Ethical, Effective and Sustainable Cooperatives

Andrew Zitcer, Practicing Cooperation

Andrew Zitcer’s recent book, Practicing Cooperation: Mutual Aid Beyond Capitalism, draws on his experiences with food, health-care and arts cooperatives to explore the central question of what makes cooperatives ethical, effective and sustainable.

Zitcer says “This book walks that fine line of searching for the positive value of cooperation while also recognising shortcomings and looking for ways that cooperatives might be more just and effective.”

“One of the biggest challenges is what I call the paradox of exclusivity which means that cooperatives have to be exclusive enough to generate a sense of group connection and ‘buy-in’ but not so much that that they leave different people out of the project.”

“In the context of Philadelphia, where my research was based, the cases that I focus on are working in their own way to try to bring to light and address the tremendous inequalities that are found in this the poorest of the US’s large cities.”

Zitcer recounts some of the ways that cooperative practices can inadvertently exclude participants on the basis of race, class, ability, gender, sexual orientation and so on; yet he also shows that cooperatives can respond to these exclusions in thoughtful and creative ways that help to further the positive social, economic and cultural contribution of cooperatives.

In one example, the Weavers Way food cooperative realised that when they enforced their membership policy the impact was to exclude black children from the adjacent elementary school. The cooperative responded by working with the school to develop the Marketplace program, a school-based mini co-op food business run by students with support and guidance from their teachers and Weavers Way staff.

The Marketplace program has since been held at six elementary schools and two high schools in Northwest Philadelphia.

Such responses to inadvertent exclusions demonstrate one of the key arguments of Zitcer’s book, that cooperation is a practice that needs to be revised and refined, and the means and ends of cooperation constantly reflected on.

Zitcer explores the various scales of practice, with chapters on practices of the body, practices of work and organization, practices of community economy and practices of democracy.

Alongside Weavers Way, the other cooperatives that Zitcer focuses on are Mariposa Food Co-op, People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture and Headlong Dance Theater.

Practicing Cooperation reveals the variety of practices that cooperatives can use to be ethical, effective and sustainable, and as a result will resonate with those interested in cooperatives in diverse settings.

This is the sixth book in the Diverse Economies and Livable Worlds series published by University of Minnesota Press and edited by Community Economies Institute members, JK Gibson-Graham, Stephen Healy, Maliha Safri and Kevin St Martin.

A conversation with Andrew Zitcer hosted by Jamila Medley is available here, with a continuation of the Q&A available here.


Jenny Cameron