The Workers' Paradise A Discussion of Workers Cooperatives and Building the New Economy

September 14, 2009

#3 The Value of Self-Help

Filed under: Governance,Identity Statement Series — John McNamara @ 10:34 am

The value of “self-help” appears at the head of the list of values for cooperatives. Sometimes, it is referred to as “mutual self-help” but that sounds a bit kinky to me, so I just keep it at “self-help”.

When I first learned of the identity statement, this one struck me as a bit odd. It doesn’t sound very cooperative—the definition of “self-help” in Merriam-Webster’s 11th Edition defines it as “the action or process of bettering oneself or overcoming one’s problems without the aid of others; esp. the coping with one’s personal or emotional problems without professional help.”

Of course, at Union Cab, we have an old expression to encourage drivers to work the airport or bus stations: “Help the Co-op and help yourself” which means, of course, that by seeking out flag fares the drivers can increase both the revenue of the cooperative and themselves.

In the background paper to the Identity Statement describes the term “self-help” as follows:

“Self-help is based on the belief that all people can and should strive to control their own destiny. Co-operators believe, though, that full individual development can take place only in association with others. As an individual, one is limited in what one can try to do, what one can achieve. Through joint action and mutual responsibility, one can achieve more, especially by increasing one’s collective influence in the market and before governments. Individuals also develop through co-operative action by the skills they learn in facilitating the growth of their co-operative; by the understanding they gain of their fellow-members; by the insights they gain about the wider society of which they are a part. In those respects, co-operatives are institutions that foster the continuing education and development of all those involved with them.”

Self-help, as a value, goes to the heart of co-operation. It explains how co-operation works as a market economy. The people who follow Adam Smith or Milton Friedman argue that self-interest rules everyone’s choices—capitalism works (provided that all markets are free and open) through the balancing of every individual’s selfish instincts. This isolationist and selfish view of economics ignores friendships, families, communities and the humanitarian instincts of people. It has also had devastatingly destructive effects on friendships, families and communities which is why the Co-operative Movement started in the first place. For more on the free-marketeers, read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

However, people do co-operate out of a certain sense of self-interest. Clearly, as a species, we have the physical ability (and psychological ability to some extent) to live alone, but the survival of the species demands co-operation whether the society is a hunter-gatherer or an agricultural, industrial or service based. We all get something out of co-operation.

In terms of worker co-operatives, we collectively take on the duties and responsibilities of The Boss. This is important because many of us have no interest in either being the boss or having one. The worker co-operator is a weird mix of socialist and libertarian instincts. We create our communities that reflect this mix and because of that, we expect our members to step up to the challenges. This requires an ethos of “self-help”. Worker coops can help train and develop members; however, the member must have the basic desire to improve themselves for their own benefit (and the benefit of the cooperative).

The “help the co-op” slogan sums this concept up very nicely which points out how powerful the identity statement truly is. The statement did not create new concepts requiring significant changes in co-operative culture. It took existing values and ethics from the 150-year-old movement and expressed them. We have always been about self-help. Worker co-operators, by organizing to create their own jobs, take this value to heart and give the value of “self-help” its ultimate expression in a co-operative context.

Next Week: Self-Responsibility

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