Monday, December 19, 2011

Book Review - Speaking of Change by Edward Filene

Edward Filene
When considering the development of the early credit union movement, it is impossible to ignore the key role played by reform-minded business man Edward Filene (of Filene's Basement). After encountering cooperative banking on a trip to India, he arranged for the Canadien credit union pioneer Alphonse Desjardins to speak to a group of community leaders in Boston about cooperative banking. Thereafter, Filene led the charge in obtaining the first credit union law in Massachusetts in 1909, and he spent over a million dollars of his own money over the subsequent three decades on credit union organizing and advocacy.

Described by one historian as "an American Owenite" (in reference to the early 19th century British utopian industrialist and cooperative pioneer Robert Owen), Filene was a man of action who devoted his later life to patronizing and supporting a wide variety of causes in addition to the credit union movement. In doing so, he constantly traveled and spoke before diverse audiences. After his death in 1937, a group of his associates decided to memorialize him by collecting what they felt to be the best of these speeches and publishing them in a book entitled Speaking of Change.

The original edition (a new one was published by the Filene Research Institute in 2008) is a handsome leather-bound and gold-embossed volume, and the copy I bought actually contained the note that accompanied the book which states that "former associates of the late Edward A. Filene of Boston take pleasure in sending you this book, which has just been published as a memorial to Mr. Filene." Containing thirty-two speeches spread over 322 pages, the book begins with a brief introduction to his life written by an unnamed associate. At first, I suspected the mysterious author might have been fellow CUNA founder Roy Bergengren, but the essay refers to Bergengren in the third person, so the identity of the piece's writer remains an enigma.

As for the speeches, they target a diversity of audiences (the audience of each talk is footnoted) and topics, but they all share a consistent theme that obviously weighed heavily in Filene's thinking during this period (all but one of the speeches was made during the Great Depression). By his reckoning, the logic of the "machine age" in which American society found itself was fundamentally different than what came before, and to embrace the social and economic logic of a previous era to solve contemporary problems would be not only ineffectual, but actively dangerous. Whether addressing the Chamber of Commerce or high-school students, Filene argues that the problems of the machine age are not the result of scarcity, but of abundance, and that the vital question facing society at that moment was how to ensure that the masses had sufficient buying power to consume the product of ever-increasingly productive industry.

The answers Filene advocates in his speeches are diverse: Roosevelt's New Deal, mandating high wages, consumer cooperatives, and credit unions. The latter topic comes to the fore in only one of the speeches in the collection, which is an address to the 1936 annual meeting of the California Credit Union League. In it, he states that,

In the very nature of modern machinery, we have become universally interdependent, and in the very nature of this new society, the masses must have adequate buying power--that is, such money power as will enable them to buy enough to keep themselves employed ... It is necessary from every legitimate element of the population; and our problems, therefore, have all ceased to be problems of conflicting interests and have become problems of how to achieve co-operation. The credit union movement is pioneering in the solution of those problems.1

In addition to other expressions of Filene's take on the social and economic challenges facing the United States in the speeches throughout the book, the above quote is vitally important to understanding his enthusiastic and long-standing patronage of the credit union movement. By providing credit to the unbanked, credit unions were increasing the short-term buying power of people of modest means. By doing so cooperatively in a way that evenly spread the profits of the concern among their patrons, they were helping to mitigate the concentration of wealth that Filene held to be largely responsible for the industrial malaise of the Depression.

Overall, Speaking of Change is well written and thought-provoking. The fact that the "chapters" are speeches means that the book is readable in short, easily digested chunks, and that the language is engaging rather than technical. On the downside, at times it can get repetitive, as Filene introduces his "machine age" framework to the audience at the beginning of almost every speech, but there's enough variety of content to make up for the occasional dull page.

A more serious critique concerns the time period covered by the essays. For someone interested in the Great Depression, Speaking of Change is an essential read; however, for those of us studying credit union history, Filene's perspective from the 1920s is conspicuously absent. Though the above-quoted address and the deeper understanding of Filene's thought gleaned from a wide reading of his speeches are quite useful, the minimal treatment that credit unions receive compared to Roosevelt and the New Deal is unfortunate. As such, though Speaking of Change is a vital text that should be in the library of anyone interested in early credit union history, it alone is not sufficient to gain a complete understanding of Filene's involvement with the movement. According the Bergengren's writings, Filene addressed many gatherings of credit union people, and a separate collection of those speeches would make a wonderful supplement to this book.

1 Filene, 160.

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