Monthly Archives: April 2008

Cooperative Chicago

Forty years ago the Black Panthers drafted the Ten Point Program; a survival platform designed to build a foundation towards a revolutionary future. The Program demanded that basic needs be fulfilled, and importantly, that decent employment be provided to the people. Forty years later employment remains a pressing demand. Today we need a revolutionary vision on how to generate employment.

To date, the left has largely ignored the issue of creating employment. Generating employment in many communities has been left in the hands of predatory capitalists; the Wal-Marts, the polluting industries that have been rejected everywhere else, the day labor agencies etc. As a movement we have failed to recognize how employment can affect communities and their potential to organize and overcome oppression.

Communities suffering from unemployment, underemployment and poor employment degenerate into concrete jungles. Employment provides economic stability for families; in the absence of such stability it is nearly impossible to successfully organize for change. Without communal stability movements decay from opportunistic survival behavior; selling drugs, silence at the workplace, joining a gang or the military etc.

The failure of Chicago’s campaign to oppose Wal-Mart’s entry was instructive. If our movement is to be successful it must provide a program to meet the basic needs of communities. We must continue to oppose Wal-Mart but we must expand beyond opposition campaigns.

Green Cooperative Incubator

Incubators are institutions that promote entrepreneurship and help existing businesses overcome a variety of challenges. Incubators have traditionally been used as collaborations between universities, their graduates, and local government to promote hi-tech business development. Such collaborations position us as students to use our universities to promote employment in underemployed communities and to bring the benefits of green technology to fruition. Whereas most incubators favor upper and middle class managers to start small businesses, a socially oriented incubator would promote entrepreneurship from all backgrounds and would promote a cooperative model of organization, anchoring the profits and ownership of the enterprise in Chicago.

Cooperative development models have been applied in Mondragon in Spain, Emilia Romanga in Italy, Venezuela, and a variety of other areas around the world. They have shown the viability of economic cooperatives as a tool to generate employment and empower communities. We can learn from these models and adapt a plan using resources available to us in Chicago.

Mondragon Cooperative Corporation

Mondragon is an inspiring example of how worker cooperatives can create an economy from the ground up. The Basque region of Spain was devastated after Franco’s vicious assault during the Spanish civil war, and was punished by the central government for being one of the last provinces to submit to fascist rule. After the creation of a technical school in Mondragon during the early 1950s, five students and the founder of the school, a priest named Don Jose Maria, began a stove making company named ULGOR premised on the cooperative principles espoused by Don Jose Maria. ULGOR proved successful and by 1959 it required more capital, prompting Maria to visit door to door to raise capital for a cooperative bank, also know as the Caja bank.

As a student of cooperatives, Maria knew that cooperatives tended to become isolated and disintegrate after some generations of workers. The Mondragon project was intended to rebuild the Basque region and to generate employment, therefore as Mondragon expanded, each enterprise remained networked with each of the others. A Congress of Cooperatives established ground rules for the cooperatives to operate under, and also served to help restructure and bail out struggling enterprises. This approach has created significant results with only one failed enterprise out of over 150 enterprises within the Mondragon network (the usual failure rate for start up businesses is around 50%).

The lessons of Mondragon are that a network of enterprises is stronger than single lone standing enterprises. The Caja bank has also served to anchor the economic cooperatives by providing financing capital improvements, and has served to concentrate the assets of the workers who are required to deposit their money in a Caja account.

Emilia Romanga

Emilia Romanga is a region in Northern Italy that was also devastated by WWII and was liberated by the Italian communist partisans. It has been rebuilt through the dynamic policies of the Italian Communist Party. The ICP emphasized small businesses and cooperatives. The region now has 325,000 firms with a population of 4 million people, one of the highest firm ownership per capita rates in the world.

Small businesses and cooperatives have been promoted by the Communist Party through the sale of capital and land taken through the equivalent of eminent domain. The local government has also established incubators or service centers, where firms can loan time shares on expensive equipment that couldn’t be purchased on an individual level. Similar to the Caja bank the cooperative movement has an associated financial institution named Legacoop, one of the largest financial institutions in Italy. Many of the businesses emerged after spinning off of other businesses, with employees from one company creating a spinoff company to supply their former employer with inputs. This had led to one of the most dynamic economies in Europe, rated in the top ten most prosperous areas in the entire European Union.

Creating a Cooperative Economy in Chicago

Every campaign has a strategy that applies focused pressure on selected actors. As students we can pressure out universities to participate in an incubator by dedicating funding and faculty to identify market opportunities for cooperatives, and also to dedicate research towards technology for use by the cooperative enterprises. Many schools already have programs toward environmental and sustainable business, which can be used to generate institutional support for a cooperative incubator. More important than the actual monetary contributions of the universities would be the ability to access social networks available through the university. For example, presentations could be made to finance incubator projects through alumni, financial institutions with close relationships to the university, political contacts for grant money etc.

We can also pressure aldermen to obtain local government support. Significant support can be gained from the city with directed political pressure, from TIFF programs, small business loans to outright grants. The political capital behind entrepreneurship and greening efforts in Chicago can definitely be leveraged to gain the ears and even the cooperation of Chicago’s City Council without ruffling the feathers of the mayor.

Our incubator would generate business plans for cooperatives and work with entrepreneurs to help with start up challenges. In addition, these first generation cooperatives could be a useful tool for helping to establish a revolutionary political organization. Employment from these new enterprises could allow organizers to have the personal financial stability necessary for successful organizing efforts.

Green economy market opportunities will continue to expand for cooperatives; from installing green home improvements to manufacturing and installing wind turbines to building emissions free or low emissions vehicles. A green cooperative incubator can distill these opportunities into actionable business plans and provide the sound guidance to help ensure the success of the new enterprises. Universities can be changed from research institutions for war criminals like Boeing into partners providing important technical expertise for cooperative economic development. The green worker cooperatives created can anchor communities and create the stability necessary to build a revolutionary movement.

If the idea of a green incubator interests you, contact Nick Kreitman at mrsituationist@gmail.com and become involved in Solidarity, a proposed green entrepreneurship program dedicated to making a green cooperative economy a reality.

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Don’t Pay the Political Internship Pimp

Don’t Pay the Political Party Internship Pimp

Unpaid internships for political science students today is a right of passage, more of a fact of life than an extracurricular activity. Its an exercise in building social capital, but few of us students have ever stopped to analyze the narrative of the social capital we are constructing. Social capital is the mortar of the middle class, it is who you know, what they can do for you and who they know. Social capital will land you your job, it will land you a better deal on you car/student/home loan, it will guarantee your children’s passage into college and it will provide one with many of the luxuries of America’s middle class lifestyle. If social capital is so great, and interning such a small sacrifice for such a valuable resource, why would anyone ever consul against internships?

Social capital is critical to accomplishing anything in society. Without social capital there would be no social contract, literally no society. It follows that if you want to be independent in today’s society, the more social capital you accumulate the more you’ll be able to do what you want. The problem is that social capital does not exist in the abstract, it is a force that has direction, it be applied to accomplish different goals. Many political science students every summer forget to seriously evaluate why they are interning. I’ve heard dozens of students complain about the necessity of “selling out” and interning over the summer for x or y state representatives, or going to Washington to slave away for some agency or official. Every story starts about how, although their morals would lead them towards social justice politics, the only way to really impact society is through interning and obtaining a better resume for a future job, or for graduate school.

Certainly interning does build social capital necessary for a “career”, but the liberal students mentioned above do not analyze who’s goals they can and will accomplish with the social capital they are building. Most internship arrangements assign the paper pushing tasks to the interns, and usually dangle limited opportunities to participate in the ideological work of the organization . Also, internships for political science majors are almost universally unpaid, reinforcing the class tinged atmosphere of our political system. In exchange for compromising ideologically, doing uninteresting tasks, and making no money, the intern builds social capital within the organization and they “make connections.”

We need to debunk the “necessity” of interning for the local politician down in the state capital, or making the commitment to travel to Washington to pad a resume. Every relationship consists of a narrative that each party in the relationship subscribes to. The political party and the intern adopt different roles in the social narrative (think of a narrative as the justification society offers for a given relationship). The problem with the social narrative of an internship with a political party is that the role is singularly defined by and beneficial to the political party.

The social capital built during the internship reflects the relationship of the intern to the manager of the intern. Being a summer intern allows you to earn that coveted position after graduation, but why is such a position coveted? Often times its placement in one of the two major political parties, or their adjunct organizations like lobbying firms or think tanks. That coveted position is purchased, just like the position of intern, through ideological compromise and making one useful to one’s superior.

“It was only after the interns went on strike that Washington really went to hell. Just try to imagine Congress without coffee, copies and naughty instant messages.” Senator McCain after the general intern strike of 2009

I propose a different paradigm for ambitious political science students looking to make a positive impact on society. Instead of entering into the relationship of “intern” and building the social capital necessary to keep you in social captivity, expand your outlook and consider engaging in yourself and interested friends in your own project. One outlet is Students for a Democratic Society, it is entirely a student endeavor and a network you can access to build social capital with any number of people who can advance the goals of your project. Another outlet is an expanding number of organizations dedicated to social change, from environmental justice, to worker’s rights organizations, to any number of important issues.

Relate to your local politicians as equals instead of as eager servants. One example is the Rutgers SDS and alumni managed electoral reform campaign in New Brunswick, NJ, which is actively working to democratize the city’s Democratic machine politics. In Chicago I’m working to start Solidarity, a student and faculty clinic dedicated to connecting local green entrepreneurs with the resources necessary for starting up their business, while working to advance and encourage employee management and ownership in Chicago. Just because you don’t have your degree yet doesn’t mean you have to play indentured servant to a politician you disagree with. If its a good idea, you can be creative about financing it, the money is there, either through your school, donors, or institutions; if you are determined to get it. Reclaim your autonomy, it takes discipline but so does anything worth getting. Hit the books, build the social capital necessary to accomplish YOUR vision, (not the vision of the political pimp of your choice) reconfigure the social narrative to include yourself as an active participant, and comeback and tell Students for a Democratic Society about it because we’d love to hear from you and help you out.

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