“What Then Must We Do?” Gar Alperovitz at The New Economy Summit

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

Here’s something to listen to with your morning coffee; it’s a lecture on co-operatives, with Q&A following, by Gar Alperowitz at the New Economy Summit in Boone, NC, in April of this year. I like the title, because the agency in “What Then Must We Do” is explicit, in contrast (intentional or not) to [Anglophone usage of] Lenin’s famous “What Is To Be Done” (sez who?) where lack of agency signals the Bolshevik’s intent to tell people what was to be done. We know how that movie ended; there were a lot of movies that ended that way in the 20th Century. The video:

Alperovitz, then, is an advocate of co-operatives, which he sees (I’m sure I’m simplifying) as a means toward “economic democracy.”* I’m not anything like even ignorant about co-ops — readers? — but it strikes me that if I’m not hearing much about them in our famously free press, there must be something to the idea. So this post will have two parts. First, I’m going to provide a transcript for that part of Alperowitz’s talk that I found most relevant to the present day, with some interlinear comment, and then I’m going to provide some material on the co-operative institutions that Alperovitz mention in throughout his talk and in the Q&A. Spoiler alert: I wish I could say that collective ownership of the mean of production the co-op movement (“the new economy”) is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but I don’t know enough. What is clear is that a lot of very hard, and very pragmatic, thinking has been done. Whether that adds up to having laid any kind of groundwork, I don’t know. 

So to the transcript; Alperovitz starts out — his audience is mostly students* — with a high level, potted history of how our current system of electoral politics came to be:

[11:45] What’s driving the entire process is a new historical context that suggests we aren’t going to go back to the old ways; what’s likely is a continuation of what you see, and that is growing pain. So let me say just a little bit about that. I don’t want to burden you with too much, but here’s one way to think about it. The pain levels are obvious. We’re talking about unemployment, poverty, climate change, dislocation, no jobs, no health care — I don’t need to give you this whole story, you probably heard it, more than that. But the question most people usually think about is this: Well, the pendulum will swing.

I grew up believing that, though by 2008 I thought more in terms of possibly stopping things from getting a lot worse. Now I don’t believe in the pendulum theory at all. I’m not sure anybody does, except for the bots of both legacy parties, who confuse a change in party leadership with change.

Maybe we’ll get a bunch of progressives back in, I suspect most progressives, and then we’ll change all that, because that’s sort of how it happened in the past. Or there’ll be a cycle; Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the great liberal historian, thought that every 30 years there’d be a cycle. I don’t think so. I think you’re living in a period where that’s going to continue, and that that whole idea needs to be understood as an end of an era idea.

The French phrase being fin de siecle. Gramsci: “the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” But to be fair, all the symptoms are not “morbid.” “Kakania”, Vienna under the last of the Hapsburgs, was not only Hitler’s home, but Wittgenstein’s, Freud’s, Mahler, and many other luminaries. And so with our own time?

So one way to think about that is this. What really happened was that the Great Depression occurred, a big crisis, and a lot of people got thrown out of office, and we had an opportunity for progressive change that was very unusual, because the huge crisis occurred. And that’s how most of the programs you know about, Social Security and the precondition of Medicare, and labor laws and so forth, that allowed the basis of that modern program was developed. The second one was that World War II occurred, and helped strengthen labor unions, which were part and parcel of the institutional power structure that created Medicare, and the environmental laws we now have. But it came out of very special conditions: The Depression, and World War II, and the post-war boom that followed.

A past that might seem quite foreign to Alperovitz’s audience. 

What we’re likely to be entering, I think, is a period where the politics that was like that is itself decaying before your eyes…

Yep.

… in significant part because the labor union base of that  politics is declining, and also because the special conditions are not likely. What you’re seeing is ongoing — very odd — pain and decay, and difficulties, long trends….

Yep.

… but not the idea that we’re going to get a simple cycle. Not the idea that we’re going to get a big collapse, the government is three times the size it was, relative to the economy, as it was in 1929. The context into which I think we all are living, and what is driving the pain, and creating the questions in our minds, is a context of stalemate, stagnation, and decay. 

Yep.

That’s what you see around if you look at people’s lives in many part of the country, plus elite ownership.

That’s an interesting throwaway aside. “We are the 99%” is about income. “Elite ownership” is about social relations.

That’s a really interesting context. I don’t want to lay too much on you, but that is a very interesting context, because it is allowing — No — forcing people to ask different questions. What’s going on here in this rich country? That context is the kind of context that is driving people to look for unusual answers, and new experiments, and saying “We’ve got to find a different way, and we’ve got to build a new economy.” That’s what’s creating the new economy movement. … 

So you’re living in a context of pain, but the positive side is that it’s forcing people to wake up, and get on with it. …

What I think the options are is that people who care about all this, and your friends out there around the country, and you’re at the beginning not the end, and their friends, and other friend around the world, not just here, are beginning to generate the ideas, the experience, the project, the institutions, the knowledge, the relationships, the contexts, which is the preliminary precondition for building a powerful movement — maybe — that can change the system. …

I agree. Some of us won’t live to see these changes, but we must pass on what we can, and do what we can do.

In doing that, I like to think about an old Chinese expression. Anytime you want to give a piece of advice you can say “I know an old Chinese expression.” So here’s one… The Chinese have an expression that you have to walk on two legs. So what do they mean by that?  It means you both have to do what you can do the old way, as best you can, elect some good guy, and maybe he’ll help you out, organize in the normal way, and simultaneously begin this hard institutional development work and see if we can put those piece together over time. This is not an either/or game. It’s how do we do the best we can in the traditional ways, and simultaneously, walking on two legs, begin to lay the groundwork for something beyond.

Alperovitz’s perspective makes a lot more sense to me. I like it because it’s not romantic. Nor is it partisan. It doesn’t seem like bullshit.

* * *

And now part two: Here’s some material on the co-operative institutions Alperovitz mentions in his talk.

1. Bank of North Dakota

During the early 1900s, North Dakota’s economy was based on agriculture. Serious in-state problems prevented cohesive efforts in buying and selling crops and financing farm operations. Grain dealers outside the state suppressed grain prices; farm suppliers increased their prices; and interest rates on farm loans climbed.

By 1919, popular consensus wanted state ownership and control of marketing and credit agencies. Thus, the state legislature established Bank of North Dakota and the North Dakota Mill and Elevator Association.

Bank of North Dakota (BND) was charged with the mission of “promoting agriculture, commerce and industry” in North Dakota. It was never intended for BND to compete with or replace existing banks. Instead, Bank of North Dakota was created to partner with other financial institutions and assist them in meeting the needs of the citizens of North Dakota.

An obvious litmus test for a true “progressive” is whether they support any legislative and regulatory changes needed to encourage state banks, and co-operative banking generally.

2. Vermont’s 2017 single payer effort. (I love Alperovitz’s framing: “Democratic health care.”

All but ignored in the multitude of media coverage about the ACA and its problems, Vermont has become the first state in the union to pass a single-payer universal health care law for its residents. It has a snappy slogan: Everybody in, nobody out.

The system will be fully operational by 2017, funded by Medicare, Medicaid, federal money for the ACA given to Vermont, and a slight increase in taxes. Everyone will be able to go to any doctor or hospital in the state free of charge. No plans to figure out, no insurance forms to sweat over, no gotchas.

Dr. William Hsaio, the Harvard health care economist who helped craft health systems in seven countries, was Vermont’s adviser. He estimates that Vermont will save 25 percent per capita over the current system in administrative costs and other savings. Employers will suddenly be free to give raises to their employees instead of paying for increasingly expensive health benefits. All hospitals and health-care providers in Vermont will be nonprofit. Medicare recipients will no longer need to wade through an inch-thick book to choose supplemental plans and sort out other complex options in their Medicare enrollment.

Under the ACA, Vermont had to get a waiver from the Feds for a single payer program (hat tip, Dennis Kucinich, who made a “strange bedfellows” alliance with conservatives on his committee on “state’s rights” grounds). Another litmus test for a true “progressive” is whether they would support immediate waivers. Why wait ’til 2017 for single payer?

3. Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, OH is an umbrella organization that supports several co-ops.

Rather than a trickle down strategy, it focuses on economic inclusion and building a local economy from the ground up; rather than offering public subsidy to induce corporations to bring what are often low-wage jobs into the city, the Evergreen strategy is catalyzing new businesses that are owned by their employees; rather than concentrate on workforce training for employment opportunities that are largely unavailable to low-skill and low-income workers, the Evergreen Initiative first creates the jobs, and then recruits and trains local residents to take them.

Another useful litmus test for “progressives” is whether they support strategies like Evergreen’s. Ohio is by no means the only state that is suffering….

3.1 Evergreen Cooperative Laundry

The co-op’s pilot business was the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, which set up shop in October 2009 to service the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals. Today the laundry, which uses energy-efficient washers and dryers, is housed in a one-story LEED-certified building. Facing the street are three frescoes, each featuring the slogan PEOPLE PLANET PROFITS. That is the succinct philosophy of the Evergreen Cooperatives, and it suggests how their model upends the usual socialist–capitalist antipathy. The laundry employs fifty men and women, who clean twelve million pounds of linens a year and who will eventually own 100 percent of the company. Are they socialists who own the means of production, or capitalists who own their own company? The answer, I suppose, is that they represent a new economic model that eschews such false dichotomies. They have solid jobs and are accumulating wealth.

3.2 Green City Growers

On a continuing basis, lettuce and herbs will be grown here and the first harvest will take place next week. No soil is used to grow the lettuce. Instead, the lettuce is grown in floats on nutrient rich water. Once the plants start to grow, they are transplanted in smaller groups to give them room to mature.

Mary Donnell, the CEO of Green City Growers said, “It’s from seed to harvest in about 35 days and we will pick it and it will be distributed the next day. So within 24 hours, it should be at its final destination which is fabulous when you think most of our lettuce comes from Arizona and California and spends days on a truck.”

“I add at least 2 to 3 people every week so we’ll be up to about 25 employees soon. We have 15 now and I have 3 more that will start in a day or two,” said Donnell.

Green City Growers is also the largest food production greenhouse in an urban area in the entire United States.

 4. Mondragón and the System Problem 

Mondragón Corporation is an extraordinary 80,000-person grouping of worker-owned cooperatives based in Spain’s Basque region that is teaching the world how to move the ideas of worker-ownership and cooperation into high gear and large scale. The first Mondragón cooperatives date from the mid-1950s, and the overall effort has evolved over the years into a federation of 110 cooperatives, 147 subsidiary companies, eight foundations and a benefit society with total assets of 35.8 billion euros and total revenues of 14 billion euros.

In the vast majority of its cooperatives, the ratio of compensation between top executives and the lowest-paid members is between three to one and six to one; in a few of the larger cooperatives it can be as high as around nine to one. Comparable private corporations often operate with top-to-median compensation ratios of 250 to one or 300 to one or higher.

Interestingly, the United Steel Workers sought out an alliance with Mondragon. Hey, maybe Mondragon wants to make airplanes! The Boeing machinists could help….

Meanwhile, some schadenfreude from The Economist, after a Mondragon division failed; white goods do pretty badly when housing collapses:

Fagor, with 5,600 workers, is a relatively small part of the whole. Even so, Mr Treviño warns that its fall “will have an uncontrollable domino effect on the rest of the group with major social implications.” He believes Fagor’s liquidation would create a €480m hole at Mondragon, including inter-group loans and payments the group’s insurance arm would have to make on Fagor workers’ unemployment policies. Mondragon has promised to find new jobs or offer early-retirement terms for as many as it can of Fagor’s Spanish workers, but this is a tall order in a country with 27% unemployment. Besides their jobs, workers stand to lose the money they had invested in the co-op if it is liquidated.

Britain’s even older co-operative movement (founded in 1844 and nominally owned by its customers rather than its employees) is undergoing a similarly harsh encounter with economic realities. Its banking arm, hit by huge bad debts after taking over another mutual lender, is having to bring in American hedge funds as outside shareholders, because its parent movement was unable to rescue it alone. The co-operative model has its virtues, but there are times when those nasty, money-obsessed capitalists have their uses too.

What a silly comment. Capitalists aren’t obsessed with money; capitalists are obsessed with capital. Could do better, Mr./Ms. Anonymous Economist Writer!

* * *

I would say: At the very least a hopeful, thoughtful movement to watch.

NOTE * That is, to them, Nixon is a historical figure from a bygone age.


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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

40 comments

  1. ambrit

    Dear Lambert;
    “That is, to them, Nixon is a historical figure from a bygone age.”
    Given Alperovitzs’ take on historical progression, Nixon is an historical figure from a bygone age. The contemporary politicos make Nixon look like a political paragon with a tragic flaw. That’s how far we’ve sunk. Arguably, an era has ended, the present is midwife to a new “Neo-Feudal” age. Perhaps you should have phrased it; “..a bygone Golden Age.”
    I do agree strongly with you about the significance of the MSMs non reporting on the subject of co-ops.

  2. Field Marshall MacLuhan

    Last year, I and a few friends tried and failed to launch a bicycle messenger co-op in Toronto. The courier business is precisely the kind of industry in which the co-operative model makes the most sense. It is ruthlessly exploitative even by today’s standards; workers are expected to risk their lives many times daily, often in miserable weather, for less than a poverty-level income. Also, in the majority of cases, couriers are classified as ‘independant contractors’ and thus get none of the benefits of real employment. (At least as a Canadian I didn’t have to worry about health care costs if I got injured on the job – a very distinct possibility on any given day. There is even a Bike Messengers’ Emergency Fund to help injured couriers with their medical bills, since their employers most certainly won’t.)

    The main reason our plans to put together a co-op failed is, as far as I can tell, that we simply didn’t take it seriously enough. Our meetings were unbusinesslike (too much beer and too many bong hits), and we were unable to translate our initial enthusiasm into a viable business model. We simply weren’t willing to do the necessary slogging – a charge I level at myself as much as anyone. I did learn a lot from the experience, though, and will be happy to try again if the occasion arises.

    So if anyone reading this is thinking of starting up a co-operative business, understand that it involves a lot more effort and responsibility than taking a job as an employee of someone else’s firm. But the rewards – in income, self-determination and dignity – vastly outstrip the costs in time and frustration.

  3. Huckleberry

    Mondragon, Mondragon, Mondragon… this has become the default Real World example for many on the Left.

    The arrangement is fine as far as it goes, but I think there are some specific local conditions which make me wonder if it could work anywhere else.

    I think we need to think bigger than Mondragon…

    1. John

      Huckleberry: In a lot of ways, Emilia Romagna might be a much better example to emulate—but it’s harder to get a handle on what’s going on their precisely because it’s more of a dense network of cooperatives, rather than a fairly hierarchical structure like Mondragon.

    2. Alejandro

      The mighty Oak starts with an acorn.

      31He presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; 32and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR come and NEST IN ITS BRANCHES.”(Mat 13:31,32)

  4. PhilJoMar

    The “what is to be done” line is completely tied to an anglophone sensibility. Someone with more grammatical knowledge could help out with this mixture of present tense and passive infinitive. The Russian is Shto Dyelat. Which is much simpler and is more vague. “What to do” is a much better translation. I can’t remember its content or context but you ought not to read what happened into a simple phrase. It’s this kind of sloppiness that always makes me wonder about the rest of someone’s article.

      1. Tim Mason

        … nevertheless … The passive form is not always and only used to hide agency: sometimes it is quite clear who or what the missing subject is, sometimes the identity of the subject is the question, and sometimes there are other reasons : it’s the analyst’s job to carefully look them through.

        In the present case, I don’t know Russian, but the title of his pamphlet is translated into French as “Que faire?” (Note the question mark). Pragmatically, this is often used as a demand to listeners to take account of the impossible nature of the situation – something like wtf can we do about it? Someone who asks such a question rhetorically, and then answers it, it bringing sage counsel to the despairing – which may be what Lenin saw himself doing.

        In any case, the expression can – and has been – translated as “What Shall We Do?” This is the title of the novel which Lenin was thinking of when he wrote WITB. The author, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, was in prison when he wrote it, and its depiction of revolutionary heroism caught the imagination of the Bolshevicks.

        So rather than hiding its agent, Lenin’s title points to a voluntarist refusal of defeat. And, arguably, the agent that Lenin advances in the pamphlet is the working class, rather than the Party. If you’re interested in such arguments, you can look here : http://www.socialistdemocracy.org/Reviews/ReviewLeninRediscoveredPart1.html .

        Pragmatic analysis can be illuminating, but there are no short cuts. The passive is not monofunctional, and Russian isn’t English.

        1. John Drinkwater

          Tim Mason,

          The title of Chernyshevsky’s novel is the same as Lenin’s pamphlet, and also features a question mark: Shto Delat? or What is to be Done? (that is the best translation, btw).

          In neither C’s novel nor in L’s pamphlet is the agent the working class, but rather revolutionary figures who will lead. Rakhmetov is the self-denying revolutionary figure in C’s novel who eschews alcohol, sex, and sleeps on a bed of nails so as to prepare himself to lead a revolutionary struggle.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Adding an even more important point: It’s important not to fall into the trap of projecting our own domestic politics onto other countries. (In fact, I was going to cite Zhou Enlai on “it’s too soon to tell,” when I discovered that the typical use of that phrase also involves projection.) So, knowing the trap, I fell into it anyhow! [winces ruefully]

      * * *

      That said, as the added bracketed portion implies, domestic vanguardists quoting Lenin do show IMNSHO the characteristics I describe, regardless of the Russian context.

  5. Anarcissie

    One arrives at the cooperative by a process of elimination. Private capitalism fails; socialism in the form of ‘state capitalism’ (Lenin’s phrase) fails. The alternative seems to be self-organizing, bottom-up systems: cooperatives. But there are problems. Most current workers do not want to participate in the management of their workplaces; they won’t even join unions. For workers to own and control their means of production, they must be willing to assume the burdens. Otherwise they will be ruled by elites. But management is tedious. Another major problem is that we do not yet have much experience in scaling up cooperative enterprises so that they remain cooperative. Yet another is we do not know how a cooperative community would deal with the poor. Buy them off, as in the social-democratic capitalist state? Large-scale cooperativism is a new country.

    Nevertheless, the cooperative model seems to be the only way forward at this point.

    1. diptherio

      “Most current workers do not want to participate in the management of their workplaces; they won’t even join unions.”

      Unless you have some survey data to back-up that first contention, I’m not prepared to believe it. Why? Because at every crap job I have ever worked, better ways to do our jobs has almost always been a major topic of conversation amongst the staff.

      And union membership has nothing to do with participating in management. When I was a Teamster, I didn’t have any more say over my job or our shop organization than when I was working in a non-union job. In neither situation was I allowed a voice in how things got done.

      And I think if you asked, most employees would LOVE to have a vote in how the business’s profits get divvied up.

      “For workers to own and control their means of production, they must be willing to assume the burdens. Otherwise they will be ruled by elites. But management is tedious.”

      Co-ops have all different types of structures. In some, like the Arizmendi bakeries in the SF Bay area, all the workers (theoretically) share in all the responsibilities, including management tasks. In others (like an engineering co-op whose name escapes me) the worker-owners have decided to maintain a more traditional hierarchical structure, with the key exception being that the management structure is democratically approved and controlled.

      The co-operative model is highly flexible: worker-owners who don’t want anything to do with management tasks don’t have to…as long as that is democratically approved.

      Another major problem is that we do not yet have much experience in scaling up cooperative enterprises so that they remain cooperative.

      This is an important issue: Scale. It might be the case that there is no good way to scale-up a single co-op without having it lose its cooperative nature (and the benefits that go with that). The UK’s Co-op Bank is the current case-in-point.

      Some of us think that it might be more advisable to have networks of small, local co-ops, rather than single, large, nation-spanning co-ops. Credit Unions, for instance, have the nationwide Co-op ATM network.

      I think federation is the way to go, not necessarily up-sizing (although relatively large co-ops may well be beneficial or even necessary in some instances).

      Yet another is we do not know how a cooperative community would deal with the poor. Buy them off, as in the social-democratic capitalist state? Large-scale cooperativism is a new country.

      Why do you make a distinction between “cooperative community” and “the poor.” Often, there is a good bit of overlap between those two groups…like me, for instance. A lot of us cooperators, in fact. And, to the extent that co-ops alter the social control of the means of production, they also tend to decrease poverty and provide better wages and benefits to their worker-owners than capitalist businesses. Co-ops are also more stable than capitalist businesses, and survive economic downturns better (see link below).

      Everyone is focused on Fagor and Co-op Bank right now, but they are the exceptions. On the whole, coops have survived the downturn quite well. And it’s not their structure as co-ops that did Fagor and Co-op in: it’s the shite economy that has taken down plenty of capitalist firms as well.

      We do have a long way to go, and a lot of educating and experimenting to do, before co-ops actually change the shape of the global economy; but that just means we need to get working on it NOW.

      1. The Black Swan

        This article is very serendipitous, as I have been thinking a lot about co-ops lately. I truly think this is the only way we can get out of the mess of neo-liberal capitalism. It is going to take a lot of work and large cultural change, but I think the most convincing argument that can be made, is success. People need to be shown and made more aware that not only these options exist, but that they can deliver a better quality of life than our current economic/social model.

        If enough co-ops, covering a variety of activities, could merge under their own fiscal structure, could we effectively sidestep the current regime? If we had say, a housing co-op, a farm co-op, a bank co-op, an arts co-op, a transportation co-op, a medical co-op, etc. all under one umbrella, could they issue a common currency to be used only within the co-op network?

        I don’t see revolution as a way out of our current mess, I think the best option is to find new ways to work together and make the current system irrelevant.

    2. RanDomino

      Syndicalism. The forgotten third alternative to capitalism and communism. At one time, far stronger than the latter; now totally excised from popular history because those who serve power consider it a threat.

        1. RanDomino

          Supposedly the modern CNT has around 25,000 members; basically not worth mentioning. Especially considering it’s the leftovers of a three-way split.

    3. jrs

      Also because you can’t overthrow the system. It’s got more guns than you ever will and even if victory was possible it would come at tremendous cost. AND you can only make marginal changes by voting in a money controlled corporate “democracy” (one leg at best – sometimes more like a stump).

  6. diptherio

    Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) has probably the deepest website for information on co-ops and the solidarity economy in general. The GEO collective (formerly Changing Work magazine) has been around since the 80’s and used to be just about the only co-op news and information source in the U.S. There is an incredible amount of information on starting and running worker-owned co-ops in the archives (hopefully, we’ll get a grant this year to make our old print issues, now in .pdf format, searchable as well). Anyone interested in the Co-op movement should be sure to bookmark GEO’s site (and keep an eye out for our legendary mini-Conferences).

    Here are some additional links cooperators may find engaging:

    Raising Capital for Co-ops ~Jenny Kassan of Cutting Edge Capital.

    Exploring the Potential of Co-op Led Development: The Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives ~GEO

    Editor’s Note: The Valley Aliance of Worker Co-ops (VAWC) received the 2013 Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy’s Award for Co-operative Advocacy and Development. The award specified not only VAWC’s commitment to co-op led development, but their numerous successful worker co-op conversions, the many presentations of their model of development, and the high level of their co-op leadership in the movement. Its work is based on a well-thought out development plan based on adapting structures and strategies used by Mondragon and in Northern Italy to advance the development of worker co-ops in the US.

    Who Can You Trust to Cope With Climate Disasters? ~GEO interview with Keith McHenry

    Cooperatives have the “DNA of Sustainability” ~The Coop News

    Mr Herbert said: “Co-operatives are anti-capitalist, it is inherent to their DNA. My advice to the movement is to keep on going, keep promoting your co-operative difference. Sustainable development is a sweet spot for co-operatives. It’s about reframing the agenda, prosperity and solving problems rather than creating problems.”

  7. IowanX

    It looks like models ARE changing…they are crowd-sourcing investment in commercial real estate in DC. https://fundrise.com/

    BTW, click on the “blog” button on this site–interesting article about the failed development project by the DC ballpark, including the developers Excel pro-forma.

  8. myshkin

    Thanks for this Lambert. The dilemna of neo-liberal ersatz ideology, rebooting with every socio-economic failure at default market solutions as the common denominator that all parties agree on is depressing as hell. We’re caught on a merry-go-round, where the brass ring is a mechanism for redistributing from the have-nots to the haves and no way out of the fun house now that money is codified as speech.

    Alperovitz is not optimistic but he does suggest that the groundwork has already been laid for one possible way out of the seemingly inescapable maze. With the demise of unions and shredded vestiges of the New Deal the artifice of choice within a political polarity is maintained with hot button social issues as rallying points for oppositional forces; these are important issues but not the fundamental, transformative structural policy that has been all but removed from the discourse and critical to survival.

  9. Banger

    The general direction suggested by the lecture is one I’ve been advocating for almost a decade and, sadly, there has been little interest in it and not (as some of you would suspect) because I was advocating it. The reason this notion is unpopular in many quarters of the left is that it requires clear action, organization and commitment. It is far easier to criticize the pols and oligarchs and shake our collective fists at them.

    The way is open for cooperatives and collectives of all kinds. They need not be in the shape suggested above. These possibilities, also, can only occur locally which requires a move away from focusing on national issues. Our focus on national (or international) issues comes from the mainstream media which we are addicted to no matter our political affiliation. That media is, with some exceptions on the margins, about the mission of disinformation, misdirection and PR/Propaganda for the dominant institutions that run our country–they want only one result–the status-quo. That doesn’t mean they are all “bad” that’s just who they are and it is their role to be conservative perhaps with the exception of Fox News which seems to want a bit more chaos than the other institutions.

    Our job on the left ought to be to stop supporting the idea that the Federal gov’t can offer us much of anything other than some duct tape to solve our collective problems. The way things are structured right now it cannot do the job. Real reform, as we’ve seen with Obamacare is not just unlikely but totally impossible the way things are structured. There are a myriad of imaginative, creative and pragmatic solutions to any collective issue you can imagine out there but not one, NOT ONE, can ever be implemented because of the current structure of not just the bureaucracy but the political system which is, like the media, only interested in keeping things as is as much as possible. Same people in power, same columnists and on air personalities (who have a track record of being wrong in every major issue that comes down the pike) who are actually political operatives or shills for some corporate interests like the idiots on the business channels. Even if we could get a majority of Congress people to be progressive and Liz Warren as President change would take many years–which doesn’t mean not advocating for that eventuality–but just that is not where the impetus for change is going to come from.

    Cooperatives, collectives, communes, co-housing, affinity groups, Bible study groups, Yoga groups, cities, towns, states and so on all have a role to play, i.e., bringing us into connection with other people for common purposes which is, in my view, the most revolutionary act any of can perform because it can lead to common action, it can lead to being a laboratory of direct (rather than abstract) compassion and a means to build what we lack most in our society: community. From those efforts I believe we will weather the difficulties ahead which seem to me to be more or less inevitable and it is the one counter to corporate power that has hope to bring us a better world.

  10. eeyores enigma

    I find it amazing and highly disturbing that the entire conversation has strayed from resource depletion.

    What the world is reacting to is resource depletion and the effects of the waste stream from the modern world yet the only discussion topics are We’re talking about unemployment, poverty, climate change, dislocation, no jobs, no health care…

    With the exception of Climate Change, which is only one albeit perhaps the biggest effect of our waste stream, it is made to sound like this is just a political, economical, social adjustment then we can get back to business.

    Economics has at least something to do with balancing resources with possible output but it seems that even progressive econ folk are leaving out the fact that virtually every natural resource is coming under heavy constraints and the planet is flat out unable to handle the continued waste stream.

    It really is that simple and focusing on fixing the political, economic, or social conditions without first and foremost understanding that these are the universal constraints that determine the future of life on this planet is like playing the board game LIFE using the instructions of the game MONOPOLY.

    1. diptherio

      If we assume that business enterprises must be involved in dealing with our resource depletion problems, which type of business is more likely to respond appropriately: a capitalist business or a cooperatively-run business.

      Myself and others are inclined to believe that the capitalist business structure itself is a major stumbling block to addressing our pressing resource issues. Co-ops might not be the answer, but they make addressing the problems more likely.

      1. anon y'mouse

        i’m with you on this, but the problem posed above by eeyore and the problem of ‘the poor’ are also entangled with this.

        it’s one thing to think that a society of co-ops will be more responsive due to their democratic structure, to the challenges facing our techno-industrial civilization and inequality, but this is not necessarily a given. co-ops might simply be cast as more equitable workplaces, with greater employee control. their motivations and business operations do not necessarily have to diverge from the normal corporate ‘for profit’ =rape the environment and the less fortunate to fill our coffers= in any way, other than that the cumulative morality of the employee-owner-managers would hold them back from such behaviors.

        until we recognize that those ‘poor people’ must be incorporated into the society because they aren’t just going to exist on the fringe forever (which they might well do even in co-op heaven) or alternately die and relieve us of the burden of worrying about them, and until we recognize the real limitations we’re laboring under from the environment (which I feel could be paradoxically addressed by guaranteeing everyone a comfortable but sparse standard of living. the “meMINE” mentality being born out of some kind of immature outrage that someone isn’t getting “enough” which is overwhelmingly catered to in a culture of scarcity. just witness spoiled children. it usually isn’t about having the thing in itself, but gloating about the sibling/playmate’s lack), we’re going to have to keep our eyes on more than Co-Op Utopia going into the future.

        that said, diptherio—you seem to be an expert on these co-op things. thanks for the link above~! I need to ‘get busy’ on that end, now that I’ve somewhat figured out why the current system is so whack.

  11. Expat

    I like Gar Alperovitz and his advocacy of co-ops, but this presentation leaves out much of the history. During the US’s Great Compression (Roosevelt to Nixon), co-ops of all sorts flourished. Middle class consumer cooperatives were a significant presence in Berkeley and the DC area covering everything from groceries to furniture, credit unions offered 7 1/2% interest savings accounts, a few pilot health care co-ops offered effective preventive care via doctors on salary, and so on. Under Carter, the Co-op Bank was established but instead of funding a vast expansion of this democratic alternative to corporate kleptocracy, it perished along with all the major consumer co-ops with the neoliberals triumph of Reagan’s election.

    I’ve never understood how these co-ops, which had tens of thousands of members, could disappear into a black hole in just a couple of years, but they did. The remnant food co-ops that survive here and there are no comparison.

    In Canada, credit unions were attacked by the banksters through legislative changes and the power of persuasion. Now indistinguishable from their banker bretheren, credit union ceos take home oversize salaries, co-opt their member-elected boards, and snuggle up to community elites rather than lowering rates and opening up credit opportunities for the benefit of all of their members. Much easier to pocket the surplus than to distribute it as a dividend! And this type of corruption keeps the bankers quiet.

    1. RanDomino

      Consumer co-ops are treated by consumers as nothing different from any other business. If the only difference is some kind of voting system for the board, with employees experiencing the same boss-serf relationship as in any other business, then there is nothing admirable occuring, and it is no tragedy when it folds.

      1. Expat

        Sorry, it was a tragedy for hundreds of thousands of co-op members. The quality of life in the US dramatically declined when they disappeared. Presumably, satified co-op members were a threat to the neoliberal project of reducing the US to a pile of billionaires.

      2. Lambert Strether Post author

        Exactly. I think part of what’s killing us is the 40 hour week, if you have one, and the zero hour week, if you don’t.

        If the 20 hour week provided a living wage, it would be easier for workers to pay the price in time that democracy takes.

        1. RanDomino

          Referring specifically to consumer co-ops, the issue of democracy is compounded- both the lack of democracy of the workers, and the impossibility of democracy of many thousands or even millions of disorganized and atomized “owners”. In practice, the bureaucracy runs the show.

  12. Kevin Egan

    When my wife and I were in grad school and raising two kids, our family belonged to a parent-staffed daycare coop for seven years: one of the best experiences of my life in terms both of parenting and of political and social engagement.

    The childcare was incomparable, as was the community building and the formation of lifelong friendships. It also cost about 1/3 of other daycares, since we had only one full-time teacher; the rest of the staff were us parents, and we had to pay rent and supplies. We had an evening meeting every three weeks, which alternated between business meetings (all logistical matters, including recruiting new families) and kid meetings (just talking about how the kids were doing).

    We had a sliding scale, but our fees when we were both teaching full-time were about $400/month for two kids in the early to mid-nineties; some families paid half that. We each worked there half a day a week, which is easy on an academic schedule, but we had professionals who were able to do that also. Everyone could do it if we had enlightened employers or enabling legislation.

    Compare that to working couples in New York City now who are spending 1/3 of their income on childcare, sometimes more, and unless it’s a coop, I can’t imagine that the experience is as great as it was for us.

    One of the best aspects of our daycare was the wonderful parents whom you knew and worked with and who became like extended family, and so took a special kind of care of your children: based on reciprocity, because you were taking care of theirs. And when our kids moved on to kindergarten, they had an exceptional ability to work with teachers and other adults, to get what they needed from school: they’ve carried that with them ever since (now in college). The advantages of Head Start, in other words, but magnified by additional time and other aspects of the care.

    It was a lot of work, there were personality clashes of course, and it depended to a huge extent on having an enormously gifted master teacher who was also a resourceful diplomat, capable of herding the strong personalities of 15 kids’ parents more or less in the same direction at all times. But it’s easier to find one great teacher than a schoolful, and the closeness you have with your kids even though they’re in daycare is priceless, and not achievable any other way that I know of.

    Thank you, Children’s Coop Daycare of New Haven! Thank you, Bern, our beloved teacher! Thank you, all you wonderful kids and parents!

    I don’t usually bare my heart in internet comments, but I put that there because, 20 years later, that’s exactly how I feel, and I think that says something important about the lasting, precious value that can come with the best coop experiences. I imagine the people of Mondragon feel rather similar feelings. As e.e. cummings put it, “There’s a hell of a good world next door: let’s go!”

  13. Minor Heretic

    I live in Vermont, where at least 50% of residents belong to at least one cooperative. For me it’s a food cooperative, a credit union, and a cooperative insurance company. I also work in a partnership, which might be called a cooperative in all but legal designation.

    My level of participation in each varies from all-in to mere customer. I spent a couple of years on the food coop governing council. In each case, whatever my engagement, the benefits have been both economic and social. One key benefit in each case is a sense of control and personal dignity. When you own a piece of the joint you realize that it is serving you, not vice versa.

    The most important characteristic of coops is that they are far more intelligent than corporations. Corporations can have intelligent managers, but their myopic pursuit of profit and growth at all costs renders them stupid. It’s like a meth addict with a highly competent personal assistant. Cooperatives can and do take into account a wider variety of influences, values, and goals in their planning and management.

    A cooperative is going to respect the local environment because the owners live within commuting distance. Likewise local infrastructure and social needs. Members of a workers cooperative aren’t going to offshore their own jobs.

    It’s better than a union because there is no intrinsic adversarial relationship. (With all the nitpicking stupidities that engenders)

    The problem with a transition to coops is that corporations have rigged the law to their own benefit. They are able to bring great power to bear on the economy and the government. The first step towards a cooperative future is to break the money tie between corporate elites and the electoral process.

  14. Daniel

    Actually, the Russian title of Lenin’s brochure, Chto Delat’? means, literally, “What To Do?”. It is the same title as that used in the 19th century by populist N. G. Chernyshevskii. Whatever one thinks of Lenin’s politcs (or Chernyshevskii’s), the title means pretty much what Alperovitz’s title does.

  15. Daniel

    Whoops–I went right from the article to my comment (just above) without reading previous comments that corrected the translation and interpretation of Lenin’s title–and so I also missed the author’s mea culpa. Sorry! Didnt mean to pile on.

    1. RanDomino

      ” a large part of the Swiss population are members of the Migros cooperative – around 2 million of Switzerland’s total population of 7.2 million,[2][3] thus making Migros a supermarket chain that is owned by its customers”

      So a consumer co-op. Nothing to write home about. See my comment above.

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