The Self-Help Cooperative Movement in Los Angeles, 1931-1940
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This case study examines the Self-Help Cooperative Movement (SHCM). Largely ignored by social scientists for the past eighty years, the movement took place during the Great Depression and, while national in scope, it was concentrated in Los Angeles. This movement combined traditional protest tactics with pre-figurative politics; its goal was to provide full employment for all Americans through the proliferation of worker and consumer cooperatives. Despite a very promising start in 1931, the movement collapsed and disintegrated by 1940. This dissertation examines the reasons for the SHCM's early successes and later its failures. The SHCM's early successes were made possible through their alliances with Japanese farmers (who lived on the outskirts of Los Angeles) and people of color in general, Los Angeles businesses and conservative business leaders, and with sympathetic politicians and state agencies. These alliances were, in turn, made possible by the inherent ambiguity of the SHCM's politics, which incorporated both conservative practices (e.g., self-help) and socialist practices (e.g., workplace democracy). This unique mixture, what the Los Angeles Times called "voluntary communism", generated widespread support among hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers and among conservative, socialist, and liberal political actors. In 1933, the SHCM underwent a profound transformation when Upton Sinclair and the End Poverty in California movement assumed leadership of the cooperatives and the California Democratic Party, promising to place state support behind the cooperative movement and in the process both end unemployment and undermine capitalism. The gubernatorial campaign of 1934 became a referendum on the cooperatives. Over the course of the prolonged bitterly fought campaign the cooperatives became associated with communism, and their liberal and conservative allies responded by discontinuing their support. With the loss of this political and financial assistance the SHCM slowly faded away. While the movement failed to achieve its specific goals, its impact on California politics, along with other Utopian Socialist movements in Los Angeles during this period, was immense. By the 1940s both political parties in California were supporting liberal and socialist initiatives (e.g., universal health-care and mass university education).