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Synthesis/Regeneration 23   (Fall 2000)

Community-Based Economics: Answers to Respondents

by Steve Welzer, Green Party of New Jersey

Italicized below are paraphrases of responses I received, via email and postal mail, to my article on Community-based Economics which appeared in S/R #21. I appreciate the quality of discussion that has ensued, and I hope the material below both contributes toward clarification and also provides further food for thought.

You seem to want to have it both ways: a little capitalism here, a little socialism there. But these systems are mutually exclusive. If profit and hiring of labor and interest on investments is allowed to exist at all, generalized capitalism will soon be the order of the day, not socialism or any kind of "third way."

First of all, some semantical issues have to be dealt with: People can have in mind different conceptions when they use the words "capitalism" and "socialism." Regarding the former, one person could just mean private enterprise while another is referring to a full-scale system of economic relations; a third person can mean the drive to accumulate wealth and power and a fourth can be focusing on the profit motive.

Capitalism as a generalized system of economic relations dates back about 500 to 700 years, while "private enterprise" has existed at least since the advent of private property following the Neolithic Revolution. Socialism, meanwhile, has existed only since the 19th century or since 1917 (or never at all), again depending upon an individual's conception of what "socialism" means.

When I talk about community-based economics as an alternative to capitalism and socialism, I am defining the latter two as modern large-scale economic systems. So, by this definition, primal communities that owned all things in common had not "instituted socialism," and merchants selling exotic spices during the time of the Roman Empire were not capitalists in the modern sense (they were engaging in private enterprise within the context of an economic system based on slave labor).

Capitalism as a system is characterized by a dynamic that drives toward pervasiveness (a dynamic we should actively resist). An ideological fallacy of the socialist movement was that "the socialist system" could, and hopefully would, replace the capitalist system—everywhere, over a period of time—with the idea that one system or the other would "win out" in a process of historical contention ("tis the final conflict, let each stand in their place"). This interpretation of history was fairly widespread during the early 20th century, but is rapidly fading now.

Adhering to the principles of decentralization and diversity, Greens need not and should not take a universal-systemic approach to the question of property relations. If we believe in humanly-scaled political units and regionalized economic units, it would be natural to assume there would be diversity in terms of economic forms and relations. In some regions locally-oriented, community-based public enterprise would predominate while in other regions locally-oriented, community-based private enterprises would predominate.

So it's not a question of "a little capitalism here, a little socialism there," because I am defining capitalism and socialism as large-scale, universalizing economic systems. What is OK and to be expected is to have a little private enterprise here, a little public enterprise there.

To put it another way, cooperative enterprises are fine, but should Greens advocate the cooperative form everywhere? No. Or municipalization of the means of production everywhere? No. Diversity of forms and relations, variability from one region to the next, would characterize a Green world.

Diversity of forms and relations, variability from one region to the next, would characterize a Green world.

A key part of Green ideology is recognition of limits. Unlimited accumulation of capital violates that principle.

Socialists press us to say whether or not we're anti-capitalist. I think our response should be: Yes, we are and we agree with much of your critique of the capitalist system—it's inherently expansionist, anti-ecological, and anti-communitarian. A key part of Green ideology is recognition of limits. Unlimited accumulation of capital violates that principle. But that does not mean we're necessarily against private enterprise. And it doesn't mean we advocate socialism, which we view as another Leviathan economic system where wealth and power tend to get concentrated (Leviathan in this context means big, unwieldy, anti-communitarian—the opposite of what "humanly scaled" means.)

Either private enterprise or public enterprise—isn't it inherently an either/or question?

This kind of thinking has kept progressive politics stuck in a theoretical cul-de-sac since the failure of the "old" socialist model (socialization of the major means of production with national economic planning) became apparent.

It's been problematic that the "left-right" debates of the last 150 years have tended to revolve around the issue of public vs. private property relations. When we include scale as a factor, as Greens should, we introduce a whole new dimension to the discussion. Rather than the dichotomy between public enterprise and private enterprise, we can differentiate between (a) large-scale/remote private enterprise; (b) local-scale/community-based private enterprise; (c) large-scale/remote public enterprise; and (d) local-scale/community-based public enterprise. Capitalism is characterized by (a) and the old model of socialism by (c). The alternative advocated by the Greens can encompass both (b) and (d).

The reason for advocating "local-scale" and "community-based" is because this lends itself best to subjective, democratic, communitarian control. Naturally community-based economics doesn't guarantee economic democracy. The latter can't be "guaranteed" without positing an overarching world government/world police force, which ideas ought to be anathema to the Greens (who should recognize that one community's idea of economic democracy is another community's idea of inefficiency or regimentation). But, while communitarian economic relations don't guarantee economic democracy, I think we can say (and practical experience has confirmed) that within the context of large-scale, distant, remote ownership economic relations will invariably tend to be undemocratic, inegalitarian, anti-ecological, and anti-communitarian.

The "public vs. private" question is less critical than the socialists have thought it to be. An enterprise does not have to be publicly owned in order to be subject to community control. For example, throughout history it was common for communities to directly set the price of staples such as bread. The local bakery was typically owned privately but it had to operate within price and other parameters set by the community as a whole.

An enterprise does not have to be publicly owned in order to be subject to community control.

Likewise, scale can be controlled. Unlimited growth and accumulation of capital is unnatural, avaricious, and de-stabilizing. It must be recognized for what it is: the road to power elitism and economic empire-building. It obviously subverts the principle of community-based economics and all it stands for. It must not be allowed.

What enables high productivity and relatively low prices in the modern industrial system are factors like economies of scale and mass production. Community-based economics implies "scaling down" in a way that would leave us all poorer and/or needing to work harder to maintain a decent standard of living.

Community-based economics is not a system, but rather a modality related to the quality of life. It is not a "better way to achieve economic growth and development." To the contrary, it has an anti-developmentalist bias.

Our present standard of development requires a vast global division of labor. It yields an economy which is technologically awesome and socially awful. It should be clear to us by now that the global division of labor creates dependencies, stresses, and wealth/income disparities on a monstrous international scale. Our relative material affluence in the North has a repressive and immoral basis.

The forces of "progress," economic growth, and development have resulted in terrible losses and generalized impoverishment of human life. Green economics points in an entirely different direction: toward more local self-sufficiency (though not autarky); toward living more lightly upon the earth; toward valuing deep community rather than high technology or maximal development.

Quality of life is not dependent upon "development of the productive forces" (Marx's phrase), or one or another "best" form of property relations—but rather upon the non-economic Green prescription for the transformation of human lifeways: scale down, slow down, democratize, decentralize.

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