~ by Stavros Stavrides ~
CECOSESOLA: Central de Cooperativas de Servicios Sociales del Estado Lara, Venezuela.
CECOSESOLA (2007, 2010) has a long history dating back to when a cooperative was founded in the city of Barquisimeto in Venezuela, to provide funeral services to the population of the city. Back then the initiative looked a lot like any other cooperative, apart of course from the fact that the service provided was an urgent social need that the private sector found not worthy of investing into. A crucial next step was taken when in 1976 CECOSESOLA decided to assume the responsibility of a bus community service (operating 127 buses in the city of Barquisimeto). This was the first time that CECOSESOLA “was giving a service without a preferential treatment to its own associates” (CECOSESOLA, 2010). A choice was made at that time to integrate members but also the users of the service. Cooperation transcended the boundaries of a purely economic endeavor based on collaborative work and became a force of urban community empowerment. Popular assemblies in neighborhoods developed relevant demands and forms of organization to support what was becoming a self-managed common: public transportation.
It is important to observe here that the nature of work directly influences the potentialities of transforming cooperation to collective decision making and, finally, to practices oriented towards commoning. Administration (including supervisors in workshops, route coordinators etc.) often seems to be a technical issue since a certain level of efficiency appears to depend upon quick and well-informed decisions to be executed on a routine basis (especially in the case of bus schedules). However, forms of organizing cooperation are inadvertently linked to forms of power distribution within working conditions. CECOSESOLA activists have very early realized that if cooperative work is to become an educating process to promote values alternative to individualism, then administration procedures should reflect such a scope. “Couldn’t organizing be a … simple integration of wills fed by mutual trust, that finds order by being true to the organization’s history and purpose?” (ibid.).
Both education and decision making become aligned with a process of collective transformation meant to create conditions of living together “in harmony, solidarity and respect” (ibid). Rotation of duties and equality in participation, thus, creates the potentiality of producing forms of social organization that explicitly diverge from capitalist ethos and the hierarchical distribution of opportunities and privileges. This reflects back to the seemingly technical problems of cooperation: when CECOSESOLA chose to develop a network of food fairs (in 1984, initially mobile ones in converted buses) the very problem of organizing such fairs was treated as a problem of horizontal distribution of tasks and responsibility. Following the principle that those who participate in decisions are responsible for the outcomes of these decisions, CECOSESOLA made it possible to ensure participation without the need of centralized administration. Food fairs were economically successful but were politically successful too. And it was in the recent pandemic crisis that such networks became operative in the support of the most vulnerable and the deprived.
The main idea behind a reflective reappraisal of CECOSESOLA experiences is that participation, cooperation and active involvement in decision making is generated “by progressively sharing the collective criteria that emerge consensually from [the] get-togethers” (2010). Holding meetings becomes the catalyst of an emerging culture that may be described as a culture of emancipatory commoning: in the context of this culture trust, responsibility and mutual help develop within cooperation.
As was made clear during a prolonged visit to CECOSESOLA areas of activity in Barquisimeto (in 2023), assemblies for programming collective tasks and for appraising results characterize the everydayness of the cooperatives. A special emphasis is placed on the complete sharing of available information so that everybody may shape an opinion on the matters discussed and on the equality of all opinions as long as they accept the basic premises of CECOSESOLA. The motto that is written on the wall of the assembly areas is characteristic: “Construyendo confianza en la diversidad” (Constructing confidence in diversity).
It is impressive to observe the way discussions unfold with no moderators and with speakers waiting patiently to hear without interrupting and using time sparingly for their contribution. This kind of deliberation ethics is directly linked with the everyday practices of collaboration based on the rotation of duties and the acts of mutual care. This kind of commoning culture made possible an unbelievable achievement of CECOSESOLA: the construction of a self-managed hospital which was made possible by the participation of the cooperative’s members in the discussions about the building’s planning and design, by the work of many in the construction process, by the collective effort to raise money for this scope without relying on the government or on rich donors and by the collective organizing that maintains the functions of the hospital offering in very cheap affordable prices health services open to all. They even dared to challenge the hierarchical structure of mainstream hospitals that is based on the authority of doctors. It is not that they don’t accept expertise knowledge but they don’t allow the experts to shape relations of absolute and unchecked predominance over those with whom they work together. And for decisions that have to do with the management of the hospital and the human relations developed within it, everyone is equally responsible and everyone’s opinion is equally needed.
Out of these experiences of cooperation that develop by establishing a shared ethos of commoning this community of commoners that develops services open to all has the right to ask: “Will there be a day in which we will be so interconnected that these get-togethers, as we conceive them today, will no longer be necessary? Are we becoming some sort of collective mind?” (ibid.)
Cooperation may in such a prospect support skills and habits of working together that overspill the boundaries of the labor process. Such habits include recurrent practices of limiting the accumulation of power (and thus limiting opportunities of any personal appropriation of collective work) and of ensuring the sharing of knowledge. Trust and care may only develop through repetitive acts that give them form and reality. And solidarity will never become the fertile ground for a just and emancipated society unless trust and care permeate the everyday habits of emancipated commoners.
CECOSESOLA (2007). Construyendo aquí y ahora el Mundo que Queremos. Barquisimeto: Central Cooperativa de Servicios Sociales Lara.
CECOSESOLA (2010). Towards a Collective Mind? Transforming Meetings into Get-togethers… At: https://CECOSESOLA.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Collective-mind.pdf (accessed 21/5/2022).
An extract from the forthcoming book The politics of Urban Potentiality by Stavros Stavrides (London: Bloomsbury)