The Cooperative Alternative

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There is an intermediate step between our own lonely individualism and some sort of wonky religious or hippie flower child 1960s-style communalism.  There is plenty of room in between the extremes.

My thoughts about this ideal were sparked again by my interactions with a young woman, on the anxious left-wing activist side of things, thinking to declare as a philosophy major, who wanted me to check out some websites about cooperatives.

While I do not embrace the full package of left-wing ideology, I do see the huge deficit of viable communities and the economic forces that are behind this erosion.  We have traded the mom-and-pop stores downtown for the corporately owned big box.

This is as unhealthy an arrangement as the mass-produced junk food many Americans choose.  And yet, if you question this regime of suburban sprawl and consumerism, you’ll get a response similar to the dialogue, in the movie Idiocracy, when Joe suggests using water rather than Brawndo, an energy drink, for irrigating the crops:

“Community, like a cult or Jonestown?”

If you bring up the word commune there will probably be a strong visceral reaction on the part of conservatives.  There is this delusion of independence, a crucial component of the American cultural mythos, which is what drives many to trade community (and potential for their greater success) for a payment plan.

Whereas a generation or two ago, there was the church and social clubs to provide some level of mutual support, now we have a class of some who make it and others who are an unforeseen circumstance and paycheck away from dependence on welfare programs.  We have traded flesh and blood relationship for faceless state or corporate bureaucracy and a truckload of paperwork.

The current system is so woefully inefficient that we’re probably working twice as hard for half the rewards.  Governments, banks, and big corporations are profiting massively by keeping us divided up and dependent on their systems.  Many believe that they are free because they can watch smut or own a deadly weapon, but they’re really slaves to debt and tossed about by entities that have no actual concern for their well-being or wellness.

But, despite their slavery to this system, the moment you suggest that they consider an alternative, working together with those of like-mind towards a common goal, there is strong resistance.  I mean, how dare you suggest that they give up their own property (that the bank owns anyway) or learn how to share anything?

Reducing the friction of commerce…

The reality is, unless you live alone on your Alaskan homestead, you are dependent on other people.  And my thought here is that we should be more intentional about this and choose what makes the most sense.  

The idea of a cooperative is basically to remove the dead weight of a business and distribute profits more evenly amongst the employed.  It means that all involved in the enterprise share in both the risks and the rewards.  Instead of paying interest to banks or making dozens of taxed transactions, all of this cost can be eliminated.  What it all means, in the end, is working less for more in return.

For example, instead of everyone buying their own lawn mower or hiring someone, why not have one person do this for the community and earn credits?  

My own vision is a mix of both cooperation and autonomy, which is negotiated between the members and the group.  There would not be everyone living in some kind of compound or anything like that, everyone could have their own residence.  There would simply be more shared space for all, fewer redundancies, and potentially more access to costly tools or equipment.

The economics of this kind of cooperative arrangement is so superior that once it was started it would vastly outpace those trying to do it on their own through the currently conventional means.  Ever wonder why so many motels and gas stations are owned by immigrants?  It is because they are financed through their ethnic communities and have eliminated the friction of interest.

Americans, by contrast, always seem to see everything as a competition.  They’ll buy the biggest most ridiculous SUV, they truly can’t afford, to keep up with the Joneses and the only real winner is the financer of this silly display of excess.  We would rather sacrifice our time so that the boss can get his hunting land or an executive makes their bonus than give up this faux image of self-reliance and work together.

Finding our commonality…

A successful cooperative arrangement does require some sort of connection or common purpose to unite the individuals.  In the early Church, their having “all things in common” was a byproduct of faith and a commitment to Christ.  The ideological left, on the other hand, begins with a different moral premise and that is the abolition of private property or Capital.  In both cases, there is a shared identity that is the glue.

That is the biggest roadblock in the rapidly atomizing West, where Protestantism has led to a proliferation of denominations with competing claims and now the dissolution of a shared or universal purpose.  Everything is about us now, about our own opinions and wants, to the point that many marriages end in a protest called divorce.  We can’t sacrifice anything in the present, even if our greater integration as a whole would be better for us in the end.

But there is a huge potential upside.  If we could find a way to look past ourselves for a moment and understand how cooperation is a means to reduce friction or cost.  However, the real need is for more people to let go of this delusion that they are better off on their own and that security comes only through money in their bank account.  The absurd part is that we already do lend our time to many people, for a wage,  their services, or whatever, and would do better to choose better partners.

If there was a way to make cooperative arrangements more palatable I would.  The real problem is that anytime we gain the slightest advantage over our neighbors we would rather keep it all for ourselves.  Many cannot see past this pointless competition and appreciate the great gain of voluntarily distributing costs or sharing responsibilities. Perhaps this is why we can’t have nice things?  I know it is why so many are lonely and discontent. They are looking in the wrong direction for fulfillment.

There are always tradeoffs for every arrangement. And yet there are also things that we are biologically wired for and denying them is to our detriment. We are social creatures. We have a neurological reward system built around having positive meaningful interactions with other people. The economic benefits of greater cooperation, at a local level, would be enormous and the social benefits even greater.

Collectivism, Individualism, and the Alternative…

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There was nothing more irritating to the middle-school version of me than collective punishment of a class.  It was totally unfair, from the perspective of a well-behaved individual, for the teacher to punish the entire class because of the few who misbehaved and seemed a gross injustice.

However, from a teacher’s perspective, punishing classes as a collective whole was 1) easier than finding the individual culprits and 2) might convince students to police themselves.  And, while it is debatable whether or not this technique accomplishes the desired ends, it is something used in military training and for the purpose of teaching that the collective unit will rise and fall together in a combat situation.

We thrive in groups.  There is a reason why you buy your car from a manufacturer rather than build it yourself and that reason is they can do it more efficiently than you can.  It is something called “comparative advantage” (which basically means that some people are better at doing some tasks than we are) and is one of the reasons why trade is almost always mutually beneficial.  For the most ideal result (for both individuals and the collective) it is usually better that we specialize and cooperate.

In real-life we do depend on each other for survival.   Yes, you might be strong, independent, well-disciplined and as prepared as one can be for a crisis.  However, if your neighbors are not, when a crisis does arise it will likely be you against the group and you will probably lose that fight no matter how prepared you are.  And, at very least, even if you were to somehow escape, you would not thrive as an individual like you do in a developed economy where there is cooperation and trade.

So, whether we like it or not, regardless if it is just or not to introduce artificial group responsibility for the actions of others, even if there was no moral obligation to be our brother’s keeper, there is group accountability that arises naturally because of our interdependence and also an economic argument to make for some collective effort (or collectivism) and denial of the individual.  In other words, we are individually better when we take some concern for other individuals who make up our own collective group.

Where Collectivism Goes Wrong…

In the first part of my life most of my effort has been to fight back against collectivism.  In life, as in the classroom, I was usually well-behaved, worked hard, lived within my means, always paid my own bills on time, and expected others to do the same.  It has always seemed terribly unfair that others would expect me to pick up the tab for their irresponsible lifestyle.

What is worse is that many collectivists are not content to subsidize those who they deem to be deserving of help out of their own pockets and instead support the use of use of government to enforce their ideals—taxes are used for income redistribution and affirmative action laws created in an effort to promote equality of outcomes.  To me that is trying to solve one injustice by means of another injustice.  There is no virtue in forcing other people to give to others against their will.

Furthermore, at some point, forcing a responsible person to subsidize another person’s lifestyle is to punish their behavior and promote irresponsible behavior.  The problem with artificial collective responsibility is that it can remove the incentive for the individual to be responsible for themselves and leads to a downward spiral.

For example, poverty has not been eliminated since the “war on poverty” began in 1964.  In fact, the percentage of single parent homes—one of the significant predictors of poverty—has increased dramatically over the same period.  It is often very difficult, for those already in the welfare system, to escape their dependence when the benefits of not working are almost equal to the income they could earn otherwise.

And then there is this awful thing called “identity politics” where people are put into competitive groups according to their race, gender or economic status and then pitted against each other.  Basically the idea is to promote conflict (rather than cooperation) between various identity groups.  People, according to this kind of thinking, should be judged as a part of their collective groups rather than as individuals and unique.

What identity politics amounts to, in practical terms, is that there are those who are collectively punished for the sins of their collective identity (past or present) and then those who, as a collective group, are deemed to be victims and therefore entitled to a protected status.  Identity politics is to blame for terms like “white privilege” and also for the resurgence of white nationalism.  It should be no surprise to anyone that those who are collectively punished will, in turn, circle the wagons and start to collectively protect their own identity group.

Teachers who punish the whole class for the actions of a few individuals assume that the group will push back against those who misbehave.  Unfortunately, it could also promote the opposite and cause the well-behaved students to give up and even join in the misbehavior because they will be punished regardless.  Likewise, when labels like “racist” or “sexist” are applied to an entire identity group they often become counterproductive.  People who are categorizing and castigated as a group regardless of their individual role might as well misbehave a little.

Collectivism ultimately fails when it is disrespectful of individual rights and disregarding of differences between individuals.  The potential for abuse is severe when it is the collective group versus some individuals or even when collective groups fights against other groups.  It is what leads to pogroms and purges.  Collectivism is extremely dangerous ideology when it becomes an excuse to privilege some ethnic, national, racial, religious, social or political groups at the expense of others.

Where Individualism Goes Wrong…

Individualism, to many people, seems like the perfect alternative to collectivism.  It is part of the ideological DNA of the United States of America.  Truly one of the things that made America great was the special consideration for the individual and their “inalienable” rights.

These rights, purportedly “endowed by our creator” according the nation’s founding documents, have been enshrined into law and a government system designed as a bulwark against abuse of individuals.  Progress, at least in American terms, has been a matter of extending the umbrella of these individual rights to those previously disenfranchised and considered less than equal because of their gender, racial or ethnic group.  While we can never agree on the particulars, the general idea that “all men are created equal” and have rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is something most do agree on.

Respect for individual rights has made this nation great because it freed individuals to do what they wanted to do.  Yes, the nation was imperfect in it’s founding and remains imperfect.  However, the American ideal seems to be right in many regards, it is something that likely contributed to the current prosperity this nation and is something that has likely helped to shape a better world.  It is hard to imagine the world being better under the totalitarianism represented by men like Stalin, Hitler and other dictators claiming to represent a collective good.

Unfortunately, respect for the individual turns into a bad thing when it becomes individualism.  It is true that many are able to provide food, clothing and shelter for themselves as an individual.  However, nobody can provide for their own social needs and many in the world today are socially starved.  The problem is particularly acute in the developed world where people are materially prosperous and can live under a delusion of their independence.  But the truth is that it is not healthy for most people to be free from meaningful human connections or to have no purpose bigger than themselves.

The deficiencies of individualistic American culture have became clearer to me after I left home.  Being single, out on the road, a completely free individual, often made me feel profoundly lonely and unfulfilled.  I felt imprisoned in my own mind.  My siblings had their own lives, my friends all seemed to marry then disappear, the local church was unable/unwilling to pick up the slack, and depression set in.   No man is an island—positive social interactions and having a place to belong is what keeps us sane.

My recent trip to the Philippines punctuated this point.  The people there generally have less material wealth than their American counterparts.  As a result people depend on each other—family members expected to provide for each other, children help their parents, and is more or less an organic form of collectivism.  I felt happier there, as one participating in family activities, than I did with all the possessions and properties I’ve aquired over the past few decades.

As if to provide contrast, on my way way back from the Philippines I was put up in a Marriott (when my flight to JFK was diverted to Atlanta because of weather) and was basically alone despite being one of the hundred passengers and crew in the motel.  My accommodations were luxurious, my stomach full of quality grub courtesy of Korean Air food vouchers, my unlimited data plan connected me back to social media and all the entertainment in the world, and still it felt like a time devoid of purpose.

People do not need to be a part of an identity group.  However, we do seem to find our own identity in our interactions with other people and within a group.  Solitude, while therapeutic and a chance for reflection as a choice, is a punishment when imposed upon us by circumstances beyond our control.  Individualism, at an extreme, results in solipsism and anti-social behavior—it is easy to imagine that the world is against you when too disconnected from other people.

Where Community Gets it Right…

“Community is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world where people so often either ignore or fight each other. It is a sign that we don’t need a lot of money to be happy–in fact, the opposite.” (Jean Vanier)

Community can mean many things.  However, the word itself is a fusion of “common” with “unity” and most often describes a group individuals with a shared identity or interest.  In this context community is a collection of individuals who love and take an active role in each other’s lives.

I believe community is something that transcends the ideological extremes (and false dichotomy) of individualism and collectivism.  It is not a balance or tension between individual rights and the collective needs of a group.  It is rather a fusion of individual and collective concerns that is not a product of coercion or imposed as a legal obligation.  It is a place where differences become a strength rather than a point of contention and were grievances are addressed without becoming the group’s central theme.

A healthy community is focused on the highest common denominator of the group rather than on the lowest.  In other words, the goals of the individuals in the group are bigger than what is merely good for them or those who are most like them.  Those who make up the group are not forced to give up their personal autonomy to tyrannical collective process either.  Instead they are free to voluntarily use their individual strengths to the betterment of the group, willing to work towards the goal they share in common with the group, and without their personal needs being neglected.

Community is a Christian ideal.  It is centered on sharing an identity with Jesus and is following after his example.  It means being willing to suffer temporary personal loss for the external good of others.  It means loving social outcasts, reaching out to those marginalized in society and being a helping hand to those in need.  It means having an identity (both individually and collectively) greater than race, gender, economic status, nation, or religious affiliation.  It means a community formed by all those (past, present and future) united in a mystical common-union:

“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.  Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. “ (Colossians 3:11‭-‬14 NIV)

Community is where individuals take responsibility for the collective group and the collective group takes responsibility for the individual.  Not because they have to, not because they fear punishment, but because they want to, they have an identity bigger than themselves and love each other as Jesus first loved them.

Hey, Christians, who do you serve?

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I read a blog today that spurred my thoughts in a new direction.  The blog (read here) was about the religious owners of a small business who elected to close shop after their employees decided to unionize.

The rationale they give for their decision piqued my interest:

“…our personal beliefs will not allow our conscience the freedom to work with a labor union, as we are required by Scripture to ‘live peaceably with all men,’ and not to use force to gain what we want or for what is required to succeed.”

I am a big believer in freedom of conscience and allowing business owners to make the decisions best for them.  I understand the angst of a small business owner facing the prospect of a workforce organized against them.  I know other small business owners who said they too would close shop rather than deal with a union.

However, by a Christian standard, is it truly living “peaceably” to essentially take the ball and go home when the game isn’t played by our own rules?

The Reason for Unions and the Cost of Conflict

I understand why a business owner is threatened by the collective bargaining power of unions.  It isn’t a pleasant thing to face the prospect of a do-what-we-say-or-we’ll-strike and it does tie the hands of those trying to keep a business afloat rather than just take a paycheck.  But is it much different than the do-what-we-say-or-we’ll-fire-you that employees face?

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The reality is that unions form for a reason and the reason is that employees feel powerless and want a voice.  Unions give employees power to collectively bring their own agenda to the table and force their will on the owners of the business.  It is an attempt to rebalance or redistribute power in a way that makes a the structure of a business less hierarchical.

Unfortunately unions often only add another layer of management (often as removed from the needs of the employees as the other) and only adds to the cost of business while producing nothing besides a contentious attitude.  The end result can be an uncompetitive business model that eventually works for nobody.

What are the Christian Alternatives to Closing Shop?

First off, closing shop is not the only option a business owner has when faced by unionization, there’s more than one way to “live peaceably with all men” and avoid unnecessary conflict.  I am guessing that the employees are less at peace with the our-way-or-you’re-jobless approach and perhaps not too impressed with their ‘peaceable’ former employer.

Here’s some ideas…

Alternative #1: Partner only with like-minded people.  There would be less need for unions (or closing shop in protest of them) if we took Paul’s admonition seriously:

“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?  What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?” (2 Corinthians 6:14-15)

Much conflict between business owners and employees stem from differences of perspective that would be reduced by not hiring outside of one’s own religious affiliation.  Sure, this might reduce the amount of available employees (at a particular cost) and limit the size of the business.  But, if allegiance to faith outweighs financial gain, then the decision is clear.

Alternative #2a: Change who you serve.  Many people go into business to serve primarily their own needs.  Business is all about getting the best deal for yourself and all sides are in competition against one another (customer against producer, employee against owner, etc) trying to serve themselves.  Yet, there is an alternative and that alternative is cooperation.

What if owners served employees, customers served producers and employees served both and everyone *voluntarily* served everyone else selflessly? 

In other words, what would happen if we changed all of the force arrows pulling outward competing for their ‘piece of the pie’ and spun them 180° in the opposite direction?

That, my friends, is turning fission into fusion and (like the nuclear counterpart) has potential for more energy or profit to all than the alternative:

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What if all parts serve God by *voluntarily* serving each other rather than themselves?

Well, that’s Christianity:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (Ephesians 6:5-9)

We don’t have masters and servants (unless you agree with Noam Chomsky), but the same principles could apply to both an employee working for a business or customer.  It can also apply to how a Christian business owner responds to a union, the owner can choose to resist the collective will of their employees or they can serve and honor it as an act of obedience to their Master.

If Jesus is your Master this is your obedience:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Alternative #2b: Serve all people radically.  Maybe you already have employees who aren’t like-minded and want to gang up on you or unionize, what then?

Well, if your primary purpose is to serve Jesus Christ, then this might apply:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42)

That is a concept as revolutionary today as it was when Jesus spoke the words.  It is a concept, if applied evenly to all areas of life, would change everything we do and requires a faith few of us have.  Sure, most of us are willing to cooperate when we know it is to our own advantage, but Jesus goes a step beyond mutual cooperation and tells us to lead through self-sacrificial love.

The conclusion of the matter…

Many go into business primarily to serve themselves and there is nothing immoral about profitable enterprise.  However, a Christian should not go into business to serve themselves, the goal of a faithful servant of Jesus is to serve others as obedience requires and that means a cooperative—even a self-sacrificial—approach to business.

In the case with the small business of the blog post, I am guessing the separation or disunity of spirit between employees and employer existed long before the vote.  The vote to unionize only codified a division that already existed and was a move to change the terms in favor of the employees.  It backfired, in this case, because the employer chose to quit rather than serve terms not dictated by them and their needs.

I will let you decide if their response was the best Christian resolution of difference or not.  How would you decide?  I welcome your comments…

God bless.