The Unemployed Exchange Association (UXA): Grassroots Economic Development in the 1930’s

A story by Bernard Marszalek:

“In times of economic collapse, like often during natural disasters, protective shells are discarded and solidarity emerges and social creativity erupts. No money, barter. No food, grow it and share it. Need help, people pitch-in. Most recently in Argentina, during their economic collapse in 2002, neighbors in Buenos Aires held daily outdoor meetings to discuss how best to survive and teams were established to look after the needs of the local people.

Closer to home, throughout California during the Depression, unemployed workers formed associations to bring food from farms, repair housing, and create a modest economy based on labor exchanges, not money.

Thousands of Californians spontaneously established these democratic associations. There were so many of them that they began to form networks of convenience to lay a deep foundation of survival. They were creating out of devastation a new society based on social needs not individual profit, self-help not charity.

The short history of the local Unemployed Exchange Association (UXA), written 25 years ago by John Curl ( author of the forthcoming “For All The People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism In America,” ) provides a snapshot of this grassroots economic revival by focusing on the form it took, over 75 years ago, in the neighborhoods of Oakland. He recounts how desperate people, many unemployed for several years, found the means to recreate livelihoods without money, but with the better currency of cooperation. These people took what had become valueless in monetary terms and transformed it into common wealth. As if moving from one dimension to another, things found social uses where before they had been junk.

The old economy of the market, private ownership and individual pursuit melted away to reveal a previously under-utilized treasury of human creativity and a capacity to recreate, through solidarity, an economy based on needs.

The UXA story may read like a utopian tale only because the history of mutual aid, of self-help ventures, is largely untold. And yet the rhizomes of cooperative, grassroots endeavors reaches forward to The Intercollective, the cooperative economy of the 70’s and 80’s in the SF Bay area, that John mentions at the end of this essay.

And from there the influence reaches to the present where we have in the SF Bay area not only the largest concentration of worker cooperatives in the country, but also a fast growing network of alternative economic ventures of all sorts. From urban agriculture to eco-friendly transportation, from land trusts to locally controlled alternative energy start-ups, a new society is taking root. And none too soon.

This vast diversity of mainly volunteer-run projects has the dynamic to demonstrate another way of living – an infrastructure of a new society. They are the stepping stones from a waste-filled, stressful and joyless present to a future where abundance is defined by more than material possessions. Faint glimpses of that richer society appear while reading John Curl’s “Living In the UXA”.”

Source: The Unemployed Exchange Association (UXA): Nineteen Thirties’ Grassroots Economic Development, an Introduction to John Curl’s Living in the U.X.A. By Bernard Marszalek, January, 2009

2 Comments The Unemployed Exchange Association (UXA): Grassroots Economic Development in the 1930’s

  1. AvatarJeff Vail

    To me, this is very important. It’s a historical example to draw on that, I think, largely foreshadows how we will actually adapt to the building crises of the future (as opposed to the noisy but ultimately ineffective contributions that I expect from centralized governments). What I see as most exciting is the potential to accellerate these efforts by integrating them with the internet–not that this is anything new to readers here, but imagine what these UXAs could have accomplished with unlimited connectivity to share best practices, adapt ideas to find locally appropriate solutions, etc. Also, one of the contemporary problems that must be overcome is that, for many, they are not geographically co-located with hordes of similarly situated people with whom to coordinate and cooperate (think rural or suburban regions)–the internet allows for these geographically dispersed groups to come together virtually in a way that simply wasn’t possible in the past (with the exception of fairs, festivals, or other such periodic events).

  2. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Thanks for your comments,

    I wonder if you are familiar with the Common Security Clubs? While they are not vehicles for concrete material security, they are certainly a step in the right direction of bringing material security to the table …


Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.