Strawberry Fields, Forever

Building Cooperative Power:  A Book Review


Strawberry Fields, Forever


December 8, 2014 - and it's time to go to Strawberry Fields another time.

Every year on this date, the tragic day on which John Lennon was shot down by an unstable man outside the Dakota Apartment Building on West 72nd Street (in New York City), fans and admirers gather across Central Park West and slightly into the park to commemorate his legacy at the spot now officially known as 'Strawberry Fields.' 

This little open area, hemmed in by iron rails (keeping us off the grass) and benches (which people most often stand on on this day), is dominated by a small circle and design imbedded in the pavement in which is written the single word "Imagine."  Around that circle on December 8 sit a group of hardcore fans, having a close-up view of the lit candles, flowers, notes and messages left inside the circle in honor of Lennon and his life, while standing up on the inner edge, just behind them or among them, are the loyal musician-fans who show up on this day (and perhaps also on October 9, Lennon's birthday) to play their guitars and lead the rest of the crowd which swells up behind them, in an hours-long sing-a-long of Beatles songs, and numbers from John's solo catalogue.  There are several regulars, familiar and cherished faces, who have an amazing memory for Beatles/Lennon chords and lyrics, plus all the little musical twists and turns of the songs which would definitely throw the uninitiated off track (occasionally, they do stoop to using lyrics books); their musical ability is solid, though their acoustic guitars often sound faint in the space and are often drowned out by the ragged voices of the mob singing along (sometimes only trying to sing along).  Occasionally (on a good day), they miss one or two chords, but who can blame them?:  many times, Dec. 8 comes as cold as ice, and it is all one can do to just stand there without freezing to death.  Under those conditions, how they can keep playing song after song without having their fingers crack and fall off must surely count as one of the world's great miracles.  I suppose we can chalk it up to the power of enthusiasm, loyalty and gratitude: the determination to thank John Lennon for all he did by keeping his music alive in front of the people... which is probably what also keeps them from succumbing to the well-meaning but ingenuous participation of some less-knowledgeable musicians, whose errors would be enough to trip anybody up, and unravel the whole affair into utter chaos.  But they survive the bumps with grace and humor, and somehow the bunch of them - the experienced and the green - find a way to bounce down the road of homage in one piece. 

At times, the sing-a-long is joined by Beatles clones who show up in early-Beatles garb to add a theme-park-like nuance to the show (but, thankfully, the raw energy of the admirers prevents it from becoming cheesy, like Disneyland); people with exotic instruments, or just harmonicas and tambourines or flutes, may appear at some point to try to join in, some with more sense than others; and then there are the players with amps, the drum, and the beautiful Asian woman with the bass, who may or may not come.  Gathered around this core of music-makers are the many layers of visitors who show up:  first off, the hardcore ex-hippie or continuing-hippie rememberers, veterans of the dream to change the world who are still living outside the gates of the dream, some of them nostalgic and mournful about that, some of them with wiser, wounded spirits that have adapted to the world as it is while not yet taking their eyes off of the world as it could be.  Then there are the 60s and 70s veterans who have moved on more successfully, leaving behind that phase of life once presided over by Lennon with the same fondness yet decisiveness that you leave behind your college days.  You can see that they are doing quite well; they are thriving in the system, and yet, they have been humanized by their days of listening to Lennon.   Rather than resenting them for not being as hurt as we are, we of the battered-hippie tribe can thank them for bringing that humanity inside places of power and influence, and doing many beneficial things for the world that we on the outside have failed to do. 

Of course, there are also pure curiosity seekers, bored people with cell-phone cameras who want footage to add to their nearly infinite video collection of everything that has happened since the day they were born; passers-by who get stuck in the crowd and decide they might as well stay for a while as press forward at the velocity of 1/4 mile per hour; and other assorted non-participants who might as well be sitting in a Starbucks (come to think of it, with these temperatures it wouldn't be a bad idea). 

But then, again, passing over these, there are large numbers of people, neither the Lennon-peers and Lennon-children of the 60s/70s, nor the voyeurs and accidental visitors, who seem to be genuinely interested in the scene without fitting into one of the expected categories; but you see them singing along to the songs.  How do they know them?  Why do they know them?  They are too young to have grown up with Lennon, but somehow... maybe from their parents... or maybe from the way legends have of walking through walls like ghosts, of crossing from one time to another because there is something timeless in their soul, something in the verb of their actions which cannot be changed from the present tense to the past:  something that is, and always is (never was).  (The relevance button is stuck, it won't switch off.)  Today, as I went to Strawberry Fields yet again, and nearly froze my butt off for reasons that are obvious to my emotions, but not my mind, I once more enjoyed the sight of young people - high-school age to mid-20s - swaying to the music, and singing along (their voices sometimes thinning out when the lyrics became more obscure, leaving the veterans to hold the gap until the next familiar line came up, and the chaotic sing-a-long regained its full strength).  How beautiful these young people were, I thought!  These history-buffs of music, or was it time travelers, or was it rediscovers of the eternal?  And as I pondered the mystery of why they were here, the music being sung and played, uneven and bumpy though it was, answered the question for me.  This music did it all!  There were songs of longing, love, missing, hurting, wanting, being betrayed, being angry about being betrayed, hoping, returning, getting back what was lost.  It wasn't just the surreal songs or the peace-and-love dream of changing the earth, of ending wars and poverty and injustice, which were out and about at Strawberry Fields today, it was the whole gamut of life spread out for our use and our healing, music for every road, for every turn in the road, for every time we drive off the road; it was a thousand times more powerful than a nostalgia trip, it was the medicine of the now, the companionship we need, the angel or friend that can pick us up in our time of need and validate us and run with us without tiring... 

Sometimes when I have come here with friends, my day at Strawberry Fields has not gone well.  Once, my companion was just plain frozen, and we couldn't stay long though we did enjoy our momentary experience of the scene.  Another day, my companion just wasn't into it - all she heard were faint guitars being scratched at in the cold, and raggedy often inaudible singing coming and going like a radio program you can't quite tune in; while all she saw was a bunch of people standing around like fools for something that was gone and over, instead of moving on with their lives, and getting out of the cold to do something useful and more aesthetic than butchering melodies in a park...  But today, alone again, I moved from the fringe to deep within the crowd to get the vibe, I opened my heart to the intent of the people who were here, and of the musician we were honoring; I looked over at the castle-like Dakota from which he had once looked out towards us (but before we were here), and up at the trees which he had once walked under, now stretching their bare branches up towards the gray sky.  And I let something in which mitigated the 'amateur nature' of the whole thing, something which was forgiving of our awkwardness and encouraging of our spirit, and respectful of our gesture and the world our gesture was praying for.  And the music, even in these imperfect echoes of its original force, struck home.  And suddenly I heard and felt my whole life coming back to life: my disappointments in love, the abandonments I had suffered, the love I wanted to give and would have given, my relationship with social justice and the role it had played (and I hope still plays) in my life (wake up, wake up!), and the beautiful and foggy but indestructible dream of a utopia that maybe one day we will be able to translate into the language of reality.  I realized that the world was precious, that life was precious, that I was precious and could not measure myself by the misperceptions of others, who had never seen me, only judged me.  As everything was felt anew, I became complete anew: the fragment which life often breaks us down into from the complete human being we originally were, expanded back into fullness.  As feelings, triggered by the music, came up from burial grounds in my soul, the parts of me that time had 'turned off' and I had allowed to be lost because it seemed easier that way, revived, stood up, and said, 'We are still here, do you want us?'  And gratefully I said, 'Yes!'  Living was never meant to be easy - that is why we have songs!

Once again, Strawberry Fields, Dec. 8, had brought me back from the dead:  that strange mix of John Lennon devotees and curiosity-seekers, gathered around a candle-and-flower-filled circle with the word IMAGINE written in the middle of it; singing, playing guitars, not letting an act of thoughtless violence silence the power of life, the power of dreams.  How fitting was it that at the moment the cold finally got the better of me, and I decided to end this year's stint at Strawberry Fields and head back towards the train, that the crowd around the circle took up the song, I'll be back again?  "You know, if you break my heart I'll go... but I'll be back again..."   

Thank you, John Lennon, for your great life-changing gift!  You have pulled me out of the water more than once.   Thank you, rank-and-file musicians of New York, for your loyalty and your frostbite-proof fingers!  You keep the world moving towards its highest self. Thank you, Strawberry Fields crowd, for your devoted and enthusiastic presence and the energy you share!  You help the wounds to heal, and put more miles in my legs.  The writing I do, and the life I live, from which my writing comes, has been nourished by you for 34 years.  You are a part of my world, more than you know, and tonight I wish to honor you as you honor John Lennon.  Peace and love to all of you... and toughness, too, because who could make it another day without that?  (The world needs the beautiful, and therefore it needs the beautiful to be tough.)  Take good care of yourselves and others, and God willing, we'll meet again next year to keep this thing, and the world-to-be which it stands for, going...

J Rainsnow, Dec. 8, 2014

^ Some of the musicians who sometimes appear at John Lennon/Beatles functions at Strawberry Fields and elsewhere (photo from Roberta W., robertaw, at  Judging by the way they're dressed, this didn't happen on my watch!

Back to Top

Blog Launch Page


Building Cooperative Power:  A Book Review 


Sort of a book review (I don't straight-shoot anything)...

When I first began writing The March of the Eccentrics, it was because I was propelled by a crazy imagination which I could not resist, any more than a rocket can resist the flame coming out of its back ("like it or not, you're going to the moon"); and because I wanted to have a positive influence on the world.  I wanted to inject a new dose of revolutionary culture into the world - characters who would inspire, trigger, lift and launch the slumbering and the demoralized, the dormant and the unknowing; stories which would lead people who were tired of reality back to reality, refreshed and reinvigorated by a new mythology; fantasy back-doors into truth which would bypass the daunting parapets of depressing newspaper articles and the numbing moats of unbearable television footage, which inspired retreat from what was happening just as much as engagement.  It was my hope to create a diversion from reality which would use reality (mixed with an alluring measure of fantasy) as its raw material, and which, instead of leading to a permanent detachment from reality, would reenergize us and resurrect our ability to face it anew.  My fantasy world was always meant to be connected with the real world:   to be joined with those who were fighting, with those who were struggling, with those who were dreaming with tools in their hands, actually putting together the bricks of a new day.

This understood, it should not be surprising that I have undertaken to 'review', or better said, 'bring up', or 'publicize' a humble yet hopeful little book by the name of Building Cooperative Power, authored by Janelle Cornwell, Michael Johnson, and Adam Trott, with Julie Graham (Amherst, Mass: Levellers Press, 2013).  It is a book which describes people who are attempting to build a new day, not by waving brightly-colored flags around and beating on drums in the middle of the street (nothing against that so long as there is more than just the show), but by meticulously and with great determination working, day by day, to create the structures, foundations, understandings and behaviors which will not only make their own lives more rewarding and in tune with the principles which most people  profess but few manage to live by, but could also, conceivably, one day plant the seeds of a major shift in the way the world's heart beats and the world's lungs breathe.  Although Building Cooperative Power seems to deliberately curtail that emphasis, it suggests it more discreetly.  It avoids the grandiose, but its sober and careful analyses of small-scale, nuts-and-bolts operations of transformation do define and map out potential building blocks of a new kind of civilization:  one in which there is peace between labor and capital; one in which fairness, justice, sustainability, health and well-being are major factors in the planning and running of the economy; one in which humanity is not swallowed up by the processes ostensibly created to benefit it, but remains in true control of its destiny and future.

To break it all down:  Building Cooperative Power attempts to do several things at once.  It provides, on the basis of interviews, protagonist-self-explanations, and author research and assessments, a close-up view of several worker cooperatives in the Connecticut River Valley, as well as a look into the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives (the VAWC), a larger coordinating and connecting organization which has come into being to represent and assist these co-ops, and, where possible, to extend and strengthen the phenomenon begun by them.  Building Cooperative Power also attempts to provide a framework for understanding worker cooperatives in general, and beyond that, all types of cooperatives (for example, producer cooperatives and consumer/user cooperatives); to clarify the nature of worker cooperatives, and the challenges inherent in building and maintaining them; to study the nature of the difference between these co-ops and mainstream business models, as well as the nature of the relationship between these co-ops and society at large; and to point out the benefits of cooperative systems and to advocate for them, in an effort to break through society's disempowering lack of awareness regarding them (you don't let in what you don't understand) and to also move cooperatives, themselves, towards a higher level of inter-co-op cooperation, in order to magnify their impact and enhance their survivability.  In the end, the book seems to direct its final focus towards the goal of promoting and strengthening the co-op movement in the Connecticut River Valley, which would make it seem to be a local piece, something beautiful but limited like "arts and crafts from Alameda County", or "novels written by residents of Jackson Heights."  However, the discussion in the book is wide-ranging (even taking us abroad to Italy and Spain), and the lessons to be learned from the cooperative struggles and triumphs in the Connecticut River Valley are clearly useful and applicable on a much wider scale, certainly throughout the U.S.A.  It also seems clear, between the lines, that the authors of the book are drawn to the activity in the Connecticut River Valley not just because they live there or within driving distance of it, but because there is some kind of collaborative buzz there, something palpable, and hope-creating:  in the Connecticut River Valley, they have found a promising hub of cooperative activity which, perhaps with a little extra nudge (and certainly some more time), might one day start rolling towards the kind of 'critical mass' needed to generate something powerful and expansive, like the attainments of Mondragon in the Basque region of Spain, which are repeatedly referred to.  Such a powerful development in such a culturally visible and influential region of the US (East Coast, in range of Boston and New York City) could, in turn, begin to engage the rest of the country in a shift towards new concepts of business management, ownership, priorities and concerns, which could, in turn, have a revolutionary and humanizing effect on the nature of our civilization, itself.  That's something we sure could use at a time like this:  a time when the integrity of our democracy, the fate of justice throughout the world, and even the survival of the earth itself, victimized by our human lack of vision and self-control, seem at risk!  (Not to be melodramatic, just keeping it real...)

This having been said, I won't go on to exhaustively chronicle Building Cooperative Power, but stick to bringing up a few of my favorite points from it.

But before that, I suppose, we need to be clear on the basic subject matter of the book:  the co-operative, itself!  What is it?  The authors describe three basic types of cooperatives: producer cooperatives (such as farmer co-ops); consumer, or user cooperatives (such as food co-ops, or credit unions); and worker co-ops, which are the main (but far from exclusive) focus of the book.  (These three types of co-ops are referred to as sectors, while the term industry is used to differentiate between the specific areas of cooperative endeavor, such as printing, textiles, retail/bookstore, etc.)  In the worker cooperative, the enterprise is OWNED by the workers, and not by capitalist entrepreneurs or investors dedicated to their own profit above the well-being of the workers (who in the classic capitalist business model are envisioned as components of the profit-generating scheme and not as its principal benefactors). Neither is the worker cooperative a cog in a bureaucratic socialist milieu (such as the old-school USSR), in which the ideal of the worker's primacy is merely a myth at the service of a heavy-handed and domineering political-managerial class.  In the worker's cooperative, as it exists and is conceived of in the US and in many other places throughout the world today, the workers are no longer pawns who are pushed across the board by someone else: they make their own moves.  They are bosses, they are in control; they are worker-owners.  They create their own management structures and direct themselves, participate in making important business decisions affecting the company and its members, set their own objectives, determine (according to their economic understanding and personal and moral priorities) what they will produce, how much, and for what price, and how the surplus generated by their activities will be distributed among members or invested in the company or community.  All of this has huge potential ramifications for both individual and society.  The individual who works for the cooperative is empowered, which is humanizing, not mere 'cannon fodder' for creating someone else's wealth as often happens in classic business enterprises; he/she is more likely to get a fair wage (an unbalanced portion of the surplus is not siphoned off and directed to non-worker managers, entrepreneurs and investors as profit); and he/she is more likely to experience a sense of (and reality of) job security, since the cooperative is not geared to treat its workers as expendable factors, to be shed in 'cost-effective' streamlining operations in times of hardship.  (At such times, the cooperative is far more likely to struggle for solutions which will enable its members to remain aboard).  For society, the co-op is also highly beneficial, since raw 'profit motive' is not built into its design, and the state of mind fostered by and necessary for its operation tilts it towards the bigger picture, towards collaboration with others, and towards responsible belonging within the larger social group.  It seems that many worker's co-ops actually orient themselves towards providing extra services/discounts/and/or investments in the wider community of which they are a part. 

One point I really loved, as the authors developed their arguments, was this one:  Today, we live in what has been termed a 'thin democracy', meaning a society in which 'democracy' for the average man has boiled down to little more than voting in elections - choosing officials who will lead us (or drag us behind them until the next election):  a pretty hollow form of political inclusion, though certainly better than nothing.  Meanwhile in the classic workplace, where we spend much of our lives and where our fate hangs in the balance (for without our wages we will be cast down to new levels of adversity), there is no democracy.  We are essentially exposed to an autocratic environment which not only affects our sense of worth and security, but also de-conditions us to the skills and values vital to the health and preservation of our democratic system.  In the worker's co-op, that changes.  In the crucible of this alternative business model, the 'good citizen' is encouraged to grow and is, in cases, reconstructed by  experience and practice:  the 'good citizen' who is communicative, involved, able to express ideas, to compromise, to overcome personal differences and forge common paths, to push forward past the sparks instead of closing up or leaving, to weave different outlooks into a coherent whole; the 'good citizen' who is the essential raw material of a survivable democracy, and surely one of the greatest products any enterprise could ever manufacture!  

The authors of Building Cooperative Power effectively convey to us the benefits of worker co-ops over traditional business models.  But they are also absolutely clear in emphasizing the hard work involved in forming and running them in a society which is geared towards recognizing and encouraging traditional business models, and which does not necessarily prepare us, as individuals, for the responsibility and person-to-person skills necessary for cooperating with others in place of commanding and following others.  Some of the difficulties associated with getting worker co-ops off the ground, and keeping them up (as well as many of the successes and benefits of the process), are crystallized in the book's substantial and very helpful section on specific worker co-ops of the Connecticut River Valley.  These sections are written by co-op members themselves, with review or commentary provided as needed by the authors.  Among the co-ops portrayed are:  Common Wealth Printing, Collective Copies, PV Squared (solar-panel installation), Pedal People (bicycle-powered trash-collectors), GAIA Host Collective (web and email hosting), Green Mountain Spinnery (yarn producer), Co-op 108 (natural body products), Valley Green Feast (food delivery service connecting customers with local farm produce), TESA/Toolbox for Education and Social Action (educational materials and games to promote a progressive social vision), Brattleboro Holistic Health Center, and Simple Diaper and Linen (biodegradable disposable diapers and conventional diaper laundering service).  The stories are engaging and instructive, and add personality to a book which otherwise might become too theoretical and technical.  Put together with the theory, a nice balance is struck, and a compelling 3-dimensional picture of worker co-ops fleshed out. 

Besides these points, I also found the authors' discussion of "invisibility" quite important and interesting.  According to the authors:  "Together, consumer, producer and worker co-ops comprise a substantial fraction of the world economy.  One billion members of co-operatives are providing 100 million jobs worldwide.  Even the U.S. - a pillar of capitalist profit and culture - is home to some 30,000 co-operatives operating in 73,000 places of business, managing $3 trillion in assets, $500 billion in revenue and $25 billion in wages." (p. 170)  In light of these impressive figures, how is it possible that the existence of cooperatives is so underperceived (even by many people who are directly benefiting from them!); how is it possible that a phenomenon so tried and tested is still treated as if it were something novel and fringe, a dangerous new innovation likely to go off the road and crash, a pipedream of lunatics, or utopian wet-dream?  It is as if the successes and viability of many such co-ops and the substantial track record already established by them were draped in a cloak of invisibility, obscuring the cooperative option and removing it from the national economic conversation. With but a few exceptions, business schools and universities do not offer courses or training regarding the cooperative option.  Many state laws and state bureaucracies do not easily facilitate their creation (they anticipate that businesses will be formed along the classic lines of the sole proprietorship, the partnership, the LLC, and the corporation.)  The public, often not aware or in proper understanding of the "co-operative difference", is not always engaged to support co-ops and nurture what they represent, in spite of the potential payback for society. The hypnotic power of the mainstream economic model, and the inertia of our culture and its official history and mythology, have simply trained our eyes to look the other way and to see the preferences of the powerful and the entrenched, which blind us to choices less conventional - to choices less centrally located on the map of lauded triumphs, yet every bit as legitimate and functional.     As a consequence of this 'invisibility', co-ops and the cooperative movement are denied much of the human energy, belief, commitment, patronage, and training, and many of the investment opportunities and foundational skills necessary for their proliferation and transition into a more widespread and influential model for business development/social evolution.

To break through this barrier, many worker co-ops in the Connecticut River Valley have joined forces through the VAWC, which is committed to helping support the creation and promotion of new worker cooperatives, and to channeling crucial advice and experience to member co-ops in order to help them prevail over the inevitable obstacles.  (Why reinvent the wheel every time, especially when it is such a complicated and potentially self-imploding experience?)  In the same vein, efforts are being made to educate consumers and students alike - consumers who will realize the benefits and greater cultural prospects of the co-op and especially patronize it for that - and students who may come to fill the ranks of the next generation of economists and business owners:  a new generation open where the previous one was closed.  Besides this, the different sectors of co-ops are initiating efforts to come together - to build new levels of inter-co-op cooperation - as manifested by the creation of the VCBA (Valley Co-operative Business Association), which combines members of producer, worker, and consumer co-ops, and which is seeking to develop links between them and to enhance their connections with the public.

Finally, of course, we have this book, itself - Building Cooperative Power - which is also a part of the effort to place the co-op movement (in the Connecticut River Valley, but via extension, throughout America), onto the social radar screen; to raise public awareness regarding the existence and worth of co-ops; and, in its way - with patience and methodicality in place of glamour - to advance the cause of cooperative development, and the human progress which will intrinsically accompany it.   Let's give thanks to the protagonists of the book for their consciousness and sweat!  And let's give thanks to the authors of the book for their commitment to bring that story to light, and in so doing, to shine a light on new possibilities for all of us.  

Although my novel, The March of the Eccentrics, is about as different in style and presentation as can be imagined from Building Cooperative Power, the latter being a sober, careful study well-grounded in the practical and focused in scope, the former being a wild idiosyncratic act of the imagination careening across an alternative-reality globe, both works meet on the common ground of envisioning a future of justice and hope for all human beings.  My book seeks, through fiction, to raise the spirit and arouse the imagination that will support the changes the world needs.  Building Cooperative Power portrays real-life men and women actually working on those changes, one humble yet meaningful day at a time; and it invites us to add our weight to the movement they have begun in order to build, from the ground up, a new world founded on the values of cooperation, non-exploitation and human empowerment. 

(Copies of  Building Cooperative Power may be purchased at:

J Rainsnow, January 18, 2015

Back to Top

Blog Launch Page