Exclusive Interview with John Curl, Author of "For All The People"
Exclusive Interview with John Curl, Author of "For All The People"
In this exclusive interview, John Wisniewski asks John Curl about his book, For All The People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America. Curl is a writer, historian, translator, activist, and woodworker. He is also the author of Revolutionary Alchemy. According to San Francisco poet laureate Jack Hirschman, “Revolutionary Alchemy is a book of major importance. John Curl has earned a place - with this book of poems - among the foremost revolutionary American poets since the end of WW2.” Curl is the vice president of PEN Oakland and a member of the Revolutionary Poets Brigade.
When did you begin writing "For All of the People" and how did you go about researching the history of Cooperative Movements?
I began writing "For All The People" in the early 1970s. I started my research not to write a book, but to try to understand work in America. I was a young adult trying to find a good way to live. My family were all employees, but I did not want to live my life like that. My earliest jobs were as an employee, but I found the situation oppressive and deadening. My first experience with cooperative work was when I lived in a rural commune in Colorado in the mid-1960s. Then, in the early 1970s I joined a collective custom woodshop in Berkeley, CA. I found the cooperative way of work liberating in every way. I wondered why there were so few worker cooperatives in the US, and why it wasn't a possible choice for everyone. That is what set me off on my historical journey of discovery, that ultimately resulted in my book. Before the internet, it was not easy to gather information. Fortunately there are great research libraries in the Bay Area, and I spent years digging into old books that were filled with buried treasures. Little by little an alternative version of the economic history of America began to emerge, a history based on successive generations of working people joining together in cooperatives to try to create a good life for themselves, but having to struggle against the opposition of the growing forces of capital, wealth, and power.
What does the history of Cooperative Movements say about The United States?
When the US began, the vast majority were free self-employed small farm families. That was the American promise, which drew wave after wave of immigrants. Few people were employees. Being an employee was considered temporary, until you raised a stake to become self-employed. Slavery in the South at that time was still on a comparatively small scale. It was only with the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s, that many workers were forced into becoming permanent employees, "wage slaves." At the same time, chattel slavery in the South grew to enormous proportions with the invention of cotton gin. The cotton was shipped to Northern mills where wage slaves spun it into fabric. Early American workers considered "wage slavery" a form of bondage, and fought it with every means at their disposal. One of their most effective means was worker cooperatives, which they formed in every trade, and competed with their former bosses. The early labor unions were deeply involved with worker cooperatives, and developed the idea of organizing an alternative economy, a system of worker cooperatives in every trade which could compete with the capitalist system and eventually create a "Cooperative Commonwealth." At the same time, small farmers were falling in bondage to the banks and railroads, and they also formed cooperatives to reassert their independence. The farmer cooperatives of the Farmers Alliance and the worker cooperatives of the Knights of Labor formed an alliance. In the late 1800s, they had developed an extensive network of over 200 worker cooperatives and numerous farmer co-ops. The capitalist oligarchs saw them as a clear threat to the existing economic system, and attacked them. Most of their co-ops were destroyed between 1886 and 1892. But the history doesn't end there. The co-op movement bounced back every time it was put down. It is a multi-generational and multi-ethnic saga that continued through the 20th century to today. So, in answer to your question, the history of cooperative movements in the US tells us that the working people of America always experienced the economic system of corporate capitalism as a form of oppression, and always fought against its imposition. The working people instinctively saw that getting together into cooperatives was an effective way to join their forces, and through mutual aid helped to lift each other from any form of bondage.
Could you tell us about writing Ancient American Poets?
I first got interested in Native American languages when I had a job on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico in 1970, and learned some of that language. We structure the world through language, and learning a new language also means seeing the world through different eyes. Until then I had never even heard any American Indian language spoken. That struck me as very strange, since I've lived in this country all my life. But it is not strange in the context of cultural and physical genocide. I am somewhat of a classicist, and when I become interested in a culture I usually begin by reading its oldest literature. I began to read the earliest American Indian literature, and discovered, to my surprise, that there is a lot out there. In Latin America there were three "high" civilizations, Maya, Aztec, and Inca. They were all aristocratic societies, and in each of them the Spanish Conquerers sent the children of the defeated nobility to schools run by friars, to learn their own languages in the European alphabet. Their purpose was to convert them, by reading the Bible translated into their languages. However, some of the young people took that new skill and used it to record their own cultures. So we have an extensive Indigenous American literature written in alphabetic Native languages, dating from the early years after the Conquest. I delved into that literature. I found books and language tapes, and taught myself to read and somewhat speak Nahuatl (Aztec), Yucatec Maya, and Quechua (Inca). I gathered all the available Spanish translations of the literature, and deeply studied the original texts. I found that there was a wonderful and powerful body of literature opening windows onto the world of Indigenous America before the European invasion. I also discovered biographical information about some of the most important ancient American poets. I chose three poets to focus on, one from each of the three "high" civilizations. This is an extremely important part of American history that until now has been almost completely unknown. I wrote Ancient American Poets to help bring it back into the light.
You are a member of several collectives. Could you tell us about them?
I have been a member of Heartwood Cooperative Woodshop since we founded it in 1974. Heartwood is a collective running a woodshop in Berkeley. We operate the shop democratically, through a flexible consensus process. Heartwood is technically an incorporated cooperative and therefore has an official structure which in practice doesn't interfere with our day-to day collective processes. We currently have thirteen members. We do custom woodworking, mostly manufacturing cabinets and furniture. Several members just use the shop occasionally, or as a hobby shop. We've had our ups and downs over the years, but all in all it runs extraordinarily smoothly. Woodworking is a somewhat meditative craft, and woodworkers tend to be creative people. For me, it uses a totally different part of my brain than writing, so I am able to do both with little internal conflict. I am also a member of two writer groups, PEN Oakland and the Revolutionary Poets Brigade. The PEN Oakland board functions as a collective, although it also has an official structure, affiliated with PEN USA and PEN International. The New York Times has called us "The Blue Collar PEN." We have put on numerous literary events over the last two decades, the most important of which are our annual book awards, honoring multicultural works that have been ignored or marginalized by the corporate media. The Revolutionary Poets Brigade was formed just three years ago, and we have already made a significant impact in the Bay Area. During the era of the bubble of globalized capitalism, political poetry was marginalized, but now that the world is mired in an economic crisis, the visionary insights of political poets are deeply relevant once again. The Brigade is another loose collective, run by direct democratic methods. We have a couple dozen active members, and over a hundred poets on our listserv. We do numerous events, and are affiliated with the World Poetry Movement, with groups in many countries. We have declared November to be Social Justice Month, and plan to have events on that theme each year. Finally, I am a member of the Indigenous Peoples Day Committee, also run as a collective. There is a large American Indian community in the Bay Area, and about half of our organizing group are Native American. For the last 20 years we have put on the Indigenous Peoples Day Pow Wow in Berkeley, on what used to be Columbus Day. So those are a few examples from my personal experience. You can form a cooperative or collective for almost any purpose imaginable. It is a universal structure, based on mutual aid, always democratic.
What was the first cooperative movement in the USA?
Cooperatives first became a social movement in the early 1830s, in reaction to the abuses of early industrialization in the North. Two successive organizations led the movement, led by some of the same people. It started when an economic downturn led to wage cuts and layoffs. To fight back, many workers formed some of the earliest trade unions. Before this time, most trade organizations were benefit societies, primarily organized to insure members against times of sickness and death. When strikes for the ten-hour day failed in both Boston and Providence, delegates founded the New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics and Other Workingmen (NEAFMOW), which organized some 40 "trading" cooperatives doing bartering and sales of artisanal and agricultural products. NEAFMOW was the first American worker organization to actively organize factory workers, and demanded legislation to regulate factory abuses (particularly child and women’s labor), to dismantle bank monopolies, and to establish free public education. In 1834, the first union federations joined into America’s first national labor organization, the National Trades’ Union (NTU). The NTU looked beyond simple trade union concerns. It aimed at raising its members from wage slavery entirely, and instituting a new cooperative economic system. The NTU unions started at least eighteen worker cooperatives. Between 1834-1836, Philadelphia cabinet makers opened a cooperative, followed by hand loom weavers, tailors, hatters, and saddlers. Shoemakers unions opened cooperatives in New Brunswick, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Louisville; in the last three cities, tailors unions followed suit. Painters unions in New York City and Brooklyn formed cooperatives. The NTU proposed a system of cooperation to restore to each worker “the disposal of his own products,” and set up a committee on cooperation, which recommended that all unions investigate setting up cooperatives, because “until a system of Cooperation is adopted by which the producers of wealth may also be its possessors... the great burden of the evils of which we so justly complain, will never be removed.” The Philadelphia Trades’ Union resolved “to place in the Constitution a clause allowing the funds of the Union to be loaned to the Societies for the purpose of Cooperation.” Its official newspaper urged each local union to start a fund through regular member contributions to raise capital to begin a cooperative of its members. At the same time, it asked each local to contribute monthly to the Trades’ Union fund to help start cooperatives. A conference of nearly 200 union delegates in 1837 resolved that each union work out an estimate for setting up a cooperative to support ten members. But in the middle of this conference, a bank panic ignited a new depression that temporarily wiped out not only the cooperatives but almost the entire union movement in America.
Are there those who oppose the work of Cooperatives?
While media pundits proclaim that our economic system is based on the "free market," in reality that "free market" is a fiction. The American system is regulated and controlled to assure a continued flow of wealth into the accounts of a small elite. Cooperatives work against that to redistribute wealth more equitably to the working population. And yes, very powerful forces oppose the work of cooperatives, not always openly. The financial system quietly starves cooperatives. The powers behind the system ignore a certain amount of cooperative activity as a safety valve, but historically have always acted to destroy any cooperative movement large enough to be an economic threat. Right now we are in an upswing in cooperative activity, and people are forming every type of cooperative around the country. A successful cooperative movement creates a prosperous working population. And a prosperous working population is a threat to the capitalist system, which needs a large pool of people who are barely surviving, and therefore are willing to work at low-paying oppressive jobs. While we are nowhere big enough yet for the economic establishment to react and move openly against cooperatives, yet we cannot underestimate their historical willingness to attack anything or anyone they perceive as a serious threat.
John, you have been called a "Master Poet" - how are your various endeavors and activities different, or are they the same as your poetry? Do you see your activites in life as a collective?
For me, living a well-rounded life comes first. I try to live each day in balance. My poetry, writing, woodworking, and all my other activities, come out of my life, and do not dominate it. I became a social activist because I live in a society drastically out of balance with our better instincts and with the natural world. I enjoy interacting with other people in democratic ways, as equals. My social activism is geared to help us stop destroying ourselves and our beautiful planet, and create a more livable, sustainable world to leave to our grandchildren. I try to surround myself with collectivity and cooperative groups, because they are life-sustaining. The more collectivity we create each day, the healthier and richer the world becomes.
Can studying the lives of the Mayans and Aztecs help us to understand ourselves and our society?
Absolutely. Many people think of the Aztecs and even the Mayas as warlike societies, but that was just one thread in a tapestry that also included the peaceful life-giving culture personified in Mesoamerica by Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent. Their societies were filled with cultural treasures, still largely unknown in North America. Many people think that there was a cultural disconnect between North American and Mesoamerican Indians, like the wall on the US-Mexican border, but there was really a cultural continuity. The Mayan and Aztec worlds are part of our cultural heritage. We need to start thinking about American history as starting not with the Declaration of Independence, or even with European colonization, but with the Indigenous cultures. Most Americans today have not yet come to terms with who we are and what we are doing on this continent. In a deep sense, we are the inheritors of the spoils of colonialism, which set down an imported culture on top of this land, and centuries later we have still not yet made peace with the soil. Part of our task is coming to terms with the Native people who were wronged and displaced. Studying the lives of the Mayas, Aztecs, and other Indigenous peoples brings us one step closer to that goal. Part of our journey, coming as immigrants from every part of the world, is to learn how to become indigenous here in America, how to become Americans. Until we do that, we will always be alienated strangers in our own land.