The Case for the Power of Culture

January 9, 2017

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

[Editor’s note: This post is Part I of an essay by Michael Johnson. In it he proposes a democratic movement strategy that emphasizes a strong cultural component. In Part I below he argues that culture is a powerful factor in political and economic dynamics, but currently almost all strategic thinking focuses just on structures and systems. Part II — The Components of a Cultural/Structural Strategy — outlines an alternative cultural/structural strategy. Part III — Developing a Democratic Praxis — focuses on the key educational factors necessary for building cultures of “small ‘d’ democracy” in communities and regions across the country. His essay has been submitted to The Next System’s essay contest.  An overview of the whole essay is on his blog.]

Image Removed Photo by Marshall Murray /

A. “Culture eats structure for breakfast.” [1]
Let’s begin by stopping our addiction to thinking in big structural terms. There is value in the scaling-up structural visions and strategies for growing our movements for co-operative/solidarity economics [2] and deep social change. However, structural strategies by themselves are like a one-armed swimmer moving upstream into a heady current. Our swimmer needs a second powerful arm: a deep understanding and appreciation of the power of culture in shaping and driving us at all levels — personal, collective, local, and social. Cultural/structural visions and strategies will take us in a radically different direction to advance co-operative/solidarity economics.

Our over-riding and primary need is for the co-operative/solidarity movements to focus on helping to create powerful democratic cultures in local communities and their regions all across the country. People drive change and we need people — a lot more people — at the grassroots who are capable of doing this effectively and democratically. The 2016 elections have made it crystal clear that 1) ordinary people can exercise their power to make a big difference, and 2) small ‘d’ democratic politics at community and regional levels are seriously deficient, leaving a great intellectual and emotional vacuum filled by the crass broadcasting of our public media, our insult prone social media, and political huckstering.

I will be working in part from Fritjof Capra’s dynamic explanation of culture in The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living throughout my discussion:

…culture arises from a complex, highly nonlinear dynamic.  It is created by a social network involving multiple feedback loops through which values, beliefs, and rules of conduct are continually communicated, modified, and sustained.” [3]

In part I will also be working from a more timely description: Susie Linfield points out that in What’s the Matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank “viewed social issues—culture—as “bait” to ensnare white workers into supporting the Republican economic policies that harmed them.” To this she points out that

…culture—the ways in which we experience the world, the things we hold most dear, the values we pass on to our children—isn’t bait: It is the essence of who we are. Why shouldn’t this be as true of them as it is of us? [4]

My basic argument is four-fold.

  • One, democratic institutions emerge from democratic cultures not from think tanks.
  • Two, democratic processes can be one of the most effective ways to minimize polarization and find common ground among our working and middle-classes even in the face of strong disagreements and persistent racial and gender disunities. In fact, we don’t really have any other basic tool for this work.
  • Three, developing and widely promoting powerful pedagogies for civic/popular education programs are essential for re-vitalizing grassroots democratic processes. Programs designed specifically to equip ordinary people to develop powerful democratic praxis for identifying and achieving their objectives.
  • Four, the vibrant local democratic cultures that can emerge from this re-vitalization will probably be the most hospitable environment for co-operative/solidarity economic projects and other democratic change movements from across our political spectrum. In fact, they would probably co-evolve each other.

The 2016 elections seem to have made it patently clear that the US is not overflowing with local democratic cultures, nor is there any deep interest from either major party in fostering the development of such cultures. Yet, we can now see that there are large numbers of people who care on both sides of the Left/Right divide and everywhere in between. They have very real and passionate if differing concerns, and are as politically hot as they are intensely polarized. How to fill this yawning gap is the most pressing political issue before us as a nation, and the most pressing strategic challenge before all of our democratic movements for deep change.

Further, our recent election results now give powerful reasons to seriously question how well informed the whole Left has been in their assumptions about the basic political realities in our country. Identity issues and class issues have to be woven together and re-framed so they are much more inclusive and nuanced so they become free of unquestioned assertions of what is and what should be. This will require intense and extensive re-development of basic democratic skills and dispositions both within our movements and at community and regional levels across the country. This needs to be our alpha priority no matter how long this will take. In fact, it should be an unending process that runs as long as we want there to be a democratic America. However, this concern hardly enters our think tank processes that churn out big system proposals because we are seduced by the all-American appeal of “big is better,” “big is essential,” “now is our moment for becoming big.”

To be very concrete, there isn’t any evidence that ‘new economy’ or ‘next system’ or ‘worker co-operative ecosystem’ approaches can get the attention of ordinary people in their local worlds. In fact, as a colleague and former IBM manager and current founder of a small horizontal software firm has noted, the evidence points to large scale organizations not being able to achieve cooperative structures at all:

The urge to do a cooperative General Electric or Gap or Apple or Uber is essentially doomed. I have “learned” that cooperation and collaboration are small-group activities. The kind of Manhattan Project initiatives that get so much attention are actually large numbers of small collaborations inside a hierarchic, centrally planned monolithic entity. They “produce” but their efficiency (delivery of value/benefit by and to the actual contributors) is far lower than more organic smaller teams unencumbered by the MBAs, clerks, and Capitalist Priesthoods. [5]

The persistent struggling of ambitious top-down projects like the Evergreen one in Cleveland strongly suggests that our basic approaches for scaling up are not well equipped for developing co-operative/solidarity projects in our communities and regions.  [6] This is an important learning. A crucial learning! Can we accept this information, step back, feel okay that ours will be a long, long struggle, and find new, more relevant questions to ask ourselves rather than the ones that we have been following?

Again, people drive change, not institutions. Institutions are essential, but people with all they embody are the power that drives institutions. People who deeply embody democracy as a way of life create and drive democratic institutions. Structural strategies and visions alone can’t do this. They have and will continue to leave us as a marginal force. We need an organic cultural/structural strategy to move us out of the margins of American life — very slowly, because developing/implementing such an approach will involve much learning and organizing.

If we want deep democratic change politically, socially, and economically, then we need people who can be

  • far more adept at hearing and understanding each other,
  • far more skilled at getting better and more accurate information in all of the inevitable interpersonal conflicts and political differences we become involved in,
  • far more competent in processing all of the relevant information relevant to issues of concern,
  • far more free of the kinds of negativity that embroil us in righteous non-negotiability,
  • far more able to engage in thinking-together to forge common action, and, as a result of all of the above,
  • far more self-empowering both personally and collectively

than we have on hand now.

In a word, ordinary people becoming far more democratic, informed, smart, respectful of each other, kind, and compassionate. And, therefore, powerful. This is our primary need because transformed people are the ones who can transform their worlds. As essential as they are, visionary designs of new structures and systems can’t transform anything. What can get local transformative dynamics going are civic/popular education programs designed to equip ordinary people to develop their powerful democratic praxis.

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The kind of human development I am talking about is a culture building process for producing democratic people who can grow into playing major roles in the political and social life of their communities and regions. For this kind of political culture to emerge from, by, and for ordinary people, they will need to have access to new ways of learning to communicate and think with each other. New ways that can draw them away from the anxiety-producing and polarizing media megaphones and toward relationship building and constructive problem solving. At the core of this culture building process would be civic/ popular education [7] programs designed to promote personal and collective development in the skills and dispositions described above. I present a field-tested pedagogical model in some detail in Part III, which will be published on January 2nd.

This strategy would also promote other projects that can slowly tame local polarization and generate local political cultures for producing an empowered mutuality. At the moment on the Left, the dominant thinking about democracy is extremely rights-based. In itself this is an essential approach to understanding democracy. However, there is an equally essential approach that emphasizes the functionality of democracy. That is, all the abilities and dispositions described above, which can produce pragmatic empowered mutuality at the grassroots. If this were to take hold, there could be the possibility of scaling across through polycentric networks, and then upwards. [8]

It is crucial for our movements to see how these kinds of environments can become much more hospitable environments for co-operative/solidarity economic projects. Cultivate this soil, then we can grow our crops with the local folks.

Our problematic change strategies

Our structural visions and models of new economies, next systems, and various kinds of 21st century democratic commonwealths are like trees being planted in a toxic soil. They cannot grow without that cultural soil being transformed and enriched into one that can empower mutuality. Otherwise, they are just huffing and puffing, powerless to make more than a little of the difference they fantasize. On the one hand, some are far too broad and ambitious in their scope. [9] We are simply not equipped for big scale projects yet. Our movements are not powerful enough, and we don’t understand enough about the nature of power and the dynamics of empowerment.

On the other hand, there are those approaches, while more realistically focused on the “region” as the appropriate scale for development and experimentation, tend to operate from a lack of or flawed strategies for achieving personal and collective empowerment. [10] This is a critical problem for the future of our movements. Personal and collective empowerment is our greatest need, and it has to be grounded in the grassroots where ordinary people and activists can talk face-to-face. [11]

Having come this far with a very heavy critique of our major commitment to structural visions and strategies, I want to balance that assessment a bit before moving on. In a recent article Gar Alperovitz puts forth the best thinking of the structural approach. He identifies four key factors that “a new politics” must have:

  • “a new and different institutional power base,”
  • a compelling and morally serious new vision “based on a radical democratization of the economy,”
  • an approach that works up from the community level and is “fleshed out with the powerful and explicit political energies” of the kind of political movement Bernie Sanders showed is possible, and
  • “movement-building efforts of many allied groups.”

I strongly embrace all of this. In fact, the regional structural component I present in Part II [which will be published on December 30th] embodies all of these except the Sanders type national mobilization. And I heartily endorse Gar’s call “to move beyond the faltering ideology of progressive liberalism in the United States and social democracy in Europe—both of which accept the theory that corporate power at the center of the system can be regulated and “incentivized” to achieve democratic outcomes.” [12]

Where we differ — profoundly — is that nowhere does he see the need for an explicit, dynamic cultural component to his strategy and vision.

B. The transformative impact of a cultural/structural strategy on our democratic change movements
Every community — local, collective, movement, institutional, society — has its  culture, which is filled with its assumptions, convictions, habits, and values, which translate into ways of seeing, behaving, and relating that serve to sustain personal and collective identity. A good example is a movement. Another is something larger and very publicly known, the world of major league baseball. These interactive identities constitute the stability and solidity of both. They provide the fundamental need to belong, and the basic resources (such as reliable income, social capital, etc.) for the entity to belong to. That’s the upside of a culture. The downside is that those identities tend to become interlocking boxes, codependent, insular, self-certain. Unchecked, they become fixed and impervious. In that context for someone to begin or be seen to be moving out of a box becomes a threat to others, even to the whole established way of life. The need to resolve unresolved tensions within the community or between the community and its environment can then become a dynamic that breaks it open to something new and chaotic.

There is a terrific, entertaining, and in-depth read about such a breaking open of a fixed culture: Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. [13] It not only tells the stories but gets to the psychological and social core of those stories. I strongly recommend it for anyone concerned that our movements for democratic change, including co-operative/solidarity economics, have become too fixed in their ways and protect those ways punitively. It would be hard to find a better showing of what is going on.

I am one of those concerned activists and democracy advocates. The idea of thinking about change strategies in terms of a cultural/structural framework emerges from these concerns and calls into question some very basic convictions we have about ourselves. I think if our movements gave serious enough consideration to this framework to put it into serious practice, the following impacts would unfold in some way.

1. Transforming ourselves
It would take a staggering amount of imagination for co-operative/solidarity economic and other democratic change movements to take on the kind of cultural movement strategy I am advocating. Indeed, we genuinely espouse democracy, but this hits a real wall in day-to-day reality. We have not been raised in a deeply democratic culture. From Far-Left to Alt-Right, ours is obviously a deeply conflicted culture in its fundamental political dispositions. We aren’t equipped to grasp that the essence of democracy involves hearing others and ourselves so deeply that it could turn us inside-out. If we are to genuinely think together and successfully negotiate the interminable disagreements that are going on right now within all of our democratic movements, then wanting to find out how wrong we are will have to become a powerhouse norm. It would be a norm that would push for a deep and functional intellectual humility in which we know for sure that we can’t know anything for sure so that we are always ready to re-work the realities our current perceptions point to.

2. Democratizing ours movements more deeply
Functionally democracy is about making diversity work through dialog-to-action processes involving whomever cares, is interested and in need, and is willing to do that work. On the Left we have tended to over-emphasize the rights-based thinking of democracy.

More importantly, as a result of our cultural upbringing in this country, the people in our movements do not have nearly enough embedded dispositions, habits, tools, processes, and praxis for deepening the current levels of democracy within ourselves and our collective action projects. Not enough was passed on to us in this regard by our mother culture, just as it wasn’t to our fellow citizens who let themselves be swooped up by Trump’s grand theft of their minds and hearts.

The thrust of this way of thinking strategically is for us to create the culture that democratizes us more deeply than our mother culture has. For example, there is our broad and profound deficit in understanding, appreciating, and desiring personal and collective accountability. We resist such information fiercely within and outside of our movements. Instead, we do all we can not to be seen as failing or doing something wrong. Vehement defense is our usual first reaction to be called out, rightly or wrongly. Just like so many of our communities and regions, our democratic movements do not provide within themselves the kind of social spaces needed for learning and developing what we lack for constantly deepening and expanding our democratic practices and institutions.  Our movements sort of operate as if we already “got it together.” Does this sound a bit like the “insular arrogance” of our political parties? Hopefully, we will allow the whole phenomenon of our 2016 elections shake our confidence in what we think we know, rather than using those results to confirm our prejudices.

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Image is in the public domain.

3. Moving out of our old boxes
Make no mistake about it: I am proposing a sea change for democratic movements on the Left (and the Right) that will take us a long time to bring about. With this cultural/structural strategy movement people would have to find ways to get out of our tired and failed boxes we are currently operating from. This in itself will be an enormous undertaking, and will call for its own deep cultural learning projects. For example, how can we seriously critique our habituated attraction for protest actions when they don’t have clear political objectives, as Standing Rock does, and then re-invest much of that energy into the slow, grinding work of building and networking powerful democratic cultures in communities and regions across the country? It would transform our thinking of what works and what doesn’t. For example, it will expand our views on a rights-based sense of what democracy is to one that gives at least equal emphasis to the functional values of democracy. That is, seeing democracy as a political process that can make life work better for all concerned rather than a process that should make things morally right in which we already know the answers.

4. Moving beyond our choirs
Our American culture is one profoundly different from the cultures of Northern Italy, the Basque areas where Mondragon took root, and even Quebec. A cultural/structural strategy would call on our activists to learn the arts and habits of self-empowerment and self-accountability far more deeply than we have, and form working relationships beyond our personal Leftist circles. This learning could enable us to self-direct the development of our movement cultures much more. Further, this learning could become precisely what we would have to offer ordinary people in all kinds of communities and regions. It’s what they could use develop the kind of political culture and local institutions they need to direct their own political and economic development. You know, “from the bottom up.” But this time really from the bottom up. With the strategic thinking I am proposing this could happen slowly. We would be finding the road as we build it. And we could become more capable of building and running the kinds of enterprises, institutions, and systems we want to bring to the world. We would be developing the communities and environments hospitable to our projects. It’s a matter of putting the carts behind our horses.

5. Raising the banner of intellectual humility [14]
Another over-riding need is for the intellectual humility to know how little we know about how to approach the tasks of developing our human potential personally and socially. Our human minds can only grasp a sliver of all what we would call “real.” So how can we or anyone dare to think that we are ever “right.” Rather, let’s consider that the fastest way forward is to go slowly. That the most needed value for going forward is deep respect for what is. That the wisest way is humbly. And, finally, that the soundest way is step-by-step, building, repairing, and revising as we go.

[1] Kate Whittle and Nathan Brown, How to generate and nurture a strong co-operative culture, COOPERATAIVE NEWS (29 2014), I have taken my title from the opening paragraph of their article: “Talking about governance problems at the Co-operative Group, our friend and fellow co-operator Siôn Whellens, of worker co-operative Calverts Design & Print, said ‘co-operative culture eats co-operative governance for breakfast!’”

[2] I am terming this dynamic “co-operative/solidarity economics.” It embraces the diversity of kindred approaches to alternative economics that has been slowly evolving across the over the past several decades. In this paper I use the term only in reference to what is currently emerging in the United States. Recently, this development has been accompanied by a welter of different names by different groups and movements seeking to establish their identity as an alternative to the capitalist system. The approaches I identify with most are those that are deeply oriented to bottom-up development, where face-to-face democracy can be rooted. Even though they share many values and objectives, these diverse but democratically-yearning approaches have not yet bonded with each other in substantial ways. For a full depiction in map and commentary for what my term “co-operative/solidarity economics” embraces, see Ethan Miller, A Solidarity Economy Map, GRASSROOTS ECONOMIC ORGANIZING  NEWSLETTER,


[4] Susie Linfield, Humility Time, DEMOCRACY JOURNAL (November 23, 2016)

[5] Marty Heyman, (member of the Grassroots Economic Organizing collective and co-founder of Symas Corporation), from personal email.

[6] Atlee McFellin, The Untold Story of the Evergreen Cooperatives: An Inside View: Part One, GRASSROOTS ECONOMIC ORGANIZING NEWSLETTER (November 7, 2016),

[7] For a basic explanation of “popular education” see What Is Popular Education?, THE POPULAR EDUCATION NEWS (November 2005), (excerpt from Bob Hale Youth College for Social Justice : Participants’ Handbook),

[8] See Elinor Ostrom, Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems, NOBEL PRIZE.ORG (December 2009), .

She speaks directly to the complexity of what needs to emerge structurally and culturally on a local scale on page 2: “Currently, many scholars are undertaking new theoretical efforts. A core effort is developing a more general theory of individual choice that recognizes the central role of trust in coping with social dilemmas. Over time, a clear set of findings from the microsituational level has emerged regarding structural factors affecting the likelihood of increased cooperation. Due to the complexity of broader field settings, one needs to develop more configural approaches to the study of factors that enhance or detract from the emergence and robustness of self-organized efforts within multilevel, polycentric systems. Further, the application of empirical studies to the policy world leads one to stress the importance of fitting institutional rules to a specific social-ecological setting. “One-size-fits-all” policies are not effective. (Emphases added.)

[9] One example of this comes from a banner statement by The Next System Project: “We can create the kind of society—and world—we’d like now and for future generations.” It describes itself more fully as “an ambitious multi-year initiative aimed at thinking boldly about what is required to deal with the systemic challenges the United States faces now and in coming decades. Responding to real hunger for a new way forward, and building on innovative thinking and practical experience with new economic institutions and approaches being developed in communities across the country and around the world, the goal is to put the central idea of system change, and that there can be a “next system on the map,” (Emphasis added.)

The New Economy Coaliton seem to believe we are well on our way to the star’s address: “The New Economy Coalition (NEC) is a network of organizations imagining and building a future where people, communities, and ecosystems thrive. Together, we are creating deep change in our economy and politics—placing power in the hands of people and uprooting legacies of harm—so that a fundamentally new system can take root… Far from a dream, this new economy is bursting forth through the cracks of the current system as people experiment with new forms of business, governance, and culture that give life to the claim that another world is possible,”

Although the Cooperative Growth Ecosystem describes itself as “a framework for developing strategy to grow worker cooperatives to scale in your community” rather than a system, it is still aiming to make worker co-operatives the major co-operative/solidarity player in communities across the country. In a way its approach simplifies its project by focusing on a single kind of co-operative/solidarity economic enterprise. However, this strategy fundamentally sabotages their project by employing a self-centered strategy of major proportions that essentially rejects collaboration for mutual objectives with the relevant players in the communities. Rather, it wants “to engage diverse actors across the private, public, nonprofit and financial sectors in exploring how they can work together to catalyze worker co-op development,” (Emphasis added.)

[10] Examples include: the Valley Cooperative Business Association, The Jackson Plan, Worcester Roots, Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance, and the Cooperative Economic Alliance of New York City. The Cooperative Growth Ecosystem provides some background information on worker co-operative regional development in five areas: the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, Cincinnati, Madison, Wisconsin, and Western North Carolina..

[11] See Michael Johnson, Face-to-Face Communication and the Unexplored Potential of Cooperation, GRASSROOTS ECONOMIC ORGANIZING NEWSLETTER (Volume 2, Issue 9),

[12] Gar Alperovitz, Building a System-Changing Response to Trump and Trumpism at All Levels, TRUTHOUT (November 30,2016).

[13] See MICHAEL LEWIS, MONEYBALL (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004).

Lewis gives us one of the best treatments I have ever read of how implacable and stupid a fixed notion of how a socially supported conviction can be blindly held by a whole community. He traces in almost minute detail how the reigning fixed notions of 1) what makes a winning team and 2) how to evaluate the talent of current players and potential recruits was soundly refuted by the measurable outcomes of wins and losses by teams and the performance of numerous performers, and how all of this did not shake the certainty of the “good ole boys” club in major league baseball.

He has just written a more profound follow-up book that goes into the revolutionary work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky that revealed previously undiscovered patterns of human irrationality. Their work is the intellectual roots of baseball’s analytical geeks that Billy Beane drew on directly. See MICHAEL LEWIS, THE UNDOING PROJECT A FRIENDSHIP THAT CHANGED OUR MINDS, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016).

[14] See  KATHRYN SCHULZ, ON BEING WRONG: ADVENTURES IN THE MARGIN OF ERROR. (New York: Harper Collins, 2010). (In her TED Talk, On Being Wrong, she makes a compelling case for not just admitting to but embracing our fallibility, )

Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson co-founded an intentional community in Staten Island, NY in '80, in part an experiential research center in democratic culture...still there 30 years later...immersed in the worker co-op and solidarity economy movements since 2007 with the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives (New England), GEO, and the Community Economies Collective.


Tags: building resilient communities, new economy, participative democracy, solidarity economy