When we look at the human condition over the course of history, we often see two distinct cultural trajectories — times when people and societies were focused on self-interested accumulation of wealth and power — followed by an economic crisis which led to an age of people pulling together for the common good. The cycle would repeat when individualism began to re-emerge as a driving force and cultures became disenchanted with self-sacrifice.
Albert Hirschman, an economist at Princeton and author of the book Shifting Involvements, is a proponent of this theory that cultural mores run in cycles that mirror and affect economic outcomes. He thinks this cycle takes an average of 20 years to run its course, sometimes longer, and to recur. There is an increasing body of research corroborating Hirschman’s theory, and plenty of anecdotal evidence lately that his theory may be right. As people continue to feel stressed about the losses derived from excess private consumption, they look favorably on appeals to work together on collective goals.
Responsible business practices have always been part and parcel of the cooperative model. That’s why cooperators may find current economic circumstances present a very good opportunity to reach a public receptive to those “aha” moments about cooperation’s benefits. Those values that have attracted participation in local co-ops—the chance to make a difference in communities and support local economies—may see a greater outpouring of interest in the coming years.
CDS Consulting Co-op consultant Walden Swanson thinks Hirschman’s shifting involvements theory is something cooperators may want to seriously consider. Could the next decade turn out to be a golden age for cooperative development? If so, how?
Supporting greater cooperative development is certainly one strategy. “We might have 5-6 years to start co-ops and tap into a natural marketplace for them,” Swanson said. As individuals look to mutual aid to reach their economic goals, likewise, collective decision-making amongst cooperatives needs to be a part of creating and sustaining a culture of cooperative development.
“Communities all across America want what we have, and are willing to put in the work and capital needed to have a food co-op in their community,” said board leadership and cooperative development consultant Marilyn Scholl. She thinks this heightened interest is something to celebrate, as well as a call to action. It’s natural that co-op leaders are called upon to protect the interest of its members, and the need to be prudent and appropriate with resources is paramount.
However, to take advantage of a favorable time frame for more cooperative development, strategies focused on looking to expand cooperation to other sectors or communities that have a need, are prudent and necessary to growth. “If we believe we have a better business model, then wouldn’t we want to expand it?” Scholl asked. “We shouldn’t want to hoard or keep it to ourselves. We need to find ways to support those who want to put the cooperative model into action.”
One cultural shift co-ops could make in expanding food co-op development is to communicate that what co-ops do matter, and that the ownership structure is one way communities could be better off. “Part of it is having a better story to tell, and then telling it better,” Scholl said.
She thinks that creating a stronger atmosphere for co-op development starts with harnessing the power of our members. “We have been good at delivering on the food needs of our members. But if that’s all we talk about, then that’s all they’ll think about. If we talk more about the co-op as a business model, and how it could solve other needs people have, it could inspire new ventures.”
CE Pugh, national development director for the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA), thinks that as more food co-op members are educated and engaged regarding greater possibilities in cooperation, sector leadership could more readily support greater food co-op development.
“The food co-ops of the 1970s were visionary, and took a lot of risks. Granted, the cost of entry into the marketplace was so much lower then. But it seems like we need to reclaim the visionary spirit of our founders. We don’t want to fail to honor their legacy by not putting energy into it,” Pugh said. Certainly the push to create more organizational support through Food Co-op500 and the NCGA’s development co-op are big steps in the right direction. Yet infrastructural needs for the sector are still huge. “If we want to change the landscape, it’s going to take more,” he added.
Pugh knows people are concerned that by pooling development funds and activities, individual co-ops feel they are taking money out of their own communities and putting it toward riskier endeavors. But he and other leaders believe doing so brings tangible value. It is in everyone’s best interest to increase the visibility and accessibility of cooperatives nationwide. “There’s not a shortage of talent. There are people out there who would love to engage in this work, but will the system be able to subsidize the talent for those co-ops that need it?”
It will certainly take more commitment, capital and resources, yet Pugh points out that one low-cost, but very effective way for manifesting co-op growth is to simply put a higher value on it in our food co-op’s internal culture.
“One way to begin is to encourage our co-ops to take a more favorable view of development is to show people a string of successes, demonstrate what can be done and how we are learning better systems. It may take a few before people feel better about investing in cooperation, but we need to celebrate those successes.”