Frequently Asked Questions
And some answers
It’s not a magical number: it means somewhere between 450 and 800 persons. You need several hundred persons to sustain a collective infrastructure, to make direct food logistics with farms of the region worthwhile, to achieve certain ecological and economical thresholds. It is known that communities of up to 150 members can function informally, so if you want stable institutions that are free from interpersonal favoritism, you need larger units that enforce clearly defined structures to function. Social units of 500 allow for some healthy anonymity and guarantee a high degree of diversity of personalities, qualifications, talents and inclinations. If you base some of the internal life on voluntary work, more people make it possible that almost everybody finds an occupation s/he likes. Smaller communities risk instability, larger ones will generate a bureaucratic overhead and make collective and democratic decision-making clumsy. Imagine those assemblies!
For the moment o500 is a web-site dedicated to the information on a clearly defined global proposition for new institutions of the commons. We want to present a comprehensive concept of institutions from the neighborhood up to the planetary level that can be the basis of an open discussion. Additionally we want to spread information on existing projects and experiences in order to help activists to start their own projects. So o500 isn’t an umbrella organization of projects, but just a resource. With time we hope that it will become more and more useful for commons activists.
How do we find the money?
The money is there. If everybody chips in a few thousand francs (may-be loans from parents) you can go to the bank and get the rest. Some members sold their private houses/flats and bought cooperative shares with the proceeds: a wise move. In Zurich you need an equity of about 6% (the more the better) to get mortgages from the banks. But this is a bit of a special situation, as housing cooperatives enjoy a good reputation and have the political backing of the city government (you don’t get any funding from them, but affordable leases for the land). If possible, I wouldn’t take any loans from the state: there are too many strings attached! Governments change, cooperatives endure.
How do we deal with the complex legal issues?
Every country has different laws that apply to cooperatives. In Switzerland the Union of Housing Cooperatives (WBG) has a free legal service that helps you to set up and finance a cooperative. They also offer training for board members.
How about other countries like Greece or Spain? Switzerland seems to be a special case
There are cooperative traditions in almost all countries. “The fact is, more than 1 billion people are currently members of cooperatives. In the US and Germany, one out of four people is a member of a cooperative. In India and China, 400 million people belong to cooperatives.” (Rifkin, 2013; p.213). Cooperative housing isn’t even typical for Switzerland, where it’s only 5.1 % of all housing. In Egypt, it’s 30 %. More than 1.2 million dwellings in the US are cooperatives (Rifkin 2014). For most people living in cooperatives there is no difference to private landlords, it’s just a legal form. What is special about more recent cooperatives is, that they are based on the initiative of the members and that they offer more forms of participation. To mobilize people for this type of cooperatives is difficult everywhere. Most people just want to have decent housing and to be left alone. The most frequent type of housing being built in Switzerland at the moment still are single family houses. So: Switzerland isn’t a cooperative paradise!
How do we build a community without tensions and misunderstandings?
No one really knows. There are always tensions and conflicts, and that’s why we (NeNa1) have a mediation commission in our by-laws. The mere existence of such a commission can avoid conflicts. The best way to avoid misunderstandings is to define clearly, what the cooperative wants and to make sure that people know, what they’re getting themselves into. In NeNa1 we use a pechakucha that is shown to all potential members. There is also a Charta, that explains the goals and structures of the cooperative. If somebody is only looking for cheap housing, s/he will most certainly create tensions. Participatory cooperatives are not about housing, but about doing something together. The more energy you invest in explaining what your intentions are before you start building, the better the atmosphere will be once you move in. It took Kraftwerk1 seven years (1993-2000) and numerous festivals and performances before the building began.
How do we choose who is in and who is out?
We don’t choose. Cooperative is a legally open institution. Whoever agrees with the by-laws and fulfills all obligations can become a member. No discrimination on the basis of ethnic, religious, political or gender backgrounds is allowed. In the new cooperatives, that are based on a high level of participation in planning, choosing the site, building etc., working in preparatory committees is a logical obligation. In this process most people find out, whether they want to belong to the cooperative or not. Excluding a member who doesn’t fulfill her/his obligations is always possible by the general assembly (usually with a qualified majority of 66 or 75 percent).
And what if we get bored? Or if it does not work?
If you get bored or if you don’t fit in you’d possibly join another cooperative, where members are more fun. You are entitled to get your shares back, after a waiting period. Some cooperatives even pay interest on the shares – which is no major concern at the moment. Even in a world society based on cooperative neighborhoods, there will be other forms of social life: nomads, families in remote mountain valleys, hermits, tribes in jungles. If, let’s say, 60 % of the people organize their lives like this, the system has fundamentally changed.
What happens if there are political pressures against our project?
You have to make sure that you talk to all political forces or civic organisations in your city. The motivations to support or tolerate cooperative projects don’t have to be your own. In Zurich, even right-wing politicians are happy that we take care of some of their problems: cooperatives can save state expenditures. Low rents are bad for the real estate capitalists, but good for all the others. If you pay less for your rent, you have more money left for jewelery, holidays, electronic gadgets, etc. So there can be unholy alliances of all sorts. The first cooperative project, Karthago, was actually killed in a referendum by the propaganda of a populist right wing party (SVP – Swiss Volk’s Party) by a margin of 49 : 51 of the votes. They were denounced as „anarchist, criminal drug users“. And that clinched it.
So avoid being anarchists, criminals and drug-addicts ... then everything will be fine. Dress up, wear suits and ties, look normal. Smile. (P.M. remembers: I used to wear a nice Harrys Tweed jacket bought in the shop in Galway, where John Wayne was outfitted, at some of my most successful meetings. You can also get some very nice suits and ties in thrift stores.)