Co-ops and a sense of belonging: A response to populism

We speak to John Duda, from US thinktank Democracy Collaborative

There is confusion over what populism is – some politicians use populist speeches but implement policies that help corporations – such as tax cuts. How would you define it?

Populism is a response to a situation when the power to establish political reality shifts away from being managed entirely through elite governance and towards “the people”.

That doesn’t mean that elites are necessarily out of the loop in a populist moment, it just means that the centre of gravity has shifted to a broader mass of people, and that elites can continue to do quite well by adopting strategies that ground legitimation for their programme in this mass.

But populism isn’t always just a strategy of elite capture – the Populist movement in the late 19th Century in the US, for instance, was an impressive bottom-up movement for a systemic alternative, “the co-operative commonwealth”.

John Duda

Ultimately, it matters who “the people” are in a populist moment — and who is left out. Certainly, the more reactionary and xenophobic populist strategies on both sides of the Atlantic are terrifying. But after decades of a technocratic neoliberal consensus about the acceptable boundaries for the political imaginary, it’s a relief to see truly just and equitable systemic alternatives on the table as well — and it’s populism that’s made this possible: a moment of delegitimisation and danger that’s also an incredible opportunity.

Are we witnessing a return of the “isms”? And does this pose a threat to liberal democracy?

It depends on what “isms” you mean. Certainly a well-organised, well-resourced, and chillingly effective strain of authoritarianism is on the march: it’s a real threat to democracy, and should be confronted and fought.

But I’m more ambivalent about liberalism, which is also, of course, an “ism”. The reliance on the market as the core institution of civil society has not proved capable of uniformly delivering results that are compatible with equity or democracy, let alone ecological survival. A return of some kind of socialism is not just compatible with democracy, it may well be the precondition for its survival.

Related: With populism on the rise, can co-ops save democracy?

What’s needed is a re-envisioned political economy built around democratic outcomes as a consequence of its structure and operation – not trying to retrofit democracy on top of an economic system programmed to concentrate power.

Because we are talking about a complex system with a lot of different operative scales, this means, for me, the least problematic of all the “isms” – pluralism. Democratised ownership and control of many kinds, interlocking and overlapping – nationalisation, municipal “sewer” socialism, worker co-ops, consumer co-ops, multi-stakeholder co-ops, public/co-op partnerships, and so on, all at different scales regrounding the economy in the lives of the public and in communities.

Our current system is in crisis because a financialised liberalism can’t really deliver public welfare or sustain communities, so the choice increasingly becomes one between a politics based in reactionary hatred and fear defending what has yet to be stripped away, or a movement reconstruction of the economic foundations of democratic life.

Can co-ops create a sense of belonging for alienated communities? Has this happened in Cleveland, where Democracy Collaborative helped establish the Evergreen Cooperatives?

Certainly they can! Co-operatives are an economic foundation for democracy precisely because they carve out a space of autonomy and control that undercuts the fear inherent in precarious life in a failing system. But to do so, they’ve got to be designed with inclusion in mind.

Related: ICA president Ariel Guarco on co-op answers for a disaffected world

In Evergreen, there’s been a decision to include the excluded in the hiring and membership process. That mean working to develop pipelines and supports for people with barriers to employment – who may have been incarcerated, or are refugees, or have simply been long-term unemployed, with a job and additional benefits.

The challenge is scale – Evergreen is growing, but it’s just a couple of hundred workers. If we want to truly work at the scale of communities, we need solutions that give everyone that same sense of economic security and agency. So that means more and bigger co-ops, certainly, but also all the other institutions of the democratic economy we can build, as quickly as we can build them.

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