Democratic Disagreements and Dissent

Got cooperative conflict? Democratically discuss and decide.

Got social decline? Democratically resist and rebuild.

At the end of 2018, these pages again offer good food for thought from cooperators in the field. After introducing authors and themes, I’ll add more than usual of my own notes—they are leftovers, as it were, from writing my next-to-last column as editor of Cooperative Grocer. 

Democracy fieldwork

Democracy: the notion of U.S. democracy is endlessly tossed about like a ragdoll in dubious national conversations. Nevertheless, through local institutions we have better opportunities to practice democracy. Cooperatives, when governed true to form, embody democratic control of both financial and social capital—as do most forms of municipal and public ownership. Principles and practical examples of democratic control need to be shared widely. 

Along with democracy, however, comes conflict. Wrestling with decisions amidst disagreement is not incidental to maintaining democratic organizations: it is at its core. Conflict is an essential part of change and can arise from good intentions all around. Fairly handling disagreement and evaluating proposals is important—but that then leads to the necessity of making accountable decisions. After all, those good intentions can be the foundation for improvement, or they can pave the road to hell. 

Having agreement on overriding purpose and clear ends is primary, and this provides the foundation for argument and resolution. Accomplishing an intended direction of improvement requires due diligence, adequate debate, and carefully delegated responsibilities. Cooperators writing here describe how decisions, often difficult ones, are framed within a democratic context.

Facilitation of meetings in which diverse views are represented is a key part of exercising board leadership—no matter what degree of agreement or disagreement there is around an issue. Fairly guiding discussions and decisions is the aim of excellent meeting facilitation, a tool in democratic practice that we’ll cover in the next issue.

Internally, fair treatment of co-op staff and opportunity to voice grievances are common expectations. Effectively negotiating and resolving conflicts is supported by shared ground rules and accountability. Such practices, while existing within a regulatory and labor market framework, are not a given but, rather, the result of deliberate attention. Carolee Colter offers clarity and suggestions on handling workplace grievances.

Attempting to expand cooperative services requires that the leadership evaluate risks and plan for the future. As the article from Valley Natural Foods illustrates, one production enterprise (a bakery) that goes beyond a co-op’s retail operation may thrive, but the next such expansion attempt (a meat plant) may not be successful at all. Both types of development experience must be examined, and the impacts shared, while maintaining the cooperative association.

Taking a regional overview, the Neighboring Food Co-op Association summarizes its cooperative impact. Reliable and informative measures demonstrate the profound reach of co-ops and are essential for promoting and defending cooperatives in the public arena. Knowledge of this impact and areas of greater or lesser potential can also guide co-op development decisions. 

Adding to these themes, National Co+op Grocers describes some of its development programs, designed to help its members be more successful—a reminder that those local co-ops are part of a secondary-level cooperative that is key to maintaining their market position. 

In another contribution, Food Co-op Initiative describes the especially challenging circumstances confronting small-town and rural grocers. In these places, a cooperative and democratic spirit may often be found, but there also may be extreme obstacles to maintaining a local grocery store. 

The rural economy and culture comprise a vast territory with desperate problems as well as much potential. Failing to address these deep rural needs, on September 30, 2018, Congress allowed the previous farm legislation to expire. Agricultural economies lost assurance of continued funding for rural economic development, conservation practices, producer value-added grants, beginning farmer assistance, organic certification cost share, and more. (See updates and reports from National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.) As one farm advocate stated, “Lawmakers’ inability to agree on core values like food security for families, tied to nutrition, health of the land, and conservation, speaks to how disconnected they are from the real needs and urgent demands of farmers and rural communities.” The House version of farm legislation even has a provision blocking the ability of local governments to restrict pesticides in their own communities!
Disconnected democracy: future fieldwork

Will cooperatives spread during a period of capitalist breakdown? U.S. economic decline is under way, deeply disguised by debt, diversions, and global dollar dominance. For the majority of the population, earnings are inadequate and so is their health care. 

In the latest indication of the economic bubble, total global debt is three times larger than global measured production. Good luck to the collections department! A clear summary without jargon, “Crisis After Crisis,” from the excellent voice of Walden Bello, can be found at 

But the pervasive, corporate media is busily manufacturing consent. Just recently, only 9 of 100 U.S. Senators—eight Republicans and one independent—voted against yet another insane increase of billions of dollars for the U.S. war industry. Two columns past (CG197), I reminded readers of what Martin Luther King described fifty years ago: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” I believe the nation has made it to that unpromising land.  

Despite all the deep threats, most of the news is of personalities and their peccadillos. Denial and disinformation prevail on many levels, little recognized within all-pervasive corporate/state message control. Subject to a smothering atmosphere and complete surveillance, anti-capitalist and anti-war views are pushed to the margins. 

“Let us wake up, humankind! We’re out of time. We must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism, and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction.”—Berta Cáceres, indigenous and environmental activist, murdered by a rightwing Honduran death squad.

Bringing it all back home, leading journalist Lawrence Weschler recently commented on what it will take to counter the increasingly anti-democratic outlook of the U.S. Supreme Court: “For a truly mobilized democratic citizenry, the tactical possibilities are endless. Instances of mass civil disobedience (not just marches) could bring pressure to bear on Congress and the Court itself, with jails and courts throughout the country becoming clogged with demonstrators. Taxpayer revolts, general strikes, and other forms of collective action will always be an option for pushing back against minority rule.”

Activist writer Dan Corjescu suggests why such actions are deeply necessary: “In effect the non-existence anywhere of true democracy has led to a hollowing out of the human personality. It is only in concrete social action that we materialize fully as human beings. It is as members of a community who are able to truly guide that community that we find a deep human purpose.”

Climate chaos and cooperation

In my most recent column (CG198), I quoted a Herman Daly judgment in Steady State Economics against endless economic growth. To repeat his point: growth has done nothing to alleviate poverty. His assumption, which I share, is that wealth should be redistributed from the wealthy to the impoverished and that growth is no substitute for redistribution. 

But redistribution can be a substitute for growth—and to institutionalize this redistribution of wealth, cooperatives offer a model and a direction. After all, cooperatives are about sharing resources fairly and ensuring democratic control of capital. But it won’t be handed to us. Cooperators and our many allies must work hard to keep alive cooperative structures and democratic practice. 

A disastrous but very unevenly distributed future has already arrived. In Climate Leviathan, authors Mann and Wainwright discuss “possible paths through impossible problems” within a proposed framework of principles drawn from cooperative and left traditions as well as climate-justice movements. Summarizing their principles: 

• equality: sharing what we have 

• democracy: inclusion and participation

• solidarity: a “world of many worlds”

Take note of this framework’s strong overlap with international cooperative values, derived from centuries of shared experience: self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity. •