Join 3,494 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The Co-op Wars
October 17, 2011 4:48 AM   Subscribe

"Think of 'co-ops' and you might conjure up images of bulk food stores and tie-dye wearing hippies. But in the 1970s, co-op wars raged in the Twin Cities, dividing communities and fracturing the young movement. In this documentary, producer Maria Almli interviews those who were there. Learn how the co-op wars began--when a secretive group in support of Marxist principles began retooling operations for the newly emerging hippie grocery stores--and how members found themselves in the midst of a car bombing and violent takeovers." A look at the heated, sometimes violent conflict over the direction of the co-op foods movement from Minneapolis/St. Paul's KFAI Radio.

Further reading:

The Minnesota Historical Society details the history of co-ops and the co-op wars through the story of Minneapolis' North Country Co-Op.

Craig Cox's book "Storefront Revolution" provides a history of the co-op wars.

Mary Rizzo's paper "Revolution in a Can" from the compilation "Eating in Eden: Food & American Utopias."
posted by punishinglemur (65 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite

 
Also: A wild look at the radical "Co-op Organization" that goes far beyond controversy over which type of bread to stock.

"On May 3rd, 1975, a group of 35 ultra-radicals from the CO armed themselves with metal pipes and stormed the People’s Warehouse, seizing the cash box, and savagely beating anyone who attempted to resist the incursion. This was a major offensive, as the People’s Warehouse served as the primary distribution center for most of the neighborhood co-ops. When a couple of hippies came by the Warehouse to heckle the CO, they were attacked with baseball bats.(6) One of the hippies was later treated for broken bones.

Not content with the People’s Warehouse, the Co-op Organization proceeded to occupy other Twin Cities food co-ops –all in the name of the working class. Among the CO’s stated goals were an to end worker control, greater discipline among co-op workers, accountability to a centralized leadership, an end to “hippie health food,” and a commitment to address real "working class concerns.(7) They did this by attacking other activists, both verbally and physically.

Now known officially as the “Mass Organization” (though everyone else continued to refer to them as the CO) the so-called “Stalinist” faction went on a rampage. Cashiers were assaulted at the Seward Co-op; Mill City Co-op was mobbed by Stalinists while Mill City workers and their supporters formed a human chain to protect the store; men in matching sunglasses lurked outside people’s homes; windows were broken, tires were slashed, and phone lines were cut. According to MinneapolisStar-Tribune, the CO “were believed to have a cache of weapons stored on the South Side of Minneapolis."(8) It’s a wonder that nobody was ever killed."
posted by punishinglemur at 5:06 AM on October 17, 2011 [6 favorites]


On the one hand it seems bad to laugh when people were getting hurt, but I can't help but crack up at the idea of militant co-op people. Normally the biggest risk at the co-op is having some intense guy back you into the soy section while telling you about toxins and colon cleanses. Thanks for putting this together.
posted by Forktine at 5:19 AM on October 17, 2011 [5 favorites]


Agents provocateurs, perhaps?

I'm sorry; I've just sort of started assuming that any acts of violence perpetrated by an ostensibly peaceful or left-wing organization are the actions of some law "enforcement" agency or another. The circumstantial evidence is good enough for me.
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:22 AM on October 17, 2011 [11 favorites]


A flippant remark but things could get pretty heated at the park slope co-op (in nyc, to not be too nyc-entric)....crowds plus strong beliefs can always lead to some strife.
posted by bquarters at 5:24 AM on October 17, 2011


Great links. This is pretty interesting and bleakly hilarious stuff. Reading about the Stalinist faction in the CO wars gives me just the right amount of headache. It's like the violent, real life version of the Onion article about the socialist apartment being a microcosm of why socialism doesn't work.

A flippant remark but things could get pretty heated at the park slope co-op (in nyc, to not be too nyc-entric)....crowds plus strong beliefs can always lead to some strife.

The Park Slope Co-Op has always seemed a pretty peaceable kingdom to me, but then again, I only work in the back. I bet if someone tried to push Gary Null supplements on me, though, I'd emit a piercing siren sound from my mouth.

It's interesting comparing the factions' concerns to the Park Slope Co-Op, though. It seems like they make an effort to bridge the gap between stereotypical hippie chow and more traditional diet fundamentals. That said, while they do sell chips, refined sugar, and white bread, they don't sell Doritos or Wonder Bread.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:39 AM on October 17, 2011


I've shopped at a couple of the coops in the area. They're nice, but they have way too few items, and prices that are way too high. I get the impression they only survive because we haven't had a major incursion by Whole Foods. I had no idea they're the product of all that drama in the 70s.
posted by miyabo at 5:55 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Great post, thanks - enjoyed the anecdote about 'tactical sexual relationships' at the end of the radio show. The last article looked good too, but unfortunately quite a few pages were absent from the preview available to me.
posted by Abiezer at 6:10 AM on October 17, 2011


Unfortunately a lot of coops in the Twin Cities have strayed from the original coop purpose of providing food at near-wholesale costs. Sure, I'm a member of one, and give a member number at the register and occasionally get special sale prices, buy my health food, and apparently get a reimbursement proportional to how much i've spent over the past year, but the "health food grocery store that you're a member of" is very different than, say, the People's Pantry, or even than the Park Slope Food Coop which I miss, and which actually did have very low prices and a sense of shared ownership.
posted by entropone at 6:12 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm reminded of a little remembered 80s comedy called Comfort and Joy, depicting a comically nasty turf war in Glasgow among ice cream trucks.
posted by 2N2222 at 6:12 AM on October 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


From the recording at about 1 minute: "It's hard to overstate the alienation young people felt from government, from corporate control, from conventional society."

What a difference a generation makes.

I've just sort of started assuming that any acts of violence perpetrated by an ostensibly peaceful or left-wing organization are the actions of some law "enforcement" agency or another.

Me too, but this just proves the point that there really aren't any more "left-wing" organizations. In the 60s and 70s violence from the left was part and parcel of the times. You had the Weather Underground in the US, the Italian Red Brigades, the German Red Army faction, the Bader Meinhof Gang. Only an idiot goes around today calling for the nationalization of industry or bombing businesses.

I guess stronger weed, weaker music, and voluntary military service was enough to put an end to it.
posted by three blind mice at 6:14 AM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


More proof that granola makes you crazy.
posted by jonmc at 6:15 AM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


I get the impression they only survive because we haven't had a major incursion by Whole Foods.

When I left Minneapolis in '99, there were something like a dozen active co-ops. Most of them have closed or converted to mini-Whole Foods (abandoning their original mission almost entirely), mostly because of an incursion by national chains (or so it seemed to me during the 90s). So you got your wish. I am pretty bitter about it*, which is weird, since I don't live there anymore, but, hey.

The violence was an aspect of the story, I hadn't heard about (although I knew people who might have been tempted by a "quiet talk" with the Wedge board).

*Including the North Country Coop, which was my favorite, because, to be a member, you had to give them labor as well as money, which seems to me part of what a co-op should be.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:16 AM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


As a coop member I continue to be amazed at the blend of counterculture, organic farming/local food, progressive principles, democratic membership, union busting management, high priced elitism, foodie capitalism that is my local co-op. The coops are definitely not Whole Foods and yet they struggle today with the same issues that beset the coop movement in the 1970's.

There was a murder at my coop this summer that was tied to an interpersonal dispute and poor impulse control but under the surface was also about the tension between profits and a collective approach to management.

My sense is that the coop movement has reflected societal divisions throughout its history and on some level will continue to be a focal point for ideological struggles.
posted by Xurando at 6:18 AM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I don't think this story is "lol food coops" but instead ":( where has the Left gone".
posted by DU at 6:19 AM on October 17, 2011


Nah, this wasn't agents provocateurs, it was radical infighting. I know people who were around during this period.

The co-ops themselves started as radical projects, something that gets really, really lost now because of Whole Foods and so on. The idea was that you would get together with people and make contacts with farmers and small distributors and then divide up the food without the extra costs of the middle man - and also build and deepen relationships among like-minded folks and farmers.

Maoists are poison. They've been poison in a lot of radical communities for a long time. It's not literally because of what they believe about Mao or marxism; it's because the Maoist organizations in the US have a whole ideology of running front groups, taking things over and creating strategic relationships to gain power. (This does not change the fact that some Maoists I know are actually very kind and loyal people in a personal capacity.)

And not only are Maoists poison, but whenever you run a large, successful radical thing you get controlling jackasses coming around. I've seen that already with OccupyMinnesota. And some of these people are profoundly stupid - so stupid that they assume that they know better than anyone who's been doing activist stuff for years, knows the territory, has skills at talking to people, etc. And then they bully the naive into going along with their dumb ideas - so that new people who might have awesome new ideas that neither the jackasses nor the old radicals had ever thought of never even get a chance to speak. I feel pretty confident that this type of controlling person was a big factor in the co-op wars.

There was also a fashion for violent confrontation on the left at that time. If I could write the book for activists and didn't think it would just turn into a tool for reactionaries, I'd love to write a book about activist intellectual fashions and how they work.

It's so funny - the bankers and the cops and corporate types and union busting organizers perpetrate huge, ongoing social violence that really hurts large numbers of people and very few people assume that this means that whoa, capitalism and the police and anti-union actions are bad things, but let a few hippies do something silly in the 1970s in which a couple of actual participants get hurt, and it disproves the whole co-op model plus all radical projects everywhere.

(Not that I support beating people up - but I'd damn sure rather get beaten up by hippies (who have all kinds of incentives not to actually kill me) than by cops, who are not accountable at all.)
posted by Frowner at 6:29 AM on October 17, 2011 [28 favorites]


(Oh, maybe hippies will actually kill me, I see from Xurando's comment...)
posted by Frowner at 6:31 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Agents provocateurs, perhaps?

Perhaps:
Others think that Smith [the man behind the curtain at CO] may have actually been working for COINTELPRO, the FBI’s domestic surveillance program, and that this explains why he never went to prison. Such speculation is not just paranoia: there have been other, well-documented instances of FBI provocateurs infiltrating Twin Cities activist groups, most notably longtime FBI-informant Michael Fitzpatrick (see: Chapter Nine). Whether Theo Smith was actually working for the government, or was simply a lone troublemaker, may never be known.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:32 AM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


What an amazing story. I love stuff like this.
posted by empath at 6:42 AM on October 17, 2011


And not only are Maoists poison, but whenever you run a large, successful radical thing you get controlling jackasses coming around. I've seen that already with OccupyMinnesota.

This is important, not so much for the Maoists, though I'm not a fan, but for how things get poisoned. I'm not much of an activist, but I can be moved to action just like anyone else. But without fail when I go to protests or think about joining a movement, the yo-yo's come out of the woodwork, and that just turns me off so much.
posted by jonmc at 6:46 AM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yeah, great story, thanks.

My sense is that the coop movement has reflected societal divisions throughout its history and on some level will continue to be a focal point for ideological struggles.

A case to illustrate this point was conflict at the 2007 Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy.
Plenary Panel Discussion of Racism Results in Conflict
During a request for feedback/critique of the conference, the plenary panel which addressed organizing in the South was criticized by a few people as "negative" and "depressing." Others felt these criticisms indicated intolerance and a desire to dismiss history. Some members saw this exchange as a reason to do more work around diversity and inclusion, especially at the national level.
It's written sort of politely there, but the emotions a around "whose cooperative movement?" are still high, just not around the Leninist/anarchist axis and more around race and immigration. Not a waning of left politics, in my opinion.

The part that does tickle me to imagine the Twin Cities Co-op Wars is the invisible stakeholder in the turf battles, the customer, trying to shop as a store was being occupied by rival factions. Got to think sales dropped pretty fast.
posted by ioesf at 6:55 AM on October 17, 2011


My whole street's belief in Sunday's roast beef got dashed against a co-op once.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:55 AM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


But without fail when I go to protests or think about joining a movement, the yo-yo's come out of the woodwork, and that just turns me off so much.

Of course, this is true for everything. I would say that, in the vast majority of committee work I do (as part of my job, with fairly specific goals), maybe 25% of the committee is working whole-heartedly on getting the thing done, 25% is willing to assist in a minimal way, 25% either is trying to push an unrelated agenda or is too busy checking their email to pay attention, and 25% is either out to lunch or running amok. Now, in a diffuse volunteer organization an order of magnitude or two larger, what do you expect?
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:58 AM on October 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


Now, in a diffuse volunteer organization an order of magnitude or two larger, what do you expect?

I dunno, focus?
posted by jonmc at 7:03 AM on October 17, 2011


This is important, not so much for the Maoists, though I'm not a fan, but for how things get poisoned. I'm not much of an activist, but I can be moved to action just like anyone else. But without fail when I go to protests or think about joining a movement, the yo-yo's come out of the woodwork, and that just turns me off so much.

I've been thinking about this a lot. Here's the challenge:

1. If you have a large, heterogenous group, the group needs both time and goodwill to evolve strategies that aren't fucked up. Especially if they're starting from scratch with people who haven't done this type of work before. Time is usually in short supply, and people of goodwill can easily be trampled (or swayed) by controlling/creepy/racist loudmouths. It's particularly frustrating to me to see how many Occupies seem to have ignored the concerns of people of color - and I can't help but think that this is in part about the jackasses.

2. There are a lot of good, solid movement people who are really tired right now. We think about going down to these things and trying to facilitate huge meetings, defuse the jackasses and try to provide our experience without being controlling - while still keeping our existing projects going AND trying to examine our own behavior so that we're not perpetuating racism, etc....and OMG, it's so tiring. Some folks have gotten involved in the Occupies, some folks just can't face it. These times - there is so much need out there right now that even the dumbest, tiniest radical projects are slammed. And there are new people and new projects going on because of those needs.

The dudebros at our local Occupy - jesus, it's frustrating, they're big jocky jerks who are trying to tell everyone what to do and being really aggressive and pushy - and godawful patronizing, which doesn't matter so much for me because they can patronize me all you want and I've still got more activist experience than they do, but people who are new shouldn't be patronized and treated badly by these jerks.
posted by Frowner at 7:04 AM on October 17, 2011 [7 favorites]


The dudebros at our local Occupy - jesus, it's frustrating, they're big jocky jerks who are trying to tell everyone what to do and being really aggressive and pushy - and godawful patronizing, which doesn't matter so much for me because they can patronize me all you want and I've still got more activist experience than they do, but people who are new shouldn't be patronized and treated badly by these jerks.

It's kind of depressing that people on the left seem to be more interested in process than actually getting stuff done. Obviously things aren't desperate enough for a real change, because people are willing to blow something like this off because you don't like someone's attitude.
posted by empath at 7:12 AM on October 17, 2011


The dudebros at our local Occupy - jesus, it's frustrating, they're big jocky jerks who are trying to tell everyone what to do and being really aggressive and pushy

It's not even the jocky types who bug me, in a weird way they can help change the 'dirty hippie' image of protestors, and hell, I follow sports, too, it's ANSWER types and that ilk who drive me away since I don't want to be associated with them. The Our-President-Is-an-invader-from the-9th-Dimension types and the various "Oh, look, a TV Camera" rubberneckers, don't help much either.
posted by jonmc at 7:12 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's kind of depressing that people on the left seem to be more interested in process than actually getting stuff done. Obviously things aren't desperate enough for a real change, because people are willing to blow something like this off because you don't like someone's attitude.

Look, understand that "people on the left" are mostly doing all the things that regular Americans do - working, taking care of their kids, getting groceries, paying bills, seeing family, trying to get some exercise sometimes, etc, and we're also putting in extra unpaid labor to run childcare exchanges, voter registration drives, community centers...and to do the other thousand things, organizing book clubs, volunteering in-community projects like activist book stores and meeting spaces, etc etc. My week? My week has at a minimum an extra eight hours of activist stuff over and above job and house and so on, and usually quite a bit more. And I'm actually a bit of a lightweight. Everyone I know right now is so fucking slammed.

And know too that those of us who have been part of many, many "processes" over the years have seen that you can't separate a fucked up process from fucked up results. If you silence the people of color in your organization, your organization will not do work that succeeds against racism, which means that it will leave out a huge chunk of the working class and be a much weaker movement. If your "process" is dominated by loudmouths and assholes, not only will you not hear the needs and concerns of others but you'll also miss out on complex discussion and ideas from quieter people. In some ways, it's just like a classroom - if the mouthy people talk all the time, the discussion is much dumber and more alienating than when the teacher helps keep a balance. Bad process gives bad results in the long term - whether it's white unions shutting out workers of color, or white women activists pressing for white women to get the vote while ignoring black folks.

We would be stronger, so much stronger, if we had taken the time to figure out how to be a united working class instead of shouting about how united we were and ignoring the reality. You build on sand and your house falls down.
posted by Frowner at 7:21 AM on October 17, 2011 [17 favorites]


The part that does tickle me to imagine the Twin Cities Co-op Wars is the invisible stakeholder in the turf battles, the customer, trying to shop as a store was being occupied by rival factions. Got to think sales dropped pretty fast.

That seems to be what happened (same source as my last comment):
“What tended to happen in those situations,” says Cox, “is that [the CO] would come, and they would take over, and then no one would shop there anymore. They would just go to a different store! I remember, they took over Powderhorn, which is this itty bitty little store! And the people who were volunteering there just said ‘OK’ –and they left. So there were CO cadre sitting at Powderhorn, and nobody came to shop!”

The end result was a series of failed businesses where once there had been a network of thriving community co-ops. In the case of Powderhorn, the CO simply shut it down.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:26 AM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


Now, in a diffuse volunteer organization an order of magnitude or two larger, what do you expect?

I dunno, focus?


Why would you expect focus? I can't expect focus from 100% of my colleagues, and we are all theoretically committed, paid, and selected by fairly rigorous standards. Why would you expect more for a "diffuse volunteer organization?" I suspect the tension between consensus and hierarchy has some roll to play, too, but I am not sure what that is at the moment.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:29 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just to throw this in: unlike a significant part of the right, most shades of leftist movements tend not to have the authoritarian reflex of falling in behind the leadership structure once one emerges, and subsuming ones own qualms to whatever direction the leadership structure has chosen. I think because the right has this tendency, they always have an automatic organizational advantage.

Perhaps Stalinist types also share this reflex, and therefore are capable of punching well above their weight.
posted by tempythethird at 7:35 AM on October 17, 2011 [7 favorites]


I have no opinion either way as to whether CO leadership was bought and paid for by COINTELPRO. The thing that gets me about blaming agents provocateurs for violence is that, when you really think about it, the allegiance of the instigator is ultimately irrelevant.

What was offensive about the CO's actions was that they were beating people with pipes, overriding the democratic process, and killing the co-op by driving away both participants/customers. Whether the shitty "storm the produce section!" plot was originally started in order to discredit the CO, or it was simply the result of self-styled radicals trying to out-radical one another, it was still a dangerous and idiotic idea.

To draw a silly comparison, it's as if you were tempted to rob a bodega. It's irrelevant whether you regard your urge to rob the bodega as being either an idea of your own making or the idea of a devil-version-of-you floating above your shoulder. It doesn't matter whether the influence is from within or without: robbing a bodega is wrong in and of itself.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:36 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


"...a microcosm of why socialism doesn't work."

Look, I know you're referring to an Onion article, but I don't think this is about Socialism not working. If anything, it's about people with very strong (and sometimes wrong) opinions not getting along.

Just as a counter example, we have several large-scale coops here in Alberta (hardly a bastion of left-wing anything) that have worked just fine for years and years. I don't see either Mountain Equipment Coop (Canada) or Calgary Coop descending into the pit of Maoist/Stalinist/Bolshevik/whatever infighting and destruction anytime soon. Add to that the dozens of housing coops that have existed here since the 70's.

I'd be willing to bet that the major difference is that functioning, stable coops are run by open-minded business people, and not by ideologues. (I do know one self-described Communist who's on the board of a housing Coop, but since he makes his living as a real estate agent I'm not sure he's so committed to the ideology any more. But old hippies gotta eat...)
posted by sneebler at 7:39 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Look, I know you're referring to an Onion article, but I don't think this is about Socialism not working. If anything, it's about people with very strong (and sometimes wrong) opinions not getting along.

I'm sorry, I should have been more clear. I wasn't mocking socialism. I was mocking the CO's Stalinism, especially when it came to smashing people and property and trying to foist a dictatorship of the proletariat on the cereal aisle. They tried to be the violent vanguard of a food co-op that didn't want to deal with their garbage. The end result wound up being like a sped-up version of the lurch and fall of the Soviet satellite states.

I have absolutely nothing against self-directed co-ops with socialist ideals.

Just to throw this in: unlike a significant part of the right, most shades of leftist movements tend not to have the authoritarian reflex of falling in behind the leadership structure once one emerges, and subsuming ones own qualms to whatever direction the leadership structure has chosen. I think because the right has this tendency, they always have an automatic organizational advantage.

Perhaps Stalinist types also share this reflex, and therefore are capable of punching well above their weight.


Stalinism is pretty damned authoritarian. I suspect the influence of Stalin.

In America, Stalinism hasn't punched above a toddler's weight for a very long time. Even in the Co-op Wars, all they succeeded in accomplishing was some short-lived chaos. Any idiot with a pipe can beat with a pipe; any idiot with a car bomb can bomb a car. What would have been impressive was lasting change of the sort they had wanted. Instead, they utterly discredited themselves.

I also note that the CO's Stalinist faction didn't just set up their own co-op and try to run it their way. They instead tried to take over what was already a divided co-op. Their organisation was purely reactive and parasitic. Their attempt to overthrow the hippies in order to create the material conditions necessary for the rise of the cereal aisle proletariat was ultimately silly. They may have had some isolated good points about how organic hippie chow is often a middle class intellectual marker whereas the working class have different traditions with regard to food, but on the whole, they were a microcosm of why Stalinism failed.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:50 AM on October 17, 2011 [7 favorites]


Perhaps Stalinist types also share this reflex, and therefore are capable of punching well above their weight.

The iron pipes came in handy too!
posted by Abiezer at 7:57 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


cereal aisle proletariat

led by Komissar Krunch?
posted by jonmc at 8:00 AM on October 17, 2011 [8 favorites]


Dictatorship of the dairy counter.
posted by Abiezer at 8:02 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Warsaw Packed Sardines
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:04 AM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


(oddly enough, the other day at work, I was shelving in the Military History section and toyed with the idea of a Nazi breakfast place called Luftwaffles!. They're fascist about flavor!)
posted by jonmc at 8:05 AM on October 17, 2011 [12 favorites]


Well, they might not have accomplished their goals, but considering their probably tiny numbers and even smaller collective IQ, the fact that they managed to disrupt so many good things and have all of us here discussing them how many decades later, I would call that punching (pipe swinging?) above their weight.
posted by tempythethird at 8:15 AM on October 17, 2011


O.K. All snark aside and I love good snark! COINTELPRPO was real. So were Stalinists in Minneapolis. My mom grew up near Powderhorn Park during The Great Depression. She told me rather a lot about the Stalinists. I bet the Stalinists took government money to start using the lead pipes. COINTELPRO let's them have fun bashing the nascent Hippy infrastructure, then they do stuff to neutralize the Stalinists. Everybody but COINTELPRO loses.
That doesn't mean the Stalinists weren't real. They were the most cynical, violent and pernicious form of Communists, except for the Maoists. All this was real and life-threatening back in The Day.

I have not been to even the local Occupy stuff, because frankly, anyone who can't run away should
not go to demonstrations. I think people who take little children to demonstrations are stupid. My whole family did go to some demonstrations, but we knew the city very well, we were capable of getting away quickly if need be.
We knew why we were going.

I am basically FOR what most of the Occupy movement stands for. It's just that in America no great cause escapes being turned into a racket.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:22 AM on October 17, 2011 [6 favorites]


Co-ops aren't necessarily left-wing or anti-capitalist.

The biggest and best-established co-ops in the country are associations of growers and ranchers who are very much organized for maximization of their business profit.

Despite their (typically) left-wing rhetoric, retail co-ops are purely capitalist: accumulate and deploy capital in order to maximize the quality and minimize the price of whatever it is the retail co-op sells. The thing that some people like to feel is distinctively leftist about co-ops (mandatory work shifts) is actually its most ingeniously capitalist: transform members' under-used or unused labor capacity into high-return-on-asset working capital for the organization.
posted by MattD at 8:25 AM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


I need to ask my mom about this! My family moved to St. Paul in 1971, when I was 3, and throughout the 70s, my parents were members of at least two St. Paul co-ops. I remember going to help them with their shifts - wrapping cheese, shelving honey. My favorite was being allowed to run the machine that made peanut butter. But if my parents were aware of these wars, it certainly didn't trickle down to my level.

We also had a large vegetable garden, canned lots of food, and were not allowed to eat terrible packaged food like sugary breakfast cereals. Mmm, years of carrot and zucchini cookies in my brown bag lunch. I didn't eat a school lunch until high school, when we moved to Arizona, and my parents had left behind all remnants of their idealistic youth.

A co-op is also where I learned the first of life's Big Lies. Carob is not, in fact, just like chocolate.
posted by Squeak Attack at 8:28 AM on October 17, 2011 [10 favorites]


A co-op is also where I learned the first of life's Big Lies. Carob is not, in fact, just like chocolate.

I had a similar experience. Oddly, it was at a mall in the late 70's.
posted by jonmc at 8:32 AM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have to join in the groovy love-fest for this post, particularly because I lived in the upper Midwest during the mid-seventies and had no idea that this stuff was going on in the Twin Cities, even though I was aware of other radical goings on (mostly the stuff with the SLA and Patty Hearst's kidnapping and the assassination attempts on Ford, of course). Of course, I was a kid then, and most of my exposure to what was left of the counterculture came in the form of Free to Be... You and Me-type stuff and teachers and others who hadn't lost all of their idealism yet; my small town didn't have a co-op, as far as I know.

Also, I have to comment on this:

COINTELPRO let's them have fun bashing the nascent Hippy infrastructure, then they do stuff to neutralize the Stalinists

Um, are they really in need of neutralizing? If I were COINTELPRO, I'd keep them around to destroy or discredit any nascent progressive movement that pops up. *looks meaningfully in the general direction of OWS*
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:34 AM on October 17, 2011


One of those fake-ass new style co-op-lite places is opening near me. There's a pretty scathing takedown of iit and the whole phony health-food-store-with-membership-benefits style of co-op over at NOLA Anarcha. It's pretty goddamn ruthless and on-point in ways that I hadn't even realized before I read it.

I give you: The Mall on St. Claude.
posted by Scientist at 8:45 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ugh. The existence of Maoists and Stalinists always depresses me. It's like a whole section of the left never heard of the idea that the enemy of your enemy is not always your friend.
posted by kmz at 8:50 AM on October 17, 2011 [5 favorites]


...most shades of leftist movements tend not to have the authoritarian reflex of falling in behind the leadership structure once one emerges...

Well I think a lot of it's about money. If an organization is founded by one rich guy, he can set it up whatever way he wants: as a committee using Robert's Rules, as a dictatorship, as a corporation with managers and peons.... If an organization is founded by a bunch of non-rich people, they're all pretty much equal and can end up fighting endlessly about the how to best accomplish their goals.

Grocery stores don't have huge public fights over how they will operate; whoever controls the money just decides. The same goes for large conservative organizations.
posted by miyabo at 9:05 AM on October 17, 2011


The biggest and best-established co-ops in the country are associations of growers and ranchers

Your units aren't stated (most members? net income? acres?) but regardless this is probably not true. The greatest number of incorporated cooperatives probably comes from the housing sector, while the greatest number of jobs and revenue probably comes from the credit union sector. Biggest sky, I concede, probably ranchers. See: UWCC Economic Impacts of Cooperatives, 2009

organized for maximization of their business profit

Economists in the field would make a distinction between "profit" and maximizing benefit to the members, even if the benefit is primarily financial return, though I know what you mean. Wanting to create locally controlled wealth can certainly can certainly be motivated by conservative or liberal values.
posted by ioesf at 9:26 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wanting to create locally controlled wealth can certainly can certainly be motivated by conservative or liberal values.

Stalinism/Maoism/any form of neo-Marxist totalitarianism is not "liberal", except in the pejorative sense used by right-wing talk radio blowhards.
posted by acb at 10:05 AM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Co-ops aren't necessarily left-wing or anti-capitalist.

OK, let's be clear, this thread (as far as I can tell) is pretty much about food co-ops as they developed in the late 60s/early 70s. There are plenty of other co-ops (I once heard that food co-ops in Minneapolis originally couldn't be called co-ops because that term was legally reserved for farming co-ops (which would, among other things, share the cost of large equipment)). So saying "look at this farming co-op; it's not left-wing" is pretty much entirely beside the point. Almost all food co-ops, which is what we are describing, are left-wing (or, possibly, derive from a left-wing model).

Whew. That aside, I agree with what I take to be your point -- that a co-op of any sort is a business and, regardless of ideology, needs to operate as a business. I am extremely critical of the large number of small businesses that are started by people who have a passion for comics or knitting or Moroccan food or whatever; what they need to have a passion for is running a small business. Otherwise, they will in short (or somewhat longer for the lucky or well-heeled) be dealing with closing a business.

This applies to left-wing/progressive/mission-driven commercial enterprises as well. You can sell items selected by your ideology; you can target sales to people who share your ideology; you can construct your internal organization according to your ideology -- all of these are fine and even noble things. What you cannot do is not run a business. You need to stock products that people will buy for a price they can afford; you need to pay bills, including whatever taxes and fees the government levies; you need to know the regulations that cover your business and adhere to them; you need to market your products to your core audience (and beyond; this is how you build a customer base); you need to have accurate and consistant record-keeping; you need to remember, always and every day, that the purity of your mission does not guarantee you customers, like it or not, you are in competition for peoples' resources (money, yes, but also attention, time, volunteerism, etc).

Forgetting that means that you, like those small business owners, are likely to be eventually looking at a "going out of business sale" sign, and the Revolution does not need that. So be committed and driven by principle, but understand that you are part of a market which requires certain activities.

At least comic-store-owners-with-poor-grasp-of-business-best-practices don't usually have to deal with club-wielding Stalinists, I suppose.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:16 AM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


Co-ops aren't necessarily left-wing or anti-capitalist.

I'm not sure what the demarcation line is for determining what is or is not a co-op (is over a certain size not?), and I'm not sure that every enterprise set up co-operatively uses its members' labour capacity*, but one principle behind them surely is local control and retention of capital - keep the members' money flowing within the community, and not out to the offshore accounts of some corporation. So perhaps "local capitalist" is one term you could use.

(*My maternal grandfather, a classic small-town New England Yankee Republican (you don't see many of those any more - the Rejecticans who elected Scott Brown to the Senate are mostly a suburban I-Got-Mine bunch) became the president of a tiny co-operative bank in western Massachusetts during the Depression and did his best to keep it from going under (and succeeded.) This was pre-FDIC, etc. It served only its local merchant community and anyone else local who wanted to have an account there. I can't imagine that merchants took turns being accountants in the back, but the "co-op" aspect was probably a stipulation in its charter that its purpose was to lend to local small businesses, who would benefit from their deposits not going to some big regional bank in Boston or further afield, and from better rates. It wasn't exactly a credit union, but close.)

I belonged to the Boston Food Co-op during my college years there, and it was long on efficiency translated into good prices on a large variety of foods, and short on ideology, though the founders were lefty types who'd stuck around Boston after their radical 60's college years. Several hours a month was a deal, considering the savings we all got. In unfavourable contrast, a few years later I worked for a little while at Bread & Circus (much later absorbed by Whole Foods), where the owners would show up in their white Mercedes once in a while, set up some yuppie-oriented special promotion in the aisles, and shrug if anyone brought up the fact that we had no health plan. (I wouldn't expect a co-op to offer insurance benefits to its member-workers, though perhaps they could work that out too, but a for-profit business, in the 80's?) I could afford only a few things there.
posted by Philofacts at 10:43 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


empath: "
It's kind of depressing that people on the left seem to be more interested in process than actually getting stuff done. Obviously things aren't desperate enough for a real change, because people are willing to blow something like this off because you don't like someone's attitude.
"

I have a friend who said it was frustrating in Toronto because all the noobs were out there and saw the human megaphone in NYC (because, you know, they weren't allowed to use a megaphone), and decided to adopt it as a tactic, even though in Toronto, they were completely allowed to have one. To the point where one guy HAD a megaphone and when it was his turn to speak they forced him to not use it.

WTF? *sigh*
posted by symbioid at 10:51 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wait- Marxists principles lead to "car bombing and violent takeovers." Who knew?
posted by TSOL at 10:55 AM on October 17, 2011


This is pretty interesting stuff, with the anarchism versus authoritarian communism, and my own experiences working at a food co-op and growing up in a housing co-op.

I eventually got elected to the board of the housing co-op, largely on the strength of a radical voting bloc (who were opposed, generally, by minority blocs) and served three years. We had a fairly well delineated leadership structure, and basically I was a huge disappointment to the radical bloc because I'm not really a radical when it comes to administration. I saw myself as one of the few voices of reason and really just worked to be, ironically, conservative in planning and liberal in terms of membership. I realize that it sounds arrogant, but as one of the few college educated folks on the board, and certainly the only one who had any experience in parliamentary procedure (which the board was nominally governed by as per the bylaws), I just wanted to put a brake on the sort of stupid time-wasting that the board would talk itself into while avoiding larger looming problems, and also speak as a voice for the membership being able to largely be left alone and trusted. As long as someone didn't violate HUD rules or negatively impact the property of another member, I didn't have a problem with, say, them painting their door any color they wanted or letting them plant whatever they wanted (except pot) in their yards.

(I actually had one of the other board members argue that we shouldn't let people paint their own doors because, "What if someone paints a target on their door and someone shoots it? We'd be liable!")

But the radical bloc wanted things like reincorporating the entire coop as a land trust, and essentially taking away members' equity in order to force the co-op to only support low-income new members in the future. I recognized that first, that would be a mistake in that it would decrease the flexibility of the co-op to respond to future challenges (if they ever got the other morons off the board) and second, that the radicals didn't understand that the predominantly minority population looked at the co-op as a way that they had moved out of the lower class and into, at least, the lower-middle class. The equity that they had amassed was an important part of their lives, and even as it was uniformly distributed through shares, it was more important to balance the need to allow more low-income people to have that transition to stability and prosperity with following through with that promise for the people we already had. Self-abnegation was antithetical to the long-term success of the co-op.

As it stands now, the co-op board hasn't fulfilled its obligation to rewrite the by-laws; the by-laws as they exist are heavily predicated upon a mortgage that the co-op paid off in 2010. I am worried that as the board dies off (even when my father got elected to the same seat I held, he was the youngest member by at least ten years) that the co-op will be ripe for a take-over from short-sighted members looking for short-term gain, of which there are many in the co-op. But at least it's unlikely to be seized by Stalinists.

When I worked at the People's Food Co-op, I was amazed by the turnover. By the time I had been there a week, I was promoted to supervisor, largely because I hadn't been fired in a week. The model was simply set up to churn through college labor, pay them shit wages and work them shit hours, while preserving the middle-class lives of a cadre of employees that had been accepted as inner circle. I've worked a lot of places, and I don't think I've ever seen such useless or actively detrimental management, aside from maybe at LFP. While they paid people on the floor barely a dollar over minimum wage, they paid (about a decade ago) a four-hour-a-week "outreach director" a salary of $30,000 per year. Her main duty seemed to be organizing a weekly drum circle and running the xerox in the basement. The management had four or five such positions, part time work paid full time money, while maintaining at-will agreements that were worse than what was available at Kroger for all their floor staff. A notable distinction that didn't dawn on me until later was that Kroger is unionized; labor organization was a no-go there, and basically set you up for an endless series of discussions about how your work was so valuable that they just couldn't pay for it — something I've seen similarly exploited in canvassing work. I remember being promised health insurance within a month of assuming my new position; three months in, I was still being dicked around as new thresholds in cumulative hours worked (I'd been there full time) were applied each time I passed the previous number (like Yossarian flying missions).

The management at the PFC was essentially a cu-de-sac for those adept in identity politics and with gender-free wardrobes full of flowing gowns. My direct boss didn't have any more experience than I had, having only been hired a week or so before me. She was fired about a month after she fired me, as part of a walk-out that secured all the workers a dollar raise and most of the full-timers health insurance. I feel a little bit good in knowing that my getting fired helped secure her ouster and more benefits, but the generally inept management (who had shuttered two sister stores during that six month period) remained. The store seems to be doing better now, but they're still perpetually hiring, and I wouldn't be surprised if their board of directors still has no real ability to change anything in the day-to-day operation, which basically ignores the high-minded nonsense that they dish out. I mean, seriously, it's fine to support an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but do you think the Likud is going to say, "We knew we had to change when the People's Food Co-op condemned us. That was the end."
posted by klangklangston at 11:16 AM on October 17, 2011 [11 favorites]


"Wait- Marxists principles lead to "car bombing and violent takeovers." Who knew?"

Likewise, the tenets of Adam Smith and liberal capitalism! And I'd wager that there are far more deaths and violence attributable to, say, the capitalist impulse that animates the drug trade, than to even committed Marxists, who only rarely find themselves using force, at least since LaRouche left their cadre.
posted by klangklangston at 12:33 PM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


klangklangston, as a former shop steward myself, the irony of co-op management weaselling out of any suggestion of union organizing is particularly galling.* I suppose it's another case of power (and its lure of relatively easy money and insulation against having to actually learn how to run a business), however provincial it might be, corrupting. All the more reason to organize it around anarchist principles & procedures with great transparency. The kind of abuse we associate with state power can have its roots in even very small organizations with apparently small stakes. At the university here where I recently got my philosophy BA, the Student Union was until last year (a successful electoral revolution, led, I'm proud to say, by philosophy students) an example of this, with vast sums (for a university SU: six figures) unaccounted for, and an arrogant little twerp of a president who had a Godfather poster on the wall behind his desk. (I remember thinking, this guy will be a rising star in Ottawa in either the Liberal or Conservative party in ten years, whichever he thinks will work faster.)

(My own union negotiating experience also was fraught with irony: it was at a small bank that had been created out of the ashes of a failed S & L (as in Charles Keating's late 80's shenanigans), founded by an influx of funds from a carpenter's union. It had the word "Labor" in its name in its new incarnation, but that didn't stop the assholes sitting across from me and the union rep (OPEIU Local #29, Oakland, CA), guys who probably hadn't swung a hammer in 30 years, from stonewalling us on our modest demands, using logical fallacies straight out of any greedy MBA's rhetorical toolkit. These old union guys had become just the kind of capitalist pigs with whom they, or at least their predecessors, had once negotiated.)
posted by Philofacts at 12:43 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


"the tenets of Adam Smith" have been taken (by generations of liberal & neoliberal ideologues of varying degrees of extremism, including the Friedmanites whose agenda Naomi Klein has described in great detail in "The Shock Doctrine", a book everyone should read) out of a larger context of social responsibility on which Smith wrote extensively (e.g., "The Theory of Moral Sentiments"), influenced by his friend David Hume. Cherry-picking quotes is an ancient capitalist ideological art. Smith was most probably naïve, but he did not advocate the kind of rapaciousness practiced by those who have conveniently quote-mined his "Wealth of Nations".
posted by Philofacts at 12:58 PM on October 17, 2011


Ah, I'm just gonna tell this story. I lived in a co-op house in college for a couple of years. Long story, but I wasn't particularly committed to the principles, it just made sense for me as a living situation. The house ran on formal rules of cooperative governance, and tried to do most of our business with other cooperatives, etc. Mostly it was a bunch of hippies, for sure, but most of us went on to do pretty interesting things, so it wasn't a slacker scene by any means.

Anyway, you can take this stuff too far. This house had somehow acquired a very large and handsome stray tomcat as a guest who became a resident, one of those black and white mustache cats, with a sort of flat face and a very loving temperament around humans, whom we named "Sid." Sid was a welcome presence, as the house had mice and he did a fine job on them. Sid, however, was also an unneutered tomcat. He had a magnificent huge pair of cat balls and a habit of doing what tomcats do on his night time rambles.

Pretty soon, those of us who were observant about such things started noticing little Sids around the neighborhood. My girlfriend (who lived in the co-op with me, like I said, long story) and I were both animal people, and she was really into cats. We decided that Sid needed to be neutered and we proposed this at the next co-op meeting, which were held every week and tended to go on interminably into the wee hours as we debated whether or not the person on baking duty would be permitted to sometimes make a few loaves of white bread (hey, that was me, and I won because I made damn good white bread and people were really tired of unrisen spelt/pumpernickel bricks for breakfast).

This coop worked on the consensus model of governance. We could not advance any change in rules or policy unless everyone agreed to it, or agreed to disagree but consent anyway. The bread debate, as I recall, took 3 hours. It was like a death penalty jury room.

But neutering the house tomcat, how complicated or controversial could that be, right?

Wrong.

One, solitary member of the house, out of over 25 (it was actually two really big houses), held out that Sid was such an exceptional and wonderful cat that it would be wrong to deprive the cat gene pool of his contributions in the future, and anyway we would be mutilating a defenseless animal. Thinking back on it, this guy was always crazy, but he stood his ground and the rules were the rules.

We tabled the debate for the night at some point, meaning most likely Sid would remain the baby daddy of the neighborhood feline set indefinitely.

The next day my girlfriend and I just scooped Sid up, drove him to the vet's office, and had him neutered. We brought him back and let him recover in our room for a couple of days, during which the house was convinced he had come to no good end, and Mr. Gene Pool maintained he'd left for fear of being mutilated.

Eventually, we let Sid out of the room surreptitiously and he reappeared on the porch as if by magic, having been neutered, with no one knowing how or why it had happened. I've carried the secret with me to this day.
posted by spitbull at 1:59 PM on October 17, 2011 [21 favorites]


I live in St. Paul and our local co-op is the Mississippi Market (pronounced "Mrs. Hippie Market").
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:05 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


spitbull: That's an excellent example of 'consensus with autonomous action.' Autonomous action is actually a kind of important part of the anarchist tool set, and it's understood that it can have pretty gnarly consequences, like, say, getting voted off the island.
posted by kaibutsu at 4:03 PM on October 17, 2011


We actually expressed the democratic will of the majority with our autonomous action. We just had to contravene the inflexible application of an idealistic principle. Or in other words, we just had to grab the cat by the balls.
posted by spitbull at 4:10 PM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


You had your Anarchist ABC backwards, it's 'sabotage cat' not 'cat sabotage'!
posted by Abiezer at 4:12 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I remember someone made a poster of Sid at some point, curled up luxuriously on one of our threadbare couches. Above the picture, the poster said: "If you were a human, you would never have gotten into [highly competitive college name]."

Below the picture, presumably in Sid's voice, was the response: "Yeah, but if you were a cat you wouldn't be here either."
posted by spitbull at 4:24 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Obligatory.
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:41 PM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


Interesting. I used to be a North Country Co-op member back in the days when that meant you had to volunteer hours there. There were a few older members that definitely told stories about the days of the co-op wars.
posted by kaszeta at 5:12 PM on October 25, 2011


« Older The Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition challeng...  |  During the cold war Wartburg a... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments