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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Movements Moving Together, Part 1

December 6, 2013
michael johnson
Body paragraph

Some time ago, Paul Hawken accurately proclaimed “a blessed unrest” pulsating across the planet. Few folks were seeing such rich possibilities for a better world. A few years later came Occupy Wall Street and all that responded to it. That phenomenon lit up the “blessed unrest” like a global Christmas tree.

Now we are seeing the emergence of a robust mass of diverse movements for alternative political economics. The Center for Global Justice gives a fair sketch of these diverse projects.  They include:

...the commons, 21st century socialism, cooperatives, solidarity economy, autonomous communities in struggle, ecological-social sustainability, steady-state economics, economic democracy, public banking & democratic finance, gender equality & sexual democracy, localization, alternative communications & media, indigenous struggles, participatory budgeting.

The Center is also organizing a conference around a crucial question confronting all these efforts: “What practices unite us across gender, race, class, and cultural differences to empower the many instead of enriching the few?”

I see two major strategic issues this question embraces. First, how can these diverse movements and projects connect together so that they can move toward what they have in common while maintaining their autonomy and developing the rich possibilities they envision.  The basic conviction behind this series of blogs is that substantial, long term collaboration among and between these groups can produce a lot more power and influence than a rich diversity of action alone. Polycentric networking, not centralization, could be the way to generate both diversity and collaboration.

The second question is the focus of this blog: to what extent can “capitalist” practices be incorporated as part of the overall effort “to empower the many instead of enriching the few?” To put it another way: can the “blessed unrest” that is coming to fruition exclude new kinds of enterprises as well as massive numbers of workers who will be earning their livelihoods in capitalist enterprises like fast food shops, Walmarts, etc.  Or to put it a third way: do the realities of both 21st century politics and mainstream enterprises in the US offer new opportunities to advance democratic practices in the workplace?

To be sure, such a goal raises major value and strategic concerns and presents more than a few slippery slopes. However, I am strongly suggesting that if we are going to move things in new directions, it is essential that we learn to manage these difficulties and challenges coherently and flexibly.

One reason for doing so is that there may be a ripe opportunity to influence mainstream politics by moving with and for the workers and activists involved with various mainstream enterprises to build some form of an inclusive populist workers movement.

Michael Lind of the New America Foundation, a strong-hearted, clear-eyed New Deal progressive, speaks directly to this second question from a complex perspective within mainstream politics. Even though he has little regard for alternative political economics, he is one of the most astute readers of mainstream political tea leaves. What he is seeing is a major, long term conundrum confronting genuine progressive politics. A conundrum that could amount to cracks and holes, if not a vacuum, that our blessed unrest could move into with alternative thinking for developing various forms of worker-owned and worker-controlled enterprises. If so, this would enable us, in a movements-moving-together visioning, to build a wider base for our influence.

Here is the essence of Lind’s deep concern for the future of mainstream progressive politics:

…in the mid-twentieth-century glory days of American progressive-liberalism, upscale progressive “traitors to their class” were only part of a coalition that included populist farmers and militant industrial workers. The farmer-labor coalition had its own sources of funding—they didn’t depend on grants from philanthropic progressive foundations or rich sympathizers. And they had their own member-controlled organizations, including patronage-based local and state political party machines, not elite-created astroturf groups.

Benevolent donors, idealistic professionals, and reformist foundations sincerely struggle to better the lot of America’s Service Proles [workers in the service industries like fast food and Walmarts]—but with the latter as objects of charity, rather than as powerful, independent partners in a political coalition. And given the limits that self-interest imposes on idealism, there simply aren’t enough rich or highly-educated progressives in the top Eleven Percent willing to sacrifice their personal economic interests to their ideals.

The upshot is that the asymmetry of passion between the spirited right and the weak center-left is likely to continue indefinitely. The top-middle coalition on the right will be energetic and united in its campaign to cut spending on the poor, while the top-bottom coalition on the left will be hesitant and conflicted about more progressive taxation or redistribution. The situation is unlikely to change unless America’s multiplying Service Proles generate leaders of their own, from within their own ranks, and answerable to them.

There seems to be a lot of energy already moving in this direction. Mondragon USA and the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative are sponsoring a union co-op symposium in Cincinnati in a less than a week as I write.  The symposium was the focus of a MIT Sloan/Tellus Institute event in Boston a few weeks ago, and is part of the basic thrust of the work of Gar Alperovitz and many others.

Before publishing, I ran this blog by a few colleagues and one succinctly and perceptively counterpointed my whole piece. I will conclude with it:

It is a good piece that leaves a few questions hanging. Where do YOU stand on the Capitalism question and the extent to which an effective movement for change can succeed with vestiges of capitalist economics and philosophy? And the other 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 (of 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.

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