Infrastructure and agency : rural electric cooperatives and the fight for economic democracy in the United States
Author(s)Spinak, Abby (Abby Elaine)
Rural electric cooperatives and the fight for economic democracy in the United States
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Department of Urban Studies and Planning.
J. Phillip Thompson.
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How do cooperative businesses influence economic and community development in practice? Recent calls for a "new economy" argue that co-ops and other kinds of distributed ownership should be capable of transforming neoliberal market relations into place-based, community-centered, and nonextractive modes of production and exchange. In direct contrast to these hopes about cooperatives, my dissertation on electric cooperatives in the United States shows that there can be little, if any, contradiction between community ownership and neoliberal market-based business practices. Therefore, the history of electric co-ops suggests that co-op advocates should exercise caution in their enthusiasm. My dissertation is a combined historical and qualitative study of a nation-wide network of electric cooperatives that have existed in the United States for nearly 80 years. Through historical research on the conception, funding, and implementation of these cooperatives, I explore how they were designed originally in service of rural industrial development and national growth as a solution to crisis during the precarious years of the Great Depression. Questioning how this orientation restricted these co-ops' abilities to serve as community-focused institutions, I argue that the 1930s was a tipping point in American history when federal investment in rural electrification could have constructed a vast network of local democratic institutions, but didn't. However, in the interest of understanding how electric co-ops can yet be a transformative force for communities, I also conducted case studies of three co-ops where members recently pushed for changes in leadership and agenda. In my case study research, I examine how electric co-ops can in fact be a powerful venue for local democracy and community transformation; for this potential to be realized, though, co-op members must re-envision the co-op not as a single-issue business, but as a community institution in a broader political struggle. In studying these movements, my dissertation highlights the importance of focusing on the quality of democratic practice in co-ops, and ultimately asks whether and under what conditions the electric co-op model is capable of becoming a transformative economic influence.
Thesis: Ph. D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, 2014.Cataloged from PDF version of thesis.Includes bibliographical references (pages 267-282).
DepartmentMassachusetts Institute of Technology. Department of Urban Studies and Planning.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Urban Studies and Planning.