Mutualism is a way to understand our world. Instead of being stuck by the enormity of the world’s problems, mutualism enables us to uncover existing local solutions whose growth is centered on communities and people rather than a turbo-charged profit strategy that leads to big box uniformity. It reflects the vast array of humanity, emphasizing biodiversity, care for the planet and racial and economic equity. Mutualism is both a how-to guide and an ideology for people and communities to come together to solve their problems.
The role of government then is to champion mutualism with a defined action plan of mapping the local mutualists, listening to their ideas and vision, including their ideas and expertise in defining policy and then formalizing that into a virtual cycle of creating public policy.
Sara Horowitz is a former labor lawyer, founder of Freelancers Union and Freelancers Insurance Company, and former Chair of the Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York — and a self-described mutualist. Her new book is called Mutualism: Building the Next Economy from the Ground Up. Ashoka’s Michael Zakaras spoke with her last week about the central themes in her book and more.
Michael Zakaras: What makes an effort mutualistic?
Sara Horowitz: When you look to historical examples, you can see there are three essential elements that make up mutualism. One is this idea comes from the community and has a social purpose. The second is an economic mechanism because you have to have financial independence. You can’t get all your money from the government or from foundations because then you need to focus on their agenda and what problems they are seeking to solve. But it can also be an exchange of time or alternative currencies. The third is a long-term time horizon. I often think about the Iroquois and their principle of seven generations. You have to have a way that you’re passing wisdom and knowledge across generations. When you think mutualistically, of course you can see these broad arcs. A simple way to do this is to make sure to have a board, governing body or a set of advisors.
Zakaras: You highlight in your book that mutualism goes way back to the earliest days of this country. What are some examples?
Horowitz: Benjamin Franklin started the first mutual fire insurance company because it was too hard for each person to be putting out house fires. These aren’t big abstract concepts, there’s just a big fat need and people come together to solve that need. Another important example is the AME Zion Church that started in the Black community as a result of Black people not being able to sit in the front in a segregated church and saying, “No, thanks. We’ll start our own.” That really shows you mutualism because immediately when you start your own, you start to have another place to meet and you have to have some leadership and you have to pass around the hat so that you can pay for things. These “benevolent associations” contributed to the first social movement of the Underground Railroad and the civil rights movement, as Professor Jessica Gordon Nembhars has written about in her important book Collective Courage.
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Zakaras: One of my takeaways from your book is that mutualism is upstream of many progressive goals, and yet we’ve stopped replenishing it. You say we’ve lost our mutualist muscle memory. What do you mean by that?
Horowitz: Instead of seeing that so many of the social programs were a hundred percent brought about by these mutualist organizations, we said, “Let’s just have government do it.” We completely forgot that you have to support the mutualist institutions that created the vision and built the social movements that delivered the votes that enabled government to do all the social good in the first place. We need to see the broad social arc of social movements to see that there is a continuous cycle that needs to be repeated. But we stopped at replenishing and strengthening these social actors.
Now, we see unions and civic engagement generally in decline and it’s not surprising that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have majorities to carry out a vision that will enable us to solve tomorrow’s real problems which are already here today. Mutualist organizations can be the feedback loop for democracy and that’s exactly what we lost. Here’s an example from the labor movement: The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was the Black craft union headed up by a Black labor leader that really needs to get his due, named A. Phillip Randolph. He built this Black craft union of 18,000 passenger railway workers and he fought to get into the AFL CIO. As soon as he did, he agitated to integrate the entire American Federation of Labor (AFL), which eventually happened. While he was getting the whole of the union movement behind civil rights, that was a precursor for integrating the military. What you see is a way to bridge social movements to be connected and coordinated.
Zakaras: The failure to replenish is the function of bad policy, obviously, and neglect. How much is cultural?
Horowitz: The way I think of it is that we’ve entered into the culture of critique. I remember growing up and everyone had a bumper sticker that said “question authority.” You should question authority and be a critical thinker as the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire has taught. But we stopped being builders. As soon as we start to build, people go right to critique. When I started to build the Freelancers Union, I spoke with the daughter of Sidney Hillman who built the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union that built banks, insurance companies, housing, worker vacations spots and more. I asked her how Sidney built his strategy. She said, “He focused on solving workers’ problems.” When you start by listening and seeing the workers’ vision, you know, you must amplify what they need, what they can see. It turns out that we need to relearn how to trust people’s instincts for what they need in their own lives. Too much government, foundation and nonprofit strategies are crafted by management consultants and experts and not enough on what people want for themselves.
When I think about my grandparents’ generation and the 1920s, the heyday of mutualism, there were many professionals trained within the union and cooperative world, and they were the experts on finance and housing and tax advice and planning. When you now look at almost every progressive mayor or elected official that gets into office, they bring in Goldman Sachs or McKinsey because rather than the leadership within these movements. They don’t call on the agricultural cooperatives or the pension fund administrators because it doesn’t even occur to them to look outside the experts that are believed to know best.
Zakaras: How can we add critical fuel to the new mutualist movement?
Horowitz: First we need to map the mutualists. Literally, let’s say you are a mayor, go to your churches, mosques, temples, yoga studios, synagogues, cooperatives, unions, mutual aid groups, farmer’s markets. Find out what they need. They might need free space. They might need the mayor to bring in different people that are not in their network. Just go and listen. And make the mutualists your political base because they are a network that has been there for a while and they’re a network that has an edifice and has people and skill and make their agenda, your agenda. That is the beginning, because then you will see that the way we’ve set up the whole safety net in America is not actually aligned with the organizations that people trust in their local communities and so we have to then start looking at how we do that, and then feed that into a larger political agenda.
We also need to help resource the sector. The number one thing that an elected mutualist has to do is to create a capital market that’s appropriate for this. It’s not private equity, the people who call it impact investing and want the same high returns are wrong: you can’t do well and do good, you’re not going to get rich, no one is, let’s be honest. What you have to do is say, “This is really geared to helping these groups have revenues exceed expenses, and that they can make the decisions themselves where that money goes. How do you do that?” We can start by giving mutualists the same charitable deductions as the nonprofit sector. Or have government require endowments and other entities and foundations to invest in mutualists as part of their portfolios and that they have to document it in order to maintain their good standing.
Zakaras: Is organizing efforts in a mutualistic way harder now than in the past?
Horowitz: There were some moments in the book when I felt like it almost sounds too easy, right? Is it harder today to get started when you have these compounding effects of entrenched status quo, more money in politics and you have to climb up a higher wall than you might have in 1920 or 1970? We can look at these problems and feel paralyzed and discouraged and hopeless. But every journey does start with that first step and mutualists have undergirded every single social movement in this country. Now with technology and online groups, you can start to bring your group together quickly. You don’t give up on the fight about inequality and the intractable issues, it’s that this is another avenue that gives you a pathway to build your base — and to just get started.
Zakaras: What does a mutualist future look like?
Horowitz: You know what the mutualist future really is? You wake up in the morning and you have a mutualist day. You have access to high quality good food that’s not making you or your family sick. You have a way to know that your child is in preschool and school that you’re connected to and is nourishing their mind and soul. You have many different avenues for how you’re going to live your life that are open only to wealthy people right now. When you go to a mutualist place like Northern Italy, you see that a significant percentage of their whole economy is cooperative. You go into these restaurants where workers are eating, and you’re like, “If this were in New York, it would be a luxury meal.” But it’s not punishing over there. That’s really what we’re talking about. There will be economic indicators, but it’ll really come down to, what’s your day like? What’s your hope for your kids? Are you connected to nature? Can you have time to think and read and enjoy life? That’s really the mutualist future.
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