E.G. Nadeau, and David J. Thompson,
reviewed by Renate Hanauer
All you have to do is listen to the news and to people around you, read the newspapers or watch television and you will be overwhelmed by the fact that competition is one of the primary organizing principles of our society. The need for competition has been etched into people´s minds so deeply that they regard it as the natural order of things. The benefits of competition are extolled on the playing field and in the board room. Competition is hailed as the panacea that will cure society´s ills and help us prevail in the global market place. In the name of competition, workers are laid off, budgets are slashed, hospitals are privatized, corporations reap the benefits of corporate welfare, and CEO´s or sports celebrities among others receive fantastic pay packages while many workers are paid so little they cannot afford adequate food, housing or health care for themselves and their children. Competition is part and parcel of the hierarchical organization of our social institutions that instills in most of us a sense of real or presumed powerlessness in the work place and in society at large. The lack of control and hope people experience in their lives leads to the well-known indicators of social pathology like drug abuse, domestic violence and crime, to name a few. There is, however, another social organizing principle, largely hidden from our consciousness, that fosters participation in decision making and control over key aspects of our lives: cooperation. E.G. Nadeau and David Thompson write:
The words cooperation and community connote teamwork or partnership. Conflict and competition indicate an adversarial relationship. The authors believe that we would be healthier and happier as individuals and would function more effectively as a society if we treated one another primarily as partners rather than as adversaries.
Although cooperative action, both formal and informal, has a long history in this country dating back to colonial times, and while today 100 million Americans are members of cooperatives, the social and economic benefits of cooperative enterprises are largely known only to the initiated. Books like Cooperation Works! are very much needed to raise awareness that things can be done differently. Nadeau and Thompson present a sparkling kaleidoscope of cooperative ventures in twelve different areas of our society, among them agriculture, housing, finance, and utilities. They write about farmers who created value-added cooperatives such as the Dakota Growers Pasta Company, a strategy that helps family farmers make their farms more profitable, thus enabling them to stay in farming. Housing cooperatives can help low income people to realize their hopes of owning their own homes. They can also solve the housing problems of the elderly in urban or rural areas as some of the stories in the book demonstrate. Worker cooperatives can provide well-paying and secure jobs to people who might otherwise be on welfare. Cooperative Home Care Associates in the Bronx, for example, employs 300 home-care workers, providing them with job stability and decent wages in a traditionally low-wage sector of the economy. Most are African-American and Latino women; many of them are single mothers. A vital area for cooperative action is banking. The effect conventional banks often have on the low-income communities they serve is illustrated by an example from Central Brooklyn, a community with 700,000 mostly African-American residents. The African-American-owned Freedom National Bank collapsed in 1990 and closed down its two branches in Central Brooklyn. This may, however, have been a blessing in disguise for the community, for, as Nadeau and Thompson write, a study conducted in the 1980s showed that at the time a sum of $629 million was on deposit from the Central Brooklyn area. However, the research also showed that for every dollar on deposit, only one cent was being reinvested in the area. Shorn of the mother´s milk of capital, the community lacked a critical tool to succeed. In the wake of the demise of the Freedom National Bank, two young, highly skilled visionaries with ties to the community worked to help set up the Central Brooklyn Federal Credit Union -the first credit union chartered under the Clinton administration´s new Community Development Banking and Financial Institutions Act. In just three years, Central Brooklyn Federal Credit Union has become the largest minority-controlled community development credit union in the country. This inspiring volume is a treasure trove of such positive and hopeful stories about promising cooperative ventures. The authors use a broad definition of cooperative action. Whether the stories are about formally organized cooperatives or not, they all describe people working together as equal partners toward shared goals. The authors show that the only limit of putting cooperative action into practice is people´s inventiveness and vision. Cooperation can be successfully used in every imaginable situation. And, yet, Nadeau and Thompson ask, why isn´t there more cooperative action despite the convincing arguments in its favor? After all, it has been amply demonstrated that cooperation works! To address this dilemma, the authors have developed a five-part strategy designed to help increase cooperative action. In the authors´ view, the most important point is to think cooperatively. Indeed, cooperation often seems to come into play only after the normal working of the socio-economic system has failed to meet people´s most basic needs. Beginning to think cooperatively could go a long way towards turning things around. If we could all think cooperatively, our everyday actions would soon express cooperative rather than competitive values. This is a well-written, well-organized book. Each of twelve chapters covers successful examples of cooperation in a specific socio-economic area. The stories are followed by a list of resources on a particular topic. This makes the book a valuable tool for further exploration. An appendix provides a list of the 100 largest cooperatives in the USA. Cooperation Works! is an uplifting book and a pleasure to read.
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