Twenty Years Before the Masthead

This edition completes 20 years of Cooperative Grocer, an event that is of small significance but which prompts my gratitude: for work, service, and relations of solidarity with so many fine people and organizations that it would take this entire column to name them all.

Actually, those friends and mentors extend to nearly 40 years, from when many of us awakened in the 1960s and ’70s. And they help keep me awake today!—for the American empire continues as well, in some ways more destructive than ever. Its global intervention and wars reflect domestic political and cultural divisions, and many of those divisions can be traced to the egalitarian, democratic promise raised in that earlier era.

Usefulness, in my view, has to be continually earned rather than simply assumed. Conversations about cooperatives, while based on principles to which we pledge allegiance, proceed primarily through practice. Cooperative principles and values inform that practice and describe why we do what we do. But, from the onset, the focus of this publication has been what co-ops do, emphasizing professionalism and sharing improved practices. Given the independent origins of these co-ops and their history of repeatedly reinventing the wheel, this editorial emphasis has been essential.

Nevertheless, today’s food co-op success, though it is well earned, often rests on a weak foundation of education and understanding about cooperative mission, principles, and values. Repeatedly, conversations within food co-ops about what makes our organizations distinctive fail to give primacy to cooperative ownership of capital, instead highlighting aspects such as product lines or special services.

Excellent service is essential in order to thrive in the marketplace, yet service in cooperatives is also a means to their mission of building democratic ownership. Most of today’s co-ops have had 20 to 30 years of improving professional practice, yet they evidence need for more in the specific area of ownership: in marketing to a public that is confused about cooperatives; in educating members about investing in the co-op and in the future; and in strengthening and leveraging the equity section of the balance sheet. Better practice in this area would reinforce co-ops’ foundation and the ability of organizations, leaders, and member owners to align with other cooperatives.

Beyond cooperatives, if we believe in ourselves, we have principles and values to share. Along with appreciating what has been accomplished, we can expand both the scope and scale of our work. Our society is presently neither democratic nor sustainable, and we are in new territory that is fraught with both danger and possibility, an environment that foretells disruption and challenges. Organizational alignment and potential alliances are critical and will extend, not only to other cooperatives, but also to other groups and projects attempting to restore democracy and to protect citizens and communities.

These broader alliances will encourage us to confront our doubts and self-limiting notions about cooperatives and to remember cooperators’ passionate founding desires. Co-ops were launched to create an alternative to a capitalist empire that fouls its own nests and burns the globe, that keeps most of its citizens cocooned while many others are incarcerated or otherwise invisible. As the ongoing damage is revealed, cooperatives can offer an alternative, democratic vision.

My own chief work aim is to advance the conversation about cooperatives and community survival. Meanwhile, at home we’ve just completed building a house that is lovely and durable, investing all we could in a structure that should last for more than a century after I am gone.

Are you and your cooperative investing in a sustainable future? The conversation is urgent and essential, and future circumstances will ask us to have the courage of our convictions. As one long-time friend in cooperatives stated about the message of Gar Alperovitz and America Beyond Capitalism, discussed last time: “I particularly appreciated what he said about putting our fears on the table and then asking ourselves what we’d do tomorrow if we knew our efforts made no difference. That is always what I come back to—even if I knew for certain the biosphere would be destroyed and we would live in a fascist dictatorship for 1,000 years, I would still do exactly what I’m doing now.”

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Dave Gutknecht is editor of Cooperative Grocer (dave @cooperativegrocer.coop).

See other articles from this issue: #120 September - October - 2005