Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed with all his heart and soul that we could become a country and a world where each person had food for their bodies, education for their minds, and dignity for their souls. His faith told him that the universe itself was on the side of truth and justice, that the cosmos was under the control of a loving purpose. The path and the goal were one: nonviolent redemptive goodwill.
Do we have reason to hope as Dr. King did? Beside his faith, or ours, what might suggest that we can live in the “beloved community”?
Whether you believe in original sin, the Freudian id, or our ancient lizard-brain instincts, people cannot be counted on to be consistently full of wise compassion. Neither have we yet devised perfect systems of government or religion that–despite our basic natures–will consistently produce goodness and truth. But we do know some things about how to elicit wisdom, compassion, goodness and truth, from ourselves and our systems, when we try.
This country was founded on the idea that a commonwealth can be produced through freedom and democracy, in contrast to the contemporary European model of fealty to a monarchy. Obedience to a divinely-ordained absolute ruler was not working out, and it seemed time to try something new.
Two centuries after the country’s founding, Dr. King pushed for better, more complete implementation of that original idea–in particular, including Blacks as full members of the commonwealth. This was done on paper–reluctantly, and without reflection on the material and psychological effects of centuries of racial subjugation. Another half century later, we still struggle to make our commonwealth more inclusive and functional. Yet freedom and democracy are still a sound foundation.
One way to understand “freedom” is as “the ability to decide for oneself what to do and how to live.” When combined with “democracy”, which can mean “people deciding together how to function as a group” we set up a productive tension between individual and collective power to decide. Rather than contradict each other, these two ideals can reinforce each other. But they have to work in tandem.
Working both pedals of freedom and democracy may sound challenging. But cooperatives do this all the time. Co-ops work on the principle of mutual benefit and reciprocity, not pure individualism or pure altruism. Thus, co-ops are a natural vehicle for honing our skills as free and democratic people. By both acknowledging individual needs and seeking group solutions, co-ops inherently pull people toward considering the needs of others while honestly advocating for their own benefit.
One key concept in co-ops and commonwealths is “membership”–the idea that someone belongs, and by virtue of belonging, must be taken into account in decisions. It’s analogous to citizenship. Like citizenship, though, the idea of membership raises the questions of “who is a member?” and “how exactly can you make member interests and group interests coincide?”
Right now, not everyone in our country is included and considered a full-fledged member of society, nor do all participate in decisions that affect them. What would it be like if everyone were included in our circle of care? Blue-collar workers, farmers and fishermen, the unemployed, the differently abled, those without housing and those without documents, gender nonconformists, convicted felons, the illiterate, the poor, the young, the elderly? What would it be like if we all accepted that no one can be thrown away and that everyone matters? How would we function differently? What kind of outcomes could we hope for?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and countless others suffered and died to give us a chance to try to find out. We can’t get there in one heroic jump. Rather, we must keep taking one step at a time. We need to listen–to understand real needs and discover possible solutions. We need to reject plans that cause real harm to real people and craft new responses. We need to try things and experiment and compare results to expectations. We need to be reality-based and values-oriented.
I have reason to believe that the arc of the universe, or our human natures, will bend along with us if we do this work. I see it happening every day. And I want more.
Sources and readings:
- A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., James M. Washington, ed., New York: Harper Collins, 1986.
- Collaboration That Works: A Ruthlessly Practical Handbook for a Generative World, Cecile M. Green, Round Sky Solutions, 2013.
- “Nevermind Guaranteed Income, We Want the Cow,” by Ed Whitfield, Fund for Democratic Communities, 2017.
- “Reciprocity, Civil Economy, Common Good,” by Stefano Zamagni, in Archer, M.; Donati, P., Pursuing the common good, Vatican City: The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, 2008, pp. 467–502.
- No More Throw-Away People: The Co-production Imperative, by Edgar Cahn, 2000.
- The Democratic Worker-Owned Firm: A New Model for the East and West, by David Ellerman, Routledge, 2015.
- “12 Steps Toward a Better Neighborhood,” by David Sloan Wilson, 2013. (Also adapted in CDI’s Co-op Start-up Packet.)