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Jeffrey Elkner

Summer of Cooperation

All Things Co-op Logo

Summer 2020 is going to be the Summer of Cooperation. It will determine whether our little web development cooperative, NOVA Web Development, can find a way to obtain a modest monthly revenue of around $6K per month to keep the three full time members who live off the earnings of our business employed, or whether we will need to walk away from it as unsustainable, and determine that we lack the means or understanding to keep it going.

As we embark on the last stage of launching our cooperative, a brief look back before a look at what lies ahead. NOVA Web Development was started in 2012 after my dear friend Kevin Cole got me to attend a presentation by web development coops at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit. For the next 5 years it sort of limped along, fulfilling both Kevin's need to have a business structure for his after retirement contract work at Gallaudet University, and my need for internships for my Web Development students. It was costing me between $10K and $15K a year as a "patron", however, and each year closer to retirement I realized that what for me was in essence a charity / hobby project would not be sustainable. It either had to be turned into a viable business or I would have to let it go, so I could focus on preparing for retirement.

In the Summer of 2017 we made the decision to try to develop a real business plan, to the degree we understood what that meant, and to skill up to develop the technical chops needed to have something marketable to offer. Since I first got into IT, I've had a deep seated need to use information technology toward the goal of creating a just, democratic society. As a result of this, our business plan in 2017 centered around customizing and supporting CiviCRM. That turned out not to be a good technological fit for us, so after losing around 4 months going down a dead end path, we found ourselves back in the Python programming language community from which we came, shifting from CiviCRM to Tendenci as the product we planned to support. Tendenci is both a large, free software platform and a successful business. Unfortunately, trying to develop support for a large, changing platform with our severely limited resources was also not a good idea. We simply could not do it. Instead, we decided to write our own Django applications from scratch, and make custom Django development and our skills as Django developers the "product" we bring to market.

It has been a fairly long journey, complete with dead ends and back tracking, but we finally found our grove. We have built a community of co-workers with strong communication, collaborative work practices, and professional level Django programming chops. While we are no longer hacking on Tendenci, it was a huge help being able to look at the source code for a large, successful commercial product using the same development stack we were learning. Tendenci solves a problem, association management, which is similar to the kind of thing we hope to build, and studying it led us directly toward where we needed to go to get where we are now, as my end of last Summer blog post lays out.

As we begin our Summer 2020 development effort, we have made huge strides toward each of the 4 practices listed at the end of last Summer: version control, documentation, testing, and continuous integration. We have developed an online portfolio of three projects that demonstrate our level of skill as Django developers:

  1. LibreOrganize
  2. Business Tracker
  3. The Blog

The last of these is what I am using now for this post. We developed it over the last week with the specific goal of enabling NOVA Web Development cooperators Natalia Cerna, our project manager, and me to document our Summer 2020 work.

Goal for Summer 2020

As a teacher paid by Arlington Public Schools, I can afford to work full time for NOVA Web Development from mid June to mid August without pay. It is for this reason that we have focused so heavily on Summer development "sprints" throughout our history. This time out, however, I have made it clear to my fellow cooperators that I can no longer be our primary source of funding. By the time I need to return to work at the end of August, we need to achieve an approximate monthly revenue of $6K to keep our full time members employed and to thus become, for the first time, a viable business. Given the average revenues for skilled software developers, I feel confident that if we can hit this target over the next 2 months, our prospects going forward are indeed bright.

I am not at all confident, however, of the best way to reach that target, though I feel sure that it has something to do with successfully navigating two contradictions, the contradiction between the world I live in and the world I want to help create, and the contradiction in the dual desires to "do whats right" for the world and to "do what's right" for my beloved fellow cooperators.

The World We Live In vs. The World We Want to Create

The world we live in is the result of 40 years of global hegemonic dominance by neoliberalism. It is a world that only values things that can be measured by a single, unary measure, price. Most of the things I most deeply cherish as a living human being, joy, friendship, commitment, collaboration, creativity, learning and community, can not be measured by neoliberalism's sole unary measurement and thus have no value for it. Business relationships under our present system take place in this context, and we are trained from birth to think of only things that can be monetized as having value. Both NOVA Web Development co-founder Kevin Cole and I seek to, in Kevin's words, "help build the world we want to live in", which is in complete opposition to neoliberalism. As blogger Paul Bernal, commenting on Oscar Wilde's famous phrase, writes in a post titled The price of everything and the value of nothing…,

"Focusing on the price makes it easy to miss the real value – and can turn what should be complex decisions based on combinations of ethics, morals, culture, empathy, philosophy and understanding of society into much simpler games based on numbers and calculations."

In the All Things Co-op podcast titled "Seventh Principle - Concern for Community", Kevin Gustafson talks about the degradation of community and atomization of social relations that have occurred under neoliberalism (32:10). I was especially struct by his comment that he thinks part of the atomization comes from our knowing that "we're just not in control of anything" (32:51). I share this feeling. Democracy, meaning rule by the people, is never an absolute state. It always falls on a continuum. Yet tragically, under the sustained growth in income inequality combined with the increased control by the very wealthy of all our social institutions, we are moving on that continuum away from democracy and towards oligarchy, so it is becoming increasingly true that the rest of us are just not in control of anything.

I am loath to being sucked into the logic of neoliberal social relations, allowing my very soul to be poisoned in the process. Thus I am desperately seeking a way to avoid this spiritual death while entering into "business relations". I enter the Summer with the hope that it will be possible to find a $6K per month revenue stream that does not entail selling my soul to the devil. I want to find a way for our cooperators to earn a modest, just livelihood while at the same time helping to build a more just, equitable, sustainable, and democratic world.

Loving My Cooperators vs. Loving the World

I often like to say that I am "living the socialist dream". I work at a job that I love, where I have been for more than 25 years. I earn more than I need to live, and I have a defined benefit retirement plan that, assuming the state of Virginia does not default, will provide me with a steady income at retirement for as long as I live. I firmly believe that all human beings on planet earth have a birthright to what I have, and I feel morally obligated to help make that birthright a reality. Sadly, even in my own country, we have been moving in the very opposite direction for the last 40 years. We are creating a world in which human beings born without property have no rights at all, and absent their value as commodities are viewed as just so much rubbish to be discarded, without concern, along with the rest of the trash.

I have put a great deal of effort into trying to find a way to turn NOVA Web Development into a viable business while still helping to make the world a better place. Neoliberalism does not provide us social justice warriors with many resources, so it is not an easy thing to do. Last year I enrolled in the University of the People's MBA program, and have now completed the first three core courses in the program, Organizational Theory and Behavior, Managerial Accounting, and Marketing Management. These classes have helped a great deal in providing me with the beginnings of the skills I need to help run a business, but as I have written in the many papers for the course I posted on my website, I am no more relieved of the anxiety I feel approaching the market than I was when I started.

I want to do what it takes to find a way for Natalia, Edzon, and German to make a living with NOVA Web Development. We have become really good friends through the process of working closely together for the last several years. Natalia and I talk almost every day, and as we get to know each other, laugh together, cry together, we feel a growing human bond. Being part of a cooperative enterprise really does help restore some of that sense of community of which Kevin Gustafson spoke that has been taken away from us by neoliberalism's atomization.

So, as I approach the Summer 2020 marketing drive, I anxiously contemplate what it will take to establish business relationships that will sustain us. How far will I have to compromise my ethics with the sharks and devils that inhabit the neoliberal market to help my fellow cooperators earn a living? Will I be willing to sign a non-disclosure agreement and build proprietary software, violating the principles of sharing, transparency, and human centered development I deeply cherish? Would I even be willing to work on projects with impacts on the world that are questionably unethical in order that we can put bread on the tables of our coop members?

Platform Coops Now!

The Road Ahead

I am deeply hoping it will be possible to avoid being sucked into the moral abyss of neoliberalism while finding a way to make a living for NOVA Web Development cooperators. We are now fairly skilled Django web application developers, and the question to be answered is whether or not there is paid work to be found doing good things with our skills.

Natalia and I are currently enrolled in a Summer course through the New School in New York and Mondragon University in Spain called Platform Coops Now!. There are over 400 students in the course from all over the world (literally from every continent save Antarctica). The goal of the course is to incubate platform coops. In week two it is already helping Natalia and me to deepen our understanding of what it means to be a cooperative. We learned about the principles guiding the largest worker cooperative in the world, Mondragon, and how they align with the classic Rochdale Principles.

We have three goals that should guide our work this Summer. We need to:

  1. find a way to generate a minimum monthly revenue of $6K in order to keep the coop alive past September.
  2. continue strengthening and deepening our skills as software developers, following the principles in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development toward becoming true craftspeople, taking pride in our work and using best practices in what we do.
  3. educate all our members about the principles of cooperativism, in order to function better as a democratic, worker owned and operated business.

I will write about how we approach each of these goals as we go through the Summer.