We’re being told by today’s High Priests of Conventional Wisdom that everyone and everything in our economic cosmos necessarily revolves around one dazzling star: the corporation.
This heavenly institution, the HPCW explain, has such financial and political mass that it is the optimal force for organizing and directing our society’s economic affairs, including the terms of employment and production. Thus, while many other forces are in play (workers, consumers, the environment, communities, and so forth), they are subordinate to the superior gravitational pull of the corporate order, which says that profits, executive equanimity, and a healthy Wall Street pulse rate are naturally the economy’s foremost concerns.
How nice. For the wealthy few. Not nice for the rest of us, though. We’re presently see- ing the deleterious effect of this bizarre enthronement of self-serving corporate elites. Millions of Americans are out of work, underemployed, and fast tumbling from the middle class down toward poverty. Yet excessively paid and pampered CEOs (recently rebranded as “job creators” by fawning GOP politicians) are idly sitting on some $2 trillion in cash, refusing to put that enormous pile of money to work on… well, on job creation.
The corporate order literally is the fix we’re in. But the good news is that it can be un-fixed.
The Powers That Be have been able to keep us tethered to this unjust system of plutocratic rule only by constantly ballyhooing it as a divine perpetual wealth machine that showers manna on America. Any tampering with the hierarchical control of the finely tuned machinery of trickle-down corporate capitalism, they warn, will cause a collapse and crush American prosperity.
Ha! Prosperity for whom? The corporate order itself has come crashing down on the prosperity of America’s workaday majority–and the people are no longer fooled about the system’s “divinity.” From this year’s Wisconsin rebellion to the outing of the Koch brothers’ efforts to impose their plutocratic regime on us, from the Occupy movement to the spreading grassroots campaign to get corporate cash out of our elections (see last year’s April, October, November, and December Lowdowns), it is obvious that we commoners have finally peeked behind the curtain to see the fraud being perpetrated by the wizards of wealth inequality.
Yet, tightly clutching their wealth, the wizards retort that the only alternative is the hellish horror of government control, screeching “socialist” at all critics to scare off any real change.
But wait. The choices for our country’s rising forces of economic and political democracy are not limited to corporate or government control. There’s another, much better way of organizing America’s economic strength: The Cooperative Way.
Cooperatives can (and do) provide a deeply democratic, locally controlled, highly productive, efficient percolate- up capitalism. Co-ops are wholly in step with the values, character, spirit, and history of the American people. While socialism has been cast by the corporatists as a destroyer of our sainted free-enterprise system, the cooperative approach is not an -ism at all, but a democratic structure that literally frees the enterprise of the great majority of Americans–which is why the co-op movement is fast spreading throughout our country.
The American experience
Ironically, one of the most ardent proponents of cooperatives in our land was someone you’d least expect: a robber baron. Leland Stanford was among the small group of late 19th century American tycoons who erected monopolistic corporate empires, amassed huge fortunes, and wielded enormous political power.
Making good money in his twenties by supplying miners in the 1852 California gold rush, he parlayed this small fortune into much bigger ventures, ultimately controlling both the Southern Pacific Railroad and Wells Fargo. He built the western portion of the first transcontinental railroad, finalized in 1869 when he personally drove in the famous Golden Spike in Promontory, Utah.
Living in splendor atop Nob Hill in San Francisco, Stanford was a picture-perfect corporatist. But he secretly harbored an entirely different vision of how the economy ought to be organized. Unlike his fellow robber barons, Stanford didn’t think America needed super-rich capitalists like himself, nor did he believe that a corporate system was good for the country, much less necessary. Biographer Lee Altenberg says that the baron of Nob Hill came to believe that the industries of America should be owned and managed cooperatively. By whom? By their workers!
In his youth, Stanford was impressed by the enterprise of gold miners who increased their chances of success by forming small, informal co-ops. Also, in the 1870s, he witnessed the phenomenal success of the Populists in building a mass democratic movement by creating an extensive “cooperative commonwealth” across America. It was not until the last decade of his life that he began speaking openly about this, but he became a passionate proponent, and his voice had reach, for by then he’d been appointed to the US Senate. In 1887, Sen. Stanford declared:
In a condition of society and under an industrialized organization which places labor completely at the mercy of capital, the accumulations of capital will necessarily be rapid, and an unequal distribution of wealth is at once to be observed…
The time has come when the laboring men can perform for themselves the office of being their own employers; the employer class is less indispensable in the modern organization of industries because the laboring men themselves possess sufficient intelligence to organize into co-operative relation and enjoy the benefits of their own labor.
Unsurprisingly, the ‘wealth club’ of the Senate was shocked that one of their own could even speak such words, much less believe them, so Stanford was derided as an oddball, “fully impregnated with socialistic ideas.” While Stanford knew that co-ops offered a new democratic capitalism–not socialism–he realized that public acceptance of the cooperative idea “requires an educated perception of its value.”
So, being rich, he put up $20 million (about half a billion in today’s dollars) and–voila!–that’s how Stanford University was established. As the co-op visionary told the opening class in 1891, he created the university so “the benefits resulting from co-operation shall be freely taught.”
Unfortunately, the benefactor died two years later, and his educational effort to “reach the multitude” died, too. Stanford U exists today as one of the nation’s elite schools, but it long ago abandoned its founder’s mission of empowering everyday people with a cooperative system for fending off “the monopoly of the rich.” Tuition at Stanford is now $40,000 a year. It offers no degree and apparently doesn’t even offer courses on co-op principles and methods. Instead, Stanford today brags of its close collabora-tion with “our corporate partners.”
Democracy in motion
Stanford (the senator) fell short of his goal, and Stanford (the university) bungled its historic opportunity, but the cooperative movement itself pushed ahead vigorously into the 20th century and has now entered the 21st not merely surviving, but thriving.
While it’s rarely mentioned by the conventional media, completely missing in the political discourse, not considered by economic planners and chambers of commerce, and not known by most of the public, there are 30,000 cooperatives in America (with 73,000 places of business). A 2009 survey by the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Cooperatives (www.uwcc.wisc.edu) found that these energetic enterprises have 130 million members, registering $653 million in sales, and employing more than two million people.
There are several types of co-ops, including those owned by workers (there are 11,000 of these, with 13 million worker-owners). Also, there are cooperatives owned by consumers, producers, local businesses, artists, and communities, as well as hybrids of those categories. They function in every sector of our economy–manufacturing, health care, transportation, banking, farming and food, media, massage, child care, funeral services, interpreting and translating services, advertising, home building, hightech, engineering, energy… and even a strip club in San Francisco. Co-op businesses do everything that a corporation can do, but with a democratic structure, an equitable sharing of income, and a commitment to the common good of the community and future generations.
You might be surprised to learn that such national brand names as ACE Hardware, Best Western Hotels, Organic Valley, REI, and True Value Hardware are organized as co-ops, rather than as corporations. The strength of the movement, however is in the limitless number of local cooperatives flowering all across the country. They are highly prized for their unique personalities, human scale, democratic values, and community focus. To help you ponder the possibilities of a cooperatively structured America, here are some examples of citizen co-ops that are proving day-in and day-out that small can be BIG:
UNION CAB. In a business often controlled by sleazy corporate operators, a group of fed-up cabbies, dispatchers, and other taxi workers in Madison, Wisconsin not only unionized their abusive company in 1976, but three years later took it over as a worker-owned-and-managed cooperative.
Building a co-op is not for the fainthearted, but through trial and error, the people of Union Cab now have a democratically-run enterprise that is profitable, pays a living wage to all of its 220 or so worker-owners, runs 70 taxi vehicles, has its own maintenance shop, an on-site fuel station, and enjoys the top customer satisfaction rating in the city. The co-op has a proud slogan: “Democracy in Motion.” For more: www.unioncab.com
WACCO. There’s nothing wacko about governments themselves forming supply co-ops to save money and have more control over their needs. Few public officials or taxpayers seem to be aware of this possibility, but a good model for them is WACCO (Western Area City Council Cooperative), made up of about three dozen municipalities in western Minnesota. They have pooled their buying power for everything from road salt to administrative training. For more: 218-736-0123
ORGANIC VALLEY. In 1988, a group of hard pressed dairy farmers knew that they needed to band together to stay in business, much less prosper, plus, they realized that to bypass the price-gouging, monopolistic dairy processors they had to become their own middlemen. Moreover, they wanted a business model that would not only serve the narrow, bottom line for business-as-usual corporations, but one that would foster the wholeness of their values: top quality organic products, a fair profit for farm families, living wages and fair treatment for every employee, ecological sustainability in all phases of business, and support of a vibrant community of life for all in the places they live. They wanted the “un-corporation,” a business family with multiple bottom lines. So, they created the Organic Valley Family of Farms, a farmer-owned, democratically run cooperative that’s now a major national producer/processor/marketer of food products. It has 1,658 family farm owners in 35 states, racking up nearly $620 million in annual sales. For more: www.organicvalley.coop
NEIGHBORGOODS. The worldwide web is full of “cooperatives” that are not formally organized as such, but nonetheless serve as self-organizing networks for community cooperation. One example is NeighborGoods–a nationwide social inventory site that helps local people share stuff when they need it, rather than everyone buying some product they use only once or twice, then stuff it in a closet or their self-storage rental (Americans now spend $22 billion a year on those rentals to tuck away their unused stuff!). Instead of hoarding that steam cleaner, garden tiller, or set of tiki torches, share them with others in your area. NeighborGoods maintains an inventory of members in local communities wanting to lend, borrow, rent, sell, buy, or give away items, keeping track of each voluntary transaction. The service is free of charge. For more: www.neighborgoods.net
EVERGREEN COOPERATIVES. This creative Cleveland initiative is a dramatic model for reviving impoverished communities by organizing local people to do the job themselves through cooperative enterprises. With backing from local government, foundations, and banks, four for-profit, employee-owned businesses have recently launched, involving residents of six Cleveland neighborhoods that have high rates of unemployment and poverty. First came the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, serving the laundry needs of various health care facilities. Then, last fall, Evergreen launched Ohio Cooperative Solar, providing weatherization and large-scale solar installations for businesses, schools, health clinics, and city buildings. Last October, Green City Growers Cooperative opened. It’s a year-round, five-acre, hydroponic greenhouse located right in the heart of Cleveland. This co-op is providing lettuce, herbs, and other high-value produce to area markets. Evergreen also publishes Neighborhood Voice, a monthly, worker-owned, cooperatively produced newspaper. With a focus on developing the green economy, Evergreen’s businesses create living-wage jobs and careers for local residents, help families build wealth in their communities, turn low-income people into self-confident owners, and expand true economic democracy. For more: www.evergreencoop.com
CIRCLE PINES CENTER. How about a co-op camp? That’s what the Central States Cooperative League created in rural Michigan back in 1938–a member-owned retreat where both adults and children can learn co-op values and skills. The Center offers a wide range of programs in three summer-camp sessions and in various events held year-round. The group’s mission is “to demonstrate cooperative alternatives for economic and social issues and to teach cooperation as a way of life.” For more: www.circlepinescenter.org
Come on in!
Cooperatives are a big, structural reform that ordinary Americans can implement right where they live, giving small groups a pragmatic and effective way to push back against the arrogance and avarice of the centralized, hierarchical corporate model. Not only do co-ops work economically, they also make people important again, offering real democratic participation and putting some “unity” back in “community.”
So, do it. Co-ops will welcome you, not with a false “greeter” at the door, but as a full-fledged member/ owner. Chances are that a number of these “little democracies” exist right in your area–and new ones are being formed all the time. Check the Lowdown’s “Do Something” box for a wealth of resources providing everything you need to get going.