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

July 19, 2010

Worker Co-ops and Workers, Unity vs. Cliques

Filed under: Human Relations — Tags: , — John McNamara @ 11:24 am

How do we, as a movement, create a different organizational structure that creates synergy out of our differences? More importantly, how do we create a culture that overturns the worst lessons learned in the dominant paradigm?

To me, the Human Relations in a worker co-operative should be dedicated to the full human development of the individual as part of the overall community of the world. We should be borrowing the good things from our dominant culture and subverting or destroying the bad things. While it might be fair to argue over what is “good” or “bad”, we have a touchstone to rely upon. The Statement on the Co-operative Identity and the Mondragon Principles provide the cultural map required for co-operatives to engage their members and the community. We have to activate our concern for community in a way that humanizes our co-operatives and creates societies that truly deviate from the dog-eat-dog normality.

The first time that I heard the word “clique” was in 10th grade, I thought that my classmate said “click”. He was talking about all the cliques in our high school and how annoying they were. I thought this meant that kids had started “clicking” their tongues or something! I am glad that I didn’t start “clicking” to fit in! Of course, that is part of the socialization process in our culture. We create “the other” and then join groups based on not being “them” but on being “us”. My high school class only had 82 students and we still subdivided into three large groups and several smaller cliques.

Our willingness to self-divide and identify “us” verses “them” continues unabated in our society. Politicians (professional and otherwise) have long used this to achieve and maintain power. Corporations have used this to divide and conquer worker movements.

How do we use cliques in our co-operatives?

If we allow them to exist (and I imagine it would be impossible to banish them), how do we prevent the worst aspects of them (elitism, personality cults, discrimination, harassment and bullying) from destroying our co-operative ethos and the value of mutual self-help and solidarity? In my mind, I find the nature of cliques and sub-groups to be counter-productive and even the internal enemy of worker co-operatives. Ultimately cliques gain their power from destroying the social cohesion of a co-operative. I imagine that there are all sorts of self-esteem issues and personality types wrapped up into this.

In some co-ops, it may be easy to diffuse since the business is small, exists in one place, and everyone essentially works the same hours (think Cheeseboard). The “clique” essentially becomes the rather homogeneous group of members. However, in a large spread-out organization (like home care co-ops, taxi co-ops, or other organizations), members may be distributed across time and space to the point that workers might not even recognize each other as members of the same business. How do we work to overcome cliques in co-operatives where the membership might never meet the majority of the members due to work schedules?

I don’t really have a great answer for that question. I think, however, the key will always be in the values. Openness and honesty must be central to our work lives. I think, too, that we need to create a culture that doesn’t encourage one group of workers to be thought of as more important than another. We have to make equality and equity a reality in our co-operatives. At some level, it become an issue of individuals standing up and defending the values and principles of co-operatives. When we hear a member discredit another member (or work group within the co-operative) we need to risk our own popularity to explain why that idea (creating the “other”) is non-co-operative and even a danger to themselves (after all, they may become “the other” one day).

I imagine that co-operatives that have regular meetings and social events of the membership (on a daily or weekly basis) probably do better; however, that isn’t always practical and may pose problems in a 24 hour workplace.  The larger point, is that we can’t sit back and expect social cohesion to simply happen. As the co-operative grows and ages, the level of cohesion will change with it. In chemistry, the saying is that like attracts like (or that might be “like dissolves like”), so the job of a larger co-operative will be to help its membership see the similarities in all of the members of the co-operative. These similarities, of course, are the human qualities and desires that we all share. The idea shouldn’t be to build loyalty on a shift-by-shift basis (as a typical HR group might do), but on our humanity and co-operative membership.

A worker co-operators, we have an obligation to treat ourselves better than the bosses would treat the workers in their employment. When we act worse than our competitors in how we treat each other, we not only fail to honor each other, we fail the worker co-operative movement and the larger co-operative movement. We must institutionalize methods to help members unlearn the bad habits of the traditional workplace and learn the value of social cohesion with everyone in the co-operative. We need to eschew the cliques within our organization and see the co-operative (and its stakeholders) as our society. We need to create peer support structures within our co-operatives to develop and promote our solidarity with each other as members and teach other co-operatives how to do it.

Ghandi famously encourage us to be the change that we want to see. Worker co-operatives have an obligation to present a better option in how the company treats its workers and how its workers treat each other.

July 5, 2010

Producer Co-operatives and Workers

Filed under: Management,Worker Rights — Tags: , — John McNamara @ 1:22 pm

In his work over the last decade, Professor Daniel Côté has developed a new principle of management for non-worker co-operatives. The core of this work focuses on loyalty of the stakeholders. In his argument, Côté argues that all stakeholders of the co-operative must experience the co-operative benefit.

It is important, I found out over the weekend, to identify to whom the word “stakeholder” refers. Stakeholder has become a term used in business circles over the last couple of decades to identify interested parties that may not have a fedicuiary interest or responsibility but still value the enterprise (or benefit from it). In our cities, neighborhoods (and the people living in them) have a stakeholder role in the businesses that operate in their neighborhoods. Much to their dismay, many tavern owners in Madison have come to realize that the thousands of people living around them (who may never spend a penny in the tavern) have a stake in how the tavern operates.

In the more direct sense, workers form a primary stakeholder group of every co-operative. In the case of a consumer co-operative, the consumer member can easily find another store to shop. If the consumer co-op were to close or demutualize, their would be little effect on the consumer member other than a change in habit and a sense of loss For the worker of a consumer co-op, however, the closing of the store could mean long-term unemployment, loss of housing, healthcare and other hardships.

To some extent, the same can be said for a producer co-op. Farmers might, however, face a harsher marketplace. It is exactly this reason that Agricultural co-ops should embrace the Co-operative Paradigm. Côté makes this point in his description of the NCP: “A third assumption may therefore be made on the basis of this experimentation, relating to the social value attached to the co-operative organization: the NCP opens the way for the creation of social value based on (1) a business model that makes a significanf difference for stakeholders (2) while providing the footing for creating solidarity (3) and strengthening the community, (4) through the development of citizen values (5) leading to a different society, one that is more human and more egalitarian.” (Côté, 2005)

In other discussion about the NCP, Côté he comments that “Loyalty is based on the vision and reliability of senior management. Organizations that have it rely on long-term commitment and regard people (clients, employees and shareholders) as their best assets. . . it requires a focus on human dignity, and needs to find an equilibrium between personal and collective interest.” (Côté, 2000)

My personal experience with producer co-operatives is somewhat limited. When I have attended conferences and training sessions, I tend to meet very conservative (politically and socially) people from the generation of my parents (or pre-Viet Nam). I don’t want to suggest that they are negative people, but they see the co-op world as a form of collectivized capitalism and don’t necessarily see the big picture of humanity and social change. Workers tend to be hired hands (and they often prohibit members and the family of members from working for the co-op).

However, one of the new kids on the block is Organic Valley that has been shaking up the stereotypes. They certainly have a different view. I was pleasantly surprised to see that their web master is none other than mIEKAL aND. He spent a couple of decades in Madison as an artist and maintained a house in my neighborhood called the “Museum of Temporary Art”.

Organic Valley makes the natural leap that comes from organic farming. If happy cows produce better milk, then happy workers produce better service. The organic movement has to treat its workers as good as it treats the non-humans in the production chain. Of course, in the commercial farming world, the co-operatives still have an obligation to treat the workers well. The values and ethics of co-operatives apply to all stakeholders within the community, not just the membership.


Côté, Daniel (2005) “Loyalty and Co-operative Identity: Introducing a New Co-operative Paradigm” published (en Francais) in Revue Internationale de l’Economie Sociale RECMA, #295

Côté, Daniel (2004) “Co-operative Cohesiveness and the Democratic Process: The Key to Managing a Large C-operative” (French version: Revue du CIRIEC-Economies et solidarité, Vo. 34, No. 2

Côté, Daniel (2000) “Co-operative and the new millenium: The emergence of a new paradigm” in Fairbairn and Russel (eds) Canadian Co-operatives in the Year 2000: Memory, Mutual Aid and the Millenium. Saskatoon: Centre for the Study of Co-operatives.

December 3, 2009

Cooperation and Human Nature

Filed under: Education,Society — Tags: , — Bernard @ 12:26 am

The New York Times published an article on childhood behavioral studies, among related research, that reveals a more positive and nuanced view of our biological heritage than the Social Darwinist promoted. However the article leaves a lot to be desired in terms of the social significance of these studies. I have tried to expand on what I think are major implications of this research.

Cooperation and Human Nature

Here are two excerpts from a recent news feature.

“I cannot direct anybody to do anything that they do not want to do. All decision-making is by consensus.”

All around . . . groups organized themselves in democratic cooperatives, arranged in an anti-hierarchy. All deliberations are open — and exhaustive. Everyone gets their say no matter how long it takes. “It is bottom-up and not top-down.”

Members of cooperatives will recognize these comments. In fact they are so commonplace as to be burdened with a ton of baggage. For some a smile will approach the lips in appreciation of the value of these statements. Others might feel their teeth clenching in anticipation of the seemingly endless meetings that they associate with deliberations over meaningless details.

The quotes however do not emanate from a co-op board meeting. They are attributed, in a Wall Street Journal blog, to the scientists working on “the largest machine in the world.”1

That happens to be the Large Hadron Collider — a $6 billion particle accelerator near Geneva, with thousands scientists involved in its operation.

This wasn’t the only science collaboration mentioned in the article. Also highlighted was OpenWetWare, a wiki established in 2005 by two MIT students “to promote the sharing of information, know-how, and wisdom among researchers and groups who are working in biology & biological engineering.” It now has 7,000 users.

In a similar vein, paleontologists launched the Open Dinosaur Project “to involve scientists and the public alike in developing a comprehensive database of dinosaur limb bone measurements, to investigate questions of dinosaur function and evolution.” They further state as their goals: “1) do good science; 2) do this science in the most open way possible; and 3) allow anyone who is interested to participate.”

To be absolutely clear about their last point, they stress that they “do not care about your education, geographic location, age, or previous background with paleontology. The only requirement for joining us is that you share the goals of our project and are willing to help out in the efforts.”

The Internet, originally devised decades ago by researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), where the Collider is based, amplifies worldwide the historic collegiality cultivated by scientists.  Given the obvious success of scientific endeavors, one wonders why these cooperative practices haven’t migrated to other areas. In some limited ways they have been adopted by the arts, and to a lesser extent, education. But in the realm of business, collaboration occurs only under strict guidelines, if at all.

We don’t need to idolize the community of scientists. There are researchers who eagerly enlist in schemes to privatize science – to value the marketplace over the disinterested desire to further research for the public benefit. Nevertheless, the model of collaboration many scientists seek, in which peers define projects and seeking solutions, remains foreign to the world of business.

Capitalist collaboration on the level of mutual advantage, of course, as in price-fixing, certainly happens more frequently than its criminalization. And there is the transparently manipulative practice of  “team work” in many corporations, which I only mention to quickly dismiss. 2

Cooperatively working together embodies a reciprocity of dignity that finds no place in the corporate world we know today, where individual advancement rules.

As commodification intensifies, enveloping all aspects of life, the ethic that must sustain community diminishes. We diminish too. It comes as no surprise that kids enter middle school as full-fledged consumers. What should shock is that they have internalized their commodification. Buying into the notion of society as an arena for a never-ending quest for ego fulfillment leads directly to life viewed as a battle of egos. This socialization of our children, as essentially a fight over scarcity on an individual and social level, is a consequence of the popular perception of our “human nature.” We have here the reactionary, individualistic thinking that drives capitalism – the survival of the fittest: social Darwinism.

The rise of Darwinism (a toxic blend of Darwin with Malthus) served the 19th century capitalists well. “Captains of the economy” claimed as their right to rule a pseudo-science founded on a specious law of biology.

Capitalist “science” didn’t persuade the partisans of the newly organizing industrial workers. The masters of the workers, as the workers themselves experienced, were not to be held hostage to the  reason of science, when the science of power – ultimately clubs and bullets – was far more effective. The clarity of the left to recognize the abuse of science, as a servant of power, didn’t prevent them wholeheartedly endorsing Darwin as a liberator. For the left, Darwin forever consigned the Christian origins of humankind to myth.

Friedrich Engels eulogized Marx as the discoverer of the law of human development, comparing him to Darwin the founder of  “the law of development of organic nature.”3 Engels here was following Marx who viewed Darwin’s scientific contribution as pertaining only to human anatomy and physiology. Centuries before the birth of Marx, “enlightened” thinking held that human development was determined by environmental factors. Moreover Hegel, Marx’s mentor, envisioned society “evolving” to greater heights.

The only exception to the general celebration of Darwinist biological determinism came from Peter Kropotkin. His fieldwork across an impressive range of animal and human societies made him recognize and appreciate the role of cooperation in human endeavors.  Kropotkin’s anarchist criticism of Darwinism as new theology in defense of the status quo, of course, relegated him to obscurity outside scientific circles.

Amongst social scientists the nuanced interpretation of evolution presented by Kropotkin, and others, lately has led researchers to devise experiments that show “that both 25-month olds and school-age children in a very similar paradigm select the equitable option more often than the selfish option.”4

There are studies that show that very young children, working in teams develop trust by negotiating perceived selfishness. Other studies show that a shared project with a joint goal creates interdependence, mutually recognized – a “we” amongst the children. And even babies, unable to use language, show helpfulness in carefully structured experiments by pointing or by their eye movements. Language itself may have developed within the context of collaborative activities where achieving a common goal depends upon the coordination of individual roles.

This research has significant implications for a politics beyond ethical aspirations to one grounded in a view of human nature with an innate need for camaraderie. Those who seek a more just society need not counter a spurious conception of human nature as “red in tooth and claw” with the equally false proposition that the human condition is infinitely malleable. A belief which leads to dystopian dead-ends and which still informs, in a less maniacal way, political liberalism and its love for social engineering.  The perfectibility of humankind is not the issue.

The issue is encouraging collaborative activities beyond the intimate dealings of a small group – outside what Michael Tomasello calls the protected environment:

When we are engaged in a mutually beneficial collaborative activity, when I help you play your role either through physical help or by informing you of something useful, I am helping myself, as your success in your role is critical to our overall success. Mutualistic activities thus provide a protected environment for the initial steps in the evolution of altruistic motives.5

Over ten years ago, before most of this research was conducted, Peter Singer wrote an intriguing little book: A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation. In it he critiques social Darwinism and the left’s fear of engaging in the controversy over human nature. He takes his stand for a left that abandons the paradigm of human progress based on fine-tuning social conditions.

Singer calls for a broader interpretation of self-interest that current findings of child behavior validate.  He also promotes the idea that the left needs to encourage cooperative behavior and to channel competition into socially desirable ends, which corresponds to the notion of extending the protected environment mentioned above.

As a philosopher, not a scientist, and writing about research which at the time was tentative, Singer however falls back on the same ground as the traditional left that he critiques. He relies on the role of reason, to balance or offset nature. He approvingly quotes Richard Dawkins who grants that though we are built like gene machines, “we have the power to turn against our creators”6

No one wants to argue against the role of reason in the pursuit of knowledge. However the latest behavioral discoveries lead to a firmer footing in science than thought possible a few years ago. From these studies of children implications can be drawn that improve our understanding of the building blocks of social norms, that is mutually expected standards of behavior. Human beings are biologically adapted to grow and develop to maturity within a cultural context, through collaborative efforts.

This research informs an optimistic view of the human condition. It seriously undermines the perspective that Herbert Marcuse postulated in One-Dimensional Man, where he questioned the liberation of humankind given the universal internalization of domination through socialization. And it supports Rebecca Solnit’s view in A Paradise Built in Hell that catastrophes can disperse the weight of commodified behavior to free deeper, life-affirming motivations.

In Tomasello’s conclusions one aspect relates to the larger issues of scientific collaboration noted at the beginning of this essay. He writes:

Children are motivated to engage in these kinds of collaborative activities for their own sake, not just for their contribution to individual goals.7

What are we to make of this comment? Certainly it relates to those experiences we have as adults when we find ourselves, either by plan or circumstance, engaged in an activity with great social significance. The activity may be physically grueling, we may even be in the company of strangers and the goal may not be of our devising, but when that goal is attained, or even when to the best of our collective abilities it is lost, during and afterwards we feel elation and a heightened sense of awareness.

For most people these experiences of collective pursuit occur sparingly and with modest intensity under circumstances that are not wholly spontaneous, as when regulated by church or civic activities. Or they are confined to those parts of our lives that are lived haphazardly as leisure pursuits. Even in scientific communities the pressures of professional performance inhibit the fullest realization of collaboration as a collective intellectual adventure. This reality may account for the eager participation among scientists when simple wiki-style collaborations do appear.

The innate pursuit of collaboration that Tomasello records challenges Singer’s wholesale dismissal of utopianism. The simple association of utopianism with the view that humans are malleable creatures, a view that Singer attributes to the traditional left, is flawed.  Firstly, it ignores the sense of hope explicit with visionary strivings.  Secondly, Singer’s views are wide of the mark in light of these new behavioral studies. How else can we think of expanding the space for collaborative experiences if we are not open to the allures of utopianism? What in fact are the ultimate collaborative experiences if not those associated with play in its many forms as games, festivals and more? Nowhere else in our societies does the exuberance of human fulfillment readily appear. And, to venture a utopian question, why is it absent in those parts of our lives where we spend so much time seeking our survival?

Bernard Marszalek

December 2, 2009

1 More Scientists Treat Experiments as a Team Sport Robert Lee Hotz, November 20, 2009, Wall Street Journal

2 I should mention that an indirect subversion of the usual hierarchical business methods may result from the growing influence of “social entrepreneurship” but only if those who are intrigued with this approach to solving social ills recognize the systemic exploitation that created them in the first place.

3 Engels quoted in Peter Singer. 1999 A Darwinian Left (21)

4 Michael Tomasello. 2009 Why We Cooperate (23)

5 Tomasello (85)

6 Richard Dawkins 1976 The Selfish Gene (63)

7 Tomasello (105)

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