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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Ecosystems—economic and otherwise—are messy

April 13, 2015
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Movements Moving Together 16.                

Eric Berne was a psychiatrist, famous in the 60s. He was also a logical thinker and playful writer. He began his book on sex something like this: “The first thing to consider about sex is that it’s messy.”

Imagine you are walking about in an Amazon jungle area (stumbling maybe). The sounds, the colors, the smells! It teems with life of all kinds. Layers and layers of living things growing, dying, decaying, flying, walking, crawling all over each other. Utterly messy. The whole story of how life works right under your feet, in front of you, around you, maybe even creeping up on you, over your head.

Myriads of species from huge to microscopic. Yet each one scrambles and coherently organizes itself in tension and cooperation with all the other ones, eventually failing in the effort and becoming another part of life. In my last blog I quoted Omar Freilla describing how a similar dynamic works in co-operative economic organizing, sectoral and inter-sectoral coherence from the roots up. I basically agreed with him.

Another member of the NYC Worker Cooperative Coalition, Chris Michael’s, responded to that blog in order to say that he thinks differently and wanted to make his position clear:

Consumer cooperatives rent human beings. Credit cooperatives rent human beings. Therefore, I would not advocate for either. As for marketing coops––this is a very practical method of doing business––but I do not know that they require advocacy. Finally, as per low-equity housing coops, I think the jury is still out on whether some combination of rent stabilization and public housing are preferable methods of ensuring affordable housing.

So, to be clear, I am a worker cooperative advocate––but not necessarily a cooperative advocate. That said, thank you for encouraging a debate––and the opportunity to make these sorts of distinctions (which, I think, are very important).

He went on to say:

Just to add––everyone has distinct moral feelings. I would never say anyone is "wrong" for feeling differently than me––or having different moral values than me. 

For example, many U.S. Americans feel very strongly about home ownership. For them, home ownership is a moral end in and of itself. So, for them, I would imagine that housing cooperatives might be very important. Personally, I am not so concerned with home ownership––I see it as a good thing only insofar as it results in quality affordable housing.

I also want to be very clear that I am stating my own moral feelings––and would never wish to quash the expression of other people's moral values.

For me there is no moral issue involved in how differences of opinions in how to go about organizing for deep political economic change. For me it is a matter of what is strategically effective. So that in itself would seem to set Chris and my thinking apart. That said, two other comments. First, I am very glad to hear Chris’ thinking. I know there is a lot of different thinking about these issues, but his is not one I was aware of. I simply would never have imagined anyone thought that way. Now I do. What’s more important is that his response has been a wake-up call to how little I know.

At the same time the position he morally advocate seems to me to move in the direction of neat, tight, squared borders that belong to dogma, political correctness, and fundamentalism. If so, these have significant consequences. Maybe I am over-reacting to his statement. If so, I hope he corrects me. I would welcome him doing a guest blog, if he wants. Or a full article in GEO. However, all of my strategic bones want to move toward the fluid boundaries where distinct and autonomous movements can find the spaces for building deep and diverse solidarity.  

For 35 years I have lived in and been part of the co-managing group of an intentional community of 70+ people and three retail stores, Ganas in Staten Island, NY. Maybe two thousand have come through as visitors short-term members. Every individual different, open only to a few kinds of alternative life and work style. Every relational pattern playing out in unique ways. There is never just one music playing. Dancing to all the music actually playing is the only way for us to self-govern. I never think of this as a moral issue, but how do we go about making an ever-changing collective life of 70+ unique individuals work well for everyone’s fulfillment. For sure, values are at the core of this work, but in a way in which boundaries prevail.

My first political economic project outside of Ganas reinforced and refined my thinking. I immersed myself for one week in every month over four years in the gradual development of the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives (VAWC). Among the worker co-ops themselves boundaries tended to prevail, but there were border struggles as well, especially with the non-cooperative entities. It was messy and still is, but a regional co-operative economic movement is now growing there. I and two other co-authors tell its stories in a recent book, Building Co-operative Power.

This border-boundary issue is simply quite fundamental to movement organizing wherever you see yourself on this messy border/boundary continuum. For sure I am a bit of an extremist. VAWC’s development is still too limited for my brand of solidarity. I am going to end this blog in a moment with a long excerpt from a draft paper by Olivia Geiger of the SolidrityNYC collective, where I am an inactive member. She pretty much states my basic view in detail.

For the moment I want to return to the core problem I see with tight borders. It’s basically simple: the messiness of life overwhelms borders. Mondragon discovered this. Every effort to scale-up a cooperative organization runs into this dynamic. Markets are fiercely demanding as well as perversely messy and chaotic. The divide-and-be-conquered consequences of siloing hobble all movements for change. I think Chris’ moral approach leads to this rather directly. Yet, clearly Chris is immersed in boundaries since he belongs to the same coalition as Omar, and they are further enmeshed in working relations with social and government agencies who don’t share the cooperative culture. That’s pretty messy territory he navigates. So there is still more for me to learn of his approach.

Ah! There is so much for all of us to learn about our various ways of thinking about movement organizing. We don’t have to agree, but it sure helps to understand each other well.


So let me close by trumpeting my “messy approach,” while I keep my ears open to others. Olivia Geiger’s paper is a research analysis on the of SolNYC’s main organizing work over the past 5 years. That project has culminated in the Cooperative Economic Alliance of New York City. From my reckoning Gergr's finished paper will be the first substantive report on a socidarity econoimc project in the US. CEANYC  was “formed in 2013 by leaders from Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union, SolidarityNYC, New Economy Project, The Working World, and New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives.” It has “grown to include Black Women’s Blueprint, Park Slope Food Coop, Brooklyn Movement Center, and New York City Community Gardens Coalition.”   

The excerpt:

An ongoing challenge for the coalition will be to maintain a broad interpretation of solidarity economy that is inclusive of less formalized practices of economic cooperation and mutual aid used for survival and cultural self-determination across NYC, in particular among poor communities and communities of color. Economic cooperation in the form of mutual aid networks in church congregations, or susus (lending circles), for example, are rendered invisible when economic activity is only recognized as taking place in organizations with formal legal status. While organizing and conceptualizing a solidarity economy coalition in terms of “sectors” has proven useful for teasing out some of the most prominent needs and opportunities, it also runs the risk of promoting an excessively narrow conception of “solidarity economy” or “cooperative economy” that excludes informal mutual aid practices. This could also result in giving less attention to those economic activities that do not fit as neatly into “sectors,” such as barter, time banking, and volunteer collectives. While these questions are already on the radar screen for the SolidarityNYC collective and other coalition organizers, it will be important that they be kept in the foreground, and engaged proactively, as the coalition begins to take formal shape. Indeed, a solidarity economy coalition (or network), at its best, will encourage ongoing reflection and intentionality about who is participating in the coalition, where the boundaries are drawn, and why.

Rather than an institution with a fixed set of functions, we could see a solidarity economy coalition more as a container for a dynamic, ongoing process of “radically democratic” organizing, albeit always in tension with the need to develop enduring institutions to facilitation coordination and collaboration (Ethan Miller, 2013). Seen in this way, a solidarity economy network or coalition is not a complete alternative model or paradigm in which everything has been specified, but, rather, something that takes diverse forms in different contexts, and is constantly evolving. This could mean that NYC’s exploratory process need not end when the coalition is launched, but, rather, that the coalition could continue to serve as a space for imagining and experimenting with new and expanded forms of economic cooperation and solidarity, responding to the needs, aspirations, and resources of participating groups, and grounded in the shared principles of cooperation, equity in all dimensions, justice, and sustainability. Meanwhile, the diverse trajectories of the other cooperative and solidarity economy coalitions around the country will be ripe for sharing lessons, innovations, and inspiration across regions, even further enriching our capacity to imagine, and collectively work to create, alternative economic futures.

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