Consumer Coöperation in America: Democracy's Way Out???

by Bertram B. Fowler
[Vanguard Press,$2.00]
’THE new coöperative wave that is sweeping the United States is strong and substantial,’ writes Mr. Fowler. This language, typical of the author’s enthusiastic appraisal of the present state of consumer coöperation in this country, is too strong to be applied to anything but an occasional dust storm. The reviewer, talking with coöperators in the eastern section of the United States, has been assured more than once that consumer coöperation is sweeping the West. When he visited coöperatives in the West recently, he was told that, while the movement was young and struggling in those parts, consumer cooperation was sweeping the East. Even if it were true that, two million American families (Mr. Fowler’s figure) are organized to do a small fraction of their purchasing coöperatively, ‘sweeping the United States’ is hardly the phrase with which to indicate the present achievements of consumer coöperation.
The more indefensible quality of Mr. Fowler’s book is a mistaken notion of what constitutes consumer coöperation. The bulk of his volume is given over to a description of farmers’ organizations which have been set up to purchase coöperatively such things as gasoline, oil, feed, fertilizer, seed, and baby chicks. It cannot be denied that these organizations have elected to call themselves consumers’ coöperatives, but to the farmer these commodities are, in fact, producers’ goods. Farmers, it appears from Mr. Fowler’s account, are beginning to do on a large scale, somewhat belatedly and under the pressure of the farm crisis, precisely what successful American industry did long ago. They have begun to rationalize their production by eliminating certain wastes, thereby cutting the costs of production. Even in the case of gasoline and oil, Mr. Fowler makes it clear that the farmer’s chief interest is that of the producer and not the consumer: ‘With the coming of the gasoline tractor he began to buy gas and oil.’
As a purchaser of feed, seed, fertilizer, baby chicks, gas, and oil, the farmer is precisely in the position of Mr. Henry Ford as a ‘consumer’ of steel, paint, or bank credit. Mr. Ford found long ago that he could lower his costs of production and thereby better his position as a competitive producer by eliminating many of the middlemen upon whom he was formerly dependent for various commodities that are necessary in the production of cars. Industrialists not infrequently speak of themselves as ‘consumers’ when they refer to themselves as the users of raw materials in the processes of fabrication; their trade associations and institutes often function for the purpose of advancing such ’consumer’ interests collectively. It is simply a step toward efficiency in agricultural production for farmers to do likewise, but they have not thereby become consumer coöperatives any more than have the trade associations when they function for the identical purpose. That they have begun to do this is clearly for the best, not only for the farmers’ economic interest but for the gen eral economic health of the nation as well. This is really what Mr. Fowler’s book demonstrates, and for this demonstration the book deserves the widest attention. It is unfortunate, however, for Mr. Fowler or the consumers’ coöperative movement to confuse this development with consumer coöperation. Confusion would have been avoided if Mr. Fowler’s volume had been entitled ‘Rationalization of Agricultural Production: The Farmer’s Way Out.’
There is an occasional reference in Mr. Fowler’s work to improvement of quality in consumers’ goods under coöperation. Little, if anything, is offered by way of evidence to show that improved quality is a major concern or a noteworthy achievement of the real consumers’ coöperatives, those which deal in groceries or radios or razor blades, for example. There is at least one definite economic hindrance in the way of any such noteworthy achievement. It is one of the Rochdale principles for coöperatives to sell at the market price (whatever that is) and at the end of the year to make cash rebates to members. These cash rebates are essential to the continued growth of the coöperatives; without them they could hardly hold their own. This means, in short, that the coöperatives’ level of quality must tend to hover near the prevailing level of quality in capitalist production, for they have adopted the tactic of winning in the sharp struggle with capitalist production and distribution by the use of the cash rebate to members. Doubtless some coöperators would desire to win against their capitalist competitors on a basis of quality production, but they are confronted by the actualities of a situation in which, for the time being at least, price considerations are paramount. As a matter of fact, any genuine laboratory verdict will show that cooperative razor blades, radios, silk hose, and the like are not the best on the market.
Distasteful as the thought may be to many American coöperators, consumer coöperation in the United States has not yet reached a business or economic stage. It is still in its religious phase. By and large, it is a movement of ‘tired’ Christians seeking a revitalization of faith after many disillusionments. Mr. Fowler himself offers Consumer cooperation as a way out for Christianity. In Nashville, Tennessee, Mr. Kagawa — the world’s foremost coöperator-Christian — was asked at the conclusion of an address just what practical steps local citizens should take in setting up a coöperative. His reply was, ’Hold a prayer meeting!‘ According to reliable reports from Nashville, that answer sealed the fate of a local coöperative even as it was a-borning.