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 10th, 2012.

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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