What's Next? Disruptive/Collaborative Economy or Business as Usual?
Forty years ago, as the most recent wave of economic collectives and cooperatives emerged, they advocated a model of egalitarian organization so contrary to bureaucracy that they were widely called “alternative institutions” (Rothschild 1979). Today, the practices of cooperative organizations appear in many movement organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and even “sharing” firms. Cooperative practices are more relevant than ever, especially as recent political changes in the US and Europe threaten to crush rather than cultivate economic opportunities.
Cooperative groups engage in more “just” economic relations, defined as relations that are more equal, communalistic, or mutually supportive. The oldest collectives – utopian communes, worker co-operatives, free schools, and feminist groups – sought authentic relations otherwise suppressed in a hierarchical, capitalist system. Similar practices shape newer forms: co-housing, communities and companies promoting the “sharing economy,” giving circles, self-help groups, and artistic and social movement groups including Burning Man and OCCUPY. While some cooperatives enact transformative values such as ethically responsible consumerism and collective ownership, other groups’ practices reproduce an increasingly stratified society marked by precarity. Submitted papers might analyze the reasons for such differences, or they might examine conditions that encourage the development of more egalitarian forms of organization.
Submitted papers could also cover, but are not limited, to exploring:
- What is the nature of “relational work” (cf. Zelizer 2012) conducted in these groups, and how it differs – or is similar to – from relational work undertaken in conventional capitalist systems?
- How do collectivities that engage in alternative economic relations confront challenges that threaten – or buttress – their existence? These challenges include recruiting and retaining members, making decisions, and managing relations with the state and other organizations. Moreover, how do these groups construct distinct identities and practices, beyond defining what they are not?
- How are various firms attempting to incorporate alternative values without fully applying them? For instance, how are companies that claim to advance the sharing economy – Uber, airbnb, and the like – borrowing the ideology and practices of alternative economic relations for profit rather than authentic empowerment? What are the implications of this co-optation for people, organizations, and society at large?
- How do new organizations, especially high tech firms, address or elide inequality issues? How do organizing practices and values affect recognition and action on such issues?
- What can we learn from 19th century historical examples of communes and cooperatives that can shed insight on their keys to successful operation today? Similarly, how might new cooperatives emerge as egalitarian and collective responses to on-going immigration issues or economic crisis generated by policies favoring the already wealthy?
- Are collectives, cooperatives and/or firms that require creativity, such as artists’ cooperatives or high tech firms, most effective when they are organized along more egalitarian principles? How do aspects of these new modes of economic organization make them more supportive of individual and group creativity?
Graeber, David. 2009. Direct Action: An Ethnography. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
Rothschild, Joyce. 1979. “The Collectivist Organization: An Alternative to Rational-Bureaucratic Models.” American Sociological Review 44(4): 509-527.
Rothschild, Joyce and J. Allen Whitt. 1986. The Cooperative Workplace: Potentials and Dilemmas of Organizational Democracy and Participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Zelizer, Vivianna A. 2012. “How I Became a Relational Economic Sociologist and What Does That Mean?” Politics & Society 40(2): 145-174.
Re-embedding the Social: Cooperatives, Political Consumerism and Alternative Lifestyles
‘Collaborative economy’ has become the buzzword in academic research and public debate. While much has been said about the ways in which digital technology is transforming entire swathes of the economy and constructing new forms of exchange, the predominant tendency has been the reification and expansion of modern capitalism aimed at maximizing profits and reproducing exploitative mechanisms towards workers, natural resources and the environment.
Within this critical juncture, alternative economic practices and lifestyles are being adopted and advocated by a growing number of social groups. These practices share a steadfast belief in the idea of ‘social sustainability’, and a desire to move towards a society which – in the words of Amartya Sen – promotes not just environmentalism but also values of equality, diversity, social cohesion, quality of life and democratic governance of our workplaces and every-day lives.
This Mini Conference follows on from last years’ successful one held at the University of California, Berkeley and welcomes theoretical and empirical contributions from the global North and South and across the social sciences that touch on the following three themes:
1) Cooperatives and Cooperativism
As a form of economic organization, it has long been acknowledged that cooperatives can help buffer economic insecurity and provide the building blocks for economic democracy. By inculcating solidaristic social relations and the values of democracy, solidarity, equality, and reciprocity, cooperatives also play an ideological role in society.
This stream welcomes contributions that explore the following lines of enquiry:
- How does the cooperative experience shape people’s political subjectivities? And to what extent do these experiences play an ideological role in society by promoting progressive values in the public sphere?
- What types of collaboration/opposition exist between trade unions and cooperatives? How have these relationships changed since the North Atlantic financial crisis of 2008?
- What are the opportunities and pitfalls of platform cooperativism as a new strategy for trade unions, cooperatives and progressive political parties?
- What types of economic and communication polices are being promoted to enhance cooperatives and cooperativism? Which barriers exist to their implementation and how can these be overcome?
2) Political Consumerism, Collective Action and Social Innovation
Calls to citizens to take action in their role as consumers have been made by social movements of different types. Along with large-scale boycotting and global fair-trade initiatives, political consumerism has entered the repertoire of actions of a number of local grassroots organizations seeking bottom-up solutions for sustainable development. Some example are: solidarity-based exchanges and networks, such as barter groups, new consumer-producer networks and cooperatives, time banks, and local savings groups.
In this strand, we are interested in papers that investigate:
- When, why and where are grassroots economic initiatives emerging and engaging the public;
- What is the effectiveness of political consumerism actions and campaigns at the local, national and international level;
- What is the relationship between political consumerism, sustainability and new forms of governance;
- Which new forms of coordination are emerging between types of organizational actors and initiatives;
- How does political consumerism promote social innovation and learning among actors.
3) Alternative Lifestyles: Embodying the Critique
This last panel aims to gather and discuss collective and community-based practices that aim at ‘embodying’ the critique to consumerist and capitalist societies. These include co-housing, eco-villages, intentional communities and transition towns which are increasingly widespread and inter-connected examples of how people are trying to concretize, not without effort, ‘real utopias’ (Wright 2010).
In this panel, we welcome papers addressing the following issues:
- The extent to which these practices succeed (or fail) in introducing new societal values and norms and creating ‘new imaginaries’ for progressive social change;
- The way through which these practices manage to provide not just material goods but experiences and services outside a ‘market’ logic;
- The extent to which these practices constitute (or not) ‘coping mechanisms’ for socio-economic exclusion in times of austerity and crisis;
- The way in which these experiences affect conceptions and experiences of labour in late capitalistic societies.