A new economy: Building community wealth

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"It's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism," begins the introduction to Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher. Those words rang true to me when I read them on the publisher's website earlier this week. As a recent January Term trip to Scandinavia reminded me, climate change is a real threat to our way of life—and to our planet's diversity. But this is not evident if you survey our roads (lots of gas-fueled personal cars), fields (monoculture industrial agriculture), homes (getting bigger and bigger each year), and advertising ("buy our stuff and be happy"). Our fossil-fueled, plunder-the-earth economy is going full steam ahead with little concern for the longevity of our planet or the well-being of the creatures that inhabit it.

The problem with corporate capitalism

Today's version of corporate capitalism is not sustainable—nor is it equitable or just. As Bernie Sanders reminded us repeatedly on the campaign trail, "there is something profoundly wrong when today, the top one-tenth of 1 percent own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent." I would add that there is something profoundly wrong when today, 15 million children in the United States live below the poverty line and 2.3 million people are locked up in prisons, jails and other detention facilities.

If all we care about is Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and narrowly-defined prosperity, then sure, corporate capitalism is great. The problem is that the leaders of Corporate America have undue influence in the public sphere—in our elections, in policy, and in the justice system. Between Citizens United, revolving doors and lobbying, our country is indeed an oligarchy.

"[T]he liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself." –Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1938

A related problem, highlighted by Jeff Sovern, professor of law at St. John's University School of Law, is that capitalism "provides financial incentives to harm and even kill people." Regulations are supposed to protect people and the planet from corporate greed, but when corporations influence legislation through campaign contributions, lobbying or public-private organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the protective system falls apart.

Corporate capitalism vs. state socialism

When I've written in the past about the problems of unfettered capitalism and specifically the detrimental effect this economic system has on human health and happiness, readers immediately assume I'm a traditional socialist. (The fact that I'm from Sweden doesn't help my case, I'm sure.)

But I'm not. I mean, I agree with many of the principles of democratic socialism, including the notions that all who are able should contribute to society, that we should care for the most vulnerable in our society, and that equity should be at the center of our policies. However, there are some drawbacks when the government takes on dominant roles that are perhaps better handled in the private sphere. For example, when our class visited Denmark, we learned that many elderly people are lonely because their children or other community members don't have to care for them. This service is provided by the government. Their bodies are taken care of, but not their souls.

I don't believe it has to be corporate capitalism or state socialism. I think we have the capability to devise a new economic system that provides freedom, safety and well being for all people.

Building community wealth

Gar Alperovitz, historian and political economist, has thought a lot about this possibility as well. I had the good fortune to hear him speak a couple of weeks ago, and it was inspiring! He advocates for democratizing wealth ownership—and radical decentralization. A community-based socialism of sorts. He argues that we don't have to choose between corporate capitalism and state socialism. Towns and cities around the world are already changing the paradigm—and building community wealth.

Here are some examples of institutions in this new economy (see Community-Wealth.org for more):

  • Worker-owned cooperatives, such as our very own Hometown Taxi in Decorah.
  • Municipal utilities, such as the Decorah Fast Fiber project, which is working to create a public communications utility in Decorah to provide fiber optic internet to homes and businesses.
  • Land trusts, such as the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT) with a vision of "protecting land to grow healthy food."
  • Public banks, such as the Bank of North Dakota.

When we start to create institutions such as these, we build community wealth. For example, if the Decorah Fast Fiber project is successful, money paid by households and businesses for internet services will go back into the utility and the community, as opposed to corporate shareholders. When workers democratically own a business, profits go to the workers, rather than to overpaid CEOs and other executives. These types of institutions are also more likely to care for the natural areas that surround the people who own them.

And, in time, we can start to tie these institutions to politics. Then we will see a real shift. As Gar pointed out, the power of the labor unions as voices for the people has diminished and will not regain strength. But these new institutions can replace them to speak for the best interests of everyday Americans. That is the hope.

I am excited to see where this movement goes. There are certainly many unanswered questions about what this means for us as members of a global community, which includes countries that have been occupied and pillaged by empires for centuries. We can't just worry about our own communities—or even countries, but it is a place to start. We must experiment with—and expand—these new models, because what we have is not working for everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us.

Resources

If you're interested, please check out these resources on the new economy and building community wealth:

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