The Dream of the 1890s: Why Old Mutualism Is Making a New Comeback

The values of this generation of independent-minded workers aren't wild and new. Instead, they represent a return to the values we abandoned at the height of the industrial revolution.

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Wikimedia Commons photo of Portland in 1890.

The '90s are making a comeback. The 1890s, that is.

That was the punchline of a recent episode of the TV satire Portlandia, where star and co-writer Fred Armisen said, "When the economy was in a tailspin, unwashed young men roamed the streets looking for work, and people turned their backs on huge corporate monopolies and supported local businesses? In Portland, people raise their own chickens and cure their own meats! The dream of the 1890s is alive in Portland."

While the show's history may be off by a couple of years, the vibe in Portland, Ore. (and, by extension, Brooklyn; the Bay Area; and the entire sustainable, locavore movement) really is a move back to the past.

It's not only in the classic aesthetic (bushy beards, suspenders, tattoos), but also in the values (artisan handcrafts; anti-corporate sentiment; a reliance on local, cooperative businesses and social-purpose ventures).

With the private sector and government stumbling into the 21st century, it's crucial that we learn the cooperative lessons of the 1800s and empower social-purpose ventures to build a bridge connecting profit to social good.

In the 1820s, a nascent mutualist movement began percolating among working people in America, built on the uplifting power of cooperative businesses and collectivist organizations.

They were coming together to create cooperatives for plumbing, leather-working, even newspaper publishing. By the 1880s and 1890s, this movement was solidifying into sturdy institutions.

Cooperatives are deeply knit in the American fabric. In 1752, founding father (and volunteer firefighter) Ben Franklin started the nation's first mutual fire insurance company, Philadelphia Contributionship, which still operates today. In his book For All The People, historian and woodworker John Curl highlights the amazing diversity of cooperative businesses that popped up in the 1800s -- mining coops, shoemaking coops, knitting coops. Basically anything workers could unite to own, they did.

We are beginning to see the rise of that mutualistic ethos once again. Many of these efforts directly mirror the late 1800s mutual support model -- but this time with the internet helping bring what had once been local models to national scale.

These are not cute, little, boutique shops, either.

Through Kickstarter, regular people raised nearly $100 million to boost more than 27,000 music, film, art and design projects just last year alone. Etsy empowered the sale of more than $400 million in handmade and vintage items last year. And more than two million Americans are employed by the nation's 30,000 co-ops, according to the National Cooperative Business Association.

The private sector knows there's meaningful profit to be made with cooperatives, too. Social purpose businesses like Newman's Own, Patagonia, and the entire fair trade movement are thriving. Our own social-purpose Freelancers Insurance Company filled a void in the insurance market and is now serving 23,000 members and their families and generating more than $100 million in revenue.

Over the past century, we've seen both the government and the private sector be entrusted as guardians of the "social good." Neither has proven up to the task alone. We need a new form of production that values workers and profits, cooperation and innovation.

We need a complete reorientation of workers' relationship to business and government's relationship to workers.

By 2020, we should more than triple the number of cooperatives in America to 100,000 - and aim for five million Americans to work for cooperative businesses.

How do we get there? We provide low-cost capital to give social-purpose businesses a start-up boost. We open up federal data sets to make it easier to crowd-source innovative policy ideas. We reimagine what corporations can be by rewarding Benefit Corporations that abide by accountability and sustainability guidelines.

Basically, we turn government investments into venture capital for social entrepreneurs. We saw a great example of this just last month when the federal government announced more than $600 million in low-interest loans to help kick-start nonprofit, consumer-driven healthcare CO-OPs in eight states. (Freelancers Union is sponsoring CO-OPs in New York, New Jersey, and Oregon.)

To rebuild the trust we need for a more mutualist society, we only need look back 120 or so years for a blueprint of what works.

We're seeing it work again in the bushy beard neighborhoods of America.

As Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein put it, "It's as if President McKinley was never assassinated."