Anarchism and the Cooperative Ideal




(This is an abridged version of the workshop I gave at the NASCO conference on cooperatives in Ann Arbor each November from 1997 to 2003. As I pointed out to the audience beforehand, my take on anarchism is a partisan one; there’s nothing “objective” about it, and many other anarchists would disagree with my presentation. I mean it to spark discussion, not provide final answers.)

Peter Staudenmaier,
Ofek Shalom Co-op, Rainbow Bookstore Co-op, Madison Community Co-op

Anybody who tries to talk politics within the cooperative movement realizes one thing pretty quickly: a lot of people in the co-op scene don’t like ideologies and are uncomfortable discussing political worldviews. Most of us grew up in an intensely de-politicized culture; the dominant ideology in this country, after all, insists that there is no dominant ideology, that alternative political worldviews are obsolete. Capitalism and liberal democracy have won — what else is there to talk about? Co-opers in particular, especially those who live in housing co-ops, often prefer to think of their co-op involvements as somehow outside of or unrelated to political categories. Who cares what my housemates think as long as they do their dishes?
This perspective is understandable, and we all share it to some extent. But it’s also shortsighted. Political categories are inescapable: we live in a society structured around power relations, and the things that we do in our daily lives can either reinforce those power relations or challenge them. It makes more sense to be honest about this and to work towards developing political frameworks that reflect the cooperative ideals we all share.
That’s where anarchism comes in. Of all the various approaches to understanding and changing social structures, anarchism is the one which best approximates the cooperative vision. You may well ask yourself, Do I really want to share my home with a bunch of wild-eyed extremists? Do I really want to live with anarchists? Chances are you already do — but maybe you, or even they, don’t know it yet.
So what is anarchism, anyway? Like any threat to the established order, anarchism has a bad reputation within mainstream discourse. Anarchy is often used as a synonym for chaos, disorder, lack of rules; the popular image of an anarchist is a violent sociopath hiding a bomb underneath a black trench coat. In real life, anarchists range from deeply religious pacifists like Dorothy Day to bespectacled academics like Noam Chomsky to fiery agitators like Emma Goldman. What unites these figures is not a violent or chaotic disposition, but a principled opposition to unjust and oppressive power relations.
“Anarchy” means, literally, the absence of domination. If monarchy is rule by a king or queen, and oligarchy rule by a small group, anarchy is rule by nobody. The fundamental principle of anarchism is this: all forms of domination and hierarchy, in every sphere of life, are suspect; if they can’t be justified they should be abolished. Whether it’s the power that men exercise over women, the privileges that white people have over people of color, the discrimination of straight people toward queers, anarchists say: we will fight against it in any way we can. That is indeed an extreme position; one of the great anarchists of the 19th century, Peter Kropotkin, described anarchism as the extreme left wing of socialism. Anarchism is, so to speak, to the left of the left.
But anarchism is more than just a political doctrine. It is also a historical project which has been shaped by thousands of people over many generations; it is a movement that has developed over time. Put simply, anarchism is the historical project of building a free society — a society that is truly democratic, without exploitation or oppression of any kind. The roots of anarchism, like the roots of the cooperative movement, lie in the radical wing of the 19th century workers movement. At that time anarchists focused on capitalism and the state as their two main enemies. Today we still work towards the abolition of the state and of capitalism, but over the years anarchists have broadened our critique to encompass other forms of domination such as patriarchy, white supremacy, and heterosexism.
Anarchism is a revolutionary approach that seeks to fundamentally transform the defining institutions that shape our lives, from the economy to the political realm to the so-called private sphere. Indeed, anarchists see these institutions as anchored in everyday practices: how we treat each other in our day-to-day interactions is intimately connected to broader structures of power. In the words of a little-known anarchist from the early part of this century: “The state is a condition, a particular relationship among people, a mode of human interaction; we abolish the state by engaging in other sorts of relationships, by behaving differently.” That’s from Gustav Landauer, a German-Jewish revolutionary who was murdered by right-wing troops in 1919. Landauer was the pre-eminent theorist of the connections between anarchism and cooperatives, and he had a powerful influence on the Israeli kibbutz movement.
A contemporary anarchist, Murray Bookchin, points to the role that cooperatives can potentially play in this revolutionary process. Anarchism, Bookchin writes, “builds on those subterranean currents in humanity that have tried at all times to restore community as the structural unit of social life.” Co-ops, as reservoirs of community, may then take on a vital significance.*
Co-ops as revolutionary? It’s not as far-fetched as you might think. While Madison, Wisconsin in the 1990’s is a far cry from Rochdale, England in the 1840’s, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the pioneers of the cooperative movement were militant working class activists directly challenging the economic and political status quo. They were quite clear that they strove to replace capitalist structures with alternative ones based on cooperation; they wanted every aspect of their lives to be organized cooperatively. There was no question that they stood in intransigent opposition to the dominant institutions of their time. This is our heritage, the history that housing co-ops, worker co-ops, and producer and consumer co-ops grew out of.
The issue we face today is whether the organizational models that the cooperative movement has generated since then are adequate to that original vision. On this question, anarchism offers a challenge to the contemporary cooperative movement. The anarchist vision doesn’t stop with a few scattered co-ops and collectives here and there; it aims at the total transformation of the social fabric, not just carving out islands of alternative culture within a sea of mainstream conformity. Anarchists want to dismantle profit-making enterprises, bureaucratic agencies, sexist and racist organizations, and so on, and replace them with free social forms.
Co-ops can help in this decades-long process; co-op living is a kind of hands-on education in direct democracy and collective action. And in fact the kinds of self-managed communities that co-ops represent are a necessary precondition for an anarchist social revolution, for creating a life without domination. But living or shopping or working at co-ops won’t bring about a free society. That requires political action; and here again the anarchist legacy has much to offer.
In order to mount an effective challenge to the status quo, anarchists propose a strategy of building social counterpower (sometimes called ‘dual power’), of creating alternative forms of community which can stand up to the dominant ones over the long term. This means constantly challenging ourselves and one another to resist established structures of power, and to take back ever more of our own lives from the systems that confine us.
That sounds nice, but how do we do it? I can’t give you blueprints, but I can offer four principles which the anarchist movement has generated over the years to guide our struggles for freedom. You could call these the four elements of social counterpower:
Direct Action. Anarchists believe that when something needs to get done, it’s better to do it yourself, with your community, rather than relying on some bureaucracy to take care of it for you.
Free Association. People ought to choose their social involvements freely rather than having them imposed from above. Also, the ways we interact with one another need to point toward freedom rather than reinforcing hierarchical patterns.
Mutual Aid. Any community rests on solidarity, on people’s support of one another. A free world can only be built on common effort, not individual proclivities.
Participatory Democracy. This principle, which is sometimes called ‘self-management’, says that everybody who is affected by a decision needs to be involved in making that decision.
You can see right away a number of similarities to the cooperative principles. In trying to put this vision into practice, anarchists have also created several concrete forms that these principles can take. The two most important are counterinstitutions and prefigurative politics.
Prefigurative politics is a fancy term that just means living your values today, instead of waiting until “after the revolution” — in fact it means beginning the revolution here and now to the extent possible. This might be called the everyday aspect of social counterpower. And counterinstitutions, of which co-ops are often an example, are the structural aspect of social counterpower.
Counterinstitutions are often misunderstood as simply kinder, gentler versions of the familiar fixtures of our present, corrupt system: the Whole Foods or Ben & Jerry’s syndrome. But real counterinstitutions are radically opposed to such fake ‘alternatives’. They’re simultaneously counter — deliberately in tension with the structures of capital and the state, contesting them on their own ground; and institutions — long-term projects that outlive their founders and can withstand shifts in the cultural climate. Housing co-ops, worker co-ops, and producer or consumer co-ops all have the potential to be counterinstitutions. The decisive factor is usually the degree of political awareness among their members.
In a further parallel to anarchist thought, the 19th and early 20th century cooperative pioneers had a grand vision of a “cooperative commonwealth” which they saw as eventually replacing the market economy. Basically this meant one big confederation of co-ops of every imaginable sort stretching across the land, uniting all people in a ‘commune of communes’. A very similar vision is reflected in what I think is the most sophisticated contemporary anarchist theory, known as libertarian municipalism, a perspective articulated by Murray Bookchin and Janet Biehl.
Libertarian municipalism proposes that the fundamental authority in a free society, the basic decision-making body, ought to be local assemblies of all the citizens of a given neighborhood or town or area. In Biehl’s words, these municipal assemblies will “provide the structural means by which citizens can collectively manage their own affairs.” These local assemblies would then be linked by city-wide confederations, then by regional confederations, and so forth, to allow for decisions which have impacts beyond a single community.
Instead of nationalizing the economy, as some socialist theories demand, libertarian municipalism calls for municipalizing the economy. That means all production and organizational decisions will be subject to popular control by the entire community working together democratically. This is a version of anarchism which says that “huge corporations” aren’t really the problem (after all, are a few huge profit-making corporations really worse than lots of small profit-making corporations?), but commodity production itself, wage labor itself, the logic of the market itself are the problem. And this is a kind of anarchism which insists that a truly alternative economy can’t be merely local and small scale; it needs to be directly subordinated to democratic community control.
This is just a sampling of the possibilities for fruitful dialogue between the cooperative movement and the anarchist tradition. If you’re still wondering what anarchism is all about, talk it over with your housemates and friends and see what they think. Maybe you’ll discover that some of them have been anarchists all along. And ask yourself this question: Do you want to help build a cooperative movement that is striving to become a lasting alternative to corporate structures and to state structures? Not an adjunct to them, not a subcomponent of them, but a genuinely revolutionary alternative structure that directly challenges them? If your answer is yes, there’s a good chance that you’re an anarchist.

* In his later work, Bookchin distanced himself from ‘communitarian’ strategies for radical social change, and he disagreed with the analysis presented here. The same is true of Janet Biehl, whose work is mentioned at the end of the article. In the final decade of his life, Bookchin rejected the characterization of libertarian municipalism as anarchist and indeed rejected anarchism as such. This essay was written when both Biehl and Bookchin were more positively inclined toward anarchism and cooperative institutional models.