Where We Are, Where We’re Going

This edition’s annual survey of food co-op performance highlights largely healthy operations and continuing strong sales growth among these community-based businesses. And the review of the task force on new co-op development suggests confidence that food co-ops can soon grow to larger numbers.

These are causes for optimism about the future of our businesses. But given larger and equally clear threats to social health and safety, I wonder where we’re going.

“Reclaiming our wealth, our liberty, and our democracy” is the subtitle to America Beyond Capitalism, the latest book by Gar Alperovitz, a featured speaker at this June’s co-op conference. I first encountered his name in 1966 in a book about the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. And just as that decision of 1945 was a political statement with a deceptive cover story of military necessity, the economic bombs being launched in the current era are major political statements with a cover story of financial necessity. Again: where are we going?

I introduced Alperovitz with reference to a conference theme, “the value of values.” International cooperative values provide a guide to the ongoing conversation and practice of democracy—ongoing because that practice is never complete, the conversation a political necessity whether democratic culture is alive and well or, as in the present moment, damaged and diminished. Note also that the six key cooperative values refer both to individual and to collective/community behavior: self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity.

What is the value of values? They are the basis for needed self-examination of our organizations and our desires for a livable, sustainable future. By their deeds you shall know them—or, as a famous cooperator, Benjamin Franklin, said, “Well done is better than well said.” The value of values is in our practice.

Values are key to what is larger than us as individuals, a link not only to why we do what we do but also who we are in the community or collective sense. The solitude of individuals is transcended through solidarity and other values—not merely through friends and family. but through politics and society. Co-ops are an organized form of solidarity, and solidarity is key to “self-interest, properly understood.”

In this forum, am I preaching to the converted? Not necessarily. Despite having values and an ownership structure that support a common future, even co-ops are often thought to be merely a means to individual advancement. In this mode, they reflect a dominant culture that discourages widespread solidarity—contrary to cliché, a small group of determined people is only a beginning.

A better message, and that of Gar Alperovitz, is to reach beyond the familiar and the comfortable, to develop broader allies and a deeper vision. Cooperatives’ rich experience in building democratic enterprise gives them excellent position, and the responsibility, to help build such a future. On the other hand, failure to continually re-examine our practice can generate barriers to social improvement and greater solidarity.

The necessity of a new social vision is being brought home by the intertwined factors of the growing fiscal crisis; by resource depletion, destructive military adventures, and U.S. terrorism; and by the growing consequences of global climate instability. After discussing local and democratic forms such as cooperatives, community development corporations, municipally owned enterprise, and Employee Stock Ownership Plans, Alperovitz summarizes:

“A radically new context thus is being shaped that is forcing—and will continue to force—very difficult choices. Either there will be no solution to many problems, or something new will have to be tried. The growing fiscal pressures—intersecting now with growing global uncertainties—are, in fact, producing a political-economic environment in which alternatives of the kind we have reviewed may well become the only feasible way forward in many areas.”


Dave Gutknecht is editor of Cooperative Grocer ([email protected])

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