Saturday, April 2, 2011

Book Review: I Speak for Joe Doakes by Roy F. Bergengren

When one first picks up Roy Bergengren's I Speak for Joe Doakes, it is immediately apparent that the book stands apart from the bulk of his oeuvre. To start with, having been written in 1944 and published a year later, the realities and implications of the Second World War loom large and extend even to the book's physical form. Immediately below the copyright information, the reader is informed that the text is "manufactured in strict conformity with Government regulations for saving paper," and it is dedicated to "SERIAL NUMBER 0-560627 and SERIAL NUMBER 0-1289910 [presumably his enlisted sons] With All My Love." Unlike the rest of his books, which focus primarily on the credit union movement that he founded and led, I Speak for Joe Doakes has a much grander purpose: namely, to argue for a post-war international and economic order rooted in co-operation.

As its title suggests, the book is framed as Bergengren's advocacy for the interests of "Joe Doakes," his "symbol of the common man, the worker, the great mass of people." In general, Joe Doakes is not a man of expensive tastes or voracious appetites. Rather,

He is most vitally concerned with any circumstance which affects his opportunity to work at a fair wage ... it is essential to him that there be a lasting peace. He has no wish that this war shall end in futility as did the war which his father fought. He is interested in co-operation as a possible contributing factor in the creation of the great new world which might evolve from this war if his rights and hopes and aspirations are adequately recognized in the peace.1

The validity of these insights, Bergengren argues, is rooted in his decades od criss-crossing the United States for the purpose of helping thousands of "Joe Doakes" from all walks of life to organize credit unions. That experience, he believes, provides him with a unique vantage point into the interests and desires of the inarticulate "common man," who he declares to be his "client." Thus, according to Bergengren, what "Joe Doakes" desires above all else is to avoid a full replay of the great traumatic episodes of Bergengren's generation: the First World War and the Great Depression, or, to put it more abstractly, to secure lasting peace and economic prosperity.

Bergengren's understanding of the path to the former is deeply informed by what he sees as the failure to achieve a strong international order at the end of the First World War as a result of America's reversion to isolationism. "When the war was over," he writes, "we took our bat and ball and went home. We rowed our little boat across the little puddle and washed our hands--or tried to--of those international problems which, unsolved, brought us back to battlefields all over the world."2 According to Bergengren, technological change had made it impossible for America to remain aloof from world affairs, which he illustrates by noting that the decline in the amount of time it took to cross the Atlantic (from sixty-three days in 1785 to Lindbergh's thirty-three and a half hour flight in 1927) has transformed that once formidable natural barrier into "a puddle."3 As a result, he argues that "We can no longer decide by vote to be isolationists. Our own ingenuity has abolished isolation. To be isolated is to be alone. No one can be alone today. We must live in the world as it is, not as it was when Washington delivered his Farewell Address."4

Thus, in order to ensure a future peace that will last in the face of the realities inherent to modern, interconnected world, Bergengren argues that the United States must not repeat the mistake it made after the end of the First World War, when it declined to join the League of Nations. By failing to do so, it set the world up for the Second World War, and that failure must not be repeated. Instead of post-war isolation, Bergengren argues that,

Joe Doakes wants an international congress, an international court to interpret its laws and a powerful international police, with Uncle Sam a full participating partner in the whole business, taking his full share of all the responsibility involved. It must be set up with no tricks which would monopolize power. It must not lend itself to any selfish nationalism ... No gangster must ever again be allowed to assemble an arsenal to be used against the common good.5

Such a co-operative international order, according to Bergengren, would be an essential element of a lasting peace, but alone it would be insufficient. Of equal importance is a new economic paradigm, since, in the new, interconnected world, "no nation is any longer safe when other nations, wanting legitimate things, are envious of the first nation."6

Bergengren argues that the solution to this issue can be found in economic co-operation, which he asserts to be a viable and preferable alternative to capitalism. This discussion occupies the lion's share of the second half of the book and covers a great deal of ground, but, at its core, the argument rests on two key points. First, in a move that has been recently echoed by the neo-mutualist philosopher Kevin Carson, he challenges the tendency to treat capitalism and "free enterprise" as synonymous. For Bergengren, "free enterprise" means the ability of individuals within a society to freely associate and engage in economic activity, and, as non-coercive systems, both capitalism and co-operation can be seen as its variants. Given this, he has no desire to see the state intervene in favor of co-operation; rather, Bergengren believes that, as long as the state remains neutral, co-operation has the potential to fairly out-compete capitalism. As he puts it, "all I ask of capitalism is that the competition shall be according to the excellent rules of the late Marquis de Queensbury. Co-operation is the American way of equal rights applied to economics. We who have faith in it do not fear any fair competition which it may encounter. We do insist, however, that government shall play fair."7

The second important point that Bergengren makes for favoring co-operation over capitalism is implicit in the above excerpt; namely, that it is more in line with American values, as it "is an ancient device, sound, conservative, [and] consistent with the best American tradition."8 He frames this argument around the metaphors of "rugged individualism" and E Pluribus Unum, which stand, respectively, for capitalism and co-operation. Far from being the core of the American character, Bergengren argues that "rugged individualism" contains the dangerous authoritarian potential to "produce the sort of nationalism which in turn creates the myth of a 'master race.'"9 By being committed to his own interests above all else, the "rugged individualist" is naturally unconcerned with the freedoms and well-being of others. As a result of this lack of solidarity, he ultimately poses little threat to the erosion of freedoms and the growth of tyranny, since his resistance would be triggered only by a direct attack on his narrow individual interests.

In contrast to this, Bergengren argues that the true American character is rooted in a "sense of brotherhood and of mutual dependence" that the founders chose to express in the slogan of their new country: E Pluribus Unum.10 He believes that these values are more aligned with with co-operation than they are with the "devil-take-the-hindmost" ethos of capitalism. Thus, far from being a foreign economic system that is challenging the status quo of capitalism, Bergengren argues that co-operation is more rooted in American traditions than capitalism, and he even goes so far as to assert that the "theory of rugged individualism is un-American."11

After finishing his argument for a co-operative order (which he refers to throughout the book as the "great new world"), Bergengren proceeds to lay out its details through a mixture of economic statistics and personal anecdotes. Commencing with a chapter on co-operative credit that draws extensively on his work as a credit union organizer, he proceeds to outline the successes of a great diversity of co-operatives. Though he covers much ground (describing everything from tiny rural credit unions with assets in the hundreds of dollars to massive Scandinavian consumer co-ops), the stories that Bergengren relates mesh together to form a vision of a practical Utopian path. Not only does each co-operative enterprise bring material benefits to its members in and of itself, but its success also serves to contribute an addition element to the growing "great new world" of co-operation. It is this sense of an organic and almost inevitable process towards a better world that lends Bergengren's vision much of its power.

Though his argument is interesting and worth investigating for its own sake, I Speak for Joe Doakes assumes additional historical importance as a result of it being the last book Bergengren wrote prior to leaving the position Managing Director of the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) in 1945. As he notes near its conclusion, "many, possibly most, credit union leaders will disagree with this book. Many of us do not think of the credit union as co-operative," and that disagreement was arguably a major factor in the decision of CUNA's board to dismiss him shortly thereafter.12 According to Moody and Fite's The Credit Union Movement: Origins and Development, 1850-1980, while his opponents justified their actions by accusing him of mismanaging the Association, "Bergengren, members of his family, and some of his friends thought that [his] vital interest in cooperative activity had much to do with his ultimate removal."13

As such, this book provides a fascinating window into a crucial moment for the credit union movement at mid-century. Though CUNA ultimately turned away from the larger co-operative movement in the ensuing decades, I Speak for Joe Doakes powerfully demonstrates how that path was not inevitable. By laying out Bergengren's alternative vision of credit unions as "a single sub-division of the co-operative movement," his book invites the reader to re-examine the meaning, purpose, and possibilities of credit unions.14 For a work of a scant one hundred sixty-four pages, I Speak for Joe Doakes is densely packed with interesting stories, ideas, and insights, and should be required reading for anyone with an interest in either the history of the credit union movement or in contemporary issues of credit union identity.

1Roy F. Bergengren, I Speak for Joe Doakes - Voicing the Common Man's Plea for More Co-operation at Home and Among Nations, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945), ix.
2Ibid., 2.
3Ibid., 33-5.
4Ibid., 36.
5Ibid., 63-4.
6Ibid., 39.
7Ibid., 71.
8Ibid., 120.
9Ibid., 4.
10Ibid., 70.
11Ibid., 90.
12Ibid., 136.
13J. Carroll Moody and Gilbert C. Fite, The Credit Union Movement: Origins and Development, 1850-1980, (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1984), 216.
14Bergengren, 92.

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