My crticism of the Sol Cafe

I am speaking in personal capacity here. Here are my thoughts on the current situation. I have been involved in Co-operation Birmingham since the very start and have mostly done on tech, admin and co-operative development work.

You must understand that these concerns are not coming from a place of anger. I am expressing my opinion. It may be difficult for you all to read these critiques but I really implore you to not read them as an attack on any of you personally. This is just my reflections on the situation we have found ourselves in from my perspective.

I really recommend reading this article on creating a culture of constructive criticism under capitalism. I think it is necessary to share my feelings in this way.

Against do-ocracy

I believe that the one of the reason the Sol Cafe project is struggling to reconcile with wider Co-op Brum stricture is that in it is using a system of do-ocracy where only those that are involved get to have a say.

This is in conflict with the decison making process and co-operative membership structure that was agreed to at Co-op Brum AGM that I helped write that was aimed to give members of the co-op of all capacities a say in the direction of the co-op.

Do-ocracy can be a very useful way of doing things when you are starting out a project. It means the people who have lots of interest in pushing forward have free reign to do what needs to be done to get the project off the ground. However, I would question it’s usefulness as a decision making process when there is need to seek consensus from a wider group of people.

Consider these dangers identified by the community wiki:

  • Burnout. People can get too attached to the do-ocratic system and volunteer for too many jobs, or too much work, and tend to have a low TruckFactor.
  • Despotism. A person who’s doocrat’d themselves into control of a very necessary system (network, food pool, etc.) can get heady with power and demand rewards or tribute for their work.
  • Frustration. Some people don’t have the time or means to do something, but they do have (real or imagined) expertise. In a doocracy, they will feel overrun and perceive the situation as slipping out of their hands. This can cause frustration. And remember: “Fear is the path to the dark side…”
  • FairProcess. Doocracy is not always explicitly defined, so there are diverging perception dangers about “fairness”.
  • Resentment. If only a minority of participants in the community do-ocratize themselves into the hard jobs, they can resent others who don’t take on responsibility.
  • The Martyrdom Complex. Some people have a psychological need to work strenuously most of the time, perhaps because they are seeking persecution and suffering, motivated by a desire for penance. In do-ocracy, people with these psychological needs tend to take more responsibility and sometimes make strict rules to impose on others.
  • Complacency. If a minority of people take on jobs, the others can become complacent and ignore new tasks, since “someone else will do it.”
  • Social Exclusion. People who can’t do things, or choose not do things, are often marginalized in decision-making, which compounds social divides.
  • The Tyranny Of Structurelessness.
  • Incompleteness: Essential tasks for the organization that no-one is interested in doing, will be hard to bootstrap and accomplish.

Because of the nature of the pandemic, Co-operation Birmingham was setup to do emergency mutual aid at a time where remote working was necessary. There were over 250 people involved in the project in all kinds of capacities and not everyone was able to be present in decision making processes. We attempted to balance this under the circumstance by making the weekly decision making meetings public and document all minutes, decisions and proposals in a transparent and accountable way on the website, forum etc.

It was extremely difficult to connect with the folks we were delivering food aid to as we had to maintain strict social distancing procedures to protect everyone involved from the potential of catching and transmitting COVID-19. We attempted to build better links with folks we were delivering aid to by producing paper zines that came alongside the food as we knew many folks in need do not have the same access to online media as we enjoy.

One critique of the Solidarity Kitchen model we received, was that it wasn’t truly mutual aid in that the folks receiving food aid had no ownership of the organisation we had created. In some ways, we were replicating the charity model where an organisation of concerned middle class people hand out scraps to folks in need without attempting to change the power dynamics in play which marginalises people in the first place. The charity model does not attempt to build poor and working class self organisation and one part of a system that perpetuates the poverty that capitalism creates.

However, we had to do something to help with the government’s horrendous handling of the pandemic and the incredible swell of mutual aid projects we saw, so we organised as best we could and started to plan a transition towards a more mutual model, again sharing all of our process in the most transparent way we could think of. We delivered over 17,000 meals to people in need and folks in the current Sol Cafe collective were a part of that.

Now the pandemic is beginning to subside, we must consider the structures we create in the context of creating a solidarity economy. It is not enough to mealy implement duplicate the work of charities. The systems we create must also attempt to challenge the hegemonic powers of capitalism at the same time as providing that necessary aid that the state refuses to provide. Ownership matters and maintaining collective democratic decision is critical to ensuring that all people involved in a project get to have their concerns and criticisms heard and addressed. Giving folks we are helping a clear pathway to ownership of the project they are part of is critical.

I believe that current tendency that is being pushed by folks involved with the Sol Cafe is not in the spirit of a democratic organisation. We have a decision making process that was agreed in a vote following proposal at the Co-op Brum Annual General Meeting (AGM) which gives any member of Co-operation Birmingham a say in decisions that are made. In fact, any two Co-operation Birmingham members can currently block a proposal until a satisfactory consensus has been reached.

The way the Sol Cafe collective have been refusing to fully engage in the decision making process is deeply problematic. Favouring a system of do-ocracy over the wider democratic process means that folks that can’t attend meetings on Monday for any reason, don’t get to have a say in what the collective does. As the furlough scheme ends, less and less people will be able to be involved in synchronous meetings. That is why our decision making process requires using the forum as a tool to share proposal and collect votes. This process requires folks proposing things to engage in feedback and attempt to meet other’s needs.

Currently we also in a transitory stage to having the membership of Co-operation Birmingham be more of a formal membership organisation so that the boundaries of who wants to be involved in any capacity, can be drawn. Folks who are able to put money in each month can but folks who can’t afford monthly subs can also join and have the same democratic say in the direction of the organisation. This similar to how a lot of co-operatives work, trade unions, The Labour Party, anarchist federations etc operate successfully. It allows capital to be generated collectively by the members and decisions about how to operate be made democratically.

Currently no members of the Sol Cafe collective have bothered to join the Open Collective despite it again being a decision passed after the AGM. In theory, this means that the Sol Cafe folks can’t actually even make proposals to Co-operation Birmingham despite posting some proposals and then withdrawing them. Please note that this shouldn’t be seen as any kind of disenfranchisement, as anyone can sign up to be member of Co-operation Birmingham very quickly on our OpenCollective and there is a free tier of membership for those who are unwaged.

This continual lack of engagement with Co-operation Birmingham has led to a lot of discussion bordering conflict. I understand that some folks in Sol Cafe may want to pursue some sort of split away from Co-operation Birmingham so that they can use their own decision making process but even that hasn’t been clearly communicated.

Against de-mutualisation

De-mutualisation, sometimes called carpet bagging is when something that is previously mutual becomes privatised.

From the Co-op Clusters report from Radical Routes

‘carpet bagging’ is the process through which individuals take profits from common assets.

It is perhaps worth noting that this is not necessarily coming from selfish intent, but often just because the governance systems encourage a maintenance of status quo over pushing outwards.

I would argue that what is happen here is that Co-operation Birmingham has built up significant social capital during our operation of the Solidarity Kitchen project during the pandemic. All of the folks in the Sol Cafe collective were involved in the Solidarity Kitchen and did amazing and heroic work for that project. However, so did around 250 other people. The Solidarity Kitchen was a huge project that involved so many people in the kitchen, doing admin, operating the phone line, delivering the food etc etc.

I believe that the Sol Cafe is now attempting to use that social capital we all built together to launch this new cafe project. This would be a positive thing if the Sol Cafe was engaging in the wider activities and structure of Co-operation Birmingham.

Co-op Brum voted in favour of a Solidarity Cafe being set up with the following goals:

Goals of the solidarity cafe:
Build on the success of Cooperation Birmingham and Solidarity Kitchen
Offer a community space with access to different services (Micro rainbow, LGBT centre Brum, CRISIS, SIFA)
Offering food and beverages on a PAYF basis
Create links between the differents organisations and community
Space for grassroot projects to emerge
Space for the arts, performance, music etc

I’m feeling pretty dismayed that the “Build on the success of Cooperation Birmingham and Solidarity Kitchen” is now basically translating into a new separate organisation being setup that isn’t structurally a democratic mutual co-operative (It’s a CIC), took grant funding without seeking consensus from the wider membership, doing fundraising separately.

Most importantly, I feel that many members have raised critiques of your actions and have not felt like they have been appropriately responded to.

All the while, the Sol Cafe has benefited from the connections made through the Solidarity Kitchen, the good name and reputation we have all built throughout Birmingham, tech infrastructure we have setup, the countless hours of organising we have put in, the resources provided by the Warehouse Cafe and Autonomic Co-operative, the solidarity between us and folks organising in Northfield and the hundreds of folks who were involved. Is it really to end up like this?

I myself have found that questions I have raised have been unanswered when raised casually on the forum so now I will attempt to be more direct, in the hope that my fears can be put at ease.

In conclusion, some questions for folks involved in the Sol Cafe Collective…

I would really appreciate clear answers on these questions either on this post or in a meeting. I can not make meetings very often due to various other commitments.

  • I’m just not sure why you folks didn’t speak out at the AGM and the resulting week long decision making process about any of the other proposals. If you don’t agree with the decision making process, then why did you or do you not propose a different process?
  • Do you agree with the seven co-operative principles that have been on our website since the very beginning of the project? I believe a CIC is in violation of number 2 and then the lack of engagement with wider Co-op Brum folks is a violation of number 4.
  • Did you get grant funding in part due to social capital generated by the work of the Solidarity Kitchen?
  • Are the positions on the board of the Sol Cafe CIC elected democratically?
  • Is the paid worker role going to be elected democratically?
  • Is the allocation of the money you’ve raised going to be decided democratically?
  • Do you want to split off from Co-operation Birmingham as an entirely separate company?
  • If so, are you going to be negotiating your own agreement with the Warehouse Cafe for the use of the space?

I hope these question will help to bring clarity to the situation.

Thanks for taking the time with this Leo. It gave me lots to think about, and informed some of what I’ve posted this morning.

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