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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Discordant Reflections on Cooperative Development

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GEO Original
March 20, 2017
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[Editor's note: the piece below was first published in the print edition of the GEO Newsletter, issue 52, in May of 2002.  While Len's reflections here were sparked by the attacks of 9/11 and their political and social fallout, they speak directly, and clearly to questions which are again being asked by many in the cooperative movement - this time due largely to the results of the 2016 US Presidential elections.  How much should we focus on local economics and how much on national and international politics?  How can we collaborate with and support other social movemtents?  Will doing so distract from our focus and expertise?  Will not doing so make us complicit in injustice?  As Mark Twain quipped, "history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme," and this would seem to be an moment in time where cooperative history is doing just that.  And that the same questions, or at least rhyming ones, are being asked again means that we must not have come up with suitable answers (or didn't effectively implement them) the first time around. 

If we accept the truth of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, that "He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.  He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it," then the question becomes how will we protest the evils we see today?  What, practically, can we or should we be doing to resist?  Those were the questions that Len was trying to answer in 2002, and they are questions that still needs answering today.]


Discordant Reflections on Worker Co-ops & Cooperative Development in the USA, Prompted by 9/11 and Its Aftermath

In the eight months since the twin tragedies of 9/11 and our government’s pernicious reaction to it erupted, I have watched myself grow curiously silent at speakouts and teach-ins. I have mostly agreed when people denounced both these forms of terrorism, as well as the Bush administration’s blind repudiation of international remedies and its more-than-McCarthy-like eradication of constitutionally-protected liberties. But that wasn’t what I felt drawn to talk about. Something was missing which I had trouble identifying. So I’m writing this primarily to find this missing strand, to retrieve my own voice and clear my own head. Perhaps it will also prove useful to others, if only to help sharpen their disagreement with my reflections and proposals.

A Parable

Perhaps an imagined story can best begin to express my concerns. Consider Farmer Green, one of thousands of small farmers in some small corner of the globe, who awake one dreadful morning to find many of their livestock and some of their family members sick or dying. Later on that day, Farmer Green and her neighbors discover the common source of their misfortune: their wells and water supplies have been severely contaminated by a huge overflow of toxic chemicals, one that has begun to make its way throughout all of their locality. Would it be advisable, or even sensible, for Green to try to reverse her situation by emptying quarts or even gallons of spring water into her own well? Or, perhaps, the beleaguered farmers should instead hunt around locally for still uncontaminated plots on which to transplant their vegetable and fruit farms?

On their face both of these approaches seem to me delusionary. They assume that building (or purifying) incrementally — by itself — can reverse or displace a pervasively polluted system.

And so, it seems to me, do many of the strategies I have been committed to for many years as ways of moving towards the cooperative commonwealth. For these likewise seek to plant new life in an increasingly toxic environment [1]. Can such work, exemplary as it might be, suffice to reach and reverse the source(s) of toxicity? If not, shouldn’t we expect this good work to be fugitive and/or badly compromised, its replications and working models to be meager and short-lived? (It was three decades ago that Mondragon was “discovered” by workplace democrats in this country, and today there are less people employed in all of our worker cooperatives than in Mondragon back in the 1970s.)

Which is not to reject incremental strategies altogether, or in all interpretations. For at the end of the day, the idea of replacing the current system by a better system all at once would almost certainly substitute one dehumanized and toxic system for another. (See here Derrick Jensen’s remarkable chapter, “A Turning Over,” in his A Language Older than Words.) But have I, and perhaps others in the USA cooperative community, been operating on assumptions as delusionary as those I’ve attributed to our imagined farmers? Consider the following questions (in parentheses below) which arose as I re-examined old beliefs in the light of 9/11 and its aftermath:

• In a GEO interview (#35), 3 years ago, Michael Shuman, author of Going Local stated:

...I believe it’s possible to be critical of multinational corporations without being side-tracked by fighting against them. The emphasis of our work, I would argue, should be to create our own community-friendly businesses and move progressive consumers from the bad firms to the good ones. All of us have limited time, energy, and money, and I think we’re better off allocating 90 percent of these to positive alternatives. (my emphasis)

(At the time, this did seem like a wise balance, but does — can — anyone accept it any longer?)

• In a recent email exchange among workplace democrats, one claimed that having a socialist endorse or support worker ownership was not really a problem since:

Employee ownership transcends party lines. The fact that a Socialist supports it too, should not be seen as a problem. You can just tell your non-Socialist supporters that they have succeeded in taking a step towards converting their Socialist colleague to broad-based Capitalism. (my emphasis, again)

(But what sort of “employee ownership” or “broad-based capitalism” would so “transcend party lines” as to be comfortable partnering with our two political parties?

Since they join together in covert assasinations of liberation leaders, annihilations of cooperatives, and privatization of local-controlled community enterprises throughout the third world, would an employee ownership acceptable to them be worth pursuing?)

• Mondragon’s emblemmatic and catchy slogan, “We build the road by walking.”

(But what if prior roads built by walking have been broken up or redirected towards non-cooperative destinations, and less and less terrain remains for new ones?)

• And hasn’t it been been my own blithe assumption that the superior economic efficiency and productivity of workplace democracy will enable grassroots globalization to incrementally gather more and more socially conscious consumers, more and more workers seeking stable incomes and work satisfaction, and hence, to eventually depose corporate capitalism?

(But this is not chess or tennis that we have been playing, where one’s opponents can be expected to play by agreed-upon rules. Monsanto, Chevron, and other predator capitalists, and our government’s overt military or covert operations backup, will not simply shake our hands and walk away, once our superior economic performance or productivity is established.)

Five Hard Questions, and Initial Responses

1. Are you saying, then, that we, in the cooperative, democratic work, community-based economic development community, are part of the problem, indirectly responsible for the terror of US foreign policy as well as that of Bin Ladin?

Yes, though of course not the major part. It takes little for terror to prevail beyond the benign neglect of those otherwise committed to the public good [2]. All in all, what have you, I, and especially our movement, done to staunchly oppose, withdraw tacit support for, or diminish the sources of, these forms of terrorism? A recent issue of Cooperative Life claimed that there are 310,000 cooperatives in the northeast USA alone; but has their collective voice been raised against the constant (and now, escalating) military subversions and intrusions by our government, and its ever-mounting defense budget, etc.?

As Andy Becket claimed in the UK Guardian, it seems we have instead developed a sophisticated critique of (and alternative to) modern business—an economic policy, but neglected to draw up a foreign policy... on how countries should operate and behave towards each other. Everyone has been very boned up on sustainability and trade (inter-cooperation?), but not the enormity and lawlessness of US power.

2. So whats your proposal; what is to be done?

In a (longish) phrase, our incremental strategies must be informed by an insurgency that creates new forms of political as well as of economic organization. George Benello put it well, almost 40 years ago:

To counter the power of the present elites on the one hand and the alienation of citizens and workers on the other, a combination of organization and insurgency must create new centers of power based on new models of decision-making, where human beings confront each other directly and responsibly. Insurgency will be necessary for these new groupings to not simply become additional voluntary organizations, but ones ready to demand their say within the whole [global as well as national] society. From this alone can a new set of priorities arise, a new kind of moral commitment, which can defuse the war system. (from Liberation magazine, 1964; my additions and slight rephrasings.)

3. But won’t this I & I (incremental and insurgent) position only further weaken our economic democracy efforts, by diverting scarce energy and resources away from them? Perhaps our role is the narrower one of doing what we do best, developing the social economy as fully and democratically as possible, leaving insurgency, direct forms of resistance, and the creation of new, de-militarized political priorities to others?

Very cogent questions. But don’t they assume our economic efforts can become more than marginal while this country’s political priorities and policies remain what they have been for decades? After 30+ years trying we haven’t yet broken out from the margins. It was not Chomsky but Eisenhower who first warned against a military-industrial complex that would undermine not only other countries (with budding democratic and cooperative initiatives), but efforts at home to build a just and humane society. And if we want to bring the vision of a cooperative (global) commonwealth to youth, and to the anti-globalization and peace movements, we cannot do it by remaining on the sidelines, tending our own gardens, democratic and exemplary though they may be.

4. I & I still seems abstract. Give some concrete examples that can be harmoniously woven into, or somehow strengthen, our cooperative-building activity.

Here are some practical ideas that occur to me (please add your own):

• Historically, we might recall that Mondragon was not cowed by Franco, but subversively helped keep the Basque language and culture alive, while joining in strikes against his tyranny, etc. In our own country, as Jessica Gordon Nembhard has pointed out to me, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives was often the only group in town that helped civil rights advocates hold onto their land and develop alternative forms of economic enterprise when they suffered economic retaliation for registering to vote or turning out to hear Reverend King. These and other historical examples show that insurgency and incremental progress can be fruitfully combined; they deserve careful study.

• Clearer, sharper, stronger criteria, e.g., emphasizing peace-spreading and non-exploitation of the workforce, for the family of alternatives that includes cooperatives along with sustainable enterprises, community-based economic development, etc., need to be put in place. The Organic Agriculture community has done this (first in Europe, now in North America), as has the socially responsible investment community. Isn’t it time for us to draw some lines, albeit porous ones which recognize incremental improvements? The International Cooperative Alliance has put forth some potentially useful starting points. We should suggest amendments, e.g., that cooperatives be accountable to one another, and become a strong voice within the worldwide movement towards peace and justice.

• Educate those developing political alternatives, which are (on the whole) clueless or misinformed on economic alternatives. (For example, the newly published Global Activists’ Manual barely mentions workplace democracy.) Our initiatives should become platform planks of the Green Party, the Working Families Party, etc. Some stubborn labor folks may be dismissive. But we know cooperative development serves the working poor, the excluded, and the impoverished, and that—when supported by progressive unions—it does these things even better. Canada’s labour-supported investment funds are cases in point; and see the breaking story on Team X/Sweat X in this issue. This means more than simply sending the Working Families Party back issues of GEO. It means coalitioning in a hands-on, continuing process.

• Link our constructive efforts with others who have a stake in a peaceful, just, and cooperative world. This includes the huge community of participatory NGOs that has formed over the past two decades. In her recent book, Non-Governments, Julie Fischer estimates that well over a hundred thousand moderately to genuinely democratic grassroots NGOs now operate on many continents and have already reshaped political development in the southern hemisphere along highly participatory lines. In short, we need to join forces with peace and anti-globalization activists. But also with conflict resolution activists/educators, progressive labor and anti-sweatshop activists, Poor/Homeless Peoples and Living Wage Campaigns, etc. — and many more....(please add your own ideas here)

But how to do this? Well, for starters, these potential allies need to be invited to our gatherings and enterprises. They need to see directly what Cooperative Home Care Associates has actually accomplished; how well Equal Exchange functions; the exquisite quilt of interests that SACCO (the Southern Appalachian Center for Cooperative Ownership) has helped weave in creating a worker takeover in Appalachia. And vice versa—we need to participate in their activities and deliberations: were workplace democracy folks involved in the last two World Social Forums in Porto Alegre? When trips or conferences are organized to or in College Park, Md, Mondragon, Cape Breton or, soon, Chac Lol, Mexico, are places reserved for those beyond our movement with whom we are in solidarity?

5. GEO member Alex Pukinkis wrote, in response to an earlier draft: ”Attempting to change things on the grassroots level can have an effect, just as a small amount of bacteria can eat a much larger amount of algae. However, when the algae are reproducing faster than the bacteria, it’s quite a challenge. But not nearly as hopeless as staring at a chemically polluted well.”

I’d certainly agree, enthusiastically, but with a caveat. Grassroots efforts of certain sorts are probably the only route to meaningful change, or at least a necessary component. But there are grassroots efforts and grassroots efforts. Some, like those Shuman appears to endorse, may well be algae-friendly: they can lack solidarity with other non-local initiatives, caring only about their own survival and prosperity. They have “enterprise consciousness,” as it’s sometimes called. To engage only or primarily in such grassroots activities, it seems to me, is a recipe for continued economic marginality. It is also a form of implicit collusion with the wholesale terrorism of our Orwellian, unending-war-for-peace, government.


[1]  Why “toxic”? Because for decades it has made the wreched of this earth, on virtually all continents, endangered victims of wholesale terrorism and multi-national exploitation, and has now begun a cynical “unending war for peace” which puts the entire planet at risk.

[2]  As we watch the bombing of Afghani, or Columbian (or Iraqi, or North Korean) villages, or the destruction of Palestinian civil society by USA-financed Israeli war criminals, we would perhaps do well to recall Dr. King’s words in the opening epigraph.

Len Krimerman helped found GEO in 1991 and is one of its editorial coordinators. He gratefully acknowledges comments and suggestions from several fellow GEO members: Bill Caspary, Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Frank Lindenfeld, and Bob Stone. In the end, though, he speaks only for himself in this “co-op editorial,” on which he welcomes comments and responses. You can leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


Responses to Len’s Reflections

Russ Christianson, Rhythm Communications, Campbellford, Ontario, Canada

I really don’t have much disagreement with Len. One initial comment I have is: While all co-operatives say they follow the ICA Statement of Co-operative Identity (the principles and values we hold dear), it seems to me that the very large corporate businesses (like the wheat pools in Canada), which due to their size and complexity are basically run by a management class with the same objectives of competitiveness as ROI as other global businesses, and many members who voted for George W. Bush or Ralph Klein or Mike Harris, and would likely support “the war on terrorism,” are not really interested in creating a “co-operative commonwealth.” They are operating in their own business silos and see themselves and express themselves as being “non-political.” Historically, this has been the compromise that these co-ops have made to ensure their successful growth in a sea of capitalism. Now, it can be argued that this is an incremental strategy, towards a more democratic and fair economy, but how far can these co-op businesses compromise their heritage before they become co-opted by the dominant economic imperative—get big, do it fast, and make as much money as you can, as quickly as you can?

Greg O’Neill, advisor to the Canadian Worker Co-operative Federation CWCF Board

I was very excited by the article. I was particularly drawn towards the insurgency aspect of it. How many years have we all been doing Cooperative Education, Cooperative Development and committing our lives to those principles? How frustrated are we that the results have been so pitiful? Not only are we not making ground, we are losing it. Co-ops in Atlantic Canada are becoming more precarious very year, the major second tier Cooperatives in Canada have certainly ceased to be a Cooperative in anything but name. Co-operatives are divesting themselves of their newspapers and publications. So, what do we do about that?

I get back to the big idea discussion we were having a while ago and the big event. I think a bunch of serious people with overheads, flipcharts and PowerPoint presentations are about as appealing to my teenage and young adult children as doing housework. It is, in my view the new generation that is our next best hope for making change happen. I think of insurgency as a positive, non-violent series of entertaining and engaging events.

I am thinking of engaging those actively involved in protesting the G8 and other international celebrations of the liberal capitalist way. I am thinking of engaging people like Michael Moore, Bruce Cockburn, Tracy Chapman and the new musical and literary voice of young people’s dissatisfaction with the way things are set up. How do we engage those who are willing to risk serious personal injury at the police barricades set up at those G8 meetings and channel their energy into a positive, productive activity. How do we wrestle with “Stupid White Men”?

What I am thinking is that we need to say loudly and clearly what we are for. I think the most successful forms of insurgency are those that are very clear about their purpose. It is easy to be against something. Anybody can be a critic. We want to be creators. In Canada there is such a diversity of groups, some social, some political, some based in CED work some cultural and some religious. How often do these diverse groups get together? How many of these groups exist in other countries? Let’s have our own international summit. Let’s bring these groups together in one place. Let’s build a chain link fence around our meeting to keep the violent liberal capitalists out. Let’s entertain ourselves while we do it. Let’s invite the successful international Cooperatives to strut their stuff along with the green entrepreneurs, the artists and others that celebrate life on this planet. Let’s have a good time doing it. Let’s celebrate the joy, hope and spirit that is the basis of our principles. Let’s let it loose. Let our insurgency be an explosion of creativity that is irresistible. Let’s do it again and again and again.

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Len Krimerman lives, works, dances, and dreams in rural eastern Connecticut, and has helped build bridges between the many varieties of grassroots democracy over the past five decades. In this, he has invariably been mentored by his amazing GEO colleagues, by the imagination and support of his lifelong partner, Marian Vitali, and by the courageous activism of so many of his students and community partners. Marian and Len are now engaged in helping develop the Windham Hour Exchange, a community barter initiative in and around Willimantic, CT.


Len Krimerman (2017).  Discordant Reflections on Cooperative Development.  Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO).

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