Ways to share. It’s the talk in Chapel Hill. There’s a collective sense of dissatisfaction with “life in the marketplace” — jobs, regular business, money economy, high prices — as well as discontent with the introverted attitude so many of us have toward sharing goods and services, not to mention ideas and love.
Alternatives for co-operative, community-oriented activities are being discussed; one alternative I’ve been interested in are businesses which are more concerned with the needs of people, both inside and outside the business, than with turning over a profit. My ideas have been heavily influenced by the network of alternative businesses in the Washington, D.C. area and especially the two retail food stores in this network I visited last spring.
I am sick and tired of working for organizations which put some distant goal . . . above my own needs as a person.
Essentially, a community business puts quality products, low prices, consumer and community education, and collective working above profits. It’s not that capitalist business couldn’t be more oriented towards these goals, but the cannibalistic aura surrounding “profits” makes this quite difficult if not undesirable. The process of economic exchange in traditional capitalist business originates distrust, clever strategy, and exploitation, whereas the process of economic exchange in community business comes from love, respect, and a concern for the needs of people in the community as well as the needs of the collective of people who run the business.
A community business is therefore not simply non-profit; it is anti-profit and anti-capitalist. After meeting normal operating expenses and paying workers a living wage, excess revenues can be redistributed to other community projects or passed on to the consumer in terms of lower prices. Capitalist business encourages profit without regard to such issues as quality, prices, real need for a product, ecological soundness, as well as how much say workers have in running the business and directly controlling an important aspect of their everyday lives; benevolent capitalism encourages this same type of behavior but throws in a few pinches of concern for more community-minded issues.
The community businesses in Washington carry needed, low-cost, high-quality merchandise, such as foods, prescription and non-prescription drugs, as well as carpentry and printing services. Consumers are provided with information which is useful for making informed buying decisions. For example, in Fields of Plenty, one of the community retail food stores in Washington, there is information in both Spanish and English about the nutritional value and composition of food items as well as ecological information about detergents and cleaners.
An alternative business can also serve as a base for more in-depth consumer and community education in health, nutrition, ecology, and politics (especially politics that relate to the nature of the business; e.g. agribusiness and FDA policies, farmworkers strikes, etc.). The collective can also take stands on problems in the community which relate to the nature of their business, such as junk foods being sold in vending machines, repressive food stamp regulations, etc.
A key focus of the community business is how it is run. Community businesses are run collectively with key decisions being made by workers. If people have their act together and are on target with each other, this can be done by consent. There is no formal status hierarchy, so all workers carry the same weight in the organization, with each individual being respected for his or her talents, experience, and essential fullness as a human being. When you mop floors you’re not doing it simply because it helps pay the rent or because the “boss” told you to; you’re doing it for an organization you are part of and have a stake in. Members in the collective learn to perform a number of essential jobs within the business and often rotate jobs; this adds flexibility in terms of people taking time off and pursuing other interests; it also guards against informal status hierarchies and turf-guarding getting in the way of running the business.
Worker alienation, which usually manifests itself as boredom or hostility, is replaced by a feeling of control over your life in the workplace and knowing that your sweat and effort are being pumped into an enterprise you believe in, have some control over, and which you know is providing a useful and needed community service.
However, a community business is not really owned by the collective of workers that run it; if members leave, they are replaced by others in the community. This process can be helped by setting up the business as a community corporation and training others in the community (especially young people) to develop the skills necessary to successfully operate the business. Businesses should ultimately have their means of production owned by the community.
A more direct link to the surrounding community can be established by opening business meetings to the public. A number of community businesses openly ask customers for feedback and have volunteers from the surrounding community put in regular hours each month. Worker control is very important, but if workers close out the rest of the community they can become isolated in their outlook. We routinely accept shoddy products and poor service in the marketplace because we have no control over our economic institutions; one of the aims of community business is to give some of this control back to the community.
Despite my Scorpio way of describing things, the community business doesn’t need to be heavy or preach; often the most revolutionary things are quite subtle and ordinary. In a number of ways community businesses won’t even seem that different from regular stores; for example, since agribusiness, multi-national corporations, and government control food prices, prices in a community food store cannot be dramatically lower than chain stores. But a community food store can stress using foods (like soy) which are versatile and grown locally. What will be quite different, though, are the vibrations that result from caring more about people than money.
I am interested in being part of a community business for a number of reasons. Basically, I am sick and tired of working for organizations which put some distant goal or task (such as working on a “very important” government research contact) above my own needs as a person. I am sick and tired of working for organizations which don’t consider people’s needs for love, affiliation, and self-respect to be part of what should happen in the workplace. The paranoia and turf guarding I have been part of is not something I want to be part of again. I want to be part of an organization which is based on sharing and growth.
Most of my jobs have never been fun or full; the lighter, happier, more meaningful events in my life have all taken place outside of the workplace. I want to view work as an extension of my needs, feelings, and spirit. The idea of being in a work situation which is oriented to what my friends and neighbors say they need from a business in the community is quite exciting. What isn’t so exciting is re-examining what I need to live on and scaling down expenses to fit what I think a living wage should be for me. It also isn’t so exciting to envision open business meetings where nobody from the community shows up. These are problems and there will be many, but I really don’t think I have a choice any more — I must face them.