Pensiamentos on Co-operative Democracy

“Our beloved democracy may degenerate into a dictatorship through the abuse of power of those at the top as well as through the renunciation of power of those at the bottom.” (2.4.099)–Don José María Arizmendiaretta in Reflections

He had already watched this happen to Spain. In this context, Arizmendi speaks of the workplace democracy. Of course, this is a great truism for any society and we must think of our work places as societies. The people at the “top” in a democracy have the temporary use of power because of the permanent power of the people at the “bottom”. Although I don’t care for the “top/bottom” dichotomy, it is important to understand that the leaders are created by the masses. The leaders, in our democracies, do not “lead” as much as they “follow”. They should reflect, accurately as possible, the will of the people.

Of course, this is the point that Arizmendi worries about. The people can easily forsake their power. The power doesn’t go away, but if the workers don’t use it then others will. In a workplace, this might be called the “Agency Dilemma” as a professional managerial class grabs that unused power for their own preservation of status. Arizmendi, who witnessed the ability of fascists to destroy a democracy, knows that the fuel of democracy is constant vigilance and engagement by the people. In the United States today, we have seen the effects of allowing “leaders” to engage in manipulation and deceit to obtain that power–the false promise of jobs translated into union busting, the attack on working class families, women, public education, and a host of other “reforms” designed to enrich the few by depriving the many.

Our co-operatives are societies on a much smaller scale, but we still need to be engaged. There is a “big fish/small pond” effect in worker co-operatives. People socialized in the larger society tend to bring some of the bad lessons with them. Demagoguery is not an alien concept in worker co-operatives, nor is the scapegoating of members or groups of members unheard of in our co-operatives. However, these negative and uncooperative traits only have power when workers fail to use their power engage the cooperative principle of being educated and staying informed.

If we renounce our control of our co-operatives as workers (let it be someone else’s problem), we should not be surprised to learn that someone else will use that power–it may be for the overall good of the co-op or it may not; the point is that we will have little say in the matter. Co-operation is not something that happens one day a year at the annual meeting. It is an ongoing process.

Keep in mind, that I am not arguing that we presume that our leaders are false–my experience is that most people who accept leadership positions in worker co-operatives are truly admirable people. However, a democracy requires engagement. It requires people to debate issues, build engagement, and ensure that the decisions that get made have significant (if not majority) support among the membership. It is better for a board or membership to decide something by one vote margin with a lot of discussion than to have a unanimous vote with little membership input. This isn’t about agreement, it is about engagement.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-op in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University and hopes to finish his Ph.D. in Business Administration soon. He has served on the board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the Board of Governors for the Democracy at Work Network. He currently sits on the Co-op Circle and Mission Circle for Sociocracy for All. He teaches on worker co-operatives and democratic management in the summer at The Evergreen State College.
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