Rethinking work, wealth, and creativity in a cooperative economy

One of my goals with COSMOS Cooperative is to reimagine work, what it means to be creative, and what it means to have enough. What wealth do we need? What do we really desire, as humans? How can we better meet our own real wants and needs?

I was never able to get on board with the 9 to 5 corporate program; I had never been interested in making a lot money if it seemed like it would compromise my integrity—though I’ve often been tempted by the thought, “If I could just make enough money…THEN I’ll be free.” (Which is a lie…but an effective one.)

The problem is: nothing I’ve ever really been interested in doing is considered profitable in the system we live in, which, by crook or design, atomizes us into separate economic agents, each vying for survival and advancement, mostly doing things we don’t actually care for, in a way that abstracts us (though the mechanisms of finance) from each other—and from an inherent capacity to meet our common needs.

I tried to duke it out as a freelancer, doing web design, editing, and creative consulting at a reasonable hourly rate. My clients were decent people; the work was benign. But something gnawed at me inside and wouldn’t let up. The very fact that I was being forced to exchange my time for money began to feel like a form of slavery. “Wage slavery,” it’s called. Which of course, is nothing like real slavery; but in a deeper, systemic way, it is—insofar as you don’t have a choice not to participate in the money economy, no matter how destructive, wasteful, and inhuman it’s proven itself to be. No matter the wars it funds, or the ecological despoliation, or the obscene accumulation of wealth and power by the few.

I was stuck, it seemed, being a wage slave, my life force serving demonic interests. I was comfortable enough in my (precarious) privilege—I could still shop at Whole Foods, after all! (within the constraints of our budget)—but I was a slave nonetheless.

My days centered around the clock, working the requisite number of hours, to make the necessary money to meet our unavoidable expenses. I was getting older. The great entrepreneurial idea hadn’t arrived; the great novel wasn’t being written. I was getting more depressed.

I realized that I would never make any kind of ‘right livelihood’ selling books that weren’t being written, anyway, because the bulk of my mental energy was going into merely getting by. And sure, I could “sell out” and write my poetry “on the side”—but then what good would it be? A sad diversion, at best. Moreover, there was the ethical challenge: I realized that my ongoing consent was part of the much larger problem, which was only metastasizing. The future looked grim.

Then it dawned me that while I could never earn my keep doing all those ‘unprofitable things’ by myself—I MIGHT be able to do so with others, if we could only put our minds together and collaborate on a solution. That’s the purpose of the co-op.

The question I have is: how do we put OURSELVES, our actual needs and values, back at the center of the economic equation? How can we shift our time, energy, and attention away from extractive, unjust, unfair, power-hungry, soul-killing systems, and reinvest it in living systems that sustain us on every level—the material and the spiritual reintegrated?

This is the koan I hope we’ll engage here, collectively. I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the above and/or the article below. How do you think we can cooperate to create a more mindful and ethical economy that meets our human needs and sustains our deepest values? What can we create if we really put our minds to it?

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One inherent problem, Marco, is physical distance of individuals from each other. It seems to me you’re describing a commune of some kind. A collaborative effort to remain free of wage-slavery seems to me to include living generally the same lifestyle for the end of not selling out and keeping integrity. Even if you got rid of wage-slavery, there’s the simple business of living, chores to be shared, taking care of bare necessities and satisfying basic needs. Laundry must be done, food gathered and prepared, shelter maintained, cleaning needs to be done. These things can’t be avoided. There’s no such thing as doing creative work 100% of the time. That’s foolishly unrealistic, dreamily idealistic.

For me the physical side is where the pinch is. The roots of the co-op must be planted in unglamorous physical reality, and then around that developed to where creative activity organically grows. Disregarding this physical side, then the co-op idea is pushed on-line, and the lifestyle shared takes place not so much in reality as in virtual reality. This is bound to fail. Hard to keep together longterm, though it may succeed for a time. And doing this all on-line, even with such impressive software and interactive features, in design a cut above other sites as you have here, with pieces posted and comment boards, really, at bottom, when all the razzle-dazzle is stripped away, I don’t think is much different than what any number of blogs offer. Best case scenario is drawing from a larger pool, and splintering off with a smaller, more tight-knit group of individuals who have weathered storms and proven their mettle. For the fatter the ambition swells, the more porous and unwieldy the group, the more difficult it becomes to keep legs under it strong enough to carry the load. The thinking in the face of this, then, is naturally: Why not just stay an independent entity, carrying only a light load, and improvising alone? There’s no incentive to do otherwise. Many creative types, including yours truly, are natural introverts, loners, simply used to solitude on the margins and actually liking it this way. For many creative types it’s a hard sell to get them to participate in endeavors for a collective (though the idea is very attractive). Philippa Rees in one recent comment to you, Marco, mentioned her own experience in the past of lip-service paid to her for her work, enthusiastic support displayed in words, only to have the rug pulled out from under her when it came time to act.

Pay heed to the lesson! There are many who exclaim, “Oh, I love what you’re doing, and you have my full support!” But that’s the sort of bait which if taken too often can lead to the bitterest disillusionment and disappointment, when those who say such flattering words are finally called upon to roll up their sleeves and get down to nitty-gritty in contributing, only to disappear.

Your problem is vouchsafing commitment. In thought of this one thinks of how contracts originated to hold individuals to their word and understands the notion of the oath or vow. And the only oath or vow which sticks is the one which has consequences if broken. Good luck with that! It implies rules and regulations, laws even, and enforcement of them. On the other hand, no rules and regulations, no laws, but absolute freedom in the whirling chaos, leaving everyone to their own devices, leads us back to square one where one might as well buckle down, not really trust anyone, and just go it alone. Sort of the status quo of outcasts, misfits, solitaries, any number of so-called outsiders surviving the best they can and improvising on a small scale in the gaps.

The rather ‘killing’ affect of JD’s comment above, which seems to pour the acid of reality on the brave ballooning of hope and idea does have (buried beneath it) something that merits drawing out. Namely the liberty to give. Any ‘commune’, however shaped, however voluntary initially, becomes mired in a ‘set expression’ of expectations, and a mean or median of agreed virtue, whether ecological, or spiritual, or just plain deadeninglyobligatory.

I fully understand your frustration Marco, and salute your question, that takes it as given that so many individuals, all with creative wealth to offer, all probably in synchrony morally about the waste that collective endeavour could obviate, and enrich should combine. Yet my experience after many small forays into hope of collaborative or even just sincere supportive liaisons have foundered and the disappointment takes as much energy to recover from, as the frustration it replaced!

I think what you convey, here on Metapsychosis, and what you have already facilitated in terms of exchanges is indicative of someone who hopes others will share( and return) his enthusiasm and creative energy. A legitimate hope. It should elicit such support. I can only say that with the exception of a few individuals ( some gathered here, and seemingly already committed to remaining) I have never seen it happen. Those I knew before we gathered here had already thrashed out where we met, and sometimes where we didn’t! There are co-operative publishers who confine work published to the close genre of their founders, their cover designers, their mutual reviews. Look into any ‘organisation’ and find the inward spiral towards conformity- to something. Or the price of entry is so time consuming that the reason for joining is eroded.

But perhaps the wage-slave of the individual (who works for the financial necessities) might be a model for another kind of split identity. Every creative seeks the liberty to both create, and to be seen, read, heard. Perhaps the donation of their work ( which party answers the last) could be the basis of engendering real financial commitment from those who do not create but consume and raise money, and whose creative energy is fulfilled in so doing?

As an example: I applied to an on-line crowd funding website to put up Involution for audio production and was turned down flat. I think it was because they could not envisage any response to it, or insufficient rewards for the attempt. They might have been right but we will never know- so not very different from Harper Collins and the BIG Six! They had not read a line, or the reviews garnered, or the endorsements. In contrast one individual- Brian- has written extensive essays, reviews-analyses spontaneously ( as I have done for others) The essence of this is the gift. If giving remains within one’s gift ( rather than obligatory) it rests in spontaneity. Can one organise spontaneity? Or create a loose enough forum/salon for it to thrive? Somewhere in this I believe, lies a kind of answer.

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John and Philippa: first, thank you for your generous responses. I have not paid you any money for your participation in this forum, yet you’ve spent many hours over the past couple months, pouring your minds—your hearts, your something ineffable—into the discussion here, quite literally bringing it alive.

You saw me spitting into the hurricane, with a couple other (occasional) spitters, hocking loogies of psychedelic slime into the wind—and decided it was a friendly enough place to stop a while, gave it a chance, and now look at us, we’re hocking loogies at each other, which in mid-flight transform into lifting swans, or birds of prey, plunging for the kill. It’s good stuff!

@brian.george51 has gone to the edges of the universe—and over!—to bring his literary productions to human reality, which we’ve offered for the world to feast on via Metapsychosis. His prose is not everyone’s cup of tea, of course. But there is something there. It’s powerful. Something I am willing to wager others could learn to appreciate in time, if given the opportunity. (Our little clique of aesthetes can’t be so unique—can we?)

Likewise, there is something of power and value, I feel, in Philippa’s poetry, and in the drawings of yours I’ve seen, John; not to mention your stellar criticism. You have not yet met my good friend @MarkBinet, but watch out. There many other luminous minds who are connected, in one way or another, to the project already (if only subtly or virtually) and who I sense would like to interact with each other anyway, but don’t have a great place to do so.

Moreover, not everybody is an avante-garde writer or experimental poet. There are people with other gifts, who are generally simpatico, not just ‘creative types,’ but engineers, entrepreneurs, et al, whose passion is for infrastructure, process, but who need ‘authentic content’; who enjoy reading, conversation, and other soul-nourishing inputs, which the creatives provide. They could use a common platform for their own complementary ends, while reciprocating value to the ‘content creators’ in the form of attention, promotion, funding, etc.

I think most existing online spaces are lacking sorely in the depth dimension—they focus too much on the superficial bottom line—and so establishing a community in the depthosphere, if we could combine it with ease of use, member service, etc.—offers a formidable value proposition.

That’s a business model there.

The question is organization. What is the proper form?

What you’ve both described, in your own ways, we might call the Herding Cats problem. How do we get artists—radical individuals by definition—to cooperate? How do we incentivize them to commit, in some sense, to each other?

Perhaps we need ‘artists of cooperation’ to facilitate this process, such as @care_save?

Can we approach it as a design problem? What if all we need to do is find better ways for people to do what they are going to do, and wish to do, anyway? Not herd the cats, which is impossible, but give them a place where they find it more pleasurable (and valued) to be cats.

But I would push back against the notion that artists can’t cooperate, or necessarily prefer not to. Think of all the collaboration that goes into producing a great film. It takes writers, actors, directors, technical wizards, financiers…

Moreover, artists are not the only rebellious, introverted types. Think of programmers, hackers, especially those who didn’t go the proprietary, corporate route, but start divergent, open-source projects such as Linux, Drupal, Wordpress. They find a way to work together and create something of value to the world, by ‘donating’ their time and talents to build common platforms (via programming languages, application frameworks, free scripts, etc.) that further their own goals.

The Wordpress founders had an ethos, and a design sensibility. They said: Code is poetry.

We could turn the phrase around and say: Poetry is code.

Perhaps our economic systems and social spaces are simply cases of bad poetry. Wouldn’t it be fun (and isn’t it needful) to write better poetry for platforms and organizations? New code?

Whether we could do this without face-to-face contact is a significant challenge; I think you’re right about that, John.

From what I’ve read about the experience of distributed companies, they do need to meet in person occasionally, at least a couple times a year. They also use video and audio. Text alone is not enough to sustain coordination or cohesion.

If things go well, I imagine we could do gatherings, conferences, festivals—whatever we wish to, that people have the energy to produce. Or members can meet locally, in person, for conversations, jam sessions, or events such as the art salons that Brian hosts at his home in Boston. The cooperative platform would provide a means to organize these happenings and share the fruits. Why not? I would even love one day to have a retreat center in the mountains, or a few around the world, for spiritual as well as creative intensives.

Regarding rules, laws, and commitments, certainly any organization must establish certain norms and expectations. But these can and should be liberating, not punitive. A simple principle of reciprocity should be at the heart. We could design this in, surely. “I see you seeing me seeing you,” with due respect. A third eye for a third eye, and the world could be enlightened.

We will need an alternative means of economic exchange, for which, fortunately, the realm of virtual currencies can provide us tools to play with. The purpose of this exchange will be to sustain the human ends described in the ‘Buddhist Economics’ piece.

I hope to hear more points of view. The gift, to live, must circulate.

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I don’t know how familiar any of you are with Seth Godin, but he’s a marketing expert whose main audience for the last twenty years has been the book publishing industry. Reading him I’ve learned a lot about the shift from broadcast media to long tail niche production that serves an existing but unanswered niche, connects the members of an affinity group and generates value for them through those connections. The book is a souvenir of the benefit you’ve given everyone you’re serving.

So for me the question is, how do we serve the weirdos best? How do we reach the folks who’d love this stuff but aren’t aware of it yet, and what’s waiting for them when they find us? How obvious and easy do we make it for them to express their thanks?

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