Above Photo: Luca Traversa/Flickr
Let me address three issues. First I’m going to encapsulate the nature of the problem we face and why I believe each of us can contribute to its solution. Second I am going to talk about the kinds of institutions and enterprises already existing in our society which I believe we need to support, and create more of, as working models of a democratic or solidarity economy. Finally, I will tell you how I choose to participate in what I call the cashless revolution in hopes that others of you might decide to join this effort in your own way.
The most recent assault on our economy and democracy began in 1972 with something popularly referred to as the Powell memo. Memo? And I have a question mark here, as this 34 page document was written by Louis F. Powell who was later to be named a Supreme Court Justice. His memo was made public sometime after he was confirmed to the court. At the time of its writing he was a corporate lawyer, sat on the Boards of Directors of eleven different corporations and was a member of the education committee of the United States Chamber of Commerce. The memo was confidential and its subject was: “Attack on American Free Enterprise System”. It cites the media, public opinion, secondary schools, colleges and universities as sources of the attack and the problem of survival for capitalism. Every administration, no matter the party, since the election of Ronald Reagan has championed and been influenced by the outcomes resulting from the Powell memo. Citizens United was the final straw in not only bringing corporations to parity with individuals in our political system, but catapulting them to complete dominance because of their immense financial resources and lobbying effort. In my opinion, the current national political system in the country is inherently undemocratic and bordering on fascism, depending on what author you read.
I believe local jurisdictions ranging from villages to towns to cities and counties, perhaps reaching as high as the state level represent our only hope of progressive change. For those of us willing and able to expend effort in changing our system we must focus those efforts where they can result in the right kind of change. Eventually changes in the direction of socially just enterprises will be recognized as such. In other words I believe each of us must do what we can to support a solidarity economy.
Here I am reminded of a story often attributed to the Cherokee people.. The story goes something like this:
A grandfather is sitting with his grandson one day and he is obviously bothered by something. His grandson asks ‘what’s the matter grandfather?’ The grandfather says ‘ I have two wolves fighting inside of me. One is very cunning, fierce and mean, and wants to hurt me and other people and makes me afraid for my future. The other one is a beautiful and friendly and warm hearted creature that makes me feel better about myself and for my friends. After hearing what his grandfather had to say, the boy thinks for a moment and then turns to his grandfather and says ‘grandpa, which wolf is going to win?’ Upon hearing his grandson’s question he looked carefully at his grandson and said ‘whichever one I feed will win’.
There are two levels of action where I can do something to encourage a better wolf or world. One is by supporting and advocating for and participating in community based solutions that are inherently democratic and fair. The other level is by living my daily life in ways that do not feed the cunning wolf. There are degrees and shades of gray in both of these areas where each of us can only do the most we are able to. I’ll start by describing some of the institutional and community based solutions that I see.
Let’s recognize that many of these enterprises already exist in our midst and usually have a polar opposite in the world of the international capitalists. Let’s start with banks. No need to describe commercial banks here as we’ve already seen how they are at the bottom of the bottom feeders supporting capitalism. But what about publicly owned banks like the state of North Dakota has had for several decades, during which time it has been considerably more profitable than commercial banks while aligning it’s activities and interests in such a way as to benefit the people of North Dakota rather than its officers and stockholders (the latter of which it has none). Several other states and municipalities are now considering the option of public banks as an alternative to commercial banks. Support them. Credit Unions have been around a long time and, while they may have offered limited services compared to commercial banks in the past, that is no longer the case. Credit unions now offer virtually the same services and often at lower cost and better interest rates. The main differences now are that most credit unions are non-profit and accountable to their members, not to stockholders. Credit union membership is open to virtually anyone and there are over 7000 credit unions with over 100 million members in the US today.
Most credit unions return profits on investments to their members or to the community or state in which they are licensed. All are insured equally with banks and few if any engage in financial speculation. In a credit union each member has one vote rather than having voting privileges in proportion to the amount of their deposits. One of my credit unions, which is a non-profit organization, will hold it’s annual meeting on April 24th in Albuquerque. Nusenda credit union refers to itself as a financial cooperative and has about 135,000 members. Each member is entitled to one vote whether that member has one account or twenty accounts, and whether that member has $5 in his account or $500,000 in her account. Despite these features, the majority of people still choose to do business with the most corrupt and egregious offenders among the major banks. Although there was a shift toward credit unions after the 2008 ‘free market’ bail out of banks, however the banks still control the majority of financial accounts in the U.S.
Another community based enterprise are the over 1,000 rural electric cooperatives in the US, which were first started in the late 1930’s when private utilities said rural electrification was not profitable enough. These cooperatives were established with government assistance and today America’s not-for-profit, consumer-owned electric cooperatives provide service to 42 million people in 47 states. I belonged to two rural electric cooperatives, one was the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in northern New Mexico and the other was called Carbon Power and Light, Inc (CP&L) in Wyoming. These are member owned cooperatives which have a board of directors elected by the membership just like credit unions and they also pay dividends to members. For example at CP&L, everyone in their service area is a fee free member, i.e. there are no dues. You just pay your electric bill but at the same time you automatically become a vested member which means 20 years after your initial membership you begin to receive dividends in proportion to your electricity usage for a period of years equal to your membership period. So, my dividends began in 2008 and so far I have received about $1,700 and will still receive another approximately $700 over the next four years when my 12 years as a member is over.
In addition to rural electric coops (which by the way are collectively the largest energy distribution system in the country, there are a number of municipalities that already operate their own utility companies providing water, electric, and even gas service to their customers. For example the Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power has over 3.9 million customers. Many cities are looking at ownership as a means of controlling climate abusive practices of privately owned energy companies. These rural electric coops and municipally owned utilities are leading the way in providing sustainable and renewable energy choices to combat the climate altering impacts of fossil fuels.
One of the commonest forms of coops that many of you are familiar with are food coops. These range from fairly informal groups called buying clubs who periodically order and distribute produce and other food items to members to what are called CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture) where people invest in a local farm or organic growing enterprise in exchange for a share of the fresh fruits and vegetables produced during the growing season. And of course there are lots of farmers markets around the country. Let me tell you about a cooperative in New Mexico that I used to belong to.
La Montanita coop was started with 300 families in Albuquerque in 1976 with a single small brick and mortar distribution location. Today, 40 years later, La Montanita has 17,000 member families with six stores in Albuquerque, Gallup, and Santa Fe. Membership is $15 per year or $200 for a lifetime membership which entitles members to quality food and special prices, although anyone can shop at La Montanita. In addition members may receive what are called patronage funds each year in proportion to the amount of money they have spent. Since 1990, La Montanita has returned over $400 million dollars to its owner members. La Montanita also provides ten cents to a local non-profit of the members’ choice for every reusable bag the member uses. This program has distributed nearly $200 thousand dollars to non-profit organizations since its inception a few years ago. Another interesting feature of La Montanita is their foodshed program. Everyone is familiar with a watershed, but a foodshed? Foodshed is a means of defining locally grown and in the case on La Montanita it means anything grown in about a 300 mile radius from Albuquerque versus the thousands of miles that most industrially grown food travels. These are just a few facts about La Montanita which is one of over 200 member owned food cooperatives that belong to an organization called Co-op Stronger Together. These and other food coops can be found wherever you live.
In addition to these food coops, there is a growing movement toward creating what are called worker owned cooperatives. Rather than customers being a member of the cooperative, in these coops the workers themselves actually own and operate the business. One of the better known examples of worker own cooperatives in the US are the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio. Some of you also may be familiar with Equal Exchange which is a fair trade worker owned cooperative based near Boston, but distributing fair trade products nationwide. In the case of Evergreen, this series of cooperative businesses includes a large commercial laundry, a hydroponic lettuce growing company which produces several million heads of lettuce annually, and a solar energy company. Evergreen was started in 2008 by the Cleveland Foundation working with what are known as anchor institutions in this inherently poor capitalist wasteland area of Cleveland where the median income was about $18,500 per year.
These are just a few examples, credit unions, electric utilities, food coops, and worker owned cooperatives which are in what I call the institutional category of things I can choose to support. Most of these also spill over into the category of local as well, which is what I want to discuss next. So what does it mean to be a ‘localist’. Well, an organization that I like called the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies or BALLE, describes localism as being concerned first with interrelationships in your everyday life and particularly how we interact with the place we live and the people in that place. Said differently it’s how we connect with people, other life, the land — in other words, everything that matters. A localist knows that supporting local food sources that practice regenerative agriculture rather than industrial agriculture is a good thing. A localist knows that supporting a locally owned independent business means that on average 67 cents out of every dollar spent at that locally owned independent business stays in the local community whereas spending that same dollar at a big box store means 67 cents of that dollar will leave the community. Some studies show up to four times as much money spent locally stays in a community versus that same money spent at a national chain store. Ten million dollars spent at Amazon creates 14 jobs, whereas that same amount spent locally creates 57 jobs-more than a four times difference.
Fundamentally, a localist acts local first because they believe in a healthy local economy over international capitalism that exploits people and the environment. Depending on your level of commitment, you can take that are far as you want to go. A BALLE inspired network in Arizona called the Local First Arizona movement has over 3,000 independent business members and over 1,000 individual member supporters. Similar entities can be found all over the US. If you want your town or community to be there for your kids and grandkids, then you have to support local businesses-not the corporations who have a rich history of leaving industrial and residential graveyards in their wake wherever they go.
Part of my strategy about which wolf to feed I call the cashless revolution. If you think about what the banks and international capitalists want and need most, it’s your money. So why not withhold your money, their food, and give it to the better wolf. Sort of like a personal BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) program.
I was making a friend a cappuccino on Christmas day and although I have a small espresso machine with a steam wand that I can foam milk with, I had just used a small milk steamer and foamer that we received as a gift from a friend, who had visited us in Chiapas and seen me struggling to get a nice foam with almond milk. She had one of these little machines and loved it, so she sent us one from the states after getting back home. Turns out the difficulty of foaming with almond milk is more related to the brand and even lot # within a brand of almond milk, than to the kind of machine one uses. Nevertheless, I have succumbed to using the new foamer whenever my wife asks for a cappuccino.
So on Christmas morning I showed it to our friend here in SMA and told her it worked great-that my only issue with it was the manufacturer. The brand is Nespresso which is owned by Nestle, one of the largest food corporations on the planet. I explained to her my issues with Nestle because of their history of abuse in their supply chains for both coffee and chocolate. Nothing serious, just child slavery in the cocoa plantations of west Africa and poverty prices for coffee growers all over the world. I learned about these issues in my 15 years working with the fair trade sector of our economy. Our friend said, boy it must be tough for you to walk through life as a consumer with issues like that. I replied no, not really, it just takes some effort and a willingness to say no to things when the only source seems to be a company or corporation that I choose not to support. It has taken me 8 or 9 months living in SMA to understand where I can source products that my wife and I want or need while staying true to my consumer values.
Well, the only way I can really be a localist is to act. So what does that mean in my life. For starters it means that I haven’t set foot in a Walmart for 20 years, it also means that I haven’t knowingly purchased or consumed any products made by Kraft, Nabisco, Hershey’s or Nestle, nor been in a Starbucks in the last 15-20 years. I haven’t purchased anything from or through Amazon for over 10 years. I don’t use Twitter or Facebook. I never use Google as a search engine and I do my best to avoid their other products as well. This means that I do quite a bit of research on line and reading labels to try to understand what I am buying wherever I purchase something and who owns the company whose label is on the package. Each one of the corporations or brands I boycott have a particular rationale which I am happy to share later.
Another challenge for consumers is that lots of corporations, such as Walmart and Starbucks began advertising themselves as local once they figured out that the local movement was getting some traction. Not withstanding the undemocratic financial and economic characteristics of large corporations, these tactics just make it more difficult for the conscious consumer to figure out what is going on.
One strategy is to only shop at businesses which are part of an accredited organization like BALLE or to only shop at what you know is a small, locally owned business. Or you can look into the labor and business practices of corporation as well as their supply chains and begin to develop your own list of things you won’t buy. This will result in a list of where not to shop or minimize shopping that may include various corporations and their subsidiaries, formula stores, big box stores including supermarkets specific brands, etc. Instead, go to a credit union rather a bank, buy food from a cooperative instead of a big box store no matter how upscale and glitzy they make the industrial food seem. To quote Einstein “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
You may have noticed that I’ve will said virtually nothing about political reform other than to suggest that I believe how I spend my money and how I live my life makes more difference than how or even if, I vote. But what about politics? If we are to be a civil society then there does need to be a politic and for me that means localism for now-a localism which perhaps when strung together among enough people in different small communities or cities and towns can eventually resurrect some semblance of a democracy where there are real choices, as opposed to the theatrical choices of no difference offered by today’s main stream political parties.
What else? Support members of the Fair Trade Federation like Peace Coffee and Equal Exchange, buy things on line if you can’t buy locally-Thrive Market, a membership based e-commerce site that offers free memberships for low income people. Look for organizations that are non-profit. Websites like BALLE and Green America, as well as many others are rich with information – the world is literally full of options for us to do things differently but I have to take responsibility for my own actions and invest some time and effort in living my values to the extent I am able.
In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world.” Thank you.