Thursday, March 16, 2006


Co-ops either thrive or they collapse owing to the tyranny of structurelessness, personality clashes, power struggles and general life issues. Gary Younge writes on his experience in one of the U.S.A's longest running food co-ops.
The co-op has its own newspaper - the LineWaiter's Gazette - and its own social calendar. It also has its own disciplinary system, meted out by the Orwellian-sounding Hearing and Deciding group, which can expel people for, among other things, "extremely uncooperative behaviour". The group rarely meets, but the fact that it exists shows how seriously the co-op takes its own rules. When one friend's father died she called to warn the co-op that she was going to miss a shift. When they insisted she do two make-up shifts to compensate, she objected. Only after several objections that went all the way to the top did they finally and grudgingly relent. "OK," said the person in charge. "But you only get one death in the family." Members have been known to call the co-op to report that friends are lying about disability and the size of their households. Little wonder that in 2004 the Village Voice voted it the "best place to experience how communism leads to fascism".
But people can only ridicule it because it exists and it exists, in no small part, because it has been prepared to enforce its own rules. With more than 13,000 members and a turnover of $25.6m (£14.7m) last year, it is the largest and longest-standing wholly member-owned and operated food co-op in the US. This is no small achievement in a city where people are supposed to seek anonymity and convenience rather than obligation and community.
You are glad that some things exist. Some things, by their very existence, make the heart beat faster and gives one faith in people, community and all those buzz words that make you feel at one with the world. But I can still understand how Gary Younge's membership lapsed.

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