The United States (U.S.) recently completed a national election. Millions of people went to the polls and voted for President as well as for legislators and considered referenda on multiple issues. Shortly before the election, current U.S. President Barack Obama told a crowd in North Carolina that the “fate of the republic” and the “fate of the world” depended on how they planned to vote (“US Election” 2016). Yet, despite the asserted high stakes, only 58 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot on November 9, 2016 (Bialik 2016). This response is typical and turnout is consistently much lower for state and local elections (Holbrook and Weinschenk 2014). Indeed, local political contests often attract fewer than 20 percent of registered voters.
Not only did less than 6 in 10 registered voters participate in this year’s national vote, but on election night, popular comedian Stephen Colbert also told his audience that the election had taken up “precious brain space” (Luibrand 2016). He argued that whether “your side won or lost,” Americans do not have to “do this” for a while. He concluded by saying it was now time to “get back to your life” (Ibid.). Along similar lines, journalist and political writer Matt Taibbi wrote days before the election that Americans should turn off politics permanently. He asserted that the only meaningful avenue most Americans have for political expression is voting every four years and he urged Americans only to think about politics when such concerns intersect with their “real lives” (Taibbi 2016)(Taibbi 2016). Colbert and Taibbi’s comments reflect a common misconception that conflates democracy with voting and asserts a sharp distinction between democratic participation and daily life.
However, as Rothschild has argued, there is very little “flesh on the skeleton of democracy” if it only consists of periodic voting (2009, 1038). Indeed, according to Sen (2005), casting a ballot is only one part of the “much larger story” of democracy. In addition to voting, democracy entails the exercise of “participatory reasoning and public decision-making” (Ibid.). Perry has argued aptly that without people actively participating in ruling themselves, “there is no democracy—no rule (kratia) by the people (demos)” (2014, 205).
With this robust view of democracy in mind, I here explore democratically organized cooperatives as an example of sites in which democracy as active self-governance is realized in their members’ daily lives. I have first sought to problematize the idea that democracy entails only voting in periodic government elections. Secondly, in view of the fact that many Americans are not even participating in this weaker understanding of democracy as voting, I follow Rothschild’s argument that democratic cooperatives represent one possibility to “catalyze” political interest and engagement among more Americans (2009, 1024).
Cooperatives as Sites of Lived Democracy
Directly challenging Colbert and Taibbi’s assertions of a binary distinction between democracy and private life, there are many individuals who participate in organizations that practice democracy on a daily basis. Many such entities fall under the “cooperative” umbrella. Cooperative organizations are “owned, controlled and operated for the benefit of their members” (“Types of Cooperatives” 2016). They typically adhere to seven principles of cooperation: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for community (“About Us” 2016). The degree to which active and regular democratic participation occurs varies by cooperative (Low, Donovan, and Gieseking 2012).
However, there are more than 200 cooperatives in the U.S. and thousands around the world that actively work to include all members in decision-making processes with equal standing (Kennelly and Odekon 2016, 165). These include what are typically called “worker cooperatives,” which are owned and managed by each firm’s employee/owners—examples include the Arizmendi Bakery in San Francisco, CA and New Era Windows in Chicago, IL—as well as a network of living cooperatives organized as the North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO). These organizations often do not operate along hierarchical rational-bureaucratic models of authority, but rather on the basis of what Rothschild-Whitt has called collectivist-democratic authority (1979, 511). According to Rothschild-Whitt, democratic control is the “foremost characteristic” of such entities (1979, 518).
The decision-making mechanisms used by democratically organized cooperatives vary. Such organizations often operate on the basic assumption of one-person, one-vote (Estey 2011, 358). Some use majority-rule voting while others pursue consensus building strategies (Rothschild-Whitt 1979, 512). Additionally, individuals may cast their votes publicly or by private ballot (Harnecker 2009, 31). Ng and Ng have argued that, in theory, any organization can incorporate varied democratic practices (2009, 83). However, the cooperatives of interest here institutionalize such processes and require, as Ng and Ng have suggested, “open meetings” in which all members have equal decision- making authority (Ibid.). The key point is that all members of such organizations have equal standing not only to participate in decision-making processes, but also to authorize, through majority voting or consensus, their collective decisions on a regular and on-going basis.
Democratically structured cooperatives assume different organizational forms. Some operate as for-profit businesses while others pursue non-profit objectives. According to the Democracy at Work Institute, there were 256 worker-owned and managed cooperatives in the United States in 2013, which operate on a one-person, one- vote rule. Other organizations, such as NASCO, coordinate democratically structured living cooperatives in which residents share equally in the responsibilities of daily life, such as cooking and cleaning, and make decisions collectively on issues pertinent to their households (“About Us” 2016). In cooperatives, members—employee/owners in for-profit worker organizations and residents in housing entities—participate daily in decisions that affect their lives. Such practices demonstrate that democratic organizational governance is possible in both the economic and personal/private spheres. The next section explores how these experiences can help to build citizen engagement in wider political processes.
Cooperatives Build Democratic Capacities
Democratic self-governance has intrinsic value (Sen 1999, 10). Individuals and groups should have the ability to participate in decisions that affect their lives (Fraser 2008, 411; Scholte 2002, 285). Democratic cooperatives can facilitate this process. Additionally, beyond the valuable exercise of self-governance for cooperative members, participation in such organizations can also help members build the virtues and capacities necessary to participate in democratic public institutions at all levels of governance.
According to Perry, democratically organized workplaces can work to break down class divisions among members (2014, 206). Reducing or eliminating in cooperatives the distinction between professionals who make decisions and nonprofessionals who carry out tasks prescribed by those in authority provides individuals an “education” in the capacities necessary for self-governance. This participation teaches citizens how to be active rather than passive as well as how to include the views and interests of others in their deliberations (Ibid.). Furthermore, workplace cooperatives offer institutional arrangements that facilitate prolonged and meaningful contact among people of different backgrounds. Perry has argued such interactions in democratic workplaces have more potential to reduce prejudice based on race, gender and other identity markers than occurs in hierarchical, capitalist workplaces (206, 216).
Two studies addressing worker cooperatives in Hong Kong and Venezuela have offered further insights into the value of daily democratic practices as incubators of civic virtue and capacity. Ng and Ng have asserted that conflict is inherent to participatory democracy (2009, 185). Members of the three Hong Kong cooperatives these scholars studied found this characteristic emotionally taxing. However, participants in one of the cooperatives reported that their engagement had helped them improve their interpersonal and conflict management skills and that they had become more patient and tolerant through their involvement in the organizations (2009, 197). Harnecker has also argued that many Venezuelan cooperative members became more active in their communities as a result of their participation in such organizations (2009, 35).
These findings, both in the United States and other contexts, point toward the daily practice of democratic self-governance as a potential component of addressing societal divisions and building the skills necessary to ensure civically engaged citizens. Given that voter turnout is particularly low in the U.S. compared to many other nations, the country might look toward democratic cooperatives as an alternative space in which individuals can exercise self-governance and as a model that may build engagement with broader democratic processes.
Varman and Chakrabarti have perceptively observed that the practice of democracy is an “evolving reality” (2004, 187) that requires acknowledging the difficulty of building democratic norms and negotiating the contradictions and challenges of maintaining them. For this reason, calls such as Colbert and Taibbi’s to disengage from active self-governance or to define it as only periodically relevant to the supposed “real world” are misguided in their conflation of democracy with the act of voting and failure to recognize the difficult, on-going civic virtue and engagement necessary to maintain self-governance.
Finally, in a thoughtful exploration of democratic practices in the workplace, Pausch concluded that: “Citizens cannot become convinced democrats if they—in their daily lives, in schools and in their workplace—do not experience democracy” (2013, 16). Democratically structured cooperatives represent one mechanism by which individuals in the United States may begin to build daily experiences of lived democracy that offer the potential for encouraging wider and deeper citizen engagement in their collective self-governance. While the number of democratic cooperatives is relatively small, these organizations serve as an existing nucleus that suggests that alternatives are possible as well as templates for building new and restructuring existing organizations.
 Forty-two percent of these cooperatives started as hierarchical capitalist businesses (“A State of the Sector” 2015).
2 Though cooperative organizations are primarily of interest here for the ways in which they both practice and teach democratic self-governance, there is also evidence to suggest that worker-owned and managed cooperatives are at least as efficient as hierarchical capitalist businesses and in some cases more so (Kennelly and Odekon 2016, 167–68). Additionally, the Democracy at Work Institute reports that a 67 organization sub-sample of the 256 worker-owned and managed cooperatives in the US had a slightly higher average profit margin than comparable hierarchically organized firms (“A State of the Sector” 2015).
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Jake Keyel is a second-year doctoral student in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. His research interests include critical migration and refugee studies, international ethics and the connections between state violence and displacement and deepening democratic practices of governance. Prior to enrolling at Virginia Tech, he worked for five years in the non-profit sector focused with organizations focused on integration of new immigrants, particularly from the Middle East and North Africa. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from Nazareth College in Sociology and a Master’s degree in International Relations with a concentration in Middle Eastern Affairs from Syracuse University.