Saturday, January 14, 2017
Ever since agricultural societies arose in the river valleys of Mesopotamia, the Indian subcontinent, and China, inequality has been a human universal. Inequality has even been characteristic of institutions that were once reactions to, at least in part, the inequalities present in modern societies like the cooperative food movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Once upon a time the vast majority 1960s and 1970s food coops were worker owned and controlled--only members could shop in them and only those who worked could be members--and were operated on the basis of cooperative decision making. Over time, however, and for a variety of economic, political, and cultural reasons, most of these coops expanded membership to include those who did not work and opened their doors to non-members. As a result cooperatives ceased to be cooperative, not to mention purveyors of healthy food, and became, to use that contemporary catchphrase of the national cooperative movement, consumer cooperatives.
At Honest Weight, for instance, one of those coops that began as a reaction to bureaucratised America, power today is centred in an elected Board and an elected judiciary, the GRC. As Honest Weight morphed from a small cooperative food buying club to a mass supermarket, a mass supermarket, by the way, which looks figuratively and literally just like any food corporation in the US, Honest Weight corporatised and hierarchicalised. Today hierarchical political and judicial structures of Honest Weight are central to the functioning of Honest Weight just as Weber noted they inevitably would be some one hundred years ago. Needless to say as the Board and GRC grew in power and authority so have the by-laws, the law code of Honest Weight which, like all law codes are a reflection of the ideology of the powers that be, just as Weber and Structural-Functionalist theorists said they must many years ago.
It has been fascinating to observe how the hierarchicalisation of power and differential access to economic, political, and cultural goods have been playing out at Honest Weight recently. Recently the Board, the legislative and executive structure at Honest Weight, decided to change the by-laws, the law code of Honest Weight, to limit working staff members of the corporation to only two seats on the nine member Board. The Board members who voted for this--I am told all but two voted for the change--are using the fear of a caricatured and stereotyped other, specifically the fear that staff members would rise up, take over the Board, and institute a workers coop "paradise" in the process, to justify and legitimise their action, an action which has created a two-tiered member worker hierarchy in which some, non-staff members, have greater access to power, Board seats, and the "goods" of Honest Weight, than others, staff members. The Board has created, in other words, an apartheid member structure of haves, themselves, and caricatured and stereotyped have nots, the member working staff of Honest Weight.
On a personal note if I hadn't already cashed in my $100 dollar membership chips at Honest Weight I would do so given the actions of the current Board. The current Board, by creating a system of member haves and staff member have nots, have told staff, of which I am one, exactly what they think of us. They have told staff that they think that staff members cannot be trusted with the governance of Honest Weight and they have told staff that they think that staff members cannot make "professional" decisions about the economics of Honest Weight. Can you say nasty caricatures and stereotypes? Well I can.
On a related note I don't want to give the impression in this short blog that old style worker coops are a thing of the past. Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, for instance, is one of the last of dying breed, a traditional coop in which only members who work can shop at Park Slope. Additionally, elements of the old worker coops remain present in coops that have become consumer coops. At Honest Weight Food Coop in Albany, New York, for instance, only working members can vote, a reflection of the fact that in most countercultural coops of the late 1960s and 1970s worker control was the name of the game. Today, however, Park Slope is the exception to the general rule that coops since the 1970s have morphed into a mirror image of mainstream American and global corporations. Honest Weight, likewise, proves the general Weberian rule, namely that charismatic authority invariably declines in modern societies where modern mass means to end bureaucracies have become so central that alternative forms of organisation cannot even be imagined.
Almost forgot to mention this little nugget, another thing the current Board at Honest Weight Corporation appears to be engaged in is an attempt to disenfranchise staff members. This seems to be why the Board is contemplating making staff members work an additional three hours on top of the staff hours they already work. This strategy, like the others the Board appears to be using, of course, comes right out of the Lee Atwater guidebook on how to manipulate suckers and maintain power in the process school of political action.