Another World Emerging? Well, Maybe.

The Possibilities for a New Kind of Economy
Michael Johnson

The possibility at hand

Gar Alperovitz  writes extensively about deep economic changes slowly taking place across the country, region by region. He is one of many doing this here and abroad, such as: Marjorie Kelly, Massimo DeAngelis, Boaventura de Sousa SantosEthan Miller, Ana Margarida Esteves, and scores of others. This shared vision of abundance and solidarity at the core of these emerging local and regional dynamics will probably take about a generation to root firmly, if it does. In three or four generations these changes could possibly become a substantial part of the political economics in the US. Possibly.

These thinkers and observers are not envisioning a significant increase in “jobs,” even good ones. Rather, they are envisioning a new kind of economics that fosters cooperation, abundance, and solidarity on a broad scale. That fosters a lot of caring rather than a lot of gouging or co-opting. That is grounded in ordinary people developing a rainforest of opportunity and relationship as a replacement to the scorched earth dynamics of neoliberalism.

The principles, characteristics, and processes involved for this kind of regional economic development are not abstractions. And they weren’t figured out through mathematical simulation either. And, in many ways, they aren’t even new. Rather, they are reflections of eons of social and biological realities across the planet. They are descriptions of the underlying dynamics driving new kinds of social and economic systems in many parts of the world like Brazil, Quebec, Northern Italy, and elsewhere. They are stable systems operating out of cultures that promote mutuality and distribution of enough of what is truly needed and genuinely desired rather than compulsive and narcissistic consumerism the dominant neoliberal systems promote.

I am terming this dynamic “co-operative/solidarity economics.” A diversity of kindred approaches to alternative economics has been evolving. This has been accompanied by a welter of different names by different groups and movements seeking to establish their identity as an alternative to capitalism. The approaches I identify with most are those that are deeply oriented to bottom-up development, where democracy can be rooted. Even though they share many values and objectives, these diverse but democratically-oriented approaches have not yet bonded with each other in substantial ways.

So how do we, here in the US, get there? How can all of these efforts across the globe move from the political and economic margins we are working in, and take root as a global people’s rainforest? What are the keys?

The basic elements needed

Much is known about the infrastructure that is needed, but little is understood about the kind of culture needed to mobilize people and develop the relational power needed.

There are four core elements related to the infrastructure of regional cooperative/solidarity movements:

  1. A multitude of diverse alternative economic enterprises.

  2. A regional web of co-operative and solidarity economic enterprises which can sustain reciprocal chains of production-distribution-and-consumption of goods and services that connect producers to retailers and retailers to consumers in ongoing communication. Worker co-ops cannot build their own regional economy, nor can networks of community gardens, etc.

  3. A regional web of local mediating institutions that can ground this regional cooperative/solidarity economy into the communities where people live or work or have their deep affinities. (Mediating institutions are local organizations representing the voice and interests of the local people.) This network of networks is essential for the formation of a substantial and loyal customer base as well as the ongoing communication between all the parts.

  4. A social web to link the base-communities, their mediating institutions, second-tier institutions such as same sector networks, and social justice institutions throughout the region to each other. This network of networks is essential for the formation of a substantial and loyal customer base. It is also essential for formation of political alliances based on mutual interests to address the welter of legal, funding, and policy needs to foster a people’s rainforest economy.

The culture needed

Alone this infrastructure is just a social skeleton. By itself it has no organic life. Structures are merely parts of a body, of an ecosystem like a rainforest. For example, here is a description of the human body as a community:

Underneath our skins we have a 50-trillion-cell, highly functional community with technology that far outstrips anything that we've invented with our human minds. When we're healthy, this system is so impeccable and harmonious that within us we have full employment, universal health care, no cell left behind. The organs cooperate with one another so that the whole system can thrive…At this stage in human evolution, we don't need to grow another arm or a bigger brain. We need to grow greater awareness and connection in community.

Awareness, connection, and community come through culture. I especially like the way Fritjof Capra puts it in The Hidden Connections: a science for sustainable living:

…culture arises from a complex, highly nonlinear dynamic.  It is created by a social network involving multiple feedback loops through which values, beliefs, and rules of conduct are continually communicated, modified, and sustained.”

(The words in the definition may sound very abstract, but they will become clear in the discussion that follows.)

A movement culture for developing regional C/SE will have three key dimensions if it is going to successfully develop a regional alternative economy. They are inseparable. Absent one, absent all. It has to be a culture of belief, of empowerment, and Thinking Cooperatively.

First, there has to be a culture of belief. That is: enough people in the same locale becoming convinced that it’s possible for co-operative and solidarity economic systems to become a big force right where they live. Enough of them believing that it is reasonable to risk starting collectively owned and community-based local enterprises. Enough of residents and other local leaders believing they can connect and work together regionally to build a new kind of economics that will foster cooperation, abundance, and solidarity. Enough people getting turned on by this kind of activity to join the effort as loyal customers in order to make it happen as well as for getting the goods and services offered. And enough folks getting excited and coming to believe that it is well worth investing some of their surplus wealth to support its growth.

Clearly, the vehicles for making all of this work is an infrastructure of enterprises becoming integral parts of their communities, networking together, and developing the chains of production-distribution-and-consumption. But where will the cooperative motivation and skill come to build such infrastructures and keep them democratic? This leads us to the other two dimensions.

Second, such a culture has to be a culture of empowerment. The envisioned political and economic changes we are discussing here require that enough ordinary people in a given region want to shift from living out of fear, defeatism, and a scarcity mentality to a mentality of abundance and mutuality. Want to slowly free themselves from the dialectic of oppression they have internalized and to learn to empower themselves. Want to move from being trapped in an individualism that pits all of us against one another, to believing we can be solid with each other where it counts.

These kinds of shifts are very challenging and very transformative. They require special systems of education and support. Such systems, in turn, require a different kind of culture than the ones we have grown up in. That is, cultures of belief in mutuality and the feasibility of ordinary people making it happen--slowly, step-by-step. Or, in Paul Loeb’s words, “the impossible will take a little while.”

Third, this new kind of culture also has to be a culture of Thinking Cooperatively. That is: a culture with an unconditional commitment to fostering the opportunities, attitudes, and skills necessary for wanting to engage in the relentless consulting and negotiating necessary for ordinary people to manage their collective lives together. I call this orientation to public life Thinking Cooperatively. Rodney King famously asked “can’t we just get along with each other.” As heart-felt as his plea was, we need to recognize--no, we need to deeply realize that there is no “just” getting along with each other. Raising a child is an incredibly complex process as is making a partnership work, a multi-racial group coming to understand each other enough so that they can work together, and so on.

Thinking Cooperatively involves being able to empty one’s mind of distraction and to expand its focus so one is attending to the needs of the Whole and, as much as possible, its entire set of problems. In the case at hand this would be the cooperative/solidarity networking and its region, but any project requires Thinking Cooperatively to work well. It requires that you and I rest our self-interests into the context of the Whole to find out what it needs. Self-centered thinking approaches that context in terms of how the whole can serve my self-interests, whether those are personal or the interests of the group or sector we most identify with.

Everyone of us who are engaged in alliance building and cross-sector networking knows how difficult it is to bring people together for a sustained effort. A hierarchical culture wants the many to defer to a few who do this. These structures achieve their vertical solidarity through control of perks and the ability to threaten significant loss; or through the charisma of a special kind of leader.

Horizontal, bottom-up structures have to be quite different. They are grounded fundamentally in creating as much mutual interest as possible between parties, a horizontal solidarity. These parties might have various self-interests which range from having little to do with each other in any direct way to being quite antagonistic. Horizontal cultures require people who can Think Cooperatively and have the means--a public space and norms and rituals of communication, for example--to do that together. Thinking Cooperatively requires a virtually unconditional commitment to consulting and negotiating with each other in good faith, and doing what each can to foster the essential trust and transparency such relating has to have. Since we embody so much of the individualism and self-centeredness of our received culture, this takes a life-time of ongoing work.

When individuals in a group can do this, the power of the group can soar. When groups and organizations can come together in this kind of horizontal solidarity, not only will empowerment soar but the belief that something new can happen will also soar. It will become contagious.

And let the word “contagious” remind us that a powerful horizontal solidarity will be very threatening to anyone wanting to maintain the status quo. Many will seek to kill it out of fear and with the rage such fear triggers.

Does this sound like a pipe dream?

That is a fair question. Not only that, it is a fundamental question. It has to be addressed or our movements for economic and political democracy will not have a strategy for becoming deeply relevant. I am alarmed at the absence of a coherent visioning-and-strategizing for such a movement that cuts to the core question: how do we generate the power to move from the margins to becoming a substantial, sustaining, and pervasive part of the political and economic landscape?

I am alarmed not only at the deepening entrenchment of capitalism in economic and political structures, but at its deepening penetration into the very cultures of the world with its beliefs, values, and practices. That kind of penetration cuts right through to the marrow of the being of every person and continues on toward the very heart of the planet. Capra describes how culture is a deep, driving dynamic constantly working on its members:

Culture can be said to be about the business of 'self-replication'. From the moment of conception, it impresses its patterns and rhythms on the developing, infinitely plastic neuronal substrate of the fetal organism. It shapes this substrate to become preferentially sensitive to the culture’s patterns. Thus the individual seeks to replicate those patterns as an adult. This process of neural shaping continues throughout life as the capacity of the brain to reorganize itself according to the uses to which it addresses itself never ceases.

Elitist capitalism systemically seeks to shape everyone to its ways. It cannot do otherwise. Like any economics it must have the culture to replicate itself. Forty years ago, in his Introduction to his book The Populist Moment, Lawrence Goodwyn described how “a culture of deference” began to emerge at the turn of the 20th century and what it had grown into by the 1970s. The Piketty world we now inhabit is the logical outgrowth of that cultural strategy for acquiescence, consumerism, and individualism.

What are we, the people of our movements, to do about this? What I keep hearing from the Left are, for the most part, fragmentary proposals: 1) calls for democracy movements that claim to be radical but only address a single issue, and 2) genuine calls for deep political and economic change that ignore how to generate the power to make that happen.

Emerging small and slowly

Cooperative/solidarity economics is economics that primarily serves people and the planet, not just the top 10-20%. It defines profits as an essential means for sustaining these kinds of enterprises and projects, not as owners getting as much as they can. The kind of regional economic development we are discussing here is emergent. Think of the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon without the notoriety. Imagine many people in many different places within a region begin discovering new ways of adapting patterns of cooperation and solidarity fundamental to the social nature of humans. After a while they begin to recognize each other, to sense that they have much in common. A rainforest in the making. So we are talking about a process that will take a long time. A long, long time beyond our life-times.

There is no dominating Master Plan. Such devices essentially make everyone feel that they are merely cogs in someone else’s machine because that is, indeed, what such plans lead to. This happens in part through the active intention of the “master planners” and by the persistent acquiescence of the “victims.” The innate power of ordinary people to participate meaningfully in their collective lives and to create the new is locked up in this acquiescence. We see cooperative/solidarity economics as a way ordinary people can connect and develop their educational, economic, and political opportunities to transform that acquiescence into a powerful force of mutuality. We have to connect face-to-face to do this work and we need to connect regionally in order to bring it to a significantly transformative scale.

Right now cooperative/solidarity networks are emerging in more than a few regions across the country. In western Massachusetts, central Massachusetts, New York City, Philadelphia, Madison, Detroit, Jackson, MS, Austin, TX and the Bay Area. They are building on more than 100 years of co-operative economic activity here and across the globe. Nancy Folbre noted that if we were to combine all of the worker, consumer, and producer co-operative enterprises in the world today, they would form the 9th largest economy in the world.

Solidarity Economic Networks exist throughout South America; across Canada, especially in Quebec; in England, France, Spain, Italy, and other European countries. Their basic elements in Brazil can be traced back to the 1600s, their conceptual emergence in the 1930s, and their persistent organic growth since the 1970s and 1980s.

These small-scale, community-grounded, roughly democratic processes, with all of their struggles, are much more responsive to the needs of all involved than the abusive massive-scale politics and economics that swirl around all of us at an ever increasing clip. Small projects are easier to design properly.  Our intuition works better on them because they are closer to our experience as small creatures, and the mistakes will be smaller. Perhaps it is even inappropriate to call them mistakes. They tend to be just small modifications that need additional adjustments later, part of dynamic development and repair.

The folks involved in these processes share much confusion and fear as they are also immersed in the problems that are making it necessary to create new ways of working together. They need to re-discover the essential sharing qualities of human life. This is a slow transformative process.

Emergence of the new is always slow and complicated as it moves from the bottom up and across. Every story of evolution and transformation tells us this over and over again. Development is organic, not imposed.  Neoliberal “growth,” on the other hand, is as insatiable as a cancer.  We don’t realize that “growth” and “acquiescence” go together and that they are as much a choice as they are an imposition.  Grasping how transformation works and aligning ourselves with its rhythms is the key to the power we need to emerge from the margins in full stride.

About the author: 

Michael Johnson was born and grew-up in the panhandle of Texas in 1942. His parents, an Irish immigrant and a Mississippi gentleman, met on a stuck elevator in New York City. Around 16 he realized that "the world didn’t work very well,” but didn’t have a clue as to what to do about it. After college he became deeply involved in community organizing group dynamics, and experiential learning in New York City from 1968-1973, and the desegregation of the Austin school system 1976-1980. Returning to NYC in 1980 he co-founded a large intentional community. It has also been a site for experiential research in cooperative culture. He is still there 34 years later. In 2007 he began immersing himself in the worker co-op and solidarity economic movements through the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives, the Grassroots Economic Organizing journal, and the SolidarityNYC collective. He blogs and writes at http://geo.coop/blogs/michaeljohnson.

Citations: 
When citing this article, please use the following format: Michael Johnson (2014). Another World Emerging? Well, maybe. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) Newsletter, http://www.geo.coop/story/another-world-emerging-well-maybe