It Is Okay to Criticize Co-ops, We Know We Aren’t Perfect

In thumbing through Don José María Arizmendiaretta’s book of reflections (Pensamientos), I came across a neat quote regarding the value of criticism and acknowledging that co-operatives do not ensure perfection.

“We do not apologize for shortcomings that may be pointed out to us. We are on the way. We appreciate those who make us take conscience of our defects and also our lack of fidelity to some principles that we have taken as ours. Seeing ourselves as weak and powerless, but not disloyal to the cause of work and social justice, we ask all to help us.”

It isn’t uncommon to hear critics of our co-operatives (especially the consumer owned co-operatives) find some act on our part and cry foul. This charge always puts us on the defensive, but it hurts even more when the attack comes from within our co-operatives.

It usually begins with anger at a certain action and then broadening the meaning of that action to a failure of the co-operative (in terms of its principles) and even a failure of the entire movement as an alternative to the capitalist market economy. It depends on deeming our co-operatives, its leaders, or even its membership as hypocrites. The attack, however, is usually solipsistic at best and disingenuous at worst.

Of course we aren’t going to be perfect! First, we are humans who by our nature and limited knowledge of the world and events cannot know or contain all of the information to make the most perfect decision every time. Of course, the idea of “perfection” is, in itself, a social construction. It is quite honest and possible for members of a co-operative to have a legitimate disagreement over a strategy within the principles of the co-operative movement. They can vehemently disagree and even be diametrically opposed without being “wrong” and both positions may still be within the concept of the co-operative principles.

Secondly, our co-operatives do not exist in a vacuum or in a world in which co-operatives are the only business model. Why I won’t go so far as to argue that we can’t have socialism in only one country (or co-operation in only one workplace), we must recognize that the world is aligned against us. This gets to the interesting choice of Arizmendiaretta’s words in referring to our movement as “weak and powerless.” Of course, we aren’t–within our world. However, as recent events in the United States have shown, the power and strength of a single worker co-operative or even a national federation pales in comparison to a single investment group controlled by two brothers. While we would like to control our destiny as Father Coady would urge us, we really only have the power to strategically play in the Koch Brothers’ world. We can strive for and envision a day when it will be our world, we can scratch out small areas that allow us a certain amount of liberty and self-determination, but ultimately we will spend our energy reacting to the dominant capitalist class that we compete against.

In that struggle, we will make unpopular decisions. Some will be to survive another day, others will be to plant the seeds of revolution for a future not yet born, and others will be caused by the lure, and dominance of the capitalist myth. Like the Sirens calling to Odysseus, this call can be devastating to our co-operatives, however, we have a secret weapon to overcome it.

We criticize–we have open meetings, we have honest discussions. We criticize each other and hopefully we do so from a position of wanting to help our co-operatives succeed, not from egotistical battles of who is more co-operative than whom. By engaging in honest critique, by listening to our harshest critics, we can become stronger and use our values and principles to build an even better economy.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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