Bob Massie, CEO of the New Economics Institute opened the recent Strategies for a New Economy conference, held at Bard College, New York with a thoughtful response to the criticism that the Occupy movement lacks specific economic policy priorities.
Massie suggested that the significance of the early advocates for democratic decision-making, women’s suffrage, civil rights and the end of apartheid did not stem primarily from their detailed policy recipes. The initial power of these game-changing social movements came from their capacity to articulate a sea change in social values about the ethical and moral compass settings that should inform and drive political decisions and paradigms.
The Strategies for a New Economy conference was designed to build on the space for political debate which Occupy has created by addressing key questions fundamental to the design and implementation of an alternative economic paradigm. What would an economy built on principles of fairness and sustainability look like? How do we model it; where is it emerging; how do we collectively strategise to fully implement it?
The conference was also significant for strengthening links between US and European advocates for alternative economic policy paradigms and policies. Stewart Wallis, CEO of the UK based New Economics Foundation, usefully summarized the double bind facing US and European policy makers seeking just and sustainable solutions to our deeply intertwined tangle of economic, social and ecological challenges. If we keep our foot on the economic brake unemployment and inequality will continue to increase. If we put our foot on the economic accelerator we will run out of planet.
While most conference participants were acutely aware of the hard work required to design, communicate and implement detailed policies and programs, there were plenty of valuable initiatives to learn from - and broad support for the following principles as the framework for a rapid transition to a more just, sustainable and democratic economic future.
1. Replacing corporate control of key economic and financial decisions with democratically accountable institutions and processes.
As Gar Alperovitz, Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland argued, the major financial problems facing the US and Europe are primarily political rather than economic. Many American factory workers, farmers and small businesses deeply resent the Wall Street bailout as an unfair and undemocratic handout to the affluent and unaccountable owners and shareholders of the largest banking and financial institutions. That reaction is hardly surprising given the recent acerbic observations by US Senator Dick Durbin, “the banks … are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they, frankly, own the place.”
European politics is also being swept by waves of anger about the unequal and unjust distribution of the costs of austerity measures, and the continuing lack of accountability of the financial institutions who have benefited most from the speculative operations of the deregulated casino economy. The rise of neo Nazi parties like Golden Dawn in Greece highlights the very real potential for this anger to be channelled into chauvinistic and racist populism.
Alternative policy responses canvassed included regulatory measures designed to strengthen the transparency and accountability of financial institutions; revitalising anti trust legislation to break up corporate oligopolies and active encouragement for the rapid expansion of smaller, community controlled banks (see for example the Institute for Local Self Reliance).
As Alperovitz forcefully argues in America Beyond Capitalism, the time may also have come to reopen public debate about bringing the most powerful of financial and infrastructure enterprises into direct public ownership and to revisit the potential of worker owned enterprises and co-operatives of the kind being reinvented in ‘the Cleveland Model’.
2. Reprioritising local rather than global production and distribution systems – particularly in relation to finance, energy and food.
The New Economics Institute has evolved from the E.F. Schumacher Society and shares Schumacher’s enthusiasm for decentralised, human scale economic solutions and institutions. Many conference speakers pointed to the resurgence across the United States of support for local, community based enterprises, financial institutions, food and energy systems (see for example the The Intervale Centre for Community Food Systems in Vermont or the Greenhorns project supporting the revitalization of the next generation of young American farmers.
Importantly this is the first year since World War II that there are more – not less - new farms in America. Many of these new farms and food projects are small holdings, focused on supplying local markets– and many are located in cities as well as in rural communities.
Other examples of local economic initiatives with valuable implications for Australia included.
The Oberlin Project – a collaboration between the City Council, University, community organisations and local businesses designed to “revitalise the local economy, eliminate carbon emissions, restore local agriculture, food supply and forestry, and create a new, sustainable base for economic and community development”.
The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE. BALLE provides a focus for progressive small businesses commited to the following vision. “Within a generation, we envision a global system of human-scale, interconnected local living economies that function in harmony with local ecosystems, meet the basic needs of all people, support just and democratic societies, and foster joyful community life.”
Fixing the Future, a feature length PBS documentary film introducing individuals, communities and organizations across America intent on reinventing the American economy through experiments in local business alliances, community banking, time banking, worker cooperatives and local currencies.
3. Implementing a rapid and complete shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, along with the other energy efficiency and demand management measures needed to reduce the likelihood of runaway climate change.
In his keynote address, Bill McKibben, CEO of 350.org stressed that, without rapid and effective action to reduce greenhouse gasses, all the fine local social, economic were at grave risk of being overwhelmed by the consequences of climate change.
In a speech of striking relevance to current Australian political debates, he highlighted the urgent need to expose and challenge the pernicious influence of the fossil fuel industry over public debate about climate change. McKibben focussed particular attention on the current 350.org campaign priority: End subsidies to the fossil fuel industry…and transfer these resources to building the green economy.
After all, he noted: “No other industry is allowed to dump its garbage in the streets. Why should it not only be allowed, but subsidised, for the industry that is responsible for the most dangerous product of all, the CO2 that could totally destabilise our planet?”
4. Shifting growth priorities from the consumption of energy and materials to ecological sustainability, health and wellbeing.
Richard Heinberg began his presentation on the key ideas in his recent book, The End of Growth, with a compelling overview of the implications of unsustainable levels of debt, energy consumption and ecological destruction for current assumptions about the inevitability and desirability of economic growth – at least as currently defined.
Heinberg concluded by asking whether it might be time to focus less on growth in the consumption of energy and resources and more on growth in other important social and ecological priorities: community connectedness; time with family and friends; satisfaction from honest work well done; co-operative and productive working relationships; the health of human and ecological systems; happiness; creativity; and the beauty of built and natural environment.
Many speakers emphasised the importance of new ways of framing and measuring economic development and prosperity. The NEF’s Happy Planet Index is just one example of a host of creative international initiatives aimed at replacing narrow GDP based metrics with broader indicators of social and ecological wellbeing.
Australian-based founder of The Post Growth Institute, Donnie Maclurcan also reminded the audience that practical, living examples of the ways in which alternative economic paradigms are already being enacted are an essential basis for encouraging people and communities to move from analysis and critique to active political participation.
Building a movement for a new economy
In his closing remarks, Bob Massie returned to some familiar truths about strategies for building an effective movement for transformational change.
“You build a movement when you touch people where they are. In the case of workers, it’s how do you create sustainable, long-term meaningful, real jobs that are rooted in real place.
For other people, for the environmental community, you have to demonstrate that you can create prosperity without the damaging side of growth, without the release of toxins into the air and particularly without relying, as we have, on an ever increasing amount of fossil fuels which are releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.’
Some useful starting points here perhaps for similar conversations in Australia?