August 7, 2011

Values and Imperatives of Co-Production


As Edgar Cahn worked to interest foundations, NGOs, and governments in time dollars (T$), in every context he found that what people thought was lacking in the existing social service paradigm was a parallel self-help effort on the part of those ostensibly being helped. In the broadest sense, individuals seemed unwilling to rouse themselves to even call for appointments or come to critical meetings, while community support was hard to muster. Specifically, everyone from service NGOs to police to teachers to doctors had the same observation – “We can’t succeed because we can’t get the participation we need from the very people we’re trying to help”.
From this Cahn derived what he calls a universal constant – that nothing works without “labor from the consumer”. Anything that works does so because the people involved work for themselves. This truth is of course as old as history, and nothing new to economic democrats and many others going back centuries. Cahn’s epiphany was also, as we can see from this description, elite-centric to a bizarre extreme. But that’s the world he knew, what he was used to, and in his way he was trying to break out of that mindset. Heading in the direction of a more democratic idea, he now developed the concept and term co-production to describe a new paradigm wherein the consumer of social services, whether that be the citizen served by public employees in a regular way or an imperiled client served by some helping organization, becomes a participant in the action, and in that way helps render the service effective, in the process building up his own sense of taking constructive responsibility for himself and his community.
This labor from the consumer is a factor of production. That’s why they named this new distribution of participatory work co-production. C-P seeks to alter the relationship between producer and consumer, elite and peasant. In Cahn’s own vision, it’s a shift between professional and consumer/client. The consumer would now be involved in the creation of value. To him C-P isn’t necessarily seeking equality (the professional is still to remain in overall charge; hierarchies are still to exist; it’s all to still exist within the capitalist and representative framework), but a “rough parity” on the operational level at least. (Though he does say that in theory he wants the helped to be real participants at all levels of the system, including real decision-making.)
We can see from this why C-P can be a transitional phase only. What we really need and desire is to abolish both consumer/client and professional completely, and replace them both with citizen workers. We want to subsume consumption in participation and labor, the worker and citizen consuming his rightful share as essential to her being a worker and citizen. (Dialectically, C-P wants to give added emphasis to the participation antithesis but maintain both it and the elitist thesis, with the thesis still predominant, while true economic democracy wants the full synthesis, which is simply the form of the antithesis (participation by the people) stripping away all artificial social distinctions still maintained by the elite-citizen dichotomy.)
Having induced this general truth, Cahn and his fellow time bank activists realized that C-P in turn implied basic principles and values. They articulated four:
1. Assets. We all have them, at least as potential. Real wealth is people and the work they do, nothing else.
2. Redefining work. What’s considered “work” has to be removed from the perverse definitions of the economists and practices of the market, and redefined to encompass the entire core economy, all activity which is constructive, meaningful, and which tends toward democracy and social justice.
3. Reciprocity. The distribution of work needs to emphasize mutual assistance and cooperative giving.
4. Social capital. We require a social infrastructure just as much as a physical one. Social networks need constant investments of trust, mutuality, civic engagement.
(I loathe the term “social capital” myself, but I included it here because that’s the way the co-productionists talk, and since for now I’m primarily describing the concept, I’ll sometimes use their terminology. But it’s really just a capitalist-centric term for democracy, civil society, community, and the work to create, build, and enhance these.)
Through the deployment of these values in the form of C-P, people working for themselves will attain civic self-respect, political self-confidence, and better outcomes. (I add that one of these better outcomes will be to use this newfound self-confidence toward a more intrepid and assertive pro-democracy politics.)
To his credit, Cahn was aware from the start of the danger of co-optation. He identified several specific dangers. Citizen action often subordinates itself to professional advice, letting itself be manipulated or diverted to ineffectuality. Volunteers and civic groups often crave recognition and approbation from the system and end up corrupted by the hankering after it. (This is Kent Whealy’s explanation for the sordid power plays among the leadership of the Seed Savers Exchange, culminating in its disturbing and destructive collaboration with Svalbard.) Bottom-up participants often let their participation be organized and structured by professionals. They often crave merely “a seat at the table” of power. They end up relegated to trivia, misdirected into nonsense. An obvious example is much of what passes for “student government”. Much of these phenomena also goes into the Warren cult, and the fetish of “better elites” in general. Needless to say, many among the professional class and NGO Leadership consciously and malevolently seek to bring about and exploit these phenomena.
This danger is grave enough that some of Cahn’s associates thought C-P was inherently co-optation waiting to happen. He realized that the only possible way to prevent this was to overtly dedicate C-P to the cause of seeking social justice and instilling a sense of vigilance in all participants, to beware of anything which sought alleged expediency to the detriment of what’s morally and democratically right. Such amorality will never lead to morality, and it’s never even expedient, except for those who want to hijack our best impulses. Such criminals need to be identified and shunned.
C-P can’t be just about a bureaucratic inventory of assets (this bureaucraticism is the most common form of co-optation and incipient exploitation). It has to aggressively emphasize the practice of exchanges between people, and the principles of social justice. Always action and principle, never principle without action.
From here the four C-P values are transformed into imperatives. (Cahn phrases them as negative imperatives. I’ll add the affirmatives.)
1. Assets. “No more throw-away people.” No more tragic waste of human potential while so many needs go unmet. We must always strive to maximize participation, action, self-management; to do these on a democratic basis; to focus them on our civic and socioeconomic needs.
2. Redefine work. No more stealing labor from anyone. No more free rides on the core economy for “the market”. Those who work must hold and distribute 100% of the produce among themselves. He who does not work shall not eat.
3. Reciprocity. Stop creating dependencies and devaluing those you pretend to help while profiteering off them. (This applies to capitalism in general and to service professionals in particular.) Work and society must be based on constructive cooperation and ordered accordingly.
4. Democracy, civil society, community (“social capital”). No more economic and social strip-mining. Work and society must function for humanity, and for no other purpose. (I include things like being good stewards of the environment under humanism even though some might object, because in the end people will do what’s right only because it’s also right for people.)
Again we see the implicit (and sometimes explicit) radicalism of co-production and time banking. Cahn himself says time banks, if they are to succeed, must be dedicated to the fight for these radical outcomes. In the end all must pick a side, or else be drafted by the wrong side.
I’ll close by once again citing the great truth, to will the end you must will the means. Just as I wrote in my posts on the Federalist papers that Madison and Hamilton would have to agree with us today on the second American Revolution if they were sincere in what they wrote about the first, so anyone who truly believes in participatory democracy, self-management, cooperative action, and social justice, would have to agree that co-production (and related constructs/practices) is only transitional toward full economic democracy. We know that the hopes for reform are vain. This is terminal kleptocracy with the end goal of totalitarian feudalism. So anyone who wants to achieve the great goals we’ve been talking about must respond in kind and seek the complete transformation. This is the only way to deploy C-P’s imperatives in a productive way, and its the only way to make C-P’s values reality. All transitions must be aggressive vectors toward positive democracy.


  1. I hope I read carefully enough.
    Two situations, both of which I am intimately acquainted with :
    My VOLUNTEER library activity, where I HAVE WORKED FOR FREE for the past three years now.
    When I started, I could barely hand write out a card (we did everything by hand three years ago…).
    Over the course of a year, my mental state improved significantly (with considerable effort on my part), and I FOUND MY PLACE IN THIS STRUCTURE, which was a participatory direct democracy when I arrived (it wasn’t before).
    This volunteer work is truly a joy, since people ARE NOT UNDER STRESS to perform. They volunteer, are trained, and work in pairs. There are different levels of responsibility : not everyone does the same thing, and some people enjoy some types of work in the library more than others. THEY ARE FREE to choose what they do (largely, not totally). The library functions quite well ; the volunteers are proud to work at the library, and fulfill its mission, and a solid group identity has emerged. This is possible in part.. BECAUSE THERE IS NO RIDICULOUS PRESSURE TO BE PRODUCTIVE 100 % of the time. And currently there are no subtle power struggles within the structure. (It would be a mistake to imagine that no power struggles are possible in a volunteer organization. OUR organization functions like this because the woman who inherited its management refused to work in an AUTHORITARIAN MANNER (it is a mistake to confuse “hierarchal” with “authoritarian”. It is FORTUNATELY possible to speak WITH AUTHORITY in such a way as one’s competence is RESPECTED without being authoritarian. Too bad that Louis XVI did NOT understand this…)
    Nevertheless, not everybody invests this work in the same way. I, for example, consider that work is work, and it is important for me to do it well, PAID OR NOT. Several people in the structure share my attitude and committment. But there are others who tend to think that WORK FOR NO MONEY is not as important as work for money, and that, as a result, it really does not matter VERY much whether they do it well or not. Funny how people have so many different attitudes that it is just not possible to render uniform, huh ??
    Situation number 2 : my Internet forum made up of people who, in the main, have received psychiatric diagnoses, and are truly assisted….(You could say that i am assisted. I sometimes say that my role in life is to be primarily decorative…)
    This situation is particularly delicate. These people WHO HAVE BEEN PLACED IN DEPENDANT contexts, have now come to depend on this dependancy for reasons of self identity.
    In these cases, TREMENDOUS TIME AND EFFORT are expended in order to RESTORE their self confidence.
    In most cases, it is truly a lost cause. Because they have got stuck in a labeled box that determines how they think about themselves, and their relation to others.
    But then, you have to ask… what is all the fuss about “autonomy” ? WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT ??
    Why not look voluntary servitude straight in the face AND ADMIT THAT IT IS NOT GOING TO GO AWAY ANY TIME SOON ?
    Thomas Szasz made this mistake too.
    Too much “freedom” could entail its own problems of alienation…FORCING PEOPLE TO BE FREE FOR THEIR OWN GOOD does not seem particularly productive to me. (Believe you me… I have tried this, and although it may look good on paper, when there are flesh and blood people involved, it truly does NOT WORK. Too bad that JESUS did not figure this one out sooner ; it would have saved us all a lot of grief…But then, he probably did figure this one out ; his followers had to keep appearances up.)
    Getting too fanatical about work is not good, in my opinion. Work for money, in any case, needs to be counterbalanced by the dimension of “grace”, as in saying grace, or even… thank you when somebody is paid to deliver you a service.
    I am reading Nietzsche. And J.K. Galbraith : “The New Industrial State”. Very very perspicaceous, J.K.
    Tocqueville for next autumn…
    Two weeks ago, I attended two lovely theater appeareances at the château of an industrialist in the South of France. One of those people, I suppose, who constantly gets the epithet “patron” or “rich” slung at him.
    He OPENED his residence to the theater organizers to give their plays FOR FREE, and proceeded to offer a buffet afterwards to the attending spectators FROM HIS POCKET.
    Very gracious of him, I say… And think about it… JUST WHAT DID HE GET OUT OF IT ??
    There are some, probably, who still think that the château SHOULD belong to the Republic.
    The problem these days is that the Republic is busy selling its real estate for nickels and dimes to anyone who will buy : it is disastrously expensive to keep the “patrimoine” up… (you can tell this, if you have ever been in a French château).
    I kind of like the idea of SOMEBODY (like a FLESH AND BLOOD PERSON, OR PEOPLE) keeping it up, and opening it up every once in a while for ME, or US, the commoners, to take a peek inside, and “oooh and awww” about how beautiful it is. SOMEBODY who gets to LIVE in it, and enjoy it, and keep it from being a museum piece.
    ME LIVE IN IT ? You must be kidding….

    Comment by Debra — August 8, 2011 @ 5:59 pm

    • If you’re saying that co-production sounds authoritarian in some way, that’s incorrect. To begin with, unlike the corporate-government system into which we’re coerced, participation in this mode of organizing the core economy is voluntary. Second, its entire thrust is toward democratizing the economy, putting economic management back in the hands of the people themselves.

      (If, on the other hand, you think there’s something “coercive” about the stricture, He Who Does Not Work Shall Not Eat, I’ll happily plead guilty to that one. Except there too it’s really the parasite who’s a coercer, in that he wants to force others to work uselessly for the sake of maintaining his worthless existence.)

      I’m not sure if your distinction of the library vs. the forum was a criticism of something I wrote, but I certainly didn’t say volunteerism was bad or that it’s unfulfilling for many who engage in it. I said that co-production may possibly have wider benefits than conventional volunteering. But I admit I can’t tell if you were arguing with that point.

      This volunteer work is truly a joy, since people ARE NOT UNDER STRESS to perform.

      I find it hard to believe that your fellow volunteers don’t care about doing a good job. But that’s the only “stress” a time bank member is under.

      Also, you’re confused about the difference between authority and authoritarianism. Authority (as in moral authority, expert authority, backed up by a proven record of merit) doesn’t have to involve force, and indeed assumes something voluntarily acclaimed prior to any threat of force.

      Authoritarian necessarily means coercive force, and this resort to force strongly implies that the entity so resorting lacks legitimate authority.

      Comment by Russ — August 8, 2011 @ 6:47 pm

      • I don’t attack you when I comment.
        I’m an underdog person.
        When somebody says “black”, I say… but have you thought about this, and this, and this ?
        I like complex reality. And I like arguing. It channels my unbelievable aggressivity. I also like to try to tie in what you say to situations that I am living, in order to get different perspectives on what I’m living, and what you say. Call it “free association”, if you like.
        Hey… do you know what a parasite is and does ? (Think for a minute about the little remoras that clean the white shark’s BIG BIG TEETH. Remoras are in a parasitic relationship called symbiosis, right ? But even in that symbiotic place THEY’RE WORKING. Too many people resort to subtle Judeo-Christian condamnation of symbiosis, because it is SUPPOSEDLY light years away from that hallowed “autonomy”.)
        He performs a subtle form of “work”. The shark would be hugely inconvenienced if that little remora did not do his “job”. And… that little remora gets a FREE LUNCH (well, almost..)
        Without “the parasite”, all those massive numbers of people employed TO SAVE HIM would have no sense of mission or purpose in life.
        THEY WOULD BREAK DOWN (like the parasites…) IF THEY COULD NOT BE CONSTANTLY TELLING THEMSELVES 24 hours a day how USEFUL they are to society, HOW NOBLE AND GENEROUS THEY ARE, and HOW MUCH WORK they are doing. And getting paid for it, and earning social recognition too, while we’re at it. (Read Thomas Szasz, “The Myth of Mental Illness”. I do not agree one hundred percent with Thomas, but you would like him, I’m sure.)
        You have to listen to some of “the parasites” in order to understand HOW MUCH AND HOW DEEPLY THEY PAY for the “privilege” of not working in a society that march steps to the ideal of work.
        What is particularly PERVERSE in our modern society is all the WORK that is done to subtely create and maintain people in the parasite place.
        I’m not confused about authority and authoritarianism. Either what I wrote was not clear, or you did not read it carefully, or both. I don’t know.
        The library would be a co production type system, I think.
        The forum is NOT for work, although we might say that it produces…
        Yes, as hard as it might seem to believe, there are people at the library who have just NOT INVESTED their jobs in a RESPONSIBLE manner.
        Basically, they want to be told what to do all the time, and then they go ahead and do what they want anyway. Ahem, it’s called VOLUNTARY SERVITUDE, as I like to remind you…
        Really, the older I get, the more hopeless I become about the human species.
        But I definitely do no longer buy that much tossed around mantra of “democracy is the least bad form of government around”.
        That one is REALLY old for me. Time to take off (some of) those blinders.
        One last thing : I have found from TAKING THE TIME TO REALLY TALK WITH AND LISTEN TO “the poor” that what they suffer from the most, many of them, is not having the possibility of GIVING TO SOMEBODY ELSE.
        The waste of their talents, if you like.
        But, let’s face it, when you have some jerk facing you who tells you that what YOU know how to do is worthless, but wants to enroll you in an industrial program to do a BORING REPETITIVE INDUSTRIAL MASS PRODUCED job that will put meat and potatoes (and not very many at that…) on the table, well, WOULDN’T YOU GET JUST A LITTLE BIT UNHAPPY AND AGGRESSIVE ABOUT IT ??
        Me, yes.
        And these days there seems to be an alarming shortage of work running around. In my neck of the woods, at least…

        Comment by Debra — August 9, 2011 @ 11:58 am

      • You’re confused on the difference between symbiosis and parasitism. They’re not synonyms. By definition the one is not the other. In a symbiotic relationship, like that of shark and remora, both parties give and take. In a parasitic relationship like that of lice or corporatists on human beings, the one only takes while the other only loses.

        Without “the parasite”, all those massive numbers of people employed TO SAVE HIM would have no sense of mission or purpose in life.
        THEY WOULD BREAK DOWN (like the parasites…) IF THEY COULD NOT BE CONSTANTLY TELLING THEMSELVES 24 hours a day how USEFUL they are to society, HOW NOBLE AND GENEROUS THEY ARE, and HOW MUCH WORK they are doing. And getting paid for it, and earning social recognition too, while we’re at it.

        That sounds like you’re just talking about more parasites.

        But I definitely do no longer buy that much tossed around mantra of “democracy is the least bad form of government around”.

        Not many do around here. That quote’s always used to refer to the representative pseudo-democratic scam. I don’t want a “government” at all in the sense of a State. Positive democracy is the only form of society left which has any legitimacy.

        One last thing : I have found from TAKING THE TIME TO REALLY TALK WITH AND LISTEN TO “the poor” that what they suffer from the most, many of them, is not having the possibility of GIVING TO SOMEBODY ELSE.
        The waste of their talents, if you like.

        That’s the whole point of co-production, to solve this problem.

        Comment by Russ — August 9, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

  2. Point taken on the difference between symbiosis and parasitism. But I am not sure that “corporatists” are parasites. ALL of them, that is.
    All those people involved in social services would be SHOCKED AND HURT if you even remotely suggested that THEY were parasites.
    It would not be a good idea. And putting them out of jobs ?? What are you thinking of ??
    It would destroy THEIR self esteem. You wouldn’t want to create… EVEN MORE PARASITES that way, would you ?

    Comment by Debra — August 9, 2011 @ 4:38 pm

    • As a rule I attack the Leaders. But the rank and file system cadres must also cease from any extraction. I’ve written about that before, specifically public unions:


      Those co-opted system jobs which can be real work shall become citizen work in a democratic economy. Those which aren’t real work at all shall cease to exist.

      Meanwhile, anyone who’s not rich (and we shouldn’t be delusional: we shall not be, however many lies are told us) should welcome the end of the market economy as a great economic, political, and spiritual liberation.

      Comment by Russ — August 9, 2011 @ 5:24 pm

  3. This is valuable work, thank you.

    I’m not sure if you’ve read much of Marshal Sahlins’ work, but he made some valid observations on reciprocity that are pertinent here. For Sahlins there are three kinds:

    1. Open
    2. General
    3. Negative

    Open reciprocity expects no return (though it can come later) such as in gift giving or volunteerism; general seeks no differential profit, such as a transparent and clear agreement between parties to equally cooperate towards some mutually beneficial goal. Negative reciprocity is market trading, where profit at the expense of the other is desired. Here subterfuge, deception, or information asymmetry is essential, is what the trade is all about. For without information asymmetry no profit can be made. Ironically, perfect competition, the Holy Grail of neoliberal economics, would produce no profits and hence no trade.

    I suspect all money-types oil only negative reciprocity, and hence necessitate purposeful and conscious deceptions inherently. I’m still battling with this in my own mind, because the implications of the logic, should that logic be sound, are profound. Socially sustainable and beneficial reciprocity can only be, speaking over the long term, either open or general. There can be no differential advantage if the reciprocity is to be democratic and transparent. Culturally we are far from ready to deal with this, so money-forms like Time Dollars are important, transitionally. For me it is equally important, if not more so, always to bear in mind that money is about dealing with scarcity, and that scarcity-based economics and society are about differential advantage, zero-sum competition, subterfuge, and fixed-hierarchies as time moves on.

    Whatever its form, society (and other systems) ‘generates’ wealth to consume. To be reasonably sustainable that wealth must be openly and equally accessible to all. Consumption is, in the end, simply about survival. To enjoy life one must contribute (work), and our contribution becomes the source of the success which is its own reward, which becomes a generalized profit all the richer because it is morally and practically superior to profit at the deliberate expense of others. “As you do unto others, so you do unto yourself.”

    Comment by Toby — August 10, 2011 @ 4:08 am

    • You’re welcome Toby. I’m not familiar with Sahlins, but he sounds interesting.

      You’re right, all market economics is about this Orwellian negative “reciprocity”. And what you said about neoliberalism and competition is the core irony of it, since neoliberalism was developed in direct response to the incipient collapse of the profit rate, since all sectors were reaching maturity where equal competition would prevail. Profit would then be impossible, and was supposed to wither away according to the capitalists’ own textbooks. So it was time to reinstate full feudalism. (The end of profit was one of the two reasons, looming Peak Oil was the other.)

      There can be no differential advantage if the reciprocity is to be democratic and transparent. Culturally we are far from ready to deal with this, so money-forms like Time Dollars are important, transitionally. For me it is equally important, if not more so, always to bear in mind that money is about dealing with scarcity, and that scarcity-based economics and society are about differential advantage, zero-sum competition, subterfuge, and fixed-hierarchies as time moves on.

      This goes to the fact that equality of economic condition is the prerequisite for economic and political freedom, for equality of opportunity in these realms. All the “advantages” we’re talking about are illegitimate. They’re based on fraud, coercion, and robbery. While Cahn pussyfoots around the point, I’ll go for the jugular with it – all real work is pretty much equally valuable and deserves the same compensation, which is the same fair share of the produce. This is true as such, not just in special case areas or specialized forms like the time bank. A time bank is just a temporary artificial space for what’s really the truth of nature, but which has been artificially destroyed in all spaces colonized by “the market”, which is irrational, inefficient, immoral, and has no right or reason to exist at all.

      Meanwhile, as I think you agree, all the “scarcity” generated by the market and money is also artificial. It’s scarcity as policy, intended to maintain extractions and domination. But the mutual economy of family, alliance, community, civil society, democracy, is not based on scarcity, but on the abundance of the most truly and infinitely renewable and cumulative resource, human good will, caring, the gift-giving virtue. Again, co-production as an idea and practice, time banks as a form, seek to give this an artificial revivifying boost.

      But the goal cannot be to remain in this artificial ghetto state. Not only is that untenable (we’d inevitably lose the war of attrition), it’s unworthy of human aspiration. The democratic and cooperative aspiration has to break out of the transitional framework as quickly and explosively as possible, whenever the time comes. But we have to expect that at first the evolution is likely to be gradual.

      Comment by Russ — August 10, 2011 @ 5:14 am

  4. […] and it stays in the hand. Try to squeeze, and it all runs through your fingers.   I’ll add the four principles and imperatives of co-production: First, we are all worthy human beings, our work our most precious asset. Any economic system not […]

    Pingback by We’re All Lumpenproles Now (Part 3) « Volatility — August 19, 2011 @ 3:23 am

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