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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Movements Moving Together 3

January 1, 2014
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Floating like a butterfly and humming like a mockingbird                                                                                                                                                              

Here's one reflection on the first of the four questions I identified in Movements Moving Together 2:

Given the overwhelming presence of neoliberalism and its relentless drive to dominate and shape all political economic realities, how do we strategically take measure of what we need to do to become substantial, developing, and enduring alternatives that are recognized as such in our locales, homelands, and across the globe?

For me the foremost concern around this question is whether we are seriously aware of the vast  difference between being a movement (and Movements Moving Together) and building a mass movement. How many co-ops have and are struggling, even floundering, around the problem of losing their grounding in their original vision, values, and principles. How many radical Christian projects have to deal constantly with the core issue that Gordon Cosby named: “The toughest thing in the world is being church--not doing what we think the work of church is, but being church, belonging to one another.” (Italics added.) He said this in reference to the temptation to build a megachurch rather than to stay rooted in relationship and local place.

Are we so sure of ourselves that we can manage growing to scale without ‘losing our soul?’ Becoming big and not aping the Walmarts of the world? Do we understand how this challenge confronted the Mondragon folks and how they struggled with it? Where they succeeded, failed, and are still trying to figure out what to do with? Do we even know that the Populist and Knights of Labor movements of the late 19th century, probably the most powerful mass democratic movements in American history, dealt with their rapid but terribly thin growth?

Are we worried by what we do not know?

I did a rather recent interview with E G Nadeau around his book The Cooperative Solution. I spoke of the major impact his work had on me, what I now call an “expand-and-leverage” approach to movement building:

There’s one thing about The Cooperative Solution that impressed me a lot. In fact, it has changed my strategic thinking a lot. You have, for me at least, a strikingly new perspective on building a strong co-operative presence in our economy. Essentially, I’ve been more or less following a “more” approach, thinking how can we create an alternative economics, which would include co-operatives at the core, and that in time could eventually challenge the concentration of wealth and economic power in huge enterprises as the dominant economic paradigm. You, however, seem to be proposing what I would call an “expand-and-leverage” approach that is more subtle and far more practical: Yes, let’s take full advantage of the current opportunities to expand and strengthen that co-operative presence as much as we can, and then use that as leverage to, as your subtitle says, “tame recessions, reduce inequality, and protect the environment” by indirectly influencing other sectors of the economy. And you are suggesting that this indirect influence can be very powerful indeed. For me that emphasis opens up a new kind of movement thinking.

At this point in history radical democracy cannot be a real player in mainstream American politics. Ideologically we are neither “conservatives” nor “progressives.” Rather, as I see it, our essential role is to be a dynamic witness for deep democracy in the American culture by speaking with a positive voice and giving creative action that puts our ‘money’ where our mouth and heart are. Whoa! This is no sweet rhetoric. It is a “wicked” challenge. My interview with Nadeau explores just a few of the current situations demonstrating how difficult it is for democratic projects to stay grounded in their original visions, values, and principles.

Having an essential call to be dynamic witnesses to the possibilities of democracy does not in any way mean that we be bystanders. It means, rather, that we be dynamically proactive even when protesting, and skillfully opportunistic in every vein of culture for the sake of democratic values, practices, and relating. It means maintaining open minds, ears, and hearts especially in mainstream politics, that field of “civil war by bloodless means.” It means “floating like a butterfly” and humming like a mockingbird.

Nor does it mean not to build to scale. Rather, it means moving with an ever deepening awareness and understanding of how difficult such moves are.



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