Negative comments at the end of an article or blog are nothing new. However, after recently reading a story about a local co-op group that my worker-owned cooperative is part of, I was struck by the mentally lazy vitriol of the first commenters. The article was about a new loan fund to help small co-ops, which is not exactly ire-raising news. Within a couple of hours of its posting, two commenters stated that this was “useless crap” and that those of us in worker co-ops spend our time singing Kumbaya.

This is not the first time I’ve come across negative responses to articles about co-ops and cooperative endeavors. The problem is not that these comments are critical of co-ops. The problem is that they are superficial, ignorant, and lack nuance. These comments take a complex idea and try to simplify it, bypassing meaningful discussion along the way.

There are certainly things to critique about co-ops, but too often people don’t have that conversation. Those who are making these simple critiques have loud voices, and it seems that the strength of their voices are directly correlated to the weakness of their arguments.

Believing that capitalism and big business are good for the economy and for workers is naive. This leaves people expecting that if they just work hard enough in their cog factory, someday they’ll get to be the cogmaster. But the system isn’t set up for mass success—it’s beholden to majority failure and stagnation.

Once we face the fact-based world, we see how our economic system enriches the few at the expense of the rest of us. From 2007 to 2011, there was an 8.7 percent decline in median household income. During this same period, income increased 1.6 percent for the top fifth of earners. As the majority of us were struggling to make ends meet this past year, CEOs saw their pay increase by 5 percent.

A 2011 study by economists Jon Bakija, Adam Cole, and Bradley T. Heim revealed that “the incomes of executives, managers, supervisors, and financial professionals can account for 60 percent of the increase in the share of national income going to the top percentile of the income distribution between 1979 and 2005.”

How can we address this? Co-ops are one solution, as they offer a way for people to take control of their economic futures and keep money within their communities, instead of giving it to CEOs. People in co-ops aren’t sitting in circles singing Kumbaya for handouts. They don’t hang around the cog factory idealizing the cogmaster—they actively try to make things better. Co-ops offer communities ways to pull themselves up through collaboration and innovation.

Workshop on cooperatives with TESA’s Andrew Stachiw.

Take, for example, workers in Argentina who took over their factories after the 2001 financial meltdown and have been lifting their region out of an economic slump. Or the fact that two million jobs are created each year in the U.S. because of cooperatives, according to National Cooperative Business Association interim president Liz Bailey.

Does that mean co-ops are perfect? No. We should be critiquing in the interest of improving, asking questions about how to make co-ops more viable and looking for solutions to the economic quagmire we’re in. This is the conversation we need to be having. But we can only have it if we get past the superficial and ignorant and dive into what it would really mean for all of us to become active, democratic participants in our economy.

Taliesin Nyala is a worker-owner at The Toolbox for Education and Social Action (TESA), which created and published Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives. You can follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

  • CarenVS

    Thanks for this thoughtful and well-supported rebuttal to the naysayers. I too have been struck by their combination of vitriol and ignorance. The idea that people can work collaboratively for their common good seems to be threatening to some folks.