What Happened to Worker Co-op Federalism?

19th century American worker co-ops practiced co-operative federalism – they put portions of their surplus towards creating new co-operatives, and they belonged to federations that participated in creating and managing new co-op firms.

“In 1885, the Solidarity Watch-Case Co-operative, was organized in Brooklyn, New York, by the Knights of Labor (KOL) after a strike against the Brooklyn Watch Company for a shorter work week.  It became a thriving business, growing from eight to a hundred and ten workers, and was the first in the industry to give themselves a paid half-holiday on Saturday.  The members were part of a group called the Solidarity Co-operative Association, run by a committee appointed by KOL District Assembly 49 (Manhattan and Brooklyn).  This umbrella association raised funds to start new cooperatives and participated in their management.”

This breaks the mould of consumer=cooperative federalism and producer cooperation=cooperative individualism, which was believed as absolute truth by many members of the CWS/Co-operative Union movement in the UK, as well as by early CLUSA leaders.

Today, however, I’m struggling to find examples of cooperative federalism amongst producer or worker co-operatives outside the Mondragon system. Everyone I meet doing cooperative development is seeking grant funding, or government funding. And every worker co-op I learn about is a paradigm of cooperative individualism. Some of the only coops I’ve been able to find that are strongly committed to federalism are some of the large student housing co-ops, specifically the investing members of NASCO Development Services.


I feel like it’s all falling apart.

I mean this both as a diagnosis of the social moment, and as a description of my private life.

In my private life, which is to say in my personal relationships, multiple things have happened over the last year, the last month, the last few days, which have revealed to me two things: just how brittle any apparent community consensus really is, and to what extent the majority of folks’ political views are grounded more in antagonism and opposition to some big other (i.e. “US Imperialism”), rather than in a cross-contextual commitment to a set of values and principles. I’m amazed at just how many “left wing” folks are ready to equivocate between Trump and the existing American elite. I’m also amazed at how my Facebook wall remains full of posts about refugees that appear to be set in 2003 (meaning, they take the US invasion of Iraq as the contemporary crime to be opposed). I’m stunned at an old friend’s flirtation with the alt-right, to the point where she wouldn’t deny being a Trump supporter. I’m floored by my inability to have real conversations with people I disagree with, that don’t break down into metaphysical-like opposition, and I have to mobilize huge amounts of emphasis on human relations to avoid fracturing (I think this is what Victor Turner referred to as “anti-structure). Unfortunately, there isn’t always enough anti-structure to go around.

In my observation of the political environment, political issues in general appear more and more to have this fracturing character. The election, that goes without saying. But other things too – Syria, the Jordan Peterson controversy. It’s starting to seem like the normal paradigm for discursive politics is one of characterizing any substantial critique of your position as symptomatic of a person being subhuman. Peterson in theory is against this (and his lectures on authoritarianism I believe remain relevant and helpful), and yet in his public life he practices precisely what he denounces: standing as a sort of prophet of the apocalypse, he is unable to heed any criticism of himself, and dismisses those who oppose him with a logic eerily similar to anti semitism (this secret kabal of neo-marxists, as a subconscious collectivity are conspiring to take over the university and the country).

On the topic of Syria, the levels of abandonment are just appalling. This week has brought a series of major breakthroughs for the regime in Aleppo. This is, many are saying, really the end to the Revolution. And I don’t mean to say no one cares – there is tons of mainstream media coverage. But in terms of my Facebook feed, only the usual suspects continue to post about Syria. I haven’t seen a single person who doesn’t regularly post about Syria post anything this week about the increasingly genocidal situation in Aleppo. Actually that’s not true, one person did today, sharing a post I had made about the Canadian government’s attempt to get a UN General Assembly Resolution through to call for a stop to the slaughter and aid to the residents of East (Rebel-held) Aleppo. A topic which, by the way, I have not heard discussed by anyone, despite its obvious relevance for Canadians. For the most part, what I continue to see are a kind of de-contextualized leftist fetishism – posts about Castro, posts about how if white people didn’t want to deal with immigrants they shouldn’t have colonized the globe.

Some folks have argued that the concept of “virtue signalling” is itself virtue signalling, but I don’t think that’s true. Actually what this comes down to is the question: is it possible to act authentically, or is all action a priori a kind of performance constructed for an audience. Or, in other words, is it relevant whether one’s performance is self-consciously a performance, is there any difference between conscious and non-conscious forms of manipulation? I would say that there is, and anyone who says there isn’t is lying because you can’t deal with people in every day life without assuming they are being genuine with you – and when you realize someone is being manipulative, it totally changes the way you deal with them. This means Butler is wrong about performativity, and that people like Goffman and Turner have a much better understanding of it. Which is to say, an understanding of performativity that understands “performance” as one mode of human behaviour amongst others, rather than the character of human action as such.

Is there a link between the left’s adoption of Butler’s theory of performativity over the dramaturgical tradition and the current atmosphere of the acceleration of social fracture? Perhaps if we add to this its stepchild on the right – the post-truth. Or, “truthiness” – Colbert has argued that post-truth is a rip off of his earlier concept, and I think it’s pretty clear that he’s right. This is also a practical implementation of the post-structuralist insight that there is no limit to the number of ways you can interpret a text, although I think fewer on the right have actually read Derrida. Except, on the right, it isn’t that authenticity doesn’t matter (i.e. no distinction between performativity and genuine utterances), but rather that it’s all that matters, a kind of back to late 18th century France emphasis on the genuineness of aesthetic feeling (quick: someone tell the Trump supporters that their aesthetic epistemology set off the French Revolution). But it amounts to the same thing: instead of virtue signalling that depends on the absence of hypocricy, you have the direct appeal to gut feeling, which is allowed to be hypocritical (see: the election of Trump despite his constant exposure as a hypocrite). In both cases there is no room for third parties to critique the relationship between word and object: in the first case because the word links primarily to a holistic, non-contradictory system of articulated beliefs, and in the second because the word links primarily to an aesthetic capacity for judgement which, because it exists in a world of contradictions, can’t be held accountable for making mistakes.

Of course, all these fracturings, there is a social-science tendency in me to want to be able to read them as symptomatic of underlying processes, an example of which I have just put forward. But at the same time, the articulation of those processes in discourse re-inforces, more often than not, versions of those same fracturings. A vicious cycle between normativity and knowledge increases the difficulty of articulating the problems which need to be worked on. The caricaturizing of the description of problems as the problem turns solutions into problems, and poses as solutions remedies which themselves propagate problems.

I want to continue to believe in the power of language to comprehend complex processes taking place in social and political life. And, I want to continue to believe in the common humanity of my brethren as their ability to undertake such a comprehensive project together, both discursively and in practical engagement on levels like community building, collective discussion and political organizing. But it is become increasingly difficult to hold this belief. I’m feeling the need to restrict this level of activity to increasingly tight circles of friends – in essence, to people who stand on the same side as me on a whole set of these fragmented political issues, as well as on the same side as me in terms of the attitude towards fragmentation as such (which is itself a divisive position). This feels like a defensive step. A step in the direction of preservation rather than enhancement. A step on the trail of conservatism, rather than boldly pursuing social progress. A step to the right?

Letter to a friend about Syria

Hi Friend, It was really good to see you and your family yesterday. I hope we can hang out again soon. I am writing this letter because I feel the need to say something in response to this notion of “complexity” that you used in one of our conversations to characterize the situation in Syria.

Of course the situation in Syria is complex. All situations are complex. In fact, I’d say complexity is very much in the eye of the beholder. At one level, there are many different factions in the opposition, many different interests funding many different actors, etc. And by the way, exactly the same thing can been said about the 2nd intifada in Palestine: how were the various rebel groups funded? Well, it’s complicated – Hamas was probably being funded by Qatar and other Gulf states, as well as non-state actors in the Gulf. Fatah was being funded through Iran and Syria and Lebanon, including various state and non-state actors. And, Fatah had captured a lot of American weapons in the early days of the uprising, specifically in the north I know an entire armoury of PA weapons were captured by the resistance, under the orders of the main PA security commander in the area. Just as American weapons are now being used by many different actors in Syria, American weapons and American trained fighters fought on both sides of the 2nd intifada.

At another level, there is a single aggressor – a state power which refused reforms to respond to a popular revolution for dignity, which has decided there is no limit to the amount of force it is willing to use against its own population force them into submission. This decision is one dictators are sometimes forced to make – when the Iranian revolution began, the Shah made a principled choice to limit the amount of violence to be used against his own people, and decided to flea instead. Assad has made the opposite choice – to encourage the militarization of the opposition (through such things as releasing Islamist prisoners in droves, encouraging the worst elements of the opposition, and then calling anyone who opposes his rule “terrorists”) – and then to seek a unilateral military solution to the conflict. He is committing major war crimes daily, and with Iranian and Russian direct military support. At this point, the Syrian army is largely staffed by non-Syrian officers, simply because his original army has been so depleted. There are also many whole unites of Iranian and Russian forces operating in Syria. If not for Iranian and Russian support, his state terrorist army would have collapsed long ago.

So what is happening right now in Aleppo is not complicated, in my view. There are many sides, but the main criminal side is the Assad/Russian/Iranian aggressor attempting to re-take the city. Assad refuses a political settlement because he believes he can still pursue absolute military victory. More aid to the opposition, if it were to tip the balance away from the possibility of absolute victory for Assad, is the only thing that would force him to the negotiating table. That is why I believe, at this point, that it would be effectively right, and an anti-war, anti-war crime action to push for Canada to send military aircraft and anti-aircraft weapons to defend against Russian/Iranian/Assadist air strikes on Aleppo. In fact, we don’t even need to do this – because all that has to happen is for Obama to give the green light to the Gulf states to ship effective anti-aircraft weapons to the opposition in Syria. Yes, this will mean that bad people get ahold of powerful weapons, but it is also the only thing, short of western military intervention, that can stop the assault on Aleppo.

In the future we will look back at this moment and compare it to other great destructions of popular uprisings by fascist powers. The Warsaw uprising, where the Polish people independently stood up against the Nazis and were abandoned by Stalin and left to be destroyed by the fascists while the red army waited on the other side of the Volga, is an obvious comparison which people are not making today, but I believe they will make in the future.

I think that a lot of activism is “stupid” in the specific sense that it is reactionary – it allows itself to be overly determined by the thing it is opposing. Right now, the Iraq war remains the paradigmatic event through which leftists interpret how to oppose bad things – but, firstly, I think the left has an irresponsibly simplistic interpretation of what actually happened in the Iraq war, and secondly, the situation in Syria is really not very similar to the Iraq war (although parts of it are a product of that war – specifically the Islamist component – the fighters who formed ISIS are very much people who were created by the American occupation of Iraq and Assad’s sponsoring of the insurgency which included allowing Islamists from Afghanistan to come to Syria and cross into Iraq across the Syrian border). I think that when wars are happening, it’s irresponsible to be “anti war” in the sense of refusing to think about the situation militarily. I think a lot of people like to take simplistic anti-war and anti-militarism positions because it allows them to believe that they are a good person because they don’t even want to know about what the different weapons and actors in play are, what their interests are, what their loyalties are, etc. We want to say that anyone who ships weapons at all is evil, and the universal response to war is just to oppose weaponization. We forget that there would be no Russian revolution without German imperial support (including arms), no American revolution without French military support, no end to Apartheid in South Africa without Cuban military support, no end to the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon without Iranian and Syrian military support to Hezbollah, or end to the occupation of the Sinai without Soviet military support, and the list goes on.

When leftists oppose military intervention and support as such, they conveniently ignore that virtually every leftist victory was conditional on some form of external support. When we tell revolting Syrians that they can’t accept weapons from Gulfies, or from the United States, or else we consider them pawns in “proxy wars”, we are holding them to a higher standard than we ever hold any historical actors to. This is not to say that Syrian opposition are all good people – that definitely not true. By the way, it also wasn’t true of the fighters in the Warsaw Uprising – many of them were chauvinistic nationalists who harboured anti-semitic tendencies. But they were fighting against fascist occupation. Assad’s position in Syria today has been argued by many Syrians to be equivalent to a kind of “occupation”, and also that his practices and beliefs are fascist. If Assad wins in Syria, if absolute domination of the regime is achieved by military force, the regime which will exist in Syria will make Belarus and North Korea look like liberal democracies.


Tristan Laing

On the terminology of “non profits”

Why do we call charities “non profit companies”? The idea of “non profit” seems to imply that the surplus would be shared out towards some socially desirable end. This is, I believe, a general site of confusion for anti-capitalists: there is nothing inherently capitalist about the notion of an economic surplus. Under capitalism, the surplus is controlled by the owners. But in a worker co-op, for example, the surplus is controlled and allocated by the workers. In a non profit company that is actually a company, the surplus would be allocated by the CEO according to principles established by the board. In any form of socially-controlled capital, there will be some social-control over the allotment of the surplus.


But if an organization depends on grants, or on charity, then there is no “surplus”. A surplus is created through economic activity. Non-profits which receive grants are not companies at all, they are much more like government departments. Except, instead of being accountable to the government, they are accountable to their funders. And fundamentally, what is the relation between an elected government and a government department other than a ‘funder’ relationship? Ok, they get to appoint the leader. You think foundations can’t pressure NGOs to remove a leader they don’t like? I suspect they can…

The more I learn about it, the more I feel all the “non profit” sector which is grants based does anyway is take power away from the state and put it in the hands of “grant foundations” which are controlled by the rich. It’s like the rich have learned how to create their own private para-states which they control much more directly (and “locally”).

Oh, and it does one other thing. It keeps a huge number of people who genuinely care about the improvement of society employed as “grant writers”. A job which benefits society exactly as much as the people who create advertising campaigns. And, in a sense, it is actually the same job.

Campus Co-op’s Legacy

Campus Co-op Residence Inc. was formed by four University of Toronto students who, after seeing Toyohiko Kagama speak at a conference in Indianapolis during the 1935 Christmas break, returned to Toronto determined to start a co-operative of their own. Our first house at 63 St George was leased for a nominal fee from Victoria College starting in October 1936 and was strictly male-only. The co-op was entirely member-run, with all operations managed by students – including our first student general manager, Arthur Dayfoot. General meetings were a monthly occurrence, and kitchen and house committees dealt with all maintenance, food, and house issues, and members were expected to contribute 5 hours of volunteer labour to the co-operative every week. There was also an element of class consciousness to the early day’s of CCRI – the U of T residential colleges were much more expensive, and populated by the children of the elite, and there was a quiet but firm expectation that if a student could afford to live in one of the colleges they would not move into CCRI.


CCRI expanded rapidly throughout the 1940s and 50s by leasing many new properties. Leasing properties were seen as unstable, however, as we lost and gained new leased properties on an almost yearly basis. A semblance of continuity was maintained by giving new houses the names of houses we had lost. Some houses were purchased, but it was difficult to balance the desire for cheap rents with the need to build capital to purchase properties. We did purchase some houses in this period which we still own, however, including 95 Willcocks (1950), 582 Spadina (1956), and 596 Spadina (1958).


In the 1950s CCRI began its first experiment with hired staff – a “Summer Manager” position, which in 1961 became the position of General Manager when then-Summer Manager Howard Adelman convinced the board to hire him on full time. Adelman spearheaded a campaign for growth within the co-op, buying 14 new houses between 1961 and ‘64. This required raising the rents, which provoked resistance from the membership, but in the end Howard won the day and at a general meeting in 1962 the members voted for a substantial fee increase to make possible the purchase of more new houses. The houses purchased included all of North Division, the former Sussex Division, and in ‘67 Annex Division began to emerge with the purchase of 120 Madison and 614 Huron. The liberal 60’s also saw the decline of gender-segregated housing at CCRI. Also, in 1968, Campus Co-op was a founding member of the North American Students for Co-operation (NASCO), a North-American wide network for the advancement of student housing co-operatives and the student co-operative movement.


The now infamous Rochdale College was originally CCRI’s plan to build a modern student residence. However, CCRI’s original vision for Rochdale was precluded when the land we had purchased was zoned high density, turning our modest notion of 4 story residence to an unwieldy 18 story tower block. Also, disagreements emerged over whether the residence would be operated as an educational college, and this led to CCRI separating itself from the Rochdale project, and Howard Adelman leaving Campus Co-op.


The failure of Rochdale College cast a shadow over the student co-operative movement, which may have contributed to the beginnings of a material and social decline in CCRI during the 1970s. We suffered problems such as member apathy, inadequate maintenance and legal problems from the City. Worse, a decline in applications led us to eliminate the previously stringent member selection process, and even drop the requirement to be a student to live in CCRI during the school year (this condition would not be renewed until the 90s). There was even a proposal at the April 1974 General Members Meeting to dissolve the co-op entirely. Maybe it was the organizational nightmare that Adelman’s expansion had caused – the now larger co-op lost the cohesive unity of the previously smaller member-run organization with its monthly general meetings. Or maybe it was that the early 60s ethic of building a better tomorrow had fallen way to the late 60s “let’s get high and burn shit”, and the Co-op was paying the price. Either way, the greatest success story of CCRI is that despite hard times, we continued to survive.  


The 1980s saw the first major co-op wide renovation project. Partly funded by grants, these upgrades were done by paid staff, whereas previously house maintenance was mostly left to regular members. Between 1976 and 83 we operated a successful hostelling operation which raised significant funds for the Co-op, and was ended only due to legal issues with the city. Like the Toronto Heritage Residences program we operate today, it showed that CCRI can utilize its assets creatively and for the benefit of all its members.


In the early 1990s CCRI began to take on the form we know it by today. Financial matters were centralized to the office at 395 Huron (previously, rents had been collected at the division level, and often weren’t). The vacancy rate in Toronto was very low and we took the opportunity to evict our non-student year round residents, who made up about 20% of our membership at the time. However, this was also period of some financial recklessness – the rising property values of our houses allowed us to borrow funds at a dangerous rate, costs ballooned and CCRI ran deficients year after year.


In 2004 CCRI adopted “Restructuring” which continued the centralization of our governance structure. Division councils were stripped of their budgets, and the Division Chore member work requirement was centralized and became “Co-op Hours”. We distanced ourselves from NASCO, an organization we had been part of since the 1960s, and focussed instead on building connections between the Ontario student housing co-ops. In 2012 CCRI began hiring “House Managers”, who serve as member-staff in each of our houses. These new hired positions replaced the previously elected “House Representatives”, which meant the formal end of the Division Councils. In 2013 we renewed some ties with NASCO by beginning to send members to their yearly “Institute” conference in Ann Arbour Michigan.


In early CCRI we hired Wayne Brandt, our current General Manager. Since then we have seen an upsurge in summer revenue thanks to his Toronto Heritage Residence initiative. We have also embarked on a significant energy-savings plan which will make Campus Co-op better off both in terms of our energy costs as well as our carbon footprint. Our largest challenge for the future, however, is a project to undergo significant repairs to all of our century-old houses. By accessing grants and maximizing summer revenue, we hope to have upgraded all of our houses by 2020.


CCRI’s legacy fundamentally pivots around the positives and negatives of Howard Adleman’s expansion of the Co-op in the 1960s. On the one hand, he drove the expansion drive that led us to own 24 houses in downtown Toronto, making up the material basis of our organization. On the other hand, since that expansion we have struggled to maintain the democratic character of the co-op, slowly transitioning to an increasingly centralized organization where the average member has over time been less and less involved in communal work and communal decision making.

Market Based Approaches to Community Development

In my first paper I defined CD as processes that lead to an increase in social capital as well as an increase in equitable access to social capital across a place based community. I would modify this by including the possibility that this same kind of equitable increase in social capital can occur across a community of interest. This is because people from different communities can come into interaction with each other, usually but perhaps not always at a physical place, specifically because of their goals or interests. However I would maintain the condition that in order to count community of interest activity as CD the activity would need to lead both to an overall increase in social capital for the community as well as increase the equitable access to that social capital amongst community actors, i.e. by creating new personal connections with previously marginalized members of that community. This does constitute a significant change from my original hard-line commitment to place-based CD, because I want to recognize that when communities of interest come into interaction their shared values and goals can create a generic openness and a facility towards trust. However this also introduces a new danger for communities, because as the specific goals or shared values help create the baseline trust which facilitates CD, the character of those goals/shared values are in a real sense at the base of that community – the community in some sense rests, or relies on them. Therefore, conflict over the values or goals can put communities of interest into a danger scenario of a possible downward spiral of fracturing – where the decline in social capital can itself be the cause of further decline in social capital.

I would also modify my definition of CD to include the possibility of considering organizations as actors. For instance, 2nd order co-ops, or service organizations, can themselves be thought of as members of a larger community, which can itself come together in a place or around an interest, to solve problems in such a way that there is an overall increase in social capital and also that previously marginalized organizations might specifically gain more access to social capital from other organizations. An example of this would be the Ontario Student Co-op Association, of which I am president. Ideally we would like to see the different Ontario student housing co-ops talking to each other more, sharing more of their knowledge. Unfortunately the challenge is it is extremely difficult to get inward-looking organizations to participate if they don’t see an immediate reward, and the general tendency is only to build connections between the co-ops which were already the most connected anyway. To meet my definition for CD I will need to succeed in reaching out to the more inward looking co-ops and get them involved in the conversations.

I basically disagree with placing the main division between the role of Government in CD, and market-based models of CD. This is because I think that foundations put the same kinds of constraints on CD initiatives as Government funding does. In both cases, the organization engaged in CD must re-orient its primary accountability away from the community it is trying to develop and towards its funders. I see the historical process of local, charity/volunteer based organizations scaling up and professionalizing and coming under control of foundations, or by being adopted into the state’s welfare system, or by being outsourced by the state to non-profits which are primarily accountable to the state or foundations for funding, as all processes which have basically the same kind of effect: creating or facilitating the persistence of disempowered communities. When needs are not met locally, local connections suffer, and social capital tends to fall.

I would prefer to make a distinction between CD initiatives that rely primarily on grant or grant-style funding, i.e. from Government or Foundations, and CD initiatives that rely on the resources that come from the communities that they serve. Market based models allow CD initiatives to escape the pressures put on them by funders. If there is still some reliance on funders, having the majority of an organizations’ funding coming from its own business activities means it can not be pressured as much by funders. Accountability to the market has some advantages over accountability to funders – you have to provide services that people around you actually want. Unlike funders, customers are locals who you have real tangible and ongoing connections with. When organizations rely on and are accountable to the community that they serve and are in, face to face connections between people are built, and connections are constantly created whose value exceeds the monetary value exchanged. For example, it would be a mistake to value a job only in terms of the money it pays, and the surplus it creates for the employer. We should also think of the psychological toll or benefit to the worker of spending so much of their energy doing work they believe in or don’t. When work is carried out in such a way that the worker can see their personal good as in harmony with the collective good, that work contributes to the building of community in the same way that an exploitative labour relation erodes social trust between owners and workers. When an organization is primarily accountable to a funding agency, there is a tendency towards staff professionalization and neoliberal management practices. Organizations which are independent of state and foundation funding may also choose to adopt these practices, but since their primary accountability is to the community they can also choose to organize themselves in a way that values their impact on the community in a holistic manner.

In my view, most social enterprises, and some of what would just generally be referred to as the market economy, can count as CD initiatives. However, the introduction of market accountability creates its own host of pitfalls which can prevent a socially conscious enterprise from contributing to the development of community. Urbane cyclist worker co-op is an exciting example of a successful worker-owned co-op and the fact that it continues to exist is itself something to be celebrated and seen as proof that it is possible even in current market conditions for workers to successfully manage a profitable business while being organized democratically and paying a living wage. However, Urbane cyclist also demonstrates some weaknesses of worker co-ops which hint at why the model has not become more prevalent in Canada: they don’t seem to have a model for growing their (worker) membership, and they are caught in a two-tier worker system which seems common to many worker co-ops. Worker members have access to full time, year round employment, whereas non-member workers are hired seasonally and do not have the same job security. This relation of economic privilege mirrors a power relation between members and non-members that is ultimately reminiscent of the division in an average business between employer and employee. Perhaps this could be overcome if Urbane adopted governance structure which allows the interests of the different groups to be represented – member owners, non-owner members, and perhaps even customers as well.

I don’t see Alterna savings’ micro loans program as a community development initiative because the loans are only big enough to start single owner small businesses. However, they can be seen as contributing to CD because as helping folks who couldn’t normally access loans access to capital with which to start even partial self-employment they might become less reliant on the discriminatory and exploitative labour market, making them potentially able to participate more fully in their community. I would encourage Alterna to continue to push for larger “micro loans”, and to partner with co-op development agencies so they could capitalize and give business support to larger organizations.

The overall criteria for a market based approach to fit my understanding of CD is that the organization’s market involvement should be harmonious with the relations of accountability to the community which it is developing. This means different things in different cases: with the Furniture Bank for example it is not an issue that the client of the bank could not necessarily afford the furniture removal service. But in other cases financial accessibility to the community being developed might be very important. For example if an Urbane Cyclist, or a Planet Bean were to open in a neighbourhood undergoing a process of gentrification, they could contribute to that process depending on their price points. It’s crucial for an organization seeking to develop community not to develop one community at the expense of another.

It’s difficult for me to see community development initiatives in terms of either the technical assistance or the self-help model, because I envision them as forms of community self-organization. However, insofar as they are useful, I think the distinction between the self-help and technical assistance model should be seen as a continuum: if a community has so little social capital that it isn’t already organizing to deal with problems it is facing, then neutral facilitation might be helpful. But, as soon as the problem is identified and the community begins to orient itself towards the problem (mobilizing its own resources), the main thing it needs is technical assistance. For example, Co-operative development work certainly fits more within the technical assistance model than the self-help approach. However, even at this stage it would likely be useful to have people in the community, or a facilitator, to continue to ask whether there are groups in the community who are not being reached out to and who should be. What both of these approaches ignores, however, is the problem of leadership – how do unifying leaders emerge in the context of a community development project? While it is fashionable today to play down the importance of leadership, charismatic characters are often crucial to the carrying through of projects, as well as for the building of consensus around them.

Community De-Development

In my first assignment I defined community development as the process by which “an increase in generalized reciprocity erodes the barriers that prevent the flow of social capital between social fields, corroding barriers to access to social capital across a locality”. After considering the role of the Canadian State in the provision of humanistic services, specifically health care and housing, I would add to this that for community to develop in the context of service provisions, those services must be provided out of the communities own resources, or at minimum out of resources which the community has stable access to. I have come to this view through the recognition that state involvement in in the nonprofit sector looks more often like a form of community de-development. For government to play a positive role in community development today it must remain keenly aware of the way its involvement impacts community’s abilities to self-develop, both in terms of controlling its resources, and also the tendency of communities to internalize the state’s paternalistic attitude towards them, which causes inertia and dependance on fundamentally unstable cycles of top-down support.

In “Partners in Public Service”, Lester Salamon argues that a severe theoretical inadequacy exists concerning the relationship between the public and nonprofit sector. He suggests this oversight is the result of a shared interest in avoiding the topic for thinkers on either side of the traditional political spectrum: “whereas conservatives have had an incentive to exaggerate the growth and power of government in order to emphasize the threat that government poses to private action, liberals have had a corresponding incentive to downplay the role of voluntary agencies in order to buttress the case for a government role”(108). Positioning himself in the neutral, sensible middle ground, Salamon argues for a theory of “partnership” between the public and nonprofit sectors. He does this by identifying a set of key weaknesses in the voluntary sector, and argues that government partnership serves as a fitting supplement to charitable organizations. The weaknesses he identifies are the inability to generate enough philanthropy to cope with the service required by an advanced, industrialized society, the tendency of organizations to focus on particular subgroups, the distillation of too much power over the services into the hands of a few wealthy donors, and an amateurish, not adequately professionalized approach to confronting major social problems. Salamon sees government as the solution to these weaknesses – the government can provide a stable flow of resources, particularism can be overcome by making access a right, the state (instead of wealthy donors) can set priorities in a democratically accountable manner, and amateurishness can be ridden out through setting quality control standards. The resulting harmonious, complementary situation is enough to elicit a chorus of “it’s a small world after all” in the reader’s inner ear.

Like the Disney ride, however, Salamon’s harmonious account is not radical enough because it fails to question the economic and political situation of advancing industrialization in which the key weaknesses he identifies in nonprofits begin to manifest. Salamon’s “solutions” to the weaknesses of non-profits are in fact a program for accelerating the community de-development which has been instigated by the inability of the community to mobilize resources adequate to meet the increasing social needs of modern society’s social problems. The problem of inability to generate resources, and of too much power becoming concentrated in the hands of a few benefactors are not failures of non-profits as such, but failures of non-profits in the context of an economic system where resources (i.e. capital) are highly concentrated among a small portion of the population. When the resources of a society become highly concentrated, individuals and communities find it more difficult to meet needs without relying on the centralized distribution of surplus (i.e. taxation). However, this “solution” takes nonprofits, which were born of needs and resources of a community, and whose existence was a form of genuine community development, and makes them primarily accountable to a non-local, politically motivated, and unstable master. Rather than having the state re-distribute a portion of surplus to the community from which it was extracted, it would be better for government to find ways to facilitate the transfer of wealth to communities, to increase the amount of capital controlled by communities and community members.

In the context of a state which is too weak to prevent the flow of capital out of communities and into the hands of the 1%, perhaps the best model for Government funded humanistic services which retains a structure amenable to the development of community are community health centres. By offering secure funding and creating community governance structures, community health centres offer framework which may help communities strengthen themselves by creating social connections and building social trust. Also, doctors who work in the centres tend to be ideologically motivated to serve and benefit the communities they work in, and are willing to make less money than they could find elsewhere in order to do so.  If the communities in which these centres exist take psychological ownership of them, becoming involved in their governance, and trusting the community-building, public-health conscious health care professionals working inside, then these centres could be sites where community is formed and strengthened. However, because the community does not own the centre, because the centre was not built by and for the community, and because there is no clear way that the communities in which these centres exist could finance them themselves if the state decided they were no longer an optimal way to provide health care services, I doubt they will ever be as strong centres of community development compared to organizations that are born of community needs and born out of community resources.

In too many cases, Social housing projects have begun by “slum clearing”, which is literally community destruction. At its best, the construction of social housing meets the basic material needs of a community, allowing it to flourish. However, when it is built with the trash bins out front to encourage tenants to move out as soon as they can afford non-subsidized housing, and when it is not maintained to a comfortable, healthful standard, social housing is a way that a society’s moralistic, pathologizing attitudes towards poverty are concretized into the daily life of many of the less privileged members of our society. So, rather than ask “is social housing a form of community development”, I find it more useful to ask “what kind of housing would be a socially conscious form of community development”? In order for the development of housing to be a form of community development, it must be developed by and for the community – the process itself must a problem-solving engagement that crosses social fields, that builds trust, and that encourages folks to take responsibility. In other words, co-operative property developments where the capital is controlled by the community itself. And in Ontario, much of the social housing which has been built was built as family housing co-operatives. However, despite the fact that the family housing co-ops own themselves, and the movement has the resources needed to continue to develop more co-operative housing, very little new co-operative housing has been built in Ontario without specific funding for the construction of new co-ops. This is very concerning, and it speaks to the failure of the co-operative movement in Ontario to develop community self-confidence. Compared this with the group equity co-operative movement in the United States, which since the creation of NASCO properties in 1988 has created many new co-ops through financing internal to the movement – not dependant primarily on any state funding initiatives. When attempting to explain why the Co-operative Housing Federation has not been able to do something similar I can’t help but focus on the dependancy of Family housing co-ops on ongoing state funding (the “operating agreements”) as a form of internalized statist paternalism –  a mindset that says nothing can get done without state funding. Social housing as community development must find its motivating principle in the community which is development itself. The state can play a role in getting things going if the community doesn’t have the resources, but the fact that state funding remains a primary concern blocks the community from taking charge of itself. It obscures the more fundamental power shift that is proper to co-ops – the transfer of capital into community hands. When that community-controlled capital can be mobilized as a resource by the community to meet the needs of the community, this is the point where we can say that the provision of a humanistic service is a form of community development.

A community is not a nation, and before we cross those two concepts let us not forget that Volksgemeinshaft remains a term which is basically unusable in German because of its association with the 3rd Reich. Lester Salamon calls it a weakness, an inadequacy that nonprofits tend to serve “particular” communities. But this particularism is not a problem – it is the solution. A community is not universal, one is not a “citizen” of a community, because the belonging is too particular, too mediated by specific relationships of belonging. At its best, a community is a series of porous boundaries which hold trust and responsibility, at its worst it’s a barbed wire fence, excluding someone from moral consideration because of their colour or religion. While there is never an excuse for a state to participate in processes of oppressive discrimination, it would also be a mistake to strip community organizations of the content of their particularity, because it is the fabric which stitches them together.

Research Question, Research Methods (Early, early draft)

What is my research question?

What is the impact of policy governance on member engagement in group-equity housing co-operatives? Basically it’s a very difficult kind of question to ask because there are so many factors, cultural, economic, political, that contribute to any particular environment. My first idea was to look at two co-operatives, one which uses policy governance and one which does not – and attempt some sort of comparison. But now I see that this method is doomed because there are so many other factors that could account for the differences besides the governance model. Even if the governance model has a quite large impact, it would still be irresponsible and foolhardy to “explain” the difference in terms of this difference. Besides, the governance model is not simply a “cause” but also something “caused”. And here is the key point – can it be identified as a cause that functions independently of other causes, that takes on a life of its own.

What attracts me to institutional ethnography is primarily that it allows me to get away from the “look for hidden causes behind a phenomenon” way of thinking. Policy governance lends itself quite well to focussing on the actualization of texts because policy governance is all about creating texts (policies) for the staff to action, and the texts are all basically shells because they are explicitly left open to interpretation and their only determinate content (i.e. orders) are negative. Also, institutional ethnography is interested in the gap between embodied subjects and the “externalized consciousnesses” represented in documents. This is basically the definition of what I’m interested in. How are co-op members represented in co-op documents, and what is the impact of those representations on the membership? Reflexivity is crucial here – because in theory, the membership is determining these documents, so there should be a interpretive and reflexive relationship between the membership and its definition of itself, but in practice this often breaks down – creating a chasm of distance between the idealized co-opers in documents and the real co-opers in the houses. I’m interested in how policy governance actually exhasterbates that by instituting the disengagement of the majority of the membership as normal, and even desirable. Members are seen as consumers rather than citizens, to be pacified rather than empowered – although empowerment remains as a buzzword.

There are basically two standpoints that I am researching. The one I am most interested in is the standpoint of the non-governing member. This member may be new or have been around for a long time. They may be totally disengaged from all aspects of the co-op, or they may be engaged with their house mates and a good member, but they are not involved in any board work or committee work and they have not developed an expert knowledge in the ruling functions of texts within the co-op. The other is the standpoint of the governing member, usually a member of a board, but could also be involved in committees or just have a lot of access to people who are experts, so they learn this knowledge through personal connection and perhaps contribute to it (these members would be for instance on a list of potential board members in case someone resigned).

How will I undertake this research?

I think the way that makes the most sense is to do focus groups of people from each standpoint-group, and then follow up interviews with specific individuals. In the non-expert member focus group I would ask them questions about how their co-op works, what opportunities they have to get involved, what democracy means to them, what ownership means to them, etc. Whether they have looked at any of the policies, what their interactions with staff have been like, whether they were ever aware of a policy directly impacting them, etc. This group to me represents the fundamental co-op situation. This is the situation “about which” the policies refer – because even board members are just regular members outside of the actual board process.

I would ask the board/expert focus group about how their governance functions, focussing the discussion on examples. Because I have expert level knowledge of board functioning, I will be able to ask them questions that put them in the frame of giving an account of why they comported themselves in such and such a way. Fundamentally I’m interested in how their idea of themselves as a policy board structures their understanding of their role in terms of limiting accountability towards non-expert members. Get at the tension between their role as stewards and their role as representatives.

While I’m planning to “use” institutional ethnography, my goal is more genealogical thank ethnographic. I’m fundamentally less concerned with the practices and the embodied subjects than I am with the discourse, which is to say the fundamental agent in my analysis is the discourse itself. According to Smith, everyday discursive formations are constituted by external forces (11o), but I want to argue that in the context of the standpoint of governing members policy governance is part of the discourse of their everyday world, and it is not constituted by external forces – it’s constituted/reproduced through the ongoing process of people stating that it’s the solution to various problems.

NASCO Institute 2015 – My past, Future, and the State of my Research

Tomorrow morning I’m leaving for NASCO Institute 2015. NASCO Institute is basically summer camp for co-opers, when else will you get to meet up with super engaged co-op leaders and staff from across North America? And attending this year feels like I’m coming full circle – NASCO institutes have had such a profound impact on my life, and in way I could not have expected. Two years ago at NASCO I attended the Gala dinner (I wasn’t even at the conference) to receive a lifetime achievement award on behalf of Penny Bethke, our former general manager who had passed away. Two things touched me that night. The first was seeing senior staff folks cry while Jason and I read out loud the acceptance letter that had been prepared for us. The second was being one of the last people standing when the whole room was asked to stand up, and then progressively sit down depending on the number of years they had been involved in the co-op movement. When they got to 7 years, and I was nearly the only person without white hair who was still standing, I realized, or felt at least, that I had found my community.

Last year I attended the NASCO institute as a proper delegate, and I got so much out of it. In stark contrast to my experience on the Toronto left, when I spoke in the various seminars I felt my contributions were truly valued. And, it felt that the questions I was asking were drawing on people’s real experience, and I was learning things which would really impact how I understood and acted in the context of Campus Co-op (CCRI) governance. The texts, the discourses, felt alive. My big question last year was – what are the different ways student housing co-ops are governed? Do they all use the model CCRI had for years accepted as the only possible way to organize things? What I learned was that the model CCRI uses was in fact used by only a small minority of North American student co-ops. In reality, we were the outsiders – not the mainstream. That realization prompted me to thematize the rise of policy governance in Ontario as a research topic, which is how I got into OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), and it is currently what I am preparing to write my thesis on.

This year I feel I am looking forward to the institute so much that I fear my expectations may not be met. But at the same time, I am coming to the context with a much better set of questions, questions about opportunities for member engagement, questions about the creation of a culture or participation, and questions about the details of non-policy governance. I plan to create contacts this weekend that will lead to a major portion of the data collection for my thesis.

At the same time, I’m feeling that the academic side of my thesis research has not been progressing as quickly as I would like. Mostly because I would like to live up to the demands being put on me by my classes. Next Tuesday I need to present my research plan in class, and next Friday I need to defend a ten page research pre-proposal to my peers. My current plan is to use a version of Dorothy Smith’s institutional ethnography to look at the relative gap between the standpoints of the “new member” and the “governing co-oper” at different co-ops, and determine the difference in the disjunction between them in relation to the model of governance used. The difference, I feel, between Dorothy Smith’s approach to institutional critique is I am much more pro-institution, and I do not believe that the institution is fundamentally oppressive. I believe pretty much the opposite, following Hegel, that institutes are the only guarantees on protecting the conditions of Freedom that humans can have. That said, I also want my research to be informed by Foucault’s genealogy of governmentality, which I believe contains aspects of anarcho-republican discourses which basically tend towards something like the discourse of co-operatives. The question of how I am going to integrate genealogy and institutional ethnography will be the great theoretical challenge of my work – I have high hopes for this given the resonance I feel exists between Foucault’s method and ethno-methodology (basically, I think Foucault was doing the ethno-methodology of texts). I will be able to explore this question by contrasting the traditions that came out of both of them – conversational analysis for ethnomethodology, and discourse analysis for genealogy.

Note to self : here’s a reference to a paper which is actually talking about the histories of “conversational analysis” (ethno methodology) vs “discourse analysis” (i.e. Foucault)

The Decline of “Community”: from Generalized Reciprocity to Extended Personality

The concept ‘Community’ is difficult to define because any attempt to give an adequate descriptive account for the phenomena remains invariably mired in a moral debate about the relative value of different styles of inter-subjective relationships. The best way to resolve the ambiguity inherent in attempting to resolve a moral issue on technical grounds is to take self-consciously moralizing position on the nature of community. In this short paper, I will argue that an adequate definition of community must must include a generalized, non-specific expectation of reciprocity. One implication of this definition will a moralizing condemnation of the trends of electronic, networked communication and the increasing prevalence of individual-centric networks in the place of non individual centric communal arrangements.

Theodori’s definition of community draws on the interactionist theories of Kaufman and Wilkonson, and defines community as process that bridges together different social fields inside a local society around locality-oriented actions. (Theodori 2005) In other words, when different groupings of people who don’t normally interact with each other, but live in the same place, get together to solve shared problems – that’s community. Unfortunately, Theodori hasn’t defined community – he’s defined a process which he believes will lead to community. He even hints at this when he says the generalized actions will give “structure to the whole of community as an interactional field by linking and organizing the common interests of the various social fields”. Theodori avoids saying anything about the manner in which the interactional field becomes structured other than to say it must give rise to some feeling of “shared identity” – and crucially he does not specify how significant this identity must be in relation to any pre-existent identities carried by specific social fields. People who disagree in many significant ways about the nature of community could find themselves agreeing with this definition, as since the structure of the community field is not specified, it can be filled in by their own beliefs as to what makes a community good.

While relying on the framework provided by Theodori, I will offer in response a more specific, and explicitly moral definition of community: community occurs when an increase in generalized reciprocity erodes the barriers that prevent the flow of social capital between social fields, corroding barriers to access to social capital across a locality. It is not enough merely for members of different social fields to collaborate on projects of common interest if those collaborations do not break down the barriers to accessing social capital that divide them. The development of a “community field” must increase the amount of access members of the community have to each other’s social capital. Community must be a practical form of local solidarity. 1 To speak of a “community” of coordination between social groups which do not intermix or share social capital, is not to speak of “community” but of alliance, in the militaristic, or even machiavellian sense. And to speak of a “bad community” is say something oxymoronic – a bad community is simply no community at all.

Extending Theodori’s framework into an explicitly moral definition for community helps make sense of the most contentious part of his definition: the insistence on place as a necessary condition for community. If community means generalized reciprocity across a number of different fields of interest, that generalization must happen somewhere. This isn’t to say that generalized reciprocity can’t emerge on a forum, or in a social media group, but generally speaking those increases in shared social capital happen within a specific field of interest, or a pre-existent shared sense of identity. If there are cases where different social fields find themselves in the same locality on a web server, and out of a need to face common problems, build up a shared sense of identity and share social capital across the previously existing social fields, then the web server could be properly called a locality – it would simply have the characteristics of a “real place”. However, none of the “online communities” discussed by Kendall (2011) meet this criteria, and while I am sympathetic with her desire to move away from the question whether “online communities are “real” communities”, the use of the term “community” in the place of “social group”, here and elsewhere.

We shouldn’t blame researchers for the confusion arising around the concept of “community”. The confusion is ontological: it is taking place at the level of the real structure of the bulk of our social relationships. Increasingly, we don’t see community as something out there that we belong to and participate in, but rather as something that emerges outwards from our being at the centre – what Wellman (2009) calls “personal communities”, or “networked individualism”. Barry Wellman believes that the decreased cost of travel and communication has led to a situation where our personal communities are no longer spatially restricted, but restricted only by the strength of the tie itself. Our personal communities grow in importance to us in comparison to spatial community as we can meet more of our needs through them. However, personal communities are not communities because they are segregated into “distinct clusters of activity and interest” (Wellman 2009). Unlike a locality-centered community centred in which access to social capital between social fields is facilitated by the working on common problems, the person at the centre of personal community tends to compartmentalize. According to Wellman a kind of division of labour emerges: “different community members supplying different kinds of social support….the guiding principle is “tit for tit” and not “tit for tat” – meaning the social obligations created are specific and not general” (Wellman 2009). In other words, where community builds solidarity, networked individualism builds and institutes disconnect. While Wellman may be correct to believe that “the personal community approach accurately reflects the habits of modern people who are profoundly and individually mobile and networked”, he ought be less enthusiastic about a future in which an increasing proportion of our social relationships are nodal rather than communal.

Robert Putnam’s essay “Bowling alone” isn’t concerned with defining community, but by focussing on “social capital” it helps clarify a key aspect of why we value community in the first place. Although I have included the concept in my definition of community, it doesn’t figure prominently in Theodori’s or Green’s or Dreier’s discussions, and this to me seems a significant oversight. Social capital is the social availability of human capital to the other people who have access to it, and the ways in which that access is organized. Communities with strong social trust, good “networks of civic engagement”, and “sturdy norms for generalized reciprocity” have more social capital, and if you live in one of them, “life is easier” (Putnam 1995). The trend Putnam has tracked showing the decrease in all forms of civic participation, organizational membership, and even informal schmoozing is therefore concerning. But me what is truly chilling is the counter-trend, the exception that proves the rule: Support groups. As of 1994, 40% of Americans belonged to a support group (Putnam 1995). However, according to Wuthnow, support groups are far less effective sources of social connectedness than traditional organizations:

Small groups may not be fostering community as effectively as many of their proponents would like. Some small groups merely provide occasions for individuals to focus on themselves in the presence of others. The social contract binding members together asserts only the weakest of obligations. Come if you have time. Talk if you feel like it. Respect everyone’s opinion. Never criticize. Leave quietly if you become dissatisfied. (Wuthnow, cited in Putnam 1995)

The lack of generalized social obligations between members of a support group is indicative of this larger trend away from involvement in communities which we become part of and which we come to define ourselves through, and towards groupings which we retain control over. Wellman is probably right that the reduced cost of transportation and communication has created a situation where we can meet an increasing proportion of our relational needs through our social networks. Unfortunately, these social networks are a poor replacement for actual communities that build and have the potential to equitably distribute social capital. Worse, this increasing reliance on social networks is unhealthy for us because it doesn’t actually meet the visceral needs we have to human contact – we text more than ever, yet feel more lonely than ever. In order to deal with this problem we can not afford any mystification, but need to be absolutely honest about human needs – and in relation to human needs the problem of community can not be posed in any way other than as a moral problem.

1The advantage of an explicitly moral (some might say moralizing) definition of community is that it makes explicit what lies between the visceral salience of the concept. Because community is a way of conceptualizing a plurality of social relationships which we depend on continually, it is extremely difficult or impossible to take an “unbiased” look at community. It would make as much sense to ask someone who had never left the confines of their family to analyze their family without employing moral categories. We are always-already inside the communities whose moral status we are evaluating when try to decide what is and what isn’t a community. In other words, every definition of “community” from the perspective of the author contains an aspect of auto-critique.