The state of Ohio is taking centre stage in a radical and innovative response to the global financial crash of 2008, a growing national movement described by distinguished professors as "the prehistory of the next American revolution."

Cooperatives as an alternative to traditional capitalist hierarchies have a long history that dates back to the 19th century. But five years after the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression, the fragile seeds of economic change are beginning to take root across the country. The events following the collapse of Lehman Brothers exposed the deeply dangerous nature of finance-driven capitalism, while the government stimulus failed to 'trickle down' as expected; a new answer was needed, something that helped move away from the inherent flaws of both unfettered markets and government intervention.

The answer: worker democracy. A growing movement is now underway to rebuild America's economy from the ground up, to create a system in which workers own and control equal shares in their respective enterprises. New School economist Richard Wolff, speaking at this month's Left Forum in New York, warned that Americans are now "confronted with the prospect that the capitalism that gave them so much is now the capitalism that can take it all away," adding that "therefore with or without this crisis, the prospect for America and Europe is no better than a long, deep decline." Wolff also noted that "for a country that talks so much about democracy, we don't actually practice it very often." In other words: if our workplace is the place in our lives in which we spend most of our time and energy, can we really consider ourselves a truly democratic society?

Wolff's partner on stage, University of Maryland professor Gar Alperovitz, told the conference in Lower Manhattan that this was the ideal time to mount a "structural assault on inequality." The two professors have been spearheading the intellectual movement to develop new ways that American citizens can take control of their local economies right now, and to provide examples of where it is already happening.

Networks of cooperatives have appeared in cities all over the country in the last two decades with businesses banding together to help each other out with the sharing of skills and the creation of revolving credit unions to make sure that they can finance themselves. There are older, more established networks, for instance in San Francisco the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives (with the appropriate acronym NoBAWC) which has been increasing ties between its 30 member businesses since 1994. Meanwhile, new offerings such as The New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives (NYC NoWC), which was founded in 2009, have paid close attention to the older networks, many of which are starting to form closer ties with one another.

But Ohio's involvement in the movement is considered particularly exciting thanks to the creation of the hugely successful Evergreen cooperatives in Cleveland. Founded with the help of the Democracy Collaborative (co-founded by Alperovitz), which is now advising in 10 other cities around America on how to copy its model, the Evergreen cooperatives include a laundry, a green energy company and a farm currently employing over 150 worker-owners between them. These cooperatives are not only structurally arranged so that they kick profits back into their local community (one of the most deprived in the city), they also operate a revolving fund to help start new cooperatives in the city.

When the Evergreen model is promoted in a city, often the first question asked is: what are the advantages of the cooperatives themselves? What would be different if everyone owned a share of their workplace? Professor Wolff retorts with some questions of his own: "would we pay some workers millions while leaving others homeless? Would we cut families' healthcare for huge bonuses to a few?" On the subject of big finance's endless drive to outsource labor costs abroad, Wolff, who runs a cooperative information service called Democracy at Work, joked in his Left Forum speech that "a cooperative could outsource jobs, but only if everyone in the entire company all agreed to move to China."

Part of the backdrop of this is the fact that political consciousness in America is changing, but it does not have the power to express itself. As Alperovitz puts it, "American unions as a muscular institution have completely decayed," citing on the other hand a 2012 Pew survey demonstrating that a slight majority of Americans between 18 and 29 years old respond favorably to the word 'socialism.' When this trend is considered alongside the local fact that Columbus's median age is seven years lower than the national average, there is perhaps cause to consider that there is political will up for grabs amongst a demographic which is not so heavily affected by the McCarthyist spirit of earlier generations. Political will is sliding away from the centre; the Tea Party and Occupy are both trying to set the agenda in direct opposition to that centre. Book sales of both Atlas Shrugged and Capital Vol. 1 have rocketed since the financial collapse.

Part of the importance of this movement for interconnected cooperatives goes beyond the need for a leftist power base; there is something in the language that could even appeal to the right kind of conservative. This is the American Dream; who in this country doesn't love a self-sufficient small business? A cooperative enterprise is still an enterprise, it demonstrates qualities like entrepreneurship, good personal finance, independence from government handouts, responsibility to community, the old 'pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.' This is not radical language. These are values that can be recognized by most as very ordinary, as very American. On the face of it, a cooperative business is exactly the same as a family business, just without the child labor.

Columbus itself already has examples of worker-owned businesses doing very well for themselves. There are at least 500 worker-owners in companies based in Columbus that have an estimated collective revenue of between $250-400 million, from smaller employers such as the Clintonville Co-op Market, employing ten worker-owners, to Plastic Suppliers Inc, collectively owned by 250 workers. They do not follow the celebrated Evergreen model and do not directly kick profits back into their communities, but they at least provide credible examples that the cooperative model is already here.

Were the Evergreen model to be copied by these businesses, Columbus would immediately have millions of dollars more community investment than is ever delivered by the bloated and corrupt city institutions. Jobs would be more permanent and more beneficial to the city, which would not waste hundreds of millions of tax dollars giving incentives to corporations who would simply leave again after a few years. Communities would suffer far less from the 'real cost' of capital such as environmental damage, stressed, overworked families, precarious labor with few rights and low wages.

It is often asked why there are less cooperatives if they offer such a powerful solution to capitalist hierarchies. One story at the Left Forum, as told by co-founder of Occupy Wall Street's worker cooperative working group Brendan Martin, might provide at least part of the answer. The movement's latest frenzy of interest has been in a new cooperative in Chicago, New Era Windows, which sold its first product as a worker-owned business this month. The workers had previously all worked for the window company in its original capitalist incarnation until the owner closed it down. These workers were convinced that they were all about to have to go look for a new job, until a friend of Martin showed them The Take, Naomi Klein's documentary film about the hugely successful factory cooperatives in Argentina, and were inspired instead to pool their resources and buy the company from their old boss. New Era Windows has since featured in a short by Michael Moore, and their factory floor was visited by Joe Biden, who called the reopening “a big deal.” It is entirely possible that the movement could start to snowball into something bigger simply by more workers knowing what they are capable of.

One of Dr. Alperovitz's more interesting facts presented was that there are already 130 million Americans in credit unions, which if put together would have more capital than any one of the big five in Wall Street. The influence of toxic and dangerous banks on government policy does not have to last forever. Professor Wolff spoke a little more about the future, about what would happen to the political centre if the economy belonged to the people rather than to Wall Street, saying, “a government dependent on workers would be forced to behave in a very different way”. Alperovitz meanwhile laid down the plan, and its optimism, in very simple terms: “This is the prehistory of the next American revolution.  State by state. Laying groundwork and then transforming.”