Becoming Ant: A Lesson in Cooperative Mentality

Becoming Ant

Heidi Barta

“A functioning organization with no one in charge is so unlike the way humans operate as to be virtually inconceivable.”

~ Deborah Gordon, Ants at Work

 

            Have you ever watched ants at work? Lying on my belly one summer afternoon, I did just that, fascinated by a group of ants moving along what seemed to be an intricate system of roads and highways that were all but invisible to my human eyes. I remained for several hours watching through the frame of a camera lens. At one point, I called out to my children who came to lie beside me. I asked them to watch, pointing to one little ant that was intent on moving a lifeless beetle twice its size. It tried several different angles of approach to get under and lift the large beetle, but to no avail. When the ant turned, heading down the viaduct for the main road back to town center, my children let out a disappointed sigh. Having already watched such a feat, I implored them to wait and see what the ant would do. It is hard to say if it had a specific destination in mind or was just looking for another able body because it stopped as soon as the path crossed with another ant. It took a mere second to recruit some help and off they went, running back in the direction of the beetle. When they reached the large insect, each took a side and easily hoisted it up above their bodies. We watched them move flawlessly together as they took the nearest exit and headed to the north side. My children were enamored with the simple success they had just witnessed. I agreed, indeed it was remarkable. This moment, which lingered in my mind, challenging me to understand why we found it so remarkable was in time, accompanied by an uneasy feeling that somewhere along the path of my life I had missed the training session: How to work cooperatively. If ants can do it, why couldn’t I?

Even before I set out to find my first job, I felt hardwired against the punch-in-punch-out industry that loomed in the future and was drawn to seek a different way of making a living. I chalked it up to a personal quirk of not working well under authority and thought perhaps I lacked the ability to work well with others in general. For years, I owned a successful business as a massage practitioner and worked alone, creating an environment that I enjoyed while admittedly missing the camaraderie of working with others. When I reached physical burn out, I returned to school in search of an alternative that wouldn’t lead me down the path of corporatism that I had thus far avoided. The values I hold and the passion I have for equality in the work place, as globally, provoked me to explore alternatives to climbing the capitalist ladder or selling my labor for less than it is worth. Yet, I remained concerned with the level of dysfunctional communication, glaring individualism, and subsequent alienation that I continued to encounter even in collective work. In this context, I pursued documentary story telling through writing and film as a means to unearth the origin of what seemed to be deep-rooted ideologies preventing community from being community and collective work from being truly collective.

Following the summer afternoon spent filming the microcosmic world of ants in my backyard I took up doing film interviews with children ages six to thirteen, digging down to discover where individualism and alienation first sprout. Of each child, I asked for an articulation of the dreams they held for their future. A good job, big house, nice car, swimming pool, private plane…were among the answers I received. Having three children of my own, ranging in ages from nine to twenty, I understand the development process of self-awareness in the context of the greater picture and these self-focused answers didn’t surprise me. They weren’t what I was after either, so I probed further, asking if they would still want those same things if it meant that someone else had nothing. I implored them to imagine that there exists only a finite amount of resources and that everyone can have an equal share or a handful can have more, others less and for some, there won’t be enough to have any. The most immediate responses came from younger interviewees with certainty that everyone should have a share and no, they would not want to have a big house if it meant that some one else had to live on the street. Those who were older, approaching or already in middle school, were hesitant in their responses, struggled with the need for moral judgment proposed by the question, and made justifications for why they ultimately would be more entitled to have luxuries when others couldn’t get their basic needs met. What if they were to be the ones who lived without? No, I was told, this would not happen to them. This kind of thing only happened to other people through fault of their own. What I witnessed in this small collection of opinions alluded to an influence that was serving to create gapping holes in the possibility of community. At best, I was disturbed and at worst, I wanted to pack up my kids and head for the hills, isolating them from whatever monster was out there seeking to distort their innate individuality into individualism.

To further understand the breakdown of community, I began utilizing my academic path to delve into the study of history written outside the dominant narrative with a focus on current and historical economic politics and human rights issues across the globe. I was introduced to key concepts that brought the reality of institutional brainwashing into focus, solidified my position on equality, validated my desire to make a living within community and illuminated cooperatives as a tangible option to link the latter two in a workplace environment. The work of Carl Marx is well known, speaks volumes to the inevitable failure of a capitalist society and gives a framework to understand the ground we stand on so that we may begin to imagine where we might like to go. Antonio Gramsci, a twentieth century political philosopher, made valuable contributions to Marxist theory from a specific focus on how culture and belief are formed and the ways in which this shapes individual and collective action. Gramsci theorized that individuals, despite differences in backgrounds, are socialized through the institutions of society to accept a capitalist view of the world. John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, states that among these institutions, the most prevailing are school, media, and business. What Gramsci understood and Perkins discovered through the life path he chose, is that a social class can dominate by imposing it’s world view on societal culture, manipulating beliefs, perceptions, values and explanations so that its ruling class world view becomes the societal norm, or in other terms, the status quo. Simultaneously, it rejects ideas of class analysis and collective action for structural change. This is cultural hegemony and this nearly global worldview is called capitalism. Capitalism embeds the idea of individualism, aspiration to consumerism, and a middle class lifestyle, and the ‘natural’ leadership role of the ruling elites, the political mainstream and churches (Beck, Purcell). In business, this reflects as a hierarchal structured workplace where workers sell their labor to make money for the capitalists who own the corporations or small businesses, (as well as the big house, fancy car, pool and private plane) in exchange for a wage. With the bottom line always the top priority, the capitalist is not concerned with whether the workers wages will provide for their necessities. A 2011 census reports that over ninety-seven (97.3) million fall into the low-income category while ten and a half (10.5) million workers brought in incomes below the national poverty level (usatoday), (bls.gov). Additionally, a worker has no control over the products they are making, selling or representing which could fall severely out of line with the workers values. With twelve and a half (12.5) million people unemployed at the time of this writing and under four (4) million jobs currently available, choosing to sell one’s labor to a corporation that is best in line with personal values is an unlikely option (bls.gov). Instead, millions of workers punch in each day to trudge through the status quo, be pit against their cohorts in an effort to climb up a rung and receive a better wage, or quietly go about their work and return home without enough to sustain their living needs; all of which is overwhelmingly accepted as “just the way it is.” In Freirean terms, we know this as naive consciousness, the process by which people recognize their personal problems but do not make the connection to wider social or structural issues (Beck, Purcell). Alienation from each other, community, and society are a natural byproduct.

In the heat of a mid-March, Venezuelan afternoon, I walked into the air-conditioned office of the Tulipan cooperative to take part in my first lunch meeting with a handful of other associates. I was given a seat at the counter and a box full of Chinese food from a local restaurant. I was not pioneering an experience with cooperatives here, as I had spent several years in the past working with a member owned co-op as both a member and a seat holder on the board of directors. I was, however, for the first time, about take part in a worker-owned cooperative, one that would revolutionize my understanding of cooperativsm and the space they can create for a counter-hegemonic work environment. As lunch got underway, I tried to keep up with the banter and friendly jabs filling the room. The more that everyone talked at once, the more undistinguishable the heavy accented Spanish became for my unseasoned ears and I began looking around the ample office, reading signs and taking in the atmosphere. I spotted on a shelf, a group of ant figurines holding up a bottle of Tulipan floor polish above their heads. I must have smiled audibly, as one of the others noticed my joy and commented on the similarity between ant community and how this small cooperative has structured their way of work. Oh really, I thought, and knew I had arrived at the right place.

A small co-op in the city of Barquisimeto, Tulipan, officially known as Cooperativa Unidad de Produccion el Tulipan, began fourteen years ago as a family operated vanilla extract production. Back then it was just a few people processing the vanilla under a tree in the back yard of one of their homes and bottling up a small amount to sell locally. Now, with roughly 11 or so associates, they run production out of two locations, an expanded shop in back of the original home where vanilla is still produced and one located on the property of the infamous Cecosesola cooperative, where they have taken up producing floor polishes and household disinfectants. When asked how the business expanded and grew, I was told, “poco a poco.” A common phrase among Venezuelan co-ops, poco a poco, literally means little by little and sums up the necessary ingredients to creating and sustaining a co-op: hard work and determination. Oscar, Sr., one of the founding members of Tulipan was always quick to remind me that these cannot be separated from a spirit of cooperativism, the combination of all three being the determining factor of success. This is a conversation we had several times as I tried to understand why many of the cooperatives developed under the Chavez government have long since crumbled and why Tulipan, Cecosesola, which began in 1967, and other co-ops in it’s expanding network are thriving with a history of pre-Chavez longevity. Multiple members told me that without one of the key ingredients a co-op is like a chair without sufficient legs to stand on. Although there are various other opinions in the political arena, I’m inclined to believe this simple formula, having been a part of a co-op that had lost a leg or two and nearly came crashing to it’s end. The Tulipanians suggest, while well intended, the multitudes who rushed to create co-ops at the prompting and support of the Chavez government lacked the spirit of cooperativsm that is built on trust, equality and everyone showing up to do their part. What’s more, they told me, a cooperative can’t be built overnight but must happen, poco a poco.

Tulipan, however, did not begin as a cooperative, but rather as a business in Oscar’s name. Before venturing into his own business he worked for his brother who owns a vanilla extract company. There he learned the process of extraction and production, putting in time daily for a paycheck each week. One day he decided to leave and start his own business with his wife and a couple other family members. His motivation was to spend more time with his wife and children, have determination over his living wage, and work in an environment that embraced equality. Although they were a business and not a cooperative, they naturally formed a horizontal structure giving everyone a voice in the product and production. Nevertheless, legally in Oscar’s name, the consequences of all the business responsibilities fell squarely on his shoulders. Along the way, Tulipan connected with Cecosesola who ushered them in to a new beginning. They began to sell their vanilla at the weekend public markets and little by little were able to make a bigger space in the house for producing the vanilla and purchase some equipment, negating the need and time that they originally spent making each batch by hand. One day Oscar was approached by Cecosesola and asked if his business would be interested in producing disinfectants, as there was a market need for an economical non-brand name household cleaner. Additionally, they were offered a production space on the Cecosesola property but would need to first form into a cooperative. I can only imagine the excitement they must have felt during the process that ensued as everyone’s faces lit up with pride as they relayed the story to me. Oscar told me that at the moment when they signed the documents legitimizing them as a cooperative the weight of carrying the business was lifted from his shoulders and spread equally between all the members, the load of responsibility suddenly become one that they could bear together. We were discussing this over lunch, one afternoon – always lunching, always talking – when Oscar pointing to his son sitting next to him saying that yes, he is my son, but he is also my equal in the cooperative, my associate. Knowledge is not owned in a cooperative, but shared. Each person has experience and understanding of how to do every job that their organization needs. When one person learns something new, time is set aside for teaching it to the others. In this way, each person is qualified to contribute to and share equal responsibility and voice. By contrast, his brother’s sons are employees of their father’s business with no personal investment other than a paycheck. If they want to succeed, they will need to climb the ladder just like anyone else, stepping on heads along the way. At that moment, listening to the two associates, father and son, talk about the differences between hierarchal business and cooperatives, a clarity reached me that I had been unable to grasp before. It was all suddenly cut and dry. In the cooperative mentality, all have equal investment in the health and success of the organization, share ownership of the means of production and have a voice in determining the values it will imbibe. In a capitalist business mentality, a few are in control and benefit from production while the rest are labor hands to be purchased at a rate that benefits the bottom line.

The shift to a cooperative mentality, while clearly a necessity for community endeavors, seemed daunting to me when considering how much we have all been institutionally and societally schooled in individualism. In the gap between the understandings forming in my consciousness and the actuality of taking action, lay the glaring obstacle of, how? As my prior experience had attested, when members of a co-op do not wish to be directly involved, the responsibilities and decisions fall unequally on those who do. I became interested to understand how Tulipan cultivated a spirit of cooperativsm that kept everyone involved and engaged. There had not been a specific person in charge who could resolve my questions nor a specific business model I could refer to and although the answer was simple, it took a couple months of reflecting on my experience to pinpoint it. Tulipan and the cooperative network, of which they are affiliated, had poco a poco created a culture of leaderless communication through meetings, which I was told, are the cornerstones of their all-member consensus framework. To be a participant in those meetings and witness consensus happen with such fluidity and openness was as impressionable as it had been to watch those little ants in my backyard. The first lunch meeting I had taken part in had been my introduction to their methodology. This time, set aside in the afternoon is for poking fun at each other, laughing, and coming together over a meal, but also serves as mid-day briefings, exchanges of information and catching up with associates that are unable to attend morning meetings. In addition to the many meetings within Tulipan alone, there are network meetings held at Cecosesola every week, which all cooperatives attend. While Tulipan is a small organization, Cecosesola has over a thousand associates, and nearly twenty thousand members in the network, who all work to reach total consensus. Not everyone can attend every meeting and thus information is passed through the network in a way that Gustavo, one of Cecosesola’s founders, said is patterned after the communication chain of women who prepared food on the streets from carts. He said that the women would chat during their work, moving amongst the carts nearest them. News and issues of concern would travel through the community this way bringing new perspectives and insights with each pass. Hence, during one lunch meeting we all gave our attention to an associate who had traveled to the up country the day prior to attend a meeting of cooperatives there and was reporting back on the topics, concerns and decisions up for consensus. Although each co-op operates individually, the collective investment in the well being of all creates a net that no one will slip through.

Marx theorized that for a society to be revolutionized the ideas and values of that said society would have to change. This seems like a catch twenty-two and until I had challenged the roots of hegemonic ideologies and immersed myself in an experience of true participatory democracy I could not begin to imagine how these changes could come about in me or anyone else. Cooperatives are places where we can make the path to revolution by re-writing ideology that says we must vie for the right to have our needs met and the right to determine exactly what those needs are. Cooperatives, by nature do not foster individualism or competition and in fact, foster just the opposite. Paulo Freire, influential, late twentieth century thinker on education and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, identified three processes of mentality, the last of which is cultivated in cooperativsm. These three processes are: magical consciousness, passivity in which people are accepting of their lot in life, believing that the situation is inevitable and therefore unchangeable. In this state exists the unchallenged acceptance of the status quo; naive consciousness, as I wrote about earlier, is the recognition of personal problems without connecting them to wider social or structural issues. This is the mentality I nourished the majority of my life, impassioned to create change, enraged by injustice, but rendered powerless by the belief that I couldn’t fit into existing society; and lastly, critical consciousness, a broader recognition in which people see the unjustness of societies structures and that the discrimination they produce affects them, the way they think and feel about their lives and the opportunities that are open or closed to them (Beck,Purcell). Gramsci believed that a workers revolution had not yet occurred because society had not shifted towards critical consciousness where collective action for revolutionary change can take place. Cooperatives cultivate individuals who collectively imagine and create economic endeavors to meet the needs of their communities and themselves. They recognize equality through horizontal structures of consensus, bringing class analysis to the forefront. Moreover, they build a new option to the capitalist institution of business, countering the status quo by delegitimizing rhetoric that says there is no alternative. Like ant communities, they provide a system in which no one has power over the other but all work together to make a community that thrives.

Heidi Barta, 25, May 2012

Works Cited

Beck, Dave, and Rod Purcell. Popular Education Practice for Youth and Community             Development Work. Southernhay East, Exeter: Learning Matters, 2010. Print.

“Census Shows 1 in 2 People Are Poor or Low-income.” USA Today. Gannett, 15 Dec.             2011. Web. 25 May 2012. <http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2011-12-            15/poor-census-low-income/51944034/1>.

Gordon, Deborah M. Ants at Work: How an Insect Society Is Organized. [S.l.]: Free, 2011.             Print.

Perkins, John. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. London [u.a.: Ebury, 2006. Print.

“U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor             Statistics. Web. 25 May 2012. <http://www.bls.gov/home.htm&gt;.

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2 Responses to Becoming Ant: A Lesson in Cooperative Mentality

  1. S Smele says:

    Interesting. How an you bring these idea north of the equator?

    • Hi there, great question! You may be interested in the event this article was written for, it was a Cooperative Conference, here is the website for it: http://www.one-world.org/olycoop2012/ –The cosponsors included the Northwest Cooperative Development Center, CECOSESOLA, the Olympia food cooperative, and the Flaming Eggplant cafe ( a cooperative cafe at the Evergreen State College). I suggest you check out some of their websites to see how these ideas are being brought north of the equator already. It was a very successful event for people who are already part of cooperatives or thinking about forming them in the U.S.

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