Lessons for Building a Co-operative Movement
A GEO Interview with John Curl, Fall 2012
PM Press has released a second edition of John Curl’s 550 page history of “cooperation, cooperative movements, and communalism in America,” For All the People. In this interview GEO’s Michael Johnson talks with John about what is new in the second edition, the surprisingly long history of co-operatives here in the US, and what his history has to tell us about building a 21st century movement for a co-operative/solidarity economy.
John’s life has been steeped in cooperatives. He has been a member for over 30 years in the Heartwood Co-operative Woodshop in Berkeley, CA, where he lives. He has belonged to numerous other co-operatives and collectives. In addition to being a historian of extensive research, he is a poet, woodworker, social activist, and has even been a city planner.
Michael’s bio is here. He is also co-writing a book on how worker co-operators in the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives are harnessing the power of the co-operative difference. Janelle Cornwell and Adam Trott, the VAWC staff person, are fellow co-writers.
The second edition of For All the People
MJ: John, let’s start with how the second edition of For All the People differs from the first one.
JC: The second edition has three additional pieces.
1) A foreword by novelist and essayist Ishmael Reed.
2) A new preface by myself that discusses developments of the last four years. The first edition came out just as the economy was collapsing into the Great Recession. In the second edition I discuss the United Nations study which shows that worker cooperatives and all cooperatives around the world have fared better than standard capitalist corporations during these hard times. I discuss the reasons why the UN declared 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives. I discuss the limited equity cooperatives created through squatting in the urban homestead movement in New York City. I discuss the Food Hub movement, a spontaneous rural cooperative movement on a national scale. I discuss the United Steel Workers Union’s partnership with Basque Spain’s Mondragon International to develop manufacturing cooperatives in the US and Canada. Finally I discuss the World Social Forum’s movement to reclaim the world commons, and cooperative management of the commons.
3) The second edition has an additional section of almost 100 pages containing my in-depth investigative report on the rise and demise of the Food System movement of the 1970s, focused on its two most successful centers: the Bay Area and the Minneapolis Twin Cities. The Food System movement was integral to the beginnings of natural and organic food in the US. This movement was particularly revealing because on the one hand it was a spontaneous grass-roots movement that arose in many locations around the country, and also because in those two urban centers it was entered into by small outside groups with ostensibly radical ideologies, which tried to take it over, and involved government undercover agents. Both of those entryist groups caused intense internal strife that sped the movement’s demise in those locations. In comparison I also discuss the movement’s rise and fall in locations not affected by those small radical groups. I look at the successes and shortcomings of that movement as a whole.
JC: Yes. A political group is accused of "entryism" when it enters into another group and tries to take it over or transform it.
MJ: How well would the metaphor of “the 1%” and “the 99%” fit the story you tell of the ups and downs of co-operative economics in the US?
JC: Leaving the 99% metaphor aside for the moment, I would say that co-operative economics today can become an important option for about half the population, those with more limited wealth or income. Co-operatives mean that people with insufficient resources pool what they have in order to get onto a more level economic playing field.
Historically, the metaphor of “the 1% and the 99%” is redolent of the decades after the American Civil War, an era of great social upheaval and strife. Wealth was being consolidated into increasingly fewer hands, while working people were becoming impoverished. American capitalism was consolidating its domination of the country, and that was emphatically opposed by the vast majority of the working population of industrial workers and farmers. The two latter groups set up organizations based in co-operatives, and at first challenged capitalism on economic terms, trying to build counter institutions that they hoped would supersede capitalism. When the plutocracy destroyed their co-operatives, they made an effort to gain power though electoral politics. This era culminated in the defeat of all the working people’s organizations and the triumph of the “Robber Barons.” Nonetheless, the era is filled with inspiring dramas of ordinary people daring to follow their dreams, endeavors that still resonate with relevance.
Today’s metaphor of “the 1% and the 99%” arises from the reality that wealth in the US is quickly being redistributed again from a larger number of people into the hands of a tiny elite. While large numbers of people are increasingly impoverished and marginalized, a handful is amassing power in the form of money and capital.
MJ: I like the phrase you just used: “the working population of industrial workers and farmers.” For two reasons. First, we tend to forget that both groups have very strong connections, which I am going to ask about later. Second, it’s refreshing to hear them referred to beyond being an economic class without that fact being brushed aside.]
JC: Independent self-employed small farmers and wage earners had a close relationship throughout the later 19th century. That was before the age of corporate farming, and the overwhelming majority of farmers were very small. Today it’s still hard to make a living as a small farmer, and many of them have another job on the side these days, so most still know what it’s like to be a wage worker.
But, as you state, “the 1% and the 99%” is a metaphor. Those are not really statistics. The numbers are there to make certain points, and bear no relationship with any statistical class analysis. The concept of class in the US is subjective, tricky, and constantly changing. To imply that there are two economic classes in the US, the 1% and the 99%, is to muddy up the waters very badly, rather than shedding light where it is sorely needed. Does the 98th percentile have more in common with the upper 1% or the lowest 20%? Compare the metaphor of “the 1% and the 99%” with Romney’s metaphor of “the 47%.” If 99% were really opposed to the 1% seizing the wealth, then this could not possibly continue; but in fact a much larger percentile than 1% actually support it and just want to get in on the action. There are a lot more shameless predators out there than just 1%. To grossly underestimate the strength of the opposition seriously weakens you.
The long history of co-operatives in the US
MJ: One of the most interesting discoveries for me in reading For All the People was how early on co-operatives and worker co-operatives emerged in the US, even before 1800. Does this reflect something special about our history or just how integral cooperation is in human life?
JC: Both. Cooperation is the basis of human society. However, most societies today have been deformed and oppressed by small authoritarian groups for a very long time. But the dynamics of cooperation do not die, because they are so essential to a decent life. I would say cooperation is the norm because it can be suppressed but it cannot be destroyed. The essential concepts of cooperation are instinctive to most people, particularly when they are young. Look at the way kids get together in the park and organize a game. Or groups of musicians get together regularly as improvised cooperatives. Or young parents form play groups for their kids. In all of these situations people spontaneously self-organize activities based on freedom, direct democracy, and a general equality. Many people only experience cooperation outside of their work lives, in their private lives, with family, friends, and associates. But cooperative instincts always remain there inside the human condition like seeds waiting for the right conditions. When an oppressive society reaches a dead end, a new generation rejects the dying husk and reinvents its world, and that creative act is always based on mutual aid and cooperation.
MJ: Before you go on to your answer to the second part of the question—that is, how cooperation has been an important part of American history—I want to challenge you a bit on your saying “most societies today have been deformed and oppressed by small authoritarian groups for a very long time.” It touches an issue that is very central to how we strategize as a movement.
Basically, I find that thinking about oppression is a very tricky thing. Frequently we assume that it is the “oppressors” that cause oppression. Some very acute thinkers like Paulo Freire in his classic “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed” argue very strongly that oppression is a joint project of the ‘oppressor’ and the ‘oppressed’. And it would seem that every liberation movement—civil rights, gays and lesbians, women, etc.—is essentially the story of people empowering themselves by not accepting the role of the ‘oppressed.’
Read more here.