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A Hidden History Runs Through US Social Movements

CounterSpin interviews Nathan Schneider on the co-op economy.

There's a hidden history that runs through social movements in this country, such as Black Lives Matter, where we see the acts of resistance when they appear on the street in the media much more than we see the large efforts to build alternative economies that work beneath them.

Janine Jackson: September 15 marked ten years since the largest bankruptcy in US history, that of Lehman Brothers, triggering — or exposing — a crisis that cost millions of people their homes, their jobs and their financial futures, followed by a government bailout of the banks behind the damage. The admission in a New York Times op-ed by former Treasury secretaries Henry Paulson and Timothy Geithner and former Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke that they “certainly didn’t get everything right” seemed to pass for reflection in corporate media.

But more substantive conversations are happening, have been happening, elsewhere, among those for whom the 2008 crisis and the response to it highlighted not only the flaws in the current system, but alternative visions.

We’re joined now by Nathan Schneider. He’s a journalist and assistant professor of media studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of — among other titles — the new book Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition That Is Shaping the Next Economy, out now from Nation Books. He joins us by phone from Boulder. Welcome to CounterSpin, Nathan Schneider.

Nathan Schneider: Thank you. I’m glad to be on the show.

Timothy Geithner was asked at a recent press event about the hardest moment for him, personally, of the 2008 crisis, and he said it was, as reflected in his wife’s face across the breakfast table, dealing with “the gap between what we thought would provide the broadest benefit … and what people thought was fair and just.” For him, it seems that that gap was kind of a perception problem, and overcoming it was a PR effort that he and others, alas, failed at. In a recent piece for Vice, you think about what it might have looked like to acknowledge that gap as real, and respond to it. I wonder if you’d share a little bit of what you were getting at there.

I think it was really, more than anything else, an accountability gap. It’s internalized accountability, but it’s really stemmed from the ownership structures, and the design of some of the largest companies in our economy, the companies that were bailed out after the crash that they helped create. What that accountability means is these are companies, these large banks, that are owned and governed for the purpose of protecting the profits, especially, of large shareholders. So when hard decisions are being made at the companies about what to do — and then they decide how they’re going to lobby Washington, and people who have been trained and schooled in those companies, who hold posts in Washington, have to make decisions about what to do in a crisis like this — that accountability, consciously or unconsciously, is at the forefront, that they have to protect those investors above all, rather than, for instance, protecting the millions of people who lost their homes and their jobs as a result of that disaster.

And what’s exciting about this moment, and what I hope we can turn to as we veer into possibly another such crisis, is to recognize that we can actually shift that accountability.

There’s a long tradition in American economic history, and the economic history of the world, of cooperative enterprise, businesses owned and governed by the people they serve, exemplified by, for example, in the financial industry, credit unions, which are banks that are owned by the people whose money they hold and whose loans they carry. And these kinds of businesses behaved very differently in 2007 and 2008, and those should be the model of how we move forward, rather than simply doubling down on this backwards and very dangerous accountability problem.

It seems important to underscore that you’re not necessarily always talking about — or we’re not necessarily talking about — smoke-filled rooms and conspiracies and evil people. It really is about structures of accountability, and the way systems are set up.

Well, the values of cooperative work, of cooperative ownership, they aren’t new, even though we don’t hear about them every day. It’s almost like a hidden history.

That’s right. And sometimes there are smoke-filled rooms involved, you know. For instance, a picture that came into my mind as you were saying that, an old picture from the offices of the Associated Press. You know, that was a classic smoke-filled room. It was founded in the 1840s, founded as a cooperative of news agencies in New York City, operated very much like a cabal for a lot of its history. It was gradually forced, by a series of court decisions, to open up, and be at least a little more inclusive in its governance.

This is by no means a perfect organization, and one can point to its flaws in all sorts of ways, but one thing that it does is it behaves very differently than a lot of other news organizations today. It hasn’t fallen into the problems of polarization and temptations to fake news, and funny business with advertising and surveillance of its readers, that many other publications have done, because of its ownership structure, because, for polarization, it can’t go that way, because it’s owned by both the New York Times, Fox News and my local paper. So its ownership structure, even when there are smoke-filled rooms and even when people are flawed and so forth, the ownership structure forces it to behave with a certain kind of responsibility that other kinds of publications might be missing, when their incentive structure is toward that short-term return at all costs.

I want to draw you out on one point that I’ve seen you make. We’ve been encouraged, I think, to subtract racism from the financial crisis narrative, even as we have testimony of banks specifically targeting communities of color, for pushing these subprime mortgages, calling them “ghetto loans.”

But the flip side, if you will, is that groups, including Black Lives Matter, talk about alternative economic models, talk about collective ownership. But these connections in the media are obscured, between an antiracism conversation and an economic justice conversation. They get separated, and we don’t see that, in fact, folks are making those connections all the time.

Oh yeah, and those groups are doing a lot more than talking, and they have been for a long time. There’s a hidden history that runs through our social movements in this country — including labor movements, and civil rights and racial justice movements, immigrant rights movements and so forth — where we see the acts of resistance when they appear on the street, we see the protests, we see the conflicts with police, in the media much more than we see the large efforts to build alternative economies that work beneath them.

I spent the first ten years of this crisis covering resistance. And I had these mentors who had been involved in the civil rights movement and so forth; they were advising me on how to cover stories of resistance better. And then when I started getting interested in this cooperative tradition, I asked them, “So were you developing cooperatives too?”

And they said, “Yeah, of course, everywhere we went, we were developing black farmworker cooperatives, we were developing credit unions.”

You know, Martin Luther King tried to set up credit unions and was rejected charters, because he saw this as crucial to building the strength that’s required to resist.

And the Black Lives Matter policy platform, more recently, includes more than 40 references to cognates of the word “cooperation,” and that’s partly because it was written by longstanding activists and organizers in developing a strong, cooperative economy, who knew what they were doing. So this is a longstanding piece of our legacy of resistance movements in this country, something that we need to learn to tell the stories about better.

The Onion headline, “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Country Where This Happens,” about gun violence, is a painful joke about how we don’t see what we don’t see. And then we predicate things on the nonexistence of ideas that we’re just choosing to ignore.

“Single payer could never work!,” you know.

“Well, but what about these countries where it’s….”

“No, no, it could never work.”

How important is media in putting forward and sharing and disseminating alternative economic ideas (and that’s all kinds of media)?

Especially in a moment where media is not just something people are passively taking in, but it’s something that they’re engaging with and practicing, in the age of social media. As we engage with Facebook or Twitter or something, we are learning economic lessons, whether we know it or not.

And the more that we take for granted the notion that these are companies that should be controlled solely for the sake of investor returns, that they should be governed, as Facebook is, essentially as a kind of kingship, we’re learning those lessons.

And, actually, we really can organize these things differently. Both Facebook and Twitter have, at various times in their history, referred to themselves as utilities; they should be owned and governed like utilities. We look to models like Associated Press, or models like the rural electric utility cooperatives, where ratepayers of electric supply are the ones who own the companies that are providing their service. And the opportunity for this kind of model in our media is much greater than I think we allow ourselves to realize. The history demonstrates that this is possible. And the more we forestall these kind of models, the more we’re actually educating ourselves into thinking that there is no other way.

Let me just ask you, finally, this mid-September also marked the seven-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. For many, one of the most heartening, critical uprisings in recent memory.

I resent the way elite media ignored and misrepresented Occupy, but mostly the way they suggested that it was up to them to say what it meant, and when it was over, and then what did “we all” learn from it. What, for you, is the legacy or lasting impact of Occupy? How would you have folks place it in history?

I think it was a moment where, you know, a generation had just elected Barack Obama. There was a great deal of energy around that experience. And then very quickly, people [were] in the midst of this incredible cataclysm of the financial crisis, and Obama’s fairly modest capacity to bring about serious reform, it was a moment where people had to step back from the options that were being offered to them in electoral politics, and remind themselves what they were really seeking.

And that was part of why they were hard for the mainstream media, a lot of times, to acknowledge and understand, because they were not just choosing from among the options presented to them.

My book about Occupy Wall Street, Thank You, Anarchy, is a kind of close-up account of that process, that rationale, the reasoning for why people chose that kind of strategy rather than simply choosing from among certain choices of policies presented to them.

And this project on cooperatives really came out of that one. It was about a lot of those same people having to figure out how to live in this economy after the the protests died down. They turned to cooperative enterprise as a strategy for creating options that they could really live with and really thrive with, rather than simply entering into the kinds of options that the investor-driven economy was offering them.

We’ve been speaking with Nathan Schneider. His new book is Everthing for Everyone: The Radical Tradition That Is Shaping the Next Economy. It’s out now from Nation Books. Nathan Schneider, thank you for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

It’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me.