Tuesday, July 24, 2012

For All the People!

John Curl: For All the People – uncovering the hidden history of co-operation, co-operative movements  and communalism in America [2009 USA, 489pp]. Review by Alan Woodward.

This book is a survey of almost everything that comes under its heading, including both individual and collective communal expressions. It is primarily a survey since the area to be covered is huge, but some indication of the extent even in modern America is found in the opening lines: –

‘In 2008, more than 120 million people in the Unites States are members of 48,000 co-operatives, about 40% of the population. Some 3,400 farmer–owned co-operatives market about 30% of all American farm products today. More than 6,400 housing co-operatives provide homes for more than one million households. Two million homes get their service from two hundred and seventy telephones co-operatives. Nearly 1,000 rural electric co-operatives provide power to 36 million people. Over 50,000 independent small businesses belong to 250 purchasing co-operatives for group buying and  shared services ... Eighty four million American belong to credit unions. Numerous small co-operatives running not-for-profit activities, and other small co-operatives  fly beneath the statistical radar. Community Directory lists over 900 intentional communities.’ 

The volume is from the new US project ‘PM’, a sort of sister organisation to AK Press, and promises to become the standard publication on this subject. It has three main sections –
q       a survey of  all the organisations that can be called ‘co-operative’ going back to the collective structure of the native tribes. It has been brought up to date from a previous book but opens the way for more volumes;
q       a personal account of the writer’s participation in the co-operatives in the San Francisco Bay Area  of the Pacific coast from 1971;  this is set in the context of the new co-operative movement, less formal and structured than the mainstream;
q       an exploration of some of the larger scale settlements on a communal basis,  and their ideological basis,  again going back a hundred years.

The first section is massive and the role of the reviewer in these circumstances is to place this huge bank of facts into a context. We need to look at the industrial revolution. The full implications of employment with its loss of freedom for the working day, its accompanying removal to an urban area and isolation from supporting welfare services is likely to have created apprehension in our ancestors living mainly in villages and would not have been considered lightly. However in Britain the economic and legal pressure exercised by landlords through parliamentary Acts of Enclosure deprived thousands of citizens of their access to land and my own grandparents were part of the one quarter of the population forced to move when Enclosure hit a Buckinghamshire village in the 1840s.

New urban living was horrific with its slums, calamitous infant mortality rates and dangerous work  - when you could get it – and many appear to have thought that co-operation offered  a possible way out of this hell. The response in Britain to Robert Owen’s plans for communal work and living was sizable and after a few false starts, the co-operative movement took off and quickly left the founder behind with his grand schemes. The practical took over from the visionary. [Taylor]

Co-operation spread quickly. At almost the same time similar initiatives occurred in the USA for example. In that home of free enterprise and hegemonic politics, co-ops of both the production and distribution variety have grown, and a 21st century assessment tells of their mainly hidden extent.
Curl links the early American co-ops to union invention, primarily as employers were just destructive. Indeed the book can be seen as a version of labour history and this link is true right up to the present. There is an endless series of new formations and growths –  so the volume is likely to become an essential reference for this aspect of hidden history, as the title indicates.

Though US labour is noted for its enthusiasm and boundless energy, most historical initiatives did not get much beyond foundation level - probably due to the vast geography, the sharp repression and the regularity of economic failure. In consequence, the USA has seen an absence of  a workers’ councils movement, unlike any other country in the advanced industrial world. Similarly with co-operatives: many local beginnings - even city or region wide federations - but almost nothing, almost up to contemporary times, of national organisations. However we must salute John Curl for his considerable labours in cataloguing all the manifestations in all the localities. A gigantic task.

Curl examines workers’ productive co-ops and their decline since the wounds of the Reagan era, as well as the hundreds of examples of co-op shop, stores, buying clubs and warehouses. After the extraordinary growth round the Knights of Labor at the end of the previous century, the repression is even more tragic and the rise of the non-political American Federation of Labor can be seen as a double tragedy [Guerin]. We read the same story with the Industrial Workers of the World after the first world war but the whole rejuvenation of the mid 1930s with its strikes, sit-ins and general strikes that set in train a rebirth of collective structures, is a welcome start to the post war expansion. He notes the neglect of the KoL and IWW periods in other histories.

A few more points from this section, which is chronologically organised. The huge farming co-op movement has been decimated by the expanding agribusiness empires which have government and banking finance. While the head count of people involved has declined a little, the numbers of units have been drastically reduced by forced federation and amalgamations. This loss accounts for a percentage of the overall decline.

Two - Personal
In this middle section, Curl switches from his research mode into an interesting narrative about his personal experience in local co-ops, which just happens to have been the most creative in the whole country. He tells of the Berkeley Co-op and myriad collectives for small scale production and consumer stores. Some, like the Plywood Collectives, survived the Reagan axe and others are still forming.

This is the new movement – less formal, structured and permanent than the others, in what he calls the mainstream. These are the fruits of the participation of many of the youth and students, primarily in the Californian North Bay Area. Curl moved into the area of San Francisco in 1971 and was deeply involved with Berkley and a wood products group, Heartwood. The book contains a good deal of technical information, survival plans, etc, as well as an appendix of unique US co-ops today, and International Documentation.

Perhaps the core of the new movement is the attack on the business of the Food Industry. The counterculture is studded with well-supported organic and nature food enterprises as well as buying clubs. It is not fanciful to credit many of the wider reforms in consumer habits as a whole to this movement. ‘Fair trade not free trade’ is the slogan and we can expect more changes in this direction, though Curl looks only at America.

Three - Communalism
The development into settlements from individual units can be seen as a commitment to a broader idea of capitalist rejection that goes beyond co-operation. Despite this, there was still conflict in the system as people brought baggage with them, but a good deal or progress has been recorded. Again the study is chronological.

We have already mentioned in passing the innovatory Robert Owen communities which had a clear socialist theme and during the 1820s there were more than ten examples set up. Later, in the 1840s, treble this were established by another tendency; this was the associationism of Charles Fourier. Associations or phalanxes were highly structured communities that would allow man’s natural goodness to emerge. More than 30 were established all over the land.

In Europe, associationists were a part of the huge post-1840s expansion that was finally split in 1872 into broadly authoritarian marxists and the libertarians classifications. Whatever Fourier’s ideology, and it seems a confusion, the idea of combination for association purposes made sound sense to tens of thousands of Americans for a decade or so, in the a century, before the labour movement ideas were widespread. The cause of the eventual failure is a debatable subject but the remaining links with orthodox economics – phalanxes were joint stock companies – and influence of outside investors no doubt contributed to a slow decline.

Of course, throughout the period, some of these experiments had definite religious origins and the better known still retain ancient ritual and practices like the well known Amish. The contribution has continued up to the recent past. The core of the settlements however comprised ordinary people for whom the dream of co-operation did not go far enough. The hard core, retaining their traditional practices and habits, have often survived.

Another consistent if minority element were the settlements set up by the mutualists, abolitionists and the Underground Railway for escaped slaves. Joseph Henson’s ‘Dawn Community’ is perhaps the best known. Battling difficult circumstances and local racism, the latter groups had also to come to terms with the growing State repression that was beginning to emerge. After the mid century, many of the new settlements were established in the light of the labour philosophy and some were explicitly political.

The State, predictably
Hence from this time onwards, the settlements were seen as vaguely subversive and regularly repressed by State forces. Indeed there was something subversive about the alternatives to the so-called free market. The mythical nature of this animal was exposed time and time again, as in fact, very closely regulated indeed. The objective was, and is, to maximise profits and extinguish anything that reduces this. Then as now, the corporations were quite aware of the settlements as sources of engagement beyond employment. The combination of employers/ state offensive is a growing element in the narrative from around 1880 onwards.

Knights of Labor and Industrial Workers of the World
We have briefly touched upon the enterprise of these two bodies, and the new Socialist Party also joins the list of players. A small number of examples of communalism were established before disaster, natural or man made, defeated them. One remarkable episode, amid the energetic but ultimately ephemeral enterprises, arose from Henry George and his Single Tax campaign. After the Haymarket police massacre and electoral defeats, at least three communes were set up as consolation.

Perhaps the final contribution of that century came from the collective communities that arose after the Kawaeh socialist model in California in 1886. This was crushed by the familiar State intervention but in its place came a network of communities at Puget Sound. This was closely linked to labour unions, especially the remains of the once great American Railway Union after the ill-fated Pullman strike of 1894, and the Brotherhood of Co-operative Commonwealths. A consequence of these was the ‘ Home’ anarchist colony. This attracted many activists - William Z Foster, Emma Goldman, Elisabeth Gurley Flynn  and Bill Haywood, etc. It fought off state harassment and lasted to 1919, of which more below.

q       the Seattle and San Francisco general strikes in 1919 and 1934 respectively
q       the Minnesota episodes in 1934 [Dobbs ]
q       the sit-in wave including the great Flint factory occupation and the series of battles around recognition for auto, or car, workers
q       miscellaneous strikes like that in Lordstown in 1972 that are still not fully explored. [Weller]

The Palmer raids were the latest in the wave of State repression and the IWW were greatly weakened. Haywood was forced into exile in Russia with nearly 90 supporters. Their relation with the state capitalist regime are unknown and the leaders were reported as victims of Stalin’s 1930s official repression. [Brinton]

But all this was just a foretaste of the massive capitalist collapse of the Depression. Curl outlines the terrible years and the modest consolation of the New Deal colonies. This is sad reading and the experience of the McCarthy era just after is quite as bad.

The narrative cheers up with the sixties communes. We have looked briefly at the expression of this new movement of co-operation/ communalism and clearly more publications are needed. A good deal is within recent knowledge but the survey continues with the case study of Drop City, an artists’ colony in Colorado from 1965.

Perhaps belonging to the middle section, this personal account is quite explicit about the structure and weaknesses of this project. The economics turned on the technical innovation of the Dome and re-cycled material. Places were open to all at first but then publicity threatened to swamp the places and limitations were set. It was quite dependent at first on established local co-ops for water and electricity, and good relations were soon established. There was a continuous turnover of residents before it was closed in 1973.

All decisions were made collectively which means a unanimous vote in favour. Murray Bookchin has written critically about the effectiveness of this mechanism and the writer – a teenager at the time - adds more details on this theme. He tells of the clash of personalities within this unregulated institution in a classic case of baggage imported. He describes the experiences as intense and spent some years here with his partner before moving to California.

I am a little surprised at the neglect of communalism’s grandest recruit, Murray Bookchin. This eminent writer and thinker began life as a communist then went on to trotskyism before occupying the leading position among libertarians. Single-handedly, he developed the awareness of the environment decades before it became popular. He laid into those who became what he regarded as obsessively concerned with its implications, at the same time as he worked on the major project of the revolutionary history of the working class. [Biehl]

He refined his views, deplored ‘lifestyle’ anarchism, wrote dozens of very popular books, and finally settled for communalism over orthodox anarchism. His title was ‘libertarian municipalism’ – or communalist equivalent – and to most people he is the only known person in this category. A proper assessment of his role is still awaited after his death in 2006 so patience is required.

For further information, this reviewer is prepared to discount the many political accounts by those advocating their own viewpoint or defending the myth of parliamentary ‘democracy’. We are left with two categories:  writings about the events directly and authors from a libertarian viewpoint, preferably socialist. The text mentions specific reading references at the appropriate place and here we can add a few titles. There is no general history from our viewpoint but the next best thing is Daniel Guerin’s volume, best seen as Selected Notes. This is perceptive and concentrates on the key issues like the role of the official trade union leaders, the value of politically aware leaders and writers and description of important events and periods. The book is difficult to get hold of, but worth the effort.

The nearest to a wider history is the more blunt book by Howard Zinn, and there are some good narratives in Boyer and Morais.

Libertarian writers are fewer in number. Murray Bookchin is the best source but he leads on the environment and his historical studies end with WW2. Paul Mattick came to the USA  in 1926 after direct experience in the council communist movement in Germany after WW1. He wrote up to his death in 1981, participating in the Root and Branch group among others. Again he specialised in economic but his volume on ‘Anti-Bolshevik Communism’ is a treasure generally. His writing on American labour issues are sporadic. Among his supporters, Peter Rachleff seems to be carrying the flag with his many strike accounts. We still await some more comprehensive and accurate.

The writer
John Curl is a woodworker by trade and follows the libertarian practice of providing leadership by example and while otherwise occupied. For this book is a classic example of intellectual and social initiative and deserves a place on the bookshelves of serious students of the labour movement. Highly recommended.

q       Stanley Aronowitz; False Promises  - the shape of American working class consciousness, [1973, 465 pp].
q       Janet Biehl, editor: The Murray Bookchin Reader, [1997, 244pp].
q       Maurice  Brinton ( Chris Pallis): The Bolsheviks and Workers Control,   1917-21   [1970, 86pp] see also  Goodway, David.
q       David Goodway, editor: For  Workers’  Power – the selected writings of  Maurice Brinton [2004, 379pp] which includes useful accounts of debate over  original publications, plus reprints of his three main works.
q       Daniel Guerin: 100 years of  Labor in the USA  [1979,  252pp].
q       Farrell Dobbs: Teamster Rebellion, [1972, USA, 185pp],  Teamster Power [1973, USA, 255pp]  Teamster Politics [1975, USA, 257pp] Teamster Bureaucracy [1977, USA, 304pp];
q       Root and Branch (editors) : Root and Branchthe rise of the workers movements  [1975 USA, 544p].
q       Root and Branch (editors) The Seattle Strike Committee: The Seattle General Strike – an account of what happened in Seattle and especially in the labor movement, during the general strike February 6 to 11, 1919 [1972 USA, 75 pp]   R&B pamphlet 5.
q       Barbara Taylor: Eve and the New Jerusalem – socialism and feminism in the nineteenth century [1983,  402pp]; Owenism and its influence.
q       Stan Weir; ‘Singejack Solidarity  [2004USA,, 384pp].
q       Ken Weller:  The Lordstown Struggle and the real crisis in production, Solidarity pamphlet 45 [1972?, 12 pp].

Empathy YES, Human greed NO !

  Book Review:  Frans De Waal: The Age of Empathy –
nature’s lessons for a kinder society   [2009,  293pp]

This American paperback collates the evidence from recent experiments in the animal world to show that empathy – a technical name for sympathy – is in fact a built-in basis for animal and human nature. He thus attacks the prevailing ideology of greed and competition, and confirms the alternative libertarian philosophy. Though his publication is libertarian, De Waal is mainly concerned with refuting conventional opinion and includes only passing references to classical writers.

The author is a prominent primatologist – scientist studying animal behaviour - and writes from many years’ experience. His book has some unusual features but has been widely reviewed including an article in Freedom in June 2012. The first five chapters collect evidence from experiments, institutional events, direct accounts from the wild and anecdotes from other scientists. Unless people are qualified in this subject, readers will  have to take the text at face value here, though many may find it confirms their views and/or experience. 

De Waal’s writing confirms the almost universal existence of empathy among elephants, dolphins, some whales, some primates and some birds. His evidence is overwhelming for these groups. Other animals show only partially developed  capacity and must await more research. On the main theme, however, the facts are increasingly well known, and, as this is a science, may be readily believed. We should all know about the dolphins protecting swimmers from sharks, the astonishing elephant mourning of dead family members, the apes regularly responding to their keepers’ experiments, the large brained magpies able to recognise added adornment in mirrors and whales thanking their saviours.

This section also includes effective attacks on conventional psychologists and their writings which is particularly satisfactory. De Waal also concludes that the empathy  tendency is not just an evolved development but lies deep in human psyche – he is always drawing conclusions for humans today and aligns himself  with radical opinion. ”We are all born as revolutionaries”, he concludes. These chapters make pleasant reading even for those without formal affiliations, as he plumps for “enlightened self interest”.

In the final two chapters, he applies his ideas more openly. Conventional social writings are critically examined and those who depend on their version of “human nature“ like Milton Friedman roundly condemned. Accounts of chimps jumping into water to save others completely confound even progressives like Richard Dawkins who ramble on about ‘selfish genes’. New perspectives present themselves in sharp contrast to the newspaper headline world.

There are many paragraphs worth quoting but the best perhaps is a startling analysis of soldiers in war. He shows that a huge majority of soldiers, despite the movies, are averse to killing, fire deliberately to miss and apparently believe that taking human life is just unacceptable. This astonishing concept runs entirely counter to aspects of popular ideology, as created by the film industry and politicians’ propaganda but my own brief military experience of the call-up, albeit in peace, confirms the lack of interest in guns, etc. This is ground-breaking stuff.

The reader should know of the unusual construction of the book. There is at the end of the volume a whole section of “un-annotated” notes to the text. These are not indicated by any means and while some are just reading references, many do elaborate the source of the anecdotes etc, and provide further proofs. The reading references unfortunately are compartmentalised into chapter headings but are generous in their content. The book is in paperback format, costs around £12 but is widely discounted in bookshops. Well worth reading or even as a present.

Finally what of the implications of his work? Offering himself the chance to further promote libertarianism, he declines the opportunity and wishes only for a decline in popular chauvinism that so often reflects past ideas. While this is a worthwhile project and perhaps we would all join him, libertarian readers need not be so modest. This reviewer  backs the conclusion that De Waal validates Peter Kropotkin’s ‘Mutual Aid ‘ and would surely look towards a movement that takes us in the direction of an anarchist/libertarian future that the prolific Russian believed in. As well as a ‘kinder society’, we want a fairer and more controlled one too.

Review by Alan Woodward.