Co-op: a novel of living together

Co-op : A Novel Of Living Together. By Upton Sinclair

I recommend this novel, written in 1936 and set in the depression years of the USA – 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935 and 1936. It makes valuable reading for anyone who has socialist aspirations/hopes/vision. Or for anyone who is trying to make sense of the tangled, convoluted and tragic reality of politics today. It’s for anyone who is affected by the horror of poverty. Poverty which is not inevitable but a political consequence of the economic policies which are put into place in order to conserve and increase the vast personal wealth of a small minority of people. The economic reality of those days long ago is the same as it is now, and that is why this story is relevant. We need to know how people have responded to these situations in the past. Perhaps this will help to crystalise thinking, understanding and lead to a positive response.

Sinclair prepares the reader for this story with a few introductory words. He tells us that although this is a work of fiction, it is based on real people and real events which the author has first hand experience of.

I like this novel, because it is a story of positivity, about people who refuse to lay down and die, and watch their families starve and live without the benefit of medical attention. It is a story about co-operation, solidarity, commitment and education. It is a story about love.

The co-operators in this story are committed. Once they have decided that co-operation is the way forward they put their time and effort into the project. As in any good novel, we get to know the characters. We start to know what is needed to make the co-operative work, and delight in the way that many difficulties are overcome. We get to know the political and social forces at play.

It strikes me that there isn’t the same kind of response amongst people in today’s Western world. There is a weary sense of despair abroad. Few people have the time or energy to give more than an hour here or there for a meeting, and then another meeting with little else in between. Everything seems insipid and lukewarm. This makes a sharp contrast between the events in the novel and the modern day experience. I would like to explore the reasons for this. Where is the positivity, the determination, the energy, the imagination?

The characters in this story, against massive opposition, when they were undernourished and disadvantaged, still created a self sustaining community through their work, ingenuity and courage.

The story illustrates the politics of the time and place. It illustrates different responses to the political situation amongst the characters of the story. The differing political groups can be recognised in today’s world. Those who want to smash the state/capitalism and have a revolution. Those who want to work with the system and make it better. And, of course, those who want to create their own security and quality of life through collective self-help, working not for other people’s profit but for the benefit of their own community. Everyone working to their own strengths, their own talents. Through building up good relationships with all kinds of people and in this way creating a new world through co-operation. By showing through example how others can create co-operative community. It’s a process of collective education which makes the co-operative community resilient and strong.

Of course, all of this can be destroyed by Government working with the those who have private economic interests. Conversely, Government can be supportive. The story includes much about political bureaucracy.

The question about people power through the ballot box is left open.

This is a salutary tale and well worth reading.

Steve Thompson

Author: Upton Sinclair