A laundry co-op, like for instance this one in Ottawa called Community Laundry Co-op, would make a low-cost laundromat possible through a cooperative management. The cooperative in Ottawa works closely with the Ottawa Mission for Men, a faith-based NGO outfit that provides food, clothing and shelter for homeless men. Members at the Ottawa co-op pay a one-year membership fee of $1.00, and then pay an additional $1.00 for each load of laundry. In 2008 they had 4,520 loads of laundry washed, and 2,380 volunteer hours, according to a newsletter they put out.

Whether a laundry cooperative is run by a church or a charity or by an anarchist collective, the intentions may vary, but no one can deny that sharing services through cooperatives lowers the cost of using those services through collective owernship. It is curious, then, why certain cooperatives tend to be run as “charities” and “donations” and not as just a practical way of living, a modus vivendi. It is curious why the cooperative is not seen as a solution to many of the cost-inflating problems in our lives: the gas station, the supermarket, the cellphone service, the ISP, the recycling service, the electricity service, etc. In a society where the solution to half the economic problems is a political policy of “increasing ownership” it is curious why the number of services available through cooperative management has not skyrocketed.

However, the problem I see with mission-style co-ops such as the Ottawa Community Laundry Co-op, is that the organizers see the co-op as part of an “economic development project,” as if they were Western humanitarian aid workers attempting to industrialize underdeveloped villages in Africa. Perhaps some of their grant money comes from an urban development association or community development corporation (CDC), which is not necessarily a bad thing to take that money, and has influenced their role in the urban landscape as “developers” and organizers of the so-called underclass. Additionally, part of their goal is to reflect God’s grace through service to a specific community, and the laundry service is one outlet.

The Ottawa Mission reflects Jesus’ love in serving the homeless, the hungry and the lost by providing, food, clothing shelter and skills, and offers faith and hope for building a wholesome life.

Ottawa Mission for Men

There is a lot of money in general funds at churches. Nontransparent accounting practices make it difficult to distinguish which projects pay for themselves and which ones are based solely on donation.

That is a good distinction to make, because sharing services like at a laundry co-op captures savings through lower administrative costs, larger quantity discount purchasing, and shared fixed costs. Sharing a service like a washer and dryer enables each additional person to lower the cost of each additional load of laundry for everyone else. A customer is also the owner and the investor. Each customer-owner-investor knows that the price of the service is now just a function of the overall cost of operating, nothing more. The price of laundry is the break-even price, not a price which pays for someone else’s vacation, house, car, or retirement.

Here are some more thoughts I have about co-ops.

Co-ops are de-proletarianization projects that reintroduce collective forms of ownership into a neighborhood. You don’t need to take a Marxist attitude to see this. A useful co-op is about sharing these economic burdens and mutually aiding neighbors and friends. It pays for itself. It has the benefit of being a social center. When the goal of a co-op is to “provide a service” rather than to address a need, it sounds less like a need for collective management than a desire for one group of people to provide a service to another.

A lot of missionary projects are conceived of as a way to solicit “lost souls” with religious literature — its real goal was to solicit — and the cover up service could just as well been provided for free.

However – most cooperatives are also used as a way to solicit more information about related ideas. So what is the problem with this solicitous aspect?

The cooperative itself should make more sense to a neighborhood than what is has right now. Right now it pays a series of disinterested businessmen for the outsourcing of basic services. Outsourcing has an economic logic to it. It’s cheaper for “the firm” to outsource, obviously. But the outsourcing of neighborhood services that could easily be cooperative raises the cost of living without raising their standard of living, because the neighborhood pays the higher price.

As for organizing a co-op project,

As with church-operated projects, the same thing tends to happen to activist projects. Imagine that a project starts up from donations or down-payments from the activists, and then after operating for some time the project still cannot pay for itself entirely. It still has to rely on charity to keep the project going.

Among the principal goals of most cooperatives, the goal of “lowering costs” is effectively what makes the cooperative model possible, or financially sustainable. Without lower costs, members in the cooperative might as well do their laundry someplace else. Without lower costs, the system of alienation would continue. The money activists spend at an expensive cooperative is just as much “charity” as the the donations the church gives to an underused mission, or the empty Christian Science reading room.

The straightforward goal should be to pay for itself, and if it cannot, maybe the project should be reconsidered or at least reconceived. If it doesn’t pay for itself, it probably has overstepped the aspirations of the neighborhood, and might be an activist “colonizing” project, or a religious solicitation mission. This might or might not be a bad thing depending on who you ask, but many projects and social centers economically fall apart this way.