“Civilization’s supreme test" : cooperative organizing in New Orleans, 1890s-2014
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This dissertation argues that cooperatives in New Orleans have drawn on homegrown ethnic and religious communal traditions to confront the vagaries of capitalism and its fraught connections to race, class, and gender. To historically and theoretically anchor my project, I examine seven cooperatives whose shifting alliances with labor, political, and consumer activist networks sustained the movement’s commitment to fashioning a new, egalitarian society. In chapter one, I analyze how socialist Catholic Creole, Caribbean, and European cooperatives transcended racial and ethnic barriers to citywide labor organizing in the 1890s. Chapter two examines the racial and class assumptions undermining white female activists’ interwar cooperative movement. Chapter three explores multiracial, cross-class, and gender-inclusive Popular Front cooperatives to recuperate the history of the city’s integrated political organizations. Chapter four examines one family’s intergenerational cooperative career to reveal the influence of black cooperative enterprise on twentieth-century civil rights projects. Finally, chapter five studies the continuity and rupture between pre- and post-Hurricane Katrina cooperatives, as well as their vexed negotiation of neoliberal economic and political policies perpetuating systemic inequality. While my dissertation highlights New Orleans’ contributions to U.S. cooperative and social movements, it expands economic history more broadly. Using the methodological interventions of gender studies, cultural geography, oral history, and critical race theory, I contend that neighborhood context affects cooperatives’ ability to implement economic alternatives, while cooperatives’ moral economy is also inscribed on the physical landscape of their community. Studying scenes of cooperative members’ daily lives reveals an accretion of ongoing political activity that contributes to a genealogy of social protest and grassroots mobilization. My dissertation offers a new, on-the-ground perspective on how cooperatives remold communities to reflect and strengthen a larger ethical project of societal transformation in modern America.