Extracted from a transcript of the C-Realm Podcast Bauwens/Kleiner/Trialogue, John Restakis describes the transformation of the traditional cooperative model into today’s growing Social Coop movement.
“Historically, cooperatives have been primarily focused around providing support and service to the members. Cooperatives, which are basically a democratic and collective form of enterprise where members have control rights and democratically direct the operations of the co-op, have been the primary stakeholders in any given co-op – whether it’s a consumer co-op, or a credit union, or a worker co-op. That has been the traditional form of cooperatives for a long time now. Primarily, the co-op is in the service of its immediate members. That has changed over the last 15 years or so, particularly in the field of the provision of social care.
Social co-ops emerged in the late 70s in Italy as a response to a market failure within public services in Italy. Groups of families or users of social services, primarily originally from within a community of people with disabilities, decided to organize cooperatives as a better way of designing and providing services to themselves. This is a very different model from the state-delivered services to these people. What was really fascinating about the social co-ops was that, although they had members, their mission was not only to serve the members but also to provide service to the broader community. And so, they were communitarian, community service organizations that had a membership base of primary users of that service, whether it was healthcare, or help for people with drug addictions, or whatever.
These social co-ops have now exploded in Italy. I think they have taken over, in a sense, the provision of social care services in many communities under contracts to local municipalities. In the city of Bologna, for example, over 87% of the social services provided in that city are provided through contract with social co-ops. These are democratically run organizations, which is a very different model, much more participatory, and a much more engaged model of designing social care than the traditional state delivered services. The idea of co-ops as being primarily of interest in serving their own immediate membership has been expanded to include a mandate for the provision of service to the community as a whole.
This is an expansion of this notion of cooperatives into a more commons-based kind of mission, which overlaps with the philosophy and values of commons movement. The difference, however, is that the structure of social co-ops is still very much around control rights, in other words, members have rights of control and decision-making within how that organization operates. And it is an incorporated legal structure that has formal recognition by the legislation of government of the state, and it has the power, through this incorporated power, to negotiate with and contract with government for the provision of these public services. One of the real strengths of the cooperative form is that it not only provides a democratic structure for the enterprise – be it a commercial or social enterprise – but it also has a legal form that allows it to enter into contract and negotiate legal agreements with the state for the provision of public services. This model of co-op for social care has been growing in Europe. In Québec they’re called Solidarity co-ops, and they are generating an increasing portion of market share for the provision of services like home care and healthcare, and it’s also growing in Europe.
So, the social economy, meaning organizations that have a mutual aim in their purpose, based on the principles of reciprocity, collective benefit, social benefit, is emerging as an important player for the design and delivery of public services. This, too, is in reaction to the failure of the public market for provision of services like affordable housing or health care or education services. This is a crisis in the role of the state as a provider of public services. So the question has emerged: what happens when the state fails to provide or fulfill its mandate as a provider or steward of public goods and services, and what’s the role of civil society and the social economy in response? Social co-ops have been part of this tide of reaction and reinvention, in terms of civic solutions to what were previously state-designed and delivered public goods and services. So I’ll leave it at that for the moment, but it’s just an indicator of the very interesting ways in which the co-op form is being reimagined and reinvented to respond to this crisis of public services and the changing role of the state.”