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Minding Our Own Business: Community, Consumers and Cooperation

Jennifer Elise Tammi

Title:
Minding Our Own Business: Community, Consumers and Cooperation
Author(s):
Tammi, Jennifer Elise
Thesis Advisor(s):
Kessler-Harris, Alice
Date:
Type:
Dissertations
Department:
History
Permanent URL:
Notes:
Ph.D., Columbia University.
Abstract:
The 20th century Cooperative Movement emerged out of a need for people to gain some control over the enormous social and economic changes sweeping the country in the first half of the century. While industrialization and corporate consolidation that occurred during this period offered a range of new opportunities for people who had the means to take advantage of them, entire sectors of the population - farmers, workers, immigrants and African Americans - suffered economic disenfranchisement that severely restricted their ability to participate in the expanding marketplace. Some members of these groups believed the cooperative movement might provide the means to manipulate the emerging political economy to serve their needs by modifying the conventions of individual agency through collective action. Cooperatives, largely organized by the economically disenfranchised groups, promised protection from exploitation (such as price gouging, the passing off of inferior products, and unfair hiring practices) on the part of an increasingly powerful corporate capitalist elite. Cooperators believed that by withdrawing their money from the national market and redirecting excess capital back to the consumers of their communities they could use their acquired power to safeguard local political, social and economic interests. While the economic and political benefits of self-empowered consumers helped knit together large numbers of like-minded individuals, what truly sustained the cooperatives was the fact that they almost always emerged among groups of people that shared significant connections above and beyond economic need. For example, cooperatives tended to form among communities of people with similar backgrounds, defined by characteristics such as ethnicity, language, and race. These community connections, fostered through social and cultural activities, rooted individuals within the historical experiences of a cohesive group and made it possible for cooperatives formed by such groups to command the loyalty of their members. When cooperative leaders, however, tried to launch a national effort to broaden the scope and power of the cooperative movement, they failed to foster the local, grassroots community connections that had made cooperatives successful in the first place. As a result, the movement faltered. This dissertation contributes to the history of working class, local activism around consumerism and highlights the importance of community connections in the success and failure of cooperatives.
Subject(s):
American history
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