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

January 23, 2017

The “We” Generation

Here we are.

The next two years will seem to bring to life the ancient curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

The need for mutual self-help and self-reliance along with solidarity will be at the forefront for many of our cooperatives and we, whether as members, educators, or developers, must rise to meet the challenges presented.

The pendulum of human history has shifted once more from the individualistic to the communal. This can, of course, be a good thing. People working together for the common good has helped move our civilizations from the dictates of a single ruler to more democratic and inclusive governments (even if it doesn’t always feel that progress continues).

I don’t subscribe to the cohort model of generations. I don’t think that being born between 1946-1964 creates a certain type of world view any more that being born in the 90’s makes one a certain way. I follow instead an idea put forward by advertising guru Roy Williams (working off others). This pendulum concepts suggests that humanity cycles through a “me” and a “we” period with the switch around happening about every 40 years. Each period has an upswing and a down-swing and, there are always outliers looking forward to the equilibrium (when the down-swing of one becomes the upswing of another)

Today, we are about the same spot as 1936, 1856, and 1776. Those time periods all involved a period in which people coalesced around a common “we” (1842-1882, 1922-1962, and 1752-1792 respectively). What does this mean to the development of worker cooperatives and the labor movement at a whole. The common “We” works in sometimes contradictory ways. The groups of the 1930’s brought about strong unionism among the working class even as others used perceived racial purity as the defining virtue. Likewise, the power of “we” fueled both the democratically inclined Revolutionary War and the rise of the Abolition Movement but the genocidal war against First Nations peoples also dominated the nation.

According to Williams, the moment of the switch between the Me Generation and the We Generation occurred around 2002-ish and the Year of Hope with the election of Barack Obama mirroring the Me Generation’s Summer of Love. It is worth reading the book (it isn’t a heavy scholarly read at all) to get the sense of it.

The question for us, as worker cooperators, is how do we enter this rather polarized world of “we”. In some respects, it provides some advantages as people seem more likely to see solidarity and common purpose as positive traits. The values and principles of cooperation should resonate and help the Decade of the Co-op shine. However, there is also danger in the neo-tribalism of the “we” that separates people by false categories (race, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation).  Further, cooperatives (and especially worker cooperatives) have a tendency to overly focus on internal issues and ignore the larger movement. Even with the relative growth and rise of the US Federation, co-ops don’t always stay engaged in their community and the larger co-op movement.

As much as I respect the work of the Federation and its offshoot, DAWI, we can’t simply subcontract the sixth and seventh principles of cooperation to apex organizations. They have important roles to play at the national and international level providing information, support, and connectivity, but can’t really provide a one-size fits all game plan for every community. We are special snowflakes despite our commonalities.

It will be important for those organizations to engage at the national level, but co-ops (especially worker co-ops) cannot engage in isolationism. They need to create local partnerships with the local labor organizations (even if it is only an expression of solidarity and event invitation), local political leaders, and other cooperatives. They need to also encourage the regional and national coop groups to stand with labor and identify worker cooperatives as something more than simply an economic model akin to ESOPs.

Now is the time for us to embrace our movement and make it move (as Jim Hightower might say). We need to tell our collective stories and educate people about real worker ownership (that involves more than owning shares) and how through worker ownership and worker control, the American Dream can be resurrected and expanded to include all of us.

October 14, 2013

How Exceptional is “America”?

Filed under: Movement — Tags: , , , , , — John McNamara @ 7:00 am

The discussion over the last two weeks centered on the challenges of growing a worker cooperative movement in Anglo-Saxon dominated cultures. I split a bit further by focusing on the specific problems in the United States that further hinder the worker cooperative movment. At the same time, I have started reading Employment Relations in the United States: Law, Policy and Practice by Raymond Hogler. He offers a unique take on American Exceptionalism, a term coined in some sense by Alex de Toqueville in his still relevant work Democracy in America.

Too often, the concept of American Exceptionalism implies an attitude of superiority of the United States in comparison to the other 195 nations on the earth. That isn’t always the sense, but the rise of Reaganism and its attendant neoconservatism (as opposed to neoliberalism which seems more focused on economics than politics) proclaiming the US a “City upon a hill” as the beacon of all good things and leader of the world (free or otherwise). However, there is something different about the United States. Perhaps it is the combination of fifty unique states, the legacy of the Civil War in which the rights of those states to govern themselves remains in dispute or maybe it is the disposition of a country made up entirely of immigrants displacing indigenous populations (themselves often migrating with the seasons).

The concept of the “working class” has never fully taken hold in the United States as it has in other countries. While disputed, John Steinbeck, the great working class author, reportedly dispaired that “Socialism never took root in America because the poor never saw themselves as the proletariat as much as embarrased millionaires.”  Hogler uses the term American Exceptionalism to discuss the unique nature of the US labor system. This sytem, he argues, does not define people (workers)as a group united by class sentiment and common goals. It is a group that identifies as “American”. Hogler refers to Selig Perlman’s work of the early 1920’s that saw an American workers with the opporutnities that workers in other countries didn’t have. With the exception of women, non-slave workers had the right to vote in the United States and did not have to fight for suffrage. In addition, the abudnance of land that continued to expand throughout the 19th and into the 20th century meant opportunity for workers to stake out a claim on their own. This was simply not allowable in Europe and even England. Horace Greely’s exhortation, “Go West, Young Man!” was the mandate for young workers that if they didn’t like their job, they could move and create a new life becoming their own boss. The workers never coalesced into a finite social group because they always had other options.

This American Dream persists today. By the 1940’s the ideal of the American Dream and American Exceptionalism went hand-in-hand. Many of us, in today’s state of perpetual war, jobless economic recoveries, and shock doctrine capitalism may feel that the American Dream has become part of our past or a propaganda that never really existed. However, it has, over the years amassed a lot of power. It is the power of that dream that worker cooperatives can and should harness to further our movement in this country.

The Knights of Labor, for all of their faults, believed in the idea of workers managing themselves. They saw collective ownership as a form of the American Dream and won that would be attainable to workers. It would allow them better wages and give them the control over their lives that, as Americans, was their birthright.

One of the problems facing the worker coop movement is the same as that facing the labor union movement. Workers in the United States lack a class consciousness. There is a belief that through hard work and luck, we can all escape having to work for someone, hang our own shingle  and maybe even have people work for us. The lack of this class consciouness fuels an already dangerous sense of individualism that ignores the benefits of being part of a society or a community. However, worker cooperation can tap this energy. We can create a concept of achieivng that dream through collective ownership and decision making through the values of mutual self-help, solidarity and democracy. In doing this, we need to speak in the language of the American Dream, recognizing that in some way worker ownership is part of that dream.

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