Will your co-op extend your life span?

An error in an article on cooperatives that appeared on one continent – Europe, last March – only to be transmitted to another – North America, recently (byline dated 22 Feb.), and which by now may have gone around the world a few times and possibly be translated (at least by machine) into several languages.

The original article appeared in economia, which is the online journal of an international accountancy organization – ICAEW! Not in anyway associated with the co-op community other than that the author, Dave Boyle, is an accountancy consultant to UK co-ops.

Boyle’s article includes many interesting stats that demonstrate the resilience of co-ops, especially during the Great Recession, and which the author, Nina Misuraca Ignaczak, summarizes for her contribution to Shareable.net. This is perfectly reasonable. In fact, it is laudable to publish well-documented evidence in favor of the cooperative model.

However, Ms. Ignaczak’s Shareable article got picked up by Popular Resistance, the group that came out of the Occupy Washington agitation several years ago, because of Shareable’s eye-grabbing headline: Cooperatives May Increase Worker Life Expectancy. I know this comes awfully close to what I imagine as an Onion spoof – “Cooperative Members Die of Old-Age at Meetings”

In Boyle’s original article the life-expectancy issue is raised amongst much evidence that co-ops are gaining mainstream interest based on sound capitalist criteria. Certainly, the issue of long life is the punchy part of what he writes, though he only brings it up deep into his piece and it does not appear in the headline.

The research he quotes for this startling revelation comes from David Erdal. Erdal is an interesting fellow. He inherited a paper mill business in the UK, which, out of familial obligation, he reluctantly he took over. After several years of running the business, he decided to turn it over to the workers. He spent three years meticulously making this transition work and once free of the business returned to university to gain a Ph.D. His research for that degree was based in Northern Italy where he studied the social effects of the cooperative economy. His focused on the population of one town, Imola, with many co-ops and he compared that town to a neighboring one, Sassuolo, without co-ops.

His findings are remarkable on several levels. Imola scored higher on a number of social indices of well-being. Simply put the townsfolk were happy. But more importantly, Erdal studied the mortality data and discovered that the folks in Imola lived two and a half years longer than their nearby fellow citizens. *

Now here is the odd part of this escapade into journalistic veracity. Boyle notes these findings in Erdal’s book, Beyond the Corporation, favorably, but inaccurately.

Boyle states that Erdal:

. . . attributes this [longevity] to the fact that employee-owners are less likely to be made redundant and more likely to be better paid, both of which have major impacts on health and well-being, which in turn are crucial to longer life expectancy.

But this is not what Erdal writes. The lack of redundancy and high pay do contribute to a less stressful life for the citizens of Imola, but nowhere in the section on life expectancy does Erdal mention these factors, in fact, the rate of pay of the co-op members in Imola is matched by the wages of the citizens of Sassuolo, with no co-ops. Both towns are prosperous, middle-class enclaves.

Here is what Erdal writes:

Why should they [the citizens of Imola] live longer? For the reasons that this book already has set out. In each employee-owned business, the employee-owners vote their colleagues onto the board, which chooses and supervises the boss. Together they are in control of their destiny. They share the profits they create together through their work. They are full participants in their businesses. They live lives in which they are respected, active participants, engaged players, and nobody has authority over them that they cannot together remove if it is abused, or if the person in authority does not perform.

Erdal emphasizes that the cooperative members’ democratic work-life exists as their vital core experience that radiates throughout all their social relations to produce a profoundly egalitarian society. Consultants like Boyle, you will notice, tend to shy away from references to democracy in the workplace. Actually, so do the promoters of the “sharing economy.” One interesting consequence of the lack of domination at work, and a relatively low gap between the highest and lowest paid, Erdal discovered, is the lack of conspicuous consumption in Imola, in contrast to the citizens of Sassuolo. Sassuoloians drove large cars rarely seen in the streets of Imola. He speculates that Imolians have little desire to create consumerist hierarchies where none are tolerated in their daily life. Can we learn something here about the preconditions for living a more sustainable life?

A fairly extensive exploration of the literature on early human and primate social behavior serves to ground Erdal’s certainty that we are best suited to live in societies that practice equality. He says:

We know that among primates life is stressful for the individuals placed lower in the hierarchy, we know too that government bureaucrats, although they are educated and well off, die younger if they are lower in the hierarchy at work. All of this evidence suggests that a social environment with reduced hierarchy, and one in which key resources are shared, will fit our evolved minds and hearts more naturally than one in which there is no sharing, whether of money or influence. My conclusion, based on this research, is that we are primed by our evolved nature to be natural partners in businesses that we own together. The system fits us well. That is why we can feel so intensely liberated and enthused as fellow owners.

A key aspect of Erdal’s research shows that citizens of Imola not only live longer, but also live happier . I think this fact needs to be emphasized given the ubiquitous “happiness gurus” who essentially place the burden of increasing our happiness squarely on our own shoulders. This is only to be expected in our individualist, self-help society, where the notion of co-equal relations at work, or anywhere, is too radical to contemplate.

Published about the same time as Beyond the Corporation, and congruent with Erdal’s analysis, is the work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett that they published in The Spirit Level, which makes the case for healthier and happier societies when there is a small gap in incomes from the highest to the lowest. Their subtitle says it succinctly – Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.

Erdal adopts a micro-level approach to a happier society by focusing on work-life practices and Wilkinson and Pickett tend to take the macro approach – the governing policy approach – but we cannot ignore the psychological studies on the human need for camaraderie, which must be the basis for a democratic economy. This extremely well documented area of research has defined personal social relations in general, though not specifically work place relations, as essential for human well-being. (I suspect that studies of “positive human connections” that focus on working conditions would be rare, for obvious reasons, but I will return to this.)

The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University, recently issued a comprehensive review of the various fields of psychology that have studied social connection, which they define as “a person’s subjective sense of having close and positively experienced relationships with others in the social world.”

They found that different sub-fields of psychology use different terms for social connection, but all research arrives at the common conclusion that the development of positive relationships with others is a primary human need and essential for healthy human development and survival. Furthermore, recent studies confirm that social relations promote psychological and physical health and increase longevity.

The people at CCARE recognize the social significance of these findings, given all the evidence that –

Social connection is waning at an alarming rate in modern American society. Household sizes are decreasing and biological family and friends are more geographically and emotionally disconnected from one another than ever before…. Consequently, loneliness, isolation, and alienation are rising … and represent one of the leading reasons people seek psychological counseling…. A revealing sociological study found that in 2004 the average American reported having only two close others with whom to confide while nearly 25 percent of Americans reported having no one at all.

The quantity of social relations, psychologists tell us, is not decisive for health benefits; what’s important is not the number of friends one has, but the number of close, intimate friends. For most people, their spouse often serves as their sole confidant and while the statistics show that married couples live longer, we should not discount the significant ties people form with others outside the home – when given the opportunity.

And this is the situation that Erdal came across when studying the citizens of Imola – they had a multiplicity of opportunities to develop their social contacts, and not exclusively at co-op meetings! One of his more remarkable discoveries was that they had an extensive adult education system that may have developed from the technical training the cooperatives supported. And they participated more in politics and their kids stayed in school longer and achieved more, and so forth.

Imola’s citizens are intriguing because they have created a truly cooperative culture by practicing democracy in their daily lives. But what does “practicing democracy” mean? It is certainly not spending nights at meetings debating abstract notions of economic justice. Nor are they standing on street corners seeking signatures on petitions. For them practicing democracy is integral to how they work together.

And how they do that is the core notion that is missing in all the studies of social psychology. What can be more transformative than dealing with others in an egalitarian way at work? I mean you can’t leave without loosing your job. And if you do not participate in the decision-making opportunity afforded to you at work, your fellow workers in Imola wouldn’t immediately kick you out, but rather see your behavior as indicative of some deep trauma and come to your aid. They would “practice compassion” as the folks at CCARE recommend to strengthen social connection.

I think many of those who write about cooperatives, or democratic practices of any kind, too often refer to the formal structures in place and ignore – because they lack the experience – the micro-social relations that are necessary to establish true egalitarianism in practice. But egalitarian peer-to-peer relations are the bedrock of the entire cooperative economy. A finely tuned structure will provide, at best, a context for the practice of group collaboration; it cannot guarantee it. The hard work of fostering sensitivity to the needs of others, of developing good listening habits, of refining one’s ideas within a consensual situation are not practices we learn in the real world. In fact, what the real world teaches us regarding working, that there are order-givers and order-takers, needs to be systematically unlearned. I envy the population of Imola in that they have less to unlearn.

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* These findings, I have been told, might be similar in the town of Mondragon, if someone did the research. And, of course, both may be closer to an ideal human scale for ideal urban living. And both are prosperous, without being ostentatious. These are not to be dismissed, but Erdal tried to limit the effect of these variables by choosing two towns very close in all social metrics, but one – Imola had one-quarter of its residents involved with cooperatives.