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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Taking the cooperative advantage to scale: 3

October 5, 2010
Body paragraph

                    You must be the change you want to see in the world.



First I want to apologize for taking so long getting to this third post. I have just been very busy.

Okay, onto my basic critique of John McNamara's series on the opportunities, issues, and problems of taking the cooperative advantage to scale.  In my first post I framed the differences between us as

he focuses on the structural dynamics of the cooperative enterprise in analyzing the problem and proposing remedies.  I come at the dynamics from a cultural and educational approach.

In my second post I summarized John's views to his satisfaction.  Now I want to focus on what I think is critically missing in the approach John represents.

The core fact we fail to seize

I believe there is something fundamental that is either missing or being downplayed in the way most of us think about achieving democratic change. It cuts across our entire political culture and it runs deep. The mistake is one of omission, in not appreciating the profound significance of one core fact about the human political situation:

The top/down system we seek to change is embedded in us-in our nervous systems, our beliefs, our attitudes, our habits, and our behavior. We are what we are seeking to change.  It is not just out there.  And not only is it in here, but it is out there to a large extent because we, the change agents, re-produce it over and over and over in every kind of relationship we have.

This contradiction is by no means just a tragic irony. No way. This is a great opportunity. If the contradiciton is in us, then we can get our hands right on the problem.  We can change what is inside us far more easily than we can change what is inside others. (That is, the first is only really difficult while the second is impossible.) Yet, each of us needs others to become the change we want to bring to the world, not to mention the changes we want so much in our personal lives.  Therein lies one of the deepest values of the cooperative advantage. We need to use that advantage to develop robust educational programs for achieving deep cooperation and self-empowerment. 

John McNamara's series reflects some of the best of our thinking for achieving democracy and the cooperative advantage.  And it reflects this fundamental omission.  This gives me an opportunity to highlight what I think is big mistake we are making.  In doing this I am not attacking John.  Dialogue is wonderful thing because it allows to identify important mistakes, to re-think them, and even to think anew.  It is how we evolve as a movement.  I don't have answers, but I think I see a direction we need to move in with a lot of resources.

The omission manifested

Throughout his essays John reflects the omission I see. In doing so the structural remedies he is proposing (which we so need) are at risk of being built on a seriously flawed foundation. I want to look at one passage that illustrates what I am trying to get at: 

The point is that our co-operatives can easily succumb to the dominant paradigm of capitalism. Even Mondragon can create an environment where mental and physical labor has separate value within the organization. We are not immune from creating agency theory. If our Human Resource department only has the corporate world of human resources to use for educating itself, it shouldn't be a surprise that our HR departments talk and act like other corporations. Unless we create a structure that either flattens hierarchy or contains and channels its power, we are susceptible to it overcoming our democracies. If Mondragon cannot eradicate it despite their principles and culture, then it will be doubly hard for our US Co-ops.

Four observations. 

First, the way I see it is not that we "can easily succumb to the dominant paradigm," but that  we are already it.  The issue from the educational/cultural approach is how do we liberate ourselves from this paradigm that we have embedded in us and are deeply attached to so that we can take fuller advantage of our innate cooperative drives.

Second, who is the "we" who are going to create that cooperative structure.  In another passage John says, "I can tell you that many worker co-operative members do not see a significant difference between capitalism and co-operation."  Carl Davidson reports on one of his guides at Mondragon saying: "About the coop managers, I'd say a strong minority, maybe 30 percent, have solid cooperative values at heart, another minority pays lip service to them, and the rest are somewhere in between."

Third, hierarchy is not simply an "it" out there that wields "its" power.  In another but very relevant context Ethan Miller is makes a profound point:

"Economy" is just an idea, a frame, a tool for thinking, a device. There is no real thing out there that is "the economy." There are no "economic laws." There is nothing necessary about economic dynamics. We make economy, therefore we can make it differently.

Note the power that is implied in the statement that "we make economy."  And note how radical a notion that is to our ears.

Fourth, if Mondragon, given its history and the culture in which it can flourish to the extent it can, cannot eradicate the embedded top/down structures within us, then we Americans have our work cut out for us.  And McNamara realizes this.  At one point in his series he quotes his cooperative partner, Rebecca Kemble, at length in her report on her trip to Mondragon: 

Members of our group keep asking questions about rules, laws, accountability structures, and how they punish and control individuals and co-ops that don't fall into line with expectations.  Mondragonians look at us as if we're 5 years olds who haven't learned the first thing about getting along with other people, dialogue, respect or trust.  They are speaking a language that even the most enlightened and progressive folk in our group find it difficult to grasp, because the society in which we live is so heavily determined by class, race and gender inequity, and our government and business structures are so corrupt, driven as they are by the demands of capital.  We have a loooooooooong way to go in the worker co-op movement in the US to attain anything like the integrity, openness and honesty that pertain in the Mondragon Cooperatives.


I began with a quote from an Indian, Gandhi, and I will end with one from another Indian, Osho:

The journey of one thousand miles is done by the simple step, one step. You cannot take two steps at one time. Step after step, just a single step can be stretched to ten thousand miles or to infinity.

Here we come, Rebecca.

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