Book Review: Everything for Everyone

Everything for Everyone:

The Radical Tradition That Is Shaping the Next Economy

By Nathan Schneider

290 pp. Nation Books. $28. http://nathanschneider.info/e4e

Overview

In Nathan Schneider’s new book, Everything for Everyone, cooperatives take center stage. Part of Schneider’s smart title, radical tradition, highlights both cooperatives’ persistence over the last couple of centuries for relevance as a community-owned, bottom-up solution to problems as well as current radicals and revolutionaries across the world disrupting conventional systems of modern life with this tried and true business model. Whether you are just starting to explore cooperatives’ core concepts of democratic governance, community-ownership and other guiding principles or an experienced cooperator looking for a fresh lens on the history and present state of cooperative action, this book is highly recommended. It serves up fresh, authentic, inspiring and entertaining dispatches from a thoughtful storyteller that is weaving a new cooperative tale.

Introduction

Schneider’s introduction, Equitable Pioneers, traces his newly discovered family roots in cooperation (his grandfather headed up a purchasing cooperative for hardware stores) and aligning it with his reporting and deep interest in the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. Schneider dispels the myth of that the new gig economy is a sharing economy, noting that there has been a sharing economy all along in the form of cooperatives. Schneider’s disillusionment of the lack of direct representation of communities at a conference of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) does not lead him to believing any less in the principles and values that the ICA promotes and stands for.

A thread Schneider diligently weaves throughout the book is started here, that there is a urgency today for “companies that are capable of seeing the world as people do”, but there is a long tradition of people using the cooperative model to create a more just economy and doing just that.

Chapter 1: All Things in Common: Prehistory

Schneider’s reporting leaps off with a juxtaposition of Gregorian chant and jazz. One wonders why and how he is going to tie these to cooperation. Schneider ties a very loose thread between these two forms of music with cooperation. He notes that they are both music of mutual accountability. He finds cooperation-like concepts in the bible and in human society centuries ago. Then briskly time-travels to 2014 for his on-the-ground reporting of the unMonastery experiment in the caves of Matera, Italy. The strongest analogy Schneider pulls from centuries ago is linking the cooperation, collectivism and the got-your-back-ism of cooperatives to the trade guilds that were prominent before the Industrial Revolution.

Chapter 2: The Lovely Principle: Formation

Schneider begins in the Great Depression with a quote from the cooperative scholar, James Peter Warbasse in 1936, “The years since 1929 have seen the greatest advancement of cooperation the country has ever seen.” On the side, this is also when purchasing cooperatives were gathering momentum and expanding to all parts of the US. Schneider then slides his timeline backwards to extract cooperative points of interest from the 1800s in the US, the well-known and successful boosters of the movement, the Rochdale Pioneers in England and many others.

Schneider continues a dizzying whirlwind of travel to Italy and Kenya to gather how others are finding “…faith in the lovely principle of Cooperation” (from a poster advertising a new cooperative store in Philadelphia). Something sitting right in front of our faces, Schneider digs up for us: Leland Stanford (of Stanford University) wrote in his initial endowment of the University that it was to promote the advantages of cooperation. Schneider notes that the university’s MBA programs are silent on this and that this is not upholding the wishes of the founder. Like many universities, including Stanford, cooperatives do come up in course material in the agricultural economics courses. It is no wonder that cooperative management education (outside of the agricultural sector) is relegated to specialized, university-level programs.

Chapter 3: The Clock of the World: Disruption

The chapter name comes from a conference quote by Grace Lee Boggs asking, “What time is it on the clock of the world?” Schneider notes that it is both a call for us all to see where we are and where we might go next. This was the motivation driving me to pick up this book in the first place, and maybe you too. What are cooperatives doing now and how are they retooling or forming for the future? In my mind, it has to go beyond Uber-ized versions that are cooperatives, though that is certainly part of it, a sentiment Schneider acknowledges and digs deeper for us.

It is glossy and sexy for us to read about disruption by life-changing apps and ways of connecting via the internet that it may find us yearning for more if we ourselves are not “disruptors”. If we are not disrupting, then maybe we are not as advanced or innovative as we thought? Schneider digs into the stakeholders of disruption and cautions not against disruption, but against wanton disruption for the sake of disruption without regard for the people in the being disrupted.

He also maps some examples of disruption across centuries, so our newly adulated tech CEOs cannot wholly own it. It is part of our human condition; a cycle of patterns deeper than any app could hope to be. While part of our human cycle, it is to be taken seriously and with heavy respect of its power to significantly change people’s lives.

Schneider reports on the messy yet forward-moving nature of cooperatives through anecdotes of Green Taxi (Colorado), a conference for the sharing economy, OuiShare (Paris), a diversified venture that’s not a co-op but acts like one, Enspiral (New Zealand) and back to Colorado for an intense, hands-on, heady report-out of the colliding of gentrification, politics and housing cooperatives.

Chapter 4: Gold Rush: Money

Schneider leads us to the concept of debt and how it is viewed by different schools of thought. He shows that some lenders use debt as a way to extract interest and power over others and how others use debt to help people; some by lending with favorable terms and other services while others borrow in order to invest in economic activities that lift others up in dignified, respectful ways. This leads into fascinating stories about alternative currencies like bitcoin, ethereum and their underlying technology, the blockchain. Often these stories are told from the tech press with little grounding in what it means. This is first time I have read about these topics from the standpoint of cooperatives and collective needs.

The chapter ends with the story of Enric Duran, a celebrity-like figure / outlaw in France & Spain that is helping to create and promote alternative communities, currencies and more. Like Occupy Wall Street, Duran’s work is coming from a very similar place of discontent with the way conventional institutions treat people. When you read about his projects, it evokes disbelief that any of it will ever work at all. According to Schneider’s reporting though, at least some of it is. I come from a background of cooperatives working well within the boundaries of the dominant economic systems and institutions so this chapter has been enlightening for me with its pragmatic stories coupled with the bold vision of the cooperators.

Chapter 5: Slow Computing: Platforms

This is the chapter where Schneider starts to bring the threads together to discuss platform cooperativism. The term platform cooperativism was coined by Trebor Scholz, a professor at the New School in New York City and in real life, Schneider helps to amplify not only the buzz word, but the value it could bring and how it would work. Even though the book up to this point highlights Schneider’s ability to travel far and wide digging for the facts and at times lending his authoritative voice to the story and becoming a participant, this chapter is when we see him pull out his toolbox and start to ponder: What can I do? How can I help? We see him wanting to push further; he wants to “bridge the gap” between the latent cooperatives around us and the “glittery tech startups that get all the fanfare”.

Schneider relates the growing conscientiousness about our food and where it comes from (such as, slow food) to a need for us to bring that same kind of awareness to our use of the internet, apps and other data systems; hence the chapter title, Slow Computing. He gives us an easy to digest overview of software licensing and other cultural products (like a video you upload to YouTube) and how it relates to the digital commons.

An accessible accounting of how venture capital works and why it is responsible for the platform capitalism we engage with every day (think Facebook, Google, etc.) illustrates how we are subservient to capital. It is common in cooperative literature that cooperatives aim to turn this around and make capital subservient to us and to serve people. A reaction here by some cooperators is that raising capital is a real and present challenge for cooperatives, and they are right. But Schneider counters that “knowing co-op history” makes him confident: “Finance gets figured out”. Here he notes that past cooperative movements have built cooperative banks, credit unions and mutual insurance. Schneider admits that co-ops were the “original crowdfunding”. But we need more. He is searching for a kind of crowdfunding (like GoFundMe and Kickstarter) but that retains the “co-ownership and mutual accountability” as you don’t own anything when you give money through these platforms. Raising capital remains a critical issue for cooperatives in need of creative solutions.

This chapter has great stories about the education that is needed to train up workers to be owners, the Associated Press and the #BuyTwitter campaign (an idea which Schneider originally proposed). Schneider proposed that Twitter should be sold to its users and transform into a cooperative.

Chapter 6: Free the Land: Power

Schneider gives an overview of electric cooperatives. He notes that though they are making inroads by adopting more and more renewable energy, they still lag behind the investor-owned firms. Schneider does a deep-dive into the evolution of electric cooperatives from their inception, being supported by liberal US Presidents to now being mostly conservative leaning organizations. His discussion of under-representation of non-whites on the boards of the cooperatives dovetails with the concept that they are part government agency, part non-profit and part cooperative.

The chapter on Power then turns to stories of cooperative healthcare initiatives and the role of politics in supporting (or not supporting) cooperatives in the US and Italy. In the heart of this chapter is an incredible story of Chokwe Lumumba and his son Chokwe Antar Lumumba, both served as mayors of Jackson, Mississippi. Broadly, the story follows the attempts by the elder Lumumba to develop cooperatives in the city of Jackson to help offset racial inequities and declines in the city’s economy, basic infrastructure and other quality of life amenities. This story’s characters have poignant and nuanced perspectives on the current state of cooperation, race, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Chapter 7: Phase Transition: Commonwealth

Schneider wraps up the final chapter with another cross-section of modern cooperators and thinkers and exploring the ramifications of the basic income (where everyone would receive a fixed annual income, say $20,000) and more. Schneider’s final thoughts makes the whole ride worth it.

Conclusion

Schneider’s reporting does not gloss over his cooperative examples as if they are perfect simply because they are cooperatives. He sees and reports the hope the participants imbue their projects with, some risking their livelihoods while ensuring a kind of pragmatic outlook on his subjects. At times, he notes his default viewpoint on things so that we are aware of how his point-of-view may be coloring the stories he tells.

At times Schneider will begin a story (or two) and it’s not clear where he is going with it in regards to cooperation. Sometimes the reading is dense with an academic style and references that may not be commonly known. It can walk the line of being too academic, too much of a firehose of anecdotes from across time and space. This balance though adds to the authoritativeness, the intrigue, the sense that these are dispatches from the field of cooperative action and can be entertaining and enlightening to read. The writing overall has an authenticity from an authoritative writer that cares about cooperation and about the well-being of people. He has a poetic handle of language and narrative to create this compelling case as to why and how cooperatives are shaping the next economy, and in fact have been for some time.

About the Reviewer

Brad Lynch has worked in cooperatives for 17 years and is deeply interested in building, developing, promoting and expanding cooperatives. He studied for his Masters of Management of Co-ops & Credit Unions from St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He currently works for a non-profit, and is serving on the boards of co-ops. A proud, native Iowan for most of his life, Brad now lives, works and plays in Portland, OR with his 11-year old basset-hound-mix, Wallace.