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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Thinking as a Movement

November 12, 2021
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One of the major benefits of cooperative enterprise is the superior decisions that emerge from the process of thinking together. Just as two heads are better than one, six heads are better than two. If the deliberation process is well designed, and the members are aligned to a common goal, the result is decisions and policies that are much better than any of the individual members could have come up with on their own.

There are several reasons for this, but partly it is because well-functioning cooperatives overcome the informational asymmetries that plague more hierarchical businesses (i.e. managers end up surrounded by “yes men,” and so make decisions based on distorted information), and partly because collective decision-making insulates the group from the weaknesses and character flaws of any of the individual members. Anyone who has been a part of a co-op or collective that functions at a reasonably high level knows the immense – almost magical – power that can come from successfully thinking together. When it’s really clicking, it’s a wonder to behold and a joy to be involved in.

But anyone who’s been involved with co-ops is probably at least as familiar with the ways that they can fail to reap the benefits of collective thinking. This can happen for a number of reasons: lack of a common goal, overbearing personalities, inadequate facilitation, etc. But even in the best of circumstances – with shared goals, respectful members, and good facilitation – there is another factor that can hinder cooperatives from taking full advantage of thinking together: scale.

Different scales of organization require different methods of communication and decision-making, as Imanol Basterretxea stresses in this presentation on some of the causes for the failure of Fagor Electrodomésticos. If the methods of deliberation are ill-suited to the size of the organization, the mismatch will eventually create problems. Things like doing personal check-ins, or structuring discussions in rounds, are great in smaller groups but have major drawbacks when a meeting has hundreds, or thousands, of participants. In the same way, norms and practices for discussion and deliberation among cooperators on the movement level need to be appropriate to that scale – and those norms will not necessarily mirror the ones that are appropriate for individual co-ops, or even networks of co-ops.

For instance, in an individual co-op, it’s almost never appropriate for members to publicly discuss disagreements with other members. We want conflicts to be resolved within the co-op, not hashed out in public. However, at the level of the movement as a whole, this kind of “keep it in the family” way of dealing with disagreements simply doesn’t work. Since all of the participants in the movement will never be in the same room, the same meeting, or even the same conference together – since there is no grand unified mailing list that only goes to cooperators and no one else – the only way for disagreements to be addressed appropriately on the movement level is in public. Since movement-level issues have the potential to affect everyone in the movement, everyone has a right to be made aware of all sides of an issue. The only way for us to effectively think together as a movement is – whether we like it or not – is in the public arena.

Not everyone in the movement, it must be said, agrees with me on this. After posting my critique of The Cooperative Economy Act, I had one participant in the movement criticize my methods, telling me that we should only be publicly supportive of other people and projects in the movement, and that any critiques or criticisms should only be offered in private. While this makes perfect sense at the level of a single co-op – or perhaps even within a federation of co-ops – on the level of the movement as a whole, it is not a functional way to accomplish the goal of thinking together.

In my opinion, not only is that not a functional way to deliberate on a movement-level, it is a sure-fire way to enable bad ideas and bad actors to proliferate. Because what that method of private-critique/public-support means is that most people in the movement will only ever be privy to one side of any particular issue – the supportive side – no matter what the issue happens to be, or how cogent the criticisms. How can we ever hope to engage in collective deliberation when the majority of people doing that deliberation are only allowed to see half of the relevant information? We can’t, obviously, at least not in any meaningful way.

And as the cooperative movement becomes more mainstream and visible, it will necessarily attract people and organizations who do not have the best interests of co-ops or the co-op movement at heart. We should never forget that the point of our movement is to place economic power into the hands of those who do not currently possess it, which necessarily entails taking power away from those who have it now. And those who have it now will not let it go without a fight. The more effective we are at accomplishing our goals, the more we will become the target of those whose power and prestige is dependent on the maintenance of the status quo. To the extent that we are effective at all in our goals, we should expect that bad actors and saboteurs will join the movement in an effort to derail it: to ensure that those without power remain powerless, and that those with power hold onto it. If our movement culture does not allow for public critique, these bad actors will have a field day with us, as no matter what damaging, uncooperative proposal they make, the public response will be nothing but positive. The best way to immunize ourselves against these inevitable bad actors is with a culture of open, transparent debate and deliberation.

If we truly wish to realize the cooperative advantage of collective thinking as a movement, we need to get comfortable having public conversations about our disagreements. We need to have thick enough skins to not get defensive when we receive public push-back from others in the movement, and we need to have enough of a cooperative spirit to welcome that push-back, recognizing that taking it seriously and engaging with it is the pathway to better ideas and better decisions. To quote Proverbs: “as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” In the context of the cooperative movement, the best place for that sharpening to happen is in the public square.



Matt Noyes

Nice piece! I had to deal with this question when I worked at the Association for Union Democracy. Union officers would often take the position that it was wrong to "air the dirty laundry." (Some unions expelled members for it.) The root idea seems to be that "internal union affairs" are nobody's business. But, in fact, there is a public interest in internal union affairs, for example corruption or violence against dissidents. It matters to more than just Teamster members if their union officials steal money or beat up dissidents. And appealing to the public for support has been crucial for union members fighting for democracy in their unions - the murderous Tony Boyle would never have been ousted if people outside the mineworkers union had not supported the Miners for Democracy. Struggles in cooperatives are not so dramatic, but I think the same principle applies. And, as you say, it stands to make cooperatives stronger, not weaker.

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