The Legacy of the Lodges: Mutual Aid and Consumer Society
Review by Eric Laursen
They had funny names: the Odd Fellows, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, the Knights of Pythias, the Loyal Order of Moose, the Household of Ruth, the International Order of Twelve Knights and Daughters of Tabor. They observed quasi-mystical rituals and customs, greeted each other with secret handshakes and were often known for their bizarre headgear that included antlers, fezes, and pseudo-Native American headdresses. Even in their heyday they made a sweet target for easy-chair social commentators like H.L. Mencken, who saw them as typifying the sheep-like American “joiner” and mocked their eccentric ceremonies. “Ten iron-molders meet in the back-room of a near-beer saloon, organize a lodge of the Noble and Mystic Order of American Rosicrucians, and elect a wheelwright Supreme Worthy Whimwham,” Mencken scoffed.(1)
But fraternal orders (which also included women’s organizations) were an enormous social force among American working people in the first half of the 20th Century—nearly as significant as labor unions. Also known as mutual aid societies, their defining features were “an autonomous system of lodges, a democratic form of internal government, a ritual, and the provision of mutual aid for members and their families.”(2) Fraternal orders were astonishingly diverse, self-selecting their members by geography, ethnicity, religion, or, like the Odd Fellows, nearly no criteria at all except “good character.” When the movement peaked in the early 1930s, fraternal orders had as many as thirty five million members. The biggest order, the Masons, claimed over twelve percent of all white American adults as initiates, as well as a fair—if segregated—percentage of black males.
The legions who joined the fraternal orders were not anarchists. The orders tended to be organized in a rigidly hierarchical way, and their leaders loved to underscore their Americanism and denounce radicals and revolutionaries. But perhaps they protested a bit too much. Anarchists have always projected mutual aid as the basic organizing principle of a non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian society. And despite their many defects, the fraternal orders carried out perhaps the most ambitious experiment in mutual aid in U.S. history—a project that cut across classes and gave immigrants and people of color a tool for advancing themselves when government and the capitalist business structure were both geared to keep them in their place.
The orders provided a powerful demonstration that mutual aid could serve as an alternative method for organizing a complex modern society. And at least in embryo, they had the potential to supplant the government-run social-services system that evolved during the New Deal (and is now under attack from the right ) with a decentralized, democratically run model that tied local mutual aid societies together in loose, cooperative national confederations. Undoubtedly, few lodge brothers or sisters ever thought of themselves as social revolutionaries. But their project made them fellow travelers of a sort, unwittingly providing a rebuke to free-market theorists who asserted that only an economic model built around corporate competition—not cooperation—could adequately provide for its members’ needs.
The basic purpose of the orders was to enable working people to pool their financial resources to supply each other with essentials that the state and the capitalists would not, including life insurance, pensions, cradle-to-grave medical care, and homes and schools for destitute family members. Members paid dues, usually modest, to support these services, which sometimes included their own hospitals, clinics, orphanages, and schools. And unlike private employers, the orders fought hard and usually succeeded in keeping their promises to their members even when times were bad.
Together with labor unions, agricultural cooperatives, and the budding feminist and African American liberation movements, some observers saw the orders as an unmistakable sign that society was evolving beyond the stage where capitalists could rationally claim that economic competition was the only way for the human race to progress. In his conclusion to Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902),(3) Kropotkin predicted that “the mutual aid tendency” would one day break down the “iron rules” of the state. Already, he wrote, it manifests itself “in an infinity of associations which now tend to embrace all aspects of life and to take possession of all that is required by man [sic] for life and for reproducing the waste occasioned by life.” Less than ten years later, by a conservative estimate, one third of all adult males in the U.S. over nineteen were members of a fraternal “lodge.”
The mutual aid movement was derailed by a complicated series of developments that went hand-in-hand with the rise of the welfare state and the privatization of public space after World War II. On a deeper level, though, the culprit was the corporate colonization of desire: American business’s seemingly endless outpouring of dream machines, from the automobile to the shopping mall to movies and television, that decentered towns and urban neighborhoods and pulled workers away from the communities that had once been their primary source of identity.
Understanding how the mutual aid society faded into the consumer society can help us to define our options today for reviving the project to create a radically democratic, cooperative world of autonomous communities and individuals. Three recent books provide a good starting-point: David T. Beito’s From Mutual Aid to Welfare State (2000), Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumer’s Republic (2003), and Juliet B. Schor’s and Douglas B. Holt’s collection, The Consumer Society (2000). Together, they form a substantial history of the destruction of mutual aid institutions and their replacement by a corporate world in which people no longer determine the nature of their own desires but are manipulated into desiring a hodge-podge of consumer products—a world that cripples their ability to consider what their “real” desires may be.
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Beito’s book is especially valuable, offering the first reasonably comprehensive portrait of how American fraternal orders practiced mutual aid. It is easy to idealize the orders, which had plenty of failings. Some poorly run orders swindled their members or lost their money. They were rigidly segregated, excluding blacks and other minorities. They relegated women to secondary roles as “auxiliaries” and rigorously excluded anyone they deemed not to be of good character—i.e., jobless, politically radical, or in any way not in keeping with middle class values. They went out of their way to denounce anarchism, socialism and any other “un-American” beliefs, even though they embodied some of those movements’ key aspirations. While they spanned many social classes, in practice the richest members tended to dominate lodge government. And they were politically myopic, siding, for instance, with their enemies in the commercial insurance industry and the American Medical Association (AMA) to squash a “socialist” campaign for a national health care system during World War I.
But this doesn’t tell the whole story. African Americans formed their own mutual aid societies, and in fact a greater proportion of black working males than whites belonged to a lodge. Immigrants—Jews, Irish, Hispanic and many others—formed lodges as well, often with a more politically radical ideology. Women had their own orders, which not only provided the usual benefits but sometimes offered training in marketable business skills as well. Like the larger “mainstream” orders, all made a strong distinction between mutual aid and “charity,” which American workers feared would make them dependent on the government or on rich benefactors.
This distinction meant that the social services offered by fraternal orders were generally more progressive than those local governments provided, Beito argues, because they served brothers and sisters—not charity cases. At a time when orphanages were notoriously cruel institutions, the Moose and the Security Benefit Association ran homes and schools for deceased members’ children that deemphasized the heavy moralizing typical of such institutions and produced far better-educated, better-prepared adults. Often they had room for widows as well. The Modern Woodmen of America ran a well-regarded tuberculosis sanitarium. And the Taborites, a black order, provided one of the few well-equipped and staffed hospitals in the South for African Americans. In all cases, the sense of fraternity—of mutual obligation to support brothers and sisters in need—was a strong factor.
Most crucially, the orders gave ordinary workers a haven from the increasing hegemony of big business over the necessities of life and the production of new desires. A little background history is helpful. Fraternal orders originated in England in the early 18th century, when the old paternalistic rural society was breaking up and large-scale industrialization was just beginning to be glimpsed. Orders like the Masons and the Odd Fellows partially replaced the social safety net that was disintegrating as centuries-old communities broke up and the urban megalopolis appeared. Immigrants imported the lodge system to America, Australia, and elsewhere.
The orders were not an anachronism. They were a parallel development to the capitalist economy, a long-term effort to adapt the concept of mutual aid to the conditions of a complex, interlinked modern economy. As corporate America expanded in the early 20th Century, capitalists who wanted to build businesses in sectors dominated by the mutual aid societies attacked them with all the ferocity of Dick Cheney going after alternative energy producers. The AMA fought the fraternal orders over their practice of hiring doctors for individual lodges, which helped them to control medical costs. Big insurance companies, some of which started out as mutual aid societies, fought them over every type of insurance they tried to extend to their members. Yet in most cases, dues-paying lodge members received comparable or better benefits at a lower cost than other workers.
Historians tend to point to the Depression as the era of decline of the fraternal orders, although some continued to provide the same set of benefits to a dwindling number of members into the 1960s. Many were forced to raise their dues, leaving jobless members unable to pay—even though all the biggest orders found ways not to cut benefits. Government-run social programs, especially Social Security, unemployment insurance and Aid to Families with Dependent Children, diminished the need for independent mutual aid societies. And when the government started providing tax credits for employers to create pension and health benefit plans for their workers, many companies jumped at the offer since it meant they could effectively defer a portion of workers’ wages until after they retired.
Three other factors were involved as well. The 1920s finalized America’s first great period of mass migration from cities to suburbs. This exacerbated class stratification, and where wealthy citizens had once looked to boost their community prestige by assuming prominent posts in lodges that included every segment of the community, now they wanted to belong to something more exclusive. So the lodges started losing their most affluent members to a new breed of “service” organizations, including the Lions and Kiwanis, which offered no mutual aid benefits but instead concentrated on charity work. This left the lodges more financially vulnerable and deprived them of many influential supporters.
Even as lodge membership was peaking, however, it was clear that the fraternal orders weren’t going to pull themselves together to create a larger vision of a decentralized society. Though as many as one out in three working households were connected to a benefits-paying lodge in some way, the leadership of the orders seems never to have contemplated launching a systematic campaign to make their program universal—to seek out communities that did not have their own mutual aid societies and help them to set up their own structures. They also never tried to work together cooperatively to extend the facilities in which they specialized—a TB sanitarium, a home nursing service—to other orders so as to build larger mutual aid networks. Was this just because of their leaders’ political and social conservatism? Or because the orders themselves were afraid of surrendering some part of their autonomy? Unfortunately, Beito doesn’t address these issues.
The third factor that led to the orders’ decline was consumerism. A decade later, in the midst of the Depression, economists recognized the role workers could play in ending the economic meltdown by raising their demand for consumer products. During the so-called Second New Deal of 1938-41, the Roosevelt administration pushed through emergency appropriations specifically aimed at putting cash in people’s pockets so they could buy things. “The prosperity of this nation is built upon spending, not saving”(4) became the new orthodoxy, and it has remained so for government economists to this day.
Cohen picks up the story in A Consumer’s Republic. The Depression sparked the second of three 20th Century consumer movement “waves” in the U.S., she explains. An earlier one had focused on factory conditions, and the later wave of the 1960s and 1970s would center on product safety. But the consumer movement of the Depression, still in touch with the mutual aid tradition, was perhaps the most radical of all. It included mass boycotts of stores that “price-gouged,” sit-ins and consumer strikes in black communities against stores that refused to hire African Americans, and large-scale efforts to set up buying cooperatives and consumer-owned stores. Not surprisingly, business denounced such actions as un-American and consumer activists—often largely women —as “reds.” Business won the battle shortly after World War II ended, when consumerists tried and failed to preserve wartime price controls that had sheltered workers from profiteers.
Cohen doesn’t say so explicitly, but she makes a strong case that the rise of the consumer society after the war was the death blow to mutual aid and the fraternal orders. For reasons that she does not explain fully, real estate developers even before the war ended began promoting single-family, suburban homes—rather than “traditional” city or country living—as the ideal for returning GIs and the families they were expected to start. An automobile was assumed to accompany each home. And each home came ready for the new owners to fill up with exciting new consumer durables like electric refrigerators, toasters, and lawn sprinklers. (“That little home sketched there in the sand is a symbol of faith and hope and courage. It’s a promise, too,” read a magazine ad for General Electric appliances.(5))
Consciously or not, manufacturers and developers
were sculpting a new model of American life that included more easily
obtainable credit, more dispersed housing patterns and a chance to move
out of one’s class—if one were white and male, at least.
This new model left little room for mutual aid organizations. Separating
households from close-knit communities made lodges more difficult to
organize. And it replaced reliance on the fraternal obligation to support
each other’s families with a new faith in property values, government-funded
benefits, and the never-ending expansion of the consumer economy.
“In reconstructing the nation after World War II,” Cohen argues, “leaders of business, government, and labor developed a political economy and a political culture that expected a dynamic mass consumption economy not only to deliver prosperity, but also to fulfill American society’s loftier aspirations: more social egalitarianism, more democratic participation, and more political freedom.”(6)
It didn’t work out that way. The ’burbs quickly became just as rigidly divided between haves and have-nots as white residents fought savage battles against integration in the 1950s and 1960s. One of the strengths of Cohen’s book is her focus on the new postwar suburbs, showing that while the most visible battles for racial equality were fought at the federal level (Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965), some of the most important took place in the courts and state legislatures, and centered on local zoning fights. It was a difficult war of inches, and while integration won in some places, white flight often turned victories into long-term defeats. In the end, the kind of ethnic and geographic solidarity that had once strengthened the fraternal orders remained to some extent, only now its main expression was in the NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) spirit of the postwar suburbs and affluent urban neighborhoods—not in mutual aid.
Meanwhile, jobs and access to commercial establishments became the focus of the mainstream civil rights movement. In southern cities, Woolworth’s refusal to seat black customers at its lunch counters sparked protests and sit-ins, for example. After buses, schools, and hospitals were integrated, civil rights activists turned to businesses that failed to serve the needs of African American consumers. Many black activists found their voices through boycotts, sit-ins and other mass actions in which they demanded equal access to the goods that defined the middle class. And the inner city riots of the 1960s expressed a deep anger not just at the state’s neglect of services for people of color but at retail businesses’ unfair treatment of them as consumers. But business quickly found ways to refigure the black liberation movement, women’s liberation, and most every other movement for social and economic justice that arose during and after the 1960s as a potential audience for new products and new approaches to selling and branding.
Some movement groups, including but not limited to the Black Panther Party and the women’s movement, created an extraordinary publishing, musical, and artistic scene outside of corporate control in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and acted on the need to revive the mutual aid project—to produce their own food, culture, and other necessities, to address health and family issues directly through the community rather than through the market. But a long period of economic and wage stagnation that began in the early 1970s strangled many of these efforts, and unemployment and an increasingly reactionary government left workers ever more dependent on the good graces of the corporation.
And so the colonization of desire continued on its way, even though the more utopian vision of the consumers’ republic died. What we got instead was the consumer society. Schor and Holt’s collection assembles almost 150 years of writings on the subject, from Marx (“The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret”) to social observers Betty Friedan and Thomas Frank to postmodern thinkers Pierre Bourdieu and Jean Baudrillard. Their chapters explain how consumerism works and maintains its hold on us, if not how to combat it and develop alternatives.
With all their faults, the old fraternal orders offered a kind of model for a society in which mutual aid provides for each according to his or her needs. Death benefits, health care, and even some form of ritual—however hokey—that makes us feel part of a community are desires that connect directly with our needs as human beings. But that’s not what’s important to the capitalist. “In a free enterprise economy,” the head of a “motivational research operation” told Friedan, “we have to develop the need for new products. And to do that we have to liberate women to desire these new products. We help them to rediscover that homemaking is more creative than to compete with men. This can be manipulated. We sell them what they ought to want, speed up the unconscious, move it along.”(7) (Note the use of the word “liberate.”)
A few years before Friedan exposed the marketing of “womanhood” in The Feminine Mystique, economist John Kenneth Galbraith identified the basic paradox behind such tropes of Madison Avenue and gave this phenomenon a name: the “dependency effect.” When the main goal of life is a higher and higher standard of living, Galbraith wrote in The Affluent Society, manufacturers do not simply create products to satisfy demands, but create new desires to be fulfilled by the products they manufacture: “The fact that wants can be synthesized by advertising, catalyzed by salesmanship, and shaped by the discreet manipulation of the persuaders shows that they are not very urgent.”(8) But over time they tend to become urgent, even necessary, as manufacturers find ways to channel more needs through them. The result, Galbraith concluded, is a “model of the good society” based on “the squirrel wheel.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, as manufacturers and the burgeoning financial services industry concentrated more and more of their attention on “high net-worth customers,” the “aspirational gap” created by this system engendered ever more exaggerated notions of what’s “adequate” for a good life. Schor notes that one survey found the level of income needed to fulfill one’s dreams doubled between 1986 and 1994, to twice the median household income. Bankruptcies have soared too, not surprisingly. Meanwhile, the richest subsection of Americans scheme to pass laws making it easier for them to amass their fortunes tax-free, even as they rush ahead to create new aspirations for the rest of us to catch up to.(9)
There’s no way to know if this treadmill-like society, with its obsessive focus on growth no matter what the direction or what the cost—social, psychological, environmental—would not have come to be had the mutual aid societies survived. Maybe it’s a coincidence that two of the benefits the fraternal orders typically provided their members were life insurance and health care: the one nearly impossible for an older blue collar worker to obtain today and the other rapidly becoming too expensive for anyone but a millionaire.
Cohen and Schor do not address the possible connection. And they have little to say about how the consumer society can be tamed or turned back other than some modest public policy prescriptions: government income transfers or vouchers to guarantee a basic standard of living, for example, or a revival of the third-wave consumer movement demand for a cabinet-level consumer advocate. “Separating the citizen from the consumer would involve severing a linkage that has only solidified over the course of the twentieth century,”(10) Cohen concludes, depressingly.
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The biggest failing of the prewar mutual aid network was its parochialism. A diverse collection of lodges and orders focused narrowly on providing only for their own members’ needs and self-selected those members to fit a narrow conception of who belonged and who didn’t. The result: not just racism and rigid gender division, but failure to understand the revolutionary impact of their own method of organizing. There were exceptions: Beito describes the Taborites’ role in supporting the civil rights movement, although he provides too little discussion of the Jewish Arbeter Stimme (to which both Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman belonged) and other overtly anti-capitalist orders.
But the big unanswered question remains: what might have happened if the fraternal orders had pulled together to spread the ideal of mutual aid more widely, perhaps extending it to the entire U.S. working population? At least until the later years of the Depression, this was not out of the question. Certainly the fraternal orders’ rivals, especially in the insurance industry, did their best to discredit them and limit their ability to provide certain kinds of benefits.
Perhaps more critically, however, the business people who tended to snag the top positions in the lodges weren’t interested in—and perhaps were personally afraid of—the wider implications of the mutual aid model. The result was that despite their success at demonstrating mutual aid’s ability to meet community needs in a complex society, the fraternal orders never attempted to challenge the emerging hegemony of business. They never developed a conscious political critique of capitalism, such as that articulated by anarchists and socialists. And they rarely tried to extend their success at providing social insurance to actual manufacturing—which would probably have necessitated linking up with the labor movement and, at least presumptively, endorsing the notion of class struggle.
In the end, the conservative thinking of the orders’ hierarchical leadership, intent on proving that lodge brothers and sisters were not un-American, fatally limited its vision. The “need to nourish the most utopian desires” was not a principle the lodge potentates could even approach without jeopardizing the social standing they sought by taking these positions in the first place.
For anarchists and other anti-authoritarians today, the problem is not so much hierarchical leadership. But the movement has its own tendencies toward parochialism—to mistake the need to maintain the principle of individual free association and affinity group solidarity for a license to neglect the need to confederate.
Unless the movement can learn how to generate and sustain larger voluntary structures through its affinity groups and regional networks, it risks once again being outflanked by the state and the capitalist establishment, just as the fraternal orders were. And it risks confronting its own members with a dead-end choice between confining their work and passion to limited organizing among a small subgroup of self-selected activists, or else shifting their energies to groups with a non-anarchist approach but a commitment to accomplishing more far-reaching projects.
The history of the American mutual aid societies, and their collapse in the face of a jacked-up state system and super-charged consumer capitalism during the immediate pre- and post-war years, point to the challenge today’s autonomist collectives must overcome. Samuel Gompers, a lifelong Mason, fiercely opposed national health care and government-funded pension as president of the American Federation of Labor, arguing that workers should provide these things for themselves. Undoubtedly he was right, since the state is now attempting to wriggle out of any such obligations.
But the labor movement never succeeded in creating a health and old-age benefit system that provided for all workers, either. Today, mutual aid still appears to be the only way to create a humane, caring, and fully participatory society. But anarchists have not begun to consider their biggest challenge yet: how to make mutual aid universal. This doesn’t mean the movement needs to renounce the autonomist principle—only that it needs to take confederalism just as seriously.