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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Movements Moving Together 4

January 17, 2014
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In MMT 2 I identified four key questions confronting any effort to bring autonomous democratic movements together. In MMT 3 I discussed the first one, and here I want to get into the second one, on which I think the whole game rides.

2. Are there any indications that activists in the 21st century are more able now than in the 20th century to bring autonomous movements together and unite them around some kind of shared body of themes and agendas? If not, what do we need to do to develop that capacity?

One of my GEO colleagues, Marty Heyman, zeroed in on this one in a response to my MMT 1 blog:

…my question is "what's different this time that someone could actually bring together all the disparate autonomous movements for change and unite them under a single banner?" About the only rallying cry that has a chance to do that is "We're mad and we won't stop until we throw the bastards out!" (the usual mob call for revenge.)

These grand schemes are altogether too easy to co-opt and bend to the objectives of the elite. There are too many players "leading" the sub movements that are living from philanthropic grant to philanthropic grant (or other donation) and are too easily convinced that, for the sake of paying the rent and putting food on the table, softening the message or sticking to their well-divided special interest is a better strategy.

Let’s see if I can address his challenge without slipping around it.

In his reflections on the life and work of Lawrence Goodwyn, an ardent activist in the 50s onward and “the great American historian of democratic social movements,”* Benj DeMott recalls something Goodwyn said that is totally relevant to our question here:

There wasn’t anything in my culture that taught me that to build a movement one has to create social relations among people that would cause them to be in a room where politics is the center of discussion. I’d been taught that what mattered is what people said in the room. But the key question is how to get people into the room to hear—and respond—to whatever is being said there. (Emphasis added.)

That is, the social relations that are the very heart of a democratic movement grow out of people hearing and responding to each other. Now that might sound like a banal truism, but it is anything but. In fact, after 33 years experience in ongoing experiment in face-to-face communication I am convinced it is one of the most challenging practices for us to learn. (But then, maybe I am a really dense learner.)

Check-out your experience, and I mean these as genuine questions, not rhetorical ones.

How many meetings have you gone to where there was enough genuine listening and responding to make the meeting substantive and dynamic? How many have you gone to where people were very guarded in what they were willing to say? How many have you gone to where someone was not only very willing to expound on what they knew needed to be done, but to do so at great length? How many have you gone to where conflicts surfaced and turned into fights? Or where the fight didn’t happen because people shut up rather than get into one, leaving the conflict to fester, energy to be withdrawn, and collective power to drain out of the group?

On the other hand,

how many have you gone to where strong democratic relations emerge from the dialog between the participants? How many have you gone to where conflicts were allowed to surface and everyone raised their energy and pulled together to hear each other out until they reached agreement, even if that was an agreement to disagree?

Our capacity to bring autonomous movements together and unite them around some kind of shared body of themes and agendas hangs on our willingness to learn how to come into the room to hear and respond to what is being said there. Len Krimerman, my GEO colleague, summed the whole thing up in a discussion we had a while back about MMT:

I’m now convinced that we need a different approach to building bridges than I think has been predominant thus far; namely, building collaboration first by developing “community” rather than by mere agreement to a principle. The reverse has been the case – expecting collaboration to flow from agreement on a general principle, e.g., in my advocacy of the 8th co-operative principle; this may explain, in part, why that advocacy did not get very far.

Community first; then, agreements and collaboration. I believe in the principles that I espouse, but I am a product of my culture, so my karma often over-runs them. It is an ongoing challenge for me just to want to relate respectfully and democratically to my fellow communards when I come into the kitchen I cook in and find the sink full of dirty dishes. Believe me, no one would want to hear my internal mutterings as I go about cleaning up.

One can legitimately ask if the drum I am beating on here is really that important and that necessary for building a powerful democratic movement much less a movement of movements. My response is to pose a question in return:

Why have all of our democratic movements been trounced and marginalized since the Revolutionary War? Why has Egypt now returned to a new form of dictatorship so soon after they overthrew Mubarak’s? And so on…

If you are thinking that the answer is because the “oppressive” elites crush us, then you are begging the question. We have to empower ourselves to deal with that problem in order to advance democracy. That empowerment can come only from our being committed to learning how to become deeply democratic in every kind of relationships we have as an integral part of our work.


*If you have never read anything by Lawrence Goodwyn, try this for a starter.


GEO blogs are part of our mission to provide a platform for co-op practitioners and solidarity economy organizers to share their thoughts and experiences with a wider audience.  Any views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do no necessarily reflect the views of the GEO Collective.  If you would like to start a blog on GEO, please contact

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