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We always hear that the business world is ‘dog eat dog’. But when did you last see a dog eating a dog? Dogs – like humans – are social animals who seek cooperation and loyalty.

So now that we can’t afford the corporate dog fight anymore, should we look to the cooperative movement to create a brave new workplace?

Political economist and author Jessica Gordon Nembhard joins host Ross Ashcroft to delve into the alternatives.

Programmed to be individualistic?

There is an old joke that the co-operative movement is not very co-operative and it doesn’t move very much. In general, people in the Western world are not taught to accept cooperation and thus they tend not to be socially and environmentally aware. For Jessica Gordon Nembhard, it is as small children within the kindergarten setting that individualistic ideas are initially drummed into us.

Although it’s true to say that attitudes to learning, particularly among the more radical pedagogy, have began to shift towards a more collaborative approach in recent decades, there is also a widespread recognition that an underlying tension exists between individualistic and collaborative approaches. While, on the one hand both individuals and firms are encouraged to behave in a self-serving and financially-driven way, on the other, we see the negative impacts that this is having on society and the environment.

Nonetheless, the individualistic and competitive logic that drives capitalism on could not function without collaboration and teamwork within the production process. The problem, though, as Nembhard acknowledges, is that this teamwork is invariably undermined by tensions which corporate management hierarchies’ are compelled to contain.

Towards collaboration

How can we escape this apparent dichotomy? Is individual fulfillment within a collaborative and reciprocal framework ideal or even possible? In Nembhard’s view, we should reject the kind of individualistic ‘rags to riches’ narrative endorsed by Horatio Alger and instead focus on the collective. Indeed, as the political economist and author contends:

“We already live a collaborative, solidarity life in some ways because we’re human beings. You’re already bartering when you drive your friend’s kid to school and then they do it the next day or somebody babysits while you go to the hairdresser. And then you take everybody to soccer. And sometimes we do collective meals. So it’s not really that we have to learn it. We have to learn that it’s OK and it’s smart to do it.”

The problem arises in respect to the aspiration to shift mentality. Spaces of opposition are becoming harder to navigate due to the increasingly all-pervasive nature of capitalism over the last four decades. This is particularly true for ordinary, everyday folk in a ‘belly of the beast’ city like New York, for example.

“The winners are taking all the spoils and leaving everybody else out. We’ve got to create our own collective. We can’t afford to be fighting with each other over little stuff because that’s how the establishment keep winning”, says Nembhard.

Slow-burning

The key to achieving the changes required is to approach problems slowly in ways that are sensitive to the cultures of those most affected. The important factor is the breaking down of fear, not through quick ‘top-down’ injections of financial capital, but rather, through a ‘slow-burning’ process whereby social capital is both developed and nurtured from the ‘ground-up’ in a sustainable and inter-generational way.

The expectation is that this will then encourage people to question broader socioeconomic, political and environmental issues which have become intrinsic to the organic development of co-ops predicated on networking and education similar to the Mondragon model in the Basque country in northern Spain. A key focus of Nembhard’s research is to provide the groundwork for the development of this kind of cooperative model within the U.S prison system in order to educate and give freedom and meaning to people who have been incarcerated.

Through her studies into the history of African-American cooperatives, the political economist and author discovered that these co-ops were used to feed, and give dignity to, the most marginalized of families, something that the more enlightened prison cooperative systems in other countries continue to do to this day.

Empowering

Nembhard’s case studies illustrate how empowering it is for incarcerated prisoners to have formed their own worker co-ops which create a virtuous circle of rehabilitation and inclusion. By contrast, the U.S for-profit model creates a vicious circle – a prisoner-poverty and corporate profit-sustaining revolving door of punishment.

The author is currently trying to turn this situation around. Although progress is slow and there are many legal and political obstacles in her way, the political economist and author is nevertheless heading in the right direction.

Nembhard acknowledges the need to redefine the ‘one-dimensional metric of money notion’ of success as the overriding concept of value.

So rather than success being quantified in terms of the amount of capital individuals or corporations amass, the idea is that it should instead be engendered over time in order to provide meaning and purpose to our lives.

Ultimately, Nembhard is determined to nurture a co-op culture that primarily involves input from ordinary people:

“I learnt from my research with black co-ops that if you have a strong enough movement with resilient people whose community understands them, that people will rally to protect the co-op and the fledgling solidarity activities. And so that’s what I really want to focus more on. How do we make sure that the communities that I’m working in understand this model, even if they don’t want to be part of it, they understand it and want to help protect it”, says Nembhard.

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