Hidden History of Cooperation in America
Fewer and fewer people are happily employed, according to Derek Bok, former President of Harvard, in his latest book. The only thing Americans hate more than working is commuting, but when he considers how we can get happier, he suggests doing less of neither. Being an unhappy worker seems to be a normal, natural condition, but is it? Our hidden history of working together says it is not.
Part of the puzzle in figuring out why income alone doesn’t make people jolly can be resolved by examining the active protests that happened when Americans moved from being self-employed to becoming employees. The revolt is part of the hidden history of cooperatives and communialism in America, written in a riveting book by John Curl called “For All the People.” This book goes a long way to answer the question of what people did during times of trouble.
A funny thing happens on the way down the limited resources slide: People get increasingly greedy or people become more cooperative, collective and communal.
Think of it this way: we’d have pretty dumb genes if, in a group of 100 people, we were all looking to be ‘top dog.’ What we truly despise is being ‘bottom dog.’
Today, few people understand the meaning of my tee-shirt that reads: “Work is the blackmail of survival.” Today, we understand that “work” means “employment.” This would not have been so two hundred years ago.
For the American living before 1800, a ‘wage slave’ was a mere step removed from an actual slave. To be an employee was one step above indentured servitude. You did it when necessity demanded, but only for as short a period of time as possible, and then returned to become more independent—your own boss.
The story of how we became ‘wage slaves,’ and the multiple revolts against this station, is a fascinating one, and part of our ‘untold history.’
In 1800, few worked as wage-earners. By 1870, over half the workforce were employees; by 1940, over 80% worked for someone else and in 2007, 92% accepted a salary. If increasing wages don’t satisfy us, it is, perhaps, because deep within our souls we recognize the fact that ‘wage slave’ is a ‘low dog’ position, a vulnerable and dependent state.
A wage slave is “someone who feels compelled to work in return for wages in order to survive.” The notion that wage work is coerced by social conditions, and is actually a form of slavery, is a notion that arose early in the transformation of wage-earning, 1836, as women in Lowell became millworkers.
From that point onward, “early American workers planned to accomplish their liberation from wage slavery by substituting for it a system based on cooperative work and by constructing parallel institutions that would supersede the institutions of the wage system.” Curl p.3
By the 1880’s the population had reached 50 million, and by 1886, 1 in 12 wage-earners over 15 years old (1 million) were members of the Knights of Labor. Their goal was not simply to improve working conditions and wages, but “to raise members out of wage slavery entirely.” Opposition to wages took the form of protective and mutual –aid organizations, including unions, cooperatives, and parties.
Farmers were an essential aspect of this movement. After the Civil War, many small farmers:
“…effectively became financial captives to the railroads, middlemen and bankers, with most of their land in mortgage. To fight back the greatest farmer associations of the 19th century—the National Grange in the 1870’s and the Farmers’ Alliance in the late 1880’s—also organized extensive cooperative networks that today would be considered counter-institutional.”
The Farmer’s alliance had “over three million members, opened the first of an extensive network of cooperatives that they planned as the agricultural backbone of a newly structured cooperative economic system.” They were, in the words of historian Michael Schwartz, “the most ambitious counter-institutions ever undertaken by an American protest movement.” Curl, p. 5.
When the Great Depression fell upon the American public, Self-Help organizations sprang up as a “spontaneous mass movement” and became a part of daily life for many people. By the end of 1932, there were self-help organizations in over 37 states with 300,000 members (equivalent to 2.1 million people today). Their work involved direct exchanges of goods and services (partially in cash), cooperative production for sale or trade. The largest group, in Seattle, WA, the Unemployed Citizens League (UCL) had twenty-two local commissaries around the city where food and firewood was available for exchange for every type of service and commodity from home repairs to doctors bills. Local farmers gave unmarketable fruits and vegetables over to their members to pick and people gained the right to cut firewood on scrub timberland.
In Pennsylvania, not a jury in the state was willing to convict the 20,000 unemployed miners who formed cooperative teams and trucked out and sold coal on company property. Company police attempting to stop them were met with force.
Today, over 120 million people in the US are members of 48,000 cooperatives, about 40% of the population. Yet, remarkably, there are only 300 worker cooperative businesses.
We stand on the cusp of one of the bleakest periods in human history when the bright lights of a civilization blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity. The elites have successfully convinced us that we no longer have the capacity to understand the revealed truths presented before us or to fight back against the chaos caused by economic and environmental catastrophe. As long as the mass of bewildered and frightened people, fed images that permit them to perpetually hallucinate, exist in this state of barbarism, they may periodically strike out with a blind fury against increased state repression, widespread poverty and food shortages. But they will lack the ability and self-confidence to challenge in big and small ways the structures of control. The fantasy of widespread popular revolts and mass movements breaking the hegemony of the corporate state is just that – a fantasy. Chris Hedges
“Worker cooperatives offer a way for people to get out of the boss system entirely, and to reorganize their lives on a different basis. They still offer this today. They proffer group self-employment to people without the resources to start a business alone. They empower their members through internal democracy and increased job security in place of the typical hierarchical command. Cooperatives provide innumerable goods and services at cost. Beyond the benefits to the lives of the individual members, worker cooperatives–and all cooperatives–offer numerous other benefits to community and society.” Curl
Is the rarity of worker cooperatives a natural outcome of global capitalism or was it destroyed by a coordinated effort by those in opposition to this form of business? Read For All People for one answer. One thing is sure: as the price of oil continues to rise, we’ll have decisions to make about how we want to spend our time and provide for our needs.
As we consider the possibilities, we can take heart that we have a long history of rejecting or reluctantly accepting the role of “employee”.
Our Daily Bread
Unable to secure Hollywood-studio backing for his Depression-era agrarian drama Our Daily Bread, director King Vidor financed the picture himself, with the eleventh-hour assistance of Charles Chaplin. It demonstrated this spirit in a fictional rendition called “Our Daily Bread.” This film clip will give you a flavor for the kind of spirit that captured the cooperative movement during the Great Depression here or the entire film here.
If you enjoy that movie, you may want to purchase the film which also contains numerous other shorts about actual cooperatives and environmental damage that contributed to the Great Depression.
Here’s a link.
The revolution has not been televised or written in our history books. It will not be televised or written about in the future, unless we do so. If you want to see change, you have to join others who are collectively making it.
For your own selfish reasons.
For your own collective ends.