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Synthesis/Regeneration 21   (Winter 2000)

Community-Based Economics

by Steve Welzer, Green Party of New Jersey

Capitalism is an economic system where the means of production are for the most part privately owned and controlled; socialism is an economic system where the means of production are for the most part publicly owned and controlled. Most Green Party programs do not advocate either system. Greens in the US characterize their economic orientation in a phrase: "community-based economics."

I'll make the case that community-based economics constitutes an alternative to both capitalism and socialism; that it is very much in keeping with the Greens' valuation of diversity and decentralization; and that it has the potential to resonate with the public/electorate—and therefore should be highlighted in our organizing work and electoral campaigns. In terms of developing economic policy, Greens should understand that communitarian social relations are more important than economic property relations.

Wrong for Greens to Advocate a Universal Economic System

If Greens advocate regionalization of economic activity and hold out a vision of diverse and decentralized communities, it would be contradictory for us to advocate uniformity in regard to property relations or a single economic system as "best" for all communities. Economic diversity would mean that in some regions the preponderance of the means of production might be publicly owned and controlled. In other regions only the "commanding heights" of the economy might be socialized. Some communities might opt to hold most things in common, going far beyond socialization of just the means of production. Others may disavow public enterprise, preferring an economic model based on locally-owned private businesses. In other cases there may be a tradition of co-ops (which are private). Most likely, varying mixtures of public and private enterprise would be the rule.

The drive to accumulate power and wealth must become recognized for what it is, a pernicious characteristic of a civilization headed, ever more rapidly, in a pathological direction.

The communitarian perspective of the Greens can encompass market relations here and economic planning there. It can encompass the profit motive and the desire to "start one's own business," or municipal socialism with workers' control. What it cannot encompass is unlimited accumulation of capital. Community-based economics implies that economic activity be local and humanly-scaled. The building of far-flung economic empires (epitomized by modern transnational corporations) and the concentration of wealth and power are anathema to this vision.

In his Introduction to E. F. Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful (1973), Theodore Roszak provided a good description of what would later be called community-based economics:

a libertarian political economy that distinguishes itself from orthodox socialism and capitalism by insisting that the scale of organization must be treated as an independent and primary problem. This tradition, while closely affiliated with socialist values, nonetheless prefers mixed to "pure" economic systems. It is therefore hospitable to many forms of free enterprise and private ownership, provided always that the size of private enterprise is not so large as to divorce ownership from personal involvement, which is, of course, now the rule in most of the world's administered capitalisms. Bigness is [its] nemesis ... whether the bigness is that of public or private bureaucracies, because from bigness comes impersonality, insensitivity, and a lust to concentrate abstract power.

This vision seems fairly simple and straightforward, but its implications are quite radical. For one thing, it is subversive in regard to the cherished "developmentalist" orientation of our culture—which so highly values economies of scale, technological progress, and ever-increasing "productive throughput."

The question arises: how can the accumulation of capital be restrained? This is reminiscent of another, more commonly asked question: how can the proliferation of nuclear weapons be curtailed and reversed? More generally: how can we put certain "genies back in their bottles"—to ultimately eliminate nuclear weapons, deconcentrate wealth, devolve power? Part of the answer is that humanity must come to recognize that there are artifacts, processes, technologies, and institutions of our own making which are inherently anti-social and/or anti-ecological. Nuclear weapons fall under this category. So does bioengineering. So does the building of economic and political empires. The latter invariably usurp, exploit, and destroy the foundations of what constitutes our natural, healthy environmental and social habitats.

So, just as the manufacture or possession of nuclear weapons must become proscribed under international law and abjured as a cultural value, likewise any attempts to build economic or political empires must not be tolerated. The drive to accumulate power and wealth must become recognized for what it is, a pernicious characteristic of a civilization headed, ever more rapidly, in a pathological direction. Economic relations must change, but at this point of historical crisis our overarching objective must be to consciously (albeit gradually) shift toward a different way of life—characterized by sustainability, a more harmonious balance between the natural ecosphere and the human-made technosphere, a recognition of limits, and a restoration of community. I believe this is what the Green movement is all about.

Socialism was mistaken in predicating its conception of human liberation on the achievement of generalized abundance, the material basis of which must be a high level of "development of the productive forces."

How to restore lost community? For most of human history, the locus of production, healthcare, welfare, education, etc. was either the (extended) family or the community. Both family and community have become impoverished as these essential life functions/responsibilities have been shifted "out" to external agencies such as the state and corporations. The family has become just a consumption unit, the community merely a residential unit. Bringing production and care "back in" may be the single most important factor in terms of fostering the renewal of real community.

Community-Based Economics vs. Socialism

Socialism was mistaken in predicating its conception of human liberation on the achievement of generalized abundance, the material basis of which must be a high level of "development of the productive forces." The emergence of the Green movement and a post-socialist radicalism during the 1970s was based on, among other things, a recognition that (a) we have to look deeper than the level of capitalist property relations to understand the forces that have been degrading the biosphere and destroying organic community, and (b) counteracting these forces will require a break with the trajectory of developmentalist civilization more radical than that envisaged by the socialists.

It follows that the new radicalism has a different historical perspective than that of classical socialism. It certainly does not view capitalism as a "higher stage" establishing the material basis for the emergence of a classless society! Rather, it sees capitalism as the current manifestation, in the industrial era, of an unecological, exploitative way of living that dates back millennia. Whereas socialists asserted that capitalism had "played a progressive role" by spurring the development of the productive forces, Greens are more apt to feel that the "development of the productive forces" has been a disaster, a ruinous acceleration of the process of grinding nature into commodities.

Communitarian Social Relations Mitigate Against Exploitation of Labor

Exploitation of labor has been an issue since the Neolithic revolution. A way of life based on clearing the land and constructing a human-made artificial environment in place of natural climax ecosystems is problematic due to the amount of work it entails. At the root of social stratification/class division of society is the issue of who will do the enormous amount of odious work. [Exploitation of labor and our relationship to the land are just some of the problematical aspects of the Neolithic revolution with which humanity has never fully come to terms.]

Face-to-face communitarian relations mitigate against exploitation of labor. When there is real community we don't generally see neighbors exploiting neighbors. Throughout history it has been Others who have been made to toil.

When there is real community we don't generally see neighbors exploiting neighbors.

Ancient empires were based on slave labor—the conquered Others were put to work. After the fall of the Roman Empire there was a nearly thousand-year period during which the mode of life in Europe became more locally oriented, more cyclical, less expansionist. Historians in the modern era, their perspective skewed by the ideology of progress, originally conjectured that the medieval peasantry had been more exploited than the modern working class. But closer examination shows that within the context of the manorial system the peasantry toiled less than had been thought—Sundays were truly a day of rest and additionally there were over 100 holy days during the year when work was proscribed.

The modern period has been characterized by expansionism on a scale never seen before. With visions of empires far grander than those of the ancients, the Europeans sailed and conquered on a global scale. Upon encountering the Other, the Other was invariably put to work if at all possible. When Amerindians did not make good slaves because they lacked certain antibodies and died of European illnesses, Africans were imported to the New World to bear the harshest brunt of the subjugation of the vast "undeveloped" double continent.

By the dawn of the industrial era, the acceleration of the process of development, with its centralization, urbanization, and hypermobility, had for the most part destroyed organic community. As social relations became increasingly more impersonal within the context of mass society and economic relations were increasingly characterized by external (distant) ownership and control, the general population, rather than just conquered or imported outsiders, became subject to being treated as mere factors of production.

During the 20th century, the misguided belief in the liberatory potential of developmentalism characterized the Communist/socialist societies as much as the capitalist ones. The socialist movement, in its preoccupation with property relations and economic growth, failed to resolve the problem of the exploitation of labor, both in theory and in practice.

"Alternative: the Greens"

Greens who reject socialism find themselves being labeled "middle class" or even "right wing." This indicates a lack of comprehension regarding the new alternative we are presenting. More than just an alternative to the Republicans and Democrats, it is also an alternative to capitalism and socialism. It is antithetical to both big business and big government because it stands for the renewal of real local community. This perspective is one that distinguishes the Greens and will enable us to make a unique contribution toward deriving political and economic solutions for the 21st century.

Steve Welzer is co-editor of the GreenGram, the monthly bulletin of the Green Party of New Jersey. He holds a masters degree in economics from Rutgers University.

See Steve's follow up to this article: "Community-Based Economics: Answers to Respondents" in issue 23 here

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