New Orleans, the largest city devastated by two Hurricanes, lies in ruins. The reconstruction plans are forming and the usual commercial interests are in the forefront to receive large subsidies, federal overpayments and special immunities from having to meet labor, environmental and other normal legal safeguards for the people.
The corporate looting of New Orleans is underway. The charges of corruption, political favoritism and poor delivery of services by corporate contractors for government projects are already being leveled by the media and some alert officials. After all, over $100 billion of taxpayer monies will be flowing to New Orleans and the Gulf area communities in the next several months.
Plans for the new New Orleans by the large corporate developers are not including many poor or low income families in their plans. These developers see a smaller ritzier New Orleans with gentrified neighborhoods and acres of entertainment, gambling and tourist industries. In a phrase, the corporatization of New Orleans’ renewal.
A different more cooperative scenario needs attention. Here is a flattened major city in America where a cooperative economy can take hold that puts people first, that allows the return of low-income families back home with dignity, self-determination and opportunity.
Cooperatives are businesses owned by their consumers. They operate as non-profits. They are all over the United States and are often taken for granted by their customer-owners. There are housing cooperatives. There are health cooperatives like the successful Puget Sound Health Coop in Seattle. There are banking cooperatives called credit unions with 50 million members. There are food store cooperatives and even energy cooperatives in farm country from refineries to pipelines to gas stations. These are electric cooperatives providing electricity to millions of rural Americans. There are student coops in Universities all over the country.
All these different cooperatives have their national and sometimes their state associations. They know how to spread their numbers, though I often wish they would do so more aggressively and more distinctly from the dominant corporate commercial model.
New Orleans provides possibly the finest opportunity in many years for the cooperative movement to make itself known and to save New Orleans from being looted by corporate predators of various stripes who are presently designing the new New Orleans. Cooperatives demand grass roots organization and customer responsibility or they cannot exist. Cooperators, as customers are called, started these cooperatives in the early days-both consumer and producer cooperatives-throughout farm country USA.
Cooperative principles and member participation have been undermined by the hectic pace of a commuting workforce in a corporate economy that requires two breadwinners or more per family to have a chance at a middle class standard of living. Cooperatives provide many tangible and intangible community values but they need the time of their members to truly flower.
New Orleans and other Hurricane-stricken communities can give new life to the cooperative movement, and it can give new life to the shattered lives of these residents as they try to rebuild their livelihoods.
I called up James R. Jones, the executive director of the National Association of Student Organizations (NASCO) in Ann Arbor, Michigan and tendered these suggestions. He was quite receptive. What is needed is for all the various category cooperatives mentioned above, and others too, to convene a planning session about how to introduce cooperatives to the neighborhoods and commercial districts of New Orleans.
There is a little known Bank in Washington, D.C., originally established by Congress in 1978, but now private, whose sole purpose is to provide loans and technical assistance to existing and startup cooperatives. It has provided substantial credit for housing cooperatives and has a development division whose mission is to help cooperatives in low income areas. The National Cooperative Bank is an asset to be invigorated.
Along with other national associations of different kinds of cooperatives, many in Washington, D.C., there is the National Cooperative Business Association-an umbrella organization of the cooperative subeconomy. The National Rural Electric Association represents many rural electric systems. Co-op America promotes the sales of small producer cooperatives selling a variety of useful products from clothing to food to sporting goods to arts and crafts.
It will not be easy for cooperatives, large and small, to pull together for the renaissance of New Orleans and other neighboring towns in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. But, oh, how important a contribution it could become for our entire economy, so gouged, so controlled by absentee multinationals, so inimical to community economics and control, to succeed in the wake of these Hurricanes.
People interested in this cooperative mission or cooperatives generally can contact the following websites:
To send your reactions, write me at PO Box 19312, Washington, D.C., 20036.
RALPH NADER is author of The Good Fight.