Beauty is the moment of transition, as if the form were just ready to flow into other forms.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Beauty,” from The Conduct of Life
One can only guess at the precise endgame scenario of our transformational movement, regarding existing elites. Presumably it will be somewhere on the spectrum between, (1) movement slates are elected peaceably and all but unanimously to national power throughout the West (an ideal outcome), and (2) regime troops abandon their tanks and cease suppressing the people (an Eastern-European-like outcome). By one non-violent path or another a moment of convergence will come, and literally everyone will be part of the movement. If we envision the last remaining plutocrats coming out of their towers with their hands up, we see ourselves embracing them, and inviting them to sit down in creative dialog. Don’t doubt for a moment that they have unique knowledge and insights to bring to the conversation. They didn’t get to the top by being stupid: don’t judge them by the cue-card-reading, smiley-faced actors that they pick to sit in places like the White House and #10 Downing Street.
At this moment of convergence humanity will breathe a collective sigh of relief. The global celebrations will be grander than those that followed the ends of our great wars and revolutions, because we will be celebrating not only the end of a bad era, but the birth of a whole new kind of hope, a hope based on the solid personal experience of a new way of being, not just on a slogan, such as “The war to end all wars,” or “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”
When we wake up the next morning, and sit down to begin talking business, there will be two obvious agenda items in front of us, one short term and one long term. In the short term we’ll need to establish some agreed framework for global order; in the long term our big problem will be to transform our economies and infrastructures to be in synergistic harmony with our natural life-support systems. Sustainability is only a minimal requirement; when we put our collective brains to the subject, we will realize that we are in a symbiotic relationship with the rest of life: the more we nurture the matrix of life, the more we are nurtured. In terms of common-sense economics, being respectful of Mother Nature is simply a good investment in our own health and our own futures. We don’t just want to keep her alive; we want her to be healthy and bountiful.
As regards ‘global order’ I imagine this will be a matter of writing down the obvious. When I suggested that we would ‘sit down to begin talking business,’ I was presuming that this would happen in the form of large global council, involving delegations from all over the world, comparable demographically to the current UN. These people would already understand what the system of global order in a democracy needs to be: the use of harmonization and the arranging of temporary councils as needed to deal with issues at whatever appropriate level, leading in each case to an eventual consensus that includes all affected communities. This will be obvious to those who have lived through the transformational process (i.e., all of us). It will be how we live and breathe, so to speak.
In the previous chapter I extrapolated in more detail the kind of political and economic arrangements we could expect to develop, when people have come to focus on democracy as being the critical element that needs to be given priority above others. That drives the priority trade-offs as regards property rights, for example. In the rest of this chapter I’d like to explore the problem of converting our societies from exploitive systems to synergistic systems, from the dysfunctional to the functional. The problem is a bit like repairing an aircraft in mid-flight: society cannot be ‘closed for renovations.’
The word economics comes from a Greek word that means ‘management of the household.’ As we all know, that kind of management comes down to budgeting. You’ve got a certain amount of income, fixed expenses, optional items, and the possibility of putting some money into savings or devoting some to upgrading your living environment. There’s nothing particularly complicated about it; it’s just a matter of facing the reality of your limited income, and making trade-offs according to what’s most important to you. The easiest way to get in trouble here is to not budget, in which case you might find yourself at the end of the month with no food on the table.
Just as the householder has a certain income, so humanity can access a certain stock of resources: fossil fuels, arable land, fishing stocks, water sources, etc. If we want to move toward more sensible systems, we’ll need to budget our resources, particularly the non-renewable ones, in terms of our overall global agenda.
Let’s take petroleum as an example. After considering various objectives – reducing global warming and air pollution, keeping our societies running, creating replacement infrastructures – we might decide on a budget something like this:
For a scarce resource like petroleum, it makes sense to agree at the global level on a basic pace of conversion, and a basic framework for conversion. This enables coherence in our overall use of resources, in the pursuit of agreed common objectives. Note that this is quite a different thing from centralized state planning, as we’ve seen in some socialist nations. Only the guidelines and general resource budgets are agreed to globally, the implementation and optimization is determined locally and democratically, where the feedback loops are shortest.
When our goal as a society is to make wise use of our resources, and create infrastructures that serve our needs in a sustainable way, the whole basis of economics is transformed.
Let’s take rail as an example. The simple fact is that a well-designed and integrated rail system is incredibly more efficient than an automobile-based system in most transport scenarios – not only in terms of energy usage, but in terms of time to destination, pollution, quality of travel, utilization of investment (automobiles spend most of their time parked), and amount of land devoted to transport infrastructure.
Despite these obvious and significant efficiencies, the trend in most parts of the world is toward the automobile. To be sure, a large part of the reason is people’s natural desire for the flexibility of personal transport, but the more instrumental factor has been the pursuit of economic growth.
The problem with rail, from the perspective of capitalism, is that it is too efficient: it doesn’t use up enough resources to generate maximum economic growth. Hence trillions of dollars are invested by governments in ultra-expensive highway systems, artificially subsidizing automobile and truck usage, while rail systems are dismantled and service is intentionally allowed to deteriorate. In this way lots of steel goes into lots of cars, which only last a few years and must be replaced, using an excessive amount of energy, and boosting the GDP figures. What makes no sense in common-sense economic terms makes a lot of sense in capitalist economics – where waste and productivity are essentially synonymous. While the effect of capitalist economics is to maximize the rate at which resources are used up, the effect of common-sense economics is to make the most sensible use of resources.
Just as the economic role of the householder is to manage the household, so the economic role of society is to manage the commons. The commons is partly natural (land, forests, waterways, etc.) and partly artificial (infrastructures: roadways, utilities, communications, etc.). Different parts of the commons would naturally come under the stewardship of different levels of society. The high seas and fossil fuels, for example, need to be managed according to policies set at the global level, with the help of global councils. Transport infrastructures would typically be part of a regional commons, and managed at the regional level. Each community has its own local commons, which includes everything that is not privately owned by residents: land, waterways, forests, roadways, public buildings, water systems, etc.
In this way each part of the commons is managed by the people who benefit from it, and who have a shared interest in seeing that it is managed wisely. Management of the commons is always centered as locally as possible, keeping feedback loops short, and facilitating maximum efficiency of operations.
Common-sense economics could also be called holistic economics, in the sense that it begins where it should begin: with our basic economic relationship to our resource base. This kind of economics is not primarily about money, nor can it be reduced to any such single metric. Decisions about how to use or develop the commons, at any level, involve the consideration of many issues, from productivity to esthetics to local traditions, and there is no mathematical formula that can give a ‘right answer.’
—Anon., 18th cent., on the enclosures
The commons has been stolen from us over the millennia, and the process of theft is still continuing. Sometimes the theft has come in the form of military conquest and imperialism, which is why Western corporations own most of the mineral wealth in the third world. In the 1700’s the Enclosure Acts stole a traditional commons from the British people, forcing them off the land and providing cheap labor for the new mills and factories of the Industrial Revolution. Neoliberal privatization steals the infrastructure commons that was paid for and developed by our taxes, enabling corporations to make easy profits. The latest thefts are some of the worst, such as the patenting of traditional seed varieties – claiming private ownership over the very ability to grow food. Seed varieties are rightfully part of the global commons, having been developed and shared freely by individual farmers over thousands of years.
Our first substantive act as a sovereign We the People will most likely be to declare our repossession of the commons. In economic terms, we will simply be taking back what is rightfully ours. But as I pointed out in Chapter 7, the most fundamental principle involved here is political: if we don’t own our commons, democracy can only be a sham. If we don’t control our resources, we don’t really have sovereignty. For political reasons, then, the repossession must be total. We are not talking only about a shift of ownership back to the people; we are talking about a whole new framework of ownership, to be determined by the people.
Let me issue and control a nation’s money and I care not who writes the laws.
One of the commons that we will need to take possession of is our financial and monetary systems. In order for a community to be sovereign, it must control its financial system and currency. Each community doesn’t necessarily need to maintain its own currency, but it must have the right to do so at any time it chooses. Most likely we would create local currencies, perhaps at the level of the region, together with some system of global exchange under the stewardship of a democratically controlled clearinghouse.
In our current financial systems, money is created when banks make loans to people, businesses, or governments. Banks don’t loan you money they already have, new money is actually created in the form of the loan itself – this is called ‘factional reserve’ banking. Basically, the bank is betting that you will pay them back. If you do, then you are the one who comes up with the money that makes the loaned money ‘real.’ If you don’t, then the bank must come up with ‘real money’ to make up the deficit in its books. But most people do pay back, so the system ‘works.’ Money thus serves as a mechanism to channel wealth to banks, and to those who own the banks.
Currently there is a worldwide movement of people creating local currencies. In parts of the third world, where the IMF has created massive poverty, local currencies are enabling people to create their own productive local economies. Where there is a local currency, people can use it to make exchanges with one another. Without a local currency, the community must transfer wealth away from the community in order to obtain currency to exchange with one another. When the community issues its own currency, it avoids that outward wealth transfer. It turns out that such currencies function very effectively in practice.
Let us next consider the repossession process in the case of corporations. Apart from local businesses that operate within communities, and are likely to remain privately owned, all corporations and all corporate assets become part of the commons. Some corporations are performing useful functions and should continue operating, only under democratic ownership and management. In other cases, the facilities can be recycled and used for other purposes. In some cases, as with weapons factories and nuclear facilities, our challenge will be to dismantle and dispose of them safely.
Presumably the first step would be for each community to take over stewardship of every corporate facility within its territory, each under the temporary management of its workers. In most cases each facility would probably continue doing what it was doing, until a conversion plan can be worked out. Such a plan would be the responsibility of the local community, in dialog with the workers, neighboring communities, other branches of the former corporation, and other interested stakeholders.
Excess corporate facilities would become available for other uses, such as housing, schools, or whatever is needed by the community. In some cases production facilities might be retooled to manufacture more useful kinds of products. But even in cases where a facility continues to operate within the context of the former multi-site corporation, each branch would now be an autonomous entity, collaborating with other branches voluntarily out of self-interest, rather than in response to commands from headquarters. Economies of scale can still be achieved, but on a networking basis rather than a hierarchical basis – and always under democratic control.
Banks, insurance companies, and financial institutions are corporations, and their facilities would be repossessed in the same way. We would have little need of such institutions, freeing up nearly all of their facilities for other uses by their communities, and liberating the former employees for more useful occupations. Similarly, government facilities would no longer be needed for the most part, and could be dedicated to more useful purposes.
In the case of the military, the most sensible thing would probably be to keep the people in uniform for the time being, and give them the task of safely dismantling their weapons systems. But of course they would no longer be under the control of a military command, but would rather be part of the democratic process in the community that has repossessed their particular military installation.
One of the most important commons is agricultural land. Small, independent farmers would presumably continue to own their land and continue operating as usual, apart from the fact that dangerous pesticides and other unhealthy and un-ecological practices would be ended. Very large independent farms would need to be broken up, so as to prevent undue accumulation of wealth, and the threat that brings to democracy. All corporate holdings would be available for re-distribution. These holdings might be taken over by the laborers who currently work the land, or by families and groups that choose to leave urban environments and return to the land.
Having repossessed our commons, We the People would now be in a position to begin the project of transforming our societies and our economic activities. I would imagine that in many parts of the world there would be a mass exodus from cities to rural areas. Many of the jobs in cities would no longer exist, as they would serve no useful purpose in a democratic society. We could expect a dramatic revitalization of rural areas, and many people would welcome the opportunity to return to the land, creating small businesses, family farms, or co-op farms. Most of these people would have no experience with agriculture, and we would need to develop creative ways for people learn what they need to know, with the help of those who already live in rural areas and have the necessary knowledge.
As with all parts of the conversion project, such transitions would be made incrementally, so as not to interrupt the ongoing operation of society. At the beginning, large agribusiness operations would need to continue, so that food production can continue, but these large operations would now be under the democratic control of the local communities, rather than corporate headquarters. Operations would be gradually converted to a smaller-scale, more labor-intensive basis. Contrary to current mythology, smaller farming operations are actually more productive and efficient. The much-heralded ‘efficiency’ of modern agribusiness is measured in terms of profits on money invested, not in terms of food productivity per acre or per gallon of irrigation water. Common-sense economics measures things quite differently than does capitalist economics.
As society becomes less urban and more rural, and as economic operations become focused more locally, we would be transforming our requirements for transport systems. Presumably there would be a lot less need for long-distance daily commuting, and less need for transporting goods over long distances, as we move toward a greater emphasis on local production for local consumption. Our replacement transport systems would be much more efficient, but the greatest energy savings comes from using less transport.
Conversion of the shipping industry offers some interesting challenges. With oil being valued as a diminishing resource, rather than as a cheap fuel, and with an agenda of reducing oil usage through budgeting allocations, the whole economics of ocean transport would be redefined. It would no longer make economic sense to transport items thousands of miles across the sea when those same items can be produced closer to the consumer. Besides, much of the motivation for transporting goods over long distances comes from the disparity of incomes in different parts of the world. Under our revised financial arrangements, such disparities would be dramatically reduced.
Large ocean-going vessels would all become part of the commons, as even a single such ship, if owned privately, would represent an undue concentration of wealth. Many of these ships, particularly military vessels, would no longer be needed and could be recycled or rededicated. I’m reminded here of the ocean liner Queen Mary, which now serves as a hotel and tourist attraction in California’s Long Beach harbor. Some ships would presumably be part of the global commons, providing a global transport infrastructure, and others might be part of a regional commons, enabling the people of the region to engage in fishing and transport activities.
Of all forms of transport, air travel is by far the most wasteful of energy. It takes more gallons of fuel to carry passengers in a jet airliner from LA to New York, than it would take if all the passengers drove alone the same distance in their various automobiles. Turboprops (gas-turbine-driven propeller craft) are considerably more efficient than either jets or standard propeller planes, and whatever air transport we decide to retain would presumably use turboprop craft. But most air transport would be replaced by either rail or ship transport, both of which are orders of magnitude more energy-efficient than any kind of air transport.