In the pantheon of great TED Talks, one of my favorites is The Way We Think About Work Is Broken, a noted presentation by writer and psychologist Barry Schwartz. Schwartz is a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia. His research explores the links between science and society, and he is a pointed critic of the West’s mechanical, spiritless notion of work. “How is it that we allow the majority of people on the planet to do work that is monotonous, meaningless and soul-deadening?” he asks. “Why is it that as capitalism developed, it created a mode of production, of goods and services, in which all the nonmaterial satisfactions that might come from work were eliminated?”
I’m drawn to this topic today, a warm, sunny afternoon in early spring. This is a great time of year to work for a cooperative. The long winter is over (we hope), the flowers are in bloom, and our Upper Valley farms are busy with the new growing season. Spring is a season of hope and renewal, and it’s a good time to reflect on why we do the work we do.
One of the many things I love about the cooperative movement is the work itself offers meaning. To borrow language from Schwartz, nonmaterial satisfaction is incorporated into the mode of production, not removed from it. On principle, cooperatives bring people together, lift people up, and serve communities. It’s an idea that offers something rare in this day and age of cheap goods produced on the backs of exploited labor: fulfillment.
Fulfillment is a loaded word these days. Just ask the workers in a monolithic fulfillment center how fulfilled they really are, working long hours in repetitive monotony for low pay. In modern corporate parlance, fulfillment only means getting a product to an online customer as quickly and cheaply as possible. Cooperatives offer a different vision. In our world, a fulfillment center is a network of local cooperative economies working together to meet the needs of the community.
My thanks to all of you who work so hard to make this vision a reality. Want to talk more about it? Reach out to me anytime. My door is always open to you.