Old and New
Times like the present help me appreciate anew the place of cooperaives. But then, this nation has always been dominated by private capital. Solidarity in public and private life and concern for the general welfare have often been outweighed.
That lack of solidarity has a thousand manifestations. Historically, the height of resistance to the destruction of community by the forces of private capital was perhaps the Populist Era. A century later, we are facing the monumental task of rebuilding forms of solidarity -- public and private, national and international -- in an era when private capital is more concentrated and more organized than ever.
The physical vastness and overall level of wealth in the U.S. disguise its ongoing transformation into the most class-divided society in the industrial world. And the state ("handmaiden of capital") is increasingly shedding its image as the primary agent of reform and mutual aid. In seeking change, public policy is still important. But we can and must look more directly to citizen efforts for extending and rebuilding critically important forms of democracy: cooperatives, unions, grassroots struggles and networks that ally us with others.
Unfortunately, even movements for change often have succumbed to an individualistic, commerce-driven ethos. Early in this century, The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, aroused the public but led to changes not in the awful working conditions that were the core of the book, but rather to regulating the cleanliness of the public's meat supply. Late in the century, we have leaders struggling to establish that "organic" refers not to safe food but to a sustainable method of production, one that is attempting to transform the industrialization of agriculture. Fred Kirschenmann remarked that in his tenure on the National Organic Standards Board he had seen hundreds of letters urging action to insure the safety of organic food but none urging the Board to enhance and protect the health of the soil or to ensure a balanced ecology. And his conclusion that the future of organics requires programs designed for specific ecological neighborhoods echoes my point above: "Managing for healthy soil and healthy ecosystems cannot be done from Washington."
Cooperatives likewise can become merely a means for individual gain, and are to that extent weaker. Meanwhile, private capital continues its drive to concentrate and dominate. The ideals of democracy and solidarity that our co-ops represent will have little impact if we do not survive. For the beginnings of a new stage in our ongoing discussion of what that will require, read this edition's concluding article by George Southworth.