Politics of worker co-ops.

Dr. Wolff, I thoroughly agree that worker co-ops have the potential for spreading the wealth, and opportunity for people in the work place, but can you comment on the history of work co-ops, and the resulting "people politics" that eventually comes to the surface, as a result of everyone having a say in how the system is run? I find it interesting, that while you and others keep recommending co-ops as an alternative to Capitalism, NO ONE talks about the inevitable...politics, that will come up. Why is that? I lived on a farm co-op once, and most of the 30 or so families that lived there had full time jobs away from the community, but we all ran the property like a co-op. Meaning, everyone had a vote on important things that needed to get done/added/removed/modified within the community, and, if one family out of the 30 *disagreed*, we all had to find a way to solve that family's concerns, before we could put a resolution to bed, and begin the task. And I will tell you, we didn't always agree. Sometimes it took weeks or months to decide. And that was on a farming co-op. I have also talked with managers who work in work-place co-ops, and I've been told there are a, "lot of family (their choice of words!) politics that come up," as a result of everyone having a vote, and that it is often much harder, just to decide what they're going to do with, how the system is run, where it's run, and what to do with the profits. It's easy to see why people would automatically default to wanting a small group of people, and a single CEO, 2000 miles away to just make the decisions, because quite often, people in groups...can't! Now magnify that to the scale of Mondragon. How the heck does a company that large, survive for this long, and not have political explosions in its decision making process, with that many people, having to *all* decide...together? You've been there, so can you please comment on this? Is it cultural? Is it group pressure? Are they all smoking a wacky weed we need to be aware of? How do they do it???

Official response from submitted

Good question and so it draws a complex answer as good questions usually do. First, the human race has mostly lived in cooperating units (villages, tribes, clans, extended families, and so on). True, some of them were run hierarchically (top down), but many, many of them (lasting centuries) were run cooperatively with dispersed, consensus-based decision-making. So it is simply not true that human beings cannot function democratically/collectively/cooperatively or that they will tend toward hierarchy. Second, both hierarchy and cooperation have strengths and weaknesses so that human beings usually organize themselves using various mixtures of both. Thus in the US we have a president but also Congress and 50 states and so on: ranges of hierarchy and collectivity interacting in shifting ways and balances. Most US families teach their children early on to learn to share with others as a kind of basic civic virtue; there are good reasons for that. Third, many societies have discovered and come to subscribe to a basic idea: human beings are most creative and productive and happy when they have real power over their lives, when they contribute to the decisions that shape their lives. Indeed, many societies subscribe to that idea even if they do not really structure themselves that way. Fourth, certain kinds of economic systems are more conducive to cooperation than others. Slavery, feudalism and capitalism all divide those engaged in producing needed goods and services into two very different positions: master/slave. lord/serf, employer/employee. Such economic divisions work against social cooperation (no matter how hard advocates of those systems insist they have social cooperation). On the contrary, economic systems that do not so divide people in production (self-employment economies, egalitarian tribal economics, communal economies) show much deeper and longer-lasting social cooperations. Fifth, there world shows many examples of hierarchical institutions being challenged, often successfully, by alternative, much more cooperative ways of organizing such institutions. Examples include the Protestant Reformation and its split from the Roman Catholic Church; the American revolution that opposed the extremely hierarchical feudal kingdom led by Britain's George III; Mondragon's successful development of cooperative industries instead of hierarchical capitalist enterprises; the ways in which citizens rise up against autocratic hierarchies in the political processes (our 1960s, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and so on.

Mondragon had and continues to have many challenges including one big one with which I will conclude this response to your good question. Coops existing within a larger non-coop based society are constantly finding that their members are affected by the hierarchical alternatives all around them. Mondragon members and their families watch Spanish TV which glorifies hierarchy and ignores or denigrates cooperation in many ways. Mondragon's members know what struggles are needed to build and sustain a cooperative structure, but they encounter difficulties getting their children to commit to such struggles because for them the coop seems to exist on its own without such struggles. To sustain democracy requires vigilance and struggle: the exact same applies to peace, freedom and cooperation. At least for the forseeable future, those key values are not secure enough to allow us to assume they will continue on their own. But struggle does not mean that those values are not achievable. Forsaking the struggle undercuts them and that leaves us all much worse off (no matter what the advocates of war, autocracy, hierarchy, etc would like us to think otherwise).


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  • Will Coope
    commented 2017-07-26 00:59:05 -0400
    An excellent reply, Prof. Wolff. My Republican father criticized socialism, asserting that human nature exhibited competitiveness to a greater degree than cooperation. It’s a dog eat dog world, he said; people naturally seek to aggrandize themselves at the expense of others. The strong dominate the weak.

    He gave no consideration to systemic influences in forming social relations and in stimulating individual and group behavior, American culture stresses individualism and, self-reliance. The “Horatio Alger” myth permeates the country’s collective consciousness. Anybody can attain riches and fame through hard work. If a person fails to achieve the “American dream,” it’s a person’s own fault. He or she hasn’t worked hard enough, or lacks the superior inborn traits necessary for elevated success.

    Americans buy into the lie that they live in a classless society. We all start out on a level playing field, and the fittest, smartest, hardest working, and most deserving rise to the top.

    As you pointed out, history has given us many examples that belie my father’s view of human nature. An economic system based on cooperation, democracy, sharing, equal apportionment of basic resources would accentuate and foster a different set of values than does capitalism. Human nature is malleable to a degree that many people fail to appreciate.
  • Donald Bellunduno
    commented 2017-07-22 20:37:06 -0400
    I sincerely hope you will discuss this during an upcoming talk on worker co-ops, and thank you for your reply!
  • Donald Bellunduno
    tagged this with Important 2017-07-22 20:37:05 -0400
  • Donald Bellunduno
    tagged this with good 2017-07-22 20:37:03 -0400
  • Richard Wolff
    responded with submitted 2017-07-22 11:37:16 -0400
  • Donald Bellunduno
    published this page in Ask Prof. Wolff 2017-07-22 09:51:07 -0400

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