Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Looting in London; Looting in my Co-op ... ??

I am in a place of contradiction and confusion at the moment. But strangely, I see parallels between world events and happenings in my local food co-op. Especially as far as the looting in London is concerned.

I want to condemn the looting in London. But how is it so different from the Arab Spring? I want to say the rioters aren't protesting for democratic expression. But do I know that? I want to say, of course, it's not the same; the looters are wearing fancy clothes and driving smart cars. But, does having consumerist trinkets preclude the possibility that they are outraged because they feel excluded from the process that determines their destiny?

I go through a thousand tortuous thoughts in my head. I review all the bad decisions, personal and governmental, that led to this crisis of confidence in the UK. I consider the crippling debt (again both personal and governmental), the austerity measures introduced to cope with the debt, the sense of impotence that surrounds the whole debate, leading to the rioting and the looting. And then. Oops. Freeze.

Until a light bulb suddenly turns on in my head. Isn't the answer: (1) To take debt out of the equation; and then (2) Return power to the people, so that they may no longer be burdened with decisions by people who know nothing of them? They make the decisions for themselves.

Funny thing is, at least as I see it, this is exactly what the LibCon Coalition Government in the UK is trying to do, however ineffectually others may think they are achieving it.

They have gripped governmental debt by the horns, and undertaken to reduce it, as quickly as possible. At the same time, they have set out programs attempting to devolve power, so that collective decision-making is made as close to local communities as possible.

Of perhaps the most interest to me is the Government's open advocacy of co-operatives, to provide services both private and public.

The ethos is that remote entities, be they multi-national companies, over-large unions or layer after layer of out-of-touch government, they have all failed the people, because they simply do not know what 'the people' want. And besides, people aren't cyphers. They have different needs, from one community to another.

The definition of a co-op is a voluntary association of individuals who have come together to provide for their common needs. If folks come together to provide common health or education or food services, and, according to the principles of co-operative equality, democracy and openness, they do so on an equal and consensual basis, then what is provided is what those same people want, and it is provided in the way they want.

There can be no 'bad' decisions. Because the people are making the decisions for themselves. Yet, if mistakes are made, and openness and accountability are fully present, then the people can consensually decide to put right the mistakes.

Which brings me merrily to my own food co-op, Weaver Street Market Co-operative (WSM), here in North Carolina. Where happiness is not abundant, precisely because a self-appointed few have taken power away from the people, given it to themselves, decided to make decisions that are not consonant with the common needs of the stakeholders in the co-op, and have since sought to cover up their mistakes, only making matters horrendously worse.

In about 2007, this self-appointed few decided it would be a joyous adventure to cast aside principles of community, locality, prudence and consensus, and determined instead that they would like whole-heartedly to join with the consumerist-capitalist mainstream, and become a chain store.

Without properly consulting with stakeholders, they created plans for a new store in a town some ten miles away, and a new Food House (in the same town) to service everyone.

They then took the check book, went on a spending spree (hey, this was 2007; money was still cheap!), and the next thing we stakeholders knew, our co-op was $10 million in debt, on a turnover of $20 million, at the beginning of the worst recession since the Depression.

There has been much gnashing of teething and biblical wailing (not least from me) since then. Consumers and workers have been ridden roughshod in a vain attempt to rescue the unrescuable, to remain committed to the corporate office management gameplan, and simply to pay off the debt on the backs of those same consumers and workers.

I could go on at length. I have done. On this co-op blog. But, when I try today, I merely short-circuit. Again.

But then, another light bulb turns on in my head. Why not apply the same solution as with the UK? (1) Remove debt from the equation; and (2) Give power back to the stakeholders?

First, do what I suggested several years ago, when we all realized we were in for a sh**-storm, what with our annual interest repayments on the total debt being anywhere up to $1 million.

Set up a Review Committee of WSM Owners (with specialist knowledge) to review WSM's finances and its debt, and find a way to get rid of the debt without relying on measures that simply bring more and more pain to the stakeholders (consumers, owners and workers). Pain that has been visited on them year after year, and without their consent.

Then, allow our co-op to give power back to its stakeholders - its consumers, its owners and its workers.

Let consumers once more be the ones who decide what their co-operative will sell and how. Whether there will be a discount or a dividend. Through consumer discussion groups. An online forum. And a Board of Directors which is fully elected. Not one where three out of the seven Directors are essentially appointed by the WSM corporate office management.

Let workers decide for themselves, and in consultation with consumers, how they will provide for the common needs of the consumers, and in a way that is consonant with co-operative principles of dignity, and WSM's own Mission Statement that eschews exploitation and requires that workers have a fulfilling work experience.

No more would we need to waste vast amounts of consumerist-marketing time and money trying to get consumers to buy what the self-appointed few want them to buy. That is the traditional consumerist model, and its death knell was pretty much sounded in the past few weeks. The need for such marketing would be replaced by WSM simply providing what its consumers have told it they want it to sell.

No more would managers need constantly to poke their workers in the back, encouraging them to keep their hands busy. Setting targets. Setting goals. Imposing from above.

If workers knew what their customers wanted by way of service provision, through discussion and interactive feedback. If workers were asked, not told. If they were allowed meetings to make consensual decisions. If they ... no, we ... were permitted to be a part of the existing policy-making process, by reducing the cost of worker-ownership from its existing unaffordable $500. Then, we workers would be the ones making the decisions. We workers would be the ones responsible for the consequences. And we workers would be much more likely to be invested in implementing those decisions successfully and happily, and providing to consumers the food and the service consensually agreed between consumers and workers.

This is the very essence of co-operation.

I understand mistakes. I understand bad decisions. None of us are immune. Least of all me. I understand the desire not to admit. To cover up. To 'see it through.' I would be one with the WSM corporate office management, if their attempts to 'see it through' were proving successful.

But the fact is that, over the past few years, consumers, owners and workers have become increasingly disenchanted, the principles of co-operation have been left further and further behind, and the only success the corporate office can claim is the same sort of success that traditional capitalist corporations boast when their profitability and increased share value is attained only at the expense of downsizing and placing impossible burden on their consumers and workers.

Is that really the sort of claim we at WSM want to be able to make in our Annual Report 2011?

It is not too late. Indeed, the need for a change of course is vital in view of the fact that it is becoming increasingly clear that the Great Recession never ended; it merely went into hibernation.

It is now imperative that we find a sensible way to rescue WSM from its heavy debt burden, freeing our co-op to renew its commitment to the vibrant principles of co-operation, through a return of power to its stakeholders.

We have nothing to fear but the ability of the person buying from us, or the person working next to us, to control their own destiny in their own co-op. Is that really such a frightening possibility? After all, if it is good enough for the British Government, is there any reason why it shouldn't be good enough for us in Weaver Street Market Co-operative ... ??