Today we feature an interview with John Restakis by Irish artist and curator Megs Morley which looks at the relationship between Cooperation and Culture. The interview was conducted as part of the Para-Institution project curated by Morley as part of the Galway city curator in residence program.
The Para Institution explores the parameters and potentials of an institution of co-operation, mutual focus, and investment, inter-linking key organisations and practitioners that share the common goal of demonstrating the role of contemporary art practices in activating and instituting cultural change.
Megs Morley: I was really interested when I heard you speak at the Open Everything conference and I was trying to apply the ideas you discussed within a cultural context. That’s why I thought it would be interesting to speak with you about cooperatives generally, first, but then to move onto any experience you have of how that model has been applied specifically in a cultural context. But perhaps if we could, it would be great if you could give a brief introduction to some of the ideas that you cover in the trajectory of your book Humanizing the Economy?
John: Restakis: The main purpose of the book is to try to give people another understanding of how economics can work. The primary theme in the book is that in order for economics to actually work for the good of people in communities, economies have to be democratized. A big part of the book is looking at the sharing of power and democratic control and looking at the importance of economic democracy to political democracy. And the basic premise being if you don’t have economic democracy you can’t have political democracy; that the two go hand in hand.
So Humanizing the Economy is about a couple of things, it’s about how to think about economies and economics in a way that actually democratizes economies. Secondly, what are the tools and strategies that are being used to do that. And cooperatives are among the most important of these. The third point is, when I talk about humanizing the economy I very much mean that economics and markets need to be re-embedded in social values. That markets and economies are social constructions, and social creations. The current understanding of economics as being divorced from politics, divorced from society and divorced from social values, is not only historically wrong, it’s factually untrue. Modern economies in all markets are in some manner shaped by social issues. But it’s absolutely fundamental that they be re-embedded in social values, if they’re going to serve social ends. So that’s a big part of the idea behind Humanizing the Economy, it’s not only about democratizing economies but also re-embedding them in social values. And cooperatives are a means of doing that.
Megs Morley: I remember in your talk, you spoke about one of the main challenges for a co-op, is when it gets larger- it can potentially loose its social and political relevance. Could you talk a little bit about that and how that happens? Once a co-op is established what actually changes in that next phase of development?
John Restakis: Well there are a lot of factors that make it tricky, and a challenge for cooperatives to sustain, and to maintain, their cooperative values and cooperative culture. One of them has to do with size. It’s much easier to maintain a cooperative culture in an organization where people are actually in face-to-face relationships. Where you can actually sit down and talk through problems or differences. You can manage different interests in an organization much more directly and much more efficiently if you actually know the people, or if you live in the same community or if can get everybody in the same room, for example, right? Cooperatives are very much social organizations as much as they are economic organizations. In other words, they really rely on people working together, trusting each other, and having relationships of mutual cooperation – reciprocity, people understanding that they’re in it together for their mutual benefit. Those are social relationships. It’s the social relationship that is really the foundation of the economic structure, which is a co-op on top of it.
Social relationships are always easier to maintain when the scale of relationships in the network of people involved is smaller as opposed to bigger. Not just co-ops, but any organization, when it gets beyond a certain scale, will find it more and more difficult to maintain the culture and the solidarity of the organization when people don’t meet with each other, when they don’t know each other, when they don’t live in the same community, when they’re spread over a large area, or when they’re doing most of their business online, for example. So co-ops have to contend with the same problem. They’re more affected by this than capitalist organizations because they rely on a different organizational model – which is a social model. And capitalist organizations don’t rely on that. They rely on market relations and economic relations, which can operate independently of actual human relationships.
As an organization grows larger and as people’s social connections get thinner and thinner, then the habitual cooperation that people use in a face to face relationship within a small organization also gets thinner over time. That’s one thing. But the other thing is that cooperatives are affected by the environment they’re in. And we live in a capitalist environment. Cooperatives – especially as they grow larger – in order for them to succeed as businesses have to compete in a capitalist market. And so over time, unless they’re very, very cautious about protecting and recreating these cooperative values within the organization, they become more and more subjected to conventional managerial styles and cultures, to market logics and market demands that pay no attention to cooperative values and culture. They’re all about how you sell something at the highest price and the lowest cost, and so on.
Megs Morley: So there needs to be a way to constantly reinvigorate the organization so that it continues to be relevant and to remain close to its values and maintain its cooperative culture.
John Restakis: Absolutely. You have to, exactly exactly …
Megs Morley: So you have to build this re-invigoration into the organization? So how do you do that?