Notes on the SSC course, February 13th, Week Five: Co-operative values and principles

Summary of class

Facilitator’s notes (.rtf).

Main topics:

  • The messiness of cooperatives and cooperative learning. The form, values and processes of cooperatives.
  • Democracy and participation.
  • The individual in a cooperative.
  • The history of the SSC and reasons for our relative longevity.

Reflections on the SSC:

Scholars commented on how much they appreciated the rotating role of note-taker: it consolidates our learning, which tends to be quite “messy”, and shifts the power in the group. In particular, scholars appreciated last weekʼs notes – the author had captured uncertainty, honesty and the liberating messiness of our learning. One radical thing about this space is that there is the right to experiment, and have revelations about anything, not just about what is being taught. Scholars agreed that being conscious of SSI learning and cooperative processes was valuable, and worth checking in on. Cooperation is a process, and is not necessarily conclusive.

Questions to/about SSC:

  • Do we want to put more emphasis on doing our own, independent research, or on assessing our work more formally?
  • What does it mean to be a cooperative? Would we consider ourselves to be a community beyond this space? What does being a cooperative hinder us from doing, or enable us to do?
  • What does it mean to be a “free association”?
  • What gives SSC persistence and strength?
  • Why have people left SSC? Do we care that people leave?
  • What sort of democracy do we practice at SSC? Where are WE in the conversation about democracy?

Other questions arising from our reading:

  • Does self-help and -responsibility arise from autonomy? Do values come out of principles or principles out of values?
  • To what extent does democracy reinforce radical individualism?
  • What might be the role of education within cooperative aspirations?
  • Does the value of solidarity lend itself to a bigger consciousness of the group about who is NOT there, and who are the minorities/majorities?
  • What do you do if you lose a vote? Should you go along with the majority?
  • What does a cooperative allow individuals to do differently?
  • Is self-interest a bad thing? Can there be a group enlightened self-interest?

Transcript of class

Attending: Yaroslav, Jane, Peaceful, Adrian, Sarah, Laura, Joss, Paul

Keywords: Individual (20) Value (16) Democracy (14) Coop (14) Decide (11) mess (9)

Recap of last week: We looked at Engels, and how society has changed as a result of neo-liberalism.

S – I would like to think about how our discussion of the text and historical materialism is linked to us, collectively and individually.

J – I am finding it eye-opening to have a rotating note-taker – revealing the class from a different point of view, and consolidates our learning, which tends to be messy, rather than “delivered”.  It brings coherence to the class as well as shifting the power and the voice – it can become dominated by one or two people.  Itʼs a public statement.  I am thinking about how I can apply it to my own teaching in a university context – how to shift power within the classroom. Itʼs an implicit form of evaluation – someone is trying to make sense of the situation. This note-taking could become our reading for the final session – reminds us of what weʼve been learning.

PW – People have different political viewpoints – some scholars describe themselves as Marxist; some of us havenʼt read enough of Marx to know what that means.  Discussions can be coloured by peopleʼs viewpoints.  I talk in more layman’s terms, but weʼre still talking about the same thing. As the session went on, a lightbulb came on.  When you read something and havenʼt got a context for it, it makes no sense.  But when you have a conversation, the lights come on.

J – In university, you are expected to do your own research, and people are always pursuing a whole other aspect outside the class. Maybe weʼre not emphasising the opportunity to do all this additional work that goes with the seminar – otherwise itʼs more like a reading group. Do we want to place some kind of assessment on our work?

P – What bearing to Core components of curriculum have on your teaching?  (Question posed to scholars who teach at university.)

PW – Peopleʼs brains are wired differently – if youʼve got something to teach, the structure is different for all sorts of people.

S – There might be other methods and ways of learning that weʼre not yet aware of.

J – The notes were rich because Sarah managed to capture uncertainty.  I wish so much more of teaching could be messy – because messy means thereʼs space to move.  One personʼs messiness is another personʼs liberation.  I think we should continue with the honesty – thatʼs what this space is about – the right to experiment, or have a revelation about a completely other thing!

J – Iʼm conscious or sensitive to the fact that some people are here to learn about something they didnʼt know before, and I sometimes feel guilty about checking on the process.

J – Checking in half way through the course is a good idea – is this meeting our expectations?

P – Is schools and universities had cooperative funds…

J – One of the things he emphasises is that cooperatives weather the storms better – the general opinion in the cooperative movement is there is less financial mayhem in cooperatives. But it maybe no guarantee of sustainability.

MacPhersonʼs speech:

J – It was very moving, emotive.

J – I overheard a comment at a cooperative seminar: wasnʼt it sad that MacPherson died suddenly? It was nice to read a speech – a pleasure to read.

J – He went to great pains to talk about the process – it was an endorsement to that sort of process on an international level.  “when you try to mingle ideas and thoughts with action and practice… itʼs that word again: messy.  I work in a consensus based organisation – itʼs messy and itʼs slow, but there is a sort of strength in that.  He calls himself a white, Northern (Canadian) male.  Heʼs endorsing the notion of iteration, and itʼs not conclusive –

I thought “Thank you Northern male”  because everythingʼs against you doing that, is all about hierarchy. I got emboldened – Iʼve got even more reason to carry on doing what I do!

S – I like that it doesnʼt promise that itʼs easy.

J – He talks about it taking 7 years – a long time. It was to re-vitalise the movement.  Itʼs the best possible statement for a given time.

PW – One of the reason it resonates is, itʼs about cooperatives – applications can vary.  I resonate with this, itʼs what I believe to be the best of whatʼs available at the moment.  It doesnʼt work perfectly all the time because weʼre all human.

J – What underlies the idea of democracy as I understand it is legal principles – defined in law in terms of the state, but a cooperative is not a legal form.  We work with the values and principles rather than let them determine us.

S – It (the Cooperative Identity Statement) seemed linear in some ways, which is some ways really works – the values inform the principles – but then Iʼm not sure…

“They underlie the organisation structure of a coop”  – youʼre building a physical manifestation of it.

J – You donʼt have to apply for coop status – thatʼs whatʼs so radical about it.  People spent a hundred years thinking about this, but tomorrow I could open a coop and I wouldnʼt have to ask anyone. Thereʼs no policing – you decide. Thatʼs whatʼs enduring about it.  How does this relate to anarchy?  People can organise themselves according to their wants and needs and desires. Cooperators is a welcoming term.

PW – One of the things that grates with me is “The Law” – it doesnʼt instill real values in people – we follow the rules so we donʼt get punished.

J – Thereʼs also no legal recognition of the SSC – what do we lose from that? S – That does have implications.

J – As we were creating the constitution, one of the questions that came up was minors – if you want to include them, you need DBS and that sort of thing.  It exists not even like a youth club.

What does that hinder us from doing?  Or enable us to do? Thereʼs this term “dis- Organisation” – weʼre loosely grouped together, but donʼt call us a campaign, etc. We are a “free association” quite literally.

It goes back to the question of anarchism – when we say democracy, what do we mean? What does it mean to be a free association?

P – I canʼt believe youʼre all so positive about it!  Did I really say read this?!  But as I kept reading it, one thing kept emerging: autonomy. Thatʼs what I got from it!  Self help, self responsibility, democracy.  I see a problem in the way this is set out:

1. Self help + Self responsibility (values) -> Autonomy (Principle) OR

2. Autonomy (Principle) -> Self help + Self responsibility (values)

Self help and self responsibility manifesting itself as autonomy! – Wouldnʼt it make more sense the other way round – that SH and SR arises from Autonomy?

Do values come out of principles, or do principles come out of values? I canʼt imagine holding values that are based on principles…

One of the definitions of a principle is behaviour based on values.

So if you say someone is a principled person, they behave in a way that is consistent with a certain set of values.

PW – Iʼve worked on this myself… Iʼve become self-responsible over things. S – If youʼre in an organisation, your values are shaped it.

PW – You canʼt change the system using the system that created – inherently youʼre going to be tainted by the values of that system. Academics (at SSC) have stepped outside of that. Youʼre bucking the system.  Itʼs part of the process of change.

S – Itʼs important to be constantly reflecting on your values – thatʼs the idea of a radical organisation.

J – Iʼve been holding back something because I donʼt want it to steer the discussion: it assumes an individual. Democracy is based on there being An Individual in the world. Previous discussions weʼve had around equality has also assumed an Individual. To what extent does democracy reinforce a radical individualism?  It puts everything on the individual. Consensus decision-making is NOT democracy.

We need to remember that this came out of European post-industrial revolution. Communities are based on these values in other parts of the world. This is a recuperation of something that weʼve lost.

P – This was how our ancestors survived.

J – There have also been hierarchical societies.  Where are WE in this? A lot of it was about the individual. I found it provoking.  How do we scale this up? This (Coop Identity Statement) was nowhere in that democracy paper.

Y – 2nd principle – if we create a community of cooperatives, do they have to be coordinated by a set of rules?

J – You write a constitution. The decision making form is flexible under a cooperative.

Y – If people are represented, arenʼt their voices already more heard than anyone elseʼs?

S – Real self government would be too demanding for people.  It is radically demanding for people. It doesnʼt assume that you can structure out power. All the same stuff about gender, class, race, etc, will always come out.  Whatʼs exciting about this is, it puts all that up front and says, “letʼs try it anyway!”  What might be the role of education with these aspirations?

J – Iʼve been working with young people – itʼs so different from the old representative democracy of the Left, of my parents.  No-one expects you to want to participate.  People have different moments in their lives – you can decide to do something small – well, itʼs not small to make tea – but you can take a step back.  I found that so refreshing and humane, from, “we must all take a turn, we must all be equal” – it doesnʼt make you a bad person, you just canʼt at the moment. Thereʼs an interesting meeting ground.

S – The value of solidarity… can that lend itself to a bigger consciousness in the group about who is NOT there?

J – That always matters because it reveals something about the norms – you always have to pay attention to who isnʼt in the room – are there majorities/minorities?  I find it very grounding. Itʼs ok to say, “You decide – I trust you”… or “please just decide because I canʼt right now.”

PW – You donʼt have to have a 100% turnout in a vote.  Consensus is a better option for me because the person who says, “this mustnʼt go ahead” has to be reassured – and he has the responsibility to prove that his view is founded.

J – In one member one vote, that person would be over-ruled. The burden would be on the person who disagrees to justify their reason.

S – There is a risk with that.  For instance, groups of predominantly white young people and two Asian women. Those women always being called on to account seems like special measures. Perhaps it depends how that plays out in practice, and the context. P – There was a bit in the Democracy reading that talks about minorities.  If theyʼre consistently in the minority, they might feel inferior.

J – The persistent minorities in a representative democracy can be oppressed even if the majority doesnʼt try to act oppressively.  He discusses, what do you do if youʼve lost a vote? Do you just go along with it?  It reminds me of when the Poll Tax came in.  My parents were of the view that that government had got in and you just had to wait till the next election to vote them out.  We thought you had the right to revolt against it.  Why should you just go along with the majority?  Like war?

J – A cooperative brings people together to act as one – the cooperative is a body. A – A collection of like-minded individuals.

S – A group of people coming together to support each other is different than the big structure of democracy in a society.  We think of individualism, individualised people. Thereʼs something about the individual that Iʼd like to keep.  What does the cooperative allow individuals to do differently?

J – “Enlightened self interest” – is that a bad thing or a good thing?  Does self-interest have to be a bad thing? Can there be a group enlightened self interest? The individual is important, and the family.

J – There are points in our lives when we give up individualism – Iʼm thinking of when I got married, and when I had a child – I canʼt make decisions about my life without taking my wife and child into account.  I wonder: in a cooperative, you are giving up your individuality to the best interests of all?  I read an article this week – democracy: “not all individually, but individuals as all”. Democracy as the essence of politics.  When we think of ourselves, I donʼt think of myself as a legal subject, but thatʼs how the state thinks of us.

S – When we come to this class, there is attention to each other.  Would we consider ourselves a community beyond this space?  What does it mean to be a cooperative – a way of life? Would this look the same if we were in another context?  Itʼs interesting to think of us as a cooperative, itʼs been very fluid – messy.

P – When SSC was put together, did you have a link with other cooperatives?

J – We had help setting up our constitution, we had two people from radical roots.  We had no affiliations, we still donʼt.  We took inspiration from Social Centres, usually anarchist, cooperatives usually, as social centre where people come together around autonomous living.

Y – It came out of cuts?

J – That was one of the motivations.  Weʼve been involved with other initiatives, but they havenʼt lasted. Three years is a long time.  What gives us persistence and strength? Individuals. Some of us working in universities, we have integrated it into our work – itʼs not wholly “other”. It was set up by a core of people who work in HE.

S – Itʼs about the location. A Small City. Those who have remained active have had a private recourse to childcare.  It started out with a lot of radical ideas and I think we still have them, but we havenʼt been precious about them.  People from very different political positions have come in.  Itʼs not about a political position.

J – I was involved with The Free University of Liverpool – there was a lot of energy, they did a lot of actions. But they didnʼt do what you (SSC) did: we want to be somehow constituted. I think thatʼs significant in the longevity.

That was the influence of Social Centres.

It counts for a lot. Itʼs a kind of cradle.  Weʼre bigger than ourselves.

PW – Itʼs not a new idea. Weʼre not re-creating them.

S – Except in our own practice.  We learn them all the time as we go along.  Itʼs exciting. J – Something we could take to our AGM would be to talk about what has made the SSC last three years? This discussion has been revealing.  Itʼs important if weʼre going to last another 3 years.

S – We should survey the people who have left, ask why.

J – Individuals have left but the SSC has continued. The cooperative, this thing that we are working for – has stayed with us.  Do we care if people have left?

S – I DO!

To keep the cooperative going you have to train new people.

J – Iʼve got to a point when I canʼt imagine not doing this: I feel like this is me.  Iʼd find it difficult were the SSC to dissolve in the next couple of months.

P – What sort of democracy do we practice within the SSC?  Not representative.

J – Around specific points of governance, scholars on the SSC members list make decision – people who have signed up to it. The last decision was about the conference on May

26th. If youʼre not members of the cooperative, you werenʼt asked. The cost of the conference is around £700. Three out of 20 formal, signed up members, got back to me, so the decision went ahead.  I check regularly whether people consider themselves members. Thereʼs a form on the website to join.

J – This is a gritty point: you put out the word about quite a big thing – 17 donʼt respond for all sorts of reasons. Nobody blocked it. Therefore thatʼs a mandate to go ahead. That could be problematic – who says that 3 people is enough?  In Spain you can make your ballot paper “I donʼt wish to vote.”  Iʼm curious.

S – In the past, we had decisions – we voted if it was a pressing issue.

J – If youʼre in the flesh, you hear the words, “go ahead if you want to.”  On email it seems more nebulous.

Marx was in favour of universal suffrage, but didnʼt think that everyone needed to use their vote. If people are given the opportunity, but remain passive, are they not exercising their right as an individual? Itʼs a form of input, not doing anything.  But what about next year – general elections – at least half the population wonʼt vote.  Does that sound for anything? Itʼs not a single message.

Y – The traditional interpretation of a low turnout is apathy; another is “happathy”.  People are happy!

Is there a way to link back to education?

J – Some people are “not equipped” to make decisions… there have been times in my life when I have not wanted to take the initiative. There are those who donʼt want to have to make decisions about big things – they want to support.  I was involved in Climate Camp – there were people taking nails out of wood so they would be safe for children – that was their contribution and that was legitimate, or people running the well-being tent, or building toilets. There were struggles.  It was said, “I wish all the people with PhDs would deal with the shit more often!” Itʼs a good idea to offer according to your capacity. There will be people who will gain confidence by being in the slip stream.  I used to be the kind of teacher who had the expectation that everyone would speak, but it might not be time for everyone to speak. People have different ways of engaging. You canʼt tell from outward appearance whether someone is engaging or not, active or not.

P – Politicians get used to saying the same thing in different ways. Very true! Recycled speeches.

Plato warned against this – it allows people to manipulate. Rhetoric- the art of manipulation.