Interview by Bioneers
As wealth inequality continues to grow, the escalating consequences of traditional economic models that have exploited the Earth and left millions in poverty are pushing us to the brink of transition. But what will the next system look like? How can we build a regenerative system that’s both socially and environmentally sustainable?
In this panel, four citizen leaders challenge the status quo with innovative ideas about what our world looks like beyond capitalism or socialism: Greg Watson, Director of Policy at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics; Christine Nobiss, Indigenous activist and Decolonizer at Seeding Sovereignty; Ted Howard, co-founder and President of The Democracy Collaborative; and brandon king, a founding member of Cooperation Jackson.
GREG: Today we’re going to discuss the new economy.
I work at the Schumacher Center for New Economics. It’s based on the work of E.F. Schumacher. He wrote Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered, which gives you a list of some concepts that are central to economics that matter or where people matter. Schumacher’s work, along with a lot of others, had a lot to do with inspiring the alternative, appropriate-technology movement, which brings us to another place where I used to work back in the 1980s, called the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod.
New Alchemy was a think/do tank based in Massachusetts. And during the ‘60s and ‘70s, when people were very vociferous about what they saw being wrong with society — especially in terms of our ability to meet our food, energy, and shelter needs sustainably — New Alchemy was a place where they said, “Why don’t we start developing real alternatives to the existing economy?”
That led to some really innovative and, at times, funky inventions. Basically we looked at nature as a model for our designs.
So what I’ve learned is this: Think globally, act locally. Even as we focus on the local economies, in this day and age, they all have some implications for basic global literacy. And with that, I’m going to present our panelists, leading off with Ted Howard, then brandon king, and then Christine Nobiss.
TED: Thanks very much, Greg.
I want to start with a quote that’s now my favorite quote of all time: “It is easier to imagine the end of our planet than to imagine the end of capitalism.” And that is really true. We’ve got like 12 years to get this climate emergency under control, or we’re going to have a very tough time on this planet. But it’s hard to imagine that we could actually live in a society that isn’t made up of giant corporations, where investors aren’t trying to maximize their shareholder value, where money isn’t incredibly concentrated; that we could live in a system that’s producing other kinds of values, a political economy that’s neither a state socialism, bureaucratic old Soviet Union style nor this out-of-control juggernaut that we have right now.
The president is fond of saying gross domestic product has never been higher, the stock market’s never been higher, and all that’s true. Yet, 47% of Americans can’t assemble $400 to meet an emergency, like their car breaking down or a child breaking their ankle. Three people in America, you know them – Gates, Bezos, and Buffett — own as much wealth as the bottom 160 million of us. We have a system that is very extractive and increasingly concentrating wealth. There has never been a nation as wealthy, as productive – again, not necessarily producing the things we all want – but it is an incredibly powerful machine.
Just as the Great Depression was starting in the 1930s, there was what historians called the “laboratories of democracy,” where people were experimenting with all kinds of incredible things all over the country, like what turned into our Social Security system. I firmly believe we have laboratories of democracy going on right now in America.
So the question is: What is in the way to achieve the kind of next system that could produce more equity, more justice, more wealth equality, and better stabilization for our communities? What’s in the way? I’d say three things:
One is we don’t know a lot of our own history in this country. There is a great article in The New York Times called The City Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez Would Have Loved to Live In. This is a story of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which in the first 50 years of the 20th century was controlled by socialist governments. They were called sewer socialists because they attended to the infrastructure people needed. One of America’s great cities had an entire half century of democratic, decentralized socialist history. Most of us think, “will Americans really go for cooperatives?” Well, 130 million Americans belong to cooperatives right now, like credit unions; most of us just don’t know it. One out of every three of us participates in a co-op. So we need to get our understanding of what we’re doing up to the level of reality.
The second thing is there are big concentrated powers and corporations that are going to stand in the way of us getting what we want. We’re never going to deal with climate change as long as the fossil fuel companies are standing in the way. There’s going to need to be a political movement that challenges concentrated power to move us beyond this kind of post-capitalist economy. That’s going to be difficult, and we’re going to need to do it just like the labor movement once did it, and the women’s movement, and the environmental movement, and the movement for black lives. There has got to be that coalescing.
But the real obstacle I think we face is actually inside us. Remember, it’s easier to imagine the end of the planet than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. If you and I lived in Pharaohs Egypt, which lasted a thousand years, it would be totally rational to think that there would always be pharaohs and sphinxes and pyramids, and it would just make sense because it had always been that way. Yet it’s gone, and we now study it. All the other systems come and go. So we need to get our ambition up.
What if the whole economy reflected our values? What if we were the ones, along with our brothers and sisters around the country, that were really on top of a democratic economy? So the real issue is: Can we see ourselves as the actors in history that we are? That we are the people, as Dr. King said, whose job it is to bend the arc of history towards justice? And if we are those people, I firmly believe that at least in the lifetime of some of us in this room, we will see a fundamentally different political economy in this country that can have the most extraordinary values for our people and our planet.
BRANDON: This conversation is about beyond capitalism. I’m thinking about the work that we’re doing in Jackson, and trying to model our work based upon the things we need to survive and thrive. If we’re able to model our work in terms of having our food production taken care of, in terms of having our living spaces taken care of, it’s meaningful because it’s not for someone else…it’s with each other. I think doing these kinds of things helps us delink from the systems that are harming us. If we’re growing our own food, then that means we’re not beholden to capitalist markets that decide that your lettuce costs three cents. It’s an important step to think about the different things we need as humans. What is our given capacity? What can we do? What can we accomplish with our time?
We just recently purchased a plaza space. We named it after Ida B. Wells. And in this plaza space, we hope to construct the co-op grocery, and set up aquaponics. One of the things that we’ve noticed with our farming is that the climate is super unpredictable because of climate change. You could be spending weeks upon weeks of planning, planting, and taking care of your plants, and then you have a drought or a flood, and all of your work is perishable. So how can we, considering climate change, grow food in a controlled environment to ensure that our community has access? Those are things that I think are important to think about.
There are a lot of steps for us to get to a post-capitalist society. There is this looming enclosure of the commons. There is a big wealth grab that’s happening at astronomical rates right now, and that’s also the cause of the warming of this planet.
After Alcatraz, a lot of the Indigenous Peoples who were part of that fight, who occupied that place, went back to their communities and did the same thing. They were able to expand indigenous territory. And those kinds of things need to continue to happen. We need to confront and tackle these harmful systems while we’re building new systems. Because this problem is not going to go away by us just wishing it away. It’s really important for us to deal with it head on.
I think that looks like broad-based organizing, grassroots organizing on the community level, getting everyday people involved and connected. People feel the brunt of capitalism, and they feel the lack of time they have with their family or with their children. They feel the pressure of having to produce, and their money not going as far as it used to go. We feel all these pressures.
The thing that is keeping people from joining us — the collective us — is that people want to see an alternative in real life. They want to see how we’re actually, materially building these systems. Are we shutting down these factories, these coal plants, these extractive plants and just leaving them? Or are we building regenerative energy systems and pulling in the workers who have lost their jobs? Those are things that we should be thinking seriously about, just in terms of building something new. People want to have a network or a safety net to be able to connect with and to feel a part of.
This stuff is an experiment. Like our lives. Not everything is going to be perfect, but we’ve got to try. We’ve got to fail. We’ve got to be comfortable with failing because in failing, we learn. So it’s important for us to have that humility and that understanding that we are on a road, trying to go toward a place that affirms our life and also affirms the life of this planet.
CHRISTINE: I want to start with this quote that was spoken by Peo-Peo-Mox-Mox, which means Yellow Bird, who said, “Goods and the earth are not equal. Goods are for using on the earth. I do not know where they have given land for goods.” . That sentiment really resonates with me because the idea of capitalism or exchange of land for goods was a completely foreign concept to Indigenous Peoples before colonization and genocide occurred.
I work really hard to bring attention to this issue. I talk a lot about colonial capitalism in my work because, in my opinion, it is the problem, hands down. It’s the reason for all of the social injustice that occurs on this planet, and also for climate change, and environmental destruction.
We are essentially in battle with it. Indigenous Peoples have been in battle with colonial capitalism. And I’m going to start from this most recent European colonization around the planet, where this ideology that God gave man dominion over the Earth brought to fruition this idea of capitalism, and then colonialism, and then consumerism, which is in complete opposite to how most indigenous societies have worked everywhere on this planet. I see it as very black and white — two contrasting ideologies. One where the Earth is essentially an object that you can do what you want with; the other where we see Earth as our mother, a relative that you want to keep safe and you want to keep healthy. It’s a very different way of interacting with the planet. That comes with different practices, ideologies, cosmologies, and ways of being that we need to nurture and empower right now if we’re going to turn the tide, or curtail even a little bit of this climate crisis.
I believe that we can imagine a world without capitalism before we imagine the end of the world, only because I come from a very different background where I was told how things were before colonial capitalism took over. I think that the way to fight colonial capitalism is by uplifting and empowering Indigenous Peoples. Period.
I’m also talking about the African American populations, and the Latino/Latina populations. All the populations that are oppressed and afflicted by the self-eating mechanism of capitalism. I believe that the way forward is to get money out of white, elite circles. $60 billion of foundation funding each year goes to 95% white-led organizations, and that means there’s very little left for Indigenous Peoples to do what they need to do to make a difference.
There’s talk about the Green New Deal, there’s all this legislation that people want to put through, yet the real answers actually lie in turning to the Indigenous Peoples of this continent and asking them for guidance on how to move forward. Indigenous Peoples have traditional ecological knowledge that can save the world. Noam Chomsky says it, David Suzuki says it, the Drawdown team says it, and more importantly, our own ancestors and our own people say it. We have answers. We have a different way of living. We have a different ideology that we can use to change or combat what’s happening right now.
But the problem is that even in our climate movements and social justice movements, the liberal progressive people that are running these movements aren’t ready to take on the very uncomfortable conversation that has to be had. Basically that we don’t need all this money going over there, and we don’t need people to be coming into our communities and saving us. We just need them to give the funds directly to our people so that we can do what we need to do.
I can give you a very good example of what’s happened recently with the climate strikes, the Extinction Rebellion, and all these other big NGOs and the millions of dollars that are going into those things. At this particular segment in time, I don’t know that non-violent direct action is doing much. They’re used to it by now — the cops are like, alright, you’re going to go do something for a day, and then you’re going to go back home to your home, and be comfortable, and then come out again. I mean, that’s not really a strike, is it? And you have to ask, what if we were to give this money to Indigenous Peoples so that they could move forward with their amazing projects? And Indigenous Peoples who are already doing green jobs as stewards of the planet, protecting territories and 80% of the world’s biodiversity? What if we were to give the money directly to them so they could continue to do that?
That’s the problem with colonial capitalism. It’s ingrained in our institutions, and it’s a thought process that’s created out of institutionalized racism. Even the people who are trying to make a difference still don’t get it.
I don’t think that these huge environmental organizations should be getting all of this money. I think it should go to the stewards of the land.
I love Greta Thunberg. I think she’s a wonderful person, but that’s a really good example of the centering of whiteness that’s happening right now in this country. We don’t need another white savior. We need to recognize the children in our own backyards that have fought at the frontlines and died at the frontlines to protect their land, and the environment, and the climate, and their people. And that’s not to say that we can’t work together But there have been people doing this here already. Let’s recognize them.
That’s my huge goal. I am very proud to say that I am the lead organizer of the Indigenous track at SOCAP. I’ve really had a great experience working with the organizers of SOCAP and putting together indigenous tracks so that more native people can be at these really wealthy and hard-to-get-to conversations, so that they can start showing people what it is we are doing, and we can get them investing in us.
I think that’s how we can start combatting colonial capitalism: by trusting the Indigenous Peoples on this planet and realizing that it’s not necessarily about what we do, it starts with changing how we think, our ideology, how we view this Earth, and how we interact with this Earth.
That’s why I think it’s highly important that we invest and empower Indigenous Peoples during this really difficult time, where we’re standing on the precipice of disaster. Let’s do something completely different. Let’s stop and look at this history, and say to ourselves: “What did we do? How did we get here?” And that means confronting colonial capitalism. That means going to the places of power.
GREG: How do you respond to the Green New Deal with respect to the notion of going beyond capitalism? Do you all see the Green New Deal as being a vehicle to achieve that?
TED: The Green New Deal is interesting because it brings together both environmental and economic concerns. It talks about full employment and so forth. So I do think that it provides an opening that can help address a number of the inequities in the economy.
But it’s going to take a lot of public money, and how do we ensure that the wealthy corporations don’t end up with all the money to build this “new green economy”? It’s essential to marry the Green New Deal idea with the kind of community wealth building, democratic economy that you talked about.
BRANDON: I agree. I think to have a policy platform that bends to capitalism isn’t going to help us at the end of the day. We have to confront it in a real way, and I feel like it has to be anti-capitalist, because the logic of infinite growth on a finite planet can’t exist, even if it’s green capitalism.
CHRISTINE: I think the Green New Deal is a good start, but I agree with brandon about green capitalism and greenwashing. I don’t think carbon taxing will do much except create unsustainable prices for the people. We talk about trickle-down economics, but what really trickles down is the cost to the people. So the Green New Deal needs a really massive overhaul.
If we are going to move forward with the Green New Deal, it must include a huge social component. Climate change is something ethereal — it’s gases and greenhouse effects and weather — but it’s really our relationship to the land that creates climate change. So the government needs to recognize our sovereignty and allow us to be the stewards we need to be in order to lead the way and build an Indigenous-led regenerative economy.
I think the Green New Deal should have more language about border imperialism, prison pipelines, and all of the other major issues affecting us because we can’t actually make change if we’re living in poverty.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Capitalism is defined as an economic system where the imperative is to maintain and grow investor capital. Is it possible to approach capitalism to eliminate the scourge?
CHRISTINE: I rarely use the word capitalism without putting the word “colonial” before it because, in essence, they are one in the same. When you think about what colonialism is, it is capitalism because it’s about going into another territory, taking the land, the resources, and mitigating the local population either through annihilation, assimilation, or slavery. I think people really need to start using the word colonial before they use capitalism, always and everywhere.
TED: I think you’ve put your finger on an essential problem in our system: capital always has greater rights than any other aspect of our society. Our system has a capital bias, so as Greg said, if in our economy we get in trouble or an individual company gets in trouble, the drive and the logic is to preserve the capital and eliminate as much labor as possible because it’s just a cost.
If you go to Mondragon in Spain, which is where one of the most robust worker cooperative business networks is, and you ask them, “What is the difference in your system compared to our system?” They say, “In your system, capital is in first place over labor. So when you get in trouble, you preserve capital and get rid of as much labor as possible. In our system, we know capital is important, but labor is in first place, so our decisions are not about how we preserve capital. They’re about how we keep our people working in decent jobs.” And right there is the difference in two systems.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What would a land reshuffling from colonial ownership look like?
CHRISTINE: I wouldn’t call it a reshuffling as much as just respecting the treaties. Not one treaty has ever been respected or adhered to. Wow, could you imagine if whoever takes presidency at some point decided to really look at these treaties again and see what we can do about it?
Along with that, let’s talk about reparations. Let’s talk about what we should do for these people that have been stolen from another country. Reparations should be a massive thing. There’s enough land and resources here that we can make it work, but it’s going to take us having to change the thought process, the way of thinking of the elites, privileged, and white supremacists. And frankly, in my opinion, that’s going to take a revolution.
GREG: Cuba was identified by the World Wildlife Fund as being one of the few truly sustainable economies and countries. Now that you’re talking about colonialism, Cuba’s environment was ravaged to make way for the dominance of large plantations. And their revolution was an agrarian revolution.
Two things happened: Redistribution of land and a literacy campaign. Children were sent to the countryside to educate the rural population which had not been. And if your motive is wanting total dominance, one of the last things you’re going to do is say “Let’s educate the population.” I do think that there are examples like this — it is never easy. What would it look like here? Another story. But it’s a good question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What role should labor unions play in the destruction of capitalism and the preservation of our climate?
TED: Let me take that. In the United States, our labor movement peaked back in the 1950s, in terms of percentage of the workforce organized, when about 35% of the workers were unionized. We never had the kind of union penetration in the United States that you see typically in countries throughout Europe. Today, the percentage of the private sector workforce that’s unionized is 6% and going down. And the entire labor force unionization, including public employees, is about 11% and going down. This is a really big problem because labor provided an institutional base that had countervailing power to capital, so you could push back. You could get a lot of the social safety nets and so forth that we have in this country, which came out of a lot of pushing by labor. But labor’s been decimated.
Personally, I don’t see that it’s going to come back in the same way that it used to be. I think every place we can unionize, we should, but we’ve got a real problem in terms of this movement for a democratic economy, and that’s building a new power base that can constrain power of capital. Unions are going to be part of that, but they’re no longer the sole answer. We need to look at the kinds of work like Cooperation Jackson is doing in Jackson, Mississippi. It’s starting to build a power base and push this agenda forward.
BRANDON: Back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, co-ops and unions were like homies. They rode side-by-side. I come out of labor, so I feel like I can talk about it. I feel like something that is happening is that unions sort of gave up on the whole concept of taking control over the workplace, actually owning the means of production. I think unions thought, okay, we can get these benefits, we can get less hours, we can negotiate good contracts for our workers, but overall conceded to the whole question around controlling the workplace. Leadership seems to have stopped at that point, but there has to be political will from labor to be able to make that shift.
So we’ve started a union co-op initiative in Jackson. We’re working with workers and organizers just to 1) share that history about the co-ops and the unions, but also 2) figure out how we can revitalize that.
CHRISTINE: We know that indigenous history’s been largely white-washed in this country, so we don’t see the wonderful things that our indigenous nations are doing. Even after our nations and people were shattered and scattered like dust all over this country, we still managed to get together to continue to build, even on different land bases, and continue our ways, even though it’s different. I think about some of our nations with businesses, and how a lot of the people on those nations receive per capitas. It’s a very different way of thinking. I don’t know many other organizations or places where you actually get a big percentage of the profit, not just a share. So it’s a very different way of thinking about being.
I do think that there’s a problem with unions now. I think that some of them have become very problematic in that they’re run by the hetero-patriarchy, and they’re not really looking for the best interests of their community; they’re looking for the best interest of themselves, which is white men in general.