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Cooperantics Needs You!

If you believe – as I do – that knowing how to work together co-operatively is the foundation for real co-operative success, read on …

I set up the cooperantics website about 5 years ago for various reasons: I wanted to facilitate access to tools & techniques for co-operative working for DIY learning and for clients who wanted to prepare for training and because I couldn’t find a site that hosted these kinds of resources, and thought that my site could start a collection.

I am now planning to relaunch the website, with a slightly different focus, inspired by what Noam Chomsky said at the Rebellious Media Conference back in October – that (paraphrasing) ‘some co-ops are more equal than others’! Chomsky and the other panellist Michael Albert maintained that co-operatives can be an important part of a project to change society but only if there is an understanding – not just a desire, but the understanding – that will cause the co-op to be a truly exemplary institution.

For a co-operative to be a ‘truly exemplary institution’ there must be an understanding of how to work together within the legal structure and an understanding by managers that their role is a function like any other and does not confer any special status. Members also need to understand the rights and responsibilities of membership as well as how to work as a team, how to take decisions and delegate, how to hold management accountable, and lastly but most importantly, how to ensure participation and thereby commitment.

I am keen for cooperantics to change its focus and to be a resource for anyone who wants to find out what it means to work co-operatively and for co-operative or social enterprises that want to be ‘exemplary institutions’ playing their part in the project to change society. A place to go to find out how to do it, with real life experience and examples, games & tips, tried & tested tools & techniques.

I want to set cooperantics up as a co-operative in its own right – at the moment it is not constituted – and I am looking for members who share my belief that understanding how to co-operate and how to work effectively within a co-operative organisational structure is the foundation for co-operative sustainability and success. Let me know if you’re interested! @cooperantics

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Co-operatives – a heterogeneous category

Co-operatives – a heterogeneous category

As a previous blog commented, Cooperantics was lucky enough to get a ticket to the Rebellious Media Conference in London last autumn, headline speaker Noam Chomsky amongst a lot of other illustrious participants.

 http://rebelliousmediaconference.org/

After hearing the recording of the Q&A session on the published DVD, I had some further thoughts on Noam Chomsky’s reply to my question: Can the co-operative business model succeed where the capitalist business model has so evidently failed?

 His answer was as ever, thoughtful and informed. He said that yes, of course the co-operative business model can succeed, and has a long history of success, in Britain and other countries around the world. However he qualified this by describing co-operatives as a ‘very heterogeneous category’. He went on to explain that there are co-operatives where the participants really run it and there are co-operatives and worker owned enterprises where control is handed over to management. Referring to Mondragon, Chomsky described it as ‘worker owned but not worker managed’.. ‘they pick professional managers who act like professional managers’ and ‘they are investing overseas to exploit super cheap labour, not the kind of thing we’d like a progressive institution to do’.

 Noam Chomsky was accompanied on the platform by Michael Albert, a leading authority on political economy, U.S. economic policies, and the media. Michael Albert primarily focuses on matters of movement-building, strategy and vision, creating alternative media, and developing and advocating his participatory economics vision (“Parecon”).

Michael Albert had recently attended a meeting in Argentina with representatives of 50 occupied factories. At the start of the meeting there was a go round where people were telling their stories. At the start the mood was upbeat, but by the 4th or 5th person the mood became maudlin and by the 7th person people were crying. ‘I never thought I’d say anything like this’ said the 7th person to speak ‘but we took over workplace, we equalised wages, we instituted democracy but now many months later it feels the way it felt before, it’s alienating – maybe Margaret Thatcher was right there is no alternative’

 Michael Albert said that their mistake was to keep the old divisions of labour, which over time distorted their intention to be different, to be humane. This left them so demoralised they thought change really wasn’t possible.

 He concluded that yes, co-ops can be an important part of a project to change society but only if there is an understanding – not just a desire, but the understanding – that will cause the co-op to be a truly exemplary institution.

 I was sad to hear about the situation in the Argentinian co-ops, because they are so frequently used as an example of what can happen when working people take control – and I wonder if it is truly the case that in all instances they have retained the old divisions of labour?  But what a great answer and it is one we know already – it’s not enough to have the right legal structure, the right market conditions and the financial & human resources in place.

 For a co-operative to be a ‘truly exemplary institution’ there must be an understanding of how to work together within the legal structure and an understanding by managers that their role is a function like any other and does not confer any special status. Members also need to understand the rights and responsibilities of membership as well as how to work as a team, how to take decisions and delegate, how to hold management accountable, and lastly but most importantly, how to ensure participation and thereby commitment.

 

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Rebellious Media Conference London 8th/9th October 2011

Rebellious media conference 8th/9th October London

Peace News wanted to celebrate its 75th anniversary by holding a radical media conference. However, unbelievably Radical Media, a corporate advertising company, have trademarked the expression ‘radical media’ and threatened to sue if their name was used. After considering the potential costs the organisers decided on Rebellious Media instead. Says it all, really ..

I went along because Noam Chomsky had agreed to be the keynote speaker and I was interested to hear him speak live. Also the organisers were asking for facilitators for some of the sessions, so I thought I can do that, and signed up for the conference

Noam Chomsky  focused on how radical media could add substance to the Occupy Wall Street and other similar demonstrations. While supporting their demands he highlighted what was missing – for example any mention of the war in Afghanistan or US healthcare problems. He said demonstrators appeared not to be aware that the so called Arab Spring movements did not erupt out of nowhere, that they came out of years of organisation by militant, active labour movements. Without denigrating the Occupation movement, Chomsky made the point that radical media could fill the gaps, instilling consciousness and promoting understanding amongst the activists as well as the general public.

But it was towards the end of his speech that my ears pricked up when I heard him saying that radical media should be promoting worker takeovers – that it was clearly a better idea for both owners and workforce if the workers take over a factory rather than see it closed down. So when the roving mike was nearby I took advantage and asked Chomsky if he thought the co-operative business model could succeed where the capitalist one has evidently failed. His reply was interesting. He said it depends on the type of co-operative – and mentioned Mondragon, where the MCC owns overseas subsidiaries in which employees are not invited to become members of the co-operative. He then passed the question to another speaker, the well known activist, economist, speaker, and writer Mike Albert More of him later.

For now, what he said had me with my head in my hands. He spoke of visiting an Argentinian factory, occupied by its workers during the economic crash of the 80s, where during an interview that began with an initial optimistic gloss over the situation, people got gloomier and gloomier as they spoke with one worker eventually in tears as she confessed that things were ‘just the same as before’ and that perhaps Margaret Thatcher was right, that ‘there is no alternative’. Mike Albert went on to talk about the importance of the organisational structure of the co-operative – that unless it truly engages everyone in ownership and control, based on a collective and participative approach, then it would merely mimic the alienating conditions of work found in the regular business model. I was initially disturbed that someone of Albert’s reputation and credibility should speak in a negative way about co-operatives before such an enormous audience – over 900 activists. However afterwards I thought that it was a good thing – that we shouldn’t be repeating fairy stories to each other about how co-operatives are always radical, always a challenge to the status quo. I know that’s why I am interested in them, but it’s clear they are not always a force for good, and it does depend on how people work within them, and whether or not they consciously use the structure as a challenge to ‘business as usual’. Mike Albert’s contribution reminded me of a time in my early days of working in co-operative development – of how much more useful it felt to be earning a living promoting an alternative approach to business and to organising work, instead of working weekdays making money for someone else, with only the evenings and weekends left for campaigning against nuclear weapons or raising feminist consciousness or for trade union solidarity.

Michael Albert has written extensively on what he calls ‘Participatory Economics’ or ‘Parecon’ (not a good name IMHO). Wikipedia describes it as an economic system using ‘participatory decision making as an economic mechanism to guide the production, consumption and allocation of resources in a given society. Proposed as an alternative to contemporary capitalist market economies and also an alternative to centrally planned socialism, it is described as “an anarchistic economic vision”, and it could be considered a form of socialism as under parecon, the means of production are owned by the workers. The underlying values that parecon seeks to implement are equity, solidarity, diversity, workers’ self-management and efficiency’. Sounds a bit like a co-operative approach doesn’t it?

Here’s Michael Albert on participatory economics

Apart from picking up a lot of useful tips in a workshop on exploiting social media for activism, run by Chris Smith of Ecotube the other topic that I found very energising and useful was Ruth Potts’ workshop on how we might change the way economics and business is reported in the media. Ruth spoke about how economics and business journalists view the world through such distorting lenses that they actually limit the questions that can be asked of business and government. She asked how we can wrest media attention away from their uncritical obsession with growth. Ruth pointed out that the current moment offers great opportunities since there is a growing sense of cognitive dissonance – it’s evident to anyone who’s half awake that there is a problem with an economics based on the assumption that growth is good! That resources are finite, that some are about to be exhausted, that market mechanisms are fallible and that someone needs to point out sooner rather than later that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes!

Ruth Potts workshop, which I helped facilitate, was run on an Open Space model. From what I have gathered, this approach is similar to a co-operative forum approach, with the exception that – apart from not having designated start and end times (we were restricted to an hour and a half), participants can choose to be ‘butterflies’ [flitting from group to group settling where they fancy; or ‘bees’ [deliberately choosing to leave one group and join another for cross pollination of ideas]. Also the Open Space approach does not impose ideas for debate, the whole group comes up with those at the start. We clearly didn’t have time for that, and although we encouraged people to be butterflies and bees, possibly because the room was so packed, they chose mostly to sit where they started.

The groups came up with some wonderful suggestions, including ‘Adopt a Journalist’ whereby a group of radical activists would identify a mainstream journalist, ideally somebody already questioning the status quo, and feed them with alternative views, evidence, statistics. Another idea was to publicise the environmental costs alongside the financial results of a particular company, while another group reminded us that we can all buy a share in a company, attend the AGM and ask those difficult questions that the regular shareholders aren’t aware need asking, or feel that it’s ‘not done’.

This was another of Chomsky’s themes – that our society doesn’t need censors – we censor ourselves – we know what’s ‘not done’. Our education instils in us an internal censor we are hardly aware of, which stops us saying or doing things which are critical of our society because it’s just ‘not done’. An excellent thought to carry away with us as we emerged blinking into the daylight of Sunday afternoon Euston Road, on our way back home. Out to play. Back to work.

You can join in the ongoing discussions and/or buy a DVD of the conference.

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