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And What Did Theory Ever Do For Us?
by Len Krimerman

Jaques Kaswan’s article, for me, had the arresting clarity of the mindfulness bell rung during Buddhist meditative retreats: calling a halt to our usual head-over-heels ways of acting: STOP! DON’T JUST KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON: THINK, REFLECT, THEORIZE!

There’s a temptation, though, which most any co-op practitioner or supporter will feel—there are moments when I feel it—to dismiss Jaques’ clarion call for a usable theory of cooperative socio-economics. Why do we need any such theory? How do we decide which of several proposed theories to accept and work with? Perhaps (we may think) there is no theory of the sort Jaques is calling for, or at least none that is less debatable or offers more secure or enlightening guidance than building the road by walking. Did Mondragon, Seikatsu, Emilia-Romagna’s FMNs, Co-op Atlantic of Canada, India’s SEWA, the mentor co-ops of Nova Scotia highlighted in our last issue.....arise from theoretical accounts of what enterprises are or are not likely to succeed, or of the conditions for economic success? Or did they instead map their terrains as they walked, guided not by theory, but by a rich, humane, and evolving sense of how best to live, fulfill ourselves, and share our talents and resources with others? Perhaps lacking predictive theory, they were better able to experiment in unobstructed, imaginative, and fertile ways?

But this temptation, I think, should be resisted. It would be short-sighted to reject, wholesale, all sorts of theorizing. Making our various paths by walking, Jaques agrees, is essential. But, he asks us, is it enough? There is much to be learned by walking, but by itself it leaves important questions unaddressed. For example, have we been walking in a consistent, principled direction or have we circled back to where we began? How do we widen our path to make it more accessible to others, or build bridges between ourselves and the many diverse groups now ready to walk away from both the corporate- and state-controlled economies that have dispossessed them? How do we nurture the passion for creating one’s own path, and the capability to learn from other ways, in the next generation, in the educational system, and throughout our society and the globe? To address such basic questions as these, we need to do more than simply continue walking, in the same old, familiar directions, at the same old, head-over-heels pace. Theories, or at least careful, sensitive, imaginative accounts (stories?) of hopeful cultural and economic arrangements, may be what is needed.

One such theory is developed at some length in a marvelous book, The Tradition That Has No Name,1 by Mary Field Belenky and others. In it the authors describe at length several cultural and citizen innovations, many within the (especially southern) African-American community, that are spawned by what they call public homespaces. These are physical and social environments, safe or free spaces, in which people can come to a stronger sense of themselves, are supported in finding their own voices, and gain skills in listening to and respecting the voices and identities of others. Belenky and colleagues, along with other social theorists such as Harry Boyte and Sara Evans2, hypothesize that such public homeplaces are an essential condition for developing (and strengthening) a participatory, or deeply democratic, culture. If they are right, as I think they are, we need to incorporate this theory-derived finding into our practice of cooperative enterprise development. If we don’t, we may well remain a marginal presence, one that can on rare occasions flicker brightly, but has little staying power or capacity to widen and deepen itself. If we do integrate it, this should contribute to that process of self-correction which, as Jaques points out, seems to be lacking in the current (USA) cooperative movement.

Thus, to take a favorite example of mine: Mondragon has often been credited, rightly I think, with helping to remedy several problems calling for self-correction faced by prior individual co-ops: e.g., how labor within individual firms can come up with its own sources of funding; how to offset the degeneration of worker-owned enterprises into capital-controlled businesses. They did this not by drawing on economic theories or theory-derived hypotheses of the sort Jaques recommends, but thru “making the road by walking,” i.e., by invention and experiment. Today, however, we in the co-op movement face (I believe) a different range of problems calling for self-correcting approaches: these apply more to intermediary or support organizations than to individual co-ops, to what some call the “meso” level of social life. For example, how can individual co-ops and their members exert control over the Caja, the MCC’s Directors... and all the rest of the very financial, educational, and technical assistance organizations that helped give rise to and sustain those co-ops. Here too, empirical economic theory seems to me to fall short. It might tell us how support organizations can stay solvent in a capitalist marketplace, but not how they can remain genuinely democratic, much less, how they can help transform that marketplace, so that wage labor is substantially reduced, and more rather then less bottom-up experimentation takes shape and has greater impact. Nor can it show us very much about how to bring our democratic businesses or sustainable enterprises into fruitful collaboration with participatory initiatives from other parts of society, e.g., cross-border trade movements, international labor solidarity movements, environmental justice, squatters, homeless, and landless peasant movements (see interview on Anders Corr’s No Trespassing in our next issue). For this, I submit, we need a new vision, and a new sort of support organization based, I’d submit, on the public homespace model—one that goes beyond providing technical and financial assistance, and even beyond empirically grounded projections of where economic success is to be found, important as these are. This new sort of support organization would, as the Seikatsu folk put it, link co-op enterprises to the kitchen and from there to the entire world.

Can economic theories with predictive hypotheses help generate this sort of vision and spirit? Maybe they can play a role, but just what this amounts to is as yet unclear to me. At this point, my hunch (based on Mary Belenky’s work and that of other similar social scientists) is that a different sort of theory is required, one that is much closer to the Deweyan, value-laden, and experiment-fostering model described by Bill Caspary (see page 2 above). This sort of theory would not be neutral about, but have a clear, albeit flexible, commitment to building a world-wide vision (and constituency) grounded in local and grassroots public homespace initiatives, and informed by what Betsy Bowman, Bob Stone, and others have begun to call globalization from below. And it would be derived from, assist in developing, and be engaged in cross-linking, a wide range of experiments in participatory democracy at the “meso” level; e.g., experiments in Emilia-Romagna3, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative4, the National Coalition of Neighborhood Women and the Center for Community Cultural Development5, and the relatively new Sustainable America coalition and Network of Bay Area Worker Collectives (NOBAWC)6. From these experiments in participatory democracy, from theories about what seems to be at work in all or most of them,* as well as from many other experiments they can help initiate and sustain, we may be able to learn more about the sorts of self-correcting intermediaries that, at least as I see it, are what’s most needed, at this point, for cooperative development.

* For one comprehensive and detailed study headed in this direction, see the just published Democracy At Work In An Indian Industrial Cooperative, by Isaac, Franke, and Raghavan (Cornell University Press), to be reviewed in GEO’s next issue.


1. Mary Field Belenky, et al. The Tradition That Has No Name. Basic Books, 1997.

2. Sara Evans. Free Spaces. Harper & Row, 1987.

3. Raffaella Y. Nanetti. Growth and Territorial Policies: The Italian Model of Social Capitalism. Pinter Publishers, 1998.

4. Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar. Streets of Hope, South End Press, 1994; Greg Watson (executive director, DSNI). Block by Block: Ten Lessons We’ve Learned on Dudley Street; source: <www.dsni.org/ten_lessons.htm>

5. see item 1 above, Part 3.

6. Contact SA at <www.sanetwork.org>; NOBAWC at: 415-974-8985, ext. 147. Include the citation below and GEO Newsletter grants permission to copy, use, and distribute this article.
Permission not for commercial or for-profit use.

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