If you have followed this column for the last several months, you know that I have focused on a different cooperative principle each issue. The topic for this month is the fourth principle—cooperative autonomy and independence.
The 1,000-year flood brought to me a renewed sense that autonomy and independence are an essential, but certainly not a standalone, principle for cooperatives. But for all of the seven cooperative principles working in concert, South Carolina’s rural families in the 1930s and 1940s might have retained their autonomy and independence but would have continued to live and work in darkness. Only by banding together did neighbors become a cooperative, stringing wires to poles and delivering power to the countryside.
Independence is a defining core value of our country. It’s as American as apple pie and is fundamental to how we view ourselves and our place in the world. As self-help organizations controlled by members, co-ops maintain an independence that ensures that local issues, interests and capital stay local and benefit members. Local control is key.
Cooperatives have run into trouble by thinking they had to be big to be relevant or by being tempted to sell their independence in order to survive. In effect, they mortgaged their birthright and their biggest asset—their connection to the members.
How? Maybe by entering into entangling relationships with financial institutions or other utilities. We also must be mindful that we’re not government. We can partner with government, we can partner with banks and we can partner with investor-owned utilities, but we should never separate from who we are and from where we came.
Historically, when cooperatives have stepped away from their members’ interests, they’ve gotten into trouble. There’s a certain wisdom that comes from knowing you have a membership that has democratic control and being able to go back there from time to time to get a reinfusion of wisdom and enthusiasm.
My favorite businesses, my favorite stores or restaurants, are all locally owned. Such places are ones that have grown up in the community and both understand and reflect it in their quality of goods and services. They keep us satisfied and coming back because they are us.
The character of a cooperative’s democratic control is identical. Cooperatives, by virtue of independence and autonomy, are local. What’s good for the Pee Dee, the Lowcountry, the Upstate or the Midlands is not the same as the needs of the island of Kauai or native villages in Alaska, and yet co-ops serve them all.
The strength of community is in its understanding of its unique identity and needs and its commitment to serving both. Cooperatives do this as well as any business in America, which is why they have been so successful for seven-and-a-half decades.
We are communities of South Carolinians who will always be best served through the democratic control of our cooperatives, by exercising autonomy and independence in our affairs, and by adhering to all seven of the cooperative principles.
The Seven Cooperative Principles
1. Voluntary and open membership
2. Democratic member control
3. Members’ economic participation
4. Autonomy and independence
5. Education, training and information
6. Cooperation among cooperatives
7. Concern for community