Neoliberal Co-optation of Leading Co-op Organizations, and a Socialist Counter-Politics of Cooperation

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by Carl Ratner
Monthly Review
2015, Volume 66, Number 9 (February)

Many people think of cooperatives as small, locally owned businesses, such as groceries, cafes, or bicycle shops, where people can work in an equal and participatory non-capitalist organization. In reality, the U.S. co-op movement is tied to federal agencies whose agenda is promoting neoliberalism, both domestically and abroad, and the co-op movement itself has neoliberal leaders. Many co-ops in name are profit-driven capitalist corporations in practice. And even in the abstract, the co-op principles of smaller co-ops enable neoliberal cooperative politics. All of this, however, raises the question of what a co-op based on socialist values would be, and China’s Nanjie village provides a living example of that.

The U.S. Co-op Movement’s Structure

At the top of the institutional structure of the U.S. co-op movement is the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA). NCBA is the major resource center for the North American movement—although it is itself not technically a cooperative. It organizes webinars, seminars, conferences, co-op development services, the Cooperative Hall of Fame, the Cooperative Development Research and Resource Center, and regional co-op business associations. It penetrates deeply and intrusively into municipal co-op associations, in some cases controlling the executive director positions.1 NCBA’s reach extends even to establishing, advising, and administering rural co-ops in Africa.

But NCBA is not an independent association; it is heavily funded by the U.S. State Department through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). NCBA’s Cooperative Development Research and Resource Center was funded by a $1.3 million grant from USAID, as are NCBA’s African co-op projects. USAID also funds other cooperative projects, such as one that assists national cooperative movements in developing countries in creating legal and regulatory environments.2

Where does USAID money come from? Its budget is part of the national security budget; USAID has an office called the Office of Civilian Military Cooperation, whose mission is to cultivate cooperation (with the Defense and State Departments) regarding development and security in humanitarian efforts.3 USAID in turn works under the military’s U.S. African Command (AFRICOM), and as the public face of the CIA in foreign countries. It contains an Office for Transition Initiative that promotes “regime change” in independent countries such as Cuba, Ukraine, and Venezuela.

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