“The old temptation of Esau, who sold his birthright for a plate of beans, is something that is something that is constantly being offered to people. Workers, with their hope and right to a new order, have the same temptation in front of them: the options to obtaining immediate advantage.”–Don J. M. Arizmendiarrieta
It may not feel like it, depending on where you live, but the efforts to flatten the curve have begun to take effect although as a friend of mine, The Evergreen State College professor Zoltan Grossman points out, there is still a long way to go: “Even if the slope has become a little less steep, the toughest part is still ahead, when we’ll be most out of breath—figuratively and literally. We’re not yet at the top, the point of maximum human suffering, and only then will we start to descend on the other side, and it will take a while to go down.”
Nevertheless, co-op people, and especially those of us working with co-op people need to think ahead to when the stay at home orders get lifted and the rubble of the economy can have our full attention. As Naomi Klein documented so well in Shock Doctrine, not planning for the recovery now may allow the worst aspects of humanity to jump into the void to seek their advantage. The vulture capitalist class likely already has a plan.
As the quote suggests, of course, people are in a tough position and it may be tempting to take the short term hand-out ($1,200) instead of pressing for change. We need to be formulating plans to help workers buy their companies as co-ops (not ESOPs). We need to create new financial instruments to help homeowners collectively buy their homes as limited equity co-ops not condos. Most importantly, we need to be ready for the next time–we need to create solidarity funds wherever we can create them.
Our CDFIs that service co-ops could dedicate a percentage of the interest to a solidarity fund that would protect those with existing loans. Co-op networks such as the US Federation, NCBA/CLUSA, NCG* could build funds into their membership program through their dues structure and our insurance mutuals could provide a backstop for extreme once-in-a-century events (like a global pandemic that forces 1/2 of the world’s population to shelter-in-place).
More importantly, though, we need to create some messaging for our co-op members and workers in the non-coop workers, that this is, despite how horrible it may seem, a moment of opportunity to change our economy to one that values human life and a dignified workplace. There will be all sorts of calls to “return to normal”, but I don’t recall that “normal” was all that great. The siren call will be that people need to enjoy life again and get back into nightclubs, restaurants, and the beaches. I agree, and our messaging should reflect that urge. We just should argue that those venues could be cooperatively owned and managed.
The last pandemic on this scale was the 1918 Flu. It also occurred as the most horrific war to that point in human history came to an end. It shouldn’t surprise people that the 1920s became a decade of hedonism that led to a global depression and a war even more horrific than World War I. But that wasn’t the only story. The labor movement gained new life: three general strikes in Toledo, OH, Minneapolis, MN, and San Francisco, CA led to a rebirth of the radical and industrial labor movement. The Harlem Renaissance revived the push for civil and human rights for African-Americans. The decade wasn’t just gambling on the stock market and speakeasys. Unfortunately, the structurally unsound foundations of the system remained intact.
For the last decade, the Co-op community has been saying that this is “our moment”. Now, more than ever, it is our opportunity to claim our moment and make it an era. We can replace the foundation with a solid cooperative model. Between the retiring small business owners and the pressure of the pandemic, there has never been a time to engage in wholesale change of the economic system. To do so, we need to keep true to our values and avoid short-term solutions to long-term problems.