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Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of crisis. 

Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inher­it­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing these sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monop­oly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.

Aengus Anderson: Well we’re back, and we’re being a lit­tle bit more punc­tu­al this time. 

Micah Saul: Yes, a mere week lat­er as opposed to… Oh god, what was it, a month?

Anderson: Yeah, it was basi­cal­ly a month. We won’t do that to you again.

Quick news update, we just got fis­cal spon­sor­ship from San Francisco Independent Arts and Media. That fis­cal spon­sor­ship I real­ize sounds like they’re fund­ing us—they’re not. But what they are is a real­ly awe­some non­prof­it, and they part­ner with small projects like this one and let us work with them for our finan­cial aspects. Which basi­cal­ly lets us apply for grants as a non­prof­it, with­out actu­al­ly being a non­prof­it. So, if you know of any grants that would be suit­able for The Conversation, shoot us a note. And of course you know where to get us, it’s info@​findtheconversation.​com.

That is all nitty-gritty tech­ni­cal stuff. Let’s talk about this episode.

Saul: This was down in Austin, Texas. Carlos Perez de Alejo, who is one of the cofounders of Cooperation Texas which is a non­prof­it that is ded­i­cat­ed to orga­niz­ing oth­er coop­er­a­tives. Sort of a meta co-op.

Anderson: And co-ops are some­thing we’ve been think­ing about and talk­ing about for a long time. They’re real­ly intrigu­ing because you know, this is a project full of peo­ple who’ve got vast, rad­i­cal, fas­ci­nat­ing ideas about the future. A lot of them are pret­ty abstract. Now, co-ops…exist. This is a very dif­fer­ent way of run­ning and struc­tur­ing a busi­ness. It’s a total­ly dif­fer­ent set of pri­or­i­ties. But it’s hap­pen­ing in this cur­rent eco­nom­ic par­a­digm. So we’ve been want­i­ng to talk to some­one who knows how to set these things up and can sort of talk about them as a move­ment. Are they tak­ing off? Are they strug­gling? What are they?

Saul: So there were all sorts of places we could have gone, and we had a bunch on our list. Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland was one of the most obvi­ous choic­es, just because they’re very well known. They’re fair­ly large. They’ve been suc­cess­ful for sev­er­al years. But they kind of seemed too obvi­ous, in a way? So we found Texas.

Anderson: Right, because we assume that if you’re going to be start­ing a co-op of co-ops or a viable mod­el, then it would be inter­est­ing to see how they exist in an econ­o­my that is less friend­ly towards orga­nized labor. That does­n’t have that indus­tri­al her­itage. And if some­thing can make it in the extrac­tive and ser­vice sprawl that is Texas, it seems like it can prob­a­bly make it any­where. So that’s what took us to Cooperation Texas. 

And before we get into this, one quick side­note. This is prob­a­bly the short­est inter­view I’ve record­ed in the project. It was fifty min­utes. So it does­n’t dive into quite as much of the phi­los­o­phy as we nor­mal­ly like to have in a good Conversation episode. But that said, there’s still some of it in here and we think the episode cov­ers a lot of ground that’s valu­able for oth­er rea­sons. So, let’s go to Carlos.

Carlos Perez de Alejo: Well I think there’s three things that real­ly set coop­er­a­tives as a whole apart from a con­ven­tion­al busi­ness, and that’s joint own­er­ship, demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol, and mem­ber benefits. 

In terms of joint own­er­ship, rather than hav­ing say, one or two peo­ple who own the busi­ness, in the case of a coop­er­a­tive its member-owned and those mem­bers can look dif­fer­ent depend­ing on the type of coop­er­a­tive. So you could have a coop­er­a­tive that is owned by its work­ers, a coop­er­a­tive that is owned by its con­sumers, a coop­er­a­tive that is owned by its pro­duc­ers. And each per­son that is a mem­ber has an equal own­er­ship stake in the busi­ness. And so, that enti­tles them to cer­tain rights and respon­si­bil­i­ties, such as demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol. So usu­al­ly that takes the form of one mem­ber, one vote. And then in a con­ven­tion­al busi­ness, a sort of dri­ving force is the prof­it motive, is to make a dol­lar. Whereas in a co-op the dri­ving moti­va­tion is serv­ing the needs of their mem­bers. So, in a work­er co-op that might mean the need for dig­ni­fied work. In a con­sumer co-op that might mean access to healthy food.

And then over the 150 years, coop­er­a­tives have devel­oped a core set of prin­ci­ples that real­ly unites coop­er­a­tives, regard­less of type. Things like open and vol­un­tary mem­ber­ship, demo­c­ra­t­ic mem­ber con­trol, auton­o­my and inde­pen­dence, con­cern for com­mu­ni­ty, coop­er­a­tion among coop­er­a­tives. And these real­ly serve as the foun­da­tion for the coop­er­a­tive mod­el internationally.

Aengus Anderson: So, coop­er­a­tives are fair­ly old, and yet you know, this is a project that’s obvi­ous­ly inter­est­ed in new ideas and new things. And it seems like there’s been a lot of talk about coop­er­a­tives that I’ve heard in a way that it seems like maybe there’s either a resur­gence of them, or they’re chang­ing in some way. And a lot of peo­ple have men­tioned Mondragon

de Alejo: Mm hm.

Anderson: Can you talk a lit­tle bit about that?

de Alejo: First off, his­tor­i­cal­ly when­ev­er we start to expe­ri­ence the shocks of eco­nom­ic crises, which is cycli­cal in our cur­rent sys­tem, we start to see that spike in inter­est in coop­er­a­tives and it’s not a coin­ci­dence. You know, when the sys­tem isn’t work­ing we look for oth­er systems.

And so Mondragon has become a very… It’s been a mod­el that peo­ple have been look­ing at for a long time. It’s been around since the mid-1950s in the Basque region of Spain. It was orig­i­nal­ly start­ed by a local Catholic priest. And it’s by far the largest inte­grat­ed net­work of worker-owned coop­er­a­tives in the world. And when you put it in the con­text of the broad­er eco­nom­ic cri­sis in Spain where you’re see­ing unem­ploy­ment at twenty-plus per­cent and you com­pare that to Mondragon, where you’re see­ing unem­ploy­ment at say twelve, thir­teen per­cent comparatively—so your kin­da cut­ting it in half—people are start­ing to ask well, why is that? What makes it different?

What hap­pened in Mondragon is that because they have such an inte­grat­ed net­work real­ly act­ing on that prin­ci­ple that I men­tioned ear­li­er of coop­er­a­tion among coop­er­a­tives, rather than lay­ing peo­ple off and putting fam­i­lies out on the street, instead they shift­ed peo­ple around the net­work so that if one co-op was­n’t doing as well, well let’s see if we can place you in anoth­er co-op that’s far­ing bet­ter in the econ­o­my so as to main­tain your job. A core part of their mis­sion is real­ly cre­at­ing dig­ni­fied jobs for folks in the Basque region but they’re real­ly an inter­na­tion­al net­work at this point.

Anderson: So, I think of Texas is hav­ing sort of a dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion. What is Cooperation Texas doing, and what is it like to try to start coop­er­a­tives in this sort of environment?

de Alejo: Well…so you know, Texas is a unique place in that real­ly we’re one of the most unequal states, eco­nom­i­cal­ly speak­ing, despite the rhetoric of Governor Perry around the eco­nom­ic mir­a­cle. You know, when we start to hear things like, Well, we grew X num­ber of jobs in the last few years or so,” which is you know, for most peo­ple this inher­ent­ly good thing, right. Well, we’ve cre­at­ed jobs. But few peo­ple take that step back to say well, what kind of jobs? And in Texas the bulk of the jobs that have been cre­at­ed over the years have been large­ly min­i­mum wage jobs. And the real­i­ty is that it’s very tough for work­ing fam­i­lies to get by in Texas.

And so these are the sort of con­di­tions that prompt­ed the birth of Cooperation Texas in October of 2009 with the basic belief that every­one deserves equal access to dig­ni­fied work. And we face a num­ber of bar­ri­ers and we’re very hon­est about that. But we felt, like many peo­ple around the coun­try, that busi­ness as usu­al is not cut­ting it. And at the moment we’re fac­ing a sys­temic cri­sis both in our econ­o­my and in the envi­ron­ment, and it demands a sys­temic response.

And so we start­ed with the mis­sion of cre­at­ing sus­tain­able jobs by devel­op­ing, sup­port­ing, and pro­mot­ing work­er owned-businesses. And so we’ve start­ed to build a small net­work here in Austin. Our first busi­ness that we launched was a worker-owned veg­an bak­ery called Red Rabbit Cooperative Bakery. Just this past year we launched the first worker-owned green clean­ing coop­er­a­tive in Austin, with a group of women who had faced a range of abus­es in the clean­ing indus­try any­where from low to no pay to you know, harass­ing boss­es, intim­i­dat­ing work­places, to now going on and col­lec­tive­ly own­ing their own com­pa­ny. We’re in the process of launch­ing the first worker-owned brew­ery here in Austin. And in the com­ing year we’ll be work­ing with a group in San Antonio to set up a worker-owned sewing cooperative.

Anderson: A lot of peo­ple in this project have talked about our eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion broad­ly. But I would like to touch on it again here. What are coop­er­a­tives respond­ing to in the big­ger eco­nom­ic picture?

de Alejo: Well, I think par­tic­u­lar­ly when you look at the cur­rent cri­sis, it’s the result of in a lot of ways increas­ing lev­els of inequal­i­ty. I think it’s prob­a­bly well under­stood by a lot of your lis­ten­ers that increas­ing con­cen­tra­tions of wealth equal increas­ing con­cen­tra­tions of pow­er in few­er and few­er hands. And so to the extent that we take democ­ra­cy seri­ous­ly, I think this is where co-ops gen­er­al­ly and work­er co-ops in par­tic­u­lar can play a real­ly sig­nif­i­cant role in address­ing the ques­tion of wealth distribution.

There’s a lot of advo­cates that argue for what’s called asset build­ing as a way to address wealth inequal­i­ty. Usually that is aimed at the indi­vid­ual lev­el, so find­ing mech­a­nisms for encour­ag­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly low-income folks to invest in start­ing their own small busi­ness, or invest in home own­er­ship. But again it usu­al­ly takes place at the indi­vid­ual lev­el. And you can see impacts there. But I think when we’re talk­ing about work­er coop­er­a­tives, for exam­ple, rather than hav­ing one per­son start a busi­ness and hire ten, twen­ty peo­ple, in this case you have those ten, twen­ty peo­ple col­lec­tive­ly own­ing the busi­ness and so you mul­ti­ply the impacts that you can have. And at the end of the day, you keep those jobs local­ly root­ed and these work­ers have an equal stake in see­ing that busi­ness succeed.

Anderson: What I won­der is, with some­thing like a coop­er­a­tive, it is so root­ed in place. And it also seems like there might be some dif­fi­cul­ty in scal­ing? Can you have a coop­er­a­tive that say, grows to the size of Sony and there­fore is able to do the sort of mas­sive­ly intri­cate, mul­ti­lay­ered pro­duc­tion process of say and elec­tron­ics firm? Or, do coop­er­a­tives just by their struc­tur­al nature, are they lim­it­ed to the types of enter­prise they can pursue?

de Alejo: When peo­ple look at the coop­er­a­tive mod­el, again par­tic­u­lar­ly work­er co-ops, they think, Well that sounds great. I can maybe see that work­ing for ten, fif­teen, peo­ple maybe twen­ty. But beyond that how do you real­ly take democ­ra­cy to scale as well, right?” You know, we’re see­ing the lim­its of polit­i­cal democ­ra­cy in our coun­try with the size that we have. And again the dis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth that we have. 

But I’ve seen work­er coop­er­a­tives func­tion with yes five, ten, fif­teen peo­ple. I’ve also seen them func­tion with three, four hun­dred peo­ple. But I think espe­cial­ly in light of the dual cri­sis, again in our econ­o­my and the envi­ron­ment, we should be ask­ing our­selves whether we want to grow busi­ness­es at that rate or whether we want these mas­sive com­pa­nies at that scale.

Anderson: What I was try­ing to get to with that last ques­tion is sort of the notion of, can we have all of the doo­dads that we love you know, the lap­tops and the things like that, if we say, switch to a soci­ety that was com­posed almost entire­ly of coop­er­a­tives? Or is there a struc­tur­al thing in the coop­er­a­tive that would make that hard? You kin­da have to have these giant public-owned com­pa­nies to amass the cap­i­tal to make these gigan­tic investments.

de Alejo: I mean, again going back to sort of what’s at the core of the coop­er­a­tive iden­ti­ty is real­ly meet­ing their mem­bers’ needs. And so I don’t see why you could­n’t have coop­er­a­tives that are pro­duc­ing all these sort of…doodads and what­not. I see that as per­fect­ly fea­si­ble. Again I think it’s more a ques­tion of to what extent does that pro­duc­tion con­tribute to increas­ing eco­log­i­cal crises, or to what extent is it extrac­tive and deplet­ing cur­rent resources? I mean, these are the kind of ques­tions that we’re going to be hav­ing to ask our­selves regard­less of whether we’re a coop­er­a­tive or not.

Anderson: I talked to a guy ear­li­er in the project name Gabriel Stempinski, and he’s real­ly inter­est­ed in web sites that encour­age peo­ple to share stuff. And he’s inter­est­ed in that for two rea­sons. One because he feels that we have a lack of com­mu­ni­ty, and that we’re atom­ized as a soci­ety. But also because he sees that as a major cri­tique of the cur­rent eco­nom­ic system. 

And lis­ten­ers have respond­ed to this on the site, and a lot of them have said, This is nice but it’s not a mean­ing­ful change. It’s still kind of growth-based cap­i­tal­ism.” And that’s some­thing I want to get into with coop­er­a­tives as well. So say we restruc­ture and we shift from pub­lic com­pa­nies to coop­er­a­tives. But do we still rely on kind of the under­ly­ing log­ic of growth? I mean, is that some­thing that a coop­er­a­tive real­ly address­es, or does it exist kind of with­in our cur­rent eco­nom­ic sys­tem and logic?

de Alejo: Yeah I mean, I per­son­al­ly think that we need to move beyond this sort of grow or die moti­va­tion that exists with­in the cur­rent econ­o­my. And I think that the coop­er­a­tive mod­el is suit­ed to address­ing those con­cerns, espe­cial­ly because the co-op mod­el is geared toward serv­ing mem­ber needs and not dri­ven by prof­it at the end of the day. That is some­thing that bodes well for the mod­el in terms of sustainability.

Again, that’s not to say that there aren’t co-ops out there that are unsus­tain­able in some ways. But these sort of no-growth ques­tions are things that I think the broad­er coop­er­a­tive move­ment real­ly needs to start talk­ing about in a more active way. 

Anderson: I kin­da want to get back to the things you were just men­tion­ing, kind of the under­ly­ing val­ue assump­tions of the coop­er­a­tive move­ment. Where did those come from, this notion of demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol being a virtue? The notion of, to some extent, equality.

de Alejo: Well, the the orig­i­nal coop­er­a­tive prin­ci­ples were born out of the expe­ri­ence of a group of weavers in Rochdale, England in the mid-1800s, who in the sort of peak of the Industrial Revolution were fac­ing pret­ty hor­ren­dous work­ing con­di­tions. Tried to orga­nize a strike. It failed, and so a lot of them sort of got togeth­er and said, Well, what are we gonna do?” And they end­ed up sort of pool­ing their resources togeth­er to start the first consumer-owned co-op.

Out of that expe­ri­ence they devel­oped an orig­i­nal set of prin­ci­ples that defined the sort of mod­ern coop­er­a­tive mod­el. And since then they’ve been reshaped through the International Cooperative Alliance, which is I think the largest membership-based orga­ni­za­tion at the inter­na­tion­al lev­el that unites co-ops. And they’ve real­ly refined those prin­ci­ples over the last 150 years. They don’t come out of this the­o­ret­i­cal exer­cise, it comes out of the con­crete expe­ri­ence of what worked for them at the time. You know, you could trace coop­er­a­tive forms of work back to when humans first put their feet on the plan­et. But when it comes to the sort of mod­ern coop­er­a­tive mod­el, peo­ple trace those roots back to what they call the Rochdale Pioneers.

Anderson: I’m kind of inter­est­ed in the val­ues as they con­trast with broadly-held cul­tur­al val­ues about growth and com­pe­ti­tion. Our con­ver­sa­tion’s com­ing on the heels of a con­ver­sa­tion I had in New Orleans with Walter Block, who’s an anarcho-capitalist. I mean, you can’t get any more free market.

de Alejo: Mm hm.

Anderson: I’m try­ing to imag­ine our con­ver­sa­tion with Walter here and what he would say. And he would prob­a­bly go, That coop­er­a­tive mod­el’s a great thing. You guys go and do that. But there are a lot of oth­er peo­ple who are going to be doing oth­er mod­els, and you may not be able to com­pete with them. Maybe we’re still liv­ing in a cul­ture where the bot­tom line mat­ters the most.” Can the coop­er­a­tive sur­vive or do you need a dif­fer­ent sort of social mind­set, or do you need a reg­u­la­to­ry struc­ture to encour­age it? Or will they just be oblit­er­at­ed by these giant pub­lic companies?

de Alejo: I mean, those are real con­cerns that coop­er­a­tives are fac­ing right now, you know, espe­cial­ly as a result of a lot of the free trade agree­ments that have been passed over the years and increas­ing glob­al­iza­tion. You know, Mondragon is fac­ing this despite how strong they are and how much of a mod­el they are. The eco­nom­ic cri­sis hit them and they’re hav­ing to com­pete in this glob­al­ized mar­ket, which is why they’ve start­ed to branch out into South America and oth­er parts of the world.

So coop­er­a­tives are not immune to these things. And so I would argue that while coop­er­a­tives need to play a role in mak­ing this tran­si­tion toward a new econ­o­my, that we also need to com­bine our efforts with social move­ments on the ground in these dif­fer­ent places. That we can’t do it alone and we should­n’t be under the illu­sion that we’ll be able to take things to scale to where one day the sort of cap­tains of indus­try will just hand over the keys to us and say, Well, you can have your coop­er­a­tive econ­o­my. You beat us.” I don’t think the world works that way.

Anderson: What does the world look like if the coop­er­a­tive mod­el fiz­zles out and we fol­low the same kind of eco­nom­ic log­ic we’ve been fol­low­ing for a while? Where does that go?

de Alejo: I think we’re look­ing at feu­dal­is­tic pat­terns of own­er­ship, of wealth. We’re look­ing at increas­ing lev­els of eco­log­i­cal destruc­tion. I mean, we have an econ­o­my that is a wealth-concentrating sys­tem and there­fore an increas­ing­ly unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem. We have an econ­o­my that is based on the idea grow or die, as I men­tioned ear­li­er, on a plan­et that has finite resources and so it’s a fun­da­men­tal­ly unsus­tain­able econ­o­my. I don’t think that we can stand the cur­rent econ­o­my for much longer. I don’t want to think about what what things would look like if we were to stay on the cur­rent path.

Anderson: I’ve talked to, as I men­tioned, a vari­ety of folks in this project. And when I’ve told them about thinkers who view the cur­rent econ­o­my as unsus­tain­able, some of them have said human cre­ativ­i­ty is infi­nite, and our abil­i­ty to find new resources and to solve prob­lems is infinite.”

de Alejo: I mean, sim­ply put I think that’s an incred­i­bly arro­gant state­ment that ignores extreme lev­els of inequal­i­ty and human suf­fer­ing that have tak­en place that have result­ed from I think that very kind of think­ing. You know, I don’t know that argu­ments along those lines should even be tak­en seri­ous­ly at this point. If you real­ly take stock of what’s hap­pen­ing around the world, there’s not much mer­it to that lev­el of arro­gance. I don’t think we can tol­er­ate it for much longer.

Anderson: Another ques­tion I think that’s come up in terms of this has been sort of a ten­sion between social equi­ty and a decent stan­dard of liv­ing for every­one, and also envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty. Can we bal­ance these things? Can we both bring a lot of peo­ple into the mid­dle class? So say we have coop­er­a­tives and they take off globally.

de Alejo: Mm hm.

Anderson: And peo­ple are afflu­ent and they can now afford new things. Does that inevitably take an enor­mous envi­ron­men­tal toll? Can we have a clean envi­ron­ment and can we have a decent stan­dard of living?

de Alejo: You know, I would have to hear a more con­crete def­i­n­i­tion of what you mean by decent stan­dard of liv­ing. I mean—

Anderson: Unfortunately this project is stuck in America because of my own finances so it’s been an American con­ver­sa­tion. So when I say decent stan­dard of liv­ing I’m think­ing kind of what most Americans would think of as a middle-class stan­dard of living.

de Alejo: Right. You know… One of my frus­tra­tions with what on the sur­face seems to be a healthy con­ver­sa­tion around devel­op­ing a more green econ­o­my has to do with the fact that under­neath a lot of the rhetoric, ulti­mate­ly what a lot of peo­ple are call­ing for, or a lot of advo­cates for a green econ­o­my are call­ing for in the United States in par­tic­u­lar, is a path­way for us to main­tain cur­rent con­sump­tion lev­els but feel good about it, right. So I can get my hybrid car and put solar pan­els on my house and these sorts of things. Without real­ly tak­ing into account again the ques­tion of finite resources and whether cur­rent lev­els of con­sump­tion in the United States are sus­tain­able, peri­od. Because I think peo­ple are rub­bing up against this real­i­ty that we’re going to have to start doing some­thing dif­fer­ent. But I don’t think they’re will­ing to… I don’t think a lot of peo­ple are will­ing to give up. A lot of these ameni­ties at the end of the day are just fun­da­men­tal­ly unsustainable.

Anderson: And do you think that’s some­thing that we can sort of get to ratio­nal­ly? Or is it some­thing where you need to feel a crisis?

de Alejo: It depends on time and place I would say. You know, I think some peo­ple are cer­tain­ly capa­ble of com­ing to terms with the real­i­ty around them and chang­ing their ways. I think oth­ers are going to have to be pushed a lit­tle bit, and that’s where I go back to this ques­tion around real­ly find­ing that bal­ance between start­ing to cre­ate a new econ­o­my that reflects a dif­fer­ent set of val­ues and prin­ci­ples, and com­bin­ing that with efforts on the ground to resist the cur­rent econ­o­my, which is destroy­ing lives and the plan­et around the country. 

Anderson: Let’s have fun and look into the crys­tal ball. What’s the best-case sce­nario? Everything works out. Let’s just say the titans of indus­try hand over the keys and say, Here you go.” What does a new econ­o­my look like?

de Alejo: I think we can talk about some com­mon val­ues and prin­ci­ples, some of which I men­tioned ear­li­er. But I’m not nec­es­sar­i­ly the kind of per­son that is in favor of blue­prints because I think ulti­mate­ly that econ­o­my is going to look dif­fer­ent depend­ing on time and place, and it should. One of the pit­falls that folks ran into, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the Soviet Union and oth­er places, is think­ing that we have that sil­ver bul­let or this one-size-fits-all mod­el that we can just sort of take off the shelf and apply in X loca­tion and every­thing will be alright. There should be a healthy lev­el of diversity—you know, with a com­mon set of val­ues and prin­ci­ples that are guid­ing us. I would assume that there would be col­lec­tive own­er­ship, work­er self-management of indus­tries to a large degree, oper­at­ing on that prin­ci­ple of coop­er­a­tion and instead of com­pe­ti­tion. But again I would hope that we’d see a rich diver­si­ty of models.

Anderson: A lot of peo­ple in this project have talked about the indi­vid­ual. A lot of peo­ple have talked about the cri­sis of indi­vid­u­al­ism. A lot of peo­ple have talked about the need for more indi­vid­u­al­ism. And the need for more indi­vid­ual agency. And some­thing I always won­der about with the indi­vid­ual, and espe­cial­ly in con­ver­sa­tions where we’re talk­ing about sus­tain­abil­i­ty and sort of a long-term health and we’re also talk­ing about sort of a col­lec­tive good in a lot of ways… Can we have the same sort of indi­vid­ual agency that we’ve come to real­ly expect I think in demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­eties and also man­age sus­tain­abil­i­ty ques­tions? Or do they involve a lev­el of col­lec­tive think­ing that will neces­si­tate us giv­ing up some of our sort of indi­vid­ual liberties?

de Alejo: That’s a big ques­tion. You know, I think to the extent that we’re seri­ous about indi­vid­ual free­dom, we can’t have that con­ver­sa­tion in any mean­ing­ful sense with­out talk­ing about lib­er­a­tion on a broad­er scale. 

Anderson: How do you have a con­ver­sa­tion between peo­ple who are say­ing you know, we real­ly need to kind of zoom out a lit­tle bit, look at these larg­er issues and say, Think of your indi­vid­ual free­dom relat­ing to these big­ger prob­lems,” and then have a con­ver­sa­tion between them and peo­ple who say insur­ing the great­est amount of indi­vid­ual free­dom and look­ing at peo­ple as atoms will ulti­mate­ly result in a bet­ter com­mon good? But that com­mon good can’t real­ly be looked at as a thing, or struc­tured, because then you’re get­ting too author­i­tar­i­an and too inefficient?

de Alejo: Mm hm. Well, I mean frankly with some of those peo­ple it’s just not worth hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion, I think. I’ve had mul­ti­ple con­ver­sa­tions with staunch lib­er­tar­i­ans that have been com­plete­ly unpro­duc­tive. And frankly I’m not inter­est­ed in wast­ing my time in hav­ing that con­ver­sa­tion with some of those folks because the ide­o­log­i­cal blind­ers are so thick that it’s not an hon­est con­ver­sa­tion, it’s about scor­ing points or talk­ing past peo­ple. And it’s just not pro­duc­tive at the end of the day.

The same log­ic that goes into the sort of indi­vid­u­al­ist frame­work is the same that fed into neolib­er­al poli­cies that have been com­plete­ly destruc­tive of economies. You know, you look at places like Chile, you look at the United States, you look at Mexico, where this log­ic has led us his­tor­i­cal­ly. And I think it has very lit­tle foun­da­tion to stand on. You know, you look at the peri­od of the rob­ber barons in the US and what led to hav­ing antitrust laws and all these sorts of things. I mean this is the same kind of log­ic that fed into these his­tor­i­cal peri­ods where I don’t think many peo­ple would like to go back to. 

Anderson: So, is—

de Alejo: I’m not look­ing to con­vince them, is my point at the end of the day.

Anderson: And so if we’re inter­est­ed in a broad­er val­ue shift, does that hap­pen through con­ver­sa­tion with oth­er peo­ple, or does it hap­pen through oth­er means?

de Alejo: Well, I mean when you think about it peo­ple are turned on to new ideas through a vari­ety of chan­nels. So, for one per­son it might be a movie that turned them on to a new way of think­ing or act­ing. For oth­er peo­ple it might be a book or an expe­ri­ence or a con­ver­sa­tion. There’s a whole range of areas that we need to be engaged in to have that kind of cul­ture shift. 

And so here at Cooperation Texas, we not only devel­op work­er co-ops but we also go out into the com­mu­ni­ty and talk, give pre­sen­ta­tions and work­shops at church­es, schools, community-based orga­ni­za­tions. We put out edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als in English and Spanish. We try and engage all kinds of dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties on these con­ver­sa­tions. And so I think it’s going to have to hap­pen at mul­ti­ple lev­els. But I don’t think there’s any kind of sil­ver bul­let or one-size-fits-all. We real­ly have to start think­ing about all these dif­fer­ent ways that peo­ple engage new mate­r­i­al, and start to speak in a way that res­onates with people.

Anderson: Do you think this is a moment that is par­tic­u­lar­ly crucial? 

de Alejo: I mean, I think it is a crit­i­cal moment in our his­to­ry. And par­tic­u­lar­ly giv­en the crises that we’ve been talk­ing about, peo­ple in times of crises are more open to a dif­fer­ent set of val­ues, a dif­fer­ent set of ideas. And to the extent that we’re capa­ble of engag­ing that, now is our time I think. Again, more and more peo­ple are talk­ing about the kind of ques­tions that we’re dis­cussing around new econ­o­my, think­ing dif­fer­ent­ly about our polit­i­cal sys­tems, all of these questions.

You know, I think about even my fam­i­ly when the Great Recession” first hit in 2007. I remem­ber talk­ing to my dad—and I come from a fair­ly tra­di­tion­al right-wing Cuban con­ser­v­a­tive fam­i­ly. And I recall hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with my dad where his sis­ter had just lost her job, her hus­band was also unem­ployed, and they were strug­gling and lost their health­care. And my dad, who would have nev­er made this argu­ment oth­er­wise and prob­a­bly would­n’t admit to say­ing he made this argu­ment at the time, said to me, You know, I just think every­one has a right to health­care.” Which is a con­ver­sa­tion I would have nev­er been able to have with him pre­vi­ous­ly, that start­ed to open up as a result of the inescapa­bil­i­ty of the impact of the cur­rent crises that we’re in. And so I think the cracks are form­ing, not just here in the United States but around the world, and we’re see­ing more and more peo­ple start­ing to open up those cracks and push for a more just and sus­tain­able society.

There’s a shift in con­scious­ness that is hap­pen­ing. I don’t real­ly put much faith in the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. My faith lies with peo­ple on the ground and cre­at­ing those solu­tions at the local lev­el. And rather than hav­ing that trick­le down like we men­tioned ear­li­er, ide­al­ly we’ll see more of a trick­le up from the bot­tom up.

Micah Saul: I think the best place to start here is talk­ing about con­ver­sa­tion. Especially com­ing right on the heels of Walter Block’s con­ver­sa­tion, Carlos’ talk about con­ver­sa­tion is impor­tant to look at. 

Aengus Anderson: You know, it seems like some­times we get these things in pairs, just because of I’ll do two inter­views back to back, and every now and then you get peo­ple who are so ide­o­log­i­cal­ly opposed to each oth­er. And it feels like we got that with Zubrin and Jackson.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: And I feel like we kin­da get that with Block and Carlos, you know. When I went in to talk to Carlos, I was think­ing about Block. I’d just record­ed that con­ver­sa­tion a cou­ple days pre­vi­ous­ly. And the ques­tion being, is the inter­est­ing back and forth only pos­si­ble as we talk about the two episodes our­selves, or would there be an inter­est­ing back and forth if we took both of those guys and put them down at a table next to each other?

Saul: And Carlos would argue…that there’s just no point to putting them at a table togeth­er. That they just…they could not talk to each oth­er. Nothing prac­ti­cal would happen.

Anderson: So let’s break this down a lit­tle bit more. Because we’re the great opti­mists, appar­ent­ly. We still believe in con­ver­sa­tion to some extent. Why is it impos­si­ble? What makes this such a dif­fi­cult thing to bridge?

Saul: That’s one of the fun­da­men­tal ques­tions of this project as a whole. I think it comes down to…they’re both oper­at­ing in dif­fer­ent real­i­ties, with a dif­fer­ent set of facts, and a dif­fer­ent set of under­ly­ing assump­tions. And even though they may share the lan­guage between them, they prob­a­bly mean fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent things, right. 

So Walter Block claims that if you boil his ideas down, at the root of it all is non-aggression. I think Carlos would prob­a­bly say, Yeah, non-aggression, that’s great.” Non-aggression means very dif­fer­ent things between them, in the same way that non-aggression means some­thing very dif­fer­ent for Walter Block and Lawrence Torcello, or Walter Block and Francione. The words them­selves just mean dif­fer­ent things. So, I kind of under­stand where Carlos is com­ing from when he says that it’s not worth it for them to talk. I…don’t like it, but I cer­tain­ly under­stand why he says that.

Anderson: Well you know, it’s inter­est­ing because Carlos, you know, he’s not an ide­o­logue in any way, right. He’s will­ing to try dif­fer­ent ideas. And so Carlos seems like he real­ly has a deep appre­ci­a­tion of con­ver­sa­tion, but that there needs to be some sense of back and forth. That ideas need to not be all fixed in advance. And I won­der if Block feels exact­ly the same way. So I won­der if both of them would look at each oth­er and go, Boy, I sure wish this per­son was open-minded so I could have a con­ver­sa­tion with them.”

Saul: I think that’s prob­a­bly true.

Anderson: Now, is that false par­i­ty? Everyone says we would love to talk to some­one open-minded—of course we all mean some­thing dif­fer­ent when we say that. How do we deter­mine if some­one else is being utter­ly dog­mat­ic and they can’t have a con­ver­sa­tion with any­one? Or, on the oth­er hand, how can we fig­ure out if it’s us being dog­mat­ic and our blind­ers are on so thick that we feel that no one else can have a con­ver­sa­tion when real­ly that’s a prob­lem with­in our­selves? You know, it seems like the dif­fi­cul­ty we have is of course teas­ing out who is tru­ly open-minded to conversation. 

Saul: If sud­den­ly we’re hav­ing to look at our­selves and ques­tion you know, if we are as open-minded as we think we are, like, are we even oper­at­ing in the same real­i­ty? Do we know what facts we’re work­ing with at that point? Is that maybe part of it? If we were to put Carlos and Walter Block at a table togeth­er, are we putting two peo­ple at a table that are going to be just draw­ing from a dif­fer­ent net­work of facts, just fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent truth?

Anderson: Which is daunt­ing, right. Because I imag­ine if you actu­al­ly were in that sce­nario, both of them would have armies of books and arti­cles and stud­ies that they could cite. And that feels like that gets us back to this prob­lem we’ve been deal­ing with for so long, which is com­plex­i­ty. So maybe part of the issue that we run into in this project is that con­ver­sa­tion becomes dif­fi­cult because we have mul­ti­ple real­i­ties backed up with their own sets of internally-validated facts. And if you want to actu­al­ly start break­ing those apart and going, Okay well, some of these are real­ly wrong,” then you have to have an enor­mous amount of time and knowl­edge because these issues are real­ly deep. There’s a lot of lit­er­a­ture out there. A lot of it’s bad. A lot of it’s con­tex­tu­al­ized in strange ways. A lot of it’s misquoted.

So if we’re going to start judg­ing which facts are valid and which facts are not, I mean you could spend the rest of your life doing that. And maybe that’s why these dif­fer­ent uni­vers­es all live. And maybe that’s why we can’t tell who’s open-minded and who’s not. Because we can’t even get the facts lined up. This would dri­ve a sci­en­tist nuts.

Saul: Oh my God.

Anderson: They would say there’s one set of facts.

Saul: As as much as it pains me to say this, sci­en­tif­ic reduc­tion­ism only gets you so far.

Anderson: And a lot of these things we’re talk­ing about are human­i­ties things, right.

Saul: Exactly.

Anderson: Or social sci­ence. You know. You can’t sub­ject it to the same sort of empir­i­cal tests that you would physics. And that leaves us at a point where we’re look­ing at dis­course. So if we’re look­ing at dis­course, does that take us back to Carolyn Raffensperger?

Saul: Interesting. Keep going with that. What do you mean?

Anderson: So, I’m think­ing of that point where she left us and she said, You know, I’m inter­est­ed in a lot of these oth­er ideas. These ideas of peo­ple who I don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly agree with.” But she said, I don’t need to have a con­ver­sa­tion with them.” And that was… I mean, at the time I remem­ber we talked about like is this deeply, deeply cyn­i­cal? Does this mean that in our col­lec­tive effort to talk about a bet­ter future we’re always con­demned to it degen­er­at­ing into a lob­by­ing bat­tle between a bunch of ide­o­logues who have no com­mon ground and are just sort of try­ing to pum­mel the open-minded mid­dle? I feel like we’re look­ing at this ques­tion anew.

Saul: With a year between then and now of talk­ing to oth­er peo­ple. So maybe we have dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive now.

Anderson: Maybe we’re ready for Raffensperger’s cyn­i­cism? Realism? Well, there are a lot of lit­tle details we could talk about about coop­er­a­tives, but I think we’ve just talked long enough about con­ver­sa­tion, and I think that’s a pret­ty good place to leave it. 

The next con­ver­sa­tion is a mon­ster, and I have hours and hours and hours of mate­r­i­al to edit. It’s with Chuck Bowden. He’s the author of Murder City. He spent a lot of time in Juarez. And we are going to talk about what the future looks like when you’re look­ing at it from one of the most vio­lent cities on the planet.

That was Carlos Perez de Alejo, record­ed in Austin, Texas on December 10th2012.

Saul: And you are of course lis­ten­ing to The Conversation. Find us on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com.

Neil Prendergast: You can fol­low us on Twitter at @aengusanderson.

Saul: I’m Micah Saul.

Prendergast: I’m Neil Prendergast.

Anderson: And I’m Aengus Anderson. Thanks for listening.

Further Reference

This inter­view at the Conversation web site, with project notes, com­ments, and tax­o­nom­ic orga­ni­za­tion spe­cif­ic to The Conversation.

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