Taste of Denmark Bakery

Bernard Marszalek

In Oakland, California twelve bakers are having an Argentine experience. The owner of their bakery, where some have worked for decades, abandoned the 81 year-old, debt-ridden business with no warning, like the tragedy experienced by thousands of workers in Argentina in 2001. And like the workers in Argentina did with hundreds of shuttered enterprises, the bakers took it over and are now running it themselves as a worker cooperative.

But this is America after all and there is an American twist to the story. Here the workers didn’t break in to the establishment and fire up the ovens and start baking again, like their counterparts in South America. Here they found a sympathetic, and self-interested, husband and wife landlord team that suggested they take over running the place themselves, like the two successful Arizmendi bakeries in the East Bay.

The landlords quickly understood that the experienced staff should have a chance to re-open the bakery, since obviously working together over the years proved their mettle. All they needed was a grace period to catch up with paying off the debt and a little financial support and they would be back again as paying tenants and an asset to the community around 34th and Telegraph, know as Koreantown.

In October the new Taste of Denmark Bakery (renamed from Neldam’s) had a gala Grand Opening with local media and many old customers showing up to cart off bread and pastries and to congratulate the new owners. The new co-op members however have a plan to attract not only their former customers, but also new ones with a wider selection of Asian and Mexican pastries. They even plan to introduce Vegan delicacies.

There are three remarkable aspects of this story. First, and most significantly, this is the first business in the San Francisco Bay area to be transformed into a cooperative since Cheese Board in the late 60’s. (Good Vibes was a bought out by the workers in the 70’s, but reverted to a traditional corporation in the 90’s.) But unlike the Cheese Board, this was not a friendly buyout, but a stressful takeover of a closed and seemingly bankrupt shop. Secondly, nobody in the cooperative community was involved with the transition. The bakers didn’t know about the network of cooperatives (NoBAWC), for instance. The landlords contacted a corporate lawyer they knew who drew up the papers and incorporated the business as a co-op. And thirdly, the landlords had a vision of a long-term investment, at a time when most investors want to see dividends in months, not years.

It is uncertain that any of this would have occurred if all around the Bay area there were not successful co-ops modeling another sort of business structure. Have we reached a critical mass of co-ops in the area so that it makes sense to begin to advocate for buyouts, though less stressful and tenuous ones? Isn’t it time to take our co-op principles and structures into the halls of local government, into the offices of the local Chambers of Commerce and, mainly, into the Banks, and show what we can do? And to demand some changes – “. . .with a little help from our friends.”

TV News coverage: http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?sec…bay&id=7658617

Taste of Denmark: http://tastedenmark.com/

Posted in Bernard Marszalek, Grassroots Economics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Commons and Cooperatives

In the last decade, the commons has become a prevalent theme in discussions about collective but decentralized control over resources. This paper is a preliminary exploration of the potential linkages between commons and cooperatives through a discussion of the worker cooperative as one example of a labour commons.

Continue reading →

Posted in Grassroots Economics | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Argentina Turning Around

Argentinean factory workers unite to bolster the economy, recreate jobs and stabilize communities after business owners abandon their factories during an economic downturn.

Watch more free documentaries

Posted in Grassroots Economics | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Congressman Chaka Fattah Spearheads Urban Cooperative Development Initiative

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – October 15th 2010 – Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-PA), Chairman of the Congressional Urban Caucus, will lead a new initiative to support urban cooperative business development throughout the United Sates.

Fattah, an eight term Congressman from Philadelphia, will partner with the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA), a Washington-based federation of cooperatives from all sectors of the economy, and CooperationWorks! (CW), a national trade association of cooperative development centers and individuals.

Rep. Fattah, Pennsylvania’s senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, said, “Cooperatives provide an excellent means for economic development and community enrichment.

“This new initiative is catching on in our cities and urban areas. The cooperative movement is a perfect fit with the agenda of the bipartisan Congressional Urban Caucus and I am pleased to provide this effort with a strong voice in Congress,” Fattah said. “These cooperatives will create jobs and wealth by helping new local businesses that are owned and controlled by their members.”

Cindy Bass, Senior Policy Advisor for Congressman Fattah, said, “Our office has a record of working with the successful and well-established cooperatives in Northwest Philadelphia such as Weavers Way food co- op. I will be assisting the Congressman as we help to advance urban cooperatives and boost our national economy.”

The new initiative as outlined by representatives of NCBA and CW will include seeking authorization of funds for technical assistance for urban cooperatives across the United States, an effort to change Small Business Association policies which currently prohibit participation by cooperatives in federal small business loan guarantee programs, financial assistance for cooperative business start-ups, and pilot programs in Philadelphia and other cities.

Lisa Stolarski, CW Urban Circle Chair, said, “A successful authorization of an urban cooperative development program could pass Congress in 2011 and could potentially be appropriated as early as 2012, the year declared by the United Nations as the International Year of Cooperatives.”

Adam Schwartz, NCBA Vice President of Public Affairs and Member Services, said, “The NCBA looks forward to working with Congressman Fattah and the co-op community in developing an urban cooperative development program.”

According to a recent study, there are over 29,000 co-ops in the US employing over 2 million workers, paying $75 billion in wages, with $650 billion in sales, and $3 trillion in assets.

Modern day cooperative businesses trace their origin back to 1844 in Rochdale, England, when a group of weavers and other skilled workers established a member-owned and member-controlled retail food store. Their “Rochdale Principles,” which included the distribution of surplus on the basis of patronage and cooperative governance on the basis of one member, one vote, have been replicated widely.

Over the years, cooperatively structured businesses of various types have been established in many countries around the world from small consumer retail food co-ops and worker-owned entrepreneurial ventures to large agricultural purchasing and marketing co-ops; from housing co-ops to credit unions.

Fattah Contact: Ron Goldwyn, Press Secretary, Philadelphia PA. Ph: 215.848.9386, ron.goldwyn@mail.house.gov; http://fattah.house.gov.

CooperationWorks! Contact: Lisa Stolarski, Urban Circle Chair, Pittsburgh PA. Ph: 412.969.7896, stolarski@kdc.coop, www.cooperationworks.coop.

NCBA Contact: Adam Schwartz, Vice President, Public Affairs and Member Services, National Cooperative Business Association, Washington DC. Ph: 202.383.5456, aschwartz@ncba.coop, www.ncba.coop. .

Posted in Grassroots Economics | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Worker Cooperatives – a Viable Economic Alternative?

by Bernard Marszalek‚ Apr. 14‚ 2010

A multi-million dollar network of worker cooperatives in Cleveland, a successful alliance of Latina co-operatives in the Bay Area, and a worker co-operative store selling farm-direct food in West Oakland were just some of the projects presented at the California cooperative conference in Santa Rosa this past weekend. Add to these ventures the news that the United Steel Workers are planning to create cooperatives so that union members actually own their jobs and not just rent them and one must ask, “Worker cooperatives? What, in America?”

This year’s conference organized by the California Center for Cooperative Development (CCCD) focused on “job creation and building community-based economies to strengthen communities, create wealth, and transform lives.”

The CCCD is a newly organized non-profit dedicated, as it says on its website, “to promote cooperatives as a vibrant business model to address the economic and social needs of California’s communities.”

In an age when an abundance of crises seem to accelerate mass anxiety, it is all too easy to feel disempowered and retreat into our personal lives. Signs of resistance and hope, which could prevent this sense of powerlessness, do not make the evening news or the front pages of our daily press.

Worker cooperatives, food stores and housing co-ops are a tiny sector of the America economy, but community activists are beginning to recognize their importance. As activists across the country move beyond a resistance strategy with essentially minor victories, to proposals for positive, long-lasting economic change, cooperatives increasingly become an option to investigate. Co-ops have a track record of providing a solid economic base to under-served communities.

Cooperative Home Care Associates in New York provides above scale wages and real job control to over 1500 workers who would otherwise be exploited and marginalized. And right here in Northern California Alverado Street Bakery, a worker cooperative, was highlighted in Michael Moore’s film Capitalism: A Love Story as an industrial bakery with good wages and benefits far surpassing the industry norm.

Historically, cooperative ventures have arisen from the efforts of ordinary people during previous economic slumps. In the Depression, hundreds of self-help groups formed in California (and across the country) that used barter and time exchanges of labor to create an economy without money. The network created by these groups formed the basis for Upton Sinclair’s gubernatorial campaign in 1934.

Economic community development projects have been around for decades, and there have been successful revivals of failing communities. But all too often these “successes” do not benefit the original in-need population, as in the case of urban gentrification. In other situations the “revival” may last for a few years but then fail due to unforeseen outside economic forces.

What the current crop of activists recognizes is that to achieve longevity economic development has to happen from the ground up. Professionals are necessary to move a project up to scale, but they must take direction from below and not assume that pleading to the power structure to provide benefits will insure long-term success. The social change process cannot be a top-down, outside-in affair, but must be exactly the opposite. When it moves into the arena of economic development, the work of democratic planning and community involvement, the strong points of social justice activism, changes lives in meaningful ways.

The transformation of community activism into economic activism began before the current recession and financial crisis. The Just Wage movement began in the late 1990’s, for example, and has had notable results. Justice for Janitors campaigns and union organizing drives in the growing service sector are other successful examples that have affected many communities across the country. The current economic crisis, however, accelerated the search for viable solutions to economic hardships as they became even worse than before.

The latest developments that have caught the attention of community activists revolve around creating economic power closer to the point of production, not by seizing production in the Marxist paradigm (not in itself necessarily a bad idea), but by collectively developing production to serve as a source for jobs.

Cooperatives, for instance, are on the agenda of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United). ROC-United is opening organizing centers across the country. In Chicago, they are planning a cooperative restaurant based on their successful Colors Restaurant in New York City. In Detroit, community groups and union organizers are discussing the formation of a worker cooperative food store10 to serve the inner city.

And across the country, established worker cooperatives have organized regionally, adopting the form pioneered in the San Francisco Bay area by the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives (NoBAWC, say No Boss!). NoBAWC includes over thirty worker cooperatives and collectives with over a thousand individual members. At the US Social Forum in Detroit this June, cooperative economics will be a major aspect of this second US Forum that follows the model of the World Social Forums. Organizers expect 20,000 activists to attend. And later this summer, the Federation of Worker Cooperatives13 will be holding its third national conference in Berkeley.

These developments are significant in themselves, but they become all the more important when they ally with related movements. The Cooperative Conference, for example, brought together participants with the Sonoma County GoLocal campaign. This is a new and savvy network organized as a cooperative to link businesses and individuals in a joint effort to retain local economic power. And to eventually expand the local economy with job creation.

Couple this endeavor with credit unions, housing co-ops, land trusts and eco-friendly businesses and what we have begins to look like a movement for real change. While Wall Street spins dreams of financial bliss, the nightmare they brought to Main Street may be lifting to reveal a brighter vision. An alternative, grassroots economy may be on the horizon that will create a quality of life to address the needs of people, not corporations.

Continue reading

Posted in Bernard Marszalek, Grassroots Economics | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

WSF: Another Kind of Economics Is Possible

Credit: IPS/TerraViva

By Mario Osava

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil, Jan 28 , 2010 (IPS) – Democratising economics as well as politics is essential for ending irrationality and discrimination as part of the struggle for social and environmental justice, said participants at one of the panels of the seminar assessing the World Social Forum’s (WSF) first 10 years. infecon1.jpg

The field of “the gratis economy” or “freeconomics” is “expanding dramatically” with the rising importance of knowledge as a major component in goods and services, economist Ladislau Dowbor, a professor at the Catholic University of São Paulo, said in his presentation.

Using a street is free, and no one wonders about the cost of construction and maintenance. The same is true of vaccines, state schools and a wide range of public goods supplied at no cost to the user.

But of course these do have costs, which are usually paid through taxes contributed by the general population, or surcharges on other products, he said. Vaccines save so much in health costs that it would make no sense to charge individual beneficiaries.

As the knowledge society advances, freeconomics is expanding, based on relations that are entirely different from those derived from material goods, he said.

For instance, Dowbor said, if someone sells their watch, they have to do without it, but the case of knowledge is different: you are not deprived of it by sharing it with someone else; instead, “creative dynamics are generated,” an outcome that encourages charging nothing.

In contrast, natural resources like water, biodiversity and magnetic waves can be appropriated by private interests and turned into profitable businesses, he noted.

Bottled water sells for 1,000 times the cost of piped water, and the plastic bottles and transport it requires for distribution contribute to pollution costs.

There are collective consumer systems that reduce costs, Dowbor said. Piraí. a small town near Rio de Janeiro, offers free broadband internet connection to all residents, and computers for teachers and students at very low cost by means of bulk buying. This improves learning and promotes local industry and even exports, he said.

“Costs should be re-assessed, and more should be given away free,” he said. There would be advantages, for example, to free public transport in huge cities like São Paulo, where residents spend an average of two hours and 43 minutes a day in traffic, at a terrible cost to everyone in terms of quality of life and pollution.

Unemployment has such enormous social costs that it would be worth giving unemployed people in cities work in environmental clean-up operations, said the economist, who gave more examples about wasteful practices that impoverish humanity, although they boost GDP.

But the apparently bright future of freeconomics has a dark side: the invisibility of “work assumed to be part of women’s gender role,” said Uruguayan sociologist Lilian Celiberti, of the Articulación Feminista Marcosur, an umbrella group for women’s organisations in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay.

The cost of reproducing the workforce “is borne by women, in every culture,” because women are the main providers in the “care economy,” a key concept for feminist economists, which extends beyond childcare and care of the elderly, sick or disabled, she said.

The sexual division of labour, where “private space is women’s realm and public space is for men,” encourages “masculine irresponsibility,” reflected in fathers not recognising children born out of wedlock and “millions of other examples that can be seen in family courts.”

“A society that nurtures this kind of human being is plundering nature and is careless of human beings themselves, and for that reason is suicidal,” Celiberti said.

Delivering free public goods to which everyone has a right, like access to health, water, education and other basic services, is the state’s duty, said Bolivian Dr. Nila Heredia, head of the Latin American Social Medicine Association (ALAMES).

The “mercantile logic” which makes “sick people feel guilty for not having looked after themselves properly” must be fought, as well as the pharmaceutical industry “that creates illness” in order to sell more medicines, she said.

French philosopher Patrick Viveret, author of a report titled “Reconsider Wealth,” also condemned “mercantile fundamentalism” which he said leads to “privatisation of money, a public good in the service of exchange.” But he highlighted the difficulties faced by freeconomics in the context of “relations of dependency and rivalry.”

A good example of the solidarity economy, which is not-for-profit but does not exclude payment, was presented by João de Melo Neto, the coordinator of Palmas Bank, the first community microcredit organisation in Brazil, which was founded in 1998 in a poor neighbourhood in Fortaleza, the capital of the northeastern state of Ceará.

The Palmas Bank helped to organise and promote the local economies of many poor neighbourhoods in Brazil’s impoverished semi-arid Northeast region, each of which issue “their own coin, so that local wealth circulates within the community.” It has also inspired other such projects. At present, 52 community economies of this kind are operating all over the country.

The “for-free economy” was the subject of one of the four daily debates held Jan. 26-28 at the seminar to assess the WSF’s first 10 years in Porto Alegre. A session to systematise the outcome of the debates, and an Assembly of Social Movements, will be held Friday.

More than 8,000 people enrolled in the seminar, which is part of the Greater Porto Alegre WSF, consisting of a series of meetings in seven cities in Brazil’s southernmost metropolitan area, close to the border with Uruguay.

On Jan. 26 Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva addressed the WSF and criticised the shortcomings of international aid to Haiti, where the capital, Port-au-Prince, was devastated by an earthquake on Jan. 12. He announced he will be paying a visit to the Caribbean country Feb. 25, to extend his solidarity.

Lula also remarked that the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland had “lost its glamour” since 2003, the year he took office. The annual meeting of the world’s most powerful political and financial leaders – to which the WSF originally emerged as a sort of counterpoint – will be honouring Lula with a “Global Statesman” award at a special ceremony Friday, although he has excused himself for health reasons. (END)


Posted in Grassroots Economics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Copenhagen and the grassroots economy

The reams of analysis emerging from the Conference of Parties at Copenhagen (COP-15) this week will only grow in the weeks ahead and I don’t wish to add to the tonnage of speculations. However, one main point needs to be emphasized and, I believe, its repercussions understood by those of us who are actively assembling a grassroots economy: we have to choose sides.

As COP-15 unfolded the distinction between the forces of global disorder and those of popular resistance gained clarity. Maybe the police batons and pepper spray worked to focus more clearly the choice to be made. Either the world opts for what increasingly looks like an addiction – a junkie-like attachment to global nihilism, or it chooses a path to a healing relationship with the natural environment and all the creatures it sustains.

Psychosis or enchantment? Black and white choices should be questioned. Often with further study the original simple choice yields to complexity and a greater range of solutions. In this case, I fail to see a third option. To choose enchantment, and by this I mean the wonderment of nature, the joy of sociality and the effort to attain self-enlightenment, all those elements of life assumed by indigenous cultures, only begins the process. Choosing in this case begins a journey, not ends one. We choose, in other words, values and they lead us to a new path we define and explore. Democracy is a process as they say, not a goal.

COP-15 brought the world together in a way not seen before, not only because so many nations were represented, though that was significant, but mainly because the popular resistance was so coherent on several levels. Organizationally, George Monbiot noted that the UN Forum was a chaotic circus compared to the civil society conference, Klimaforum09. The Peoples’ Climate Summit with only four paid staff managed to facilitate an educational and networking experience for the 1,000’s who attended.

Further, on the level of alternative media Klimaforum09 got the message out. Josie Riffaud from La Via Campesina, a global coalition of peasant and farner movements, for instance broadcast to the world: “We’ve seen this week in Copenhagen that governments are turning the climate chaos into
commodities. Farmers – men and women – are taking to the streets today because we are so outraged by the ineffective targets and false solutions such as agrofuels being peddled by business lobbyists and governments that listen to them.”

Importantly also, Klimaforum09’s politics were clearly stated. At the weekend of the first week, Climate Justice Now! and Climate Justice Action, the two largest coalitions, marched under the banner “System  Change, Not climate Change”. People from all over the globe were protesting against the 15 years of failed climate negotiations with mass non-violent civil disobedience on the Global Day of Action, which was estimated to have attracted upwards to 100,000 supporters.

Undoubtedly the greatest coherence came from the grassroots projects represented by activists fighting the effects of corporate domination of the global commons. These popular movements served as evidence that ordinary people can create solutions for themselves often against great odds and with no monetary support from the major polluters. Evo Morales stated at the last COP-15 plenary that the rich nations’ offer to provide $10 billion yearly to mitigate the effects of climate change was an insult when compared to the100’s of billions spent on military adventures and trillions on bank rescues.

Those of us working to create a viable grassroots economy in this rich nation need to assess our response to climate change that currently affects millions, especially in poor nations. But more, resource depletion and the financial crisis cannot be ignored. These three crises are interrelated and need a combined response.

This returns us to the path we choose. Angelica Navarro, the chief negotiator for Bolivia, framed the issue of climate change and reimbursements, for its deleterious economic effects, within the context of the global commons of the atmosphere, the lungs of Pachamama (Mother Earth).This concept firstly is based on the scientific fact that the atmosphere has a limited capacity to absorb greenhouse gases. Beyond that a tipping point of irreversible climate chaos results. Secondly, this concept rests on the principle that every person, no matter where he or she lives, has an equal right to the remaining atmospheric space.

The global commons leads us to the issue of resource depletion. Natural resources are also a commons and as such their extraction must be regulated for the benefit of all. The common benefit then addresses the social inequities amplified by the economic crisis. In this scenario the obscene oil company profits of the last two years would be deposited in a UN sponsored world fund to alleviate the effects of climate change.

Elinor Ostrom, the recent winner of the Nobel prize for economics, arrives at the conclusion that all successful commons depend on local administration. Commons need regulation to maintain their stability and facilitate economic benefit to avoid over-use (“The Tragedy of the Commons”). On a small scale an informal and essentially egalitarian system works fine. In a complex world, commons administration functions best with a radical democratic agenda. Participation needs to be inclusive, transparent and consensual – the same traits the grassroots economy strives to attain.

In a very real sense all the creative, practical economic projects that we see all around us are building a culture of resilience. Whether transforming a vacant urban lot to a community garden or promoting self-esteem among youth by teaching them bike mechanics, to name just two of many creative projects, more is liberated than space or human potential. The oppressive confines of a culture with no future slowly dissolve with each new venture initiated that meets real human needs.

Slowly we gain confidence in the path we take on economic issues. Accomplishments, victories and enthusiasms expand and new vistas open up like urban/rural connections happening with food security issues. Imagine the direct supply of food from farms to specific neighborhoods in a city. And the reciprocal transfer of urban labor power to the farms to expand production or to build new structures. Or imagine a land-trust secured warehouse outfitted with refrigeration, powered by community sponsored and installed solar panels, that serves as a neighborhood food processing plant. We have no lack of vision when we build on past accomplishments and are secure in their usefulness.

To transform vision into reality requires, of course, a strategy to gain financial viability and that can be the real test of our values. The old world seeks every opportunity to reassert its dominance through the financial power it controls. This was clearly evident at COP-15. To continue our metaphor of our chosen path: money beckons us to take a short cut. To maintain our integrity, to strengthen the reversal of perspective we have on economics – that it serves peoples’ needs not those of profit – requires that we subvert the money system by reliance on non-monetary means as much as possible. Barter, gifting and gleaning strengthen our community networks and with social solidarity built in that manner, by taking control of our economy, we can create the social power to demand financial aid, not beg for it.

Given the crises we face, and the institutional inability of the oligarchy to respond in a meaningful way, as witnessed in Copenhagen, we have no choice but to create true cooperative and democratic communities to sustain us in our fight for “system change.”

Bernard Marszalek

December 27, 2009

Posted in Bernard Marszalek, Grassroots Economics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Cooperation and Human Nature

Here are two excerpts from a recent news feature.

“I cannot direct anybody to do anything that they do not want to do. All decision-making is by consensus.”

All around . . . groups organized themselves in democratic cooperatives, arranged in an anti-hierarchy. All deliberations are open — and exhaustive. Everyone gets their say no matter how long it takes. “It is bottom-up and not top-down.”

Members of cooperatives will recognize these comments. In fact they are so commonplace as to be burdened with a ton of baggage. For some a smile will approach the lips in appreciation of the value of these statements. Others might feel their teeth clenching in anticipation of the seemingly endless meetings that they associate with deliberations over meaningless details.

The quotes however do not emanate from a co-op board meeting. They are attributed, in a Wall Street Journal blog, to the scientists working on “the largest machine in the world.”1

That happens to be the Large Hadron Collider — a $6 billion particle accelerator near Geneva, with thousands scientists involved in its operation.

This wasn’t the only science collaboration mentioned in the article. Also highlighted was OpenWetWare, a wiki established in 2005 by two MIT students “to promote the sharing of information, know-how, and wisdom among researchers and groups who are working in biology & biological engineering.” It now has 7,000 users.

In a similar vein, paleontologists launched the Open Dinosaur Project “to involve scientists and the public alike in developing a comprehensive database of dinosaur limb bone measurements, to investigate questions of dinosaur function and evolution.” They further state as their goals: “1) do good science; 2) do this science in the most open way possible; and 3) allow anyone who is interested to participate.”

To be absolutely clear about their last point, they stress that they “do not care about your education, geographic location, age, or previous background with paleontology. The only requirement for joining us is that you share the goals of our project and are willing to help out in the efforts.”

The Internet, originally devised decades ago by researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), where the Collider is based, amplifies worldwide the historic collegiality cultivated by scientists. Given the obvious success of scientific endeavors, one wonders why these cooperative practices haven’t migrated to other areas. In some limited ways they have been adopted by the arts, and to a lesser extent, education. But in the realm of business, collaboration occurs only under strict guidelines, if at all.

We don’t need to idolize the community of scientists. There are researchers who eagerly enlist in schemes to privatize science – to value the marketplace over the disinterested desire to further research for the public benefit. Nevertheless, the model of collaboration many scientists seek, in which peers define projects and seek solutions, remains foreign to the world of business.

Capitalist collaboration on the level of mutual advantage, of course, as in price-fixing, certainly happens more frequently than its criminalization. And there is the transparently manipulative practice of “team work” in many corporations, which I only mention to quickly dismiss. 2

Cooperatively working together embodies a reciprocity of dignity that finds no place in the corporate world we know today, where individual advancement rules.

As commodification intensifies, enveloping all aspects of life, the ethic that must sustain community diminishes. We diminish too. It comes as no surprise that kids enter middle school as full-fledged consumers. What should shock is that they have internalized their commodification. Buying into the notion of society as an arena for a never-ending quest for ego fulfillment leads directly to life viewed as a battle of egos. This socialization of our children, as essentially a fight over scarcity on an individual and social level, is a consequence of the popular perception of our “human nature.” We have here the reactionary, individualistic thinking that drives capitalism – the survival of the fittest: social Darwinism.

The rise of Darwinism (a toxic blend of Darwin with Malthus) served the 19th century capitalists well. “Captains of the economy” claimed as their right to rule a pseudo-science founded on a specious law of biology.

Capitalist “science” didn’t persuade the partisans of the newly organizing industrial workers. The masters of the workers, as the workers themselves experienced, were not to be held hostage to the reason of science, when the reason of power – ultimately clubs and bullets – was far more effective. The clarity of the left to recognize the abuse of science, as a servant of power, didn’t prevent them wholeheartedly endorsing Darwin as a liberator. For the left, Darwin forever consigned the Christian origins of humankind to myth.

Friedrich Engels eulogized Marx as the discoverer of the law of human development, comparing him to Darwin the founder of“the law of development of organic nature.”3 Engels here was following Marx who viewed Darwin’s scientific contribution as pertaining only to human anatomy and physiology. Centuries before the birth of Marx, “enlightened” thinking held that human development was determined by environmental factors. Moreover Hegel, Marx’s mentor, envisioned society “evolving” to greater heights.

Peter Kropotkin was one of the few who refused to celebrate Darwinist biological determinism. His fieldwork across an impressive range of animal and human societies made him recognize and appreciate the role of cooperation in human endeavors. Kropotkin’s anarchist criticism of Darwinism as a new theology in defense of the status quo, of course, relegated him to obscurity outside scientific circles.

Amongst social scientists the nuanced interpretation of evolution presented by Kropotkin, and others, lately has led researchers to devise experiments that show “that both 25-month olds and school-age children in a very similar paradigm select the equitable option more often than the selfish option.”4

There are studies that show that very young children, working in teams develop trust by negotiating perceived selfishness. Other studies show that a shared project with a joint goal creates interdependence, mutually recognized – a “we” amongst the children. And even babies, unable to use language, show helpfulness in carefully structured experiments by pointing or by their eye movements. Language itself may have developed within the context of collaborative activities where achieving a common goal depends upon the coordination of individual roles.

This research has significant implications for a politics beyond ethical aspirations to one grounded in a view of human nature with an innate need for camaraderie. Those who seek a more just society need not counter a spurious conception of human nature as “red in tooth and claw” with the equally false proposition that the human condition is infinitely malleable. A belief which leads to dystopian dead-ends and which still informs, in a less maniacal way, political liberalism and its love for social engineering. The perfectibility of humankind is not the issue.

The issue is encouraging collaborative activities beyond the intimate dealings of a small group – outside what Michael Tomasello calls the protected environment:

When we are engaged in a mutually beneficial collaborative activity, when I help you play your role either through physical help or by informing you of something useful, I am helping myself, as your success in your role is critical to our overall success. Mutualistic activities thus provide a protected environment for the initial steps in the evolution of altruistic motives.5

Over ten years ago, before most of this research was conducted, Peter Singer wrote an intriguing little book: A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation. In it he critiques social Darwinism and the left’s fear of engaging in the controversy over human nature. He takes his stand for a left that abandons the paradigm of human progress based on fine-tuning social conditions.

Singer calls for a broader interpretation of self-interest that current findings of child behavior validate. He also promotes the idea that the left needs to encourage cooperative behavior and to channel competition into socially desirable ends, which corresponds to the notion of extending the protected environment mentioned above.

As a philosopher, not a scientist, and writing about research which at the time was tentative, Singer however falls back on the same ground as the traditional left that he critiques. He relies on the role of reason, to balance or offset nature. He approvingly quotes Richard Dawkins who grants that though we are built like gene machines, “we have the power to turn against our creators.”6

No one wants to argue against the role of reason in the pursuit of knowledge. However the latest behavioral discoveries lead to a firmer footing in science than thought possible a few years ago. From these studies of children implications can be drawn that improve our understanding of the building blocks of social norms, that is mutually expected standards of behavior. Human beings are biologically adapted to grow and develop to maturity within a cultural context, through collaborative efforts.

This research informs an optimistic view of the human condition. It seriously undermines the perspective that Herbert Marcuse postulated in One-Dimensional Man, where he questioned the liberation of humankind given the universal internalization of domination through socialization. And it supports Rebecca Solnit’s view in A Paradise Built in Hell that catastrophes can disperse the weight of commodified behavior to free deeper, life-affirming motivations.

In Tomasello’s conclusions one aspect relates to the larger issues of scientific collaboration noted at the beginning of this essay. He writes:

Children are motivated to engage in these kinds of collaborative activities for their own sake, not just for their contribution to individual goals.7

What are we to make of this comment? Certainly it relates to those experiences we have as adults when we find ourselves, either by plan or circumstance, engaged in an activity with great social significance. The activity may be physically grueling, we may even be in the company of strangers and the goal may not be of our devising, but when that goal is attained, or even when to the best of our collective abilities it is lost, during and afterwards we feel elation and a heightened sense of awareness.

For most people these experiences of collective pursuit occur sparingly and with modest intensity under circumstances that are not wholly spontaneous, as when regulated by church or civic activities. Or they are confined to those parts of our lives that are lived haphazardly as leisure pursuits. Even in scientific communities the pressures of professional performance inhibit the fullest realization of collaboration as a collective intellectual adventure. This reality may account for the eager participation among scientists when simple wiki-style collaborations do appear.

The innate pursuit of collaboration that Tomasello records challenges Singer’s wholesale dismissal of utopianism.The simple association of utopianism with the view that humans are malleable creatures, a view that Singer attributes to the traditional left, is flawed. Firstly, it ignores the sense of hope explicit with visionary strivings. Secondly, Singer’s views are wide of the mark in light of these new behavioral studies. How else can we think of expanding the space for collaborative experiences if we are not open to the allures of utopianism? What in fact are the ultimate collaborative experiences if not those associated with play in its many forms as games, festivals and more? Nowhere else in our societies does the exuberance of human fulfillment readily appear. And, to venture a utopian question, why is it absent in those parts of our lives where we spend so much time seeking our survival?

Bernard Marszalek

December 2, 2009


info at jasecon dot org

1 More Scientists Treat Experiments as a Team Sport Robert Lee Hotz, November 20, 2009, Wall Street Journal

2 I should mention that an indirect subversion of the usual hierarchical business methods may result from the growing influence of “social entrepreneurship” but only if those who are intrigued with this approach to solving social ills recognize the systemic exploitation that created them in the first place.

3 Engels quoted in Peter Singer. 1999 A Darwinian Left (21)

4 Michael Tomasello. 2009 Why We Cooperate (23)

5 Tomasello

6 Richard
Dawkins 1976 The Selfish Gene (63)

7 Tomasello

Posted in Bernard Marszalek, Grassroots Economics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Mondragon: What relevance for US cooperative development

A recent weeklong conference in Sonoma, California – The Economics of Peace – featured a day devoted to lectures and workshops on the cooperatives associated with the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation (MCC). This event marks the third occasion in the last six months where representatives from the MCC, located in the Basque region of Spain, appeared in the US. Previously both Cleveland and Detroit hosted discussions with the MCC. While US developers of worker cooperatives have toured the Mondragon complex since the 80’s, these recent visits are noteworthy as a first for the MCC.

In each case the MCC representatives were returning a visit from a US group, so we can’t presume that the frequency of visits will be maintained. Nonetheless the increased public exposure to the cooperative enterprises founded over 50 years ago in the city of Mondragon is significant. The raised profile of Mondragon in the US prompts some thoughts of MCC’s role within the worker community. I am hoping that the following comments, from someone with only a tangential relationship to co-op development (I consider myself an activist, not a “developer”) will generate a discussion about the future of worker cooperatives in a world that increasingly shows signs of complete collapse.

But let me begin noting the amazing success of an experiment (the term the MCC uses) begun by a poor parish priest over sixty years ago. Today, the MCC is a complex worth 24 billion dollars and employing 100,000 in 120 enterprises all over the globe. It comprises factories, banks, insurance agencies and a network of retail stores throughout Spain. Globally the MCC invests in industries located all over Europe, Latin America and Asia.

Mondragon obviously is embedded in the global capitalist order. It functions with that reality everyday. Its decisions are based on the proverbial bottom-line. Furthermore, it operates in countries seemingly without concern for the factors many liberals in this country believe should influence investment decisions. Mondragon invests in developing countries to compete on the level of the capitalists. For instance, Mondragon has manufacturing facilities in Mexico so that they can take advantage of NAFTA to import their home appliances into the States.

The critique of globalism can’t escape being applied to Mondragon. Nor can that critique be ignored by those who laud the spectacular growth of the MCC as proof that worker-ownership works!

To close the book on Mondragon based on their ability to play the game of neo-liberalism would be a mistake. US visitors who over the years have not tempered their criticisms of the MCC, especially their overseas operations, have returned home with insights garnered from the daily practices of the cooperatives.

Before venturing into the more positive aspects of the Mondragon experiment, it is only fair to record how Mondragon responds to their critics’ concerns that cooperative principles are flaunted.

In the early 90’s Mondragon learned that a large French retailer planned to open in Spain Wal-Mart-size “big box” stores. Since Mondragon has a large domestic appliance presence in Spain, to loose retail outlets to a foreign operator threatened their national distribution. To prevent these foreign acquisitions, Mondragon began buying up various retails chains throughout Spain. For Mondragon to expand beyond its manufacturing base, was a major corporate decision. And it was also significant for the MCC to
absorb thousands of employees throughout Spain in traditional capitalist enterprises.

About ten years ago co-op membership was opened up to these new retail workers on a limited basis to ease the transition into the corporation, but the job growth of these retail outlets was outstripping the rate at which membership was attained.So early this year Mondragon decided to open up membership to all of the 40,000 retail employees. This appears to be a successful policy.

Outside of Spain the acquisitions are usually established firms purchased for strategic reasons. For example Mondragon manufactures the machinery that makes solar panels, but does not fabricate the panels themselves. So for instance in China, the largest factory for solar panels uses their machinery and so it makes sense for the MCC to purchase a Chinese manufacturer to serve as a supplier for these machines using Mondragon’s designs. Similar practices occur all over the globe. The MCC doesn’t buy these firms to spread cooperative principles, but to invest in them for their larger economic viability. In some cases these firms may not be profitable, but with new, proprietary inputs Mondragon expects that over a period of time they will be. Mondragon argues therefore that if the firm is not profitable when purchased why would the workers want to buy in?

In other cases Mondragon might find itself in a country with no legal avenue for creating a worker-cooperative, or where the government actively opposes such a development. That said, where Mondragon has succeeded in establishing a profitable firm and where the workers, the legal system and the government are all favorable to the development of cooperatives, there can be no reason for resistance to cooperative transformation.

It certainly cannot be said that Mondragon would be unable to handle such a transition. Along with the huge manufacturing sector, Mondragon facilitates financial services all over Spain and beyond. It also supports a development agency and a university. The MCC’s bank aids the development agency to guide both new and established firms to succeed. These efforts in turn are supported by the research conducted through the university. And behind the entire complex are the principles of Father Arizmendi. Together these resources provide all the knowledge that is needed to develop cooperatives from traditional capitalist firms.

The reason so many visitors pilgrimage to the Basque country every year lies precisely here. Sophisticated research and decades of proven practices support the assertion that the worker-centered basis of the cooperatives knows no language or cultural barriers. This explains why, in the last years of his life, Cesar Chavez began speculating on the creation of cooperatives based on the Mondragon model. And it is the reason, that recently, economic developers from the America Midwest have been eager to adopt some of the lessons of Mondragon’s history.

But how does Mondragon translate to America? How can a huge cooperative complex based in a society built on strong communal ties find nurturing soil in a country built upon hyper-individualism?

In Ohio for decades a small group based at Kent State has been slowly building a network, now 80 strong, of small businesses where employees gain access to shares in their companies through the Employee Stock Option Plan (ESOP) system. And these ESOPs as a whole are surviving better during this depression than traditional companies.

When economic developers in Cleveland, with a fund $2.5 billion from various sources, began planning a project to bring jobs to a destitute neighborhood they turned to the founders of this network for expertise. The ESOPs in the network however where created from existing companies, not start-ups. It was the familiarity with Mondragon, through previous visits there, that motivated the Ohio developers to create co-ops as stable enterprises to retain and expand capital in the community. The first project, a large commercial laundry, is up and running and two other cooperatives are in the process of forming: a solar installation service and an industrial-size hydroponics greenhouse.

In another endeavor, in an underserved area of Detroit, a motivated, diverse group consisting of non-profits, government and unions are investigating the development of a worker cooperative grocery outlet. And in rural Wisconsin a community involved in the creation of value-added agricultural products is researching a cooperative model using Mondragon as a reference.

The common element with all these plans rests upon creating community wealth with community support. Quietly, without a lot of bravado, the basis for a new way of answering economic needs may be gaining traction. Yet while strides are taken to plant the economic feet of a community on firmer ground than old-style government dead-end programs, one wonders if not at least one foot isn’t stuck in the muck of the old system of capitalism.

What’s significant about the history of Mondragon and, in its structure, what is relevant to the US situation? A brief review of these questions will hopefully clarify my perspective on community economic developments in the US and the reliance upon entrepreneurship as an organizing tool.

At Mondragon worker participation underlies the entire structure since the whole edifice is founded on the votes of the workers in general assembly. The workers elect the management of the co-ops. That’s basic. Of course in some cases this may be a pro forma process. It is obvious that the top echelons of management are engineers for instance, not janitors. But if the entire system resembled the old Soviet bloc of obedient citizenship periodically endorsing the ruling clique, the structure wouldn’t hold. If for no other reason than to maintain industrial harmony the democratic nature of the cooperatives must be monitored and encouraged. For example, with the rise of feminism more women have taken on engineering training and have subsequently gained greater access to management positions. Women make up 41% of the work force of the MCC and 31 % are in elected positions of authority.

Further, at Mondragon the members of the co-ops are somewhat insulated from the worst excesses of capitalist volatility. Given the crisis-prone nature of capitalism, firms prosper and fail periodically and the usual victims, the workers, must face the consequences. But during this depression the worker-members agreed to wage cuts and reduced hours in order to spread the misery more equitably. The non-member workforce, which numbers approximately 15% of the total, faced lay-offs as in any capitalist firm. To be clear about this, Mondragon hires employees to meet its labor requirements with the full understanding that these hires are not eligible for membership unless their jobs can be secured as economically viable over the long term. In this sense Mondragon deviates somewhat from the expected co-op practice and this may explain why unions are represented in the enterprises.

I believe that the social context for membership in Mondragon stretches beyond an individualistic perspective associated in this country with small business entrepreneurship. The in-depth communitarianism that exists in a society where your job and your neighbors’, the local grocery store in your community, the bank, and your pension plan and those of your friends, are all tied to one large democratically run establishment cannot be easily comprehended by Americans. Something closer to stewardship than proprietorship prevails at Mondragon and I don’t believe that this perspective has been incorporated into organizing American worker cooperatives.

The early cooperative movement reflected values opposed to the dominant economic necessities of capitalism. Historically the cooperative movement rose from communities of solidarity – of workers who banded together to sustain their communities in the face of daily oppression both on the job and off. And the workers expressed these values as members in a collaborative process to purchase foodstuffs, create insurance plans to sustain widows and children and, when they faced lockouts, production cooperatives, using their skills to manage their own workshops in defiance of the bosses.

Today as society increasingly atomizes social relations, the opportunity to collaborate has evaporated from our lives. We are isolated ciphers jammed together in oppressive environments and expected to perform as best we can with a room full of strangers who share nothing more than their alienation.

It should come as no surprise that years of employment under these circumstances deprives individuals of any experience of solidarity. The closest thing to collaborative behavior may come with Church membership or volunteering, but these are often fleeting, not substantial and ongoing activities.

Every cooperative faces the consequences of this isolated existence whenever a recruit is hired to be on a membership track. No amount of introductory material can prepare a person for the level of interpersonal relations that contribute to the smooth functioning of a cooperative enterprise. “On-the-job training” is essential not only for learning job skills, but also for acquiring the essential empathic skills that are under utilized in our hyper-individualized society.

How best to introduce the idea of taking on responsibilities for a collective endeavor to people who in their working lives only experienced order-taking and obedience? Michael Moore in his new film Capitalism: A Love Story talks about extending democracy from the political arena to the economic one. Those who have read some labor history, or political philosophy, will be familiar with his approach. I believe that a democratic ethos exists and when stirred by outrage over injustice, or stirred by a challenge to our nobility, it manifests itself.

Of course “democracy” faces attacks daily from those who wish to eviscerate the content of the word to mean nothing more than simply quadrennial trips to the voting booth. However, whenever pompous, over-reaching governmental authorities attack their critics as “ultra-democratic” they appear foolish and fail miserably to avoid ridicule. While those who wish to practice democracy often lack a playing field of any consequence, nonetheless the catastrophe we face of triple crises – in resource depletion, the economy and human rights – can only be addressed by extending popular control over all levers of power.

Gleanings from the mass media are pretty slim when it comes to gaining information about arenas of revolt, but only cave dwellers would be dismissive of the portents for change that have been appearing lately.

I will end with one story that Michael Moore tells about his worried anticipation when the section from Capitalism: A Love Story on worker cooperatives was shown at the AFL-CIO convention. He braced for, at best, a bitter silence and, at worst, a vocal guffawing when a hall full of union members saw workers in his film expressing their satisfaction with jobs they controlled through their cooperative, democratic structures. The response from the audience was rousingly positive. Loud applause and cheers. Moore was astonished. Imagine, union members endorsing workplace democracy! Has the world changed? Are we who agitate for worker cooperatives keeping up with those changes? That’s our challenge.

Bernard Marszalek

info at jasecon dot org

October 27, 2009

Posted in Bernard Marszalek, Grassroots Economics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Festival of Grassroots Economics asks: Where’s That New Economy? Offers powerful answers

“Let’s take back our economy. Let’s decentralize and democratize it,” Heather Young said, kicking off the panel called “Building the Alternative” at the Festival of Grassroots Economics, held September 26 at the Humanist Hall in Oakland.

Grassroots Festival reviewed by Oakland Local

Just launched Oakland Local – a community online news source – posted today (Oct. 20th) a great review of the Grassroots Festival.

Posted in Bernard Marszalek, Dennis Terry, Grassroots Economics, Marc Mascarenhas-Swan, Mira Luna, Rick Simon | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment