Book review: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America

John Curl, For All the People:  Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America (Oakland, CA:  PM Press, 2009).

Curl’s history of cooperative and communal movements in America is set against the backdrop of one overpowering trend:  the transition from an almost completely self-employed work force at the time of Independence, to a present-day labor market in which self-employed workers are almost as much of an anomaly as free blacks ca. 1850.  Two hundred years ago, wage labor was viewed as a form of bondage, something submitted to only when absolutely unavoidable.  The majority of wage laborers were apprentices and journeymen, who viewed their status as a temporary stage on the way to the normal status of self-employment.

In the course of his history, Curl stands on its head a great deal of the pious “received account” most of us learned in the public schools’ American history classes.

Most of us are probably at least vaguely familiar with Bradford’s account of Plymouth Plantation, for example.  But from Curl’s version, unless you’re really good at reading between the lines, you’d never get any idea of the role that either class struggle, or the designs of a corporation called the Merchant Adventurers, played in the story.  The Mayflower Compact, as it has been passed down to us from Bradford via the Received Account, was the inspiring first example of American self-government through a written charter.  What’s left out of this edifying account, as Curl points out, is that most of the emigrants to Plymouth were indentured servants; signing onto  a Compact en route to America, which declared the signatories free and equal, amounted to a servile insurrection.  The free workers sided with the indentured servants, and the masters—presented with a fait accompli—signed the Compact in the face of necessity ( p. 21).

We also get, from the second-hand version of Bradford’s account adopted by American political culture,  a patronizing narrative in which those idealistic Puritans at first attempted to “have all things in common” (just like the primitive church in the Book of Acts!), but then abandoned their primitive communism in the face of reality (and starvation) by farming their own family plots individually.  What you might not guess from Bradford’s account is that this edifying tale of misguided idealism was actually the story of a peasants’ revolt against the manorial authority of the Merchant Adventurers.  What actually happened was that, in the original articles of incorporation, the colonists were permitted to work two days a week on their own family plots, and the other four days would work on the Corporation’s land as its employees.  The Merchant Adventurers soon changed these terms, fearing that the colonists would devote most of their effort to their own plots and do as little as they could get away with on company land.  Instead, the colonists were to work six days a week for the Merchant Adventurers, and be provisioned by the company.  To the colonists, most of them peasants from the open fields of Nottinghamshire, this amounted to reducing them to serfdom.  Their decision to work the land for themselves was the kind of land reform that would have gotten them slaughtered by CIA-backed death squads, if they’d done it today.  In other words the story, rather than being a simple morality play that foreshadowed the 20th century revolt against Soviet collectivism, was more a reflection of the peasantry’s relations with the landed classes in the old country.  The Plymouth colonists were, for all intents and purposes, tearing down an Enclosure—more like the Diggers on St. George’s Hill than kulaks (pp. 20-21).

There’s a great deal of interesting information in Curl’s book, like his account of the vibrant American working class movement from the turn of the 20th century to WWI and its liquidation under A. Mitchell Palmer, or attempts at self-organized alternatives to capitalism (like the Unemployed Exchange Organization) during the Great Depression.  The countereconomic networks of consumer cooperatives, alternative newspapers, rural communes, free schools, and the like that arose in the 1960s and 1970s are also fascinating.

But my main focus is on Curl’s book at it relates to matters of interest to the P2P and Open Manufacturing communities.  The most important generalization I derived from the book is the importance of capital outlay requirements in determining the viability of self-employment and cooperative employment.

The first major wave of worker cooperatives was under the auspices of the National Trades’ Union in the 1830s (p.4).  Like the Owenite trade union cooperatives in Britain, they were mostly undertaken in craft employments for which the basic tools of the trade were relatively inexpensive.

From the beginning, worker cooperatives were a frequent resort of striking workers.  In 1768 twenty striking journeyman tailors in New York, the first striking wage-workers in American history,  set up their own cooperative shop.  Journeyman carpenters striking for a ten-hour day in Philadelphia, in 1761, formed a cooperative (with the ten-hour day they sought) and undercut their master’s price by 25%; they disbanded the cooperative when they went back to work.  The same was done by shoemakers in Baltimore, 1794, and Philadelphia, 1806 (p. 33).

This was a common pattern in early American labor history, and the organization of cooperatives moved from being purely a strike tactic to providing an alternative to wage labor (p. 34). It was feasible because most forms of production were done by groups of artisan laborers using hand tools.  By the 1840s, the rise of factory production with expensive machinery had largely put an end to this possibility.  As the prerequisites of production became increasingly unafforable, the majority of the population was relegated to wage labor with machinery owned by someone else (pp. 35, 47).

The corporate transformation of the economy was a revolution imposed from above.   A high-volume, centralized railroad network was key to the creation of a national corporate manufacturing economy—and in this the state played an indispensable role.  This included the land grants, which included not only rights of way, but also enormous swaths of land (amounting to “a full half of all the Western lands,” all told) on either side whose appreciating value was intended to serve as a source of capital.  But it didn’t even stop there.  The railroads also used their political muscle to secure the direct appropriation of capital from the taxpayers.  And on top of that, once in operation they used their rate-setting power to promote the concentration of industry, simultaneously gouging small farmers and urban consumers, while giving volume rebates to large manufacturers (p. 78).

An alliance of industrial plutocrats and southern landed oligarchs seized political power in the Compromise of 1877 (otherwise known as the Great Betrayal).  In return for ending military reconstruction in the South, and handing power in the region back to the prewar planter class, the corporate oligarchy secured southern backing for its power grab at the national level.  The southern states switched enough electoral votes to the Hayes ticket to overturn a decisive Democratic majority (pp. 86-87).

The top-down imposition of the factory system, the seizure of national power by Gilded Age plutocrats, and the resistance to it by workers and farmers, amounted for all intents and purposes to a civil war.

The corporatization of the American society provoked an all-out resistance by artisan laborers, factory workers, and small farmers—together called the “Great Upheaval” by Curl.  The first and largest wave of the Great Upheaval was associated with the Grange and the Knights of Labor.  The Greenback-Labor Party elected fifteen congressmen in 1878, and supported legislation at the state level regulating the freight rates charged by the state-created and state-subsidized railroads.

The railroad barons and bankers, fighting a ruthless counter-revolution, refused credit or shipping to Grange enterprises (p. 79).  They viewed the Knights of Labor and its network of cooperatives as a serious threat to the whole capitalist system (p. 93).

The Knights won their biggest victory in the Union Pacific Railroad strike of 1885, forcing Jay Gould to recognize the union and arbitrate all labor disputes.  The ensuing influx of new members swelled Knights of Labor ranks to nearly a million in 1886 (p. 102).

The two most dramatic confrontations of the Great Upheaval, the railroad strike of 1877 and the eight-hour day movement, were defeated by decisive state action.  The railroad strike, which turned into a nationwide general strike, was broken (“to prevent national insurrection”) by Hayes’ troops (p. 87).  The eight-hour day movement, which rose to a crescendo in nationwide general strike of 1886, culminated in the post-Haymarket repression.  That reaction, comparable to the Red Scare under Woodrow Wilson, saw the near-total liquidation of the labor movement and full-scale war against the Knights of Labor cooperatives.  Railroads refused to carry cooperatives’ products, manufacturers refused to sell them machinery, wholesalers refused them raw materials, and banks refused credit.  The local community support on which the Knights depended was undermined by a press campaign against labor radicalism and “anarchism,” much like the Red-baiting hysteria under A. Mitchell Palmer thirty years later (pp. 106-107).

Most attempts at worker-organized manufacturing, during the Great Upheaval, failed on account of the capital outlays required. For example, when manufacturers refused to sell farm machinery to the Grangers at wholesale prices, the Nebraska Grange undertook its own design and manufacturing of machinery.  (How’s that for a parallel to modern P2P ideas?)  Its first attempt, a wheat head reaper, sold at half the price of comparable models and drove down prices on farm machinery in Nebraska.  The National Grange planned a complete line of farm machinery, but most Grange manufacturing enterprises failed to raise the large sums of capital needed (p. 77).

The Knights of Labor cooperatives were on shaky ground in the best of times.  Many of them were founded during strikes, started with “little capital and obsolescent machinery,” and lacked the capital to invest in modern machinery.  Subjected to economic warfare by organized capital, the network of cooperatives disintegrated (p. 107).

The economy  today is experiencing a revolution as profound as the corporate transformation of the late 19th century.  The main difference today is that, for material reasons, the monopolies on which corporate rule depends are becoming unenforceable.  Another revolution, based on P2P and micromanufacturing, is sweeping society on the same scale as did the corporate revolution of 150 years ago.  But the large corporations today are in the same position that the Grange and Knights of Labor were in the Great Upheaval back then, fighting a desperate, futile rearguard action, and doomed to be swept under by the tidal wave of history.

The worker cooperatives organized in the era of artisan labor paralleled, in many ways, the forms of work organization that are arising today.  Networked organization, crowdsourced credit and the implosion of capital outlays required for physical production, taken together, are recreating the same conditions that made artisan cooperatives feasible in the days before the factory system.  In the artisan manufactories that prevailed into the early 19th century, most of the physical capital required for production was owned by the work force; artisan laborers could walk out and essentially take the firm with them in all but name.  Likewise, today, the collapse of capital outlay requirements for production in the cultural and information fields (software, desktop publishing, music, etc.) has created a situation in which human capital is the source of most book value for many firms;  consequently, workers are able to walk out with their human capital and form “breakaway firms,” leaving their former employers as little more than hollow shells.  And the rise of cheap garage manufacturing machinery (a Fab Lab with homebrew CNC tools costing maybe two months’ wages for a semi-skilled worker) is, in its essence, a return to the days when low physical capital costs made worker cooperatives a viable alternative to wage labor.

The first Great Upheaval was defeated by the need for capital.  The second one will destroy the old system by making capital superfluous.

2 Comments Book review: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America

  1. AvatarP.M.Lawrence

    “In the artisan manufactories that prevailed into the early 19th century, most of the physical capital required for production was owned by the work force; artisan laborers could walk out and essentially take the firm with them in all but name”.

    Those did not prevail then, the putting out system did. And capital will not become superfluous, although it is quite possible that its cost will fall and it will become more widely accessible if it becomes easier to make operating equipment. Even so, working capital is likely to stay at similar prices relative to operators’ other costs (like wages paid to themselves); traditionally, funding the working capital cycle was banks’ core business activity, and it is likely to remain so – and thus captive to them – unless there are changes in that area too.

  2. AvatarThomas Eicher

    Thanks for the excellent review. I finished the book a couple of weeks ago and found it fascinating. Readers of this book might also find Jobs of Our Own: Building a Stakeholder Society: Alternatives to the Market and the State by Race Mathews interesting. A new edition was published by the Distributist Review Press recently(ISBN-10: 0967970792).

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