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Hierarchy of Class&Power Perpetuates Cycle of Alienation, Division, and Hate But America is Great!

Neoliberal Bipartisanship: Dems and GOP Can Both Continue to Screw The Nation Equally with an Orange Human Face.

The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern Economy
The main source of meaning in American life is a meritocratic competition that makes those who struggle feel inferior.

What is happening to America’s white working class?

The group’s important, and perhaps decisive, role in this year’s presidential election sparked a slew of commentary focused on, on the one hand, its nativism, racism, and sexism, and, on the other, its various economic woes. While there are no simple explanations for the desperation and anger visible in many predominantly white working-class communities, perhaps the most astute and original diagnosis came from the rabbi and activist Michael Lerner, who, in assessing Donald Trump’s victory, looked from a broader vantage point than most. Underneath the populist ire, he wrote, was a suffering “rooted in the hidden injuries of class and in the spiritual crisis that the global competitive marketplace generates.”

That cuts right to it. The modern economy privileges the well-educated and highly-skilled, while giving them an excuse to denigrate the people at the bottom (both white and nonwhite) as lazy, untalented, uneducated, and unsophisticated. In a society focused on meritocratic, materialistic success, many well-off Americans from across the political spectrum scorn the white working class in particular for holding onto religious superstitions and politically incorrect views, and pity them for working lousy jobs at dollar stores and fast-food restaurants that the better-off rarely set foot in. And when other sources of meaning are hard to come by, those who struggle in the modern economy can lose their sense of self-worth.

This system of categorizing Americans—the logical extension of life in what can be called an extreme meritocracy—can be pernicious: The culture holds up those who succeed as examples, however anecdotal, that everyone can make it in America. Meanwhile, those who fail attract disdain and indifference from the better-off, their low status all the more painful because it is regarded as deserved. As research has shown, well-educated white-collar workers also sink into despair if they cannot find a new job, but among the working class, the shame of low status afflicts not just the unemployed, but also the underemployed. Their days are no longer filled with the dignified, if exhausting, work of making real things. Rather, the economy requires—as a white former factory worker I talked to described it—“throwing on a goofy hat,” dealing with surly customers who are themselves just scraping by, and enduring a precarious working life of arbitrary rules and dead-end prospects.

And the work people do (or don’t do) affects their self-esteem. When I was talking to laid-off autoworkers in Michigan for my book about long-term unemployment, I met a black man in Detroit who told me his job at the plant had helped heal a wound—one going back to his parents’ choice, when he was a baby, to abandon him. (As is standard in sociological research, my interviewees were promised confidentiality.) “My job was like my mother and father to me,” he said. “It’s all I had, you know?” Then the plant shut down. Now in his 50s, he was back on the job market, scrambling for one of the few good jobs left for someone without a college degree. In his moments of weakness, he berated himself. He should have prepared more. He should have gotten an education. “It’s all my fault,” he said—the company was just doing what made business sense.

For less educated workers (of all races) who have struggled for months or years to get another job, failure is a source of deep shame and a reason for self-blame. Without the right markers of merit—a diploma, marketable skills, a good job—they are “scrubs” who don’t deserve romantic partners, “takers” living parasitically off the government, “losers” who won’t amount to anything. Even those who consider themselves lucky to have jobs can feel a sense of despair, seeing how poorly they stand relative to others, or how much their communities have unraveled, or how dim their children’s future seems to be: Research shows that people judge how well they’re doing through constant comparisons, and by these personal metrics they are hurting, whatever the national unemployment rate may be.

When faced with these circumstances, members of the working class often turn inward. I witnessed this coping mechanism among the workers I got to know in Michigan. One of them, a white former autoworker, lost her home and had to move to a crime-infested neighborhood, where she had a front-row view of the nightly drug deals and fistfights. “I just am not used to that anymore,” said the woman, who grew up in poverty. “I want out of here so bad.” Interestingly, she dismissed any sort of collective solution to the economic misery that she and others like her now confront. For instance, she had no kind words to say about the union at her old plant, which she blamed for protecting lousy workers. She was also outraged by what she called the “black favoritism” at her Detroit plant, whose union leadership included many African Americans.

This go-it-alone mentality works against the ways that, historically, workers have improved their lot. It encourages workers to see unions and government as flawed institutions that coddle the undeserving, rather than as useful, if imperfect, means of raising the relative prospects of all workers. It also makes it more likely that white workers will direct their frustration toward racial and ethnic minorities, economic scapegoats who are dismissed as freeloaders unworthy of help—in a recent survey, 64 percent of Trump voters (not all of whom, of course, are part of the white working class) agreed that “average Americans” had gotten less they they deserved, but this figure dropped to 12 percent when that phrase was replaced with “blacks.” (Among Clinton voters, the figure stayed steady at 57 percent for both phrases.) This is one reason that enacting good policies is, while important, not enough to address economic inequality. What’s needed as well is a broader revision of a culture that makes those who struggle feel like losers.

One explanation for why so many come to that conclusion in the first place has to do with the widening of the gulf between America’s coasts and the region in between them. Cities that can entice well-educated professionals are booming, even as “flyover” communities have largely seen good-paying factory work automated or shipped overseas, replaced to a large extent with insecure jobs: Walmart greeters, independent-contractor truck drivers, and the like. It is easy to see why white voters from hard-hit rural areas and hollowed-out industrial towns have turned away from a Democratic Party that has offered them little in the way of hope and inspiration and much in the way of disdain and blame.

It should here be emphasized that misogyny, racism, and xenophobia played a major role in the election, helping whip up more support for Trump—as well as suppress support for Clinton—among the white working class. To be sure, those traits are well represented among other groups, however savvier they are about not admitting it to journalists and pollsters (or to themselves). But the white working class that emerged in the 19th century—stitched together from long-combative European ethnic groups—strived to set themselves apart from African Americans, Chinese, and other vilified “indispensable enemies,” and build, by contrast (at least in their view), a sense of workingman pride. Even if it’s unfair to wholly dismiss the white working class’s cultural politics as reactionary and bigoted, this last election was a reminder that white male resentment of “nasty” women and “uppity” racial and other minorities remains strong.

That said, many Americans with more stable, better-paid jobs have blind spots of their own. For all of their professed open-mindedness in other areas, millions of the well-educated and well-off who live in or near big cities tend to endorse the notion, explicitly or implicitly, that education determines a person’s value. More so than in other rich nations, like Germany and Japan, which have prioritized vocational training to a greater degree, a college degree has become the true mark of individual success in America—the sort of white-picket-fence fantasy that drives people well into their elder years to head back to school. But such a fervent belief in the transformative power of education also implies that a lack of it amounts to personal failure—being a “stupid” person, as one of the white Michigan workers I talked to put it. In today’s labor market, it is no longer enough to work hard, another worker, who was black, told me: “It used to be you come up and say, ‘Okay, I’ve got a strong back,’ and all that,” but nowadays a “strong back don’t mean shit. You gotta have dedication and you’ve gotta have some kind of smartness, or something.”

This change in society’s understanding of merit has debased the worth of the working class, in ways that Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb first described in The Hidden Injuries of Class, a 1972 book that Lerner alluded to in his essay. Clinton—going beyond her campaign’s focus on the travails of the middle class and the array of unfair advantages held by “people at the very top”—spoke explicitly about the problems with judging others based on their (lack of) degrees, which she characterized as “educationalist elitism.” (There was some irony to Clinton’s position on this latter issue, given her husband’s success in pushing for job-retraining vouchers, lifetime-learning credits, and other measures predicated on the notion that America could and should educate everyone for the good jobs of the future.)

Her point about elitism may have been delivered as a matter of politics, but it is a practical concern too: As much as both liberals and conservatives have touted education as a means of attaining social mobility, economic trends suggest that this strategy has limits, especially in its ability to do anything about the country’s rapidly growing inequalities. Well into the 21st century, two-thirds of Americans age 25 and over do not have a bachelor’s degree. The labor market has become more polarized, as highly paid jobs for workers with middling levels of education and skill dwindle away. And as many have argued, advances in artificial intelligence threaten a net loss of employment (even for the well-educated) in the not-so-far-off future.

Surprisingly, even some workers I spoke to—all former union members—said they felt that people without a good education did not deserve to make a good living. How was it fair, one of them, a black former union official, asked me, that factory workers who didn’t finish high school could—thanks to their union-won wages—live alongside doctors and lawyers in the city’s wealthiest suburbs? “Here’s a guy that says, ‘I’m a doctor and I spent … $ 100,000 … for an education, for me to get this doctor degree,’” he said. “And you got a guy that moved out here that can’t speak plain English—he’s still barbecuing on the front porch. You know, it’s like, this has got to cease.”

There is a glaring contradiction at the heart of this viewpoint. The rules of meritocracy that these blue-collar workers say they admire barely apply to the very top levels of the economy. Groups of elite workers—professionals, managers, financial workers, tenured professors—continue to wall themselves off from competition. They still organize collectively, through lobbying, credentialing, licensing, and other strategies. But fewer ordinary workers have the same ability to do so: Unions have been crushed, the government steps in less often on their behalf, and local political machines—a traditional pathway for many poor immigrants to political power and even employment—have faded away. What has emerged in the new economy, then, is a stunted meritocracy: meritocracy for you, but not for me.

Where do people turn when left to the dictates of an economic system like this? One white worker in Madison Heights, Michigan, described himself as a conservative, but added that he didn’t care about party labels when choosing whom to vote for. “I want to see change. … I could care less if you’re a Republican or whatever,” he told me when I talked to him not long before the 2010 midterm election swept Tea Party candidates into office across the country. In any case, he no longer had the luxury of worrying much about politics. When I met him, he had lost his $ 11-an-hour job at a solar-panel manufacturer. His wife had left him soon afterward. She was working a low-wage job of her own, and, as he explained, “She’s tired of struggling, and she can do better by herself.” The man told me he was ashamed about having to rely on food stamps. “I’m dependent on the government right now. … That’s degrading, but I gotta eat.” As for unions, he’d become disillusioned with them years ago after a strike at the car-parts plant where he’d been working cost him and his coworkers their jobs.

One of the few things he could really depend on was his church. He volunteered on their Sunday-school bus, leading the kids in singing songs. “It helps to be around young people,” he said. For many of the jobless workers I interviewed, religion and tradition provided a sense of community and a feeling that their lives had purpose. No wonder, then, that a sizable proportion of white working-class America is skeptical of the faithless, lonely, and uncertain world that the cultural left represents to them. However exaggerated by stereotypes, the urbane, urban values of the well-educated professional class, with its postmodern cultural relativism and its rejection of old dogmas, are not attractive alternatives to what the working class has long relied on as a source of solace.

In turn, some well-off Americans show their contempt for working-class whites in particular by calling them deluded—zombies under the sway of right-wing myths, zealots obsessed with pointless cultural symbols like flags and guns, or captives of other myriad forms of false consciousness. Indeed, in trying to diagnose their predicament, Democratic politicians have sometimes trivialized it—President Obama, in recorded comments at a 2008 fundraiser about how working-class voters from small towns “cling to guns or religion,” and Clinton, in her leaked remarks to donors suggesting that half of Trump’s supporters were a bigoted “basket of deplorables.” (Mitt Romney, of course, also wrote off a wide swath of Americans in his 2012 presidential run when—speaking at yet another private fundraiser—he expressed disdain for the “47 percent” of Americans who were “dependent upon government” and felt “entitled” to assistance.) Even if Obama and Clinton’s words in context were more nuanced and empathetic than is often acknowledged, statements of this sort can feed the long-held view among the white working class that those preaching economic enlightenment from up high do not take their concerns seriously.

In 1981’s The Next America, the leftist intellectual Michael Harrington recognized this problem. “We radicals had mocked the old verities and preached a new freedom, only our negatives were more powerful than our creativity,” he wrote:

We proposed that men and women find their purpose within themselves, that they disdain all the traditional crutches, like God and flag. But were we then to blame because many seemed to have heard only that the old constraints had been abolished and ignored the call to find new obligations on their own?

In the absence of other sources of meaning, Americans are left with meritocracy, a game of status and success, along with the often ruthless competition it engenders. And the consequence of a perspective of self-reliance—Americans, compared to people in other countries, hold a particularly strong belief that people succeed through their own hard work—is a sense that those who fail are somehow inferior.

One possible answer to the question Harrington posed about how to ease his own generation’s populist rage is the notion of grace—a stance that puts forward values that go beyond the “negatives” of the narrow secular creed and connect with individuals of diverse political viewpoints, including those hungry for more in the way of meaning than the meritocratic race affords. It moves people past the hectoring that so alienates the white working class—and, to be sure, other groups as well—who would otherwise benefit from policies that favor greater equality and opportunity.

The concept of grace comes from the Christian teaching that everyone, not just the deserving, is saved by God’s grace. Grace in the broader sense that I (an agnostic) am using, however, can be both secular and religious. In the simplest terms, it is about refusing to divide the world into camps of deserving and undeserving, as those on both the right and left are wont to do. It rejects an obsession with excusing nothing, with measuring and judging the worth of people based on everything from a spotty résumé to an offensive comment.

While it has its roots in Christianity, grace is prized by many other religions—from Buddhism’s call to accept suffering with equanimity, to the Tao Te Ching’s admonishment to treat the good and bad alike with kindness, to the Upanishads’ focus on the eternal and infinite nature of reality. Grace can thrive outside religious faith, too: not just in the abstract theories of philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, but also in the humanism of scientists like Carl Sagan, who, inspired by Voyager 1’s photograph of Earth as a tiny speck, wrote that this “pale blue dot” underscored the “folly of human conceits” and humans’ responsibility to “deal more kindly with one another.” Unlike an egalitarian viewpoint focused on measuring and leveling inequalities, grace rejects categories of right and wrong, just and unjust, and offers neither retribution nor restitution, but forgiveness.

With a perspective of grace, it becomes clearer that America, the wealthiest of nations, possesses enough prosperity to provide adequately for all. It becomes easier to part with one’s hard-won treasure in order to pull others up, even if those being helped seem “undeserving”—a label that today serves as a justification for opposing the sharing of wealth on the grounds that it is a greedy plea from the resentful, idle, and envious.

At the same time, grace reminds the well-educated and well-off to be less self-righteous and less hostile toward other people’s values. Without a doubt, opposing racism and other forms of bigotry is imperative. There are different ways to go about it, though, and ignorance shouldn’t be considered an irremediable sin. Yet many of the liberal, affluent, and college-educated too often reduce the beliefs of a significant segment of the population to a mash of evil and delusion. From gripes about the backwardness and boredom of small-town America to jokes about “rednecks” and “white trash” that are still acceptable to say in polite company, it’s no wonder that the white working class believes that others look down on them. That’s not to say their situation is worse than that of the black and Latino working classes—it’s to say that where exactly they fit in the hierarchy of oppression is a question that leads nowhere, given how much all these groups have struggled in recent decades.

Obama, a Christian, has hinted at his belief in grace quite frequently, mostly in urging people to be more tolerant of outlooks different from their own. After the Charleston church shooting in the summer of 2015, however, he was more explicit. In praising the parishioners who welcomed their alleged killer into their Bible study, and the victims’ family members who forgave him in court, Obama invoked grace—the “free and benevolent favor of God,” bestowed to the sinful and saintly alike. “We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other,” he said. “But we got it all the same.”

Indeed, as plagued by doubts and regrets as he was, the unemployed man I spoke to in Detroit could, in his moments of strength, find comfort in a perspective of grace. “I feel I ain’t got what I used to have,” he told me. “But I know I got God on my side. And maybe the stuff ain’t meant for me … I thank God for what I have, and that’s it.”

Really, though, the people who could learn from grace are the prosperous and college-educated, who often find it hard to empathize with those—both white and nonwhite—who live outside their sunny, well-ordered worlds. When people are not so intent on blaming others for their sins—cultural and economic—they can deal more kindly with one another. Grace is a forgiving god.

The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern Economy

The Student Debt Crisis Is Driving Elderly People Into Poverty
This isn’t how it’s supposed to work.

Student debt is forcing tens of thousands of elderly Americans into poverty, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

The findings are startling. More than 110,000 senior citizens had their Social Security checks garnished in 2015 to pay off student loans they’d already defaulted on. Nearly 70,000 Americans over the age of 50 are living in poverty as their Social Security benefits are cut to pay off student loan debts.

Student lending is typically thought of as a millennial problem ― one of exploding college tuition costs and ruthless interest rates that took hold over the past 20 years.

But the GAO report ― requested by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) ― demonstrates that the debt hardship is shared across generations.

The elderly student debt nightmare is not going to sort itself out. A full 68 percent of older borrowers living in poverty with Social Security garnishment are only seeing their benefit cuts devoted to interest and fees. Their overall debt burden is not diminishing. They will never stop making payments under the current system without a new source of income.

The federal government is profiting from this mess. Every time a debt collector scrapes a Social Security check, the U.S. Treasury Department collects $ 15.

“Our government is shoving tens of thousands of seniors and people with disabilities into poverty through garnishment every year ― and charging them $ 15 every month for the privilege ― just so that the Department of Education can collect a little bit more interest and keep boosting the government’s student loan profits,” Warren said in a written statement provided to reporters. “This is predatory and counterproductive.”

The problem is getting worse, not better. Since 2005, the total student debt owed by Americans over the age of 65 has increased nearly fourfold.

This is not how either Social Security or private sector lending are supposed to work. Social Security is designed as a basic social insurance program ― you pay in as you work, you cash out when you retire. Functionally, this makes it an anti-poverty program. Old people don’t work, which means they don’t get paid, and so receiving a Social Security check keeps 22 million Americans out of poverty, according the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank. When President Franklin Roosevelt designed the program in the 1930s, he didn’t include a caveat for people with lots of debt. If you paid in, you got the check, and any issues between you and your creditors were your own affair, not the government’s.

Lending is not a charitable enterprise. The Salvation Army doesn’t collect interest on bell-ringers in Santa Claus outfits. The financial sector makes a profit from interest rates for shouldering the risk that borrowers might not pay back their loans. Default is a cost of doing business.

By allowing lenders to garnish the Social Security checks of people living in poverty, the federal government is encouraging reckless student loans at interest rates that would be unsustainable in a free market. No sane borrower would take on a loan if paying it back would require them to live in poverty.

There is no constitutional amendment requiring the federal government to use Social Security as a subsidy for reckless bankers. As with many other 21st-century economic woes, it’s possible to trace the student debt debacle among the elderly back to the era of bipartisan cooperation between President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Prior to 1996, it was illegal for student loan creditors to garnish Social Security checks. Clinton and Gingrich changed that. Warren supports legislation introduced by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that would repeal the 1996 law.

Clinton spent much of his presidency extolling the values of higher education, insisting that the only way to get ahead in the Silicon Valley economy of the future was to “earn what you can learn.” To this way of thinking, poverty was not a function of structural imbalances in the economy that denied people a living wage, but the result of inadequate access to schooling. This ideology has been passed down through George W. Bush to Barack Obama.

“What I fundamentally believe — and what the president believes,” former Education Secretary Arne Duncan told The New York Times in 2012, “is that the only way to end poverty is through education.”

Education is great. It’s fun to learn about Plato and Chinua Achebe and Jane Austen and the Krebs cycle and lending at interest. It’s also fun to eat when you are old. And if tens of thousands of elderly Americans are living in poverty despite doing exactly what American presidents have told them to do for decades ― namely, getting an education ― then something is dreadfully wrong.

The Student Debt Crisis Is Driving Elderly People Into Poverty

Here’s How Trump Could Try To Stop Companies From Offshoring Jobs

Is hierarchy the enemy of co-operation?

Co-operatives should be about co-operation not hierarchy, says Bob Cannell, formerly of Suma workers co-operative. How can co-ops create alternatives to hierarchical management structures?

Many people treat hierarchical authority as something as natural as breathing and deride those who dream and practise ways of living and doing business ‘sans’ hierarchy. I am one of those dreamers and during a life spent avoiding and undermining hierarchies, I’ve had many ‘yeah, yeah, pigs might fly’ encounters. But minimal hierarchy in my working life has been my reality in Suma, the big worker co-operative. It is the perceived ‘normal’ that looks strange to me. Why would you dehumanise yourself to fit into a hierarchy?

So what is this hierarchy thing? It’s a type of social organising in which certain groups of people have acquired, by various means, the authority to control the behaviour of other groups and have the power to enforce obedience to their will.

Hierarchical authority can range from tyrannies backed up by the bullet and gulag, to the far subtler coercion of a modern business culture, trumpeting employee wellbeing and engagement. No matter how benevolent, the employer still has the ultimate job sanction: dismissal. As one worker in such a business was said to remark: “My boss used to demand my body and brain, now they want my soul as well”.

The most common workplace hierarchy is the modern executive-led corporation, where authority flows down from the CEO to the executive board and thence to subordinate managers, through supervisors to the shopfloor, who may themselves be tiered – permanent/short term/agency – workers. Business processes and the structure of this hierarchy ‘machine’ are considered to be primary and the people are fitted into it by management, hence the term, Human Resources Management.

Hierarchies in all walks of life can be brutal and explicit or subtle and hidden. To survive in social democratic society, hierarchies hide behind facades, which sometimes collapse – as happened in Chile in 1973 when the civilised, popular, elected government was swept aside in a single day by the viscerally violent Pinochet regime. Today we are watching the facade of social democracy cracking to reveal the global domination of multinational finance. To see the real face of power is frightening.

But what has all this to do with co-ops?

A co-operative, according to the International Co-operative Alliance, is ‘an association of people united voluntarily to meet their common needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled business’. For a business to be a co-operative, the members must be in charge and in control. They must be the controlling elite. In practice, in many co-operatives this is not the case. Indeed ‘member control’ has often been seen by the co-operative establishment as a bad thing, with the example of the collapse of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society in 1985, still trotted out whenever ‘member control’ is praised. The story is that it was the RACS’s democratic governance which made it too slow to adapt to the challenge of other supermarket chains and caused it to fail.

But was it democratic member control that led to the troubles of the Co-operative Bank and Co-operative Group in 2013? Or the collapse of the CRS in 2000 or the hundreds of other co-operative retail societies which eventually ended up inside the Group? Obviously not, because these societies were ruled by management hierarchies – and members, with their clumsy and slow representative democracy, had little say or control in the face of that power.   Only a few retail societies have bucked that trend to remain fiercely independent and locally controlled – and, more importantly, in existence.

Members of co-operatives have been complaining about the power of their managers since the earliest days of the movement when managers were first employed to run their businesses while members got on with their normal lives. And since those days, professional managers have been saying they are better able to run the members’ business than the members themselves.

It seems that co-operatives are especially vulnerable to the agent/principal problem much discussed in management literature: the agents (managers) of the principals (the owners) end up in control and operating the business in their interests rather than those of the owners. Certainly the quest for gigantism, ever larger combined societies, was good for senior managers who enjoyed an astonishing escalation in remuneration. Top executive pay is a good indicator of the power of a hierarchy. In its nine years of existence, the Co-op Group chief executive salary differential (compared to shop floor staff ) increased from approximately 33:1 to an eye-watering 200:1 (but is now apparently going down to nearer 90:1). Are Co-op Group member owners genuinely in control of ‘their’ top executive pay packages?

In other co-operatives, differentials tend to be much less. The figure for the John Lewis Partnership is 35:1. The Mondragon Co-operative Corporation (MCC) of 101 co-operatives has a maximum differential of 8:1.The chief executive of the Eroski supermarkets co-operative (which is run as a worker-consumer hybrid co-operative within MCC across France and Spain), earns ‘only’ eight times the salary of their lowest paid employee. MCC and its member co-ops have a very robust democratic governance structure; the members are in control and their businesses survive and thrive.

How does hierarchy arise, ‘lock in’ and become oligarchy (rule by a stable self-sustaining minority)?

Information and communications are at the heart of this weakness. Full time managers with access to the details of business information and the authority of a management position ‘outweigh’ most well meaning amateur elected directors. Very few members as individuals will stand up to this united front, often personified in an assertive, even aggressive, CEO. Add in the collegiate loyalty of managers to each other and the authority they hold over subordinates, and you can see the imbalance. Whereas board level executives and their subordinates are collectively ‘on message’, elected members face this united front as individuals and (as I have personally experienced) attempts to communicate horizontally with peers can be met with accusations of caucusing.

Decision-making is confined to one board: unitary governance. Though there may be an executive committee (the formal existence of which was denied in many retail societies for many years), there will not be the third leg of good governance, the scrutiny committee. MCC co-ops in contrast have a governing council (the board), a management committee (the executive) and a social council (scrutiny) whose job is to ensure the other two are operating in the best long term interests of the members. Multi-board management is normal on the continent but seen as a hindrance to the ‘managers’ right to manage’ in the UK.

Typically elected members are divided into weak groupings of uncoordinated individuals who find it difficult to organise and communicate horizontally. The bulk of communication is broadcast from the top with ineffective channels in the opposite direction. Presidents and chairs can be compromised into showing loyalty to the executive rather than their elected colleagues. In the ‘bad old days’ this included new suits of clothes and a chauffeured ride to Congress in a funeral limousine, five-star hotel stays and as much expensive food and drink as desired for president and partner. The limousine disappeared in later days.

This is not to say that all managers are ‘in it for themselves’, by any means, but the orthodoxy of business management culture makes it difficult for professional managers to ‘buck the trend’ of their plc compatriots. In a plc, size and total control of the corporate ‘machine’ is all. Rapid market share growth by leveraged acquisitions and exit at the top of the share price curve is the corporate creed. It is not a business strategy per se. It is for the personal enrichment of shareholders and executives.

In the face of this neo-liberal orthodoxy, which Co-op Group executive would, for example, suggest a radical organisational reformation? Which would dare to propose breaking up the business into local community societies more able to generate member and staff loyalty, especially if that meant lower salaries at the top? This may be the way co-operatives in other countries resist the capitalist predators; giant consortia of hundreds of small autonomous co-ops, a strategy inaccessible for corporate PLCs. But how could Co-op Group members, given the governance processes pre-crisis, or indeed post-crisis, put such a proposal on the agenda? The hierarchy prevents it even being properly considered.

Is there an alternative to hierarchical management structures?

Okay, you say, if hierarchy is the enemy of co-operation, what is the alternative?

In the early 1970s the women’s liberation movement often rejected organisational structures as variants of patriarchal hierarchy. They assumed that sisters would get along together fine without hierarchies designed by men. In practice, less inhibited personalities dominated and undermined the groups by creating informal hierarchies. Leaders emerged, but the ‘wrong’ sort of leaders. Without the structures of organisation, these characters could not be challenged formally, leading to interminable infighting rather than the pursuit of their stated mission of emancipation. A wonderful 1970’s essay, The Tyranny of Structurelessness, is a warning from that past.

Anarchist ideas were popular in the 1970s and underpinned the organisational ethics of many of new workers’ co-operatives, which found ways to operate in a flat hierarchical manner without compromising the governance of their co-operatives nor the management of their businesses. Suma, founded 40 years ago, famously still has no chief executive or managing director or an executive board. However all three of the basic functions of good governance are carried out, in other ways through an elected management committee (legislature), coordinators’ meeting (executive) and union meeting (scrutiny). In its own, way Suma has mirrored the MCC structure.

Add in open books management (all business information open to everyone), a commitment to receiver-based communication (if I don’t understand it, it’s the sender’s fault not mine), easy access to network communications (all work email groups and social media) and open access to representative bodies (every management committee meeting starts with an open forum slot where any worker can bring any issue to their attention) and you can appreciate the difference. The slogans underlying this organisation at Suma have long been ‘Disempower the Executive. Management is a Function not a Status’. In 2006, a European wide CECOP study revealed the most common route for the privatisation of worker co-ops was a take over by technical experts, often the finance manager.

A different type of thinking

Many of these worker co-ops – and many emerging community co-ops – think about their organisations in a different way from the orthodox system’s theory-based models. They don’t see their co-operatives as machines controlled by powerful executives in which people (including members and customers) are subjugated to efficient business processes. Their organisations are instead a network of relationships and communications between the people involved who, collectively, operate the business processes. Management is the coordination of human relationships (human relations management).

This explains why worker co-ops, often seemingly so slow to change, can undergo instant revolutionary change when participating and empowered members individually and collectively agree that change has to happen. Suma continues to show extraordinary business performance and to overcome major obstacles, again and again and again. But the textbooks say it shouldn’t because there is ‘no-one in charge’. Who writes the textbooks?

Another advantage of this ‘collective plus individual’ culture of management (which has been described as individual initiative within collective responsibility) is that it is not dependent on the one individual body and brain of the CEO of a normal unitary governance set up. CEOs lose control of their gigantic organisations when they become the information bottleneck, which is why the top table mostly deals in financial shorthand. They don’t have the brain power to deal with the other details properly. In a more collective organisation, collective intelligence outpowers individual top executives. Suma doesn’t have a finance director (too expensive and too dangerous) but it does have a finance team performing the same function and with a collective intelligence many times that of a single person. All this co-operation is greatly aided, of course, by equal wage rates for all Suma workers. The differential is 1:1. There is no ‘boss’s job’ to compete for.

This ‘starfish’ structure (cut a leg off and it carries on relentlessly) is also more robust than the CEO dependant corporate structure, in which everything is dependant on finding a benevolent dictator. Psychologists report a far higher than normal number of sociopaths and psychopaths in the population of top executives than in the population at large. People with self-centred motives, low empathy and sophisticated abilities to manipulate. How many retail societies have been finished off by errors in CEO recruitment?

What next?

It is fair to say that in the UK there is only one Suma. Even if it is a £50m business, with 250 workers exporting to 50 countries, it is still a minnow compared to the national retail consumer societies. So why should they be bothered? Their problem is the internet monster coming over the hill. Amazon and Uber have made clear their intention to disrupt and replace traditional retail with their web-based, so called, ‘Death Star’, platforms. Amazon Fresh is ‘eating WalMart’s lunch’ in California to quote one business journalist. Without the limitless patient capital behind Amazon or Uber, a traditional corporate hierarchy is unable to effectively respond.

However, there is an enormous amount of effort going into the development of co-operative alternatives to these death star platforms. Platform co-operatives are seen as the only viable opposition. By harnessing the multiple intelligences of networked members in a participative network, much as Suma harnesses and coordinates its worker members’ but on a far larger scale, platform co-operatives are more intelligent, more agile, more resilient and can, it is believed, out manoeuvre the ‘death stars’.

One thing is for sure. These platform co-operatives are not, and will not be, corporate hierarchies.

Is hierarchy the enemy of co-operation?

Source: ONTD_Political

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