Slow Democracy and Co-ops

3 minutes

I recently read the book Slow Democracy by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout, published by Chelsea Green Press. Slow democracy empowers communities with inclusive, diverse, and locally based organizing. Central to the concept is deliberation on community decisions by community stakeholders. With broad representation, inclusive deliberation allows for participation, listening, understanding, and confrontation of difficult issues. Co-ops are a kind of slow democracy with well-developed deliberative processes that can contribute to, and learn from, the slow democracy movement.

Many are familiar with non-democratic civic engagements such as public hearings with a predetermined outcome, professional politicians and interest groups asserting control, or non-representative town meetings. Slow democracy, following the slow food movement, tries to slow down the decision-making process and include a wide range of stakeholders. Although this is a book about civic engagement, the inclusive engagement of participants is a deliberative process similar to democracy in co-operatives.

The book has many case studies from Maine to California showing that communities are making powerful use of slow democracy. Various methods bring together communities such as Portsmouth, New Hampshire using “Study Circles” to solve a difficult community problem of school integration. The “charrette” method was used in Minneapolis to bring together “funders, architects, tradespeople, engineers, community members, and residents” to design housing.

But it is deliberation in particular where co-operatives are creating democracy. In my last blog post, I mentioned the co-ops (PV)² and Pedal People being worker-owned and using effective deliberative methods by meeting regularly and making decisions by consensus. Consensus is mentioned by the authors as one deliberative approach. But slow democracy can offer some tips for getting a variety of people engaged. Many experts were cited by Clark and Teachout. Communication Scholar John Gastil has key elements of the analytic and social processes for successful deliberation. Political scientist Lynn Sanders suggests “giving testimony” by all those assembled to prevent dominance problems by any particular party. Katherine Cramer Walsh, in her study of interracial dialogues, notes the importance of the facilitator in allowing uncomfortable issues to surface. And author Francesca Polletta learned from social movements that we don’t necessarily have to move forward as friends to make good decisions.

Slow Democracy also points to a study from Yale University that shows people are not as divided, politically and socially, as we are led to think. The study suggests we can find more agreement based on the parameters of “cultural cognition” including egalitarianism, individualism, hierarchism, and collectivism. In this way we can combine peoples’ interests in less extreme perspectives. Author Jane Mansbridge clarifies that another kind of democracy exists separate from the “Adversary Democracy” we know. She explains that this democracy assumes citizens are in conflict, and that we can instead work toward a unitary democracy.

Whether it’s Pedal People in Massachusetts with 18 worker-owners or John Lewis in Great Britain with more than 90,000, co-ops are valuable models of democratic governance. Slow democracy offers additional approaches to inclusive, locally based, decision making. With an emphasis on deliberation, there can be benefits for communities, business, and the two working together.

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