The discussion over the last two weeks centered on the challenges of growing a worker cooperative movement in Anglo-Saxon dominated cultures. I split a bit further by focusing on the specific problems in the United States that further hinder the worker cooperative movment. At the same time, I have started reading Employment Relations in the United States: Law, Policy and Practice by Raymond Hogler. He offers a unique take on American Exceptionalism, a term coined in some sense by Alex de Toqueville in his still relevant work Democracy in America.
Too often, the concept of American Exceptionalism implies an attitude of superiority of the United States in comparison to the other 195 nations on the earth. That isn’t always the sense, but the rise of Reaganism and its attendant neoconservatism (as opposed to neoliberalism which seems more focused on economics than politics) proclaiming the US a “City upon a hill” as the beacon of all good things and leader of the world (free or otherwise). However, there is something different about the United States. Perhaps it is the combination of fifty unique states, the legacy of the Civil War in which the rights of those states to govern themselves remains in dispute or maybe it is the disposition of a country made up entirely of immigrants displacing indigenous populations (themselves often migrating with the seasons).
The concept of the “working class” has never fully taken hold in the United States as it has in other countries. While disputed, John Steinbeck, the great working class author, reportedly dispaired that “Socialism never took root in America because the poor never saw themselves as the proletariat as much as embarrased millionaires.” Hogler uses the term American Exceptionalism to discuss the unique nature of the US labor system. This sytem, he argues, does not define people (workers)as a group united by class sentiment and common goals. It is a group that identifies as “American”. Hogler refers to Selig Perlman’s work of the early 1920’s that saw an American workers with the opporutnities that workers in other countries didn’t have. With the exception of women, non-slave workers had the right to vote in the United States and did not have to fight for suffrage. In addition, the abudnance of land that continued to expand throughout the 19th and into the 20th century meant opportunity for workers to stake out a claim on their own. This was simply not allowable in Europe and even England. Horace Greely’s exhortation, “Go West, Young Man!” was the mandate for young workers that if they didn’t like their job, they could move and create a new life becoming their own boss. The workers never coalesced into a finite social group because they always had other options.
This American Dream persists today. By the 1940’s the ideal of the American Dream and American Exceptionalism went hand-in-hand. Many of us, in today’s state of perpetual war, jobless economic recoveries, and shock doctrine capitalism may feel that the American Dream has become part of our past or a propaganda that never really existed. However, it has, over the years amassed a lot of power. It is the power of that dream that worker cooperatives can and should harness to further our movement in this country.
The Knights of Labor, for all of their faults, believed in the idea of workers managing themselves. They saw collective ownership as a form of the American Dream and won that would be attainable to workers. It would allow them better wages and give them the control over their lives that, as Americans, was their birthright.
One of the problems facing the worker coop movement is the same as that facing the labor union movement. Workers in the United States lack a class consciousness. There is a belief that through hard work and luck, we can all escape having to work for someone, hang our own shingle and maybe even have people work for us. The lack of this class consciouness fuels an already dangerous sense of individualism that ignores the benefits of being part of a society or a community. However, worker cooperation can tap this energy. We can create a concept of achieivng that dream through collective ownership and decision making through the values of mutual self-help, solidarity and democracy. In doing this, we need to speak in the language of the American Dream, recognizing that in some way worker ownership is part of that dream.