Nathan Schneider Reflects with Us on Everything for Everyone (Part One)
Nathan is a professor of media studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he directs the MEDLab, “a think tank for community ownership and governance in media organizations.” He is a co-founder of the Start.coop accelerator, a board member of Zebras Unite and also serves as an advisor to this newsletter.
Your latest book was Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition That Is Shaping the Next Economy. It came out in 2018 — which feels like a very long time ago, as you would probably agree. We’re wondering what reflections you might have now, looking back on the book, and also looking forward.
Sure, happy to offer a few thoughts.
You know, what I’ve found over and over with books I’ve written is the way, once I’m done and looking back, then I start to realize what might have actually been the most important themes.
And one of those things that really came up for me is the nature of the generational divide. This deep sense of such a tremendous legacy in the cooperative movement, not just aspirationally but practically. Part of that was very personal for me, as I mention at the beginning of the book, learning about my own family history and how much my family’s life and progress was shaped by this movement.
Since then I’ve started working on building those connections. Writing the book, I was mostly focused on the new generation coming into the co-op movement. I had made some efforts to bridge that divide, and to put that older generation into contact with the new generation.
When the book came out, I organized a conference called the Colorado Shared Ownership Summit, trying to bring together big Colorado co-ops with smaller new ones. And it was really hard. I had to pull strings to get anyone from the credit union sector to come. And we had the president of the NCBA. And it was even the day that [co-op champion] Jared Polis was elected governor and did a video for us.
But still, it was very hard to get established co-ops to care about other new co-ops in their state. And that was really humbling. But I’m continuing that work, particularly with Start.coop, an accelerator for new co-ops that I co-founded with Greg Brodsky. Greg is a tremendous co-op innovator and the son of CCA Global founder Howard Brodsky, a towering leader in the global co-op movement, who was my main partner on the Summit in Colorado.
I really wanted to work with Greg with that legacy in mind, so that this could be a site where we can bring together the generations. Start.coop is an accelerator for new co-ops, structured so that we can bring in the older generation of cooperators as funders and mentors of the new generation. We’re very much in the midst of trying to make that a reality.
A second piece is the importance of policy. Most of the major cooperative sectors in the United States — electric co-ops, agriculture, and credit unions — all have specific, tailored federal policy structures that grant them access to appropriate financing. These have all been incredibly successful economic development programs, but still co-op financing remains contained in just a few narrow sectors and industries. This makes it very hard for the co-op movement to address emerging social challenges creatively.
Since writing the book, I’ve spent time with the legacy of Louis Kelso who was an innovator not so much in the co-op world but in the concept of an ESOP. In addition to the fact that he was from Colorado and got his degrees from my university, he managed to secure a fairly modest tweak to federal law in a way that opened the floodgates to enabling 14 million people to co-own their employers. In addition to that modest tweak, he had an ambitious vision of spreading shared ownership across the economy — an ambition that I think we desperately need.
For several years now, I’ve been arguing that the biggest shortcoming of cooperative policy has been that it’s been too siloed. We created policy for credit unions and for electric co-ops, but none of that helps with the problems that a lot of people are facing today because those policies are too restrictive.
We need to open the door for any kind of cooperative to operate on a reasonable footing in the economy. One thing that I’m very excited about right now is the bill that was just introduced by one of my senators, John Hickenlooper, the Capital for Cooperatives Act. It is the first major piece of legislation I can remember that actually opens the door at the federal level for financing for any kind of cooperative, at least any kind that the SBA can support. It could be an incredibly powerful step in the right direction.
That sounds like a fantastic breakthrough if the Act passes.
It’s deceptively radical that to simply say cooperatives of any kind in any industry can access financing — that is actually weirdly new. It’s something we really haven’t had before: co-op policy in the past has always been tailored. Or, to be honest, straightjacketed.
The silos also mean that our political power has been constrained — so credit unions don’t care about collaborating with rural electric co-ops, because they have their own administration in the federal government and rural electrics are at USDA, so they have nothing to do with each other.
Finally, something that I mention at the end of the book which has really stuck with me: the incentives around innovation and racial justice and how co-ops can take on the biggest challenges of our time.
After a generation or two cooperatives tend to become conservative with a small “c,” in a business sense. They focus on protecting what they have, rather than building and advancing and challenging injustice or challenging their members’ expectations. Investor-owned companies at least have an incentive to exceed the expectations of the market. Cooperatives have an incentive to meet members’ needs.
And that has often gotten in the way of being champions for the social change that we really need, as well as technological innovation and business model innovation. This is where cooperatives really have been left behind at a moment when they should shine, being companies which are more about connections among people than about what they can do for individual customers.
On your point about a generational divide: how much of that do you think is political and how much is something else?
I don’t think it’s very political. Co-op policy has the opportunity to reach across the political divides. When the Main Street Employee Ownership Act passed in 2018, it was pretty solid 50-50 bipartisan support, signed by President Trump. The Republican Party and the Democratic Party in 2016 both said they want more employee ownership: this is one of those weird things that Paul Ryan and Bernie Sanders agreed about.
I think there’s more energy on the left right now around cooperatives, but there’s certainly a willingness on the right to support these efforts. So I really don’t see it as politically partisan.
I think the politics of the cooperative movement are in many ways still refreshingly cross cutting. Near the end of his life, my grandfather was quite right wing. And yet he shared a lot of concerns with my more left wing friends through a commitment to small business and community.
So I really see this movement still as an opportunity for crossing those lines. And I get a little worried when my friends on the left trumpet cooperatives as part of a culture war position.
Worker co-ops are part of the Green New Deal statement, for instance. On the one hand, it’s great that they mentioned coops. But on the other hand, you think, Oh no, now co-ops are going to go down the partisan wormhole. But they haven’t done so. I think we still have an opportunity for this to be a movement that actually brings people together when everything else seems to divide us.
That’s assuming we can address the other structural divides between the generations that you mentioned, correct?
I think that’s right. I really don’t think it’s as much cultural as it is structural. Take CoBank down the road for me in southern Denver. The reason that they’re not helping our new co-ops is not so much that they aren’t interested. It’s more that their bank was an outgrowth of laws from the pre-World War II era that were focused on the problems of farmers in those years. And those are not the same problems that people are trying to address today.
If the co-op movement could be described as having two sides — one cultural/experiential and the other structural — which do you think deserves the greater focus?
I think they can work in tandem. I just finished a draft of a case study about Namaste Solar, a network of cooperatives here in Boulder which I’ve been getting to know over the years. I gradually realized they’re doing something really cool and unique.
They began as a solar panel installation business and converted to a worker co-op after a few years. Then they tried to scale up nationally in different cities and it didn’t work, financially or culturally. So they pulled back to Boulder in order to stay small and regional.
But they also started building a purchasing co-op called Amicus Solar for small solar panel installers around the country to buy their panels together. Next they spun off a credit union — Clean Energy Credit Union, consumer-owned — for financing solar panel purchases, an investment fund — Kachuwa Impact Fund — and a shared services company — Amicus O & M. These businesses are both distinct but also interlocking. “A multi-stakeholder network” is the term I and my co-author on the case study, Júlia Martins Rodrigues, a brilliant Brazilian scholar, came up with.
What’s cool about this company is that they managed by trial and error to find a balance between the local, small scale worker coop — intentionally smallish with 150 to 200 people working there — and a purchasing co-op which operates nationally.
The latter company, Amicus Solar, is pretty lean, with only four employees, with about 60 member companies. It’s a much lower touch, less communitarian business. But they are both cooperatives. And Amicus Solar has actually helped a good number of its member companies become employee owned.
That network is a demonstration of how cooperatives can practice and enable the idea of subsidiarity, which is so much a part of Catholic social teaching as well as a lot of political theory in general. It’s based on the idea that when you need something at scale, that often means that it’s going to be more bureaucratic and transactional. So you try to keep it very thin.
And the cooperative form also enables you to have very tight local relations. And to make sure that you’re able to govern locally.
My grandfather’s company was called Liberty Distributors for a reason, because his goal was to enable hardware companies to be freer to do joint purchasing, to operate their business the way they see fit.
And it’s that balance, that approach to scale, that I think is really cool about this tradition. I’m starting to think about those old lessons in the context of digital networks, and in digital content moderation.
Because this is a model that encourages and thrives on subsidiarity, it can do both of those things at once.
A more cooperative economy would be one in which we are able to better allocate the things that should be at scale to lean-scale operations while keeping the things that should be locally controlled more local. If we got that balance better than we do, we would have fewer of the same chain stores in every freakin’ town, every town looking exactly the same.
And we would have more organic experimentation that can still benefit from the economies of scale and the efficiencies of modern distribution.
So that’s one piece of what I think this model really enables and one reason why there’s a lot of social benefits in really supporting it.
This is particularly relevant in the context of online networks where I think we all are starting to recognize that the logics of scale are completely wrong. Too much “one size fits all” stuff, too much power concentrated in too few places.
The continuation of this interview will be published with a future issue of the newsletter.