Communism and Cooperatives
As the economy collapses there has been a growing motion in sections of the housing and antipoverty movements to embrace cooperatives — community land trusts, housing co-ops, urban farming, and cooperative enterprises. Each of these is a powerful expression of resistance to the corporate stranglehold on our economic life. In fact, they are part of a tradition of resistance to capitalism that goes back over 200 years.
American cooperatives have historically been of two kinds. One was made up of the spontaneous efforts of ex-slaves, workers, and/or farmers to survive in the course of escape, unemployment, strikes, lock-outs, or monopoly oppression. The other consisted of conscious “communalist” attempts to build intentional communities or demonstration projects for religious or ideological reasons. In reality, however, these two types of cooperatives have always deeply influenced each other. Members have moved from one kind of cooperative to the other, and frequently the lines between the two have been blurred.
Cooperatives are similar to trade unions, centers of organization and resistance to the evils of the system. Like unions, they in themselves are not the answer, because as long as corporations control the state, cooperatives will only be permitted on the economic margins, and will never be able to address the poverty of the majority. They also suffer from relentless political attack, as most dramatically manifested recently in the suppression of the cooperative Occupy encampments.
However, like unions, cooperatives are indispensable “schools of communism” where workers not only learn management and organization, but where revolutionaries can teach the economic and political truths necessary to advance the movement. The success or failure of the cooperative movement depends on what the consciousness revolutionaries can bring to it and on its level of politicization.
What is a Cooperative?
A fully cooperative or communist society is the age-old vision of humanity: one in which all the means of production and social product are owned by the society as a whole and distributed according to need. The original Native American communities were fully cooperative in this sense, where private property, commodities, and the concept of a market were completely unknown. A cooperative within a larger capitalist society is different. The dictionary defines it as “an enterprise or organization owned by and operated for the benefit of those using its services.”
As John Curl explains in All the People, cooperatives in America are much more widespread than commonly believed:
“In 2008 more than 120 million people in the United States are members of 48,000 cooperatives, about 40 percent of the population. Some 3400 farmer-owned cooperatives market about 30 percent of all American farm products today. More than 6400 housing cooperatives provide homes for more than one million households. Two million homes get service from two hundred and seventy telephone cooperatives. Nearly 1000 rural electric cooperatives provide power to 36 million people. Over 50,000 independent small businesses belong to 250 purchasing cooperatives for group buying and shared services. Over 10.5 million people belong to ESOPs (Employee Stock Ownership Plans) in 9650 plans, with over $675 billion in assets. Eighty-four million Americans belong to credit unions. Numerous small collectives running not-forprofit activities, and other small cooperatives fly below the statistical radar. Communities Directory lists over 900 intentional cooperative communities. But in 2008, there were only approximately 300 worker cooperative businesses in the United States.”
The earliest American cooperatives included libraries, volunteer firefighters, benevolent societies, mutual insurance companies, and cooperative warehouses and stores. Spontaneous “strikers’ cooperatives” were organized against employers as early as 1768.
Role of Cooperatives in American History
The conscious movement to build cooperative communities was introduced by Cornelius Blatchly, who teamed up with British socialist Robert Owen to build the New Harmony community on the Indiana frontier. It drew settlers primarily from urban workers displaced by the depression of the 1820s and unable to afford to establish individual farms or businesses of their own. New Harmony triggered a national discussion on cooperatives and inspired a series of abolitionist communities beginning in Nashoba, Tennessee. Many of these ultimately evolved into part of the infrastructure of the Underground Railroad. They also influenced the urban producers’ cooperatives organized by nineteenth century trade unions and the Farmers Alliance of the 1890s. Cooperatives were indispensable weapons in the life-and-death battles of both workers and farmers against the consolidation of the robber baron corporations.
Advances in mechanization made industrial cooperatives impossible in the twentieth century, with only scattered exceptions. However, the cooperative movement continued to grow in agriculture and among the poor, who learned to combine their social movement with basic cooperative survival tactics. IWW miners, California farmworkers, and 1932 Bonus marchers based their actions in organized encampments. To survive the depression, unemployed councils in the early 1930s organized “self-help cooperatives” with some 300,000 members in 37 states.
The New Deal actively promoted cooperatives and cooperative communities in agriculture, but used government grants to influence and control the cooperatives it funded. The cooperative movement receded during the post-World War Two economic expansion, except for various small religious communities, urban homesteaders, and poor people’s survival projects. One of the most important was the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. It brought together some 130 co-ops of mainly rural African American families in the 1960s to defend their farmland, negotiate better prices for crops, and resist economic retaliation when they registered to vote.
By 2000, however, the economy had transformed completely. Automated technology in production created a vast and diverse new class of workers that was being discarded from the formal economy altogether: youth, undocumented, unemployed college graduates, paroled prisoners of the drug war, and temporary workers. Today they inhabit an underground economy that is a fertile foundation for a resurgence of cooperatives. Nothing expressed this more graphically than the overnight appearance of Occupy encampments in almost every major American city in 2011.
Lessons of the Cooperative Movement
The original cooperative vision of Blatchly and Owen inspired over a century of cooperatives, but the decades of McCarthyism and police repression mean the social movement in America needs to rediscover this truth all over again. Cooperatives are an important step in overcoming the demoralization and disempowerment fostered by the enemy in our communities. They affirm the value and potential of human life. John Curl said in a recent interview that:
“People need to believe that social change is possible. If they think their only option is to exchange one oppressor for another, they will usually choose to accept their victimization and try to make the best of it. That is why counter institutions are so important, because they are living demonstrations that better social relationships are possible and within our grasp. They are possible because, besides the seeds of the oppressor within us, we also have the seeds of mutual liberation within us, the instincts of cooperation, of sharing, democracy, equality, extended family.”
Revolutionaries today are called to participate in the cooperative movement at every level and revive this vision. Cooperatives have limited economic and political impact, but their moral and intellectual influence is invaluable. Engaging people in a collective endeavor for survival prepares them for the political battles ahead. However, two centuries of painful lessons have to be carefully noted if we are to move forward.
The first is that cooperatives are fragile economic vehicles, caught between the danger of elimination by corporate competition and co-optation by the system. They almost universally suffer from a lack of capital that tends to either bankrupt them or else drive them into the arms of economic (or political) operatives who do not have their best interests at heart. The history of cooperatives taken over by outside investors and degenerating into ordinary capitalist companies is long and treacherous. Many cooperatives today have in fact become indistinguishable from capitalist corporations, especially in agribusiness, and others are gravely compromised by complex ownership schemes and an array of loans, contracts, and partnerships that wed them to corporations.
Another lesson is that the quantitative growth of cooperatives themselves cannot lead to the elimination of wage slavery. Early cooperative enthusiasts envisioned a federation of “autonomous communes” that would draw off workers and ultimately replace the capitalist system with a “cooperative commonwealth.” The problem is that strictly economic enterprises cannot transform the property relations that allow the laws of the market to operate. Markets do not exist in a vacuum. They exist when they are imposed by the organized political power of the ruling class, and they will continue to dominate the economy until that power is dislodged.
Without political power, cooperatives lack the ability to make private property public and thereby abolish the market’s stranglehold over human economic activity. Politicization is also an immediate practical question. Without political coordination, our various cooperatives will end up competing with each other, and the separate branches of industrial, commercial, housing, and consumer cooperatives will pursue conflicting agendas.
The early visions of cooperative leaders crashed repeatedly against the economic fact that monopoly capital by definition does not tolerate competition. Over and over again they were crushed by price wars, rate-fixing, blacklists, and denials of credit. When economic measures failed they were attacked by fascist violence, as the Southern farmers’ movement was liquidated by Jim Crow. This history does not suggest that our cooperatives will lead to a peaceful “evolutionary reconstruction” of our society. All incremental trends today are toward greater polarization of wealth, not less. We will not be allowed to set up model communities “off the grid” that do not feed the corporations.
All these lessons point to one conclusion: cooperatives cannot succeed without political education and political organization. Up until now, cooperatives generally failed because capitalism was continually expanding and relentlessly ground them up in the process of its advance. What is different today is that capitalism itself is self-destructing. The advance of technology and “labor-less production” is making capitalist commodity circulation impossible. The possibility exists as never before to actually abolish capitalism and all forms of private property. But it cannot be done without a class that is conscious of its ability to do so.
Every cooperative must become a school for learning the history, values, economics, and future of our movement. Regardless of economic success or failure, those cooperatives that teach their members self-worth and class consciousness are on the road to victory. With political consciousness, workers can advance even where their cooperatives fail or become compromised. Every cooperative has to become part of the larger political movement, not only to defend its very existence, but to build the fully cooperative society to which we all aspire.
March/April 2013. Vol23.Ed2
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011