Thursday, July 07, 2005

The cooperative Howard Roarke

There is an interesting story about cooperative businesses up at alternet.

I find the article interesting for several reasons. One of them being personal: I lived in a residential co-op for a year while being a full time student at the University of Michigan. I am generally interested in mutualism and varieties of non-traditional free-market business models. Most importantly, I think the topic of cooperatives fit strongly into my interest in how laissez fair capitalist ideologies and some anti-authoritarian strains of socialism and anarchy.

What came across to me was how much working in a cooperative promotes personal responsibility. It is the flip side of not having a boss. Members have to be responsible for themselves. It is almost as if working at a cooperative requires or should induce some sort of improved responsibility at work. Or perhaps it encourages it.

"Then there is the more deeply personal issue of self-motivation. "Everybody thinks they
don't want to have a boss," says Baird of the Oakland Arizmendi. "But what they haven't
thought about is they don't want to be a boss, either. That is maybe the most revolutionary
aspect to what we do here. People have to become in charge of themselves, and not
everybody's equipped to do that."

Assuming that participation in a cooperative business enhances personal responsibility and productivity, perhaps it should be part of the cultural structures that enhance and promote free-markets, despite the fact that currently most co-op types are not free-market types. Also, one would hope that if this is a thriving business, and by many measures it has been by the cooperative pizza provider mentioned in the story, it can gain increased popularity as a successful business practice. The profits appeared high (or at least high enough that last year each employee got a bonus equivalent to a $10 increase in their wages for every hour worked in that year). The business has lasted a good while. This looks like it could be a good business.

Of course, not everything in the cooperative movement is peaches and cream. It is certainly not all Roarke and Galt. Things are decided by consensus (this is not the usual practice in cooperatives, I think). As I recall, Roarke hated committees--and there are good reasons to think that some groups and committee situations are terrible. Everyone gets paid the same amount per hour. While this mode of organization may be suited to a pizza place, I can't see how it can work with, say, designing blue prints or litigating criminal cases. Somebody has to be in charge. Furthermore, I can't imagine a law cooperative. It just makes sense to make some people lawyers and others secretaries (mostly because it doesn't make sense for lawyers to do their own secretarial work, their time is worth too much). It wouldn't even make sense to consider all attorneys at a firm equal--because they don't have equal skill, ability, and importance. It would make more sense for attorneys to work alone, each responsible for his own clients then to have a bunch of attorneys working on consensus basis where those who are the most experienced and able are treated just as those who are right out of law school.

However, it is clear that the cooperative has its function and should definitely be studied and valued by those interested in business, the free-market, worker responsibility/productivity, and culture.

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