by Laurent GUERBY
Fri Jun 23rd, 2006 at 06:05:09 PM EST
A market economy and capitalism are synonymous --- or at least joined at the hip. That's what most Americans grow up assuming. But it is not necessarily so. Capitalism -- control by those supplying the capital in order to return wealth to shareholders -- is only one way to drive a market.
Granted, it is hard to imagine another possibility for how an economy could work in the abstract. It helps to have a real-life example.
And now I do.
In May I spent five days in Emilia Romagna, a region of four million people in northern central Italy. There, over the last 150 years, a network of consumer, farmer and worker-driven cooperatives has come to generate 30 percent to 40 percent of the region's GDP. Two of every three people in Emilia Romagna are members of co-ops.
The region, whose hub city is Bologna, is home to 8,000 co-ops, producing everything from ceramics to fashion to specialty cheese. Their industriousness is woven into networks based on what cooperative leaders like to call "reciprocity." All co-ops return 3 percent of profits to a national fund for cooperative development, and the movement 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.
The roots of Emilia Romagna's co-op movement are deep -- and varied.
Another surprising feature of the culture is that, beginning in 1991, responsibility for social services in Emilia Romagna and other regions was transferred almost entirely to "social cooperatives." For those providing services such as job placement, 30 percent of the staff must come from the population served and, if possible, be members of the co-op. Certain tax benefits are provided to these "social co-ops."
The approach seemed another smart way to enhance human dignity, breaking down degrading divisions between the helper and the 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.
Of course cooperatives don't exist in mainstream media picture of reality.
Doesn't it look like a great model for progressive thinkers? I wonder how many stories like this one are happening in Europe and around the world...