By Omar Freilla, Movement Vision Lab
Posted on November 12, 2007
Think about this question for a moment. How often do you experience democracy?
We've all been told that we live in a democracy. We've heard it repeated over and over by our schools, media, friends, family, co-workers and random people on the street. Democrats and Republicans alike say we've got so much of it here in the U.S. that we've got to export it overseas on fighter jets. Surprisingly though, whenever I ask people this question all I get is silence.
…So do you have an answer yet? Are you still thinking about it? Is it once a week, once a month, once a year, once every few years at the voting booth? Maybe you're wondering when the last time was? If you're wondering what my definition of democracy happens to be, then that in itself is a problem. After all, if I asked how often you experienced a car crash, unemployment, a full stomach, relaxation, anger or genuine happiness you probably wouldn't bother to wonder what I meant?
The fact of the matter is that, despite our rhetoric, most of us in the U.S. rarely experience democracy in our daily lives. We elect people within our political system to represent our interests at local, regional and national levels. And we take great pride in using "one person, one vote" to do it (the electoral college system being the one great exception). Feminism has brought democracy into a small yet growing number of our homes. But by and large the institutions of our daily lives, the places where we work, play, learn, and live are fundamentally anti-democratic. Children learn form their parents to do as they're told. Teachers take over the reigns from parents, placing more emphasis on command and control than on critical thinking. They, in turn, pass the product (us) on to our final destination -- our jobs -- where bosses tell us what to do and when to do it. Throughout the whole chain of command we're expected to merely do as we're told. Asking for input or sharing decision-making is not part of the equation. Parents, teachers and bosses who cultivate our desires and help us find our own path are the celebrated exception rather than the rule.
For the most part we have little say in the institutions that govern our daily lives. Is it any wonder then that so few people turn out to the voting booth to influence the political institutions that govern our country, regions, cities, and towns? If there's one exception to all of this, it's probably consumption. Shopping -- assuming you've got the cash to do it -- is perhaps the only part of daily life where we feel a sense of power and influence. Is it any wonder then that shopping is the thing we do most when we're not working, or that we consume so much that we're trashing the planet?
If what we want is a healthy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then perhaps we should be paying greater attention to making democracy a part of our daily lives. A democratic economy requires more than conscious consumption or pushing politicians to keep closer tabs on corporations. Bringing democracy to our workplaces requires a fundamental restructuring of ownership. It may seem exotic, grand, and far-fetched but there is a very real and growing movement of people in this country who are doing just that by establishing worker-owned cooperatives.
Worker co-ops have achieved great successes in other parts of the world, from the Mondragon Cooperatives in the Basque region of northern Spain, to the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, and on to Argentina, worker-run businesses have been gathering strength and establishing an alternative to the economy we've been raised on. Here at home, the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives is helping to grow the worker co-op movement. And as unlikely as it may seem to those who associate co-ops with hippies and lava lamps, the worker co-op movement has taken a foothold even in the South Bronx, birthplace of hip hop. The largest worker co-op in the U.S. is the 1,000-brown-women-strong Cooperative Home Care Associates. Nearby, we at Green Worker Cooperatives are doing our own part for a "green collar" job-filled economic democracy, incubating worker co-ops in the South Bronx that are also good to the earth. And in just a few months we'll be launching our first worker co-op, ReBuilders Source, the first worker cooperative reuse center for building materials in the country.
The alternatives are already here. That other world we hope for is already happening. And we don't have to go very far to see it. Greening the economy and holding corporations accountable mean we each have to do our part to extend the dream of democracy into new realms, break old taboos, and live in ways that are genuinely fulfilling. It's democracy -- where it counts.
Omar Freilla is the Executive Director of Green Worker Cooperatives in the Bronx, NY.