Page 2


Chuck Caldwell’s SMILUILES II 4 1 T I. 1731 New Hampshire Ave., N.W. Washington, D.C. 20009 Dupont Circle/Embassy area Spacious rooms Coffee shop Parking Best buy in D.C. Present this ad when checking in and receive a $10 introductory rebate. CALL TOLL FREE 800-424-2463 Poultry co-op workers, Brownwood, 1939. porate America actually worked. They acquired a number of views about American society and culture that were markedly different from those emanating from corporate spokesmen, from the nation’s commercial press, from church pulpits, and from the public schools. Stated simply, cooperation politicized people because it provided a concrete means for breaking down their deference and isolation by creating a collective place for them to think in. Indeed, the demise of the Grange was hastened by the fact that its more prescient members learned too much too quickly. Not only did they discover that bankers, manufacturers and merchants opposed their coops, but that the same gentlemen effectively shaped the operating parameters of the politicians of both major parties. This discovery led observant Grangers to the conclusion that the corporate-dominated two party system could not serve the mass of the American citizenry. The premature move of these early “political Grangers” to create a mass-based third party split the movement and thus weakened the fragile economic basis of the coops on which the entire collective effort was based. This, plus the fact that many millions of the agricultural poor could not participate in cash-only coops because they did not have the cash, fatally undermined both the third party movement and the Grange itself. A seminal political lesson was, however, visible for all to see: by generating autonomous institutions where people could talk and think together, economic cooperation insulated ordinary Americans from the economic teachings of the corporate culture; this in turn bred a new kind of mass political sophistication that opened up broad democratic possibilities. Three negative conclusions were also ticipated in these dynamics at different levels of intensity and thus “learned” their political lessons at different such a narrow economic basis that it left out huge swaths of the citizenry, a mass-based democratic political party was not really possible because the necessary prior “education” of enough people in democratic forms simply hand, even narrowly conceived “cashonly” cooperatives were susceptible to economic ruin in the face of monopolistic financial and marketing pressure from the corporate center of the society; more broadly-based coops self-evi dently would be even more vulnerable. The contradictory evidence that emerged from the Grange cooperative experiments in the 1870s and early 1880s can thus be rather simply summarized: if its economic basis could be sustained long enough \(some number of years while “recruiting” and “educatment had transforming democratic possibilities; the trick was to find a way to hold the thing together while the enterprise had very little capital. Because this problem was partially solved by a new generation of cooperative theorists, America experienced the largest popular movement in its history in the 1890s Populism. But, because their solution was, in fact, only partial, the democratic hopes of the Populists did not come to pass. We have been living in a culture of empowered corporate hierarchy ever since. The Populist failure had both a cultural and a theoretical dimension; hazards in both these areas confront all contemporary Americans who aspire to see genuine popular democracy materialize in their homeland. Lessons drawn from the far-flung Populist effort can be drawn upon with profit indeed, such lessons, if internalized by enough people, would lever contemporary democratic thought to a whole new plateau of social sophistication. But it is also clear that these lessons will have to be supplemented by a measure of contemporary creativity if an authentic popular democratic presence is to be constructed within the maw of the modern corporate state. In terms of centralized political power, things have gotten worse, not better, since the Populist collapse, and the victims of this circumstance the American people as a whole will have to find a way to overcome the pervasive political resignation that now so massively disfigures contemporary intellectual life and popular culture. Learning at Different Speeds The Populist experiment in large-scale cooperation is instructive in each of these respects. The Populist tacticians the founders of the National Farmers Alliance recruited a truly mass base in broad sections of agricultural America, one that went far beyond the agrarian middle class to include many varieties of impoverished smallholders, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers. They achieved this recruiting miracle by going beyond the cash-only stores of the Grange to create massive marketing cooperatives as well as credit-based purchasing cooperatives. The success of the former depended upon the latter and the latter was always imperiled by the in \(6 92 0 0 .0 11 t 0 0 ai -J –\(13 Cr 0 0 a_ 10 JULY 8, 1983