Lessons from Sara Horowitz’s New Book on Mutualism

• 2 min read

Drawing on U.S. labor-movement and New-Deal-era history, Sara Horowitz urges a bottom-up approach to public policy to build cooperative-ecosystem density and “patient capitalist” perspective.

What do we call the movement (if that’s what it is) in which most of our readers here are engaged? It’s neither capitalism nor socialism, suggests labor activist and author Sara Horowitz.

It’s something much older than either: mutualism. Which means, in her important new book, “interconnected economic cooperation.” Especially the kind that helps to create a social safety net for a community.

She offers some fascinating history of this idea, drawing on her own grandparents’ involvement in the early International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), one of the most successful unions of the 20th century.

It was also, importantly, a test bed for the kinds of policies later adopted by the New Deal. The latter bottom-up approach to making public policy is critical to Horowitz’s argument here and it has led her to enthusiastic support of co-ops, mutual aid societies, unions, religious organizations, and non-profits which, taken together, she calls “the mutualist sector.”

In 1995 Horowitz was the founder of the non-profit Freelancers Union which created the first portable benefits network for independent workers until the Affordable Care Act created regulatory obstacles that took away the group’s insurance operations. But the cause of freelancers, a.k.a. the gig economy’s precariat, is still much on her mind in her new book.

Some of the topics covered:

  • The many examples of mutualism in earlier U.S. history, from the Shakers through the 1963 March on Washington, “the high-water mark of mutualist cooperation in America.”
  • How the New Deal of the 1930s was built on top of already-functioning mutualist ecosystems offering local safety nets. And that tells us about the next system we need.
  • The widespread prosperity and low income inequality in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, home of thousands of coops focused on housing, agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare, elder care, and disabled care, accounting for one-third of GDP.

While Horowitz is against what she calls top-down governmental solutions, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t believe government will be needed in three areas:

  1. recognizing and helping define mutualism’s numerous organizations as a distinct economic sector;
  2. using regulation to create a pathway to market (just as FDR did with the Wagner Act enabling unions to organize); and
  3. “protecting mutualist gems” — helping preserve the organizations already doing a great job but which are often financially precarious.

For mutualist entrepreneurs, Horowitz also has a list of three priorities:

  1. invest in the mutualist scene;
  2. recycle capital (don’t extract it); and
  3. invest in group infrastructure — i.e., in tools from Slack, Patreon, and Google as well as blockchain technology where appropriate.

Unlike the venture capitalist’s goal of winning and dominating a market niche, “The patient capitalist’s goal,” she argues, “should be to support as large and diverse an ecosystem as possible. Say, 50 mutualist organizations in 50 states, each focused on addressing a local issue.”

To watch the recording of Sarah Horowitz’s May 20 conversation with Nathan Schneider on the Zebras Unite Crowdcast platform, you’ll find it here.

← Building World-Class Jobs (issue 3)
A Conversation with Camille Kerr of ChiFresh Kitchen →

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