review by Jack Kittredge
This volume has generally been recognized as the definitive history of cooperatives in America. As the extended title suggests, when speaking of cooperatives Curl includes trade unions, political parties, communes, and other organizations created out of working people’s efforts to rise out of wage labor (or small farmers to keep from being crushed by rising transportation costs and falling prices) and achieve a better life.
He begins with a look at the indigenous communities that functioned, in contrast to individuals, as the Native American productive units, exercising collective ownership within family-based groups, practicing hunting, fishing, and agriculture within a largely democratic structure.
But with the advent of European settlement based on royal land grants, property rights in land became a fundamental economic principle in the New World. In the Spanish colonies these grants from the 1600s often included community land grants called “ejidos” and made to groups of married settlers for use of land set aside for entire communities. These practices were based on customs in medieval Spain and also on the “calpulli” cooperative family system of the Aztecs.
As many scholars know, during the first three years of the Pilgrim settlement in Plymouth they farmed and worked communally, depositing their products in a common warehouse and taking from a common store. They were financed for their voyage here, however, by a group of merchants and were expected to deliver fur, timber and fish in return. They were to work for seven years to pay off their debts, and then all capital and profits would be divided equally among them. Relations quickly soured between the settlers and the investors, however. The latter failed to supply the new food, clothes and tools they promised, and the former demanded and got individual plots. Eventually the settlers bought out the investors and achieved self-government.
The economic history of the colonies and later the republic, according to Curl, was one of continual frustration for those seeking to enjoy the remarkable opportunities the continent seemingly provided. Apart from the obvious direct exploitation of African Americans as slaves, those who arrived as indentured servants or even free laborers found it hard to rise.
As he puts it: “The beginnings of industrialization under the capitalist system in the early 19th century forced an ever-growing number of workers to become permanent wage earners. Hand tool production soon became obsolete; the new machines and processes were both prohibitively expensive and could be operated only by ever-larger numbers of coordinated workers. While the vast productive power unleashed by technological advances promised freedom and plenty for all, numerous artisanal workers were left unable to make a living using the old tools, so had no choice but to find bosses and submit to becoming employees. Meanwhile, land costs skyrocketed: the road to independence as a small farmer was quickly being closed. Vast new areas were continually annexed to the fledgling United States but that enormous wealth went mostly for the further enrichment of a small number of land speculators, ultimately the same financiers who were behind the factories in the North and the plantations in the South.”
Many people’s response to such an oppressive reality is discussed in this remarkable account of efforts to join together in cooperative activity. Through era after era of American history, workers formed alternative economic and social institutions – stores, joint farm marketing groups, producer co-ops, employee associations, labor unions, credit unions, housing co-ops, political parties. Very few lasted for long, but at the time they galvanized the energies of activists and leaders, keeping alive the knowledge that if things get bad enough there are alternatives available.
In the early days of the republic the New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics and Other Workingmen (NEAFMOW – 1831-34) and the National Trades Union (NTU – 1834-37) were formed, the former initially to fight for the 10-hour day (won in Philadelphia in 1835 as a result of a strike of 17 trade unions paralyzing the city) and the latter to fight speculation and open cooperatives in a number of trades like shoemaking, tailoring, cabinet making, hatting, and saddling.
“Before 1860,” Curl writes, “individual ownership and partnerships were still the most common forms of business, but corporations began to dominate in areas of the economy that required increasingly larger capital outlays, particularly textiles, iron, coal, and railroads. Besides providing companies more capital without really forcing them to relinquish control, incorporation provided limited liability and many tax benefits…Unions grew fast in the years following 1842, after a judicial decision finally declared they had a right to exist at all.”
Cooperatives were still struggling to find a legal framework that enabled democratic control of the venture but allowed for growth and dynamic management. The success of the British Rochdale store finally led Americans to adopt the Rochdale system for consumer cooperatives by the time of the Civil War. And, of course, the contest between Southern slave owners and Northern factory owners over whether the vast Western lands should be slave or free dominated all economic issues by 1860.
The forces released by the Civil War changed the country forever. The Homestead Act of 1862 threw open millions of acres for any citizen or intended citizen who had never borne arms against the country to qualify for free land by living on it and improving it for five years. Although much of the land ended up in the hands of railroads and speculators, still 1 in 10 families who went to settle the West actually ended up with a free homestead.
But the larger forces of development required more and more capital for success. Waves of strikes and cooperative development alternated with failures and retrenchment caused by financial panics and resulting unemployment. The Grange and the Knights of Labor were among the cooperative triumphs of the post Civil War period, but the depressions of 1873, 1883, 1893, and 1899 saw the destruction of most of the gains.
The Populist movement for a time seemed to be succeeding in the Midwest and prairie states with the election of governors and legislators sympathetic to the movement, but federal power and the courts continually frustrated their legislative measures. Industrial unions like the Wobblies, radical political leaders like Debs and Thomas, farmer movements like the upper Midwest’s Non-Partisan League, and the founding of the Cooperative League inspired millions, but World War I and the conservative reaction to bolshevism galvanized the right to increase repression and strike-breaking.
It wasn’t until the Great Depression and the advent of FDR and the New Deal that popular energy was again ascendant. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), socialist groups like Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the federal Banks for Cooperatives all again enabled common people to organize, often lead by dedicated radicals.
World War II served, as had the Great War, to unleash huge productive forces and re-write the economic realities. For a time organized labor, multi-national corporations and big agriculture seemed to guarantee prosperity for all but black tenant farmers, Hispanic agricultural laborers, and the urban unemployed. But the now global industries began to export manufacturing jobs to low-wage nations and American wage-earners soon felt the pinch. Once again local cooperatives have taken up much of the energy for change and currently represent significant employment numbers (Curl includes non-profit associations in his rather wide-ranging definition of “cooperatives”).
Most of this remarkably detailed recounting is a straight narrative history of facts and events without Curl putting in much of his own analysis. In his conclusion, however, he draws together some common threads of several hundred years of cooperative endeavors to examine and draw lessons from this material. I found this the most interesting part of the book — looking at the kinds of people involved, what they are trying to achieve, how they set about doing it, and why so many failed.
Regarding who they are, he says: “The tapestry of US history is woven with the day-to-day struggles of hundreds of millions of ordinary people for better lives. Mutual-aid organizations such as cooperatives and unions have always been near the heart of those struggles… The differences between the rural and urban populations have been more apparent than deep. Most of the families in the farm communities of the Midwest and West were formerly urban people from the East, drawn there by the offer of almost-free land.”
Of course the decisions and actions of these people when joining together are heavily influenced by their economic environment. Sometimes these conditions can lead to paradoxical activity!
“Cooperative movements in America,” he points out, “have always risen and fallen with the turns of the economic cycle. When money is scarce in hardening economic times, cooperatives have experienced a surge in membership, but the hardest of times have also killed them. Worker cooperatives have often been formed during economic upturns, when workers can gather enough resources to try to make a go of it. Yet, during periods of general prosperity, people have also tended to explore more individualistic options, and have abandoned cooperation and social movements.”
Curl treats the difficult question of co-op success rates frankly.
“The beginning of this study asked why there are so few worker cooperatives. Hopefully, this history has shed some light on the answer… Numerous worker cooperatives have been organized over the last 200 years, and most have ultimately failed. Are there flaws inherent in the concept or structure that make them unworkable? Individual cooperatives, like any human organization, ultimately fail. In this, they are no different from any individual business. The majority of solo new businesses fail in their first year. Standard advice to startups is to not expect a profit for the first two years.”
But the economic environment is not always equitable.
“The tax laws and the money system offer businesses and corporations – particularly large corporations – numerous economic advantages that they do not offer to worker cooperatives. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, most work has been increasingly dominated by costly technology, and worker cooperatives almost always begin small and under-capitalized, and involve people with underdeveloped business skills.”
Often when co-ops are successful, there has been governmental support.
“In times of crisis the American people have repeatedly returned to mutual aid, and have called on government for support. When the economic system has stymied them, they have formed political organizations to try to change the rules of the system… The New Deal’s promotion and support of cooperatives was the fruit of generations of struggle…the New Deal remains a beacon, and demonstrates what a partnership between progressives and government might accomplish.”
He concludes with his own critique and ultimate faith in cooperation.
“People who are looking for a structural panacea for all the world’s problems are barking up an empty tree…Each new generation creates structures to solve its needs, not mimicking some ideal forms, but always in an intensely practical relation to the actual situation on the ground… Worker cooperation has always been close to the heart of America. It has been our common past, our heritage, and can become our common future.”
This volume also includes 19 pages of wonderful (but small) photos of many of the figures mentioned in it, as well as contemporary posters, political cartoons and other illustrations of the events covered. I was fascinated by the 1892 electoral map of the country showing the votes for Populist presidential candidate James Weaver. He won five states outright, garnering over a third of the votes in another four! Also of interest are photos of the legendary triumvirate of Gene Debs, Big Bill Haywood, and Mother Jones.