Monday, March 31, 2014

Book Review - "Minding Our Own Business: Community, Consumers, and Cooperation" by Jennifer E. Tammi

While doing some research on the roots of the contemporary banker campaign against the credit union tax exemption, I stumbled upon reference to an organization called the "National Tax Equity Association" (NTEA) in an old copy of the Credit Union Bridge from the 1950's. Curious for more information, I Googled the NTEA; the results were pretty slim pickings, with one exception: a link to a 50+ MB PDF file of a fascinating and engaging 2012 Columbia University PhD dissertation on the rise and decline of the organized consumer cooperative movement movement in the first half of the 20th century.

In Minding Our Own Business: Community, Consumers, and Cooperation, Dr. Jennifer E. Tammi starts off by examining the roots of the American co-op movement in the experiences of the labor and farmers' movements in the late 19th century, as well as in self-help efforts among marginalized populations such as African Americans and immigrants. She then goes on to discuss the establishment of the Cooperative League of the USA (CLUSA) in 1916 as a umbrella organization to advance the agenda of "Cooperative Democracy," which, according to founder Dr. James P. Warbasse, "is to be reached not by voting, not by sabotage, not by the general strike, nor through revolution or the class struggle, but by putting into operation co-operative democracy – first on a small scale, and then ever increasing and expanding." (pg. 90)

Tammi then proceeds to chronicle the fight between Warbasse's faction and the Communist Party (CPUSA) over the principle of political neutrality in the 1920's, as well as the rapid growth of the organization as the Great Depression drove people looking for alternatives to the existing economic order to form co-ops in unprecedented numbers. She then examines the rise to hegemony of a centralizing, bureaucratic, and increasingly conservative agenda among the leadership of the CLUSA that, she argues convincingly, eroded the local, particular social foundations of the constituent co-ops upon which the long-term viability of the cooperative movement rested. As a result, by the early 1960's the consumer co-op movement was in steep decline, and the CLUSA (which changed its name to the National Cooperative Business Association in the 1980's) was a shadow of its former self.


While reading Tammi's work, I was repeatedly struck by the parallels between the trajectory of the primarily consumer co-op movement represented by the CLUSA and the credit union movement. First, both got underway around the same time, and both experienced substantial growth during the Depression of the 1930s. Second, both movements saw influence shift from leaders with a "movement" orientation to leaders with a "business" orientation by the 1940's, when Warbasse acceded to the centralizing agenda being pushed by CLUSA executive director E.R. Bowen and Roy Bergengren was pushed out of CUNA and into exile in Vermont. Finally, much of Tammi's description of the collapse in member involvement in the consumer co-ops as the movement consolidated in the 1950's could just as easily be describing the member involvement crisis faced by the contemporary credit union movement, where organizations with hundreds of thousands of members often have to rely on employees just to met annual meeting quorums. On that topic, I found the following passage particularly striking:
E.R. Bowen and others failed to understand that when they sought to reorganize [and centralize] the movement, cooperators who were most loyal to their cooperatives would feel alienated. The most successful cooperatives also tended to be homogeneous. Sharing similar backgrounds and cultures made it relatively easy for the members to work together and make group decisions, and for leaders to engage members in local issues and neighborly events. In other words, it made grassroots democratic participation accessible. But somewhere along the line, leaders and cooperators alike forgot how essential it was to the success of the movement overall. The shift to the top-down structure eliminated the very things that made cooperatives beloved, and therefore successful.
Once the movement stopped fostering the bonds of community and the local values that made cooperation so enticing in the first place, it lost much of its potency as an agent of social and economic change. As the cooperative movement’s national and international aspirations grew, it served less to unite all consumers according to their shared interests as consumers, but rather to erase the elements of cooperation – social, cultural and economic – that had endeared them to their members and in turn gave them strength. (pg. 194-5)
In sum, Minding Our Own Business is a critical contribution to the generally sparse American co-op history literature, offering an accessible starting point for anyone interested in digging into the origins of the consumer cooperative movement prior to the 1970's "2nd Wave" of food co-ops. Additionally, given the strong parallels, a knowledge of the CLUSA's development is vitally important to understanding the historical trajectory of its sister credit union movement, especially in light of the extensive correspondence carried on between Bergengren and Warbasse, as well as other leaders. On top of all that, Tammi is a skillful writer and peppers the text with interesting photographs and quotations, making the read not only educational but positively enjoyable. Given all this, Minding Our Own Business should be at the top of the reading list of anyone interested in co-op and credit union history.

1 comment:

  1. I join you in recommending this history of CLUSA by Jennifer Tammi. In addition to pointing out how the centralizing and top-down approaches had a diminishing impact on cooperative expansion, she also points out how the post-World War II hysteria over collectivism pressured cooperative members to focus on the importance of individualism at the expense of community orientations and collective entrepreneurship.

    ReplyDelete