How to Swim Against the Current

How to Swim Against the Current

People are wriggling free of the fetters of corporate culture.


Last year I got this e-mail from a woman named Linda: "I have a decent job and do it well, but I'm constantly thinking I'm wasting my time. I want to begin doing something useful to contribute to changing things, at least becoming a cog in the wheel that's on the right vehicle."

She's hardly alone in her yearning to escape the corporate tentacles and defy the stultifying insistence of conventional wisdom that "success" is money. The powers that be don't want us thinking that breaking from the given order is even possible. But as a friend of mine puts it, "Those who say it can't be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."

In such varied pursuits as business, politics, healthcare, food, banking, religion and others, folks all across the country are wriggling free of the traps and fetters of our corporate culture, successfully finding new paths toward richer lives, more satisfying work and, yes, even happiness.

Take business. CEOs and their political enablers are quick to cite old Cal Coolidge's line that "the chief business of the American people is business," as if that trumps all other interests. Yet in the very same speech, Coolidge noted that wealth is not all there is to life: "There are many other things we want very much more." Then he offered this uplifting thought that the corporate world never quotes: "The chief ideal of the American people is idealism."

In practically every American community, business people are putting their idealism to work. For example, the company owner who refused an opportunity to buy out a competitor and bring in more revenue because, he said, "I'd rather pack my kids' lunch and walk them to school"; or the women of the Lusty Lady Theater who rebelled against the notorious exploitation that strippers endure and created America's first-ever unionized, worker-owned, cooperative strip club; or the pharmacist who was pulling down six figures at a chain drugstore but walked away because, he said, the unaffordable pricing "made me sick to my stomach"–he now runs his own store, called MedSavers, with low overhead and low prices, catering to uninsured and underinsured families.

For idealistic entrepreneurship, consider a brand of foods that you might have in your kitchen: Organic Valley. This purveyor of organic milk, eggs, butter, juices, etc. was organized by a group of farmers to be the "un-corporation," embracing not only profit but also the common good of what they call their "partnership society," including employers, consumers and communities. It has not been easy, but the Organic Valley cooperative has held fast to its progressive principles over the years while building a business that now includes 1,201 farm families in thirty-two states, racking up $432 million in sales in fiscal year 2007.

A measure of their commitment to principle came the year before. Some of the co-op's products were being sold through Wal-Mart, which is now the nation's biggest marketer of organic milk. But Big Wally, as it is known to its suppliers, quickly began pitting its organic milk providers against one another, demanding lower prices from them and also insisting on getting more milk from each of them.

In the corporate world, this is a no-brainer. You rush to add more dairy farms, to squeeze more milk out of each cow, to merge with another company–anything to stay on the biggest shelf in the world. Yet Organic Valley's board and members said no. Hitching their plow to Wal-Mart would change who they were, shortchange their smaller customers and pervert their sustainable long-term vision.

They asked themselves, "Which retailers have been with us in the past and will stick with us down the road?" Not Wal-Mart. Almost no one had ever pulled out of Wally, and the buyer was totally stunned. But, said the co-op's top executive, "We're independent. We answer to ourselves, not to Wall Street, so we can do it. We can keep our soul."

Such uplifting stories abound throughout our land–including in the money-soaked, corporate-driven world of politics. In 2001, for example, a group of young people in Oregon were appalled that right-wing Republicans had taken over their legislature and were dismantling the state's proud progressive systems of education and conservation. None of these young folks had been "political" people before, but they decided to see if they could do something to change this bad direction.

They saw that the Republicans had majorities of only 32-28 in the House and 16-14 in the Senate, with many of the GOP members getting elected in suburban swing districts by only a few hundred votes. Thus was born the Oregon Bus Project–a sassy, fun (but serious) effort to put young volunteers behind progressive candidates in those districts. They outfitted a 1978 forty-seven-seat bus as a volunteer mobile and went to the countryside. The bus was more than transportation; it became their symbol and even gave them their slogan: "Get on the Bus" was their rallying cry.

To make a marvelous story short, these creative people have drawn hundreds of youngsters into an ongoing door-to-door campaign, and in only three election cycles, they have helped win nine of the ten Senate seats they targeted and nine of their ten targeted House seats–moving both chambers out of right-wing Republican control.

Every state should have a Bus Project! Also, every state should have a yearly festival like Fighting Bob Fest, held in Baraboo, Wisconsin. This is a daylong "county fair" of positive political energy for the whole family–with great motivational speeches, good music and food, local brews (to lubricate the movement), activist tabling, a live radio broadcast, book signings, issue workshops and the drafting of a people's legislative agenda, which is then carried by participants into the state legislature, where they've enjoyed some major successes.

Bob Fest (named for Fighting Bob La Follette) is an all-volunteer, self-funding effort that now draws more than 7,500 people. It engages, excites and empowers ordinary folks, helping them become an independent, effective grassroots force for the progressive cause. It succeeds because it makes politics meaningful and fun.

Mavericks like these are the great hope and true leaders of our country. Not that their path is easy–all of them hit some potholes along the way. But they show that cutting loose from the corporate system is its own exhilarating reward, allowing you not only to enrich your life but also to help edge our society back onto the long road toward grassroots democracy and the common good.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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