Don’t just hear me. Listen! That was the demand made by young people from a local co-operative school at the “Co-operative Education against the Crises” conference. It was held as a joint event attended by 80 plus people between ESRI and the Co-operative College at the Manchester CIS Tower, July 4, 2013. All had come because they wanted to explore alternatives to the current market driven, competitive, authoritarian policies not just in education but across society being imposed under the names of ‘austerity’, ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’.
Michael Apple gave the keynote talk. He told us that Wisconsin, where he worked as a professor in the University, was historically the centre of co-operative activity and organization in the USA. He told us about the struggles, his work with gangs in Latin America, his strategy of responding immediately to oppressive policies. You have to be organized and have a network able to write to newspapers and broadcasters immediately with views, strategies and evidence that provide a counter to the oppressive policies and practices being advocated or imposed by politicians and corporations. Again, it is about voice: being heard and having people listen.
In the workshops and open discussions following the talk and later in the afternoon in the open sessions people stressed the dangers of economic and political policies for social work, for schools, for health, for people’s health and well being and for democracy. But they also stressed the hope, the energy and the potential for an alternative vision. During one of the open sessions a young school student talked forcefully and powerfully about how her life had been turned round after listening to a talk at her school on co-operativism as a way of life. She admitted to having been a bully, to have never been longer than one year at a school. What had impressed her was the way in which co-operative principles and practices were about each person having a voice, a real voice where people listened and took that voice into account. It was important because a friend of hers who felt he had no voice, had committed suicide.
So many people, in every organization whether in the private or the public sectors, feel they have no voice against the managerialist demands for increased performance at decreased cost. The feeling of powerless and of vulnerability drive some to suicide. The association of neoliberal policies, macho management and the lack of voice with suicide have been increasingly noticed by researchers and professionals. In particular it has been shown that since the financial crisis and due to the impact of austerity measures suicides across Europe have increased (see the concern for example in: Brady 2013; Meikle 2013; Midgley 2007; Wachman and Wright 2012; McKee, Karanikolos, Belcher, Stuckles 2012)
There is a key choice to be made between two visions of society and the ways in which each person has a voice in that society. The first is a society that is managed by elites through organisations in government, the public and the private sectors that have a command and control structure. Rather than voice, there are performance criteria to be achieved, and compliance committees, procedures and mechanisms. When the vast majority of organisations are run from the top, very few voices count in the real decision making processes and for all others in the organisation their voices are silenced as management by surveillance of performance and behavior in the interests of the institution or the corporate dominates. Voice is absent except perhaps through union protests that are highly regulated and managed through state laws and contained through policing.
The alternative vision of society is neither a fantasy nor a utopia. It exists, as pointed out by Mervyn Wilson of the Co-operative College, in the lives of a billion people across the world who are members of co-operatives. The 300 hundred largest co-operatives, he told us, have a combined income of $1.6 trillion. But what exactly does this mean in terms of a vision for society? It means a society composed of organisations that practice the core values of co-operativism: self help, self responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. It further means: honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others. Do all co-operative organisations today practice these all the time? Unlikely. However, if democracy in organisations is taken seriously as an organizing principle, then all voices will count in the decision making. That means nothing less than a revolution in society. The change is from the freedom of elites to command and control all others towards a society where all individuals have a free and equal voice in the processes of decision making. Is this possible?
Political theorists and elites have always pointed towards the problem of scale in democracy. You cannot have thousands, let alone millions of people discussing and voting on every thing. It is simply impractical, they say. Yet, is it impractical to suggest that in organisations the principles and procedures of democracy could be employed? There are many thousands of co-operatives that seem to suggest that increasing the degree of democracy is both possible and practical. What if we tried harder? What if we demanded a voice, a free and equal voice alongside all others in all the organisations that impact upon our daily lives?
Education has a crucial role to play in creating the conditions for a given vision of society. How many of our children experience democracy first hand at work in schools? When they leave school what experiences, skills and knowledge of democratic organization can they draw upon as resources for their everyday lives in their work, home and community lives? These are questions that are particularly pertinent to co-operative schools. When young people leave school, what resources, skills, knowledge and experiences can they draw upon to set up their own co-operatives? If a school is co-operatively organised in all its details and in all its activities, then new generations of people will be well fitted to create their own co-operative projects to meet the needs of their selves and their communities. If that were to take place on the large scale, then we would have the seeds for a new vision of society that is both practical and dynamic. At present there are nearly 500 co-operative schools in the UK. Within a couple of years it is anticipated that number will be 1000. That suggests the vision is beginning to take off and that democratically organized co-operative schools can make a real difference to the lives of their young people and their communities.
So what do we do next?
Follow the link to see the Next Steps.
For more information and to review the ‘next steps’ from the event follow the link to the website.