We’ve all heard the phrase. Many of us use it on a regular basis. Some of us even claim to work in it.
What is it? Why, “the cooperative ecosystem,” of course! And more specifically, the “worker cooperative ecosystem.” It’s a lovely phrase, isn’t it? Evoking scenes of natural beauty and symbiosis between different species of plants and animals, it seems a natural metaphor for the web of co-ops, federations, technical assistance providers, local governments, and non-profits that many of us see as not only necessary for the continued growth of our movement, but an already existing reality that we should seek to strengthen and support.
Personally though, I’m not a big fan of the ecosystem metaphor. Maybe it’s because “ecosystem” has become a bit of a buzzword that can be applied to practically any aspect of the movement. Maybe it’s because, living in Montana, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in actual, natural ecosystems, and so am viscerally aware that predation and competition are important parts of non-metaphorical ecosystems, as well as symbiosis and cooperation. A couple of nights ago, for instance, one of our local skunks killed one of our resident turkeys and left the remains by the back door of my cabin. Needless to say, we all inhabit the same ecosystem.
A Better Metaphor
Lately, I’ve been mulling over what I think is a better metaphor for the cooperative movement, or rather, a better metaphor for what I hope to see the cooperative movement become: not an ecosystem, but an organism. Not a collection of disparate entities occupying the same space, each working for its own survival, but rather a single entity with many parts and pieces that play different roles in the functioning and health of the larger whole; a whole which in turn supports each of its constituent parts.
I believe it will behoove us to conceptualize the entire economy as the ecosystem within which the organism of the worker cooperative movement exists, with ourselves and our co-ops as individual cells and organs within that organism. Within the ecosystem of the overall economy there is both symbiosis and predation, cooperation and competition. However, within the organism of the cooperative movement, predation and competition should find no place.
To some, this may seem a distinction without a difference, as surely no one has ever claimed that the cooperative ecosystem should include predation and competition. While this last is true – no one that I know of has ever claimed that it should – it is nonetheless part of the reality of the cooperative movement as presently constituted. A city government dedicates some millions of dollars to worker cooperative development, and immediately there is competition among cooperators for those resources. This isn’t pleasant to think about, but it’s real, it happens. Just like in a natural ecosystem, when a new source of food becomes available, there is competition between individual organisms to take advantage of it. If we continue to think of our movement as an ecosystem and our co-ops as individual entities within that ecosystem, this outcome (cooperators competing with each other for scarce resources) is one that will, I’m afraid, continue to repeat itself.
How much might things change, though, if we were to see ourselves and our particular co-ops not as separate entities all trying to survive in the same jungle, but rather as parts of one larger organism that needs to grow and to develop? Within a healthy organism, the resources available are distributed to the cells and organs of the body as each has need. In a healthy body, you do not find the kidneys competing with the lungs to secure a flow of blood; nor do you do find brain cells hoarding more nutrients than they need to perform their purpose, thereby depriving other cells of adequate nutrition. All parts of the body work together to ensure the health of the body, and the body works to ensure the health of all the parts.
For the Organism
What practical implications might this different way of conceptualizing ourselves have? For one, it would encourage transfers of resources between different co-ops and co-op-aligned entities, with an eye towards ensuring the survival of each. For instance, New Era Windows in Chicago is one of our movement success stories, and many a worker co-op advocate has made rhetorical hay from their tale of pluck, determination and eventual victory. However, as co-op spokesperson Armando Robles noted in his talk at the Left Forum in 2018, things at New Era Windows have not been all sunshine and roses since they became a co-op. Specifically, the winter months have proven especially hard to get through, and co-op members have been forced to reduce their own wages to just $3/hour until business picks up again in the spring. Needless to say, this necessity has created a good deal of hardship among the co-op members.
If we in the movement thought of ourselves as a single organism, this situation would simply not be allowed to occur, unless it was occurring everywhere at once. Those co-ops and individuals within the movement who had excess resources to share would share them. Transfers from other parts of the organism, whether financial or in-kind, would occur until New Era – and the members who compose it – was stabilized and healthy. And, of course, during times of the year when New Era is doing well, they would be transferring resources (of whatever variety) to other parts of the cooperative body that needed assistance. In this way, the cooperative organism would help to smooth out the ebbs and flows experienced by the individual co-op cells, thus helping to ensure their survival – which then ensures the survival of the worker cooperative organism.
Spinning Out the Metaphor
Our bodies are composed of all different kinds of cells, performing all different kinds of functions in service of the larger whole. The different cells are, in their turn, composed of many different types of organelles – mitochondria to provide the energy, DNA to maintain the instructions, RNA to interpret those instructions, cell walls to hold everything together, and cytoplasm to keep it all moisturized. In the same way, a healthy cooperative organism needs many different kinds of co-ops to form its cells and organs, and many different people performing many different kinds of tasks within and for each of those co-ops.
No cell is independent of the whole – removed from connection with the larger organism, any of the individual cells or organs would soon perish upon direct exposure to the larger environment. In the same way, the less a co-op (or forming co-op) is connected to the larger organism of the movement, the more difficult it is for that co-op to survive (and to survive with their cooperative values intact).
No cell claims for itself more than it needs for its maintenance and health, nor do any of the organelles within the cells take more than what is required to allow them to perform their function to the best of their abilities. Thus, so long as the body itself is getting adequate supplies of food, air, water, sunshine, and the like, the needs of each cell and each organelle are guaranteed.
In the ecosystem metaphor, individual co-ops and the members who compose them are seen as organisms in their own right, and so it is assumed that the thriving of any one of them is a success, even if other organisms in the ecosystem are experiencing extreme distress. On the other hand, when we think of the worker cooperative movement as an organism, the growth of one part in the presence of lack in another is seen to be positively destructive. In an organism, such a development would usually be a sign of cancer or intestinal parasites, i.e. something to be remedied, not something to be perversely celebrated, or disastrously ignored.
So that, dear readers, is why I’m not a fan of the ecosystem metaphor, and why I think it would be better if we replaced it – both in thought and in action – with a metaphor of the worker cooperative body. If you’ve read all the way to the end, kudos to you. I greatly appreciate your attention.