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Why we need cooperative accumulation

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
13th October 2013


A bit of context:

* today we have immaterial commons accumulation in the sphere of common knowledge, code, and design, through the contributions of volunteers, paid labor, and commons-supportive-for-profit-companies

* however, it is impossible to socially reproduce oneself (read: ‘survive’) by contributing to the commons outside of the sphere of capital accumulation (read: you have to find a job at IBM to live from Linux code)

* it is therefore proposed that we need a intermediary sphere, whereby the commoners and peer producers create their own commons-friendly, ethical market entities, in order to engage in ‘cooperative accumulation’, which can serve to socially reproduce the commoners, and thereby guarantee the continued construction of commons. In other words, we need a convergence between the open (source) economy (peer production) and the cooperative economy (social and solidarity economy).

The concept was first proposed by Robin Murray.

Here is commentary by Mike Lewis:

‘Co-operative accumulation to what end’ is a strategic issue, John. So too, is the invisibility of the ecological in this discourse and the question of how we invent language and practices that explicitly help us to live within limits. Practically none of the comments you so far have received touch on the latter point. Here are some further reflections, grist for the commonweal so to speak. (Please note that I have not had the benefit of reading Robin’s paper. I am only picking up on the thread.)

‘Co-operative accumulation’ must be understood as one important means (Michel’s point) “… to meet the cascade of challenges that attend our need to rapidly divest from fossil fuels as a primary energy source. It must be explicitly linked to the incontrovertible need to transition to a low-carbon economy.

Otherwise, it is too easily co-opted by the grand assumption of the dominant discourse on the economy: the vital necessity of economic growth to human well-being. We know that, ultimately, the opposite is true.

We are gobbling up 1.4 times the earth now and are projected to gobble up 3 earths within 37 years. Our current GDP (much of it carbon laden) is $69 trillion. It is projected to go to $180 trillion in 37 years. If this happens, carbon will reach 555 ppm– way beyond the bounds of catastrophe recognized by science. And, unfortunately, we are now presumed to have in the ground 5 times the volume of fossil fuels necessary to take us over the 2 degree limit, thought to be inevitable at 450 ppm.

Here’s my point. The language of accumulation runs the danger of getting associated with the neo-liberal zeitgeist: that set of assumptions that elevate economic growth, consumption and the freedom of capital to a Holy Trinity. For example, imagine `cooperative accumulation’ as a movement that unwittingly contributes its time, energy and resources to speeding us (albeit more equitably and convivially) along the road to the precipice. An extreme distortion? Indeed!

We must explicitly frame `co-operative accumulation‘ as a means to marshal our resources to address the core challenge of our species: the transition to a steady-state economy and to living within the limits of one earth. Failing that, we will have missed the point.
The positive meaning one can associate with ‘cooperative accumulation’ within our given context is threefold.

1. Co-operative accumulation implies democratic ownership and the possibility of collectively shaping the reinvestment of surplus (This is not guaranteed, however. We know many co-operatives are captured by the growth impulse of our culture.)

2. The unprecedented global crisis in which we are living has major implications for the long, oil-soaked supply chains of our current global economic model. The provision of basic needs – energy, food, shelter – is going to become more local, regional and national. The challenge is how to become much more self-reliant with less oil. A greater emphasis on local and regional markets; distributed and decentralized ownership; rescaling of infrastructure; mobilizing capital closer to home for investment closer to home – these are all part of what we need to achieve.

Cooperation and solidarity are not just important attitudes in this effort. These qualities of spirit are vital resources in and of themselves. They are essential features of the kinds of organization that can recalibrate how we invest and organize to accomplish transition. By definition, community benefit and carbon reduction are high in the hierarchy of metrics. By definition, any organization must have written into its DNA the reinvestment of surplus in a low-carbon future where the well-being of people and planet are primary.

“Co-operative accumulation for what?” John asked. It seems to me that if economic surplus is generated for the aforementioned purposesIf learning and practically advancing our capacity to live within the limits of the earth are not explicit, then I would say (in pedagogical terms, at least) the term co-operative accumulation is somewhat hollow. conceptually lacking.

3. Co-operative accumulation can also be understood as an expanding resource which feeds a reservoir of non-material abundance. Here I am exploring the challenge of cultural change. ‘Co-operative accumulation’ may not be the best way to elevate the cultural meaning I am trying to articulate. It is important, nonetheless. It may be some of the language necessary for the transition from the story line we have been enacting over millennia to the new story line we are trying to write As human beings we have evolved and continue to enact a story whose roots are in the agricultural revolution. In this story, the world is made for us. We are the pinnacle of evolution. Thus we are entitled to exercise dominion of the resources and creatures of the earth. In short, the idea that the world is made for us is deeply embedded in our psyche. In the last 160 years, the Age of Fossil Fuels, the magic elixir of oil has brought about an unparalleled extension of human influence and power. It has enabled us to elevate ‘the truth of our dominion.’ We are now the dominant force shaping the face of the planet. We are the species that ushered in the Anthropocene.

The story we need to recover, one that is still found in the remnants of indigenous cultures, is that human beings belong to the world. Herein lies the very heart of our struggle around language.

On the one hand, we need to be precise in our use of language for all the reasons well-known to people like those on this thread. On the other hand, we imbue our use of language with the awareness that part of our task is to avoid words that unwittingly sustain assumptions that are part of the old story. Thus our concern over the term accumulation: it is loaded with old story associations.
In summary, if ‘co-operative accumulation’ to be imbued with meaning in the new story it might be wise to explicitly embed it in an agenda of transition to a ‘one earth’ goal. This is the story we need to learn to enact at every level, one we once knew as a species. Our new story has something to do with being a creative member species that is learning to become one part of life within the limits of the earth. This would surely be a credit to the best within us. ” (email, September 2013)

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2 Responses to “Why we need cooperative accumulation”

  1. Walter Haugen Says:

    Primary economy – extracting resources to generate capital. You can do this by drilling for oil, mining, timber, farming, etc. The only one that is sustainable is farming. Farming fuels civilization but it also requires slavery. If you don’t want human slavery, you have to use energy slaves (oil, natural gas, etc.).
    Secondary economy – selling and adding value to the capital already created in the primary economy. This is where the zero-sum game is applicable. Someone else’s loss is someone else’s gain.
    Tertiary economy – creating capital out of thin air. Banks and investment brokers use leveraging, derivatives, etc. to do this.

    Alternative economy – I create new wealth from the soil using “beyond organic” methods (organic methods + low carbon footprint to get a positive EROI). I can now use this new wealth for my political ends. I can sell it, I can trade it for silver or scrip, I can barter it, I can give it away.

  2. Helene Says:

    Hi Michel,

    Reading Mike Lewis, and wondering how this could be put to work for this purpose:
    www.slideshare.net/helenefinidori/imagine-thecommongoodconf2013

    Its about the language and stories necessary to mobilize the existing forces towards social change and growing the commons…

    We’re trying with Wolfgang to organize a workshop around this at the Ostrom Workshop Conference in Indiana next June.

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