In our weekly discussion yesterday, Evan made mention of “‘It’s Not Easy Being Red’ Gordon,” a reference to the political blog and comic strip I used to write. For anyone who might not be aware by now, yours truly is a Marxist.
And yeah, here’s the obligatory “no, Stalin was to Communism what the Spanish Inquisition was to Christianity; no, we’re about dismantling the state, not expanding it, and no, we don’t like Obama either so please stop saying he’s one of us.”
While I try to keep my admittedly extreme Anarcho-Trotskyist views out of the blog, there’s really no denying that they affect my value system, and while most of the time this means I’m frothing at the mouth at whatever new abomination consumerism spits out, every once in a great while, it means something really catches my attention and admiration.
For this Fame Day, that thing is the co-op.
What’s a co-op?
Well, there are more than a few models out there. “Worker co-ops,” “Consumer co-ops,” “social co-ops.” You’ve got just as much variety in the exact focuses of the co-ops, from credit unions to agricultural produce and supplies to housing to… well, pretty much anything you can think of. Still, a fairly standard definition that would cover all of these would go something like this:
A co-op (a ‘cooperative’, alternately) is an organization collectively owned and democratically run by its workers, shareholders, or participants.
For example, a group of farmers in some rural corner of the nation might get together and agree to establish a place where everyone brings in their crops and produce, sells ’em for a fair price, and collectively decide what supplies or non-local goods to order in from out of state, using a portion of the money they make to do so.
So why does any of this matter?
I guess what got me thinking about it was some of the images posted in response to the insanity over the birth of the “royal baby.” You got pictures like this:
It’s not technically true, but the point is, Americans have generally held to the concept that “monarchies suck, democracy rules.”
Now in spite of the government’s best efforts, people still actually like democracy, or rather, they do in their political lives (as much as they can, under present circumstances). When it comes to business, however, people are still living with absolutism.
Let me break it down for you.
Businesses that are privately owned get passed down from father to son (like a monarchy). The owner has total control of the business (like a monarchy). The owner can pillage his own company (like a monarchy), drive it into the ground with gambles and poor decisions (like a monarchy), and still be buffered with enough cash and benefits not to suffer the consequences of any of this (like a monarchy). “Public” businesses are generally the same thing, just more like aristocracy.
It’s a pretty miserable system. Accountability is lost, resources are mismanaged, hard work and innovation aren’t rewarded, and profits are unfairly divided. Dishonesty, high-risks, lobbying, corruption, and disregard for the environment are all rewarded. Even companies which aren’t evil are still fairly incompetent, even the point where there’s an entire series of shows dedicated to showing CEOs unable and unqualified to perform the most basic tasks at the companies they run.
And that’s where the co-op comes in.
Let me take it point-by-point.
I. Democracy In The Workplace
As I talked about above, bosses are often selected on the basis of relation to someone high up on the chain or their ability to produce profit for the shareholders (no matter the cost). When a company’s leadership is being elected, however, you’re going to see leadership rather than authority. It’s my interest to elect someone who I feel will be both qualified to run the business and not treat us like cattle. I’d much have a boss who knows the actual ins and outs of the work I and a hundred other people are doing, wouldn’t you?
II. Accountability From The Workplace
What if I told you to flip a coin: heads, I’ll give you a million dollars, tails, nothing.
You wouldn’t hesitate.
That’s what business essentially is- certainly big business. The “golden parachutes” that many executives enjoy means that they’re free of consequences, and can pretty much gamble with their companies in the hopes of a big pay-off. Only they forget that “their” business is made of hundreds, if not thousands, of Ordinary Joes just trying to make a half-decent living. They succeed- they get rich. They fail- they’re still rich, but you’re suddenly out of a job when they have to downsize the branch or shutdown the plant. The co-op setting everyone on an equal footing does away with that. Not failure, mind you, but unfairness. If you and your fellow workers vote to go a certain direction, and that winds up being the wrong move, at least it will have been your decision, and not some Ferrari collector you’ve never met.
III. Stability In The Workplace
Perhaps the greatest concern of my generation next to finding employment is keeping employment. As I mentioned above, our current model of business pretty much offers “risk-without-penalties” to the person or handful of people calling all the shots. While it’s certainly not a universal truth, I’m still willing to bet that people will be a lot less eager to take major risks if it’s their jobs on the line. Co-ops don’t just provide a more stable workplace, but a more stable economy in general.
IV. Responsibility In The Workplace
Back in 2006, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing 11 workers and spilling millions of gallons of oil into the Caribbean. Let me ask you this- would the workers have skipped on those safety checks if they were in charge, rather than some sleazeball millionaire on the other side of the ocean? If it was owned by the gulf locals, would they risk spilling millions of gallons of oil into their homes? Simple fact of the matter is that when it’s your stuff on the line, you’re going to take care of it, and the collective ownership aspect of co-ops means that people are going to be more likely to be environmentally conscious. This would apply to health as well- you’re less likely to serve bad food or faulty machinery if it’s your friends and family who are going to be the primary consumers.
V. Openness In The Workplace
Due to so-called “Right To Work” laws in the US which pretty much allow for employees to be fired for no reason or cause whatsoever, the average worker lives in a state of constant repression. Your boss might be a good guy or gal, but even so, with the possibility of being fired for any reason, chances of you trying to speak out on a venture that might be a waste of company time, money, or manpower can be, well, dangerous- especially in this economy. With a co-op, your ability to speak up, offer new or dissenting ideas is protected- not completely, but certainly more than it is now. Innovation can’t flourish in an environment of fear, and the protection offered by the co-op does away with that.
VI. Civility In The Workplace
The key difference between a co-op and a traditional business is the end goal. Traditional businesses are all about the worth of their stock or the annual profit they’re turning, and as a result of this, often disregard the basic human dignity of their employees. Just look at the dead-eyed, rehearsed smile of anyone in the service industry and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Now imagine instead that the end goal of the business wasn’t profit, but just self-sufficiency and the livelihoods of the workers. Imagine being able to set standards for customer behavior- imagine being able to tell a rude customer to change up his attitude or go **** himself. You don’t need to be making 10,000 this week, you’ve already hit the quota of 7,500 you’re going to need to stay open. Heck, why not even just dictate your own schedule and wind up having more time to spend with your family, or developing yourself as a human being?
Now all this isn’t to say there aren’t problems. Co-ops are tough to get started in urban environments, especially poor ones. Co-ops can be mismanaged if the wrong people get elected- that problem doesn’t go away. Co-ops, as of right now, are still pretty dang hard to find, though they are spreading.
That’s where you come in.
I’d like to think I’ve made a pretty strong case for this alternative (really the only sane choice) to the slavish, backwards, and inefficient way of doing business we have today. If this model is going to actually work though, we’re all going to have to chip in. People, find yourselves a co-op, or if you cant, try to find a way of establishing it (a legal nightmare, I know). Barring that, talk about ’em. Spread the word. There’s a better option out there.