Nothing stimulates anti-capitalist feelings like large sums of money changing hands in the hope of huge profits. A recent example: the prospect that Facebook could be worth some $100 billion to its shareholders. The website’s users might prefer less advertising and a lower valuation. But no one asked them. This inspired my Reuters colleague Paul Smalera to suggest that Facebook go co-op. Smalera won’t get his way, but he’s right to wonder whether the hunt for shareholder profits makes the world a better place.
In modern economies, most companies are supposed to be run for the benefit of the providers of equity capital, the shareholders, considered co-owners. Cooperatives and mutuals are owned by and supposed to be run for different groups: customers (the Cooperative Wholesale Society in the UK and American credit unions), suppliers (Sunkist citrus growers in the United States) or workers (the Mondragon group of companies in Spain and the UK retailer John Lewis).
The original thinking behind almost all these organisation was idealistic, even utopian: greedy capitalists had polluted the economy. Their exclusion would help promote the best aspects of human nature.
The idealism has not borne rich fruit. Co-ops and mutually owned enterprises (another name for this type of organisation) do not play a big role in the industrial economy. In the United States, the 100 largest employee-owned companies now account for only 0.5 percent of all workers, according to data from the National Center for Employee Ownership. Mutuality is doing less badly elsewhere – the largest dairy in India is a cooperative – but around the world, the movement’s boosters are losing their power.
The idealism and the lack of success are related. Cooperatives were designed without much thought about what would happen when managers and workers lose their initial energy and enthusiasm. Outside oversight was scanty. The founders promoted corporate cultures which became more complacent than collaborative. Managers were weak, and companies stagnated.