Beyond the Co-op


“After all,” says Gar Alperovitz in a new interview just up at Solidarity Hall, “half the society at any one time is not part of that worker ownership–” even, that is, if every worker had an ownership share in his or her company.  There are all those toddlers and housewives and angst-ridden pre-teens running around, not being employee-owners.

It’s an excellent point, and highlights some of the limitations of traditional co-ops: a co-op can easily become its own interest-group within a wider society, and engage in rent-seeking in the political sphere just as much as a traditionally owned company can.  A co-op might even (gasp) engage in Ruthless Business Practices at the expense of its neighbors.  Here, as with democracy itself, a particular economic or political structure does not solve every problem with human nature and human society.  If you thought it would, check your assumptions, kid.  You can’t program in solidarity with the right kind of business plan, or the right kind of constitution.  And the good that is represented by the democratically-run co-op, if it were absolutized, preclude other kinds of goods, such as those represented by a benevolently run traditionally-owned factory.  Democracy is a good: but so too is hierarchy, as David Koyzis  highlights in this review (from Commentary,’s mag) of Up With Authority, by Victor Lee Austin.  A review which makes me want to not just buy the book, but take the F train to St. Thomas and stalk the priest who wrote the thing.  You know, stalk in a nice way, though.  Stalk as in bring cookies to.

But– again as usual– just because we can’t engineer a perfect world via employee ownership (or hierarchical structures, for that matter), doesn’t mean that good business plans and good constitutions or traditions of community organizing aren’t, in fact, good.  And, in fact, worth pursuing, rather than pursuing bad ones, say.  And that’s the work that Gar Alperovitz has been highlighting throughout his career.

Check out the interview, and don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  After all, if we believed we COULD knock together a utopia on a weekend with the correct model of employee ownership, we would be sorely tempted to worship ESOPs, which aren’t even shiny, like your average golden calf.  And that wouldn’t go well, as idolatry generally doesn’t.


3 responses to “Beyond the Co-op

  1. Really. As we proceed with the drone crusades, secret prisons, torture, more special ops than days in a year, presidential kill lists, and homeland surveilance for all — with nary a word of Christian protest — let’s cheer for Authority. Silly critics of Constantinianism!

  2. Abusus non tollit usum. If we didn’t have a vision of what good authority was, that we were cheering for, how could we hold to account authority that was not living up to that?

  3. The distinction between use and abuse seems true only in theory, or as a semantically correct statement. It is very different to say people can hold and exercise authority without abusing it. Is that even permitted as a possibility, within your theological frame?

    There are things we can imagine that don’t exist. There are also things that exist but we can’t imagine them. Good authority must be one or the other, unless it doesn’t exist and we can’t imagine it, which is also possible. If you think you can imagine good authority in a real-world context, think a little more and you’ll find its feet of clay, if not its demons.

    Maybe this can be called a radical ethical Augustianian realpolitik — to hope and have faith that there is Good while recognizing we can barely imagine it, so when we construct Authority from our images of the Good we tend to make a god in our own image — and quite casually! To say someone’s authority is self-constructed and self-referential (that might makes right) is much less grave than enshrining it in a transcendental realm. If you do the later, you are speaking for God.

    Returning to use versus abuse, suppose that without use, there is no abuse. With use, things tend toward abuse. The more use, the more abuse. Perhaps use, in the human scene, is tantamount to abuse. This is most true when using something involves the instrumentalization of people and other living things. To use others requires them to relinquish or be deprived of some degree of freedom so their energies may be exploited as directed by the will of others.

    That is what authority is in our world, and that is why the republican ideal of the statesmen or general who retires to his farm is a picture of being all in and then all out. There is no consulting on the side. Power is given up; it is no longer used. The ring is tossed into the crack of doom. It is GONE.

    Authority means the power to command and coerce, to discipline, judge, and punish. The whole power relationship that results is at odds with love, yet any kind of social life (let alone civilization) makes it (tragically) necessary to have these relationships. At large scales their pathology and needfulness tends to provoke an intense crisis for those who see or live under the misalignment of power and truth, or power and justice.

    An idea of authority that may have the power to compel, or be assented to, but never coerces eludes my imagination, but there are certain stories and histories where men have tried.

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