St. Louis, as much as we may love it, is stuck in the 19th century. Our main division between the city and the county is the result of a late 1800s squabble. We are, according to statistician and pollster Nate Silver, the 5th most segregated city in the country. Wealth inequality has skyrocketed; black St. Louisans have similar unemployment rates to the general populace during the Great Depression.
A process of modernization is long overdue. But what to focus on? And how to accomplish it? I posit that the most pressing problems for the area are those listed above: Inequalities of race and wealth.
I believe the cooperative movement presents a unique and promising solution to these concerns. The way we tend to think economically is that development is tied to standard vertical businesses: The more stores, banks, and bosses, the more prosperous a community is. Of course, if this were true, the liquor stores and payday loan shops seen throughout St. Louis would have made us all rich by now. They haven't. This is because businesses in these areas are run for profit, not for the development of the community. Cooperatives have the ability to end these exploitative practices, because they are owned by the community itself. Profits can be directed towards education, health care, infrastructure, and other human needs. One need only look to examples like Cleveland's Evergreen Cooperatives or Spain's famous Basque collective, the MONDRAGON Corporation. There is no reason these kind of ventures can't work here.
Cooperatives show us a long-term solution to our economic and political woes by providing empowerment in both politics and economics. It does not, however, solve the problem of racism in a day. Simply saying that progressive economics will save us eventually is unsatisfactory. I do not present a novel solution to St. Louis's racist system here. I believe programs of economic uplift will help, in time, but brutal policemen and unfair sentencing is a problem of today. Therefore a program of police and justice reform must accompany any drive for a cooperative economics and politics. Any “colorblind” solution to the city and county's problems is unrealistic and ignores the pain African-Americans and other disenfranchised people feel at this very moment.
I once again posit that a movement for justice and economic cooperation will take time and effort. An idyllic cooperative system will not be built in a year, let alone a day. But there is no other way, at least one apparent to me, that will result in a true democracy. If we truly believe in participatory democracy, then we must look to economic cooperatives, as well as an end to racial injustice, for a better St Louis and a better world.
Adam Levin is a lifelong St. Louis resident, writer, musician, and occasional activist. He currently works for the United Way and for Soar Communication Strategies.