Co-ops and Capitalism: a Shared History

Collective Organization as a Means of Self Determination and Resistance

Written by Lauren Phillips-Jackson | June 23, 2019

In 2018, while doing background research on the history of co-ops in preparation for a presentation, the Executive Director of Food First, Eric Holt-Giménez, came to a fundamental realization: “capitalism and food co-ops emerged together.”

His research took him from the first recorded modern co-op – founded in 1844 as a response to the Industrial Revolution crowding out skilled laborers, to cooperatives organized by African Americans after the Civil War to buy land they were cheated out of by the government, to cooperatives that functioned as an integral part of surviving The Great Depression and The Great Migration.

Holt-Giménez describes these early co-ops as “radical ‘public spheres’ where people helped each other, learned to read and write, and where ideas like universal suffrage, an end to slavery, and labor rights were discussed—and acted upon.” The uniting factor among all of these co-ops? They helped their communities resist “the injustices of capitalism” and come together in meaningful ways.

Holt-Giménez puts forward today’s co-ops – the descendants of those early radical public spheres –  as organizations that hold great promise for the future. Holt-Giménez readily recognizes that modern co-ops have their flaws and that there is much work to be done to ensure that every co-op serves all groups equally, but he holds out hope that this model of business, built in response to injustice, can help communities today rally together and find their voice against oppression.

As Holt-Giménez says,

“The food movement is searching for a catalyst to help bring us all together into a powerful countermovement, capable of transforming not just our food system, but the capitalist system in which it is embedded. As in the past, today’s co-ops are being called upon to rise to the challenge.”

With your help, we are excited to meet that challenge.

Article written by Lauren Phillips-Jackson, the Common Share Food Co-op’s Communications and Community Engagement Intern