Cooperatives are economic and social communities owned and run democratically by their members. There are cooperatives in all sorts of areas. For example, shops, dairies, farms, factories and apartment buildings are being run as cooperatives.
The cooperative concept was originally conceived in England, but it came to play a particularly major role in Denmark in building up agriculture and agricultural exports in the 19th century. In fact, a country like Denmark would never have been able to become the prosperous country it is today if it were not for the cooperative movement. The many cooperative businesses have helped to create both a solid economy and a strong democratic tradition.
Nowadays, there are cooperatives all over the world, and it is still typically farmers who join together in cooperative communities. By creating a cooperative, you can invest jointly in expensive machines which an individual farmer cannot afford to buy alone. Together, you can often negotiate better payments for your produce than you would be able to individually. For buyers, it is also easier if they are dealing with a farmers’ cooperative, rather than having to buy from hundreds of individual farmers.
Cooperative societies thus have many economic benefits, but they also have an essential democratic function, simply because people can get some practice in democracy in a cooperative. One characteristic of cooperatives is that all members have an equal say; one's influence does not depend on whether one is rich or poor. Whether you have one cow or 100 cows supplying milk to a dairy cooperative, then as a joint owner, you have the same right to be heard, the same right to vote and the same right to put yourself forward for election to the board.
How does one start a cooperative?
Any group of people can start a cooperative. You just need a common project that every member has a common interest in pursuing. Together you decide what the purpose of the cooperative should be, what the collective money should be spent on, and how to share any profits. The purpose could, for example, be running a dairy, buying machines together, building a school or starting a grocery store. The purpose is documented in the statutes. This is also where the procedure for choosing a board, and what powers that board should have, is documented. In addition, members decide the cost of membership, who can become a member, and what circumstances could lead to a member being expelled from the association. Normally, members also document how the association can be dissolved.
You can find advice and guidance on the internet on how to start a cooperative and how to formulate a good, solid constitution. It's often a good idea to get a lawyer to read through the articles of association before adopting them.
In non-democratic countries, cooperatives are probably one of the best and least dangerous ways to start a democratic process.
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