The Weeks of Decades Is Upon Us

The sign of vitality is not to endure, but to be reborn and to be able to adapt.

Don José María Arzimendiarrieta

There are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen.

V.I. Lenin

The worker cooperative community was already having a “moment” before the pandemic hit with all its fury. The aging small business owners were starting to see the value of their employees as potential successors and the offer of worker owned businesses as vehicle for their own ability to retire safely. Efforts to create local cooperative economies sprung up out of Occupy and organizing to build a solidarity economy. One example is Cooperation Jackson (which has strong roots in the Jackson-Kush Plan) but there are many other models to create a version of Mondragón in the US. Symbiosis is a congress of municipal movements bringing many of these local organizations together.

Of course, it is not just the worker co-ops and solidarity economy seeking to make fundamental changes in our society. There are others that also want to make changes that would revert our economy to the era of The Gilded Age. That is why our co-ops and support organizations need to be agile and move quickly. This can be difficult. Part of the difficulty is that many worker co-ops are just trying to survive until they can re-open and until the pandemic dies down enough for people to feel safe in public. There is a level of paralysis that I have seen a result of isolation. Co-op and community development is a face-to-face process at some level. We might be able to have a mass meeting on Zoom, but we lose the humanity of those meetings.

In addition, in some ways we have already been socially distancing ourselves. Part of this is from the use of social media to present “hot takes” with little discussion. A cute meme or picture only feeds into confirmation bias. One of my frustrating issues arises from privacy rules. While those rules are in place to protect us from bad actors, they also make it very difficult to organize. How can you organize a group of people if you have no way of contacting them? Of course, you can use paid advertising and other top-down organizing practices but this is a difficult and expensive process.

As Arizmendiarrieta reminds us, it is not enough to “endure” we must adapt and become re-born.

That all said, the use of technology is providing a moment for national and international connections and development. Next Friday (May 15th), I and many others will be participating in the Worker Co-op Weekend. Normally, this UK event is outside of my orbit, but we can participate this year on-line. Later this fall, the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives will hold their National Worker Co-op Conference on-line. The USFWC also has a number of councils that meet regularly to help people interested in building an economy based on human dignity. Conferences and council meetings, though, are just the beginning. We need to take the energy from those events and others like it and begin putting plans into action.

If you have an idea for a worker co-op, the time to start creating it is now! I have been fielding a number of calls from people who are seizing the moment to create new structures such as a food delivery system in a way that connects small farms, unemployed chefs, unemployed drivers, and consumers. There are co-op development resources available and while it helps to have someone help, people have been creating co-ops for centuries all by themselves. The most important thing is to begin.

If something is worth doing, it is worth doing poorly.

Marshall Rosenberg

We are essentially in the chrysalis right now and while the old economic patterns dissolve before out eyes, we need to focus on the work required to emerge as a new and wonderful community.We don’t have decades to build an economy based on the health and well-being of humans and the planet. We have weeks. I hope that when we look back on this era, one of the great stories will be that of the beginning of the Cooperative Century.

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 Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University. He has served on the board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the Board of Governors for the late, great Democracy at Work Network. He currently sits on the Co-op Circle for Sociocracy for All. He has taught on worker co-operatives and democratic management in the summer at The Evergreen State College and Presidio Graduate School.
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