Yes, cooperatives are idealistic … like marriage and parenting, and no, they do not have to be run like AA meetings

Cooperation or a Mexican standoff? Photograph and mise-en-scène by MIL22

When there is separation, there is coming together. When there is coming together, there is dissolution.

Chuang-Tzŭ (Zhuangzi), Inner Chapters,4th century BCE

[ trans.: Gia-fu Feng and Jane English ]

It is curious that anger about inequality is boiling over around the world precisely when we have new tools capable of taking us a long way towards a solution.

Yet disillusioned, battle-weary romantics who once joined some attempt to make democracy more democratic — or run a cooperative as an alternative to the Darwinian capitalism so adept at spawning plutocracies — have been telling us how they failed so gloomily that they could be competing for hopelessness with the Icelander Halldor Laxness and his Independent People.

Is it unreasonable to ask that, instead of justifying their pessimism, they collect and broadcast their thoughts about what they learnt from those failures and would do differently if they were to try again? And might they sit up and notice exactly what is possible with the new, democracy-friendly tools that could have helped them to avert disaster — if these had only been invented in time?

If paying attention, the nay-sayers might avoid the unfortunate misperception of cooperatives as cuddly, slow-moving, necessarily lovable ‘kumbaya’ institutions – as in a newspaper columnist’s suggestion last week that members of worker-owned coops might specialise in listening to each other as patiently and empathetically as people at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.

… er, please, … no! … ideal co-owners are far more likely to be reading at their own pace – in most cases, fast and online — than attending in the same room to statements of each other’s positions on any issue. Or they might be watching a short video clip on the subject – in the information-gathering and debating prelude to making a decision.

As this blog noted six weeks ago, technology has made it possible for everyone to consider the same information simultaneously, and to spell out goals and policies crisply. The deciding in a cooperative could be done at – well, why not say, warp speed, and that hardly seems an exaggeration when you consider the spread of ‘clickers‘ linked to polling software, and mentioned on the front page of the New York Times last week as

… hand-held wireless devices with just a few buttons.

[…] In recent years, college students have been bringing clickers to lecture halls, where professors require their use for attendance, instant polls and multiple-choice tests. Corporate executives sometimes distribute the devices at meetings, and then show survey responses immediately on Power Point slides. Just two of many companies that make clickers have sold nearly nine million units, which typically cost between $30 and $40 apiece, in under a decade. One of the companies, Turning Technologies, sold 1.5 million in 2011 alone.

But clickers can now be found in […] churches, fire departments, cruise ships and health care providers […] spreading the phenomenon of online crowdsourcing to off-line crowds. Fans of the devices say they are efficient, eco-friendly and techno-tickling, allowing audiences to mimic TV game-show contestants.

Do not, dear reader, mistake me for a neophile. I put off admitting digital innovations into my life until the penalties for resisting them are nipping at my heels – or a brother of mine has nagged me to distraction. I never forget that no matter how much more tools let us do today than we could yesterday, human nature remains the same at its core — fallible and perverse.

No technological wizardry has made it possible to hand over to robots the effort it takes to succeed at marriage, child-rearing, or working productively and in harmony with other people. All that calls for unceasing trial and error – and persistence, staring down disappointment and discouragement. I found a statement of this truth, twenty-five centuries old, browsing in my ravishing edition of the Chinese philosopher Chuang-Tsŭ’s Inner Chapters – for a reason to be explained in next week’s post.

‘When you wrack your brain trying to unify things,’ the passage begins,

… it is called ‘three in the morning’. What do I mean by ‘three in the morning’? A man who kept three monkeys said to them, ‘You get three acorns in the morning and four in the evening.’ This made them all very angry. So he said, ‘How about four in the morning and three in the evening?’ – and the monkeys were happy. The number of acorns was the same, but the different arrangement resulted in anger or pleasure. This is what I am talking about.

Empathetic listening could be a good guiding principle for some cooperatives, like the one the newspaper columnist has in mind. Other coops will want a different arrangement of acorns. It will all depend on the rules they make for running them.

I have yet to read Howard Rheingold’s latest book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online — but look forward particularly to seeing what he has to say in it about cooperation and collaboration, having glimpsed in this section his introduction to the ideas of Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009.  He quotes her conclusion that

… ‘institutions of collective action’ were more likely to succeed when a small number of design principles were observed, and more likely to fail in the absence of these measures.

He lists her suggested principles, of which these struck me as most important:

  • Ÿ Rules governing the use of collective goods are well matched to local needs and conditions.
  • Ÿ Most individuals affected by these rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  • Ÿ The right of community members to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities.

… Discussing suggestions like hers is exactly where the conversation about cooperatives needs to go next.