Preparing For The Storm With A New Economy

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For the past few weeks, we’ve focused on the era of transformation that we anticipate will occur over the next decade as the multiple crises we face reach levels that cannot be ignored. A perfect storm is brewing, so to speak, as climate change becomes more severe, the United States’ status in the world falls and the risk of another recession looms. We have the best chance of weathering this storm if we prepare for it now.

Just as we must end the extraction of fossil fuels and minerals from the Earth to lessen the impacts of climate change and stop the poisoning of our communities, we must also end the extraction of wealth from our communities. A democratized economy, described in greater depth on It’s Our Economy, gives more control over and benefit from the economy to people and reduces the wealth divide. This week, we highlight work that is being done in the United States and other countries to transform economic institutions so they serve people and protect the planet.

The triple evils

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., focused the latter part of his life on making connections between what he called “the triple evils” of poverty, racism and war. To mark his day of celebration, municipal workers in North Carolina launched a campaign to fight for better wages and work protections. It is illegal for public workers to bargain collectively in North Carolina, but they are organizing for a worker Bill of Rights anyway.

Prisoners in eight Florida prisons started a thirty day work strike to protest extremely low wages, high prices for necessities and parole policies. They are asking for people to organize actions in solidarity with their struggle throughout the US.

We can add the demand to end mass incarceration because there are better alternatives. Norway, a country with severe drug laws, has admitted that the drug war has failed and is decriminalizing drug use. This opens the door to other evidence-based harm reduction policies to address addiction effectively, which would also be beneficial in the US. A new report, which looks at state-based criminal justice reform, found the ten states that reduced their prison populations the most also reduced crime the most.

This past Monday, we marched in our local Martin Luther King Parade with the Health Care is a Human Right contingent. The US Human Rights Network celebrated the holiday by releasing its 2017 Status Report on the United States, “Advancing Human Rights.” This report covers human rights abuses in the US, international laws that may have been violated, and recommends demands to address these issues. It is a useful tool for activists.

We are still fighting the triple evils, caused in part by the extraction economy. For example, cities are currently competing to be the site of the next Amazon headquarters by offering tax breaks, infrastructure and other incentives. Big businesses like Amazon are another example of extraction. Not only does the extraction economy rob public money from the residents that could be used for necessities, but it also brings in an outside entity whose dollars will go to other outside entities, not local ones, for the services it uses.

There is a reason that Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, is the richest person in the history of the world. Margaret Kimberley, of Black Agenda Report, writes, “In a Bezos run world every worker will be impoverished, every level of government will subsidize corporations, and anyone who speaks out will be discredited and under surveillance.”

Alternatives to extraction

Instead of the traditional extractive “Amazon” model of city development, the Democracy Collaborative offers a community model that works to build and maintain wealth within the community. One of the foundations of the model is democratized ownership, which comes in many forms.

Land trusts, for example, were started by the civil rights movement in the South in the 1960s to create public ownership of land that protected black sharecroppers. They are still used today to guarantee that the public has control of land use and to protect homeowners from wide fluctuations in housing prices.

Another way to protect and build affordable housing is through a public bank. Public banks, such as the state bank of North Dakota, hold public dollars instead of depositing them in Wall Street banks. They save millions of dollars in fees and those dollars can be used to benefit the community by lending money for large projects and by partnering with local banks to provide low-cost loans for housing, essential projects and businesses. Public banks work for the public interest, not for the profit of shareholders and big executive salaries.

Co-operatives (co-ops), organized by workers or buyers, are another form of democratized ownership. Finland has been developing their cooperative model for decades. There are more member-owners of co-operative enterprises in Finland than there are people; the average adult is a member of two co-operatives. A Finnish Nobel Prize winning scientist, A I Vertanen, described it as an economy based on mutuality: “We have no Rockefellers or Carnegies, but we do have co-operatives.” Co-ops cover different services, including food, petrol, broadband, banking and more.

Ted Trainer writes that cooperatives are an example of “The Simpler Way transition strategy … which is primarily about going underneath the conventional economy to build our own new collective economy to meet community needs, turning our backs on and deliberately undermining and eventually replacing both the capitalist system and control by the state.”

Trainer describes the Catalan Integral Cooperative where people do not wait for the government to save them, but take control over their own fate, setting up their own productive arrangements for food supply systems,  shops, basic income, information, education and even an investment bank. They are creating a collectivist world view and spirit to prevent the market and profit from driving the economy and establishing cooperative arrangements to benefit all people, not just co-op members. Rather than a socialist approach of the state-run institutions, people create and manage their own programs.

The city of Barcelona is going even further to support democratized institutions by investing in open source software. They plan to eventually free themselves of Microsoft.

Cities can also create their own broadband services. A new study found that municipal broadband is not only cheaper, but it is higher quality. With municipal-owned Internet services, communities are also free from the control of giant telecoms like Comcast and Verizon. They can protect net neutrality and make sure that all people have access to the Internet. This is a way to respond to new FCC rules that ended net neutrality and the Lifeline program, which subsidizes the cost of Internet access.

Creating the new world

According to Community-Wealth.org there are 29,284 cooperatives (excluding housing) across the U.S. operating within a range of diverse industries, including banking (credit unions), agriculture, utilities, and child care. There are 350 million members of cooperatives who create 356,000 jobs and $653 billion in revenue. And, 1.2 million families live in cooperative housing. Cooperatives are more common than many people in the United States are aware.

Seymour Melman, a scholar who wrote in the second half of the Twentieth Century about demilitarizing the economy, worker rights through cooperatives and other aspects of a new economy, viewed cooperatives as a step to empowering people to remake the economy and politics. Jonathan Feldman writes Melman believed that “once cooperatives reached a certain scale, they would act as a kind of lobbying system to redirect the political culture to more productive and sustainable pursuits as opposed to predatory, militaristic and ecocidal ones.”

“Creating the new world” is an essential piece of the two-part strategy to shift political power. We must organize to resist harmful policies and projects such as the drug war and fossil fuel infrastructure and we must build alternative systems to replace the current extractive and exploitative systems. By building community wealth through democratized institutions, we also reduce the wealth divide and reduce the influence of big money over our lives. Collectively, we can take effective action to end the triple evils in a lasting way.

  • There is no doubt that workplace democracy is superior to oligarchic hierarchies like Amazon for encouraging at least some degree of human rights. However, for a number of very critical reasons, we should be aiming even higher.

    “Consensus” is an alternative to “Democracy” that guarantees respect for everyone. Consensus works best at the lowest possible scale. This is one important reason why localizing economic activities to the greatest extent possible is a good idea. It allows a greater degree of individual control over decisions that impact us directly. Democracies on any scale have a nasty tendency to impose the will of the majority on everyone else. When you are being oppressed or abused, it can be far worse when it is empowered by a “majority” rather than by a single aberrant oligarch, though honestly, I do my best to avoid both. The economic advantage that is gained by cooperatives is in the decentralization of economic power. But when it comes to the protection of basic human rights, requiring consensus will always be superior as the ultimate decentralization of power.

    Understanding the mechanisms of consensus will help us to understand how we need to re-imagine our economies. For anyone who has worked with consensus, you will know that it can often be unwieldy and challenging when attempting to arrive at decisions. Ultimately, the foundation of consensus is the shared understandings of those who arrive at a consensual decision. Shared information, education and active engagement are an absolute necessity for achieving any degree of shared understanding, so openness and transparency are critical. You can’t have closed executive sessions in a consensual assembly.

    Within our present hierarchical societies, many individuals have never experienced the degree of power granted through the processes of consensus. So when a process of consensual decision making is introduced, room must be provided for everyone to experiment and grow into the use of that power. By seeking to reform our economies from the grassroots, we are essentially setting free those who have been held their entire lives in economic and monetary slavery to one extent or another. It will take time for that freedom to be understood and used wisely along with its incumbent responsibility of mutual respect for others.

    Eventually, as shared understanding grows, an unshakable foundation can be built. As individual understandings grow through a myriad of realizations, under consensus, each of us must eventually represent not only ourselves, but all life with which we share the Earth. A systemic global awareness embodied in a localized consensus process makes the dream of a sustainable human future possible. When the common ground is recognized by enough people, together we can build an environmentally and socially sustainable global human society. Basic human rights is the sacred circle in the center of the sacred common ground for humanity. The feather of consensus that is passed around the sacred circle allows every individual to express their truth.

  • Excellent comments Gary. Is there a numerical limit for consensus to function?

  • rgaura

    It would be nice to have community meetings, where each aspect of local governance is presented as it now functions, with financial transparency. Each contract should be posted online, so citizens can scout for fraud and waste on their own. So much of what goes wrong does so in secret, we need our own glasnost.

  • mmckinley

    Beautiful Gary. You have opened my eyes, thank you. Where can I go to learn more?

  • Well, the lower limit is get you to agree with yourself. That is not always easy as most of us are aware 🙂 The upper limit is whatever numbers we can manage for everyone to understand and agree upon. As the number grows that becomes increasingly difficult as every individual is unique with unique life experiences that have informed them. The trick as I tried to point out is sharing a recognition of our common interests. If we make the Earth uninhabitable for human life, then that serves no ones interests, so somewhere short of that there is a common ground that everyone should be able to agree upon. That is the foundation for consensual organization. Basic human rights is a fairly good middle ground to use as an initial target, like article 25 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Most people already fundamentally agree with those ideas. Consensual governance starts there. In the United States, politicians talk as though we have a consensus or at the very least a democratic majority who have agreed to our governing institutions. We in fact have neither a consensus nor a democratic majority in agreement on just about any aspect of the present government or constitution. Consensual governance will never emerge from the barrel of a gun but in superficial contradiction to that statement, consensual governance sometimes seems to spontaneously emerge in the most unlikely places among the most challenged and oppressed peoples. The crucibles that create the necessary degree of self awareness can create consensual self governance. I think what I am trying to say is a variation of “necessity is the mother of invention”. If we are all going to die unless we figure out a way to work together, chances are, we will figure out a way to work together or die trying. Human culture is a rather peculiar evolution of life. Sometimes it is counter intuitive to “self interest”. Didn’t Spock say something like that? “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Or perhaps it was Charles Dickens?

  • I have been a volunteer in North Carolina for The Zeitgeist Movement since 2011. The train of thought is the core of TZM. Peter Joseph who inspired TZM in 2008 with the release of the the second of three videos from his Zeitgeist film series has recently released his newest book, “The New Human Rights Movement, Reinventing the Economy to End Oppression”. It is available on Amazon. There is also plenty of other information available on thezeitgeistmentdotcom website including links to a YouTube video of a recent lecture given by Peter Joseph at UC Santa Barbara under the same title as his newest book and a free pdf download of “The Zeitgeist Movement Defined, Realizing a New Train of Thought”. TZM has active chapters all around the world working to share the ZM train of thought everywhere. Broadly speaking, TZM is a global sustainability advocacy movement, primarily focused on educational and awareness activism. The goal is to shift the cultural “Zeitgeist” towards a sustainable future for humanity. That shift is already well underway, but it necessarily happens one understanding at a time.

  • nikto

    Economics professor RD Wolff writes often and eloquenttly about how changes in the workplace via forming worker-owned cooperatives might change our economy.

    If you haven’t already, check him out.

  • I agree, Richard Wolff is an excellent teacher and proponent of Democracy in the workplace. Yet what he suggests is only transitional in that it helps to move us in the direction of a broader protection of basic human rights for a few lucky cooperative members without going all the way. In order to accomplish even the most basic human rights for everyone, we must transform our economies and our consciousness at an even more fundamental level. Cooperative businesses can be and often are as problematic in their behaviors as any corporations. They are their own self contained business environment, still mainly focused on the profit of their owners, the only difference being that the owners are the workers.

    We share a single planet teaming with other life including billions of other people. Having pockets of more egalitarian “business as usual” alone will not save us from our own self destruction commercialization of all life. Most cooperatives still only pursuing a bigger slice of the monetary market pie for themselves and their families without necessarily taking into consideration externalities of their business activities. We need a much broader and deeper cultural shift that fundamentally alters all our attitudes about our relationships with one another and with the planet. Without that additional context, the individual and business decisions will still be generating unacceptable and unsustainable behaviors for a humanity whose future is rapidly closing in upon it.

    Recognizing where we need to go is only the first step towards putting everything into a sustainable context. Eventually, as individuals and as a society, we need to begin understanding what shared recognitions are needed that will lead us towards a culture that can be sustainable indefinitely. As indigenous people often remind us, we must begin to think in terms of seven generations if we wish to live in harmony with ourselves and with the natural world. Cooperatively pursuing ownership and profits is just not going to make the cut. Relationships and context are everything.