State Repression of the Black Social and Solidarity Economy: A Critical View of the 20th Century
Updated: Aug 3
By Tara Silver
Themes: Black Lives Matter, Anti-Racism, Education and Learning, Solidarity
Thinking about future alternatives to capitalism requires us to think about alternative conceptions of its past.
- Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origins of Capitalism
There is a long history of cooperative ownership and economic cooperation among African Americans… This history is also sullied by the equally long experiences of white supremacist violence and terrorism against African American cooperatives in every form. - Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Collective Courage
Does the social solidarity economy present a threat to the state? This has been a question gnawing away at me for some time. For those of us seeking a more progressive and democratic reconstruction of life post-COVID, we must be prepared for state resistance and repression to demands for substantive change. Whether we are advocating for reallocation of public funds away from policing towards social investment or fighting for stronger labour protections for racialized migrant workers, we should remember that the capitalist state has historically shown a tendency to resist social movements’ demands for fundamental economic change (Akuno, 2017; Goldstone, 2003). Similar to our present moment, when right-wing populist leaders foment fear of a “violent radical left”, governments in both the United States and Canada in the twentieth century closely monitored and disrupted social movements advocating for economic change. My reflections here serve as a gentle caveat to a new generation of social activists. Fuelled by outrage at the injustices of climate change, income inequality and systemic racial discrimination, there will be reform and perhaps even transformation to come, but let’s engage with these processes informed by an awareness of the repressive role the state has played in building an economy based on Black social solidarity (Gordon-Nembhard, 2014, 2018).
The Rise and Decline of Education for Economic Alternatives: A Brief Historical Overview
During the first half of the twentieth century, the Great Depression had a profound impact on educational policy and practice, forcing many educators to rethink long-held assumptions about the social purpose of education. As the demand for educational “alternatives” that addressed the concerns of the working classes grew dramatically between the two World Wars, the influence of “social movement” schools also spread beyond the communities they sought to serve, influencing even the traditionally conservative curriculum of universities (Edwards & McCarthy, 1992).
One alternative form of adult learning was the Danish-inspired “folk school”. Unlike the more conventional structure of union-supported labour colleges, the folk schools stressed interpersonal, non-hierarchical relationships. Teachers and students often lived together, and their shared labour sustained the operation and financing of the school. While they also offered courses in labour organizing and reform, the folk schools hoped to become a base for more-sweeping social transformation (Horton, 1989). Culturally, they played an important role in the collection of folk music, theatre, poetry, and oral history. Nova Scotia’s Antigonish movement which flourished in the 1920s and 30s under the leadership of Moses Coady is the best-known example of the Canadian folk school tradition (Sacouman, 1976). In the United States, the closest counterpart of Antigonish was the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennesse, founded in 1932 by Miles Horton. Highlander continues to exist today under the name, Highlander Research and Education Centre.
What may be of interest to contemporary activists, is the crucial role the Highlander Folk School played in establishing "citizenship schools" that mounted African American voter-registration drives. As far back as the 1930s it trained Black activists in methods of community -building and nonviolent protest. The school’s role further increased in importance during the civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s. Throughout this period, Highlander came under attack from conservative groups such as the American Legion, who viewed its civil rights and organizing activities as “communist” and therefore “subversive.” Highlander was also monitored by the FBI under the controversial COINTELPRO operation from 1956 to 1971 (Cunningham, 2003).
Similarly, in Canada during the early Cold War period, the field of adult education went through a wrenching change in direction through which “leading social reform-minded adult educators had been expunged from the adult education scene for alleged communist sympathies” (Welton, 2001, p. 211). During this time, Drummond Wren, General Secretary of the Workers Educational Association, John Grierson, founder of the National Film Board (NFB), and Ned Corbett, then director of the Canadian Association for Adult Education, all faced accusations of varying degrees of involvement in or sympathy towards communist organizations (Selman, 1981). In 1969, when Fred Hampton, a Black Panther leader from Chicago gave a talk at the University of Saskatchewan, the RCMP closely monitored the event, aware of the significant Indigenous and Metis population in Regina and the appeal that Hampton’s message might have to young activists on campus. As Dawn Rae Flood observes, “The Panthers reception in Regina also demonstrates how similar social conditions in very different places had the potential to encourage unlikely connections during this historical period of intense social upheaval” (2014, p. 22).
State authorities justified their unprecedented repression campaign because many Black activist groups called for a redistribution of wealth and resources both in the United States and for Blacks to build and control their own communities and institutions (Mills, 2003). The Black Panther Party offered an array of social programs including free school breakfasts, medical clinics, ambulance services, legal services, and seniors’ programs, among many others. Sadly, the public image of angry, armed, leather-clad Black men persists as the dominant media portrayal of the Panthers. In fact, party members took up arms as their second amendment right to bear arms as a defense against police brutality in the 1960s. Their social programs provided far more support to marginalized urban communities than federal programs did, and yet these contributions of communal care are rarely recognized in school history books or the mainstream media.
As Jessica Gordon-Nembhard (2014) and Caroline Shenaz Hossein (2019) show, marginalized Black communities long before the neo-liberal era had to live in a state of constant repression, sabotage, and crisis under capitalism. As far back as the late nineteenth century, hundreds of Black and inter-racial worker cooperatives were developed with the help of labor union advocacy organizations to access credit to support their economic independence. While incarceration and police brutality may have worsened for Black communities under neoliberalism, historical research suggests that efforts towards the creation of a Black social and solidarity economy has been systematically repressed by the state. But will this change in our current moment? Will the state go beyond “defunding police” towards proactively supporting a Black social and solidarity economy?
From our current perspective, in an era of market-driven educational programs, it is hard to imagine a time when such radical educational and social economic initiatives flourished (before the neoliberal era). It is also hard to predict whether the global pandemic and demands for racial justice (along with climate activism) will result in more widespread adoption of economic democracy. My goal here has been to encourage young scholar-activists to understand that adult learning for social and solidarity economy has been a form of anti-racist resistance. Furthermore, these efforts have often met with state repression and destruction in Black communities. These radical programs precede neo-liberalism by a century, and I hope that they will expand and flourish long after.
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