Skip to main content
Gar Alperovitz

Gar Alperovitz

Distinguished Next System Fellow more

Democratic Ownership

What are cooperatives?

Cooperatives have traditionally been one way to build community and democratize ownership. At their root, they are democratically-owned and operated businesses. Each member has an equal share of ownership and an equal voice in the governance of the firm. Cooperatives have a long history and a reach that people generally underestimate. Most people think of the small cooperatively owned grocery store, generally a marginal part of most local economies—but co-ops have an impressive scale. Between 100 and 110 million Americans are members of co-ops, mostly through co-op credit unions.1 and around the world there are at least 800 million people who are co-op members.2 While the members of cooperatives can be individual consumers (in, say, co-op groceries), residents (in housing cooperatives), or institutions (as in retail marketing or agricultural producer cooperatives made up of participating businesses), particular systemic attention should be paid to worker cooperatives, in which workers own and control—democratically—the means of production in their own workplace. In an era in which jobs are all too often sacrificed to the profits of absentee shareholders, cooperatives offer a way to make the interests of the workers coincide with that of a firm’s ownership.

What role do cooperatives play in a Pluralist Commonwealth?

While intuitively quite appealing, worker cooperatives alone can provide only part of the basis for a system-level economic foundation capable of effectively providing more democratic and comprehensive community-inclusive outcomes. Crucially, the interests of workers in any specific unit of production or social administration are not the same as those of the COMMUNITY as a whole, and different situations and scales require different structural solutions, with layers of community and PUBLIC control beyond the workers in their own workplaces. In an extreme worker-ownership model, for instance, the police would, in fact, be in control of the police industry—a model that, of course, very few would affirm. Clearly, the community as a whole has a prior value. Moreover, in an economy determined by markets, the individual firm, cooperative or not, is subject to destructive pressures to compete and grow like any business, with attendant effects on the community at large and the environment.

In the Pluralist Commonwealth, smaller scale cooperative ownership is encouraged, but larger cooperatives are embedded within more comprehensive frameworks of support and democratic control. In particular, such cooperatives can be assembled into neighborhood-wide COMMUNITY structures, to increase resilience and create a broader base of governance and accountability. Such models build upon but also radically expand efforts like that of the Evergreen cooperatives now operating in Cleveland, Ohio. Here and at larger scale, decentralized PLANNING systems supplement smaller-scale cooperative ownership by stabilizing local markets by directing public and quasi-public community-controlled investment capital and larger university, hospital, and government procurement contracts to community-based cooperative firms. Finally, a CULTURE emphasizing ecological sustainability and egalitarian economic outcomes helps orient local cooperatives and their members in their decision making.

Where else is this systemic direction for cooperatives being prototyped and explored today?

The challenge of culture as key to any serious new model can be seen in the credit union sector. While such institutions are a welcome alternative to the big private banks, most credit unions are still purely transactional, despite their cooperative ownership. Mainly they provide auto and housing loans.3 However, a project like the Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union in NYC, animated by an activist culture and sense of deep community responsibility, goes beyond such routine loans and serves as a key anchor for community economic development and local organizing.4 D.C. Solar United Neighborhoods (DC SUN), is another example. The purchasing cooperative has not only helped residents go solar, it has also played a vital role in local organizing efforts for more affordable and sustainable energy options.5

Multistakeholder cooperatives, like Weaver Street Market food cooperative in North Carolina, begin to suggest some of the larger structures of community that are necessary in order to balance the interests of a cooperative’s workers with other members. For Weaver Street Market, governance is split equally between the many consumer members who shop there and the smaller group of worker-members whose labor runs the business.6 Such patterns suggest one of a number of paths beyond pure worker-ownership towards more expansive models of interconnected democratic ownership.

The very large Mondragon worker cooperative network, with its roots in creating employment for the people of the Basque country, also begins to subordinate pure worker-ownership to a wider community impulse. The network, started in the 1950s, has grown to encompass 257 companies—in the finance, industry, retail, and knowledge industries—that together employ more than 74,000 people.7 Severe shocks forced it to close several units in the Great Recession8 —illustrating the importance of limiting exposure to unbuffered globalized market dynamics (a matter we return to below, SEE PLANNING). While Mondragon was not able to benefit from a more comprehensively planned market for its products, it does plan very seriously on an internal basis regarding labor, and the workers at the shuttered factories have overwhelmingly been placed in new positions at other businesses in the larger network.9

See also:


Further reading

Gar Alperovitz, interview with Paul Jay, “The Promise and Limitations of Worker Co-ops,” Reality Asserts Itself, January 27, 2014.

Gar Alperovitz, “Cooperative Economy,” Orion Magazine, May 2014.

Hilary Abell, Worker Cooperatives: Pathways to Scale (Takoma Park: The Democracy Collaborative, June 2014).

John Restakis, Humanizing the Economy: Cooperatives in an Age of Capital (British Columbia: New Society Publishers, 2010).

Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012).

Tom Malleson, After Occupy: Economic Democracy for the 21st Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

Gar Alperovitz

Gar Alperovitz

Distinguished Next System Fellow more

More related work

Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealth: Introduction

If the design of corporate capitalism is unable to sustain values of equality, genuine democracy, liberty, and ecological sustainability as a matter of inherent systemic architecture, what systemic ‘design’ might ultimately achieve and sustain these values? read more


Why are current approaches to trade problematic? How would the Pluralist Commonwealth approach trade? What existing efforts point toward a sustainable and just trade regime? read more


How do modern researchers understand the deeper sources of economic abundance and technological change? How should the fruits of our common technological inheritance be distributed now and in future? How would the Pluralist Commonwealth deploy management of new technologies in new ways? read more


Why consider long term regional devolution of power? How might long term devolution to regionalist patterns operate in the Pluralist Commonwealth? What are some on-the-ground developments that suggest possibilities for the future of regionalism? read more


Why must the United States confront its long history of systemic racism? How would the Pluralist Commonwealth begin to promote racial equality? What on-the-ground efforts can be seen working towards our future of collective liberation? read more


Why are new forms of public economic institutions important at certain critical levels of scale in the Pluralist Commonwealth? What are the key challenges for public ownership? Where are communities organizing elements of public ownership in the economy? read more


Why is the idea of prehistory important for thinking about systemic change? Are we in the prehistory of genuine systemic change, the prehistory of a Pluralist Commonwealth? read more


Why is pluralism an important value for systemic design? What makes a pluralist commonwealth “pluralist,” and why are more complex forms sometimes important? Where can we see pluralism in action today? read more


What is the role of planning in our present economic system? How would planning function in the Pluralist Commonwealth? Where are new models of decentralized and more participatory planning being explored today? read more


Why is ownership a key determinant of system structure? How does the Pluralist Commonwealth democratize ownership? Where is ownership being transformed in the direction of a Pluralist Commonwealth today? read more


How is money created in the current system? How is money created in the Pluralist Commonwealth? Where can we see key elements of a new approach to monetary policy emerging today? read more


What’s wrong with markets, and why do we still need them? How does the Pluralist Commonwealth use markets to sustain communities? Where are examples of markets that remain subject to democratic control operative today? read more


What is liberty? Why must liberty be a central part of the design for the pluralist commonwealth? Where is a renewed conception of liberty being developed on the ground today? read more


Why is investment in the current system fundamentally undemocratic and unsustainable? How would a Pluralist Commonwealth democratize investment? Where is investment managed in more democratic directions today? read more


Why must we factor gender equity into the institutional design of the next political and economic system? What kinds of structures would a Pluralist Commonwealth use to support true gender equality? Where are important elements of a more gender equitable system being built today? read more

Evolutionary Reconstruction And Displacement

How do evolutionary reconstruction and displacement of corporate power differ from “countervailing” strategies of containment and regulation? Why are evolutionary reconstruction and displacement key strategic approaches in the building of a Pluralist Commonwealth? read more


Why is equality a key part of the Pluralist Commonwealth? How is movement towards equality achieved in the Pluralist Commonwealth? What examples prefigure equality as envisioned in the Pluralist Commonwealth? read more

Economic Growth

Why is growth a challenging problem? How Would the Pluralist Commonwealth Manage Growth? Where can we see on the ground efforts to tackle the growth question today? read more
Economic Change

Economic Change

How does economic change really occur locally and nationally? How, specifically, can we build upon the ways cities and states already foster the local economy to create the Pluralist Commonwealth? What are some examples of shifts toward greater democracy? read more

Ecological Sustainability

Why is pluralism necessary to guarantee ecologically sustainable ends? What are the key strategies for environmental protection in the Pluralist Commonwealth? What are some promising on the ground developments that point toward an ecologically sustainable Pluralist Commonwealth? read more


What is democracy? How does the Pluralist Commonwealth build stronger foundations for democratic life? Where are more participatory systemic directions being prototyped and developed today? read more


Why is decentralization a key principle of system design? What are the limits of decentralization? What are some contemporary developments in the direction of decentralization? read more


Why is culture a key part of the pluralist commonwealth? What are the most important strategies for building such a culture? What are some examples of the development of the cultural transformations toward democratic society at work today? read more


Why is community important to the pluralist commonwealth? What are institutional mechanisms aimed at undergirding rather than undermining community in a Pluralist Commonwealth? What current developments point towards the restoration of community as a central category? read more


What does it mean to hold wealth in common? Why is wealth held in common and democratized at various scales, so important for the design of a next system? What are some examples of how “common wealth” builds a “commonwealth” today? read more

Climate Change

What are the challenges presented by global climate change? How does the Pluralist Commonwealth tackle ecological threats such as climate change? What are some promising on the ground developments that point toward an ecologically sustainable Pluralist Commonwealth? read more


Why is bureaucracy problematic? What can be done in a pluralist commonwealth to minimize necessary bureaucracy? What contemporary interventions or potential interventions illustrate democratic control of large-scale entities? read more


Why is the Pluralist Commonwealth an American system? What resources for a Pluralist Commonwealth can be found in the American tradition? read more