A question pops up all too often in the world of co-ops: when is a co-op not really a co-op? This is a long-running, nagging question that reared its ugly ahead again the other night.
Friday I ventured to the local specialty foods store. The cashier noticed my CO+OP Stronger Together branded jacket and asked if I worked for the local food co-op. “Nope, I am a researcher studying the co-op model’s impact on development. Why do you ask?” His response took me back: “co-ops aren’t really good for the community, y’know. The food co-op caters to a small niche of white, upper-middle class consumers and drives out the competition.” Before I could respond, a line formed behind me. So now you, the reader, will be at the receiving end of my deconstruction of a local stranger’s takedown of the co-operative model.
Why would a cashier working at a specialty foods store make an effort to rail against the local food co-op when this community is littered with Wal-Marts, Kroger’s, Target, Starbucks, and McDonalds? What the Hell is a co-op? What’s its purpose? Does a co-op have a responsibility to build the community it’s positioned in, and is it doing that? If the food co-op is doing that, then where does this focused angst arise from?
More than any other type of co-op, food co-ops are on the frontline of the movement. Food co-ops promise food with integrity, quality jobs, local economic investment, and participatory democratic ownership. These features in action would to me seem to provide more community impact than any of the other box stores. Yet why is it that I seem to find more critics of food co-ops than of Target?
My hunch? Co-ops are held to a much higher standard.
The box stores promote a downward spiral, singing a “siren’s song” of low-priced consumerism. Workers are treated poorly, sweatshop jobs are proliferated, and the environment is destroyed. Just head out to any of your suburban strip malls on a Saturday afternoon and you can feel the misery ooze through your car’s windows as you look at the telltale CheeseCake Factory, Apple Store, and Chipotle.
This is to be expected, though. We all accept this nasty reality. But I think those of us with a fondness for co-ops aspire for so much more. We reject the notion that the economy is without social values, that store “associates” are to be treated as the property of the job creators. We want a new, humanized economy, and we want it now!
But “now” ain’t gonna happen. This isn’t an economy-question so much as a democracy-question. We have to change things, and collective, democratic action has never been easy. We live in a top-down world. A purpose of the co-op movement is to pull the hierarchy downward so that it’s flatter, more horizontal, and accessible to the everyday person. But that purpose in embedded in a world that teaches us that solutions can only come from the top of the pyramid. Citizens are supposed to be voters or consumers, not do-ers or public entrepreneurs.
Our capacity for democracy is sadly diminished. Unfortunately citizens don’t really know how to “do” democratic governance or public entrepreneurship. But when an institution like a food co-op takes center stage and implies they are creating new venues for participatory democracy, they are left wide open for criticism.
Why? Because people are hungry for change. They want it now. But they have also been taught that it is up to someone else to hurry it along and do it for them. It follows that if a co-op exists, and the world is still full of centralized corporatism and bureaucracy teeming with alienation, then to many the co-op has failed.
We need time. It takes tireless energy and the efforts of many who previously never “did” democracy. Co-ops must drive this point home.
And yet I don’t think we can be dismissive of this criticism that our local co-op “isn’t acting like a co-op.”
Co-ops are great at extolling the value-added to their goods and services (electric co-ops provide competitively priced, reliable energy, and food co-ops give us amazing, fresh, local foods). But they have yet to really hammer home what it means to be a co-op!
Co-ops must promote themselves as co-ops involved in the great experiment of citizen democracy, not merely as a great provider of a competitively priced good or service. They must drive home the proposition that they exist to democratize (or humanize) the economy through the infusion of values into their business model. And the marketing isn’t enough; co-ops have to back up their claims of empowerment with substantive action. Co-ops must provide venues for direct democracy by their member-owners. Member-owners, the citizenry of the co-ops, must feel as if a hand is extended to them, inviting them to participate in meaningful democratic discourse, lest they feel they are being taken for fools (and as Elinor Ostrom was fond of saying, “no one likes to be a sucker!”). In other words, citizens must feel as though they have a stake, they must be engaged, they must be listened too, and they have the opportunity to act upon their voice.
I take the criticism as a constructive challenge. Should the participatory democratic features of our co-ops become more pronounced and obvious, I believe that the criticism of co-ops not acting like co-ops will diminish (and more importantly level a challenge of legitimacy at corporations and corrupt governments). We are in a sense striving to make people feel as if they belong to something, that they need not feel alienated, and the co-op is the model best suited to do so. We are attempting to move beyond a system that fosters passivity and artificial structural dependence, to one of individual empowerment through collective action.
Our mission is to prove the critics wrong! But we don’t do so through a critical, pointed finger; we do so through an extended hand, an open mind, and a caring heart. That is a social vision worth the wait. That is a co-op.