Isn’t ideology really divisive? Wouldn’t we be much more successful in reaching out to people if we weren’t so ideological about the cooperative movement?

The best current research strongly supports the notion that a clear guiding ideology is critical to the success of worker cooperatives in the long run. But establishing and maintaining this cooperative ideology in a group can be challenging for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that some worker owners may be uncomfortable with the thought of promoting a particular ideology in their business. Given how important ideology is to the success of worker cooperatives, here I would like to briefly explore the concept, and in particular, I will try to explain how ideology is understood in the articles on this blog, and hopefully, along the way, I can address some of the concerns that can come up about mixing ideology and business.

Fundamentally, there is no such thing as an organization without an ideology. A given organization’s guiding ideology may be either radical and explicit on the one hand, or conventional and unspoken on the other, but it will have some ideology. Without a shared ideology to guide members, organizations simply can’t function.  In this way, all organizations are profoundly ideological (Simons and Ingram 1997), but ideology is particularly important for organizations like worker cooperatives because innovative, new organizations have to constantly swim against the current of the dominant ideology in their society: in the case of cooperatives, that would mean swimming against the dominant ideology of corporate capitalism. If a worker-owned business is to succeed in a world of capitalist-owned businesses, then its worker-owners need to have a clear understanding of the founding ideology of their organization and how this is different from the ideology that guides other organizations where they may have worked before.

This process is sometimes called ‘ideological clarification’ (Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer 1998), and for a worker-owned cooperative to succeed in the long term, worker-owners need to continually engage in ideological clarification together as the organization grows and as new worker-owners are hired or the cooperative risks drifting with the current of the dominant ideology in society, away from the democratic principles on which it was founded and towards a more capitalist way of doing business; in other words, without continually renewing its founding, democratic ideology, the cooperative is at risk of degeneration into a capitalist organization over time.

A clear cooperative, democratic ideology is a worker-owned business’s best insurance against degeneration in the long-term, but ideological clarification can be time-consuming and difficult, and also some worker-owners may resist the idea of engaging explicitly with ideology in their organizations. The word ‘ideology’ itself is undoubtedly part of the problem. For many, ideology is understood negatively, as ‘false consciousness’ or as a distortion of reality, but ideology doesn’t have to be defined in this way. When discussing the role of ideology in society, it is often more useful to use a value-neutral definition of the term, to define ideology simply as framework of ideas that we use to make sense of the world and to guide our actions. (see Woolard and Schieffelin 1994) Some ideologies may be just; others unjust. Some may be based on fact and clear analysis; others may be based on prejudice and woolly-thinking, but we all go through life guided by a set of ideologies, and understood in this way, not all ideologies are ‘wrong’ or ‘dangerous’. Indeed, many ideologies are rational, helpful and progressive.

Ideological clarification may sound ominous, but really it is just a technical term for the practice of periodically sitting down together and discussing the vision of your group and how that vision is realized. Indeed, some people may be more comfortable with the words ‘vision’ or ‘mission’, rather than ‘ideology’, but however it is called, ideological clarification is perhaps the single most important thing a cooperative group can do to remain cooperative and democratic over time. As much of the research discussed on this blog shows, when worker-owned cooperatives start to degenerate, this is almost always preceded or accompanied by a weakening of the cooperative ideology in the business.

So many pressures, internal and external, pull a cooperative away from democratic business practices and towards capitalist business practices, that to resist this pressure, worker-owners have to constantly re-invigorate the unique founding ideology of their business among their members, both old and new. Again, this is time-consuming, and therefore, costly, and while under the gun to balance the books as a day-to-day business venture, worker-owners may find it challenging to devote precious time and resources to ideological clarification, but all the best evidence suggests that there is no more important investment a cooperative business can make towards its long-term success.


Dauenhauer, Nora Marks and Dauenhauer, Richard (1998) “Technical, emotional, and ideological issues in reversing language shift: examples from Southeast Alaska.” In: Lenore A. Grenoble and Lindsay J. Whaley, (eds.), Endangered Languages, Current issues and future prospects. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 57-98.

Simons, Tal and Ingram, Paul (1997) “Organization and Ideology: Kibbutzim and Hired Labor, 1951-1965.” Administrative Science Quarterly 42, 784–813.

Woolard, Kathryn A. and Schieffelin, Bambi B. (1994) “Language Ideology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 23, pp. 55-82.