A market economy and capitalism are synonymous – or at least joined at the hip. That's what most Americans grow up assuming. But, no. Capitalism — control by those supplying the capital in order to return wealth to shareholders — is only one way to drive a market.
But it is hard to imagine another possibility for how an economy could work in the abstract. It helps to have a real-life example.
Now, I do.
In May I spent five days in Emilia Romagna, a region of four million people in north-central Italy. There, over the last 150 years, a network of member and worker-driven cooperatives has come to generate 40 percent of the region's GDP. Two of every three people in Emilia Romagna are members of coops.
The region, whose hub city is Bologna, is home to eight thousand coops, producing everything from ceramics to fashion to specialty cheese. Their industriousness is woven into networks based on what they like to call “reciprocity.” Coops return three percent of profits to a national fund for cooperative development. The movement also supports centers providing help in finance, marketing, research and technical expertise. The presumption is that by aiding each other, all gain.
And they have. Per-person income is 50 percent higher in Emilia Romagna than the national average; 70 percent of people own homes (higher than the U.S. average).
The roots of the coop movement are deep – and varied.
Here in the U.S. we assume that Catholicism and Marxism are irreconcilable. In Italy, shared values of Communists/ Socialists and Catholics – honoring labor, fairness and cooperation – have made them partners. Of the five cooperative alliances, the two largest are the Left's Legacoop, with a million members, and Confcooperative, the Catholic alliance with more than a quarter of a million members.
“And today, what are the differences between the two groups?” I asked Davide Piere, the energetic thirty-something who heads the agricultural section of Confcooperative.
“Mainly the personalities at the top,” he said grinning.
During the 1920s, the Fascists destroyed both the cooperative and the union movements. But after World War II, the movements regrouped, beginning with the practical task of supplying housing cooperatively. Since then, they've built six thousand cooperatively owned units.
At 7:00 a.m. Davide picked up my partner Richard Rowe and me at our hotel in Bologna for a quick trip to a creamery on the outskirts of town that makes “Parmigiano-Reggiano” - or Parmesan, to us. Almost four hundred small cooperatives in Emilia Romagna make this specialty.
By 8 a.m. we were watching the morning ritual at the Nuova Martignana coop: intensely focused workers stir the fermenting milk mixtures in a dozen huge copper-lined vats. They were waiting for just the right consistency before using giant cheese cloths to gather the embryonic cheese into huge balls.
“Look, look,” Davide exclaimed with excitement. “They are artists…they are tasting with their hands!”
In Bologna we also had the chance to sit down with the scholar of cooperation, Professor Stefano Zamagni, who Davide called “our prophet.”
“Labor is an occasion for self-realization, not a mere factor of production,” Professor Zamagni, an economist, writes. Cooperation offers a way beyond the dehumanization of capitalism that fully uses the advantages of the market.
Ten years ago he launched a graduate program in “co-operative and civil economics” within the University of Bologna's economics department. So far it's graduated 250 students.
Another surprising feature of the culture is that, beginning in 1991, responsibility for social services in Italy was transferred almost entirely to “social cooperatives.” For those providing services such as job placement, it's required that 30 percent of the staff come from the population served; and if possible, be members of the coop. The approach seemed another smart way to enhance human dignity, breaking down degrading divisions between helper and helped.
Because Davide exuded such passion for his work, I probed what had brought him to it. “Out of the university, I worked for a capitalist firm,” he said. “But it wasn't for me. It was dog eat dog. So I tried working on my own, as a consultant. But after a year, I realized that wasn't for me either. So I took this job with the cooperatives.”
“This is the interpretation of life that I enjoy,” he said.
More about cooperatives:
Green Worker Cooperatives (latest: read about Bronx residents working to launch a Building Materials Reuse Center!)
For more stories of possibility, visit Frances Moore Lappé's Democracy's Edge