Monday, November 23, 2015

You Are Who We Think You Are: Social Science Meets the "Coop"

I love being a social scientist. The reason is simple: Social science comes in handy when trying to really understand life around you. At the heart of a social scientific approach to the messy reality of human beings and the things that humans have created are five little things: economics, politics, culture, geography, and demography. Humans are demographic animals. They are male and female and everything in between. They are young and old and everything in between. They are born and they die and everything in between. They are small in population or large in population and everything in between. Humans are economic animals. They gather food or work in order to survive. They create small scale economic organizations and large scale economic organizations and everything in between in order to survive. Humans are political animals. They create political institutions, some of which are limited in scope while others, thanks to population size, are massive. Humans are geographic animals. They live in particular places in time. Humans are cultural animals. Humans give meaning to the world around them and the lives they live in these worlds. Analysts separate out such concepts and categories of human life but just as Weber separated out the concepts of charisma, paternalism, and bureaucratisation in order to understand how authority plays out in human life, Weber called these ideal types, it is worth remembering in practise that these phenomena are generally entertained in human life.

All of these phenomena can be used to understand everything human. Take the Honest Weight Food Coop. Honest Weight is an economic institution, a business, that was formed by a group of individuals, most of them of the countercultural variety, in the 1970s. It began as a worker cooperative but since the 1980s has morphed into a consumer cooperative and slowly but surely into a corporation, which it now officially is. While no studies have been undertaken on the demographics of Honest Weight anyone who visits the store can see that Honest Weights employees and customers, including member workers, is primarily White though the store is not without its "ethnic" and "racial" diversity, and likely largely bourgeois, middle class, in its class structure. Honest Weight's politics like its economics have changed over time. Honest Weight began as a charismatic and radical democratic organisation. That period did not last long. Today Honest Weight is like every other economic and political bureaucracy in the United States. It is characterised by hierarchical structure with those at the top having more authority and power than those at the middle and bottom layers. Those at the top of the hierarchy are rewarded with more compensation than those laborers in the middle and bottom layers of the authority and power structure just as in the federal government and at Apple.

As someone who has long been interested in culture it is the cultural aspects of Honest Weight that particularly interest me. There is so much on the cultural level that one can analyse at Honest Weight. One can usefully and profitable, for instance, explore the social problems process and social problems rhetoric currently in play at Honest Weight. Recently, the Board decided to eliminate the member worker programme at the Corporation by diktat rather than by vote. This, however, caused a backlash. One one side social problems claims makers made a claim that Honest Weight was and is violating labour laws. On the other claims makers made a claim that Honest Weight wasn't violating labour law. Since there is no legal precedent in regard to violations of labour law all sides of this social problems cultural war can and do make valid claims about the Corporation being in violation or not in violation. One thing that all claims makers want to do is to get more attention for their claims. To do this they often go to the media since the media offers claims makers a way to reach a significant audience in one fell swoop. At Honest Weight, for instance, the powers that be agreed to talk to a reporter from the local paper, the Albany Times-Union. Reactions to the article have been mixed. Some accepted the powers that be's explanation that Honest Weight's member labour programme was illegal under federal labour law. Others, like myself, have not. Some are sure that the Corporation is in violation. Others are sure it isn't. Some, like me, see ambiguity. Since there is no legal precedent it is possible for members and even government bureaucrats (those who try to enforce social problems policy once it becomes law) to have differing interpretations of whether HW is in violation of labour law or not. Those who are not powerful and insider proponents of a social problem, by the way, don't have the same access to the media that the powerful do as the Honest Weight situation bares out. Social problems claims makers often use “experts” to make their case but they rarely make use of “experts” who disagree with their perception of a social problem. Proponents of the we are in violation of labour law rhetoric have called upon lawyers and consultants to make their case including one consultant, Thayne Joyall, who didn't identity herself as a consultant thus making her I belong to a "coop" in Syracuse, NY and we gave up our member labour programme and now everything is alright discourse more powerful in the social problems marketplace at Honest Weight. Those who oppose ending the member programme have their own "experts" including judges, lawyers, and political bureaucrats. The social problems marketplace is best conceptualised as a marketplace where social problems claims makers and their allies compete for social problems consumers. Social problems claims makers thus not only try to convince consumers that they are right they also try to avail themselves of policy makers whether politicians or bureaucrats in political bureaucracies to try to push them to take up their social problem and eliminate or diminish it. At Honest Weight the powers that be, for instance, wrote a letter through their lawyers to the New York State Department of Labour asking policy makers to confirm their reading of the law and confirm that Honest Weight violates labour law. To sum up claims makers, when one explores claims maker culture, use rhetorical or discursive strategies to try to achieve their goals. These strategies are apologetic and polemical rather than objective or dispassionate.

In the rest of this essay I want to focus on something that is central in claims making and central in human life in general, manicheanism. Manicheanism originated in Ancient Persia and particularly in the Zoroastrian meaning system. At the heart of manicheanism is a binary rhetorical or discursive structure, in the case of Zoroastrianism a binary of good and evil. In classical Zoroastrianism intellectuals envisioned history as ultimately a war between good, a war between the good god Ahura Mazda, and his evil arch nemesis Ahriman. This manicheanism and the apocalypticism, the notion of history as a struggle between good and evil that ends in a war between heroes and villains, was adopted and adapted by several meaning systems and has become important central aspects of the Jewish faith that developed during and after the Persian exile, in Christianity, a cult or new religion that arose out of first century CE Judaism, and Islam, a cult or new religion that emerged out of Judaism and Christianity. Both binary manicheanism and binary apocalypticism of these meaning systems have been central to Western meaning systems, "religious" or "secular", ever since.

One can find, for instance, manicheanism alive and well across the modern or postmodern world and the so called developing world including at Honest Weight. Manicheanist rhetoric, like social claims rhetoric which is manichean. Social problems claims makers often, for example, find evil in the form of a social problem in the world and try to "cure" this evil, there is a prominent culture of medicalising as social problem in the social problems world, and punish the villains responsible for the social problem. An example: I recently decided to rejoin Honest Weight in order to go the 30 November general member meeting which will decide whether or not to recall the powers that be on the governing body of the Corporation, the Board. I learned that I could run for the Board but could not vote. I requested a ruling from another of the governing bodies of Honest Weight, the Governing Review Council or GRC, on whether I could vote or not arguing that since I am a staff member who works and has worked far over the necessary three hours a week needed to be able to vote that I should be able to vote. I did not expect to win this argument--I understand how bureaucracies with their one size fits all formulas work at least on the formal level (informal levels are another matter_==but I thought it was a valid and fair argument to make and worth a try. I did not win the argument.

What I found far more interesting about this case and the decision, however, was the manicheanism that pervaded it. I was characterised by, one presumes, one of the mid level bureaucratic powers that be, in rather typical it is not social factors or a reading of reality that makes one critical of what is happening but rather disgruntlement. I was categorized and simultaneously demonized or stigmatized and as a result, marginalized, in a discursive strategy that is older than Erving Goffman or Michel Foucault or even Methuselah, as a "disgruntled employee". Forget that I was told by Board members, when I ran for the Board earlier in 2015, that applications were being accepted past the original acceptance date. Forget that two Board members, Messer's Frye and Kuchera to name names, tried to force me to withdraw this application without, apparently, Board approval. Forget that I was told by a member of the Board nominating committee, who is still a member of the Board nominating committee, that given the misunderstandings she thought my application could be accepted. Forget that Frye and Kuchera decided to request a Board vote on the matter and did not invite me. None of these realities matters in the melodramatic ideologically constructed minds of the powers that be at Honest Weight. The problem is not these social factors. It is me, the victim of Board inconsistency. Needless to say, this social and cultural construction of ideological driven realities is common amongst the human species and while it may be common and "real" to those who construct and believe such hero and villain melodramas, it is not real when it is compared with reality.

My favorite response to my demonisation or stigmatisation by Honest Weight's power that is was this one. Context first: After I rejoined Honest Weight I offered to sit at the desk collecting the emails of those who are concerned with the actions of the Board. Later last night I received this email from one of the people who is organising the tables, one Rebekah Rice, and I quote: "The petition group met tonight to make plans for the next week. Your name came up because you had offered to help with tabling. Simultaneously, the GRC forwarded us your request for a decision on voting. We find this a troubling convergence of requests, and would rather stay out of the middle of it. Thank you for your offer of assistance, but we have to turn you down at this point." I responded by saying that I was "[n]ot sure why they, they being GRC, forwarded my request to vote to you. Nor am I sure why there is a "troubling convergence of interests". I don't see a convergence whatsoever. No chaos theory where the GRC flaps its wings leading to orange t-shirts morphing into give Ron the vote. Sorry to say, because it is so much more boring than conspiracy theories, but the two events were totally unrelated to each other. There is perhaps a convergence with the vote on 30 November, however,... [b]ut that is not as exciting as the GRC/Table sitting conspiracy theory either. Anyway, given the surrealness of all this I won't offer to work the table at any time in the future..." Rice later wrote me back wondering why the GRC had sent this information to a body that is not involved in any way, shape, or form in the governance of Honest Weight and hence deciding who should and should not vote in the 30 November election. Of course, anyone with a critically functioning mind knows the answer to that question: it is all about marginalisation, stigmatisation, and demonisation, a rhetorical polemical strategy to deal with dissenters that the powers that be use all the time to maintain the status quo. And it is about control. Just as spell check changes the spelling of words you have correctly typed the powers that be want to make sure you don't disturb the status quo that benefits them and allows them to control you economically, politically, and culturally. What is so interesting is that many of the insider critics of the powers that be if they take over the reigns of power, follow the same strategy. The new boss, in other words, is the same as the old boss culturally and politically.

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