Head into Liberty Plaza in Lower Manhattan, and one is immediately struck by the self-governing nature of the “Occupy” encampment.

A community which adheres to non-hierarchical decision making, Occupy conducts General Assembly meetings which are transparent and open to the public. Meals too are prepared communally, and there’s even a public library. On the other hand, it’s not as if Occupy is putting novel ideas into practice, since the encampment harks back historically to the co-operative movement.

According to the International Co-operative Alliance, an independent non-governmental organisation founded over a century ago, a co-operative is “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise”.

Co-ops, which tend to aspire to other values besides pure profit-making, can be heterogeneous and may range from small-scale businesses to multimillion-dollar enterprises.  

Though co-operatives are now a global phenomenon, they hark back originally to England in the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1844, a small group of cotton artisans from the town of Rochdale established the first modern co-operative business, known as the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society. By pooling their resources and working together, the workers were able to access basic goods at a lower price. Such democratic principles continue to inform the thinking of co-operatives today, even within the bustle of highly capitalistic cities like New York.

With Occupy now sweeping the nation, some may wonder whether the co-operative movement could be poised to seriously take off. One particularly successful business is the Park Slope Food co-op, a market located in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, New York. The business was established in 1973 by a small group of committed neighbours who sought to make healthy and affordable food available to everyone who sought it. 

Today, business is booming and the co-op has more than 12,000 members. By working once every four weeks for three and a half hours, members receive a whopping 20-40 per cent savings on groceries.