Let’s start with this: If you cannot understand Africa today without understanding Europe, then you cannot understand Europe without understanding Africa. Such a principle might unlock our imagination to think about the immigrant “problem” as part of the solution for Greece, and for Europe. This would recast the center of the conversation from Brussels or Berlin, to the Mediterranean Sea. Europe and Africa, in other words, are best understood not as two continents, but rather as two coasts on the Mediterranean Sea. Europe’s future, I would guess, depends much more on its relations with Africa than its relations with itself, which I suspect has always been the case.
Civic conversations, as I see it, are not about the “exchange of ideas” (our thoughts are not commodities) or about winning debates (we are we selling things), but are about what we jointly discern as urgent issues. How we approach these issues of course, depends on who invites whom to the conversation. If we want to deal with social inequality, who invites whom makes all the difference in the world.
In Aristotle’s famous two books on friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics, he states that un-equals can be friends, if they figure out what reciprocity would look like for them. If parents give their children money, for example, reciprocity would not require that the children repay their parents with money, but rather with gratitude and honor. The point about reciprocity, as Laurence Becker has said, is about balanced social relations.
Much of the inequality we see around us violates this principle of balanced social relationships. So, if we went to engage in civic conversations, we need to re-balance them.
Here is where the “you” come in. I don’t mean you, but rather the second person pronoun “you.” Most of the time, we treat ourselves as an “I” or a “me” or maybe a “we.” We actually cannot treat ourselves as a “you.” Someone else must do that. We only become a “you” when someone addresses us with a question or some other invocation. The question “What do you think?” can enable another to become a “you.” A you-you relationship may be a necessary condition for real civic conversations. (Martin Buber called it an “I-Thou” relationship, and he is certainly one source of these reflections)
If “I” cannot make myself a “you,” then I am dependent on the invitation of the other. If others have been disadvantaged by social imbalances, how likely is it that they will invite those of us who have benefited from the imbalances into a civic conversation? Isn’t it the case that those of us in privileged positions need an invitation (that’s the only way we can enter into you-you relationships) but that our benefiting from social inequalities make such an invitation unlikely? So, what can we do?
Deeper than our social inequalities resides a common humanity. We are all living now, for example. We are contemporaries. We have attachments and we need provisions. We need protection. Our grandchildren inherit the same planet. We face new beginnings and we face death. What these events mean, of course, depends a lot on our social worlds, but our common humanity is more than these social worlds.
The problem is that this common humanity has been violated by slavery, wars, and imperialism. If we want it to become a foundation for engaging in dialogue with others, it needs to be repaired. It may be that we cannot effectively deal with our social inequalities until we repair the violations of our common humanity. What that repair would require is an open question—a question that might get us an invitation to engage in civic conversations.
During a recent visit to New Orleans, I discovered that the city has a fascinating economic history. The city was ruled first by the French, the Spanish, and then the United States. Regardless of the rulers, or the white owners of property, the city’s early economy depended on enslaved and free people of color. After the Civil War, the economy depended on the labor of sharecroppers and others living in debt slavery. The economic story of New Orleans is a multicolored story from enslaved Africans building the first levees to the on-going work of rebuilding the Ninth Ward. If you know New Orleans, then you know a multicolored economy. Most economic thinking, however, has split off from consciousness the contributions and the sufferings of people of color and has practiced a white economics.
White economics is thinking about economics as though people of color do not exist. It’s Europeans thinking about economics as though Africa didn’t exist. It’s white Americans thinking about economics as though American wealth was not dependent on the contributions of Africans, Hispanics, and Asians. You can find it in much of the current thinking about a “new economy” as well as most mainstream economic thinking, especially in economic departments.
This type of thinking has a long history that is best illustrated by Adam Smith’s exclusion of the role of slavery in his story of wealth creation. In one section of The Wealth of Nations, Smith writes about the reasons for the prosperity of the American colonies. He mentions land and management, but not labor, even though he believed that labor was the only real source of wealth creation. In this case, it was the labor of enslaved Africans that made the tobacco lords of Glasgow some of the wealthiest individuals in Europe. Smith met with these tobacco traders for years, but never shared his knowledge of the Atlantic slave-based economy. He tells a lie about an invisible hand instead of the truth about the white hands of plantation owners.
White economists are not very interested in the history of either the Atlantic or the Caribbean economies. In fact, white economists assume there is no need to repair the harm that has been done to people of color. Furthermore, and this is not unimportant, white economists do not see any need to examine the assumptions of white supremacy. This blindness has not only prevented people of color from receiving compensation for their contributions to our wealth; it has also prevented white economists from taking an appropriate stance toward the past and the future.
The appropriate stance for white economists is one of humility. Humility would allow us to learn how to repair the past and re-think the future. If we open our eyes to current economic trends, this white dominated economy is humiliating. Shameful. Some might say that White Americans are not a humble people. That may be the problem.
More people today are thinking about different forms of business, including worker cooperatives. In Learning through Disagreement, I use the question of starting a worker cooperative to illustrate the workbook’s method of exploring reasons for different views and then evaluating them with an ethics of purpose, principle, and consequence. The key to the process is that participants learn more about the issue by engaging in a dialogue with alternative views. To demonstrate a possible result of doing this type of work, I am sharing the argumentative dialogue from the workbook.
An Argumentative Dialogue On Worker Cooperatives
From Learning Through Disagreement (Broadview Press, 2014)
TONI: When I expand my business, I plan on making it a worker cooperative.
RY: You want to do what?
TONI: As my business grows, I want to bring on new people as co-owners of the
RY: You mean you want to give away the business to others?
TONI: No, I want to build the business with others who share the risks and the rewards of
running a business.
RY: Well, I think that is a bad idea. I think you should maintain ownership of the business
and hire people when you need them, and be able to fire them when you don’t.
TONI: So you don’t think we should share ownership?
RY: Never, and I will tell you why. We should not because that would mean giving up
control of the business and we should maintain control.
TONI: Well, at least your argument is valid.
RY: What do you mean?
TONI: It’s a good syllogism, with an observation and value judgment supporting your
RY: OK, so do you agree with it?
TONI: No, I disagree with your value judgment. I think we should share control with those
whose fate is tied up in the direction of the business. I think we should design businesses as
worker cooperatives because then everyone working in the business will have some say in
the direction of the business and I think we all should have a say in decisions that can
seriously affect our lives.
RY: Good logical argument.
RY: Have you done any research on this?
TONI: Yes, there are over 300 worker coops in the United States, in various industries from
food to home care. The biggest worker coop is Mondragon in Spain, This cooperative
conglomerate owns $33.5 billion in assets and employs more than 92,000 workers, many of
whom are owners of the group. There are plenty of examples of successful worker
RY: Well, for me to agree with you, I would have to assume that I would get more
enjoyment working with others, as I would get from having others work for me. Don’t you
want to be a captain of your own ship? I see myself as an entrepreneur, and I hope a very
TONI: Yes, I guess I do assume that working on a team would be more satisfying for me.
We may be quite different on this score. But it’s not only about me. I assume that many
have similar aspirations as I do, and I really don’t want to put myself in a position of
controlling them or them controlling me. I assume that we don’t have to design a business
with a military command and control structure. We could be more like a soccer team.
RY: I don’t know of any soccer teams that are worker cooperatives.
TONI: True, I was referring to how they all contribute to the success of their team. When
you think about it, I don’t see why players should not own their teams. If you were a soccer
player would you like to have a say in decisions that affect you and your team?
RY: Sure, but that’s not how things are done, especially in professional sports. Players go to
the highest bidder. They go where someone will pay them to play.
TONI: I am not suggesting that we take on the powerful institutions of professional sports. I
simply wanted to use the players’ teamwork to illustrate what a worker coop could achieve,
and what I would like to try.
RY: OK, but you must realize that most players engage in cooperative teamwork because
they are motivated by money and fear of losing their position to the player waiting on the
TONI: Don’t you think lots of players really like playing the game and playing it well?
RY: That may be true of a few, but if they don’t watch their back, they will not be playing
TONI: We seem to have very different assumptions here. If I assumed that the only way
to get people to excel is through incentives or punishments, then I would agree that coownership
would be unwise. But I assume that many people are more or less like me. We
want to have some control over our work and we want to do well.
RY: Well, I think a lot of people just want a paycheck, and are happy to have a job.
TONI: We really do have different assumptions.
RY: So it seems. You appear to focus more on the importance of good relationships and
maybe I focus more on individual achievement, but both are important.
TONI: Yes, I agree, we need to find some balance between them. Perhaps we can do this by
evaluating the ethical strength of the different arguments we have developed.
RY: OK, where should we start?
TONI: We can start with my first argument about what kind of business I want to run. One
ethical question that relates to this argument is the question of what a good business would
look like. What is its purpose?
RY: And what would you say?
TONI: Well I think a good business meets some needs and wants of the people in its
community. I see businesses as providers of goods and services, and a good business would
do that well.
RY: OK, but I don’t think you have to be a worker-owned cooperative to provide excellent
goods and services.
TONI: I agree, but I also want to create an excellent community of people who together
provide these goods and services: This is really a business’s internal purpose. I think the
work community should be one of mutual respect and responsibility, and a worker
cooperative is a good way to become that kind of business.
RY: Well, I can see that in an ideal world, but you may not realize your external purpose if
you focus too much on your internal purpose. You know what I mean?
TONI: Yes, I know we have to make it in the market, but as I have said before, worker
coops have been quite successful.
RY: Let’s look at my argument from an ethics of principle.
TONI: Great. What is your implicit principle? It is probably the same as your argument’s
value judgment? Can you make that into a universal moral law?
RY: The value judgment was: “Owners should maintain control of their business.” I guess I
can re-word it to say something like “People should not give up control of things they own.”
TONI: OK, this is a bit complicated, since we are thinking about whether or not to share
ownership. It doesn’t seem like it is morally wrong to share ownership, but then at the same
time, it doesn’t seem like we have a moral obligation to share something we own. I guess we
need to know what you actually own when you own a business.
RY: Well, you own the assets, and you own the income it generates. You own the profit.
TONI: You may own the financial capital and the material capital, but you do not own the
social or cultural capital—the human capital. You might pay for them, but you do not own
them. If there are parts of every business that you do not own, then why should you control
RY: OK. You know, it doesn’t seem that the ethics of principle really helps us evaluate the
merit of my argument.
TONI: I think you are right. Not all three ethical approaches are equally helpful in every
case. That may true in this case in terms of trying to universalize the implicit principle, but
what about the second question we ask when using this approach: “Does your proposal
respect the moral agency of others?”
RY: Good question. As much as I hate to admit it, you position that people should have a
say in decisions that affects them shows more respect for others than mine does. I think we
need to move on to an ethics of consequence.
TONI: Fine with me. Who will be affected by our decision?
RY: You will be, or whoever is sharing ownership with those who join the business. Let’s
call them workers. Then we have your family and the other worker’s families. We should
include the other relevant stakeholders as well, such as the consumers, investors, the
community, and suppliers.
TONI: And what do you see as the impact on these different groups? And do you think it
will be positive or negative?
RY: For you, or whoever wants to share ownership of a business, the positive consequence
would be you that would have company (no pun intended), but the negative is that you, from
my perspective, you increase the risk of failure. The workers might gain, if the business goes
well, or lose, if it does not. I don’t think the other stakeholders would be affected much.
TONI: What about the community? If the business is owned by a group of people who live
in the community, isn’t it more likely that the business will be responsive to its community?
Furthermore, I think that since worker cooperatives promote active involvement at work,
they will also promote more active involvement in other communities, such as public
RY: Could be. Once I think more about this, the real issue seems to be the competitors. If
your worker-cooperative is not competitive, the whole business will fail. That would be a
negative consequence for everyone, including the community.
TONI: Right, I think we are dealing with risk and safety here, and if we take care on adding
co-owners as we grow, I think the consequences can be quite positive for most of us.
RY: OK, if you are willing to take the risk. Also, if we look at our application of the three
ethical approaches, it certainly does not rule out moving toward worker-cooperatives, so I
would have to say it seems like a sound decision.
TONI: Yes, but I think I need to be careful in adding new owners, so maybe you would like
to give me some feedback when the time times. Hay, would you like to be the first coowner?
RY: I don’t think I am ready right now. Working with someone like you, however, would
not be a bad idea.
TONI: Let’s keep in touch.