Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Future Without Us

Co-operatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility. ~Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General

For me, it started with Ronald Reagan's joke from a quarter century ago: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help." 

Ha ha! That's so true! Everyone has found himself aggravated at an incompetent postal worker, or frustrated by waiting in an impossibly long line at the DMV, or has at least read stories about a ridiculous snafu at some agency or department. Black humor about our institutions is as old as institutions. It's human nature. The very word "snafu" was invented by soldiers during World War II as a sarcastic joke about the inefficiencies and incompetencies of the institution of the military. It's not that these soldiers were on the verge of overturning their government because of it, but rather that they were acknowledging, wryly, as we all do from time to time, the imperfections, both large and small, of we the people.

After all, in a democracy "government" is the name we give to the things we elect to do together. Ideally, we are the government. When we engaged in black humor, we were laughing at ourselves, at the challenges of self-governance, sometimes through our tears. But something different began to happen after Reagan's joke. Some of us laughed together in the old way, but others simply stayed angry at "the government." The nature of our relationship to one another through government began to change dramatically after that. Instead of government meaning "we the people," it has come for many to mean, quite simply, "the enemy." Whenever I hear a man ranting about the evils of government, I can't help but hear it as a kind of self-loathing, a confessional about having lost faith in the ability his fellow man to self-govern.

It's gotten so bad these days, that to even suggest that government can be an agent for good, is to risk being called a "socialist." These are the people who instead look to the corporation as a superior model for organizing humans to do things together. In fact, it's become, as Jim Hightower recently wrote, the conventional wisdom:

We're being told by today's High Priests of Conventional Wisdom that everyone and everything in our economic cosmos necessarily revolves around ones dazzling star: the corporation . . . This heavenly institution . . . has such financial and political mass that it is the optimal force for organizing and directing our society's economic affairs . . .

Of course, a corporation, with all its vaunted "efficiencies," is not a democratic institution, but rather a classic top-down dictatorship. The price of these efficiencies is democracy. 

. . . other forces . . . in play (workers, consumers, the environment, communities and so forth) . . . are subordinate to the superior gravitational pull of the corporate order.

It may not lead to the best of all possible worlds, but I guess some people take comfort in a universe with easy to understand motives, none being more simple and straight-forward than the profit motive.

And that is the political divide with which we're now struggling in America: you're either a capitalist or a socialist with very little oxygen left over for anything else. I don't know about you, but I'm neither of those things. I like my computer that was built by capitalists and I like the security of knowing I will be protected in my twilight years by my socialist Medicare. I like my store shelves lined with ever-improving products brought to me courtesy of free market competition and I like my socialist roads, sidewalks, clean air, court systems, fire departments and police forces. 

In other words, while our nation's future is being fought out on increasingly partisan and extremist terms, most of us, most of the time, live in a real world that is neither fish nor fowl. There is so much more going on out there than capitalism and socialism.

For instance, I teach at a cooperative preschool, a truly democratic institution that is neither capitalist nor socialist, a model that allows us to borrow the best of both and reject the worst.

While it's rarely mentioned by the conventional media, completely missing in the political discourse, not considered by economic planners and chambers of commerce and not known by most of the public, there are 30,000 cooperatives in America . . . (with) 130 million members, registering $653 billion in sales and employing more than 2 million people.

If you've ever shopped at an ACE or True Value Hardware store, you've done business with a cooperative. If you've ever spent the night in a Best Western Hotel, drank a glass of milk from Organic Valley, purchased a parka from REI, or banked at a credit union, you've done business with a cooperative. Cooperatives can be worker-owned or consumer-owned enterprises and have successfully operated in every segment of our economy, from manufacturing, to finance, to health care, to food, to education, all without the "incentive" of profit or the necessity for taxpayer subsidies.

In the case of Woodland Park, the parents who enroll their children become the "management team." The entire parent community makes decisions. The entire parent community hires and fires. The entire parent community observes and participates in every activity that takes place within the four walls of our school. On a day-to-day basis, my "bosses" work in the classroom under my supervision, flip-flopping the traditional employer-employee relationship. We are all in the trenches together, so to speak, sharing the work, rewards and challenges. These are not just the parents of my students; they are my colleagues, allies, and friends.

When the "customers" own the business, and decision-making is democratic, it stands to reason that they will focus like a laser on fulfilling their own wants and needs, rather than mere profit. When the "employees" hire, fire and pay their own "bosses," the actual performance of management isn't hidden in the puffy language of annual reports or stockholder meetings. Performance is totally transparent, found right there in the daily reality of how the institution functions. Cooperative owners, incentivised by the desire to continue to have their "jobs" well into the future, tend to focus on the long-term health of the institution rather than this quarter's profits. When corporate bosses hire, fire, and pay employees, we ultimately wind up with an adversarial relationship in which labor becomes just another expense to cut because management is incentivized to look to the next dividend checks. When compensation is a matter of cooperative negotiation, "labor" becomes an asset or even (dare I suggest it?) human beings. And, of course, there is no better way to rein-in excessive executive pay.

To put it bluntly, the profit motive relies on avarice and competition to achieve its ends, while cooperatives depend on the ability of equals coming together cooperatively to find the balance that provides what the community wants and needs at the lowest possible cost, a balance arrived at democratically. And that is neither capitalism nor socialism.

The United Nations has recognized 2012 as the "International Year of Co-operatives," something you've not likely heard about. Earlier in this post I gave you the statistics for cooperatives in the US., but get this: there are around a billion of us worldwide who are engaged in some way in cooperative enterprises either as customers, employees, or members, generating $1.6 trillion in revenues. If we were a nation, we would have the ninth largest economy in the world. We do this without lobbyists or publicists; without highly paid executives or corrupt politicians. We go head-to-head with both corporations and governmental agencies. 

The fact that we have grown so large, so quietly, amazes me. The fact that we can do this with integrity, with humanity, and without fanfare is astounding, and is a powerful testament to what democratic self-governance can do.

We still joke darkly about our incompetencies and inefficiencies, of course, because that is in the nature of all human enterprises, but I remain proud of what cooperatives have done, and am excited about what we will do in the future. Indeed, I can't imagine much of a future without us. 

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