Barack Obama has defied the odds and emerged as the Democratic Presidential nominee. This achievement is largely credited to his message of optimism and change. Senator Obama is giving people a lot of hope. His rhetoric of change is very inspiring and very vague, raising a lot of expectations without promising anything.
The lack of promises is appropriate. President Obama will not be able to wave a wand and eliminate our deep social divisions. Not everyone will welcome Obama-style change, whatever that means. He is a relative newcomer and outsider who threatens business as usual, and he is likely to meet fierce resistance.
Even if Obama somehow creates the sort of bipartisan unity needed to really change Washington, the government can only do so much. Our society faces a tremendous debt load–both public and private. Wars and a booming population of retirees presents us with a long era of tough choices.
To make matters worse, many federal agencies have been severely damaged by the Bush Administration; we may discover that much of the government is preoccupied by a combination of investigations, rebuilding capacity and relationships, and general licking of wounds.
The bad news is that there is a great deal of work to do on many fronts, and not much prospect that government will be able to do it. That’s the real danger of the Obama phenomenon: Hopes will be raised and then dashed, leading to further disillusionment and cynicism.
The good news is that there is a way to harness the energy that propelled Senator Obama to the nomination, and create a productive next step whether he wins or loses the election.
The grassroots network that fuels the Obama campaign must not be allowed to wither away after the election. Whether he intended it or not, Obama’s campaign has created a framework with which we can do the work that government can’t do. These networks can be transformed into bottom-up organizing structures, through which people can work together on the local level to identify and meet their common needs.
This applies equally to all citizens, regardless of how they vote. We cannot afford to go about our daily lives while the government takes care of everything. The slogan “Yes we can!” carries with it a certain responsibility to actually do the work that we can do.
Much of the work to do will come in the form of community organizing that will be familiar to many–lobbying, volunteer recruitment, and so on–but that alone will not be sufficient to tackle the monumental task at hand. Our democracy and our economy are both in bad shape, and will need to be nurtured and repaired from the ground up.
One essential response to our current situation is the creation of cooperatives with those who share our values. Many millions of people are already members of these democratic businesses, including nearly half of the people in the US. Co-ops provide housing, healthcare, food, employment, financial services, electricity, and many other goods and services. What’s more, there are examples of how cooperatives can be joined together to form economic systems that combine the democracy of the public sector with the voluntary membership of the private sector.
By decentralizing our efforts and maintaining communication among those many centers, we will have our best chance of discovering the solutions that we so urgently need. Model already exist.
In the Basque country of Spain, 80,000 people are employed by the Mondragon cooperatives, which provide most of the services commonly left to government, including healthcare, education and social security.
In Italy, there are several separate cooperative systems that employ more than half a million people to serve nearly ten million members. These are each based on distinct values, and provide a way for socialists and Catholics to coexist with each other while taking care of their own.
Expanding our own cooperative sector is ultimately the work of private citizens working outside of government, but the extraordinary networking and organizing underlying Senator Obama’s campaign provides a venue for ongoing discussion of issues that are beyond the reach of government.