The Cooperative Commonwealth: An Anarchism for the 21st Century?

by Robert Christl with art by Roger Peet

Mutual aid associations have historically emerged from disenfranchised populations’ struggle to survive inequality. During the late nineteenth century, when European and American states offered little social welfare, the destitute pragmatically combined their resources out of necessity. Meanwhile, anarchists recognized that workers’ mutual aid associations such as benefit societies, labor unions, and cooperatives pointed to an alternate world, and they actively participated in them with the intention of fostering a new society. (1) Such a perspective is a hallmark of Left libertarian thought, and its relevance today is paramount as pro-austerity governments dismantle the liberal welfare state.

Geographer and anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin presented various species’ cooperative sociability as a “natural law” in a series of articles which he republished as Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902). Tracing mutual aid’s evolution from the ant colony to the medieval guild, Kropotkin claimed that animals and humans instinctively band together to survive harsh environments. The Spanish revolutionary Diego Abad de Santillán made a similar observation in 1936 when he declared that the “soviets were a fact before they were a theory.” (2) Modern anarchism, he argued, needed to cultivate laborers’ tendency towards a sociable existence through contemporary working class institutions such as labor unions. Today, Andrej Grubačić and Denis O’Hearn posit the practices and spaces of Cossacks, Zapatistas, and prisoners in the American justice system as local resistances to global capitalism. (3) The state, acting as capitalism’s midwife, pushed such groups to the geographic or social edges of society, forcing them to imagine a different and better world along the lines of mutual aid. These analyses remind us that organizations designed to resist inequality can also prefigure its overcoming. One of the revolutionary’s duties is to assist mutual aid organizations in universalizing their more egalitarian logic to overcome hierarchies.

This essay encourages radical democrats, who are equally concerned with achieving social justice and realizing it by open and horizontal means, to take an active role in the emerging alliance between municipal governments and cooperatives in the United States. Madison, Wisconsin serves as an example in which the city and an array of social movements have coalesced to cultivate a worker-owned cooperative economy in opposition to the economic and racial inequalities aggravated by capitalism and government policies. The aim is to analyze this coalition in its historical context, highlight its potential, and illustrate how radical democrats’ involvement can help steer capitalism and the state toward the Cooperative Commonwealth: a federated, socialist, and participatory society.

Systemic Change and its Conditions of Possibility
The Great Recession serves as a backdrop to the political crises of the last decade and the growing cooperative movement. While a straight line cannot be drawn from today’s issues to Lehman Brothers’ filing bankruptcy, the economic downturn aggravated preexisting inequalities and disillusionment with American democracy, contributing to a general sense of cynicism regarding the order of things. In the United States, the economic turmoil of recent years has contributed to a deeper crisis of representative government. Frustration with professional politicians and their managerial politics, which neutralize democracy and preserve the status quo, erupted following the Obama years, resulting in Bernie Sanders’ newfound popularity and Donald Trump’s presidential victory. (4) Markets’ recovery has not produced an improvement in workers’ conditions and wages. Moreover, mass incarceration continues to destroy Black communities, while law enforcement’s harassment of poor Black and Latino neighborhoods worsens living conditions.

In other words, many people for many different reasons feel that they have been cheated by the system and that government by, for, and of the people is a façade. And yet despite widespread disillusionment in America, the political parameters of neoliberalism have not yet broken. (5) It is within these circumstances that the idea of the Cooperative Commonwealth has slowly begun to take hold, especially in city politics.

Since the recession, and especially after Trump’s inauguration, cities have emerged as a crucial site of progressive policies and resistance. Given Republican control of the federal government and most state governments, some cities have used what autonomy they possess to ameliorate the systemic changes that lowered Americans’ quality of life. In the last few years, municipal governments have declared their cities sanctuaries for immigrants, pledged to adhere to the Paris Climate Accord, and raised the minimum wage. Nevertheless, such reforms do not imply the prefigurative politics needed to imagine, build, and cement a different world.

From the outset, twenty-first century radical democrats face three obstacles that limit our efforts to steer economic and political changes towards more just societies, making municipal cooperativism the most realistic and radical path forward. Foremost, whereas the turn of the twentieth-century Left beamed with optimism about the end of capitalism and the disappearance of the state, today’s Left suffers from a profound crisis of uncertainty about what comes next. If the early twentieth century promised redemptive catastrophe, today we are faced with ecological catastrophe if we continue along the same route of economic development. Yet leaping into the abyss inspires no confidence if there is no promise of landing on socialism.

Secondly, despite the disintegration of states in places like Chiapas and Rojava, the proliferation of public-private enterprises in social services, schooling, and utilities, and the existence of transnational institutions like the European Union, the nation-state as a governing entity and object of mass identification is not going anywhere soon. Unlike the period stretching from the 1860s to the First World War, characterized by consolidating and vulnerable nation-states in places such as the United States, Italy, Spain, Russia, Japan, and Argentina (where anarchists attracted mass support), today there is no corresponding widespread re-imagination of territorial sovereignty and its mechanisms. (6) Global capitalism is altering rather than drastically reducing the power of states and their apparatuses. Capital’s institutions—the IMF, World Bank, and European Union, to name some—are built on nation-states and impose capital’s demands through them.

Relatedly, American society is marked by the entrenchment of statist officialdom. The official web of decision-making bodies, bureaucratic apparatuses, laws, regulations, and public institutions, naturalized by Americans’ civic and popular cultures, remains resistant against radical change. Moreover, reformist efforts over the course of the twentieth century to push officialdom towards progressive economic policies have been repeatedly defeated since the 1970s, and civil society’s ability to influence or intervene in officialdom has been drastically reduced. Unionization, for example, is down to pre-Depression levels. Third parties remain marginal. Republicans and Democrats continue to possess a monopoly on power at the federal and state level, enabling them to reduce the terms of political debate. What is more, officialdom frustrates efforts to articulate radical solutions to perennial problems such as inequality. Despite widespread recognition that something is fundamentally wrong with our Republic, the state itself is not subject to criticism. In short: there is no shared stateless imaginary today.

Yet the relative loss of faith in capitalism (which is widely perceived as decoupled from statist officialdom; so-called bad government is identified as the problem, not the state form itself) and frustration with the quality of representative politics in America offers space for a critical move in the long struggle against contemporary capitalism and its state. The question at hand is at which site do we concentrate popular aspirations? Where do we build our new world? The municipal-cooperative alliance is one promising site of struggle.

Incubating the Cooperative Commonwealth in Wisconsin
Although they make up a relatively small portion of the state’s economy today, co-ops have a long history in Wisconsin. According to a 2012 study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Cooperatives, there are around 770 active cooperatives in the state, with agriculture leading and credit unions and retail stores in second and third place. As a whole, Wisconsin’s co-ops generate around $17.2 billion in annual sales, $1.5 billion in wages, and 35,000 jobs. (7)

Recently, there has been a noticeable growth in interest in Madison, Wisconsin’s capital, regarding co-ops. The city’s municipal-cooperative alliance is part of a growing national trend. From New York to California, city governments and social movements are pursuing alternate forms of economic organization. Co-op incubators such as the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative (CUCI), Cooperation Jackson, and the Madison Cooperative Development Coalition (MCDC) have emerged to coordinate efforts between city politicians and activists in funding co-ops and training worker-owners. The combined impact of the Great Recession and neoliberals’ top-down austerity, as well as longer and more local histories of poverty and institutional racism, have invigorated interest in cooperative economies as a way of empowering marginalized communities.

The turn to co-ops in Madison has short-term and long-term roots. In many ways, Wisconsin’s recent history epitomizes the systemic shift from industrial production to a technology- and service-based economy in parts of the global north. For example, decades before the Great Recession, workers in south-central Wisconsin were already feeling the strains of a sluggish economy, due in part to gradual deindustrialization, the collapse of local businesses reliant on heavy industry, and the transition towards a service sector economy without the same labor protections and living standards previously won by unions’ historic struggles. (8) The recession exacerbated this situation, contributing to the popular discontent on which governor Scott Walker’s electoral victory capitalized in 2010.

Walker’s campaign channeled existing feelings of resentment and uncertainty among rural populations who felt that Wisconsin’s major cities—Madison and Milwaukee—absorbed more than their fair share of the state’s wealth. Walker’s campaigns spoke to the economic hardship of rural communities and their animosity towards the supposedly undeserving cities. He mobilized rural constituencies that had relied on disappearing heavy industry and the economies which supplied it. Like Trump, Walker strategically misdiagnosed the causes of workers’ misery. He took aim at liberal white-collar Madison and its public sector employees and their unions, blaming the capital’s government-based economy and the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the rest of the state’s woes. (9)

Following the neoliberal formula of using crises as a pretext for savage cuts and deregulation, Walker and the Republican-dominated Senate and State Assembly stripped unions of their collective bargaining rights with the infamous Act 10, passed in early 2011. They have since slashed the state budget, deregulated environmental protections, and centralized power in the governorship. To cement his status as one of the most aggressive neoliberals, Walker sealed a deal with Foxconn in 2017. The electronics manufacturer (which has overworked Chinese employees to the point of suicide) promised to build a massive plant in Wisconsin in exchange for three billion dollars in government subsidies. (10)

The economic devastation caused by Republicans in recent years has aggravated inequalities with a longer history in Wisconsin, making the state one of the worst places to live for individuals and families of color. Reports indicate that the level of economic disparity between Black and white Americans in Wisconsin remains one of the widest in the country. On average, unemployment in the Black community is three times higher than among whites. Moreover, many Black families’ median household income is half of what it is in white households. (11) One of the most visible issues has been the regular evictions which keep some Black families at perpetual risk of homelessness. (12) Forced out of middle-class, student, and yuppie neighborhoods, many Black residents have been pushed towards the margins, away from essential services as well as social and civic life.

These are the conditions in which talks between Madison’s Mayor Paul Soglin, President of the South-Central Federation of Labor Kevin Gundlach, and then Director of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Cooperatives Anne Reynolds began to crystallize around the idea of the city making resources available for new co-ops. In 2016 the city’s Department of Planning and Community Economic Development put out a request for proposals and began meeting with the MCDC. The Coalition, comprised of local labor unions, immigrant and racial justice organizations, and developers dedicated to promoting cooperatives, came together in early 2016. The MCDC’s immediate goal was to write a grant proposal asking the city to provide the financial resources to grow Madison’s cooperative economy among marginalized and impoverished communities. From the beginning, labor, racial justice, and community activists approached the grant writing process collaboratively rather than competing with each other over scarce resources. In the long term, the MCDC aims to train community-based organizations to offer the education and resources needed to their own constituencies. This will make co-op development an integral part of their mission to empower communities through good jobs, self-determination, and a broader communitarian culture.

The city and the MCDC signed the final contract in January 2017. Three million dollars, to be spent over five years, would be invested in the creation of worker-owned cooperatives in Madison. The funding would go towards technical assistance and low-interest loans to support unionized worker-owned co-ops.

In allocating these resources, Madisonians adopted an ecosystemic approach in which multiple actors, such as the city government and the social movements that constitute the MCDC, coordinate the distribution of resources with the explicit purpose of creating a self-sustaining economy of mutual aid among impoverished communities. (13) Early on, the players involved recognized that transformative social change needs more than just government money indiscriminately given to whomever applies. Cultivating an economy along the lines of mutual aid requires broad-based and coordinated participation by Madison’s different communities as well as a concerted effort by activists to forge those connections. Rather than simply making loans available, privileging existing cooperatives with city contracts, or inserting co-ops within public sector supply chains to guarantee them a market, the city government empowered the MCDC to oversee the three million dollars’ investment in a new cooperative bedrock. In other words, Madisonians’ efforts to grow the cooperative economy is led by the grassroots. While the city provides crucial elements such as financing, business connections, and advocacy, the social movements channel these resources to those communities that need them most.

When I spoke with Reynolds, she said progress on the project has been made, albeit slowly. Although the MCDC’s steering committee meets every two weeks, the discussions still focus on how best to implement this complex project. “It’s ambitious, this level of decentralization,” said Reynolds. She noted that the MCDC is composed of twenty-eight different organizations, but not everyone has a common understanding of what a co-op is or what it should accomplish. This poses a serious challenge. “We have never envisioned a one-size-fits-all set of workshops on co-ops.” Reynolds pointed out for example the need to tailor co-ops to the Latino community’s specific needs in terms of goods and services. (14)

Reynolds is realistic about the potential of the municipal-cooperative alliance to bring about the Cooperative Commonwealth anytime soon. Today, much of the interest in cooperatives is utilitarian. It seems like a good way of doing business, but there is little appreciation of the radical democratic seed dormant in the worker-owned and worker-managed enterprises. For example, she noted that there are vast differences between what co-op supporters in Madison and Milwaukee envision compared to those from the rest of the state. So far, much of the interest in co-ops has come from entrepreneurs steeped in an individualist model of business start-ups. A great deal of work needs to be done to create a community-wide understanding about what the co-op is and should be, and the politics latent in its worker-owned model. According to Reynolds, the plan for 2018 is to increase co-ops’ visibility through public and community-specific forums. Beyond convincing consumers to patronize co-ops, the movement aims to cultivate an explicitly communitarian culture that replaces the egoism of typical capitalist enterprises. In this sense, Reynolds admitted that the MCDC is far behind Cooperation Jackson, the Mississippi movement dedicated to creating a network of co-ops among the impoverished Black and Latino working class. Nevertheless, at a joint symposium held by the MCDC and CUCI in Madison on February 7, 2018, MCDC announced the incorporation of its first unionized worker-owned co-op, the accounting firm Common Good Bookkeeping.

Actualizing the Cooperative Commonwealth
Despite the positive results thus far, the cooperative movement faces obstacles that threaten its gains and obfuscate its radical politics. Most obviously, the initial reliance on the state places the movement at the mercy of friendly city councils and mayors. While progressives can be convinced to set aside a modest amount of resources for co-ops, business-friendly liberals pose as much a threat as Republicans to their funding and advocacy. In Madison’s case, the city made it clear at the beginning of the budget process that it did not intend to make a recurring investment in co-ops. The community-based organizations were told to develop alternate sustainability models. However, it is difficult to accumulate enough capital to launch new co-ops since the MCDC is working with low-income people. Few institutions like the municipality (or the labor unions, which have been crucial to the Madisonian movement) can offer the resources needed to fund and train new cooperatives.

Secondly, worker cooperatives are not inherently egalitarian beyond the principle of one member, one vote. Internal hierarchies may take shape through wage differentials between staff and elected managers. Temporary or seasonal employees can be subjected to secondary status as non-members, which can impact their decision-making power on the basis that they are somehow less invested in the co-op’s success. Moreover, worker-owned businesses are still capable of reproducing a complacency towards the general economic order once workers have acquired “their fair share” of a corrupt system.

Lastly, it is easier to convert an existing business into a worker-owned cooperative than to build one from scratch. However, cooperativization of a traditional capitalist enterprise requires that the owner or owners’ consent to selling the business or some of its assets to employees. Despite the fact that both capital and labor are needed to launch an enterprise, private property laws arbitrarily treat the capitalist as the venture’s owner, with complete control over the business’s existence. While some capitalists are happy to pass along their business to employees eventually, they are not obligated to hand it over. Madison’s budget allocation for co-ops offers funding to train workers on how to convert an existing business into a cooperative. Nevertheless, the boss’s initial ‘ownership’ and ultimate decision-making power over the business remains unaltered.

So, what is to be done? The nation-state continues to be entrenched in our daily lives and still defends capitalists’ interests. What is more, communicating to a popular audience what comes after the modern nation-state and capitalism is difficult and perhaps even counterproductive. Writing in 1938, after the anarcho-syndicalist movement collaborated with the Republican government during the Spanish Civil War against General Franco, Joan Peiró, one of the movement’s leaders, struggled to adapt anarchist thought to the new reality of the near-indestructible liberal democratic state. He wrote: “For almost a century, anarchism has fought the state from outside. And yet, instead of shrinking, every day the state’s authority and power grows.” (15) Anarchists like Peiró who collaborated with the Republic during the war hoped to restrain it and devolve its functions, giving the collectives which emerged during the simultaneous Spanish Revolution a chance to develop. Replacing the state’s authoritarian structures with committees accountable to the unions, legalizing worker expropriations, funneling state resources to collectivized enterprises, improving working conditions, and providing social services represented an attempt by Spanish anarchists to adapt anarchism’s radical democratic politics to overwhelming historical conditions. It is a lesson worth keeping in mind today when faced with the ability of the state and capitalism to crush almost any effort to cultivate societies outside their grasp.

The capacity of municipal cooperativism to lay the groundwork for the Cooperative Commonwealth requires radical democrats to invest their energies in municipal government. Or, to borrow from Murray Bookchin, the goal is to produce a “clear and uncompromising” tension between people’s municipalities and domineering federal and state governments. (16) By pressuring individuals running for office to commit to funding worker-owned co-ops among marginalized populations, or better yet devolving the local state apparatus and economy to ourselves through direct intervention in municipal governance, we can hasten this tension and gradually—hopefully—displace capitalism. Our aim should be to intervene in local governance to reinvent how decision-making occurs and redirect where state resources go.

City government’s greater proximity to the people than state or federal governments offers potentially a more direct relationship between representatives and represented until a more participatory form of self-governance can be institutionalized. At the very least, we can collectively occupy and lobby at council meetings. Ideally, radical democrats can introduce a new political culture and cooperative agenda themselves by winning seats. During the Wisconsin Uprising and Occupy Wall Street, protestors set up assemblies in which open discussion and horizontal decision-making, as well as an ethos of solidarity, prefigured the kinds of practices we hope to universalize. Yet such assemblies proved ephemeral. What would the introduction and institutionalization of such practices into state bodies like the municipal council look like? How might such “popular” councils collaborate with and coordinate a growing cooperative economy?

Our ability to democratize municipal governance and cooperativize local economies depends largely on seizing the city council itself. As Madison shows, alliances with progressives can only go so far. Investment in a cooperative economy cannot be a onetime thing. It requires the funding and coordinating capacity the city can offer, but the only way of securing such resources is by electing radical democrats to city office. Moreover, there are important strategic considerations. Elections for city councils are often nonpartisan, opening space for candidates outside of the two parties. Also, a lower number of voters in municipal elections means that organized support for a radical democratic candidate has a decent chance of success. Lastly, municipal government is an opportunity to put in practice the old slogan popularized by anarchists that “any cook can govern.” Rotating representatives between terms can preserve an interventionist relationship with officialdom while affirming our connection with the social movements.

Of course, such an approach to officialdom should be complemented by an investment of activists’ energies in the cultural work of diffusing a cooperative worldview within civil society. This calls for the translation of radical democratic ideas into Americans’ civic vernacular. Despite the excitement surrounding Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, most Americans will never read Kropotkin or wave the red flag. We should acknowledge this and instead work towards reinscribing the quotidian with a radical meaning to produce a new common sense regarding the purpose and potential of politics. The widespread acceptance of the category of “the 99%,” and its reorientation of the political field, is the best example in recent memory. Radical democrats must infiltrate governments, businesses, unions, community organizations, and co-ops to convince people at all levels of society to support the cooperative economy in terms they recognize.

This requires extensive researching and organizing beforehand. Madison’s cooperative project is fortunate in that the labor movement and racial justice organizations are already heavily involved. Radical democrats need to make strategic decisions that account for the budget-writing process, friendly city councillors and mayors (or winnable seats), and local social movements with whom to coordinate. This is not glamorous work, but it offers the most realistic path forward in this moment.

Over a century ago, anarchists, communists, and social democrats also attempted to pinpoint the site from which revolution would unfold. After the specter of the Paris Commune seemed exorcised, the European bourgeoisie eased its repression of socialist movements during the 1890s. Such an opening of limited political space witnessed an explosion in working-class organizational and intellectual activity. The waves of turn-of-the-century strikes, from Spain in 1902 to Russia in 1905, led thinkers such as Anselmo Lorenzo and Rosa Luxemburg to see in the strike a valuable tool in the revolutionary process. Two decades later, after the Russian Revolution and Italy’s Red Biennium, worker councils’ direct expropriation of factories and fields became another site of revolutionary possibility alongside the general strike. Today, the same kind of strategic recognition is required. Municipal cooperativism is a product of contemporary capitalism’s crises. It has emerged at the intersection of the historical processes outlined here, and it represents a rich site at which the popular classes can coalesce. In other words, history has determined the field of struggle. Our task is to ensure the institutionalization of the municipal cooperative through political and cultural work.

Robert Christl is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison working on the history of anarchism in Spain. He is an active member of the Teaching Assistants Association and a delegate to Wisconsin’s South-Central Federation of Labor.

This essay is from Perspectives on Anarchist Theory‘s “Beyond the Crisis” issue, available here from AK Press:


  1. Errico Malatesta was an important advocate of anarchist participation in workers’ associations, even if they did not adhere to anarchist principles. In his discussion of the bakers’ union founded in 1887 in Buenos Aires, in which Malatesta and other anarchists played an important role, Gonzalo Zaragoza claims: “Anarchist or revolutionary ideologies did not explicitly appear… However, the presence of anarchist militants in the society’s steering committee marked its ideological line.” Gonzalo Zaragoza, Anarquismo Argentino (1876-1902) (Madrid: De la Torre, 1996), 97.
  2. Diego Abad de Santillán, El organismo económico de la revolución (Bilbao: Zero, 1978), 62.
  3. Andrej Grubačić and Denis O’Hearn, Living at the Edges of Capitalism: Adventures in Exile and Mutual Aid (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016), 6.
  4. In both 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama won Wisconsin. During the 2016 presidential primaries, Bernie Sanders soundly defeated Hillary Clinton by 13.54 percentage points, capturing the rural vote; meanwhile Donald Trump lost to Ted Cruz. In the presidential elections, rural districts that had gone to Obama and Sanders flipped for Trump, giving him the state’s delegates.
  5. Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015).
  6. See Sho Konishi, Anarchist Modernity: Cooperatism and Japanese-Russian Intellectual Relations in Modern Japan (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2013) and Guillermo Palacios and Erika Pani, El poder y la sangre: guerra, estado y nación en la década de 1860 (Ciudad de México: Colegio de México, 2014).
  7. Lynn Pitman, “Economic Impacts of Cooperative Firms in Wisconsin: an Overview.” (University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Cooperatives, 2014), 3. Available at
  8. Camille Kerr, “Local Government Support for Cooperatives,” Austin Co-op Summit 2015, Democracy at Work Institute, 2. Available at
  9. Katherine J. Cramer, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
  10. Brian Merchant, “Life and Death in Apple’s Forbidden City.” The Guardian, June 18, 2017, available at
  11. J. Carlisle Larsen, “Wisconsin Considered One Of The Worst States For Racial Disparities”, Wisconsin Public Radio, January 19, 2017, available at
  12. Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (New York: Broadway Books, 2017).
  13. Michelle Camou, “Cities Developing Worker Co-ops: Efforts in Ten Cities.” Imagined Economy Project, August 8, 2016, available at
  14. Anne Reynolds, “Madison’s Cooperative Economy,” interview by Robert Christl, January 4, 2018.
  15. Joan Peiró, “El estado, el anarquismo y la historía,” in Timón, 1938.
  16. Murray Bookchin, The Murray Bookchin Reader, ed. Janet Biehl (London and Washington: Cassell, 1997), 179.