Worker Co-ops Have a Moral Purpose

“There can never be great works without people giving generously and without them sacrificing their selfish appetites” ( Reflections, 134)

When times are good, it is easy to co-operate. When times are bad, co-operatives offer economic lifeboats. Unfortunately, not everyone in the lifeboat really gets co-operation. One of the downsides of the worker co-operative world is that we never seem to have the time to raise people’s consciousness. Thus, we often run the risk of becoming the oppressors that we overthrew.

Note to readers: my two-month sojourn in Halifax ends on International Co-operative Day (July 2nd) and I will be returning to Wisconsin (or what is left of it). I will attempt to get more regular posting done.

“Those who are selfish and those who are individualistic are the fifth column of co-operatives.” (Reflections, 136)

Co-operation is more than simply a means of working without a “boss”, it is an educational movement of the highest order in that it seeks to transform the individual worker from a mere “hand” or tool of the capitalist to a fully realized human being. The path between the two polarities is difficult partially because our society organized to have workers as tools and the wealthy as fully realized humans. This means that we must build the road as we travel. Sometimes, as the quotes above suggests, it seems that we must become saints in order to be co-operative.

We don’t need to join St. Ignatius, however, we do need to be circumspect. We live in a society that is based on greed and the exploitation of other people. Despite any religious upbringing, it is how we have been socialized and how our institutions have been constructed. We aren’t going to change these things overnight. Yet, we must try to make progress. Otherwise, what is the point of this movement?

We need to challenge each other on selfish needs just as we would demand that nobody hoard water in a lifeboat. It means reading the fine print–is the proposal being put forward designed to help everyone in the co-operative or create a system of winners and losers? This is the opposite of what is currently taking place in the world outside of our co-operatives. In my state, Wisconsin, it seems that the rule of the day has been to ransack the government for the good of a few (to even ignore the law). This tide will sink most boats, not raise them. It is very easy for us, as people living in the context of our societies, to model the behavior that we see in our elected officials. We even learn to speak in terms of “business” and “bottom lines” and how important the “budget” must be; but we must go beyond that.

“A healthy society is one in which one lives according to his or her own merits and where it becomes more and more difficult to live at the expense of others.” (Reflections, 443)

We don’t need to be saints, but co-operatives are moral organizations. They are societies (and even called that in the United Kingdom). By our existence we are working to create a better world. For those that aren’t interested in this aspect, there is a whole wide world already built to your desires.

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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