The Rise of the New Economy Movement
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As our political system sputters, a wave of innovative thinking and bold experimentation is quietly sweeping away outmoded economic models. In ‘New Economic Visions’, a special five-part AlterNet series edited by Economics Editor Lynn Parramore in partnership with political economist Gar Alperovitz of the Democracy Collaborative, creative thinkers come together to explore the exciting ideas and projects that are shaping the philosophical and political vision of the movement that could take our economy back.
Just beneath the surface of traditional media attention, something vital has been gathering force and is about to explode into public consciousness. The “New Economy Movement” is a far-ranging coming together of organizations, projects, activists, theorists and ordinary citizens committed to rebuilding the American political-economic system from the ground up.
The broad goal is democratized ownership of the economy for the “99 percent” in an ecologically sustainable and participatory community-building fashion. The name of the game is practical work in the here and now—and a hands-on process that is also informed by big picture theory and in-depth knowledge.
Thousands of real world projects — from solar-powered businesses to worker-owned cooperatives and state-owned banks — are underway across the country. Many are self-consciously understood as attempts to develop working prototypes in state and local “laboratories of democracy” that may be applied at regional and national scale when the right political moment occurs.
The movement includes young and old, “Occupy” people, student activists, and what one older participant describes as thousands of “people in their 60s from the ’60s” rolling up their sleeves to apply some of the lessons of an earlier movement.
Explosion of Energy
A powerful trend of hands-on activity includes a range of economic models that change both ownership and ecological outcomes. Co-ops, for instance, are very much on target—especially those which emphasize participation and green concerns. The Evergreen Cooperatives in a desperately poor, predominantly black neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio are a leading example. They include a worker-owned solar installation and weatherization co-op; a state-of-the-art, industrial-scale commercial laundry in a LEED-Gold certified building that uses—and therefore has to heat—only around a third of the water of other laundries; and a soon-to-open large scale hydroponic greenhouse capable of producing three million head of lettuce and 300,000 pounds of herbs a year. Hospitals and universities in the area have agreed to use the co-ops’ services, and several cities—including Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Washington, DC and Amarillo, Texas are now exploring similar efforts.
Other models fit into what author Marjorie Kelly calls the “generative economy”–efforts that inherently nurture the community and respect the natural environment. Organic Valley is a cooperative dairy producer in based in Wisconsin with more than $700 million in revenue and nearly 1,700 farmer-owners. Upstream 21 Corporation is a “socially responsible” holding company that purchases and expands sustainable small businesses. Greyston Bakery is a Yonkers, New York “B-Corporation” (a new type of corporation designed to benefit the public) that was initially founded to provide jobs for neighborhood residents. Today, Greystone generates around $6.5 million in annual sales.
Recently, the United Steelworkers union broke modern labor movement tradition and entered into a historic agreement with the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation and the Ohio Employee Ownership Center to help build worker-owned cooperatives in the United States along the lines of a new “union-co-op” model.
The movement is also serious about building on earlier models. More than 130 million Americans, in fact, already belong to one or another form of cooperative—and especially the most widely known form: the credit union. Similarly, there are some 2,000 municipally owned utilities, a number of which are ecological leaders. (Twenty-five percent of American electricity is provided by co-ops and public utilities.) Upwards of 10 million Americans now also work at some 11,000 employee-owned firms (ESOP companies).
More than 200 communities also operate or are establishing community land trusts that take land and housing out of the market and preserve it for the community. And hundreds of “social enterprises” use profits for social or community serving goals. Beyond these efforts, roughly 4,500 Community Development Corporations and 1.5 million non-profit organizations currently operate in every state in the nation.
The movement is also represented by the “Move Your Money” and “bank transfer day” campaigns, widespread efforts to shift millions of dollars from corporate giants like Bank of America to one or another form of democratic or community-benefiting institution. Related to this are other “new banking” strategies. Since 2010, 17 states, for instance, have considered legislation to set up public banks along the lines of the long-standing Bank of North Dakota.
Several cities—including Los Angeles and Kansas City— have passed “responsible banking” ordinances that require banks to reveal their impact on the community and/or require city officials to only do business with banks that are responsive to community needs. Other cities, like San Jose and Portland, are developing efforts to move their money out of Wall Street banks and into other commercial banks, community banks or credit unions. Politicians and activists in San Francisco have taken this a step further and proposed the creation of a publicly owned municipal bank.
There are also a number of innovative non-public, non-co-op banks—including the New Resource Bank in San Francisco, founded in 2006 “with a vision of bringing new resources to sustainable businesses and ultimately creating more sustainable communities.” Similarly, One PacificCoast Bank, an Oakland-based certified community development financial institution, grew out of the desire to “create a sustainable, meaningful community development bank and a supporting nonprofit organization.” And One United Bank—the largest black-owned bank in the country with offices in Los Angeles, Boston and Miami—has financed more than $1 billion in loans, most in low-income neighborhoods.
Ex-JP Morgan managing director John Fullerton has added legitimacy and force to the debate about new directions in finance at the ecologically oriented Capital Institute. And in several parts of the country, alternative currencies have long been used to help local community building—notably “BerkShares” in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and “Ithaca Hours” in Ithaca, New York.
Active protest efforts are also underway. The Occupy movement, along with many others, has increasingly used direct action in support of new banking directions—and in clear opposition to old. On April 24, 2012 over 1,000 people protested bank practices at the Wells Fargo shareholder meeting in San Francisco. Similar actions, some involving physical “occupations” of bank branches, have been occurring in many parts of the country since the Occupy movement started in 2011. Large-scale demonstrations occurred at the Bank of America’s annual shareholder meeting in May 2012.
What to do about large-scale enterprise in a “new economy” is also on the agenda. A number of advocates, like Boston College professor Charles Derber, contemplate putting worker, consumer, environmental, or community representatives of “stakeholder” groups on corporate boards. Others point to the Alaska Permanent Fund which invests a significant portion of the state’s mineral revenues and returns dividends to citizens as a matter of right. Still others, like David Schweickart and Richard Wolff, propose system-wide change that emphasizes one or another form of worker ownership and management. (In the Schweickart version, smaller firms would be essentially directly managed by workers; large-scale national firms would be nationalized but also managed by workers.) A broad and fast-growing group seeks to end “corporate personhood,” and still others urge a reinvigoration of anti-trust efforts to reduce corporate power. (Breaking up banks deemed too big to fail is one element of this.)
In March 2012, the Left Forum held in New York also heard many calls for a return to nationalization. And even among “Small is Beautiful” followers of the late E. F. Schumacher, a number recall this historic build-from-the-bottom-up advocate’s argument that “[w]hen we come to large-scale enterprises, the idea of private ownership becomes an absurdity.” (Schumacher continuously searched for national models that were as supportive of community values as local forms.)