Shoulders We Are Standing On

Reflections on Frank Lindenfeld’s vision of a cooperative commonwealth 15 years later
Michael Johnson

I never knew Frank Lindenfeld and had no idea that I was taking on his legacy and vision when I joined GEO in 2009, which was after he died. In fact, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a GEO Newsletter until 2008. It was only a year before at the tender age of 65 that I woke up to the fact that democracy without democratic economics at its core was a distraction. I made myself pretty much an outsider in the various discussions the GEO team has had on this Memorial issue for Frank. I listened, picked up on the respect and love the others had for him, took in a few stories, and so forth. Mostly I was keeping my eye on other GEO matters that seemed “more current.”

At a recent collective meeting we decided to include Frank’s paper on The Cooperative Commonwealth in this issue. For some reason that really got my attention, and I found myself suddenly volunteering to do an editorial commentary on it. Lucky me!

The Occupy Movement (or phenomenon) more or less grounded itself around two objectives. The first one turned out to be an awesome achievement, to change the dominant political narrative across the globe. The second was to create experimental spaces for exploring the possibilities for new democratic forums. This objective can only be a multi-generational project. It’s not a revolution that is going to happen this or next year. In fact, it is one that has been evolving at Evolution’s pace for several hundred years. Further, this cannot be just a political project. It has to be a profoundly economic one.

Few people grasp these two points in their full significance—that any large scale movement for democratic change is multi-generational and deeply economic. So economic, in fact, that the project necessarily involves building local, regional, national, and international networks of new kinds of economic institutions that are genuinely democratic alternatives to what we put up with now.

I’ve just discovered that Frank’s vision of a Cooperative Commonwealth is a foundational piece for this project. Today many of us think and dream and plan within the solidarity economic (SE) framework. Twenty-five years ago Frank had a coherent vision of all that SE embraces. He makes a convincing case that a mass democratic movement must have two strong feet: one foot consisting of deep networks of alternative economic institutions; and the second consisting of “a broad scale coalition anti-corporate people’s political organizations. The wisdom of this is just now beginning to emerge in the minds of activists’ and practitioners’ in the US. Much of the current work of Occupy Wall Street is about getting these two feet working together.

Further, he makes clear we must think big as well as small. He highlights three powerful, large-scale cooperative networks that are still going strong 25 years later, as models of what is possible.

At the same time, he was very clear that we must let go of our dogmatisms: “There is not necessarily any one best version of a cooperative economy, nor any one best path to get there.” Ten years after Frank’s paper this became a strong theme in the US. So in reading this paper it became very clear that his shoulders are ones of the many our global SE movement stands on.

What also became clear in reading this document is how his life is a message to us, and suggests, very profoundly, that the most important contribution that each of us can make will never be in what we actually achieve. That will always tend to be too little too late to prevent many losses and much pain. Rather, our most important contribution lies in our day-to-day persistence to build that movement with open hearts, clear minds, and interminable patience. Reading Frank Lindenfeld’s words today are a testament to the power of such enduring and compassionate commitment. Like Julie Graham and others, this man got up in the morning to build a world that works well, not to wage war against capitalism.

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