In the 1930s, the American economy was lurching between transformation and destruction. In the Midwest, and Minnesota in particular, farmers and Main Street concerns created cooperative businesses out of the rubble created by economic forces beyond their control. These companies were mall production shops and firms owned by the workers and communities whose labor and resources fueled their enterprise.
Out of this context emerged the radical Farm-Labor Party. Tom O'Connell has a great article about the radical cooperative economy politics the party elevated in the 1930s -- at one point, the most powerful political force in Minnesota. Like the Populist movement, the Farm-Labor Party is a source of learning and inspiration for today's progressives.
O'Connell says the party's "Cooperative Commonwealth platform of 1934 deserves a place along side the 1898 Omaha Platform of the Populist Party as the clearest statement of indigenous American radicalism." Quoting the preamble:
[Only a] complete reorganization of our social structure into a cooperative common wealth will bring economic security and prevent a prolonged period of further suffering among the people ... We declare that capitalism has failed and that immediate steps must be taken by the people to abolish capitalism in a peaceful and lawful, manner and that a new sane and just society must be established, a system in which all the natural resources, machinery of production, transportation, and communications shall be owned by the government and operated democratically for the benefit of all the people, and not for the benefit of the few.
"Capitalism has failed." Not a surprising statement from rural Midwesterners devastated by Dust Bowl and Depression economics. Not surprising today, either, from factory towns with no more factories to new innovation cities with no new innovation. Is it a surprise that only one quarter of Americans think capitalism works well in its current form?
According to O'Connell, the Farm-Labor party members of the 1930s were "struck by the contrast between the vastness of the nation's wealth and productive capability and the inability of our economic system to deliver that wealth to the American people." Again, deja vu?
It's great that President Obama is focusing on the persistent flaws in our economy that continue to hobble the working poor and are dragging down more and more of the working class as well. And the President is right to emphasize that any positive economic development from the private sector will come from small business, not big. But we must go a step further. The President and all of us acknowledge the important role of public jobs in lifting us out of economic crisis and providing long term stability to balance the ups and downs of the market. Our economic policy shouldn't focus on making tody's small entrepreneurs into tomorrow's titans but, rather, it should clutivate small businesses forged in the mold of 1930s Farm Belt cooperatives -- worker and community owned businesses that not only keep workers in jobs but keep the profits from their work in their profits.