[this post also appears at http://themehouseawarenessproject.wordpress.com/]
Last Thursday, Toad Lane‘s weekly pot luck was graced by the presence of renowned scholar and former CCRI summer manager Howard Adelman. Adelman is an interesting character: he is personally responsible for helping found almost every student co-op in Ontario, as well as numerous other co-ops here and around the world. His insights into the co-operative structure are vast, although sometimes potentially outdated since he changed his research focus away from co-operatives many years ago. Currently his main concern is violence, so he spends most of his time working on how to reduce conflicts in Africa. He’s been instrumental in setting up an Early Warning System (an interview about this can be read here) which led to the arrest of Charles Taylor.
Adelman’s approach very progressive, but unlike the majority of the left it is characterized by not being anti-capitalist. Rather than “smash capitalism”, Adelman emphasizes the sense in which capitalism is a game, is fun, is a system which you can figure out and move in it the right way. (Although I didn’t ask him, his approach might be similar to the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze). He is able to operate “freely” in capitalism by rejecting many everyday truisms which effectively control people, prevent them from using capitalism in their own favour. One of these is the idea that we can’t afford things. Adelman rejects the idea that anyone “doesn’t have money”, and that getting money is simply a matter of figuring out what assets you have, how you can leverage them, and how you can get the stream of income to cover the cost of the debt.
This approach, which grasps money as a vector or flow rather than as a static entity which you have or do not have, is incredibly enabling if you are skilled enough to practice it effectively. Adelman did exactly this when CCRI hired him as a summer manager in 1957 – at this point the co-op had paid of its debts, but was running continual deficits – without a new plan CCRI might have failed in only a few more years. Adelman raised CCRI’s debt to GDP ratio from almost nil to over 70%, and in the process acquired many new houses. In short order, the co-op grew from 5 houses to 30. Money was also used to renovate the houses – which were still using ice boxes in 1957!
This state of the co-op: under debted, and under renovated, stuck in the past, is incredibly similar to the situation we find ourselves in today. We have very little debt, but we are unwilling to spend money to increase our revenue stream – instead the logic employed is first we must find ways to increase our revenue stream, and then that money can be used to borrow money. This is simply insane, because it forces one to ignore the increased revenue stream which spending the money itself can bring in. In other words, we are being too conservative.
Adelman actually believes that conservatism is an inherent problem in the co-operative model, and maybe in any genuine democracy: because everyone’s viewpoint must be considered, there is a tendency against change. This is certainly a problem we run into currently: for instance, when my committee recommended that 84 Lowther be converted into a graduate theme house, the board rejected the proposal because it is not an organic, member driven decision – and it would require moving 3 people from 84 Lowther into a different house. However, in order to preserve the benefit of allowing the 3 members to live in the house next year, CCRI is giving up the possibility to attract many graduate students who would live in CCRI through the summer – which could significantly combat our main demon right now – summer vacancy loss. This kind of failure of foresight is depressing. This is where another virtue of Adelman’s approach becomes clear: his incessant positivity. He insists that debating is fun, that life is fun, and that you should get on with it.
I think there is some truth in Adelman’s critique of the sense of difficulty we have about everything. This sense is itself a major obstacle to success – re-inventing CCRI is not hard, we just need to get on with it. Rather than telling people what they should like about the co-op, we need to find out what people like about it, and what they don’t, and spend money to give them more of what they like and less of what they don’t.
Perhaps the most radical (and true) idea that Adelman expressed was that no one moves into co-op because it is a co-op – selling the co-op on cooperative values (i.e. the Rochedale principles) is simply a bad idea. People move into co-op because it’s a desirable place to live, and because it’s a communal living situation – this is what we should emphasize, not the democratic structure. I think he’s right about this – the board tends to criticize other members for not being as involved as them, but this actually a bad idea – we should take people as they are, and if they decide to involve themselves in the democratic structure, that’s great. And, they will do it on their own if they see it as involving their own interests.
Adelman has offered to speak at both CCRI’s 75th anniversary next year, and at the upcoming OSCA conference. I think his presence, his “it’s not so difficult, get on with it” attitude is a breath of fresh air in a stifled system which comes to see everything as an unfathomable disaster.