Letter to a Young Cooperator

Standing door duty at one of the breakout sessions at Personal Democracy Forum, a session titled “Labs for Social and Economic Empowerment”, I hear a familiar refrain:

I’m a student, and very involved in my local cooperative movement. I wanted to ask —  why can’t cooperatives provide the worker protections and quality-of-life improvements that you’re advocating for?

I stifle a sigh. I am sad. I think back on what I used to believe. I want to speak:

“I’ll tell you why. It’s because you in fact have a skewed and limited view of the world. You value a whole life, in which work is balanced with relationships, which is balanced with duty and with nature and with love. You desire to make this life possible, and you perceive that all that has been missing was the idea that it should be.

What you fail to realize is that healthy and nourished people are only really necessary for inspired, creative work. If the work can be structured, partitioned, and regulated, then in fact there is no need to see to the worker’s well-being, as the worker can be compelled to work via other means. You would never treat someone in that way, of course, but some feel differently.

The tragedy, of course, is that this kind of coerced labor is more productive, given regulated work, than true, free labor. And so organizational forms which can consistently compel their workers to work in way that extracts more value from their labor than the cost to employ them will be victorious, relative to organizational forms which seek to embrace and enhance their workers, their constituents.

Your ignorance lies rooted in your limited comprehension of your adversary. You are intoxicated with concept and theory, and you have a poor grasp of your own limitations, of the difficulty of really accomplishing something. The adults with whom you have been surrounded for your entire life are adults who, for some reason or another, chose to be with you. Your parents, your teachers, your counselors. These are people who made the choice to spend time with children. What do you know of the millions who dislike children, who avoid them whenever possible?

You were told that competition was foolish, that collaboration was all. But do you realize that other children were given other lessons? They were taught that the only value is excellence, that material and esteem are the twin pillars of worth.

It is because you have an academic understanding of the economy. You have never had to convince a complete stranger to exchange money for your labor. You have never known want.

You have never had to really be the best. You’ve had to try, to be sure. You’ve struggled. But you’ve never been in a position where nothing mattered but success.

What you don’t understand is that your opposites are working harder than you. They are making more sacrifices and putting in more time. They are also more single-minded than you, and in terms of pure intellect, as smart if not smarter than you. You, with your love of mornings and of views, will not be able to directly outcompete them.

Your strength is in your lateral thinking. Your strength is in your ability to imagine the heretofore unknown. You are the kind of person who can imagine a different world. But what you will find yourself unable to do is exceed at other people’s games. You cannot compete, you can only create. At the end of the day, this capacity for creation is the only thing that matters. But it is not often the end of the day.

And the thing is, the organizational forms you love cannot compete either. Cooperatives are too willing to slow down, to reflect. Our markets do not care; they want value cheaply. Those who throttle reflection, who prioritize speed, will overcome.

Cooperatives succeed when among friends.

We are not always among friends.

But… why aren’t we friends?”

Of course, I said nothing.

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