Saturday, January 14, 2012

Mutualism Helped Save Libertopia

Speaking of the history of your region that you don't learn when you're growing up, I spent the 12th with my friend Matt Cropp (not the Matt from OccupyNH, this Matt is a graduate student at the University of Vermont who runs a blog about credit unions) at the Credit Union Museum in Manchester. What I learned there was absolutely fascinating.

The first credit union in the US was started by Quebecois immigrants in 1908, back when Manchester was a huge center of manufacturing and the Amoskeag Mills were the largest mills on earth. A large number of the city's population lived in poverty. Most of the members of La Caisse Poplaire Sainte-Marie ("Saint Mary's People's Bank", simply called "St. Mary's Bank" today) were workers in those mills, including many child laborers, who were able to get out of poverty and debt due to the services of such an institution. When the mills went bankrupt during the Great Depression, St. Mary's was there to help former workers maintain a decent standard of living. Over time, credit unions were able to do the same for countless numbers of people. The thing is, when you are the member of a cooperative organization, other members become your family, and everyone finds ways to take care of everyone else. You are essentially treated like a human being and not as a number (which, as those of us who have worked for bosses before, will know that the latter scenario is all-too-true in hierarchical workplaces). When big banks refused to give out small loans to working people - since the banks couldn't profit off of interest from those loans - credit unions would. Even today, there are several credit unions and mutual banks in NH which help their members get through hard times. I have even read somewhere on the internet (can't remember where exactly) that there are more people in this state who are members of credit unions than there are people who use the "big banks". Perhaps that's a reason why the standard of living in NH is so much higher than elsewhere in the country (aside from the fact that people here take huge advantage of Boston, of course)?

What surprised me the most is how little of this I knew before, but I guess it makes sense as to why. People in the city saw a problem (that being, worker exploitation and poverty caused by the capitalist system) and worked from the bottom-up to solve it. The credit union slogan was (and I believe still is): "Not For Profit; Not For Charity; But For Service". That should sum everything up; the fact that institutions such as this were not about giving the poor charitable handouts but rather building a culture of solidarity and giving the working-class the means to overcome the system which created their hardships. So incredible!

Matt and I talked about this very notion as we took a break from the museum to eat lunch down the street, the fact that there's a huge difference between solutions based on solidarity (such as the credit unions we learned about at the museum, cooperatives, workers' unions, and other participatory institutions) vs. solutions based on giving handouts. In fact, as Matt pointed out, private charity creates hierarchical relations in its own right, since the receiver of the charity is consistently dependent on donator, who in turn has far more power in the relationship. It's the whole "catch a man a fish vs. teach a man to fish" dichotomy playing out. I mean, there are many people here who contend that "voluntary private charity" will be able to clean up all the problems that the hierarchical, capitalist market system they want to implement can't - but why "voluntary private charity"? Why not "voluntary solidarity"?

Matt knew why. He told me how there used to be many mutual aid-based societies in Europe and the US during the time of industrialization until capitalists pressured the state to shut them down. For example, it used to be that unions would provide their members with health care. Part of the reason why the state took health care over was because they (or more likely, the fatcats who control the state) wanted to take away part of the incentive workers would have for joining a union in hopes that unions would be weakened. The same thing happened to many friends' societies as well. What I take from this is, the kind of statist social democratic policies which are celebrated by the mainstream left are much more in the interest and do way more to help the capitalist class than it does to help people who have been oppressed. It functions nearly identical to that "voluntary private charity" as well; a relationship of dependency forms and those receiving the charity, more often than not, remain stuck their situations. I'm not saying we need to start cutting state services and pull the rug out from underneath everyone, I'm just pointing out that handouts from either the state or private companies or churches function as a band-aid. I also get the feeling that this is yet another reason why wealthy capitalists will never allow a stateless society to form on their watch, as they have way too much interest in using the state to keep the lower classes from revolting and establishing their own alternative institutions/economies. After all, without social classes and hierarchical property relations you wouldn't have capitalism!

Matt was able to get a good amount of research done at the museum before it closed for the day. At the end of our visit, we spent time talking with the woman who runs the place. Matt dished out all the topics he wants to write about: ethnic credit unions, rivalries in the credit union movement, and, most interestingly, the campaigns that big banks took to repress credit unions (it turns out that during the Mccarthy era there were letters sent out which accused credit unions of being part of a communist plot to take over banking, no joke). After the two of us left, and as my mother came to pick me up, I thought to myself: geez, we really need to take some of the propertarians in this town on a tour of this museum so they can learn the history of the place they're settling.

You can check out Matt's blog at:


  1. Awesome take-away Julia! Thanks again for making this trip happen :D

  2. Very cool! This is an inspiring history and I think it points to some approaches that could help folks today.

    Are you familiar with Roderick Long's article on friendly societies and medical care or the work it's based on?

  3. Nice write up. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks everyone!

    Darian, I'll read Long's article in a bit. I'm sure you've heard Slavoj Zizek on charitable giving vs. changing society. Very similar to the situation here.

  5. While I like the term "voluntary solidarity", it seems a bit redundant. IMO all true solidarity is always voluntary.

    State socialism isn't about solidarity, it's about forced charity (aka theft). Is there anyone who truly feels a sense of solidarity when paying their taxes? I sure as hell don't

  6. I see what you're saying, although I'd be extremely careful about using the voluntary-vs.-involuntary dichotomy. For example, I wouldn't doubt it if the vast majority of people would continue paying their taxes to the state if taxation was done purely on a voluntary basis. Heck, I know a good number of people here in NH who have openly stated that they wish the state government would tax them more, simply because they'd rather have a higher tax burden then have crappy infrastructure. In other words, they don't really view taxation as theft because they willingly pay taxes much like how ideologues for capitalism don't see profit or rent (usury) as theft because they willingly pay it.