In Search of Economic Alternatives

Some inspiring attempts at redefining the meaning and purpose of economy

Whenever the establishment is challenged on the fact that they have no real economic ‘solutions’ to offer, the stock response is that the anti-capitalist naysayers have no alternatives to offer. That there is no way out of capitalism and the traps it has set for us. On the contrary, many people around the world are doing just that – finding ways of circumventing the cruelties and impotence engendered by capitalism.

For instance, community kitchens and community gardens are already popular and widespread. We are also familiar with the concept of social centres, which are run on gift/donation for communal purposes, bypassing the payment-for-services system.

Social Currency
But there are also community currencies. An interesting example is the Toronto dollar, which was started in 1998 by a non-profit organization in Toronto, Canada. This local currency is backed by the Canadian dollar, and over 100 local businesses have endorsed it.

People can trade their Canadian dollars for Toronto dollars (TDs), shop in the local area, and when they don’t need them any more they can sell them back. But when they do, 10 cents from each dollar traded back goes into a fund to finance community projects, such as social services or homes for the homeless. TDs are also ‘gifted’ to welfare recipients who provide free/volunteer services, but without affecting their welfare payments in the least. This is a non-punitive way of making people contribute to the society they live in.

True, this system does not ‘overcome’ money; it is not wholly anti-capitalist either. But it goes some way in practically demonstrating that financial autonomy within a small region is achievable. It also demonstrates the concept of ‘social money’, where the needs and priorities of a whole community are woven into the currency itself, rather than the individualized money we all use, where instead of donating to a tangible community that one lives in, one pays an abstract ‘tax’ to a proxy institution (the state) out of the money that one feels entitled to.

In Co-operatives is our strength
Although it is no longer a dominant movement, the co-operative is still a practical and favoured model for ensuring basic securities and fostering solidarity within a community. There are housing and workers’ cooperatives all over the world, but here I shall consider the UK-based Radical Routes, which is a radical and open organization that attempts to form a solid network of different kinds of co-ops.

Active members of Radical Routes include social centres, printers and housing co-ops.  Their objective, as they state it, is “working towards taking control over our housing, education and work through setting up housing and worker co-ops, and co-operating as a network,” and by doing so “we aim to reduce reliance on exploitative structures and build secure bases from which to challenge the system and encourage others to do so.” Their ultimate aim is to have a “nationwide network of like-minded co-ops and individuals.”

Formally set up in 1992, Radical Routes also provides educational workshops for promoting co-operatives. They host four open gatherings a year where important decisions are made and new members can offer to join. The next one this year will be in May, 25-27 in Lanarkshire, Scotland.

Reclaiming the earth
Ultimately, no alternative economic practice is meaningful if people have no control over land itself, because systematic enclosure of land is what enabled capitalism to become the dominant system. Therefore, a handful of inhabitants of Morgan County, West Virginia, USA, came together on the 22nd of February this year to declare their county an ‘International Water Heritage Site’.

The occasion was the exploitation of their land by various companies conducting hydraulic fracking – a method used to extract natural gas under the ground – which has been proved to be an extremely poisonous and dangerous practice. The declaration was made under the auspices of the grassroots environmental group Morgan County Frack Ban.

This extraordinary declaration is possibly the first of its kind in the western world. The written declaration, read out in front of the county court, draws from several sources, including the state and federal constitutions. It states unashamedly that its context and purpose are “revolutionary.” But rather than refer to Washington or Jefferson, it quotes that great rebel of his times, Thoreau.

In fact, the text of the declaration is worth reading and rereading. It says, “by strictly adhering to the systems of power rather than working outside of them when necessary, we are treating the symptoms of disease rather than its underlying cause.” It is decidedly not anti-state, but it is openly anti-capitalist: “we recognize that capitalism is not democracy and that democracy is not capitalism. These are radically opposing ideas, and we must take care not to confuse them.”

The text affirms the sovereignty of the people and makes protection of the environment a moral matter, to be upheld with civil disobedience if necessary. It recognizes that life trumps economy: “Ecology is the only economy that really matters. One cannot make a living on a dead planet; and one cannot drink money.” Amen.

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