Sunday, April 26, 2015
So off we go…
Preface: I write this in pen because though I am a “professional” I also like the human touch.
Questions and Answers
1: What are some of the “Co-op”activities you have been involved in (cashiering, stocking, committees, etc.)?
Since starting working at Honest Weight I have been involved in membership work (with Nate), stocking, and cashiering. As a working member—the only type of member you could be at Bloomingfoods Coop in the late 1970s and early 1980s--I worked stocking teas and herbs.
2. Have you ever served on the board of directors before? If yes, please describe your experience(s). If not, what experience do you have with other organisations that will be useful in your work as a “Co-op” Board member?
First part, no. Second part: I have been involved in a variety of activist groups, including the Mormon Peace Gathering in which I, the only “gentile” on the planning group, helped teach cooperative governance to a group of Mormons. Additionally, I have been involved in academia since the 1990s, an involvement that requires me to partake of a variety of bureaucratic procedures now and again.
3. Please describe your experience with and approach to group decision making processes? What do you think makes for good group processes and what are some of the challenges to group decision making process?
I have, as I mentioned earlier, been involved in social activism, Quaker and peace activism, which involved consensus forms of decision making. I also served on the coordinating committee of the Mormon Peace Gathering, a group that was planning to and did go to the Nevada Test Site outside of Las Vegas to protest American nuclear weapons testing in the desert. This involved a good deal of consensus practise and dealing with those who had opposing views. Finally, let me note again that I was a member of a real Co-op in the 1970s, Bloomingfoods, which engaged in consensus governance until it, like Honest Weight, evolved or devolved from a workers cooperative that was for members only to a consumer “cooperative”. I learned a lot in my earlier coop involvements in "cooperative governance".
As to the second part of the question, as with acting, listening and respect makes all the difference when involved in decision making. I have not, by the way, found this at Honest Weight during my years here. When I attended a Board meeting I saw members of the Board and members of the LT, as a dissident Board member spoke, play with their ipads and their smart phones while that member spoke. This is hardly active or respectful listening.
4. Please discuss the skills you could bring to the HWFC Board.
I think I can bring intellectual, analytical, and problem solving skills to the Board. After all I have degrees in Religious Studies (a BA), Cultural Anthropology (MA), and History (a Ph.D.). My academic background means that I have a healthy understanding of statistical analysis and an ability to critically think about and analyse whatever is before me. I thus could bring a set of “professional” skills to the Board. I also, since I have studied the history of coops, know something about coops and their evolution or devolution.
5. Please describe your understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the board of directors.
As I understand it the Board’s first responsibility is to the membership. The Board, again as I understand it, is supposed to act in the name of the membership and assure that what it has voted for is followed in the “Co-op”. At present, on the basis of my observations over the last several years, the Board is not living up to these promises. Instead it, because certain members of the Board are too close to management (a real and perceived conflict of interest) and as a result are largely acting as a rubber stamp for management decisions some of which have violated the reality and spirit of the “by-laws”, are not acting in the name of the membership but are acting in the name of the management.
6. What do you think the major issues that the “coop’s” board needs to address over the next five years?
a. What Honest Weight is or should be is an important issue. Honest Weight, at present, is a hybrid. On the one hand, it is, thanks to its history as a worker cooperative, a coop. On the other hand, thanks to changes since the 1980s and the fact that Honest Weight has ties to organisations like the National “Cooperative” Business Association and UNFI that have routinised, professionalised, and rationalised the once workers coop, the "Co-op" is also a corporation. I think members need to decide which one of these Honest Weight's Honest Weight wants to be.
b. Given our problems with Whole Foods (in reality Whole Food isn't doing as well as their bureaucrats prophesied) and the current downturn in finances perhaps we can talk to Wheatsville, the “coop” in Austin, Texas, home of Whole Foods, about how it survived the Whole Foods onslaught, if we already haven’t.
c. Process. A biggee. Currently, process is broken at the “Coop”. There have been several instances where the management group has acted unilaterially and been backed up by rubber stamps on the Board, and that needs to change.
d. Democracy? Another biggee. If you think that elites using and abusing their power to keep members off the ballot is "democratic", then Honest Weight has a "democracy" for you. If you think Board members dissembling about the real reasons someone was kept off the ballot is "democratic", then Honest Weight has a "democracy" for you. If you think that the vetting or censoring of member questions is "democratic", then Honest Weight has a "democracy" for you. If you think that printing ballots so small as to not allow for write in candidates (something New York State does not even do) is "democratic", then Honest Weight has a "democracy" for you. If you think that not accepting nominations from the floor is "democratic", then Honest Weight has a "democracy" for you. If you think that providing no written information on an issue to be voted upon is "democratic", then Honest Weight has a "democracy" for you. If you think that "successful" is all you need to know about something before you vote on it, then Honest Weight has a "democracy" for you. If you think that excluding an elected member of the Board from a secret meeting that an unelected member of the Board attended is "democratic", then Honest Weight has a "democracy for you. If you think that a concern about perceived conflicts of interest in certain instances but not in others is "democratic", then Honest Weight has a "democracy" for you.
7. How will you use your skills to contribute to addressing the above issues?
As an ethnographer, as someone who almost took a Ph.D. in sociology, and as a historian, I am fully aware of the evolution or devolution of “coops” from charismatic worker ones to bureaucratic consumer ones guided by boards and management teams. I hope to work with Board members who are more cooperatively oriented to return Honest Weight more closely to its real cooperative roots.
8. Please list any potential conflicts of interest you might have. (Conflicts of interest will not preclude you from serving on the Board, but helps establish open communication).
None. I am a staff member but I am also a professional. As a professional with a passionate dispassionate temperament I can analyse anything systematically without emotional attachment. As to another potential or real conflict of interest I know members of management but I am not close to them, indebted or emotionally attached to them, or emotionally disattached to them. Ergo, there is no potential or real conflict of interest here.
9. In order to maintain our liquor license all elected Board members must be able to pass a background check conducted by the New York State Liquor Authority (NYSLA). If there is anything that may preclude you from passing a background check, please feel free to ask a Board member. Please keep this in mind during the application process.
None that I know of. I have been arrested at protests—Quaker protests against nuclear power and nuclear weapons—but those are misdemeanours. I am, by the way, quite proud of this activism.
To the contrary: One Board member, one of the few I actually have a respect for--he is honourable and does not have moral deficit disorder (mdd)--argues that members of the Board were not afraid of me. The Board member, he says, who wrote me about my membership made a mistake when she said I had to have this in order by the 31st of March and that it was this the reason I was kept off the ballot. OK. But if this is true then clearly the Board cares more about petty bureaucratic technicalities than about fairness. Such an obsession with petty bureaucratic technicalities should not be surprising given that most members of the Board are of the bureaucratic variety. But the question still remains, why did the Board not decide that since mistakes were made in my case by members of the Board I would be allowed to run? This only seems fair after all. Was it because it was me?
Anyway...Call me radical...Call me bad...Call me nationwide...
In 2011 I watched Square Pegs on DVD. I had picked up the DVD for $5 bucks at Target if memory serves. Recently I rewatched the first season of The Wonder Years on DVD thanks to Time-Life’s Star Vista Entertainment. Now that The Wonder Years is finally available on DVD. It was long in coming because of the Byzantine and labyrintian nature and the cost of obtaining music rights for shows shot before the age of the DVD. The Wonder Years had a large number of songs to obtain music rights for since its sound track was the sound track of the late sixties and early seventies. Star Vista was apparently able to obtain the rights to about 90% of the music—so we can finally compare and contrast the two shows.
Both Square Pegs and The Wonder Years were about the teenage years. Square Pegs took viewers into the high school with Lauren Hutchinson (Amy Linker) and Patty Greene (Sarah Jessica Parker), two awkward teenage girls who desperately want to fit in to the cool school clique at Weemawee High School. The Wonder Years gave us Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage)—The Wonder Years with its adult Kevin narrator (Daniel Stern) is told from Kevin’s adult point of view—Gwendolyn “Winnie” Cooper (Danica McKellar), and Kevin’s best friend Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano) and took us along with them on occasion to their newly renamed junior high school, Robert F. Kennedy Junior High. Both Square Pegs and The Wonder Years were one camera filmed TV shows, innovative for their times since videotaping sitcoms had become common in the 1970s and 1980s.
But there are real differences between these two shows that appear once one goes beyond the teen similarities. Square Pegs, unlike The Wonder Years, had the laugh track so common in American television sitcoms since their beginnings. The acting in Square Pegs was more sitcomy, more heightened, exaggerated, and theatrical (very Saturday Night Live sketcish) and as a result less naturalistic and less realistic than The Wonder Years. Though both Square Pegs and The Wonder Years were filmed The Wonder Years is far more cinematic than Square Pegs as the wonderfully lit shot of Kevin and Winnie at Harper’s Woods at the end of the first episode (“Pilot”, 31 January 1988) shows. Additionally, The Wonder Years throughout its run had an almost documentary quality to it. The show even incorporated faux home movies into its cinematic mix and this makes The Wonder Years seem like a predecessor to shows like The Office, British (BBC 2, 2001) and American (NBC, 2005-2013), Outnumbered (BBC 1, 2007-2014), and Modern Family (ABC, 2009-), all three of which play the faux documentary card that has become so common in TV these days.
The Wonder Years is actually less of a sitcom than Square Pegs. The Wonder Years, unlike Square Pegs, did away with the laugh track, as I mentioned. In fact, it actually makes fun of the sitcom laugh track in the episode where Kevin’s fantasises Winnie as Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie (“Dance With Me”, 19 April 1988). The Wonder Years is a comedy, a drama, a tragedy, a parody, even, at times, a satire, all of which arise out of the comedy, the drama, and the tragedy out of everyday life.
The Wonder Years is more of an ensemble piece than Square Pegs. Home life was barely depicted in Square Pegs while in The Wonder Years viewers saw, Kevin's home life, his Dad Jack (Dan Lauria), his Mum Norma (Alley Mills), his rebellious older sister, Karen (Olivia D'Abo), and his bullying older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey), and all of its trials and tribulations including arguments over the rightness or wrongness of the war Vietnam and American imperialism, though his eyes.
Narratively, Square Pegs is pretty much your standard sitcom with the standard John Hughes character caricatures. There's the geeks Marshall (John Femia) and Johnny (Merritt Butrick), the popular valleyish girl Jennifer (Tracy Nelson), the greaser Vinnie (Jon Caliri), and the mean girl Muffy (Jami Gertz). It adds a wrinkle into the sitcom by telling its tale from Lauren and Patty’s point of view, from a female point of view. The Wonder Years is more of a bildungsroman, a comedy, drama, and tragedy of growing up much like the later Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB, 1997-2001, UPN, 2001-2003). Robert F. Kennedy Junior High has, as Kevin tells us in the first episode ("Pilot", 1;!, 31 January 1988), its cool kids, its greasers, its nerds, its bullies, and its hippies. Kevin and Paul and to some extent Winnie, however, are not a part of anyone of these high school cliques. Speaking of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Wonder Years like Buffy the Vampire Slayer after it, used the classroom they took Kevin, Winnie, and Paul to, in the case of The Wonder Years, and Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Willow (Alyson Hannigan), and Xander (Nicholas Brandon) to, in the case of Buffy, on occasion, as a metaphor for what was going on in the lives of their teenagers. In The Wonder Years episode "Nemesis" (2:11, 14 March 1989) for instance, a classroom discussion on war is used as a metaphor for the increasingly complicated relationship between Kevin, Winnie, and Kevin's ex-girlfriend Becky Slater (Crystal McKellar). In the Buffy episode "Earshot" (3:18, 28 September 1999) a discussion on Shakespeare's Othello becomes a metaphor, in part, for Buffy's relationship with Angel (David Boreanaz).
Visually, The Wonder Years is much more innovative than Square Pegs. The Wonder Years, as I said, was filmed after all (probably on 16 mm). Square Pegs is your standard sitcom with its limited number of sets theatrical piece. The Wonder Years, on the other hand, has multiple sets and does a lot of “location” shooting. And then there are those pictures of the Beatles behind Kevin and Paul as they look at pictures in Our Bodies, Our Selves, from the White Album which came out in 1968, the year in which the pilot is set, in the series pilot.
Even in its sound The Wonder Years is far more innovative than that of Square Pegs. The TV, which seems often to be on in the Arnold kitchen constantly, provides the series with a digetic, an almost Greek chorus or Shakespearean chorus, commentary, that is more natural and realistic than its predecessors since it generally provides viewers with the broader social contexts of the years in which The Wonder Years is set, the late 1960s and the early 1970s. Additionally, The Wonder Years voice over narration by the adult Kevin (Daniel Stern) looking back over his wonder years also acts as a kind of distanced ironic, parodic, humourous, and bittersweet Greek chorus as does the similar voice over narration in "The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters" (American Playhouse, 1:10, PBS, 1982, 16 March 1982), The Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983), "The Star Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosowski" (PBS, American Playhouse, 4:9, 11 February 1985) and "Ollie Hooopnodle's Haven of Bliss" (Disney Channel, 6 August 1988 & PBS, American Playhouse 1989), all television and film adaptations of Jean Shepherd's stories with their adult voice over narrator looking back at his wonder years past.
Then there is the use of music. Square Pegs tried to prove its coolness and its protagonist's coolness with its The Waitresses (they who gave us “I Know What Boys Like”) theme song and the appearance of Devo in one episode (“Muffy’s Bat Mitzah”, 29 November 1982). The use of popular music in The Wonder Years, however, gives viewers far more extensive insight into the characters, how the characters develop, the narrative development of the show, and the historical times in which the show was set in ways little seen on TV before The Wonder Years. WKRP in Cincinnati (CBS, 1978-1982) used music like this in some instances, but not to the degree The Wonder Years does. Again, it would be Buffy that would make use of popular music in similar fashion almost ten years after the debut of The Wonder Years. Beyond the soundtrack, original music is also important in The Wonder Years. There is, for instance, a recurring “Winnie’s Theme” written by W.G. “Snuffy Walden that reappears at critical moments in the Kevin and Winnie relationship. Walden, by the way, wrote music for three other shows, thirtysomething (1987-1991), Roseanne (1988-1997), and My So-Called Life (1994-1997) which, along with Moonlighting (1985-1989), and like The Wonder Years, were changing the artistic face of ABC television in the 1980s and 1990s
Scholars, of course, can disagree over the significance of TV programmes. I find The Wonder Years to be more significant and interesting than Square Pegs for a variety of different reasons than does Gomery. A lot of what The Wonder Years with its gentle humour and its bittersweet evocation of sixties and seventies life did, has become quite commonplace in so-called quality television that strives to be more artistic, these days. And that is one of the reasons that I think it is much more significant and frankly much more interesting than Square Pegs. As to the impact of The Wonder Years, a few facts, I think, speak for themselves. The Wonder Years alumni include Winnie Holzman and David Greenwalt both of whom would go on to play significant roles in three significant TV shows that followed The Wonder Years, My So-Called Life and Buffy and Angel (WB, 1999-2004) respectively. I suppose I should mention one other current "legacy" of The Wonder Years, The Goldbergs. I don't mean the show created by Gertrude Berg that ran on NBC radio from 1929 to 1946 and on CBS TV, DuMont, and in syndication from 1949 to 1956. I mean the TV show that has run on ABC since 2013 with an adult narrator reflecting back on his 1980s wonder years.
Saturday, April 25, 2015
A brief caveat about this post: I never finished my observations—I didn’t complete a Ph.D in Cultural Anthropology and eventually ended up in History—so what I write here from somewhat hazy memories must remain tentative and incomplete. Now back to my tale.
Quakers originated in England in the sixteenth century during a period great economic, political, and cultural change in that “green and pleasant land”. Known for their iconoclasm and pacifism Quakers came to the United States, to some extent to escape persecution, as early in the 17th century. Most Quakers came to Pennsylvania, the colony created by Quaker William Penn. Others settled in Rhode Island and New York.
It wasn’t until 1884 that Quakers organised a meeting or church in Capital City. By 1915, the meeting was gone. In 1942, however, organised Quakerism was reborn in Capital City. They have remained a small presence in the city ever since. In 1960 Capital City’s Friends had prospered enough to purchase an old Victorian three-story mansion on one of Capital City’s main thoroughfares from the nearby Capital City College of Education. They have been there ever since.
As I mentioned earlier my sojourn among Capital City’s Friends began in 1987 and ended in 1989. By 1987 Capital City, which began life as a trading post, had, by the early 19th century become a state capital. By the middle of the 19th century Capital City developed into an industrial city. By the mid-19th century Capital City was one of America’s largest cities and, like most other cities in the Northeast, had a quite diverse population. In the 1950s Capital City reached its zenith. After 1960, like many other cities in America’s Northeast and Midwest, Capital City began an economic and demographic decline thanks to deindustrialisation and suburbanisation and eventually globalisation. Attempts at urban renewal in the 60s and after did little to reverse the downward trends. Today, Capital City is dominated economically by the the state government apparatus, two regional medical centres (Capital City Medical Centre and St. Peter's), and two regional retail centres.
Institutional Form: The Capital City Monthly Meeting I did my fieldwork in was a member of New York Yearly Meeting and a member of Friends’ General Conference (FGC) headquartered in Philadelphia, one of the two major Friends’ five-year meetings. The other one is Friends United Meeting (FUM) headquartered in the American Midwest.
Demography: I don’t recall how many were members of the Capital City Friends Meeting. Some of my memories of my fieldwork are hazy. I don’t think it was much more than 150. Most members were, as I recall, White and middle class. Some were what might be called countercultural middle class. Some members were descent Friends. They had been Friends all their life. Others were consent Friends. They became Friends generally because they had an affinity with Quaker pacifism and mysticism. One of these was a middle aged Jewish male who began attending Quaker meeting because he was a pacifist. The majority of attendees were older members though there was a smattering of younger college age members.
Built Environment: Capital City’s Friends met in an old Victorian mansion, as I mentioned earlier. One entered the meetinghouse on the ground floor. As one entered the building a library and meeting room was on one’s right. To one’s left was the meeting room where meeting for worship and meeting for worship for business took place. North of the meeting room was a gathering room where Friends, fellow travelers, or visitors could mingle and eat. To the east of the gathering room was a full kitchen. Upstairs were two meeting rooms. On the third floor was the caretakers’ apartment.
Speaking of worship space, the worship room itself, like traditional Quaker meetings everywhere, was spare or plain containing no crosses and no religiously oriented stained glass. There were windows facing out on to the porch at the front of the meetinghouse to the west of the entrance.
Silent meetings, by the way, aren’t the only form of Quaker worship. Many FUM meetings are “programmed”, they are, in other words, characterised by a liturgical form similar to that found in Methodist churches. Many FUM meetings during the 19th century were impacted by waves of Methodist and later evangelical revivals that impacted their liturgical form.
Key Symbol: At the heart of “silent” or “unprogrammed” meetings, at the heart of historical Quakerism, is the notion of the “inner light”. It is this symbol, this cultural form, that gives meaning to every other aspect of Quakerism be it meeting for worship, meeting for business for worship, and historic Quaker peace activism. This key symbol, by the way, has multiple meanings for Friends. Some more Christian oriented Quakers see it as the “light of Christ” that everyone might have if they simply listen to that “small still voice within”. Other less Christian oriented Friends see it as that element within everyone that is “divine” and that speaks to those who have the ears to listen.
By the way, this multivocality is common among social and cultural groups. When I did fieldwork amongst Mormons in Utah in the 1990s I found something similar. Those I talked to who converted to Mormonism from another Christian denomination or sect often carried with them notions of "Jesus" that were common in their previous religious communities. These symbols often differed from traditional Mormon notions of "Jesus" held as central by the Mormon powers that be in Salt Lake. All of this should remind us that official culture and popular culture are not always the same and that researchers must be aware of the differences.
Ethnocentrism: My sense was that Quakers had a general sense of superiority tied to their activism. Quakers, members would remind me, were at the forefront of the abolition movement, the women's rights movement, the Indian rights movement, the peace movement, and so on. Members of the Capital City Meeting had the sense when they engaged in such activism, and the membership was engaged in extensive peace and social justice activism, that they were following in the progressive footsteps of their Quaker ancestors.
Language: Quakers at Capital City Meeting as well as other Quaker meetings across the nation and the world have their own nomeclature. In the case of Quakers this nomenclature includes words like "FGC", "FUM", "NYYM", "AFSC", "FCNL", "YFNA", and the "inner light". These "secular" words stand for Friends General Conference, Friends United Meeting, New York Yearly Meeting, American Friends Service Committee, Friends Committee on National Legislation, and Young Friends of North America. Friends, in other words, speak a variety of English peppered with short-hand for Quaker bureaucratic entities and with Quaker theological terms like the "inner light".
Governance: The Capital City Meeting, like FGC Quaker meetings in general, was governed by consensus. Issues could only be approved if there was a consensus amongst members of the meeting. Members could also abstain from voting and also abstain from limiting the ability of the Meeting to take a position on the issues in front of the membership.
The greatest power in the Capital City Quaker Meeting, like that of other FGC silent Quaker meetings, was vested in the clerk. The clerk controlled the Worship for Meeting for Business and ascertained the “sense of the meeting” at such Meetings giving him or her a degree of power, real or potential, that others at the Meeting did not have. During my years of observation at the Capital City Friends Meeting the clerk was a female.
There were also a number of powerful governing committees in the Capital City Meeting just as there were at other silent Quaker meetings. Among these committees was the Peace and Social Justice Committee, an important one given the history of Quaker activism and peace activism. I attended one of these committee meetings during my years. Another important committees in the Meeting was the Ministry and Nurture Committee, a committee that theoretically, at least, could “discipline” Friends found wanting by the Meeting.
Culture War: The most contentious and controversial issue I observed at the Friends Meeting House in Capital City occurred, if memory serves, in the fall, winter, and spring of 1988 and 1989. It had to do with whether the Meeting should accept and allow gay and lesbian marriages. I attended a special meeting to try to resolve the controversy in winter 1989 on a Wednesday I think it was. The special meeting was quite contentious and revealed that what I had heard from several sources was accurate. There was one faction, the dominant one, led by two young women, who were present that evening, who wanted the Meeting to accept and allow gay and lesbian marriages. There were at least two members, both present that evening, who were opposed to this. As long as they objected, the Meeting could not make a final decision on the issue. My understanding is that tensions between the two factions--the faction in favour of accepting and allowing gay and lesbian marriages wouldn't let it sit or "season", eventually boiled over to such an extent that the two members who opposed allowing the Meeting to accept and allow gay and lesbian marriages left the Meeting. One, I understand from sources, eventually transferred membership to another Quaker meeting in the area.
Critical Reflections: As I engaged in more and more observations on Quakers without their knowledge I increasingly felt like a voyeur and increasingly felt more and more uncomfortable with my voyeurism. It became clear to me that if I was going to take a PhD. I didn’t want to take it in Cultural Anthropology. Afterwards, I increasingly turned to History as the place where I might engage my social constructionist, Weberian, Marxian, religion as meaning system, and social and cultural construction of identity and community interests. By the way, I found the ethnography I had done to be very helpful during my History "career". Doing ethnography amongst Quakers, Mormons, and Mennonites gave me a sense of the culture of these religious movements that I could trace back through history.
Saturday, April 11, 2015
To fully understand banality and how it works we have to go beyond the personal and the individual. The banality that led people like Eichmann and others to become cogs in the Nazi bureaucratic genocide machine aimed at eliminating Jews, Gypsies, gays, lesbians, socialists, and communists, can only be understood if we understand the broader social and cultural contexts that manufactured this banality. Nazi Germany was characterised by an apocalyptic ideology in which the forces of good (Aryans) were pitted against the forces of evil (subhuman Jews, subhuman Gypsies, Socialists, Communists, artistic and musical decadents) in a manichean struggle for the survival of the Aryan species. This banal ideology, which had its roots in Christian anti-Semitism, modern anti-leftism, and modern social Darwinism, became instantiated or embodied (a modern day logos) in the very everyday and commonplace machinery of the Nazi bureaucratic mass murder machine. It was an ideology, in other words, which created the reality that many German bureaucracies and many German bureaucrats and others operated in and was uncritically and unreflectively regarded as empirical fact by many Germans (and beyond for that matter). I give you the social and cultural construction or fetishisation of reality.
Banality, of course, doesn’t have to be genocidal, the most extreme form of banality, to be banal. Nazis, in other words, were certainly banal but that doesn't mean that all of those who are banal are genocidal Nazis. There are varying degrees of banality. Banality must be understood as a continuum with genocidal banality at one end (Nazis) and more kindler and gentler, if those are the terms to use for this phenomenon, forms of banality at the other end and with other progressively more dangerous forms of banality in between. I was recently privy to some of these more kindler and gentler forms of banality and how they play out thanks to historical and ethnographic research I have been engaged in an American bureaucratic business, the Honest Weight Food Corporation. In this blog I want to argue that it is not only human beings who are banal or potentially banal but that the institutions that humans have made can be and often are banal as well.
I have been a member (“a shareholder”) at the Honest Weight Food Co-op during the last three or four years. During that time I have been not only a worker at Honest Weight but I have been an observer of its practises. So what have I learned about the Honest Weight Food Co-op over the three or four years I have been a member and an ethnographic observer? Let’s start with Geography: The Honest Weight Food Co-op is located at 100 Watervliet Avenue in the old rust belt city of Albany, New York. Earlier versions of the Corporation were located on Quail Street from 1997 to 1995 and then on Central Avenue beginning from 1995 until 2013 in the same Northeastern city which once saw better days. It moved to its brand spanking new (and cost overrun) location on Watervliet Avenue in 2013.
Economics: The Honest Weight Food Co-op is a registered corporation that brings in around $24 million dollars a year, up from some $12 million dollars a few years ago. Its shelves, to give a few examples, are filled to the brim with products made by mega corporations such as Hain Celestial Group (Hain, Celestial Seasonings, Free Bird Meats WestSoy, Garden of Eatin’, Terra Chips, Yves Veggie Cuisine, Avalon Natural Products), butter from Ireland (Kerrygold), blueberries from Chile, cheeses from all across Europe, kitchen implements made in China, almonds and pistachios, the nuts that take a gallon of water to produce just one, beef and pork that presumably requires significant water resources to produce, and local eggs and apples. The "Co-op" stocks Dole Pineapples and Del Monte bananas just like mainstream stores. It carries a few fair trade and equal exchange items. Most of the items in the store, however, seem not to be either fair trade or equal exchange.
Politics and Culture: Though the Honest Weight Food Corporation claims to be “democratic” and “member run” in its official literature or propaganda, it is actually a republic just like the nation it is situated within and just like most of the economic bureaucracies that operate in that nation. Honest Weight is hierarchical and characterised by inequalities of power and authority just like the US and the vast majority of its economic corporations. A small proportion of the working membership (only working members are allowed to vote at present though there are apparently some elites at Honest Weight that want to change that) can and does vote for members of several boards to represent them. Deduction: most members join to get the discounts and aren’t really concerned about the politics of the corporation just as many Americans don't vote in either federal, state, or local elections and seem to be satisfied with the status quo as long as they have consumer goods to consume. There is a counterculture of sorts at the Corporation that has sought to bring Honest Weight back to its worker “collective” roots. Sectarianisation has not occurred as of yet though I have heard talk from some of wanting to form a real co-op.
Corporate elites recruit members and staff members to serve on one of the numerous "Co-op" boards. This process, of course, is grounded in selectivity. Apart from a handful of dissidents who serve in a few capacities at the Corporation dissidents are generally never chosen to serve on such committees. This is yet another way that the elite assures ideological conformity in the centres of power.
The board and management structure replicates the uncritical and unreflective ideology of corporate America if with a somewhat liberal bent. Members of the Board, the most powerful institution in the "Coop", include a banker, an educational bureaucrat, a housing inspector, a non-profit bureaucrat, and have included an accountant and a lawyer, hardly the stuff of which countercultural radicals are made or of which alternative economic systems, political systems, and cultural systems are made. The vast majority of members and the vast majority of elites seem to inhabit an ideological mental world in which a corporate structure with a putatively liberal heart is the unquestioned best of all possible worlds and majority rule not consensus is at the heart of political “deliberation”. Most of the members of the Board exhibit a typical human ethnocentrism, in this case a manichean us, we who do things differently at the "coop" and we superior professionals, versus them, those inferior non-liberal non-"coops" and those non-professionals with a penchant for vengeful behaviour.
The Corporation's elite, of course, control all communications at the "Co-op". External communications are controlled by a Communications bureaucrat. Needless to say, external communications, just as they are at most modern corporations and in most modern governments, are filtered by the communications apparatus of the Corporation. You see, in other words, what they want you to see. Most of this discourse, of course, is of a public relations, spin, or propaganda nature. The communications apparatus of the "Co-op" also controls what you see on their internal email site and on its Facebook site. Communications, even informative communications, that don't have the seal of elite approval either do not appear on such sites or they disappear into a black hole never to be seen again. I give you corporate censorship.
There are, as I noted, contradictions at the heart of this so called corporate liberalism. The "Co-op" claims to be “democratic” in its propaganda but it is run by an elite who are sometimes unaccountable to the “membership” that elects it and is more in ideological and political line with the wishes of the LT (“the professionals”). I give you a variation on the labour theory of aristocracy, the elite as part of a political and ideological aristocracy. I have personally heard elites claim to be life long pro-union folk at the same time that they were writing and distributing anti-union broadsides to the staff via email. I have seen "Co-op" elites put out digital mailings praising Earth Day at the same time that that the Corporation ups its carbon footprint by stocking butter from Ireland, fruit from Mexico, and cheeses from Europe. I give you irony, inconsistency (some might call it hypocrisy), profit margins, and banality.
Conclusion: Honest Weight looks a lot like the US. It is a semi-democratic oligarchic republic.
Demography: On the basis of my observations I have concluded that most of those who shop at Honest Weight are urban, White, and professional. In terms of age, some shoppers are elderly, many if not most are middle aged, some seem to be in there twenties and thirties. Beyond Whites, there are a smattering of people of colour who shop at the "Co-op" and who are members of Honest Weight. Interestingly, the Corporation is located in what is today a largely minority neighbourhood. Once upon a time it was a working class neighbourhood.
As I mentioned earlier there are a smattering of countercultural bourgeoisie young and old, like myself, who are members of the "Co-op" or who shop at Honest Weight and who, in some cases, seek to return of the Corporation to its more worker cooperative roots (sectarianism). Many of these counterculture types have been members of Honest Weight almost since the beginning. Others were members of other co-ops in the sixties or seventies. Others are on a mission to make the corporate bureaucratic world more humane and more geared to human life in general than to 1% of human life. The divide between the more mainstream and the more countercultural fractions of the "Co-op" and the different cultures each are imbedded within are why there is currently a culture war at the Corporation.
Now back to a personal experience I had which foregrounds, I think, how banality works at the Honest Weight Food Corporation and, by extension, at other bureaucratic entities, political, economic, and cultural, in the US and in the modern Western world. After much prompting from several members I decided to run for one of the open seats on the Board this April. I knew that there would be vigourous opposition to my candidacy among the elites given how forthright I have been about the Corporation in my numerous blog posts and given the fact that I, unlike the Corporations elite, don’t uncritically and unreflectively fetishise republican and corporate structures and governance. I also knew that they would find some way, any way, regardless of how banal and Machiavellian it was, to keep me off the ballot. But I went ahead with the experiment anyway, an experiment whose outcome I honestly found amusing and entertaining if a bit coldly frightening.
As I noted in an earlier blog I was given to understand that the application deadline for Board applications had been extended a few days from the original deadline of 27 March. I also explained how, in an earlier blog, that I was confronted by two (rogue?) Board members who told me that my application was late so it was not possible for me to run for the Board. I noted that these two Board members backed away from their initial ruling that I could not run for the Board and decided to take the question of whether I could run for the Board to the full Board on Tuesday, 7 April. While I have not been officially informed of the Board’s decision by letter as I requested, I have heard rumours through the grapevine that my application has been denied but not for the reason I was initially given. Now, I am told, my application is being denied because I was not a corporate shareholder as of the 27th or 28th of March. That this ruling ignores the fact that I had not cashed the refund cheque I received on the 30th of March and which made me, as far as I am concerned and as far, I suspect, as the law is concerned, a member, and that a Board member told me via email that to run I had to have my membership in order by 31 March, something I did, do not seem to have been factors in the Board’s decision. Needless to say I am shocked, shocked, that some of the Corpop's elites have resorted to such petty, pharisaical, and, of course, banal means to keep me off the ballot. I should have known that corporate types can postmodernise with the best of them. Still it is nice to know that this 60 year old (no making peace with a messed up world for a sofa or a girl for me) is still critical enough to scare the hell out of a bunch of Homo Bourgeois Bureaucraticus types. I was, by the way, not surprised by any of this. Honest Weight is a rather typical example of an American bureaucracy with its healthy dose of a kindler gentler banality and its elite paragons, practitioners of a kindler and gentler banality. Honest Weight, in other words, is not exceptional.
Banality in corporate bureaucratic America, of course, hides behind a curtain or veil of bureaucratic “objectivity”, a bureaucratic “objectivity” that social theorist Michel Foucault and others before him and since have clearly shown is a curtain or veil that covers up, particularly for the uncritical and unreflective, the real empirical operations of bourgeois ideology and the uses and abuses of bourgeois power. Honest Weight is no different.
In this blog and virtually all of my other blogs on this site in general I have, by the way, written as a “professional” intellectual and academic who gathers empirical evidence and then interprets it through the theoretical filters of those factors that always have be and are at the heart of human life, economics, politics, culture, geography, and demography. That anyone would or could get emotionally uptight about such empirical research and its conclusions--my posts have apparently caused emotional traumas among some of the Corpop’s elite--is fascinating if not surprising. Most humans, after all, are governed by ideologically constructed emotions rather than rationality and which are tightly linked to ideologically constructed notions of identity and community and as such can be touchy subjects for some. Given this let me apologise for any emotional traumas my empirical research and analysis has caused anyone at the "Co-op".
None of the above, by the way, means that I can't play my role of cashier at the Corpop (on historically situated social and cultural roles we play in everyday life see Erving Goffman). My job at the Corporation is a job much like any other job I have had or likely will have. I try to do my Corpop job to the best of my abilities just as I would any other job I have or might have. Long ago I learned that living and working in the US is not the best of all possible worlds but it is the hand we have been dealt. What we have been dealt, as critical and reflective thinkers understand, are not the products of god or nature. They are the social and cultural constructions of humans, particularly elite humans, the 1%, who have created worlds largely for their own benefit. The worlds the elite have created do not and never have gone unchallenged. Whether those of us on the outside looking critically in can change these manufactured worlds that benefit the elite is another matter and another issue for debate.
Finally, let me close by noting that I don't think I will be running for the Board in the future. I will likely be moving back to Texas sometime in 2017 so I may not be able to serve a three year term and, even more importantly, I don't want to chance losing my dispassionate analytical skills by becoming too emotionally involved in Corporation economics, politics, and culture. More than anything else in my life it is my dispassionalte ability to see through ideological rot, to paraphrase the Oxbridge don or whoever it was that uttered this proverb, that I most treasure.
A member of the "Coop" emailed Board Administrator Vicky Saraceni a question about my Board candidacy. Here is that members question:
I understood that Ron Helfrich also submitted an application to run for one of the vacant HWFC Board seats. What became of his application?
Vicky, in turn, passed the question on to the president of the Board William Frye, yes the same (rogue?) Board member who along with Roman Kuchera tried to bully me in one the the backrooms of the fortress of power at the Corporation on 31 March. Here is his 11 April response to the member:
The Board of the Co-op. decided on Tuesday night that Mr. Hilfrich [sic] was not qualified to run for a vacant Board position because he was not a shareholder when he first applied and his subsequent application was not timely.
On 13 April, two days later, and almost a week after the Board's decision, I received the following communique from Frye:
Dear Mr. Helfrich:
Tuesday night, 9 [sic: actually 7 April] April, 2015, the Board of the Honest Weight Food Cooperative, Inc. decided that your application to become a candidate for the Board in the upcoming election is denied due to the fact that you were not eligible to run on the date you filed your application.
If you are a member in good standing, you are free, of course, to run next year.
Interestingly I was not invited by Board president Frye or Board member Kuchera, the two Board members who confronted me about my application on the 31st of March, to the Board meeting to decide my Board application fate. Honourable men would have invited me to the Board meeting. The fact that they didn't invite me to present the facts in this case speaks volumes about them and about the nature of governance at Honest Weight. These are clearly not honourable men. None of this, by the way, was or is a surprise to me. Bureaucrats pumped up on steroids of power are all too predictable.
Now the moral of this tale: I am being punished for the inability of Board members to get on the same page. I was informed by two Board members that the deadline for Board applications had been extended and that I had to have my membership in order by the 31st of March. Not being allowed to run for the Board by the Board is, I guess, Honest Weight's version of blame the victim. But that, of course, is not what is really going on here. What is really going on, as two members I showed an earlier blog on this subject to noted, there are powerful elites at Honest Weight who do not want you, me, on the ballot. Perhaps, in other words, I really am a victim, a victim of bureaucratic banality. Still it is flattering to know that I can still scare a bunch of corporate mentality types into using the flimsiest of excuses to keep me off a ballot. It is nice to know that I haven't followed in the footsteps of the protagonists of the Clash's "Death or Glory".