society and with so much history of migration have difficulties in being more inclusive?

This reality was observed by Polanyi, who understanding Europe before the Second World War, grasped that for a long time Europe was moving from “societies with markets” to “market societies”, driven by a radicalized liberalism that, in addition, brought them to fascism. The current reality is one of radicalized neoliberalism, called by Stiglitz, “market fundamentalism”, the “free market” for the richest 1% that uses the state and organizations to control the 99% of the population and drives it to permanent conflict: from the decade of the 1980s parties grew waving anti-immigrant banners, “the disturbances of 2005” started in Paris and extended to other cities of Europe, showed the low income and unemployed youth that Sarkozy called “the scum” (see the film La Haine); the financial crisis of 2008-10 stripped part of the savings from the population to subsidize the financial institutions who caused that crisis; now with tax inequity and the increase in military spending, the music that Europe is dancing to is ‘budget cutting.’ This capitalism is economically, ideologically and militarily radicalized (or, strictly speaking, what Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as the three evils- materialism, racism and militarism), and is shooting itself in the foot: it is expeling part of its people toward a war against the system itself, wages war in other countries whose populations are fleeing toward countries that include Europe, while it is hardening its anti-immigration policies.

It seems important to change the focus, not just on Islamic culture, but also on western institutionality and its vision of immigrants. To keep the shot against capitalism with social welfare from being fatal, an inclusive society needs to be built, reducing inequality, democratizing more opportunities, reforming the educational system, taking into consideration other cultures of different origins and paths, creating transcultural corridors, overcoming the myth that war produces peace, and making the markets work also for the 99% of the population, so that the immigrants can also scale up socially, receive and provide “good treatment” and expand what Appadurai calls “the capacity to aspire”, wherever they may be.

This is a task of the state, markets and society. Concerning the role of society we propose forming and reforming cooperatives, a form of organization that started in Europe itself in reaction to social, economic and political exclusion, and as an expression of a movement of groups of intellectuals and workers. A billion people in the world today are members of cooperatives, most of them in the west; more than half of the production of wine in France is in caves coopératives, most of the supermarkets in Sweden are cooperatives, a good part of the European financial institutions are cooperatives. Even those these numbers are commendable and their impact on equity is recognized, a good part of them are dominated by the market, acting as for-profit enterprises, without immigrants as members, without getting into the suburbs, with a bureaucracy that distances them from their members, and even dances to the ‘budget cutting’ song.

This cooperativism, nevertheless, has the seed to reinvent itself, and, along with a large sector of the population that is in solidarity and does not discriminate, responds to the challenges of the migrating world. For that reason, let us recall its origins and let us re-interpret its principles. The cooperatives emerged to mitigate the effects of industrialization and usury; and the women´s cooperatives to struggle for social justice, the right to vote and for peace. The current situation is even harder: discrimination, concentration of wealth, wars, an educational system that excludes and small enterprises- including those of immigrants – in danger or extinction. It is urgently necessary to overcome this adversity of societies dominated by the markets, something that cannot be resolved only by individuals, the state or the market; you have to cultivate, through cooperativism, a collective consciousness of a reality that is possible.

Re-interpreting the Rochdale principles (voluntary adhesion, democratic management, economic participation, autonomy, education, cooperation among cooperatives, commitment to the community) for each situation and following the lessons learned: organizing out of need in the face of adversity (e.g. savings and loan cooperatives in the face of usury strengthening self help relationships, or women´s cooperatives in the face of the exclusion from suffrage in the XIX and XX centuries); connection between exogenous factors (e.g. Rochdale principles) and endogenous ones (European institutionality as “mutual aid” in Trentino-Italy; recent initiatives in Belgium of lowering consumption by sharing goods- deeleconomie- and sharing non-monetary services- ruileconomie); collective actions on differentiated products (e.g. in grapes-wine), saving costs (in addition to taking advantage of the European Union subsidy for cooperatives in Europe) and developing brands; and cultivating internal democracy – following rules and designing internal counterweights.

A strategic place to organize cooperatives is the school. They would be social cooperatives with immigrant and non immigrant members, to tutor students of different cultures, that they might really learn the two new languages that the schools teach, organizing among the parents activities to recognize one another generating “synergetic intercultural encounters”, understanding that “education changes people and the people change the world” (P. Freire), generating income (in addition to the contributions of each member) to cover their operational costs, and thus complementing the formation of leaders of the boy scout movement as transcultural corridors of learning. A second strategic place are the suburbs (banlieue) of immigrant families, forming cooperatives to counteract the advance of the market (large enterprises) that might absorb their businesses and their culture, a process in which the business person himself can help them with markets and advice, in addition to reviewing their policies for selecting workers without discrimination. A third place are the already existing cooperatives, taking on again their cooperative principles and including the children of immigrants among their members.

Our challenge is to reinvent cooperativism in the countries of the north and the south as a space for transnational learning, capable of moving the state and the markets in favor of the majorities. Recalling the “butterfly effect”, the flapping of the wings in the Brazilian Amazon has an effect on world climate, cooperativism can be a public good with positive externalities. The state can pay for services (e.g. tutoring students) that the cooperatives would carry out. The current cooperatives can review themselves and accompany the new cooperatives that might emerge in any area. The Universities, in addition to reforming their policies to include more immigrant students, should study and teach cooperativism; in the XIX century the cooperatives emerged from the associationist ideas of Owen, Blanc, King, Fourier, Buchez and Alice Acland. The re-invention of cooperativism requires a similar effort from today´s universities. Improving our societies is like travelling a “thousand miles” and reinventing cooperativism in a world of migrants is “a single step”, but a necessary one.

[1] Researcher associated with  IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium) and collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (; ex director of the Research and Development Institute (Nitlapan) of the Central American University.