Some background to the Co-Operative Vision


Attempts to reinvent or adapt the wheel are always helped by knowledge of previous wheel design, manufacture, and use.  The knowledge can alert us to potholes along the way, warn us of shortcuts that will lead us astray, and help us see how we are different from and similar to others who have tried to build cooperative organizations. 


At The Conversation we earlier discussed some ideas coming out of the Tellus Institute, which espouses cosmopolitan values and what they call Eco-Communalism.  They created the Next System Project, which includes the essay we read on "Building a Cooperative Solidarity Commonwealth."  

A slight aside here:  The cooperative solidarity commonwealth vision in the essay noted above is historically known as anarcho-syndicalism.  The largest experiment in anarcho-syndicalism was tried in Spain, and it was largely what the civil war in the 1930s was about.  Excellent histories of the conflict are found in Adam Hochschild's recent book, Spain in our Hearts, and Murray Bookchin's The Spanish Anarchists.  The anarcho-syndicalist vision was a threat to supporters of a central state, and thus were attacked by both the fascists and their ersatz allies, the Spanish communists.   A contemporary advocate of anarcho-syndicalism is Noam Chomsky. 


For those who have not seen it, the Wikipedia page on cooperatives is rather good, giving a brief and mostly British-focused historical background, some categories of the many different kinds of cooperatives, and links to related ideas. 


In The Conversation's discussions so far, the discussions have in part revolved around the question of what we can do, here where we live.  What follows is some background that emphasizes practical people with different approaches to cooperative organizations.


The Wiki page's emphasis on the British background makes some sense given their very large cooperative movement in the 19th and early 20th century.  The US cooperative movement has many facets, from the small Cooperative Development Institute in Northampton, MA, to the larger efforts of the Tellus Institute.  What we have read so far has several strands reaching back a long ways.


The First Strand:  Traditional and Non-Capitalist Economic Organization. 

   Most cooperative organization has been aimed at the excesses of capitalism.  This started way back in the early Reformation, when John Calvin invented what we now regard as basic elements of democratic political participation, accountability of leaders, and a consideration of each person as equally valuable.  (For more on Calvin's contributions, a good source is chapter six of Sheldon Wolin's Politics and Vision, either edition.)  The version of this that Jefferson and company borrowed from John Locke was considerably watered down and nurtured all of those excesses of capitalism. 

   The Amish are famous examples of trying to strike a balance between community, social cooperation, and the forces of the 'outside' world.  Their Anabaptist strand of Protestantism was created by reformers like Thomas MŸntzer, who unlike Calvin thought the need for revolution was more fundamental, and that he lived at the beginning of apocalyptic times.  He was executed for making trouble.  The Amish version of Anabaptist created a continually evolving Ordnung. 

   The Amish created one of the most successful models of a religious-based traditional economy that could be transported to different places.  They found ways to create practices encouraging cooperation, reciprocity, and trust that made most of them prosperous when most people worked in agriculture, and they are famous for creating many non-agricultural businesses over the last generation.  An important part of their success is financial-- almost never borrowing from outside the community or linked communities, and keeping individual consumption low to encourage accumulation within their traditional economy.  They attempt to consciously make decisions about which available technologies help them preserve the Ordnung. 

   Usually capitalism turns it the other way around-- The next best technology is one that can somehow garner either political support or draw value from public good or commons resources in order to increase the wealth of those who own the technologies. 

   There are many US examples of attempts to create communes and cooperatives that embody traditional or non-capitalist principles.  One of the best overviews of the 19th century attempts is James J. Martin's Men Against the State, which profiles such reformers as Josiah Warren.  Warren is an example of someone who explored the idea that cost should somehow be the limit of price.  The Martin book emphasizes that in the USA the cooperative vision was infused with individualism to a degree not found in the European tradition, and so much of the nineteenth century examples are also considered "anarchist" (that is, rule without archons). 

   Students of cooperative community organizing efforts (such as Rosabeth Moss Kanter) found some interesting constants in the movements.  First, the most long-lasting examples shared a religious base.   Second, many of the successful efforts dissolved from their success, when shareholders decided to sell their interests and move to a place where they could buy their own place. 

   There is an important history of African Americans developing cooperative models, in part because the economic system of the United States so miserably failed to deal with the color line.  Jessica Gordon Nembhard is a scholar of these organizations.  Her 2014 book is Collective Courage.  (I give the Amazon link, sorry, but it has several brief reviews.)


The Second Strand:  Workplace Democracy.

   Most cooperative organization deemphasizes or tries to entirely eliminate hierarchy. 

   Some of our earlier reading mentioned the Mondragon Cooperative in Spain.  It is probably the top example of the possibilities for democratic values in the workplace.  Note a similar theme to the above:  There was a decisive role of the church in getting it going and keeping it alive during a long, difficult period. 

   In the US the idea surges now and then, and excellent books describe examples and features, such as Daniel Zwerdling's Workplace Democracy and Democracy at Work.  The progressive movement, in evidence at the website Common Dreams, continually includes workplace democracy as part of the platform. 

   An attempt to provide a theoretical justification and overview was written by Frederick Thayer, An End to Hierarchy, an End to Competition. 


The Third Strand:  Community Power.

   A very American pattern to the community power movement is reflected in the efforts of Karl Hess.  For a while he was Mr. Community Power, and his attempt to organize the Adams-Morgan neighborhood in Washington DC.  In brief, it worked, a bit, for a while, but then he gave up and tried the back-to-the-land approach, doing craft labor in a small rural town.   His Dear America is still worth reading.   He is often credited with starting the modern US libertarian movement, as you can see in these excerpts.  

   The Adams-Morgan experiment, which included urban agriculture, community-oriented projects, community organizing, and more, is described in the book Neighborhood Power: The New Localism.  And yet, the distinctly American pattern, so focused on individualism, so easily linked to libertarianism and the back-to-the-land search for personal freedom, is disturbing.  It literally leaves the cities, and all of its people, behind. 


The Fourth Strand:  Rousseau's Dream of a changed human being. 

   Another strand we have encountered in our discussions of cooperatives is an answer to that individualist-centered feature noted above.  I call it Rousseau's Dream because Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote, influentially, that the answer to the woes of the world was a revolutionary transformation of our organizations and, in turn, us. 

   There is an old comparison in political theory between negative freedom (the absence of obstacles: let me make my own choices, as free as possible from institutionalized power) and positive freedom (the presence of possibilities: learn to act in a way that gives you control of your own life).  This is sometimes called freedom from vs. freedom to, the former emphasizing individuals on their own, the second the possibilities when people act in collectives. 

   Rousseau argued that given a properly supportive community, people will realize greater happiness and will not want the kind of lives they pursue in highly individualistic societies.  The two ways of describing freedom are usually seen as part of incompatible positions, connected to rival political systems. 

   Rousseau laid out these ideas in The Origins of Inequality and The Social Contract. 

   American versions of Rousseau's Dream include Wendell Berry, who asks whether we need so much stuff.  It is very much a rural vision of the good life, similar to the early Rodale Institute vision of the possibilities of organic gardening. 

   The dream is very much present in the essay we read on "Building a Cooperative Solidarity Commonwealth."  That is what the solidarity part means.  As the author wrote,

By solidarity system, I mean a non-hierarchical, non-exploitative, equitable set of economic relationships and activities geared toward the grassroots—thatŐs of the people (people before profit), indigenous, participatory, based on human needs, humane values, and ecological sustainability.  In the solidarity system, surplus, or profit, is shared in equitable ways, through democratic decision making, and used for the common good. Risks are collectivized, skills are perfected, learning is continuous, and economic practices are sustainable (both ecologically and from a business point of view), bringing collective prosperity. Capital is democratized and widely owned or controlled....



   It is my hope that awareness of these different strands in the cooperative vision will help us think about what questions to ask.


An  Addendum, a separate topic:

   An interesting article showed up in a the Journal of Experimental Psychology last November.   It examined how whites encounter the idea of privilege, and how they compare it to their own experience and self image.  The article is entitled " The hard-knock life? Whites claim hardships in response to racial inequity," by L. Taylor Phillips and Brian S. Lowery. 

   Here is the article abstract:

We explore why and how Whites deny the existence of racial privilege We introduce belief in personal privilege as important to psychology of privilege When given privilege evidence, Whites claim more life hardships Whites use hardship claims to deny personally benefitting from privilege Self-affirmed Whites acknowledge personal privilege and support equality policies Racial inequity continues to plague America, yet many Whites still doubt the existence of racial advantages, limiting progress and cooperation. What happens when people are faced with evidence that their group benefits from privilege? We suggest such evidence will be threatening and that people will claim hardships to manage this threat. These claims of hardship allow individuals to deny that they personally benefit from privilege, while still accepting that group-level inequity exists. Experiments 1a and 1b show that Whites exposed to evidence of racial privilege claim to have suffered more personal life hardships than those not exposed to evidence of privilege. Experiment 2 shows that self-affirmation reverses the effect of exposure to evidence of privilege on hardship claims, implicating the motivated nature of hardship claims. Further, affirmed participants acknowledge more personal privilege, which is associated with increased support for inequity-reducing policies.

   The Journal is intensely methodological, and thus an acquired taste. 

Here are a few paragraphs from the Introduction (references omitted):

  Racial privilege means that Whites' life chances and outcomes are better than they would be if they happened to be another race. Thus, racial privilege is not determined by idiosyncratic life circumstances. Rather racial privilege is either present or absent as a function of group membership: Whites enjoy privileges due to their race, regardless of the difficulty or ease of their particular life circumstances. Whites suffer hardships, and sometimes greater hardships than particular minorities; however, Whites' non-racial hardships are irrelevant to racial privilege. One might even argue that racial privilege manifests most clearly when it shields White victims of hardship from the worst possibilities. For instance, joblessness is less likely to lead to homelessness, crimes are less likely to result in jail time, and illness is less likely to result in death for Whites compared to minorities.

  However, claiming personal life hardships may help Whites manage the threatening possibility that they benefit from privilege. To the extent that they can perceive their personal lives as having been more difficult, they might be able to blunt the negative implications of attributions to group-level privilege. We reason that people may erroneously feel that experiencing hardships proves that external causes, such as systemic racial privilege, did not help them along;

they might reason that the more difficult their lives have been, the less racial privilege applies to them personally, even if their group as a whole benefits from privilege.

  It is ironic that exposing Whites to evidence of their group privileges might cause them to claim more personal life hardships — both because these claims defy objective evidence, and because they are in fact irrelevant to racial privilege. Furthermore, these motivated beliefs in personal hardship likely have both individual and societal  consequences.  For instance, if people think they have suffered hardships, and thus that they have not personally benefitted from privilege, then they may be reticent to endure personal costs associated with policies designed

to reduce inequity — a potential consequence that makes understanding the experiences of those on the advantaged side of inequity all the more important.


Here is a graphic depicting the relationships studied.