Teach a Man to Fish . . . in Cooperation
Zurich, Switzerland: It is eight minutes to eleven o’clock, as I stand in front of a square where the morning sun still shines on the striped tents of the large marketplace behind Oerlikon Railway Station, the bright orange logo of COOP Group right next to it.
This weekly market, a long-standing tradition in Zurich, has top-quality goods for sale directly from producers, mostly regional organic farmers, which draw a crowd of health-minded consumers. A stand belonging to a family of fishermen stood out to me there. Wild Alaskan salmon is sold in Switzerland through the efforts of a small group who travel yearly to North America to source their harvest. A devoted crowd of customers was waiting in front of their tent to add their names to the waiting list. The desire for immaculate food — or something of the sort — without plastic or GMO fish feed, combined with a sense of closeness to the people providing their food, probably contribute to the impressive size of that list.
Neighboring the farmer’s market, over 150 years of Swiss cooperative enterprise is on display at one of the thousands of retail outlets of the COOP Group, which began as a small consumer cooperative and became an international retail and wholesale cooperative business with the largest selection of organic-grade fish and seafood. The strong presence of cooperative markets extends across the country, from large cities such as Zurich to small centers such as Frutigen, with an abundance of locally produced goods.
Unique structures built around a common core. Both markets share the same economic environment, identifying and evaluating potential alternatives in order to confront modern society's social, technical, and environmental challenges. Both sum up — in a small local initiative and in an international enterprise — the perspective of different models of entrepreneurship focused on creating a sustainable economy. They embody new perspectives on doing business when that can no longer mean solely making a profit.
The scene I saw in Zurich is a small but significant sample of a more robust movement that has been quietly growing around the world over centuries. Cooperation has left its traces throughout history and was a sine qua non for the advancement of humanity, rooted in ancient social experiences. The building blocks of cooperativism are the continuous collection of cross-cultural and cross-generation cases of collaboration. This timeless social standard of survival quietly evolved throughout the ages and gave witness to the unravelling and reinventing of various political, cultural, and social forces. Cultures of cooperation strengthened and expanded through a non-linear but steady path up to the present day, with plenty of examples among existing cooperatives of solid socio-economic performance.
Since the advent of modern cooperatives in the late 1700s, recurring economic crises, including the current COVID-19 meltdown, have called forth an upsurge of cooperation and solidarity as vigorous tools to fight back against capitalism’s precarity,1 subvert the excessive focus on individual progress, and recover community wellness and economic sustainability. Even though a revolutionary break in our times has been largely dismissed, the winds of change are whispering of an organic shift towards a values-driven system worldwide. One of the most dramatic examples of the latter is the “great resignation” in the U.S., with a historic number of workers quitting their jobs amongst multiple uncoordinated post-pandemic strikes, calling for better work conditions and benefits.
We obsessively search for revolutionary and unprecedented innovations when we already have the foundations for what we need to support a new societal foundation. Hence, it is a matter of hermeneutic recognition of the potential of what has already been built by generations. Cooperatives are a perfect example of an old remedy for novel pains. People might have a hard time explaining what cooperatives are in terms of institutional design. Yet, cooperation and solidarity are words closer to the heart and easy to appreciate. Many advocates of cooperativism in different times, cultures, and legal systems have pointed toward a more equitable life and economy, proving that it is possible to collectively create value and distribute wealth. The literature is rich and vast. So are the many cases and great stories made by people simply trying to reinvent the way of doing business and impact their community.
Now is the time to teach ourselves to cooperate and nourish self-sovereignty through a shared ownership and governance system that allows people to consciously exercise their autonomy. Rather than “teach a man to fish,” which unfortunately has gained a conservative “self-help” lens in the political realm, here, "teach a man to fish . . . in cooperation" is about enabling people to be in charge of their destiny in solidarity without depending on third parties’ good intentions nor remaining vulnerable to economic and political shifts.
Beyond a new mode of production, cooperatives are a catalyst for community education and liberation. As Father Arizmendi, founder of Mondragon, wisely preached: “Knowledge is power. Knowledge must be socialized in order to democratize power. Education is the key to the development and unfolding of a people.” Education is per se a cooperative process capable of enlightening a pathway towards a healthier community.
As I recalled on that morning in Zurich, cooperatives’ long-term sustainability is dependent on collective intelligence, where people understand, advocate for, and actively participate in the economy to create actual value over empty profits.
Author’s note: In this, my debut article as a contributor to this newsletter, I want to state that it points to my goal here with my future articles, i.e., collaborating with the education of our community by sharing stirring stories of cooperation worldwide. An example is the scene I described above in Zurich, with which I hope to spark a growing desire to restore our human unity and overcome the artificial segregation between economic and community life worldwide.
A. Azmanova, Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity Can Achieve Radical Change Without Crisis or Utopia, New Directions in Critical Theory, (Columbia University Press, 2020).