The Plague of Economics

In Search of the Metrics of the Imagination

Disaster stalks us. The news seems to about nothing else. Serial killers, poisoned food and new “Super Bug” viruses are today’s headlines as I scan the internet. In our personal lives, lost opportunities for education, employment or, worst of all, intimate relations abound. Most of us weather life’s squalls, but today a higher order of devastation stalks us – these are the modern day Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Climate Change, Resource Depletion, Economic Exploitation and Authoritarian Politics. It may be more accurate to say that these catastrophes don’t stalk us, but prey upon us everyday.

If the Black Plague in the 14th century announced the arrival of the Pale Horse of Death, to be followed by the other steeds and their riders, would it be hyperbolic to state that the financial crash of 2008 is our equivalent? In its train, with politicians definitively exposed as scoundrels, with the promise of capitalist progress revealed to be illusionary, if not sociopathic, and with our talent and our commonwealth wasted on the hoardings of the world’s billionaires, despite the obvious need to concentrate all of humanity’s resources toward the creation of a stable and democratic economy, the American Dream collapses about us.

The multitude of catastrophes – blizzards, foreclosures, obesity and unemployment – overwhelm us, as a consequence we become numb to the possibility of rebellion. The solitary, yet universal, eruptions of desperate anger in all the sordid retreats of solace, the church, the homeless shelter, the pub or that reserve of the outcasts, the street corner, go unnoticed unless the rage is other-directed and then the official black-clad, helmeted and armored paramilitary cockroaches show up. The rest of us stew in the acid juices of our disgust and powerlessness.

When, by chance, the unheard of occurs – organized social unrest – as most spectacularly happened with Occupy Wall Street (OWS), it appears like an epileptic attack to the body politic, only to dissipate almost as quickly as it flared up (while its repression was systemic and brutal, it was not decisive to its collapse), to be followed, for months afterward, with a trail of melancholic publications and commentary. The chronic condition continues unabated and the body politic staggers on.

The New Economy

Of course, the complexity of our reality cannot be captured by the glib analysis that we lack leadership, or class consciousness, or a vehicle for our rebellion like an “authentic grassroots” party, or whatever. Notwithstanding these admonitions, since the dissipation of OWS, the New Economy (NE) has emerged as the current remedy for our social aliments. This term encompasses a barrelful of projects, from farmers’ markets to Yoga studios, from local businesses to “righteous” mega-retailers like REI, from bike shops to online funding. The precise delineations of the NE are secondary however to the ultimate purpose, which is to propose that the NE, in all its rich diversity and national expanse, serves as an alternative to the dysfunctional dominant economy.

In this endeavor, fans of NE face a conundrum: they assert that the wide spectrum of economic activities exists everywhere, a commonplace, not marginal, but at the same time, they propose that these enterprises are based on radical premises. They attempt to validate this assumption, that the conventional is oppositional, by highlighting specific community projects and institutions that supposedly reveal a progressive path to economic justice and stability. Community organizing professionals today refer to these projects as “community wealth-building” practices. There is no doubt, given the economic disaster we suffer, that some communities have used ingenious methods to devise programs to serve their needs. The leap from these few model programs to the assumption that they are replicable on a mass scale, or that these programs exhibit an enlightened (radical) consciousness deserves closer examination.

Cooperatives, as wealth-building institutions, have served as exemplary models of the New Economy. In general, cooperatives hardly deserve to be considered as anything other than “business-as-usual” institutions, much less, innovative or progressive ones. The largest cooperatives in the marketing, agribusiness and utility sectors are nothing more than mainline businesses using cooperative legal structures to further their privatized ends. The largest cooperatives often avoid the high road in labor relations. Every year the US government imposes penalties for unsafe working conditions on electricity and agricultural cooperatives. Strikes against these cooperatives are not uncommon. We need to know that the workers in these cooperatives are not members, they are employees. For example, in 2013, in an effort to break a long established union in the sugar beet processing sector, a farmers’ cooperative (American Crystal Sugar) locked out its 1,300 workers. At least this farmers’ cooperative recognized a union, many of the largest cooperatives do not, like REI. And Diamond Walnut, a California growers’ cooperative finally ended a thirteen year Teamsters’ strike in 2005.

There are cooperatives in the US that do give more than lip service to the international principles promulgated by the International Cooperative Alliance, but they tend to be small cooperatives, like the several hundred food co-ops that serve the needs of people across the country. By incorporating into its fold these retailers, along with local credit unions, the NE posses an enviable cachet. The other economic entities in the spectrum of the “new” in the NE “brand” benefit from the wholesome economic values of these cooperatives, especially their fundamental democratic principle – one share, one vote. That may be the reason to not only include them in the brand, but also inflate the cooperative sector’s significance. To proclaim that there are millions of cooperators in the US and billions worldwide, when participation by the membership mega-cooperatives is non-existent, fosters the illusory notion that the NE is a significant factor in the US economy.

The NE is a brand, but it is more than a marketing device when it promotes those combative grassroots ventures that value their bottom-up approach to gain economic security through local control. No one familiar with economic justice groups, especially in urban immigrant communities, or those rare entrepreneurs running mission-driven businesses, or community organizers in the field of economic development, can dispute that creative, path-breaking projects are happening everywhere. What can be contested is that agreement exists on common principles, goals and even practices to the degree that it makes sense to “brand” this diverse phenomenon a coherent movement.

The best of these endeavors strive for a radical democratic practice contrary to private, government or foundation supported undertakings. These radical ventures defend their autonomy while seeking to establish themselves in their communities as generators of further grassroots initiatives. An urban garden, for example, may partner with a nearby school or church, or a bike kitchen may ally with a senior center to facilitate grocery shopping for those who cannot drive. The possibilities for person-to-person connections (the basis for community-building) are endless since austerity imposes social deficits everywhere.

Worker Cooperatives

No better example of local, democratic control exists than worker cooperatives, where membership based on one person, one vote still rules. In many ways, worker cooperatives, which get included in the big tent, are the epitome of NE values. But again, the desire to magnify their mainstream impact leads to a muddle when 400 worker cooperatives (total in the US) are confused with 11,000 Employee Stock Option Plans (ESOPs) that are also incorporated into NE’s big tent. In part, this may be due to the habit of members and developers of worker cooperatives to refer to their cooperatives as “worker-owned,” which gets easily confused with the ESOP terminology used to characterize their firms as “employee-owned,” which is also misleading. The confusion between cooperatives and ESOPs revolves around this misleading term “ownership.” Ownership in cooperatives (the “share”) is indivisible, or common, and not privatized (as a member cannot sell her/his share), while no direct share ownership – like an investor has – exists in ESOPs. The employees of ESOPs “control” their shares (if that control is written in the by-laws of a tiny minority of ESOPs) through a trustee, as in a retirement plan, which is what ESOPs, in fact, were established to represent for the employees. In any case, these confusions unfortunately devalue the concept of workers’ control, a demand that would certainly create a new economy!

Worker cooperatives gained considerable media coverage ever since Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story featured them. And not surprisingly, the increase in coverage has raised the profile of the co-ops, but lack of in-depth analysis has given the impression that, like mushrooms, co-ops spring up overnight. It is hard work to organize a democratic institution, and even more difficult to do so when that institution needs to exist in the hostile marketplace.

Despite these difficulties, worker cooperatives have recently organized as a faster rate than at any other time since the 60s, which testifies to the desire of people to have control of their livelihoods, especially now when jobs, where they exist, are precarious. Along with the new worker cooperatives, a larger phenomenon developed in many communities of informally structured organizations, often staffed by volunteers. These are usually democratic and transparent projects like, DIY bike shops, hackerspaces, art galleries and studio spaces, squats and multitude of other creative uses of urban space.

Across the country, as communities began to support these economic efforts their formation challenged traditional community organizers (economic justice organizers) to learn from them and develop similar projects. These newly organized projects have in many cases successfully pursued foundation grants and appear to be stabilized in their communities.

While a dozen cities have spawned worker cooperative developments and the organizers now think of themselves as mini-movement, they still remain economically marginal. They have adopted a niche in local economies as bakeries, cafes, housecleaning groups and such. Nonetheless, they can achieve a modicum of economic stability for a dozen families and as such can motivate others follow their example. These are the celebrity projects of the NE.

What is Politics?

Cooperative development, if done smartly, achieves economic results, but more importantly, it has a far greater political impact, first with the membership and then in the larger community. Entering into a sustained, yearlong process of organizing a cooperative transforms the participants. The popular term “empowerment” has real meaning when folks actually walk into the worksite that they created for the first time to begin operations. The dynamic of that experience – the realization that after long hours of meetings and planning, and overcoming innumerable challenges, both personal and organizational, a tangible accomplishment resulted – electrifies the participants with pride.

This dynamic defines the politics of their creation and potentially impresses the wider community to appreciate what collaboration as peers can achieve. The obstacles to collective accomplishments, on the interpersonal and institutional level, are considerable, and recognizing them deepens political insights. And here we have a problem. To calibrate collective efforts towards an accessible reform, achievable in the near future, tends to dampen the expansion of the political imagination, to dream a better world, not for our children, but for us, here, right now. The intoxicating exhilaration that comes with the desire for an impossible victory against the odds need not be sequestered deep into a corner of our consciousness, while the everyday, immediate, tasks dominate our time and energy. The burning desire for radical change cannot be forgotten. To wholly embrace our otherwise divided and stifled selves, the pragmatic and the visionary need to dance together.

This excursion into what some might think is utopianism has immediate, practical consequences that any new economy must address or be irrelevant. One could make the argument, against so-called reasonableness, that utopianism best aids us to contend with catastrophes – not as a means to escape reality, but to plumb it.

These new creative ventures occurring across the country are mobilizations, motivated by a vision of a better world – a world that provides for all shelter, good food, healthcare and political rights. Of course, urban gardens, no matter how many plots neighbors cultivate, will not feed us, nor will cars be abandoned in driveways to rust by sponsoring bike-to-work days, nor will off-grid apartment block materialize because some roofs carry solar panels, and yet more than symbolism is involved here. When people recognize the urgency of a situation and collectively take on a task to demonstrate that an alternative exists, or to correct a wrong, or simply to protest, they do more than affect the outside world; they also encounter and engage their own unmet basic need – for enjoyable communal affinities.

Abundance and Scarcity

Neighborliness, friendship, conviviality are scarce goods, as much as housing, food and healthcare. Abundance is sequestered behind the barriers of money and the law. Once those barriers are removed, the homeless find housing, food never gets deposited in dumpsters, and profit margins no longer determine who lives and who dies. Poverty, homelessness and illness are made scarce by individuals and groups when they recognize that abundance can be achieved. The abundant society hides in plain view.

The concept of scarcity, while rooted in the economy, actually engulfs all aspects of our lives like a virus commandeering our faculties, so we weigh risks, sacrifice our desires and generally lead lives of quiet desperation. And there is no greater source of misery associated with scarcity than working at a job. When we work, we enter the field of scarcity, where our time, free time, evaporates in a zone of expropriated time.

The whole idea of an economy, as we know it, that is both the old and the new one being promoted, is predicated on people going to jobs. However, some assumptions about jobs are problematic, to say the least. For instance, few countries are creating enough jobs to keep pace with population growth. Further, middle-skill level jobs, in all sectors, increasingly disappear with the introduction of technology. The jobs that remain offer employment for highly trained technicians and, at the other end of the spectrum, the working poor – who may have employment as long as their labor remains cheaper than the cost of replacing them with machines. Future societies under this regime will be nightmares of inequality with the façade of democracy inevitably fading away. No new economy here, just the old feudal one.

The inevitable conclusion, given this scenario, is to separate income from jobs. Pundits and politicians refer to joblessness as a crisis, but when confronted with the idea of providing everyone with a subsistence income, regardless of whether they work or not, they recoil in horror. To them, this proposition invites catastrophe. We should not be surprised, given that their skewed worldview is premised on scarcity and sacrifice as the bulwark against mass indolence. Nothing better betrays the sociopathic mindset of the ruling elite, and their lackeys, than their contempt for people who they see as witless duffs who need to be confined to a daily routine.
Undoubtedly, guaranteeing basic survival for all will result in an increase in surfing, mountain climbing, fishing and more – recreational activities we cannot imagine may flourish – but what is so terrible about that? Even if some people never leave the beach, why establish a corps of Work Ethic Enforcement Officers? And furthermore, who better monitors the beaches today than those who view it as their backyard? We need more surfers, not more cops!

Another argument for indolence addresses the major fault of the economy: the inherent need for incessant growth. The bedtime story nonsense about a “green sustainable economy” promoted by corporate interests deflects critical thinking in the wake of unprecedented environmental disruptions. More precisely, it’s not nonsense as it is obfuscation in the service of profit. It may appear that scarcity facilitates growth, but in fact, it is the other way round in the real world of capitalism. For example, where indigenous agriculture provided food to meet local needs it was abolished to create endless fields of monocrops for export. The local population starves unless it pays for imported food. The metrics of wealth accumulate at the expense of the poor.

An anti-growth perspective reverses priorities away from the metrics of accumulation to something more like the metrics of the imagination. The classic rebel Marxist text, The Right to be Lazy by Paul Lafargue, Karl’s son-in-law, foresaw the decelerated economy when he proposed the three-hour work day. Sixty years later, John Maynard Keynes endorsed this view and predicted that it would be reality in our century. Alas, both misjudged the corrosive power of capitalism on our brains.

In an age when the temperature of the stock market is broadcast as regularly as invocations to a deity, we can be excused in thinking that it is natural for the world, and our lives, to revolve around the economy. Does it need to be said that it was not always this way? The Greeks have been accused of providing us with the origin of the word (οίκος – “household” and νęμoμαι – “manage”) but their concept pertained to a rather minimal concern for household needs not what we understand as that overarching mental construct that rules our lives. As the daily catastrophes erupt, or fall upon us, it would help for us to consider them as auguries of the ultimate collapse of the old world, and a prelude to a new one where the economy takes a seat at the rear and we drive our lives.

Originally written 15 February 2013 and revised 13 November 2016