The most striking secret of emergent radical economic structures like worker ownership is that they aren’t radical at all. They’re not even new. As Jessica Gordon Nembhard has chronicled in the case of African-American cooperative economic structures over the past 300 years, and as John Curl encyclopedically laid out for U.S. history as a whole, material cooperation, either in opposition to capitalism or quietly alongside it, is an integral part of the American narrative.
It’s a history that free market think tanks and corporate propagandists don’t want us to know. The idea that people can produce, distribute, share and scale our economic needs without investors, shareholders and large profit margins threatens their vision of America, a vision more hierarchical and less democratic than that envisioned by Nembhard, Curl and a collection of other writers including, most recently, Nathan Schneider, a professor of media studies at the University of Colorado.
Occupy readers may be familiar with Schneider’s earlier book, Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse, a narrative account of the beginnings and key moments of the Occupy movement of 2011. His new book, Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition That Is Shaping the New Economy, acknowledges the integral role cooperative economics have played in America’s history, but also begins with the premise that the non-cooperative part of the American economy has actually ruined the economy for most Americans. A carefully engineered lack of wage growth and weakening of organized labor, endless financial scandals and an asymmetric prioritization of shareholder needs over the needs of workers and community stakeholders, have created unprecedented economic insecurity and tanked public confidence in American institutions.
When I talked to Schneider a few weeks ago, he was busy organizing a conference on cooperative economics in Boulder, called the Colorado Shared Ownership Summit. While the title of the summit's conference series is “Conscious Capitalism,” one gets the feeling that Schneider isn’t particularly concerned about saving the C word. “Some of the best things around us,” he told me, “are actually possible not through ruthless competition and investor control, but through various forms of shared ownership.”
But if Schneider isn’t a fan of rehabilitating capitalism, he isn’t fixated on the word “socialism” either. “We have this opportunity to build a real power base for these models in some surprising ways,” he said, which are reminiscent of both the radicalism and the traditionalism of the past. In writing Everything for Everyone, Schneider knew that authors like Nembhard and Curl had carefully chronicled that history; he wanted to focus on the characters and stories, animating the world of cooperative economics, so that in reading the stories we might learn to “recognize the possibility of our own agency in shaping a more cooperative economy,” he told me.
One of those characters is Schneider’s own grandfather, who directed a national hardware purchasing cooperative. That fact also brought home for Schneider that cooperativists are not radical bomb-throwers, but have been farmers, crafters, small proprietors, factory workers and sometimes very influential figures, such as African-American priest Father Albert McKnight, one of the developers of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which enabled black farmers in the South to have ownership over their land; and Murray Lincoln, second president of the National Cooperative Business Association, who pioneered mutual insurance and rural electric cooperatives and was a major advisor to FDR.
The characters of today, Schneider maintains, are just as busy. Leaders and residents in Jackson, Mississippi, are building a non-capitalist cooperative city. Taxi cooperatives are building conscious alternatives to Uber. Rogue tech nerds are creating egalitarian versions of Bitcoin.
The presence of tech workers in the cooperative movement is significant because we normally think of those professionals as materially and educationally privileged, and therefore more tempted by the big rewards of capitalism than the sustainability of cooperative and democratic ownership. But tech professionals are also part of the vanguard of cooperativism. “Today,” he said, “a lot of my work is with a new generation of people coming into the cooperative movement, especially in the tech economy.”
Silicon Valley plays into cooperativism in another way, too. A few years ago, some creative tech thinkers began talking about a “sharing economy” made possible through the development of apps that would bypass traditional production and distribution gatekeepers – and often regulations as well – to bring products and services right to consumers’ hands, often at a fraction of the traditional cost. Much of this was made possible by allowing people to directly “share” their possessions, such as cars (Uber, Lyft), and homes (Airbnb).
But in reality, writes Schneider, sharing apps are “making it possible again for people to share resources such as cars, homes, and time – bringing us together, for a price. Capitalism’s creative destruction may have ravaged our communities for centuries with salvos of individualism, but now it [is] ready to sell the benefits of community back to us on our smartphones.”
Just as genuine worker ownership is enjoying a boost, a few entrepreneur-activists are trying to build sharing into the business models of companies themselves, creating something not-quite-capitalist, but still partially motivated by producer innovation and consumer choice.
This isn’t just a theoretical debate. Everything for Everyone recounts how, after Denver International Airport began allowing app-based rideshare programs like Uber and Lyft to begin bidding for rider fares, those app-based drivers “were more likely to be white” than the taxicab drivers. Stuck in a competitive market economy, the taxi drivers were forced to “fight among themselves” under vague rules, suspicious that there had been a shady deal made between the new driving companies and DIA rulemakers. The taxi drivers fought back and formed a huge cooperative, but it wasn’t easy. Schneider isn’t a cheerleader as he tells this story, but provides readers with the tough details that illustrate why worker democracy is as difficult as it is promising.
My biggest concern about current efforts to build the capacity of cooperative economics, radical intentional communities and other non-capitalist structures is that many people in the Commons and alternative economics movements assume that we can build cooperative structures that will either bypass capitalism or co-exist alongside it. Some even believe that capitalism and cooperativism will complement each other, like a yin-and-yang.
But that can’t happen because capitalism’s paradigm of endless growth cannot be tamed, and when profits begin to fall or shareholders grow more demanding, cooperatives and common spaces will suddenly find themselves under attack by privatization and propaganda.
Notwithstanding my skepticism, Schneider believes that people of different ideologies might come to adopt cooperative models in different ways. He pointed out to me that in 2016, both the GOP and Democratic Party national platforms embraced worker ownership of businesses – Republicans emphasizing personal responsibility, Democrats emphasizing worker control.
While it’s easy to see those platforms through divisive prisms, Schneider believes they also open doors. The great moments of cooperative history in the United States have followed the passage of legislation that allowed cooperatives onto the playing field, from enabling their formation to exempting them from anti-trust laws. If it were up to Schneider, we would extend these antitrust exemptions because when cooperatives build large-scale enterprises, they do so in a way that includes and rewards all participants, rather than crushing competitors.
Schneider said when he’s feeling overwhelmed about the challenges of building and rebuilding cooperative economics, “I think about the $128 billion agricultural [cooperative] bank sitting below me down in Denver. It’s a reminder that when people organize and build policy and power, when there's democracy built into the core of it, you can build that infrastructure, you can build the tools to make this stuff scalable and significant and have it really shape the world we live in.”
Matt Stannard is the Director of Solidarity House, a worker-owned media, policy research and music cooperative in Laramie, Wyoming. He has worked with Commonomics USA, the Public Banking Institute and Farm Commons. He writes and produces podcasts on cooperative economics, law and farming.