Good Times

Toy Car

I’m sorry, Monsieur Papier, that I’ve not followed my original thesis exactly–Collectives become impossible beyond a certain size because gaining consensus with too many people in the room becomes impossible. The co-ops that survive have had to move toward more traditional and hierarchical styles of organization and management so that the original anarchist vision of operating without governance could be preserved as near as possible. I deviated because it wasn’t simply an inability to grow that killed it. It was also the quality of the folk that were left behind to run it.

Taxi Unlimited was a collectively run cab company that started in the 1960’s by friends of the Free Speech Movement and members of the Berkeley Food Co-op. The original idea was a producer’s co-op where the members of the co-op all equally owned the business. There would be no management in the typical sense. All members would be equal managers. By being employee owned the perceived disparity in outcomes between suffering employees and their overlord bosses would be removed. Everyone would be boss so everyone could enjoy the perks of the boss’s life: power, servile lovers, easy money and easy drugs.

Its early members were responsible folk who understood the need for compliance with local law, good accounting, and wise small business practices. By the time I became a member in 1981, it was a collective of drug addicts and dealers who were using the business as a courier service. It survived a few years past my departure in 1983, with the last member hanging on to the name and phone number as a sole proprietorship.

Before I continue, if you are less than forty years old, if you are young enough that you have always lived among or owned smartphones, you are wondering why there isn’t an app for this. There are several; Uber, SideCar, Lyft are three examples. These problems in implementing a utopian vision of a more perfect cab company are trouble because of the time period in which they occur. I was a member of the collective from 1981 – 1983. We had analog, touch tone phones, Al Gore had not yet invented the Internet, radio communications happened over analog commercial FM radios for most businesses and CB radios for Taxi Unlimited. Back then, someone had to be seated at a desk with the phone and a radio to coordinate requests for rides and drivers giving rides.

Now back to my essay. Taxi Unlimited was an idea that worked for a while. Most utopian projects start out well. Then slowly the flaws in the plan start to really hurt and folk are faced with a choice–leave or innovate or die a bit as the project dies. There is a rigid orthodoxy in the old-timers who had a vision that begins to fail. They dig in and assert that the problem is a failure to stick to the orthodoxy closely enough. The other younger members and their foolish new ideas need to follow the law of the orthodoxy better. The yungins get annoyed at the rigidity of the veteran members of the utopian project. Strife ensues and folk find themselves facing difficult choices.

Among the left, among those in the progressive scene, the old hippies, anarchists & commies whose heyday ended New Year’s Eve, 1969, the easy boogeyman was government agent provocateurs who had been sent to sabotage the beautiful utopia that could exist if it were simply left to flower as envisioned. This was a sentiment that floated about Taxi Unlimited. The myth felt good and fit the paranoia of some our addict members. It didn’t help that some of the addicts were feeding monkeys that ate cocaine and its binge induced psychosis.

Not every ill within Taxi Unlimited could be attributed to an evil Uncle Sam. There is a problem with this rigid resistance to clerical bullshit. For all the love of anarchism, of collectivism, and left-wing Utopian visions of businesses that are proletariat, worker’s paradises, the clerical bullshit is some of what makes it possible for the driver/members to drive and earn money. And, bosses work, do clerical bullshit. Not all of them are evil, greedy, overpaid white-male chauvinist, capitalist pigs. Some are old hippie women who got tired of the lies and graduate from SF State with business school degrees in Management & Accounting. They do stuff that the driver/members don’t have time for.

Cab drivers make money by driving customers from one place to another. Every minute, every mile not spent driving customers from one place to another is a cost. An idle driver is costing the business money. An idle car is costing the business money. A driver/member doing clerical bullshit is costing the collective money because he’s busy and his cab is parked. So they tend to want to find ways to avoid doing it. So . . . hire SumYung HotTea to sit at a desk and do secretary stuff. Pay bills, keep beer in the fridge, and answer phones or whatever. Problem. Taxi Unlimited is a collective. No one is an employee. We can’t just hire SumYung HotTea and park her in an office as an employee of the collective. It screws with the whole utopian vision of freedom from bosses. So . . . make SumYung HotTea a member.

Cab drivers make money by taking profits out of what they make driving customers from one place to another. Ideal is taking 100% of the gross revenue home with them, getting high, getting laid, then come back and do it again tomorrow. They grudgingly buy gas for their cars because without it they can’t take customers from one place to another. SumYung HotSekaTerri is a cost they wish they didn’t have to pay for. S/He doesn’t earn money for the drivers. This means a less than ideal gross revenue. Problem.

So . . . Start an answering service so that SumYung HotSekaTerri can earn money answering phones. Give her a CB radio so she can tell drivers about people that want a cab. But that would mean giving her authority over drivers. Taxi Unlimited is a collective. No one has authority over other members. Authority is shared equally. Though, without SumYung HotDispatch, it’s harder for a driver to make money. Problem.

SumYung HotSekaTerri gives a crap about clerical bullshit. She wants the rent for the business paid on time. She expects drivers to turn in their gross earnings for the day so she can ensure that the business (and her) gets paid as well as the drivers. She insists on establishing a regular weekly payday. She paid the insurance bill this month, the one that was behind enough to risk having to stop giving rides and that hosed up payroll. She starts asking the men to behave like gentleman around her. She had a total meltdown at a meeting because one of the senior members of the collective threatened to have her fired if she didn’t sleep with him. She doesn’t understand that all the clerical bullshit takes away from the money available to spend on beer and girlfriends. She is a total buzz kill. She’s a problem but the collective needs her.

The fundemental, structural problems with the original vision still dogged the collective. With a room full of over 20 people, all needing to be in unanimous consent for a decision to be made, with a scroll of agenda items open to any member who could write anything they wanted, getting things done was extremely hard. It was not unusual for the same buzzing cloud of annoying issues to appear on the agenda again and again and disrupt a meeting. A decision made at the last meeting would be contested at the next meeting.

There were factions. Ginny, the old hippie girl in the nominal role of SumYung HotSekaTerri had her few friends and allies within the collective. The other dispatchers tended to vote with her, wanting paid time off, reasonable hours, child care and freedom from boorish, slobbering cab drivers seeking some horizontal bop. The drivers were split, with those allied with the drug dealers in a voting block, and me, at odds again, conflicted because I could get some from the girls in the drug-dealer cadre but needing the business to be stable so I could earn a living.

Some of the driver/members just wanted to make a little money, shag a SumYungHotTea or three, get high or drunk or both, and in the spring, punch a couple cops in the face as a nominal protest against the evil capitalist machine. For them, all this meeting shit and bookkeeping shit and clerical shit was in the way of their ability to make money, get high/drunk and shag Ginnie (who was a lesbian). The druggie cadre wanted to fire Ginny and replace her with one of the younger, riper, more docile, less responsible girls they knew from People’s Park. I had the hots for one of the cadre girls but I needed the business to be run responsibly. The old dumpster dived mattress in the back was getting dusty. This was a problem for the druggie cadre.

Businesses have to grow. They either grow or they die. They either innovate or they die. Collectives that stick to consensus as the primary decision making method have a hard time conducting business once the membership gets big enough. Taxi Unlimited could only grow to a size small enough to allow consensus decision making to work. Beyond that and the stubborn adherence to consensus as the primary decision making method became untenable. We could not grow beyond 25 members without experiencing a serious challenge to the way we made decisions. We could not innovate without giving up key aspects of the original vision that made us who we were. We chose by not choosing to innovate and in our choice, died as a business.

Yes, Monsieur Papier, beyond a dozen people or so and the strict adherence to unanimous consent as the primary decision making tool, the bristling at not allowing old business to be put back on the agenda to be debated again, the grumpiness at being less anarchistic and doing white fascist things like paying business bills on time, the assumption that normal is drunk or high, these characteristics of Taxi Unlimited in its last days became impossible to overcome. I left in 1983 just as Ginny left and no one sober or sane was around to keep things in line. Taxi Unlimited was an idea that had its day and like many things of the utopian, anarchistic protest movements of the 1960’s faded as people aged and started to worry about their health, their relationships, their children, and their legacy.