Tag Archives: cooperative economy

Cooperative FOSS clouds

Free software advocate Richard M. Stallman is critical of the concept of software as a service (SaaS), which he instead refers to as Service as Software Substitute (SaSS). In order to understand his objections to SaaS/SaSS, we need to know the four freedoms RMS champions:

  • the freedom to run software
  • the freedom to study software
  • the freedom to redistribute software
  • the freedom to improve software

In the world of SaaS software is run on the hardware owned and controlled by the service provider. This is rather obviously contrary to the third and fourth freedom. However, there are also tensions with the first two freedoms.

As SaaS is run on a remote server rather than on the user’s own hardware, the user has little control on how the software is actually run. Depending on the provider’s policies, users might or might not be able to change certain configuration settings. Also putting one’s files on the hardware of another, creates privacy concerns.

Nevertheless SaaS has like other cloud computing concepts like IaaS and PaaS, offer certain benefits to its users. Especially in case of small and medium-sized businesses, cloud computing can offer levels of security that would be too expensive or too complicated to achieve by SMEs on their own.

Yet the fact remains that cloud computing makes business owners dependent upon a few multinational corporations. Combined with high thresholds for moving from one provider to another, will reduce consumer power to force cloud providers to change their policies.

As an alternative to current cloud solutions, we propose the establishments of cloud cooperatives. For starters a cooperative is a business that is owned and controlled by its members, either workers or consumers rather than by shareholders. In this case the cloud cooperative will be owned by its users.

User-members will pay membership fees, not unlike current subscription fees, however, unlike commercial cloud providers, the members will also be to appoint and dismiss the cooperative’s management. On its turn the management will hire people to maintain to cooperative’s infrastructure.

In contrast with commercial cloud providers the members of the cloud cooperative will own all of the infrastructure collectively. And even though most day-to-day decisions will be made by the management, the members will have the final say in all matters.

In line with our commitment to free and open source software we obviously propose that these cloud cooperatives should exclusively use FOSS. Hence a part of the funds should be used to fund the development and maintenance of software.

Ideally cloud cooperatives should be organized on a regional basis, i.e. members will be located in the same general area and its data-centers should also be located in the area where the cooperative operates. Local cooperatives could organize themselves into national or global associated in order to share the costs of certain software projects.

Borrowing versus leasing

In our post A Cooperative Economy we briefly discussed the option of leasing as a method of funding worker cooperatives. The essence of a worker cooperative is that workers own, or at least control the means of production, or capital, instead of being employed by the owners of capital.

The fundamental problem is how can workers who are starting a cooperative, can acquire the means of production they need. Suppose that Alice and Bob are setting up a worker cooperative, but need 100,000 worth of equipment. Assuming that both have a monthly basic income of 1,200, it will be clear that they can’t raise the money on their own.

Of course, Alice and Bob can borrow 100,000 from the bank or some other financial institution. But this we leave both Alice and Bob indebted, which they have to pay off even in case their cooperative proves to be a failure. This is a prospect which might and will deter workers from forming worker cooperatives.

The issue at stake here, is the idea that a worker cooperative should own their means of production, which means that the cooperative has to purchase those. A large one time expense. There are, however, alternatives for outright ownership of the means of production.

Instead of buying, Alice and Bob could decide to lease the equipment they need. Suppose they could lease this equipment for, say, 10,000 a year, their cooperative only needs to raise 10,000 in order to start-up. When the cooperative is successful, they will be able to pay for the capital they use without incurring additional debts.

Alternatively Alice and Bob could hire-purchase the capital goods. The difference between lease and hire-purchase, is that in the latter case the goods will become the property of the lessees, while in the former cases these will return to the lessor at the end of the contract (or the lease contract maybe renewed). Both forms of credit have a big advantage from the perspective of the A&B Coop: in case it will default on its payments the lessor can only take back the leased goods, and refuse further use, but Alice and Bob cannot go bankrupt.

Because the lessor can reclaim his goods in case of default by the lessees, he takes less risks than in case of a monetary loan. Hence the costs of funding a business by lease or hire-purchase will be lower than the interests on a monetary loan.

This leaves us with the question who should supply the goods for lease. We propose that local governments to set up publicly owned lease companies which specialize in leasing capital goods to worker cooperatives. These lease companies can be funded either by the revenue raised by the lease of land or by borrowing the required funds. Money can be borrowed either from the Federal Credit Bank or from private investors. In the latter case interest rates can be kept low, since the government will guarantee the payment of debts.

Though in Mordan space settlements, a substantial portion of the means of production will be owned by the community, our system differs from Soviet-style communism. First, unlike in the USSR the private ownership of capital goods will be legal. Second worker cooperatives will operate in a free market rather than in a command economy, i.e. the state does provide capital to the cooperatives, but it does not determine what should be produced.

In the economic system we propose, labour will hire capital rather than be hired by capital. And hence capitalism is essentially reversed without resorting to Soviet communism.

A few words on Consumer Cooperatives

In our post A Cooperative Economy we argued that shops with numerous “anonymous” customers are not well suited to be run as consumer cooperatives. A consumer cooperative is a business owned and democratically by its consumers. It’s clear that the anonymity of customers, is a s problem for running a consumer cooperative.

One way to solve this problem, is to restrict access to these shops to members of the cooperative. But this seems to be an inferior solution. Could we design a more satisfying solution?

Most companies handle markup pricing, which is determining prices by adding a markup to the costs of production. An an example: a shop owner buys apples from a farmer for 5 Stella per kilogram, and he sells it for 6 Stella per kilogram in his shop. In this case the cost of production is 5 Stella, and the markup is equal to 1 Stella.

In reality the cost of production includes not only the purchase price for the company, but also additional costs such as salaries, transportation and storage. The markup is simply the profit the shop owner makes if he sells something.

How does this relates to consumer cooperatives? The main objective of a consumer cooperative is to reduce the prices for its members. Ideally, the prices its members should be should be equal to the cost of production. Or in other words, setting the markup at zero. A company knows its costs of production (it has to pay these costs) and their markup (it has to set this one). This allows a consumer cooperative to apply price discrimination, by charging members only the costs of production and non-members also the markup.

Of course, this requires that members of the consumer cooperative has to identify themselves when they make a purchase. The simplest way to arrange this, is by providing membership cards when people join the cooperative, probably after a paying a (one time) membership fee. Those who can’t show a membership card, will have to pay the markup as well.

An interesting question is what to do with the markups paid by non-members? It can be used for investments, to pay a bonus to the employees or it can be donated to charity.

A Cooperative Economy


Classical republicanism is based on the principle of self-government. An individual is free, according to republicans, in so far (s)he is able to govern him or herself. Given that humans are social animals, the principle of self-government means the ability of an individual to participate in the political system.

The republican ideal of self-government requires a certain degree of economic independence. In modern capitalist societies there is a division between those who own capital, and those who have only their own labour. A large number of the population has to seek employment by the owners of capital, only a small number of people are self-employed, i.e. own their own means of production.

Wage-labourers are economically dependent from the so-called capitalists. This dependence-relation is at odds with the republican ideal of self-government. Some opponents of capitalism has proposed or tried to nationalize all means of production, but from a republican perspective this only replace one dependence-relation for another one.

Both corporate and state ownership of capital are antithetical to republicanism. Only if workers have capital at their own disposal, they can achieve self-government.

In this post we will discuss cooperatives as the major institution of the economy of space settlements. First we will discuss worker-cooperatives, subsequently we will turn to consumer cooperatives, and finally we will discuss housing cooperatives.

Worker cooperatives

A worker cooperative is a business owned and managed by its workers. In practice this means that the worker will elect the cooperative’s management, which will take care of day-to-day decisions, whilst the general policy is determined by the general conference of its worker-members. Unlike joined-stock companies, worker cooperative subscribe to a strict one man-one vote rule.

Worker cooperatives earn money by selling goods and services to the public, like all other types of businesses. But the profits made by the cooperative are either reinvested or distributed among the worker-members, probably according to hours worked for the cooperative. Whatever option is chosen, or a combination of both, the decision is made by the members, instead of the board.

Typically worker cooperatives are based locally, and hence have a relatively small number of members. This enables effective control of the worker-members over the cooperative. Therefore worker-cooperatives are compatible with the principles of a republican society.

Though worker cooperatives are a socially desirable business model, it’s far from obvious that a cooperative-based economy will emerge spontaneously. There are several reason why people abstain from forming worker cooperatives. The two most important ones are uncertainty and lack of funding.

Uncertainty is an important factor in making (economic) decisions. In many cases we are not able to predict the results of our actions, and these results might be bad or good. And the risks associated with our action are sometimes great. Therefore many people prefer risk-avoiding behaviour, and chose for the safest option.

Many people try to reduce their financial uncertainty, which explains why many people prefer a wage-earning job to self-employment, even if they would be better of in the latter case. They prefer to be employees because they believe they will get predictable wages, and hence their sense of certainty is increased.

However, by becoming a member of a worker cooperative an individual is not a mere employee, but a co-entrepreneur. If the cooperative is doing well, (s)he earns much, but if the cooperative encounters bad times, the member will earn less or even nothing. This kind of uncertainty provides a strong motive for people to form or join a worker-cooperative.

The question is therefore, how can we as a society reduce this uncertainty which prevents the formation of worker cooperatives? We believe that the best way to reduce such uncertainty, is the introduction of a basic income guarantee. Under such arrangement people will receive an unconditional, periodical income from the government. The amount of income received should be sufficient to meet the basic needs, but not much more.

As we have shown in a previous post, there are many other arguments in favour of a basic income guarantee. But here the most relevant argument is the reduction of uncertainty for self-employed people. Regardless whether their business is doing well or bad, these people know they will have enough income to live from. This would create an incentive for more people to become self-employed or to form/join a worker cooperative.

A second important issue which prevents people from joining or forming a worker cooperative is funding. Any business needs funding to make investments, such buying tools or renting a workplace. One way of getting funding for a cooperative, is from the (founding) members. This would, however, require that the prospective members of the cooperative have enough savings to invest into it. Though some people might have such assets, it’s not quite likely that the majority of potential members will have such funds at their disposal.

Given the very nature of a worker cooperative, the sale of stock to outsiders is impossible. That leaves us with loans as the only method of external funding for cooperatives. But getting loans is a problem for many start-ups, since most banks prefer to give loans to existing businesses or to those start-ups with substantial equity, in order to reduce the risks for the banks.

Unlike private banks, the government can afford to make much greater risks. The government of a space settlement with a commitment to republicans ideals, could provide low-interest or interest-free loans to starting cooperatives. Of course these new cooperatives should submit sound business plans for examination, before they will get any loan.

Alternatively, the government could give grants to starting-up cooperatives. In contrast to loans, a grant has not to be paid back, and therefore a grant would add to the equity of the cooperative. Both start-up loans and grants will be given only once to a particular cooperative, this to ensure fair competition among cooperatives.

Another possibility for provide funding to cooperatives is for the government to set-up lease companies. By these companies worker cooperatives can lease or hire-purchase the equipment, such as 3D-printers, they need. This would lower the start-up costs of a worker cooperative.

Consumer cooperatives

In theory every business can be organized as a worker cooperative. But it is not a suitable business model for every economic sector. In particular labour intensive industries are best suited for the formation of worker cooperatives.

However through automation is number of labour intensive industries is decreasing. And further many modern businesses are actually intermediaries between the producers and the consumers of goods. And these intermediaries employ a relatively small number of people. That in many developed nations a large number of the population are working in this sector, is because most production is done in other countries

These intermediary businesses also take much of profits, the difference between the price paid to the producers and the price paid by the consumers. Of course these businesses has to make money, but in reality a large if not the largest part of the profit goes to the intermediaries. This happens because individual consumer have little or no influence on prices set by these businesses. Yes, the consumer can go to competing businesses, but that presumes the presence of adequate competition.

A consumer cooperative is many aspects similar to a worker cooperative, in particular both types of cooperatives are democratically controlled by its members. But the primary difference between those two, is that consumer cooperatives are owned by their consumers rather than their employees.

Unlike traditional businesses, consumer cooperatives do not aim to make as much profit as possible, but instead their purpose is to provide goods and services to their members for the best quality at the best price. Due to collective bargaining, consumer cooperatives can achieve better deals with suppliers easier than individual consumers.

What kind of businesses are most suited for consumer cooperatives? It follows from the definition of these organizations that their consumers should be identifiable. By definition a worker cooperative knows who is working for that cooperative, and hence who is allowed to vote and to share in the profits. But if I go to my local groceries store, they might not know me, for instance because I only go to that particular store only a few times a year.

Many companies deal with large number of anonymous consumers, and to some extent they do not bother to know their consumers, because they don’t care who is buying their stuff as long as they are paying. For a consumer cooperative it’s essential that only the real consumers can be members, otherwise the cooperative becomes vulnerable for outside manipulation.

One thing which can be done by a consumer cooperative, is restricting service only to its members. If non-members want to obtain access to the goods and services provided by the cooperative, they should become member first. It also follows that the subscription business model is best suited for consumer cooperatives (except in case of an occasional “cooperative”, which is beyond the scope of this article). An example of such cooperatives are utility cooperatives, think about a cooperative telephone company.

In our post about waste disposal in space settlements, we discussed the idea of leasing durable goods, instead of buying those. This idea can easily combined with the concept of consumer cooperatives. The cooperative either buys or produces certain durable goods, which are subsequently leased by its members.

A fundamental question we have to discuss, is how consumer cooperatives relate to republican ideals of self-government. One approach would be the idea of consumer-self governance, since consumer cooperatives allow the consumer the exert a greater influence on his consumption than under traditional businesses.

But on the other hand, one could raise the issue of wage labour, which is rejected by classical republicans. The employees of a consumer cooperative are not different from other employees, in the sense that they are not “self-employed”. However, we should realize that in many cases the employees of a consumer cooperative, will also be consumers of that cooperative, and hence be members.

Besides consumer cooperatives will often act as intermediaries between producers, and the final consumers. Nothing will prevent a consumer cooperative to obtain goods from a worker cooperative, and such arrangement could be beneficial for both. Further in some cases a consumer cooperative can be run by volunteers, member who spend a few hours a week to the cooperative.

If a consumer cooperative would have a large number of employees, we could consider a “hybrid” cooperative. In such cooperative both the consumers and workers have a vote in the management of the cooperatives. And votes can be split, for instance, fifty-fifty.

Housing cooperatives

A special type of consumer cooperatives are housing cooperatives. But because of their (potential) importance, we will discuss this type of cooperative separately.

This idea is quite simple: a building is collectively owned by a cooperative, and the members of the cooperative are its renters or hire-purchasers. And like all other cooperatives, the board is elected by its members and all major decisions have to be approved by the members conference.

In order to ensure affordable housing, the government could extend its program of interest-free loans to housing cooperatives. This would also give the government the ability to impose certain conditions on these cooperatives, such as measures against racial discrimination.

An important argument for housing cooperatives, besides affordable housing, is that renters are protected against malevolent landlords. Some landlords are only interest in making money and are asking excessive rents, whilst they refuse to spend anything to maintaining their property. In a housing cooperative the renter-members are effectively their own landlords, and if the cooperative’s board would turn abusive, the member can recall them.

See also

The 21-hour-work week