Sunday, April 13, 2014

Book Review - Soul: A Fourth Credit Union Book by Roy F. Bergengren

Photo from the cover page of Soul
Written in 1938 very much in response to the death of his confidant and early financial supporter Edward Filene, Soul: A Fourth Credit Union Book represents a departure from the practical nuts-and-bolts approach and subject matter of Roy Bergengren's earlier writings. Where his previous books tended to function as mixtures of how-to guides and reports as to the legislative progress of the organized movement, the agenda of Soul is self-consciously philosophical. Comprised primarily of a series of speeches interspersed with excerpts from the Credit Union Bridge and a few poems, Bergengren lays out the volume's agenda in his explanation of its name:
Hunting 'round for a name for this collection of prepared speeches I have decided to call it "Soul". My old dictionary says that, "the soul is the essence, heart or animating force of anything--the spirit, meaning, or significance of things." The animating force which motivates the credit union is the one thing I am hunting for in these pages. And there is another meaning of the word "Soul," long since lost through disuse. In provincial English the word was used to mean, "a relish, eaten with bread." Possibly this book may indeed be a sort of relish, taken with the bread, the very staff of the cooperative movement, to-wit, the operating principles on which the plan of cooperative association is based. (Pg. 8-9)
In his quest to lay bare the soul of credit unionism, Bergengren covers a variety of topics. The collection begins with the memorial speech to Edward Filene that he delivered to dozens of meetings around the United States over the course of 1937, and an he then proceeds to a discussion of the "immortality" of the underlying mission of credit unionism, which he summarizes as "to prove on Earth that the brotherhood of man is something more than a fine principle; we prove its practicality and we make it work." (pg. 35) Bergengren then goes on to provide an overview of the historical background of the movement, its place in the larger international context, and the important role of that he believes young people have to play in its long-term success.

While all of these essays are important and interesting, one that most clearly and explicitly fulfills Bergengren's stated mission of locating the "soul" of credit unionism is titled "Fundamentals." In it, he breaks down and discusses what he understands to be the key values at the core of the credit union idea. He begins with a discussion of the motivation of credit unionists, which he argues must come from a desire to serve, rather than accumulative, materialistic motivations. As he puts it:
The purpose of the organization is simply the maximum service to the membership; we exist solely for service; let that burn itself into your very soul; not for profit, not for charity--but for service! If the system of capitalism has failed--and certainly right now it is under critical scrutiny--it is solely because of wrong motivation. We have been trying to build an economic society on the basis of the survival of the smartest, the shrewdest, the cleverest, the most unscrupulous of our number; that the highest objective of the right life is the accumulation of things, regardless of the effect of such accumulation on society as a whole. This is the established principle of the jungle; it has no place in civilized society. The results of any system must be the justification of that system. I make no attack on capitalism; I am not interested in it. But the perpetuation of capitalism depends entirely on a prompt reformation of motive. (pg. 62)
Once correct intention is established, Bergengren goes on to identify and discuss four fundamentals of the credit union project. First, he affirms the cooperative character of the movement, and highlights the importance of not just being cooperative in name, but also "cooperative in fact." (pg. 63).

Second, he notes the diversity of communities that have found use in the credit union model, and argues that the movement must remain ecumenical. To foster and maintain such broad-based participation, credit unionism must retain its autonomy and neutrality; it "must never become the tail to any particular kite. There are enough differences in the world, enough conflicting principles which drive men apart. Let us build one great credit union solidarity on this principle of cooperative credit on which we are agreed[.]" (pg. 64)

Third, he argues for the importance of maintaining "simplicity of operation and control" of credit unions. While Bergengren sees the credit union project as having disproved early naysayers who believed that "the fundamental weakness of the credit union was its assertion of the power and right of working people to manage their money," (pg. 60) he also perceives a risk inherent in the movement's success. He argues that "as we increase and multiply and grow in strength and in power ... there will be those who cannot refrain from attempting our exploitation. We shall be told that we must employ experts for this and that; that we must delegate to those who might exploit us the opportunity for such exploitation." (pg. 64-5)  To counter this dynamic of what present-day economists refer to as "management capture," he recommends that credit unionists "not become prone to call in professionals who, not knowing how to think credit-union-wise, will drag into our councils all of the bad thinking on which so many professional thinkers are trained." (pg. 65) While some professionalization might be unavoidable, Bergengren concludes that "the right credit union is the credit union wherein the average member has understanding of his credit union in all phases of its potentialities of service." (pg. 66)

Finally, he argues that a commitment to education is essential if the movement's fundamentals are to be successfully transmitted to successive generations of credit unionists. Bergengren argues that the league chapters will be key institutions for advancing the educational agenda, and he holds up as worthy of emulation examples of work being done by the Antigonish Movement, which boasted an extremely extensive cooperative educational program in Nova Scotia.

In most of Roy Bergengren's "A Credit Union Book" series, the question of values tends to take a back seat to the concerns of the moment and the conveyance of the practices and techniques necessary for the hands-on work of building the credit union movement. In Soul, however, Bergengren takes a step back and addresses the 'why' of the credit union movement head on; what was it that motivated literally million of people of modest means to devote their volunteer time and energy to the collective task of constructing a system of cooperative finance. His explanation of the "soul" of credit unionism both serves to deepen the reader's understanding of the subjective side of the movement's origins, and offers an opportunity for reflection on the ways in which contemporary credit unions have both lived up to, and fallen short of, the aspirations of the people who laid the foundations of the modern credit union system. Covering all this ground in under 100 pages, Soul is a must-read for anyone who cares about credit unions.

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