6 – Sensemaking in harsh times – the argument for co-ops, not fascism

By the Co-op Cheerleader Squad

How do we make sense of things when everything seems to be falling apart? This may seem like a simple question, but everything depends upon it. Sensemaking is the practice of directing raw feelings towards stories that supposedly explain why those feelings are there. It’s an evolutionary trait in humans, and it helps us come together to solve problems that are bigger than any one of us. When sensemaking is corrupted, though, it can be directed towards fantasies that forestall changing the conditions from which harm is occurring1.

During times of economic and environmental strife, those whose actions have caused the strife will do everything they can to deflect blame away from themselves, inventing scapegoats. This is why, every time capitalism causes mass strife (as it is designed to do), the capitalists will platform fascist performance artists who invent scapegoats as a way of deflecting blame from the capitalists.2 The fascists will tempt us to blame and harm members of groups who are already being oppressed. They will tempt us to identify with the capitalists who oppress us rather than with our neighbors. They will urge us to project our anxieties about ourselves onto oppressed groups, and in doing so, they will try to make it feel irresistible to harm, imprison, or murder members of these groups. 

Be watchful for attempts to get you to hate the poor, to hate on immigrants, homeless folks, to restrain women, to police people’s gender and other borders. These are all tactics that those in power use when their power is declining to distract everyone from holding those who caused the troubles accountable.

What would it look like if we held the weapons companies accountable for manufacturing wars? It is worth contemplating that when weapons companies are publicly traded on the stock market, they are beholden to their shareholders to manufacture a steady stream of wars so they can keep making bombs. This is a terrible way to do things, but we can’t resist it if we’re constantly fighting with each other.

What would it look like if we held the prison contractors accountable for amplifying conditions that continue to produce prisoners? In an effort to keep prison beds filled (taxpayers are often charged over $600 a day per prisoner – private prisons are truly a racket) the criminal justice system is currently designed to keep people incarcerated out of concern for those profit margins, rather than what is best for individuals and communities. Why aren’t we supporting community organizations that are guided by those who live in those communities to help create the enriching, local supports folks need so they can build meaningful lives? 

What would it look like if we held medical insurance companies responsible for artificially inflating the cost of healthcare? The current for-profit medical system is more expensive to taxpayers than a universal health care system would be. What are we doing? Private health insurance is an assault against all of us — against our well-being, and against our ability to live. Over 100 million Americans currently have medical debt. When will enough be enough? 

What would it look like if rents were affordable and housing was accessible to everyone? Presently over 3,400 housing units are being held empty here in the City of Berkeley. There is no housing crisis — this is a hoarding crisis, a hoarding crisis that is being manufactured by capitalist real estate firms. Ancient laws upon which the earliest civilizations were founded forbid the holding of land without it being used. The rage from this will eventually boil over.

What would it look like if fossil fuels were phased out and we rapidly rolled out alternatives? Currently, over $7 trillion dollars in annual subsidies are being given to fossil fuel companies to support the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, even amidst the crises that have already unfolded due to the reality that we’ve now exceeded 1.2°C in planetary warming above the pre-industrial average. 

Why aren’t we putting all our effort into transitioning to a better energy system when our planet’s very habitability is at risk? I’ll tell you why: To protect the investments of those who benefit from fossil fuel production. Over 50 million people around the world have already lost their homes and become refugees due to climate change. Yet, the capitalists thrive on chaos, so to them, this isn’t a glitch but rather part of the system. If they criminalize climate refugees, they can use them to fill beds in private prisons for immigrants. This is already happening. The capitalists will not be deterred by the harm their behavior is causing. They will only find ways to create new occasions for profit.

Every system it touches, capitalism breaks. From energy to weapons to education to medicine. The capitalists continually attempt to distract everyone by manufacturing villain groups, but their ability to create fear around these groups is growing thin. In this regard, they are ramping up their efforts, trying to find any way they can to manufacture consent to their rule. This includes fearmongering in the mass media, and it has an impact at local levels. In the last few years, we’ve seen books banned simply for having Black or queer characters. We’ve seen laws go into effect banning gender affirming care for minors. We’ve seen an increased assault upon immigrants—who are fleeing crises that American businesspeople manufactured. We’ve also seen reproductive rights stripped away. They are doing everything they can to sow discord and chaos, to get us fighting with each other so they can keep raking in cash.

It can be a lot of handle, and it can easy to disassociate. It’s easy to check out and look away from what is happening. And that’s exactly the point. The capitalists wish to make things so inhospitable that no one is able to follow it anymore, so that no one is able to call them out. They do this because they are scared for their lives. 

In the 1890s, bankers were executed for the public social harm their actions caused. Since that time, capitalists have worked strategically to make sure that amidst ever-crashing the economy, they have scapegoats set up as a way to cover their asses, distractions so they can continue extracting profit, so they won’t be held accountable. How can anyone hold them accountable when we are all suffering from the trauma of 1000 cuts — of dealing with evictions, homelessness, bigotry and the trauma of being seduced to fearing your own neighbors? 

In his exploration of embodied forms of racism in the book My Grandmother’s Hands, therapist Resmaa Menakem explores how fooling people into becoming bigoted emerges from and creates its own form of trauma that is held in the body. When capitalists platform fascists, they are directing harm towards everyone, including those they intend to recruit. The capitalists are compelling escalating cycles of harm because they know if we are all hurting, we will have no energy left to hold them accountable.

What if we do something else instead? What if we build a new economy that doesn’t operate under the logic of capitalism? What if we start building up the cooperative economy? 

Co-ops aren’t run on a wall-street style model of creating profit for non-involved investors. Rather, they are controlled and owned by the people who use them. In this way, the growth of the co-op movement can help prevent types of issues that arise when the capitalists mindlessly control the means of production from a distance, making decisions based on the math of getting more money for their shareholders rather than the needs of the real human economy on the ground. 

Transitioning to co-ops is a great way to bring all things we produce and exchange back into the hands of the people, creating localized and meaningful networks to organize how we work, play, and support each other. Co-op workplaces are also better for the environment. A growing body of research has shown that co-ops tend to make better decisions about resources that lead to less pollution and lower emissions. When people have the power to democratically run the workplaces in their lives, they tend to make better decisions for the planet and environment.

Co-ops make a lot more sense than what the fascists claim to be offering. When it comes to making sense of the pain a lot of us are feeling right now, why not direct these feelings towards working together to create things that operate outside of the Wall-Street logic that got us here? 

In the Bay Area, organizations like The Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives, or NoBAWC (pronounced “No Boss”) and the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) have helped support the regional and state-wide growth of the cooperative workplace movement. The US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the Democracy at Work Institute are also doing from great work at the national level.

Don’t forget housing co-ops! Beyond workplace co-ops, you can also create a home or housing community that is democratically owned and managed by tenants. Housing co-ops can be leveraged as a way of building up access to housing, working strategically to remove capitalist real-estate firms from the equation. A great example of a housing co-op project doing good work is the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (EB PREC), which is democratically owned and managed by people of color, and which works with/as tenants to acquire and co-steward affordable cooperative housing. Also, the student-owned dorms at UC Berkeley are another great example. 

Imagine if all the housing units currently being held empty were converted into cooperative housing? We could house everyone who is currently homeless, as well as incoming climate refugees to boot!

Building up the co-op economy is a form of preventative medicine. Having workplaces and housing owned and managed by the people who use them helps reduce the types of unstable conditions that exacerbate social harm, conditions that compel capitalists to platform fascists.

What would a cooperative transition look like in medicine, energy, and education? What would it look like to transition to a more down-to-Earth economy guided democratically by the people, rather than the Stock Market (aka rich people’s feelings)?

These are intense times, but there are still strategies we can use to steer towards the best outcomes for everyone. Imagine a world governed by federated bioregional cooperative commonwealths. Building this world will be a long, hard road, but one filled with adventure, comfort, and love. Starting a cooperative is an act of love for yourself, your fellow workers, and all life on this planet. 

Co-ops are imperfect — and that’s the point! When we make co-ops, a lot of the drama that’s currently been separated from our lives due to 4th wall capitalist politics suddenly come crashing into ourselves, and we find that when we don’t get to pretend to be machine cogs anymore, our lives become a lot more complex. 

As we co-create our cooperative selves, we evolve into more dynamic, holistic beings who are part-celebrity, part-worker, part-revolutionary, part-scholar, part novice, part-expert, part-prince/ss, part-jerk, part-lover, part-fighter. You can’t hide away and blame the boss anymore when you’re building a democratic, bossless movement. 

Those who have a utopian vision of some kind of glossy, propaganda-poster-style revolution sound like they are just spouting hot air to those who have helped build co-ops on the ground. In a co-op world, none of us get to be perfect, and that’s exactly why it’s revolutionary: Everyone gets a little covered in that mud, and from that mud, a new world can grow.

Further reading:

• Your guide to the cooperative movement by the Tesa Collective (tesacollective.com/study-guide-to-the-cooperative-movement/)

• Democracy at Work by Richard Wolff

• No gods, No monsters (novel with co-ops and monsters) by CadwellTurnbull

• Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice by Jessica Gordon Nembhard

• Naomi Klein’s books Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything

• Cooperatives in the Global Economy ed. by Tapas R. Dash

• Gaming the Stage by Gina Bloom (explores how 4th wall theatre and capitalism go hand-in-hand)

1 If you’re interested in studying sensemaking, look into the “Affect Theory” of Lauren Berlant, the “Conjunctural Analysis” of Stuart Hall, and Down to Earth by Bruno Latour. 

2 Fascism is a political approach that arose alongside the advent of mass media in capitalist countries. The first occurrence of fascism was in Italy in the early 1900s, where the party led by Mussolini was literally called the “Fascist” (Fascista) party. Another feature of fascism is the performative centering of father figures alongside nostalgia for some mythic past (“Make Germany Great Again”), while being offered the false bargain to gain that figure’s love and reclaim that past (that never was) by harming minority groups who have been targeted as scapegoats for the troubles caused by the capitalists. To learn more about the characteristics of fascism, plus get some reading suggestions, check out our article in the last issue of Slingshot titled, “The Big Fart: Here’s What Everyone Needs to Know about Fascism.”