A Market Without Capitalists

    Frances Moore Lappe finds a cooperative approach to living that actually enhances human dignity

    A market economy and capitalism are synonymous — or at least joined at the hip. That’s what most Americans grow up assuming. But it is not necessarily so. Capitalism — control by those supplying the capital in order to return wealth to shareholders — is only one way to drive a market.

    Granted, it is hard to imagine another possibility for how an economy could work in the abstract. It helps to have a real-life example.

    And now I do.

    In May I spent five days in Emilia Romagna, a region of four million people in northern central Italy. There, over the last 150 years, a network of consumer, farmer and worker-driven cooperatives has come to generate 30 percent to 40 percent of the region’s GDP. Two of every three people in Emilia Romagna are members of co-ops.

    The region, whose hub city is Bologna, is home to 8,000 co-ops, producing everything from ceramics to fashion to specialty cheese. Their industriousness is woven into networks based on what cooperative leaders like to call “reciprocity.” All co-ops return 3 percent of profits to a national fund for cooperative development, and the movement supports centers providing help in finance, marketing, research and technical expertise.

    The presumption is that by aiding each other, all gain. And they have. Per person income is 50 percent higher in Emilia Romagna than the national average.

    The roots of Emilia Romagna’s co-op movement are deep — and varied.

    Here in the United States, many assume that Catholicism and socialism are irreconcilable. In Italy, it’s different. Socialist theorist Antonio Gramsci critiques of capitalism were a major influence on Italy’s post-war Left. Although he was imprisoned by Mussolini in 1926 and died still under guard 11 years later at age 46, Gramsci’s ideas took hold. Simultaneously, the Church came to appreciate the role of cooperatives in strengthening family and community — as spelled out by Pope John XXIII’s 1961 encyclical.

    The shared values of the two traditions — honoring labor, fairness and cooperation — made them partners in standing up for co-op friendly public policies and in creating co-op support services.

    Of the three main national cooperative alliances, the two largest in Emilia Romagna are the Left’s Legacoop, with a million members, and Confcooperative, the Catholic alliance with more than a quarter of a million members.

    During the 1920s, the fascists destroyed both the cooperative and the union movements. But after World War II, the movements regrouped to rebuild war-torn Italy. Farmer and worker cooperatives put people back to work. Retail cooperatives helped consumers and housing co-ops build new dwellings. Since 1945, the housing cooperatives affiliated with Legacoop alone have built 50,000 units in Emilia Romagna.

    “Labor is an occasion for self-realization, not a mere factor of production,” Zamagni, an economist, writes. Cooperation offers a way beyond the dehumanization of capitalism that fully uses the advantages of the market.

    Another surprising feature of the culture is that, beginning in 1991, responsibility for social services in Emilia Romagna and other regions was transferred almost entirely to “social cooperatives.” For those providing services such as job placement, 30 percent of the staff must come from the population served and, if possible, be members of the co-op. Certain tax benefits are provided to these “social co-ops.”

    The approach seemed another smart way to enhance human dignity, breaking down degrading divisions between the helper and the helped.

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