Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Early Mormon Cooperatives

I've been reading Building the City of God by church historians Leonard Arrington, Dean May, and (kind of) Feramorz Fox.  I wrote a post about the Law of Consecration and Stewardship here.

Not long after the saints arrived in the Great Basin, "gentile" traders and merchants arrived and started making huge money off the saints.  Brigham Young was against trading of any sort, but especially among the members.  His thought was that a man should be making something, or producing something, and that work in shops was okay for women, but not for men.  What's more, he was against the idea of a man gaining wealth at the expense of the producers.

Because members of the church were strongly discouraged from getting involved in trading, the gentile merchants had the market to themselves and became very rich at the expense of the saints.  This became very alarming to many members, who petitioned Pres. Young to allow the members to get involved in trading at a cooperative level.  At first he balked, but eventually relented.  Here is how the authors of the book describe the evolution of his thought process:
Finally, it is important that Brigham Young believed strongly in social equality.  Ideologically opposed to gradation of wealth and status among his people, he sought instinctively for a scheme that would prevent aggrandizement of a few at the expense of the many.  His opposition to the first association of Mormon traders proposed to him in 1860 was based partly upon these grounds.  He consistently encouraged the widest possible ownership of the new cooperatives, to prevent the establishment of a wealthy privileged class.  The cooperative movement was, thus, wholly consistent with his own social philosophy.
The cooperatives were set up to be community owned.  Since the Brigham City cooperative was particularly successful and well-known, we'll use it as an example.  At first the citizens of Brigham City would buy inexpensive stocks in the cooperative.  The cooperative would then purchase goods from the east or, probably more likely, from the big Salt Lake cooperative which purchased goods from the east.  The saints would buy exclusively from the cooperative, essentially running the gentiles out of business.

As the cooperative gained strength and money it would start getting involved in "home industries" such as tanneries, shoemaking, raising cattle, blacksmithing, and so on, until the community was entirely self-sufficient.  Since it was community owned, the cooperative tended not to enrich any one person above any other, and Pres. Young's quest for self-sufficiency and social equality was met.  At the end of the year big dividends were paid to members or reinvested in the cooperative.

In practice, however, there were some drawbacks.  Some of the cooperatives were funded almost exclusively by two or three big spenders.  And instead of voting by the one-man-one-vote model of some European cooperatives, they voted by one-share-one-vote, which meant that big shareholders were given big voting advantages.  Also, while the initial stocks could only be purchased by tithe-paying members of the church, there was no such restriction on their subsequent transfers, which meant that shares ended up in the hands of those not exactly operating with the same basic assumptions as tithe-paying members.

Nevertheless, the cooperatives were generally very successful:
In 1875 there appeared an apostolic circular that summarized clearly considerations that led the church into cooperation and praised its progress.  Cooperation, the leaders explained, had been a means of countering "a condition of affairs . . . which was favorable to the growth of riches in the hands of a few at the expense of the many."  Fearing that a wealthy class might arise with interests "diverse from those of the rest of the community," the church officials concluded that such an occurrence "was dangerous to our union; and, of all people, we stand most in need of union and to have our interests identical."  The ZCMI had been opposed by the wealthy and the established, but since its founding had established a solid reputation while paying substantial dividends and paying a church tithe on all its profits.
Practical considerations such as a world that is smaller and more interconnected than in the 1860s and 1870s, and members of the church being encouraged to stay where they are and build up the kingdom, make cooperatives essentially impossible.  But more fundamentally, this is a mentality that simply doesn't exist in our society today, and I don't think it really exists in the church anymore, either.  We are no longer interested in smoothing out wealth and power inequalities, and if the prophet and apostles made statement like those above today they would be branded as communists or socialists and threats to the Constitution.

In the early years of the church, however, complete social equality was an express goal of the priesthood leaders and it could still be today if we had the same will.  Joseph Smith's Law of Consecration and Stewardship was the first effort to make it happen but failed as the saints were driven from state to state.  Cooperatives were the second effort and were successful enough to lead to the United Order, which will be the next installment.

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