When Lindsey Morris Carpenter was a college student studying art in Philadelphia, she never expected that, just a decade later, she would spend most of her days fixing up tractors, turning piles of manure, and corralling chickens.Carpenter doesn’t want to be the Whole Foods of farm-to-table produce.
But that’s precisely what she’s doing. Carpenter, 29, dropped out of school in 2004 and returned to her home state of Wisconsin, where she found a job on a vegetable farm. She went on to apprentice at a larger operation in suburban Chicago and eventually secured employment at an urban farm on the city’s south side, teaching previously incarcerated people how to grow food.
By 2007, Carpenter had decided she wanted her own piece of land to farm, so she and her mother, Gail, bought 40 acres in south central Wisconsin and got down to business—an opportunity she's grateful for since she's aware that not everyone has access to the resources that allowed her to purchase this land.
Today, Carpenter’s certified-organic operation, Grassroots Farm, grows fruit, vegetables, hops, and herbs; she also sells pesticide-free cut flowers and eggs from the farm’s chickens. Being as environmentally sustainable as possible is paramount to Grassroots’ operations, Carpenter says. So, too, is a commitment to provide healthy, fresh food to local people regardless of the size of their bank accounts.
“One of my biggest priorities is affordability,” Carpenter said. She doesn’t want to be the Whole Foods of farm-to-table produce. To that end, she designed her community supported agriculture program to be relatively affordable. She charges only $25 a week for a box of produce, which she offers 16 weeks out of the year.
Carpenter’s been in business for five years and has struggled to make a living; she estimates her take-home income at $1.75 an hour. And while it’s been “shockingly easy” to get support from her neighbors, they’re also “sketched out” by her tattoos, short hair, and unmarried status.
Carpenter is one of America’s new and growing class of women farmers. Her focus on sustainability and social justice represent part of the promise women bring to the sector, while the difficulties she faces demonstrate some of the challenges that stand in their way. Many of those challenges are shared by Carpenter’s male counterparts: inclement weather, insects, weeds, erratic markets, soil erosion, droughts, labor shortages, urbanization, and the expense of sustainable methods that don’t rely on toxic chemicals or machines dependent on fossil fuels. But additional burdens often fall on women farmers, such as childrearing or caring for aging parents.
Luckily, women farmers from earlier generations have built institutions designed to help newcomers. And Denise O’Brien, a farmer from southwest Iowa, has done more than her share.As times got rough, in many cases it was the farmers' wives who kept the operations going.
O’Brien and her husband, Larry Harris, decided they would grow organically when they first started farming in 1976. They were inspired by the first Earth Day in 1970, she says, and the many environmental issues making headlines in the mid-1970s. She talks about organic agriculture in classic environmental terms of doing no harm and leaving the earth in better shape than how you found it.
But the decision to go organic left the couple feeling isolated from local farmers, who mostly grew corn, soybeans, and hay on conventional farms. No networks existed to provide support to farmers who wanted to do things differently.
“When we started farming, we couldn’t even say the ‘O-word’ out loud,”O’Brien said, laughing. “But we’re out now.”
By the mid-1980s, O’Brien and Harris had started an informal network called the Progressive Prairie Alliance. Ten years later, she’d helped to build several organizations that helped farmers work more sustainably and cooperatively, but hadn’t yet done anything specifically to help other women farmers. That changed in 1995, when O’Brien, then president of the National Family Farm Coalition, was asked to give a presentation at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.
O’Brien went searching for case studies on American women working in agriculture, but couldn’t find many. She had read The Invisible Farmers: Women in Agricultural Production, a book by Carolyn E. Sachs about women in the industry. She also had her own personal experience to go on—she had lived through the farm crisis of the 1980s when an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 farmers faced financial failure as land and commodity values boomed and busted, interest rates skyrocketed, and thousands went bankrupt.
As some farmers sunk into depression, O’Brien says that in many cases their wives were the ones who kept the operations going. She believed the landscape of industrial agriculture would change as more women farmers became decision makers, and suspected their role would only grow.What the numbers show
She was right. The number of women who were named as the principal operator of an American farm or ranch increased by nearly 30 percent between 2002 and 2007, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture. Women composed about 14 percent of principal farm operators in 2007, and that percentage has held steady since then, according to the preliminary 2012 census released in February.
However, that jump may have more to do with what was happening in the census than on the farm. The form used in the 2007 census was the first to allow two primary operators to be listed—so wives now had a place to be named alongside their husbands. The full 2012 census will be released later this spring with data on women as a percentage of all operators, not just the principal ones; in 2007 women made up 30 percent of all farmers.
Part of the picture is that both men and women are leaving the profession, but women are leaving less quickly. The total number of farms in the United States declined by about 5 percent to 2.1 million from 2007 to 2012, with nearly all of those losses concentrated among smaller farms of less than 1,000 acres in size.
And women-operated farms are generally smaller and less profitable than others, according to the new census data. Seventy-five percent of American farms grossed less than $50,000 in 2012; for farms with a female principal operator that figure was 91 percent. About 69 percent of U.S. farms were smaller than 180 acres in size; for farms with a female principal operator that figure was 82 percent.
But it’s not just a picture of women farmers barely scraping by. Census data from 2007 showed that women were more likely than men to operate farms with a diversity of crops, and to own a greater percentage of the land they farmed. Women farmers also tended to sell food directly to the consumer rather than to large food-processing corporations—an approach that the United Nations report has found to be important for improving food systems.
Leigh Adcock, executive director of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, said she believes the U.S. food system will be healthier when more women farm.Growing institutions
Last November, more than 400 women from 20 states and four countries assembled in Des Moines, Iowa, for the fourth conference hosted by the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, a nonprofit organization that O'Brien founded in 1997."When portions of the population are left out of things then you’re not hearing the whole picture."
WFAN’s mission is to “link and empower women to build food systems and communities that are healthy, just, sustainable, and that promote environmental integrity.” The group encompasses all sorts of women: some who caught the farming bug after careers in other sectors, widows who inherited land, and some who work side-by-side with their partner.
“We don’t just want to link women,” Adcock told attendees. “We want to empower you.”The network has been expanding its ranks to provide much-needed camaraderie for women working in a male-dominated field and education on how to lead the sustainable farming movement. This year’s conference included sessions on marketing, soil health, cooperatives, research and grants, pricing, pesticide drift, and wildlife and watershed management. Sustainability was a common theme.
The network has grown from 300 members in 2008 to more than 4,000 today, which suggests women in sustainable agriculture aren’t going away anytime soon. But whether more women means an improved food system is a question that must be answered with evidence, O’Brien said. For now, she’s just trying to get women farmers a seat at the table.
“I believe in my heart of hearts that when portions of the population are left out of things then you’re not hearing the whole picture,” she said.California produce in Iowa's farm country?
Being involved with the Women, Food and Agriculture Network has given Iowan farmer Ellen Walsh-Rosmann an outlet for her message that farmers need to make their voices heard on legislation related to food and agriculture. She has hosted politicians at her in-laws’ farm and has lobbied in Washington, D.C.“We live in Iowa,” she thought. “What’s going on here?”
“[Lobbying trips] made me realize this is not an intimidating system,” she said. “These people are just like us and they come from where we live, they know the same people we know … but we as constituents can really inform them and tell them those stories and update them on the current situation. That’s what our job needs to be.”
Walsh-Rosmann moved with her husband to the small city of Harlan during the month of September, a good time for local food. But when shopping at the grocery store for the first time, she discovered only produce grown in California and wrapped in plastic.“We live in Iowa,” she thought. “What’s going on here?”
When she and her husband started Pin Oak Place, a 10-acre farmstead, in 2010, they were adamant they would focus on nourishing their community with fresh, healthy, organically grown vegetables and certified-organic eggs. The time she’d spent at Iowa State University studying the social, political, and economic forces that affect agriculture cemented this mission.
But putting her mission into practice has been a challenge.
“I was doing the local farmers market in my town and I was basically giving food away,” she said, meaning they couldn’t make a profit. The farmers have shifted their business operations to focus on wholesale, targeting nearby Omaha, Neb., and its much larger population.
Between raising her son, dealing with her own health problems, and struggling to build a profitable business based in sustainable farming, life has become a balancing act for Walsh-Rosmann. Her network of other women farmers provides invaluable support.
Sena Christian wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Sena is a newspaper reporter in Roseville, Calif., with a passion for social justice and indoor soccer.
If you don’t understand geometric or exponential growth then you don’t understand anything about the magnitude of the predicament that humanity now faces or the fundamental changes that are about to occur, one way or another.
I’ve never seen the facts of exponential growth so clearly and elegantly presented as in this video lecture by the late Professor Albert Bartlett. In Arithmetic, Population and Energy, Professor Bartlett shows that even seemingly small rates of growth must ultimately result in a situation that cannot be sustained. He relates the simple arithmetic of exponential growth specifically to human population, peak energy, and resource depletion and blows away the foolish arguments of politicians and pundits who argue that growth can continue as it has in the past.
Bartlett does not mention debt growth, but I must add that it is an even more immanent problem and the most acute symptom of the “disease” that has infected civilization, that is the global interest-based debt-money system. I urge everyone to view Prof. Bartlett’s presentation, then, if you haven’t already, read my recent article, Money, debt and the end of the growth imperative.
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This article originally appeared at Wagingnonviolence.org.
Among activists one often finds an aversion to even thinking about money. Associating it with the opponent—who has lots of it—they try to do without money themselves. Often, for as long as they can, they try to organize and resist without it, until burning out, quitting and getting into a different line of work just to keep up on rent. But, as the 19th century U.S. populist movement recognized, money is also a battleground. Today, as a new wave of sophisticated digital currencies are beginning to arise, this is perhaps more true than ever before.
Bitcoin (the open-source software and peer-to-peer network) and bitcoin (the currency) first appeared in early 2009—just after the housing bubble burst. It was heavily promoted by a tech-savvy, anti-establishment, libertarian community concerned with the power of big banks and government regulation. Critics have dismissed Bitcoin as being "by the privileged, for the privileged," while defenders have claimed with an equal lack of subtlety that it is somehow "post-privilege" altogether. Regardless of the label, however, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency platforms like it aren't going away, and they are poised to become increasingly disruptive.
To understand why, I turned to Devin Balkind, founder and director of Sarapis, which promotes the use of free/libre/open-source software among non-profits and popular movements. He has recently written (and is continuing to write) a public working paper on cryptocurrency, "Finance Without Force." Last year, we spoke about the role of open-source tools in the Occupy Sandy relief effort, in which he played a leading role. Before that, he had the distinction of being the first person to tell me about cryptocurrency in the first place, insisting that this was something I should be paying attention to. It has taken a while, but I am finally coming back to him for more.Cryptocurrencies could fuel an underground economy that enables people with less to get more.
Nathan Schneider: What do social justice activists need to know about crypocurrency?
Devin Balkind: Cryptocurrency is open-source money. It lowers the cost of producing a means of exchange—a money system—down to almost zero. That means it's easier than ever to organize alternative monetary systems. Some activists know about time-banking and mutual credit systems. Cryptocurrency makes it possible for people to turn the hours or credits from systems like that into money that can easily be sent around the world or spent at a local store. It completely changes what's possible from the perspective of solidarity economics.
Schneider: Where does the "crypto" come in? What role does cryptography play, and why is it so important?
Balkind: The primary challenge with creating cash is that you have to produce a medium of exchange that can't be spent more than once. If you could simply photocopy a dollar bill to make more cash, the U.S. monetary system wouldn't work. The government uses security features such as special paper, ink, designs and holograms to prevent people from "double spending" cash. A unit of cryptocurrency, on the other hand, is just a string of characters—letters, numbers, symbols. This actually represents a "private key," and when you share it with someone, you give them the ability to upload it to the network for authentication. Through a process of cryptography, every transaction is checked against a public ledger on a peer-to-peer network. If it's illegitimate the transaction doesn't execute.
Schneider: What will it take to make cryptocurrency work in ways that are more democratic and just than the economy we already have?
Balkind: The existence of strong cryptocurrencies is already making the economy more democratic simply by giving people a choice when it comes to the type of money they want to use. Many people take for granted that there is only one type of money used in the United States, but this wasn't always the case. Scrip, bank notes, precious metals, whiskey and livestock have all been popular currencies in the United States over the past 200 years. While these might not seem like good currencies from a modern perspective, they all made it possible for people without access to official currency to trade and make deals with each other. From my perspective, that's precisely what we need today: more ways to exchange with and reward people. Cryptocurrency makes that possible today, just as barter or using silver made it possible 100 years ago. Cryptocurrency can be money by the people and for the people.
Schneider: A more open market doesn't necessarily mean democracy. It has been observed, for instance, that many of those benefitting most from cryptocurrencies are those who already have high-level technical knowledge and lots of conventional capital to invest. Won't this just deepen the inequality we already have, while perhaps also weakening the conventional social safety net? How can those most left behind in the current system use cryptocurrencies to build power?
Balkind: Yes, it's true that most cryptocurrencies are being deployed by privileged technologists, but so were websites in the 1990s, and I think we can all agree that the Internet has been a positive development for humanity. Over time these technologies democratize.
Cryptocurrencies, for instance, could fuel an underground economy in which vendors can accept substantially lower prices for their goods and services. That's because they don't report their transactions as commercial activity and thus deny consumers the protections that people often expect from conventional transactions. For example, if you buy a cookie from me with U.S. dollars and it gets you sick, you can sue me, but if you buy it with bitcoin, I can deny the transaction ever took place and make it very difficult for you to establish who is liable and for what.
Does that type of scenario create more or less inequality? On one hand prices are being reduced, enabling people with less to get more, but on the other hand it creates a lot of potential for abuse because of a lack of consumer protections. Indeed, it's not hard to imagine a dystopian future in which two separate economies co-exist: one for the rich who use official currencies, and have consumer protections, and one for everyone else who use alternative methods of exchange and have fewer protections. In general, I think more choices are better and that unregulated commerce, grassroots businesses, and alternative exchange practices are a great way for people left behind in the current system to build their personal and communal power.
Schneider: I hear a lot of talk about using cryptocurrency to bring access to financing to under-banked communities. Is it hard to get a cryptocurrency adopted? To what extent is this a community organizing challenge?We're talking about the ability of normal people to take control over money.
Balkind: It's definitely hard to get a cryptocurrency adopted. Bitcoin didn't become popular just magically. People deliberately organized an online community with the intention of making it popular; there were forums, listservs, in-person meetups and apps built for the sole purpose of spreading Bitcoin. One such app was the Bitcoin "faucet," which gave people tiny amounts of bitcoin so they could experience it. The person who created that ultimately became one of the first leaders of the Bitcoin Foundation—which shows how important community engagement is for a project like this. But this is nothing new. Ask Paul Glover—the inventor of Ithaca Hours time-banking credits—what his secret to success was, and he'll tell you the key is relentless organizing. He'll tell you that he spent a decade calling businesses every day to discuss with them how they could meet their needs without using U.S. dollars. For me, organizing alternative money systems feels like a very natural and practical way for social justice activists to help the communities in which they live in material ways.
Schneider: What particular examples of cyptocurrencies in action are you most interested in?
Balkind: First of all, we need to give Bitcoin its due credit. It went from being worth pennies to hundreds of dollars in five years. Without Bitcoin we wouldn't be talking about cryptocurrency—so I'm still very interested in its proliferation and success. People are beginning to create all types of interesting "altcoins," which are modified Bitcoin software deployments that run on independent networks, and have their own configurations and market values. I really like Devcoin, which could theoretically fund lots of open source software production, and Permacredits, which propose a way for people to invest in permaculture projects. Maza Coin is now the official currency of the Traditional Lakota Nation, which has the potential to be really historic. The idea of giving these "altcoins" national identies is really catching on, with dozens of "national altcoins" now in existence.
The other really interesting development that's slowly maturing is that people are beginning to use cryptocurrency's components to do things other than mere "currency." The most promising of those projects is Ethereum, a platform for coding cryptographically secured contracts. The implications are immense when you consider how much of our society depends on contracts—corporations, constitutions, financial securities, laws, even games. Ethereum is being designed to give us the ability to create machine-readable and executable contracts that we can generate quickly, easily and at near zero cost, and administered not by bureaucracies but by computers. People who are interested should check out the project website. But first, they should read your article about it on Al Jareeza.
Schneider: It's striking to me that enthusiasts describe cryptocurrency as a "space" and an "ecosystem," when it seems so clearly divorced from physical space and ecology. But there has also been discussion about using cryptocurrencies to change how we govern natural resources. Do you think they could help fight climate change, for instance?
Balkind: Yes—though in ways we haven't thought of yet. Right now groups could get funding through cryptocurrency communities. Dogecoin, for instance, leveraged a meme to create a popular cryptocurrency, and then used that popularity to fund do-good projects that got their community excited, which then resulted in even higher values for dogecoins. I also think we'll see institutions that exist to maintain common assets like art museums and land trusts figure out how to generate valuable currencies that they'll be able to use to fund projects that align with their interests and support local economies. While having art museums become cryptocurrency banks might not sound revolutionary, it's an example of how we can create money systems around the resources we value most, rather than around government fiat. In the future, systems like Ethereum will create opportunities to rewrite how society operates. That process will present a historic opportunity for laws to be changed. Will the social justice activists be driving that change or will they be hiding from it?
Schneider: So this is really about power.
Balkind: Whenever we talk about money we're also talking about power. If we want to focus solely on cryptocurrency, we're talking about the ability of normal people to take control over money, to make it their own, to use it as a tool to better organize their communities and meet their needs. If we expand the conversation to focus on crypto-contracts, we're also talking about the "refactoring" of our society into something that can be read and processed by machines. Cryptocurrency and crypto-contracts go hand in hand—so yes, we're talking about a lot more than money. We're talking about a machine-readable society and potentially the biggest shift in law since the advent of lawyers. Society is poised to remake itself.
Schneider: What's the best way for people to start learning more about this scene and become involved?
Balkind: There are lot of news sites out there for cryptocurrency. CoinDesk is a good one. So is the Bitcoin subreddit. If you're in New York City, you can go to an event at the Bitcoin Center, but if hanging with libertarian men isn't your idea of fun you might not want to try that out. I highly recommend reading Hayek's Denationalization of Money for some economic, philosophical, and historical context. It was written in the 1970s and is a good reminder that people have been thinking seriously about alternative monetary systems for a long time, and that there is a lot of knowledge already out there about how these systems could work. Read part eight, "Putting Private Token Money Into Circulation," for a pretty simple plan for how to operate your own currency. Remarkable stuff.
Schneider: Remarkable, perhaps, but also profoundly destabilizing. It sounds to me like we're talking about not guaranteed liberation but a new battleground, and the outcome will depend on who fights and how.
Balkind: I urge activists to think about cryptocurrency as a set of new organizing tools—tools that the social justice community hasn't really begun to use. But when it does, it will find them quite powerful on the battlegrounds on which it fights. Crypto-contracts are also a tool, and with even wider implications because their adoption will create new types of interactions, entities and institutions. We're still in the early days with these technologies, but I urge people to start learning about them now so they're prepared to take advantage of the opportunities these tools will surely create.
This article was written by Nathan Schneider for Wagingnonviolence.org, where it originally appeared. Nathan is an editor at Waging Nonviolence. He has written about religion, reason, and violence for publications including The Nation, The New York Times, Harper's, Commonweal, Religion Dispatches, AlterNet and others. He is also an editor at Killing the Buddha. Visit his website at TheRowBoat.com.
What is a good job? Do tax breaks to self-proclaimed "job creators" actually create jobs and if so, what kind of jobs? How do we ensure that public money is spent for public good?
"We see too much emphasis on the concept of a job," Bettina Damiani tells host Laura Flanders in an interview with GRITtv. "We have more low-income jobs, but fewer in the middle where we really need the investment."
Bettina Damiani has worked as the Project Coordinator at Good Jobs First for the past 13 years, coordinating campaigns that fight for economic transparency, fairness and equality for all New Yorkers. She recently announced that she will be stepping down from her position this month to pursue other opportunities. As part of a bittersweet goodbye, we had the chance to interview her about her take on private-public partnerships, economic justice, and creating good, middle-class jobs for everyone.
"No one has been able to convince the academic world or the advocates—citizens that live in these neighborhoods—that these stadiums actually benefit the neighborhoods," Damiani says, recalling the building of Yankee stadium in the South Bronx, one of the dramas during of her tenure at Good Jobs First. "When the project was first proposed, we joked that throwing the money off the elevated train would have had a better economic return."
For more on organizing in New York City, check out our interview with Ana Maria Archila. For more on creating inclusive economic policies, watch Kelly Anderson's interview on gentrification in Brooklyn.
The author is a consultant at Future 500.
Among the rocky beaches, mudflats, and lagoons that line the southeastern tip of India, it’s not unusual to see a group of women working together around a bamboo raft. These women are tending to young seaweed plants that, in just a month's time, will grow to five times their current size. One raft's harvest of seaweed is worth more than a fisherman’s daily pay.For a variety of reasons, seaweed farming works well for women in places like rural India.
People are used to seeing seaweed in miso soup or wrapped around a sushi roll. But many don't realize that the real drivers of the seaweed industry are byproducts extracted from the plants. These include substance known as alginates, agar, and carrageenan, which give a soft, jellylike consistency to products like skin care lotions, fertilizers, toothpastes, ice cream, soymilk, and fruit jellies.
Analysts predict that the seaweed extract business will reach $7 billion by 2018.
That impressive figure is especially interesting because fishing—the traditional industry of rural coastal India—has not been a welcoming place for women. Fishing requires a great deal of capital and long hours at sea—that's a problem for women responsible for household tasks including taking care of children, collecting drinking water, and gathering firewood.
But women often play a large role in seaweed farming, which in many cases is the only source of cash income available to them and the first paid work they've ever had. Seaweed farming works well for women in places like rural India because it doesn't require a lot of money or expensive equipment to make it work, and requires women to be away from home for no more than 4 to 6 hours of the day.
Typically, a group of six to 10 women will grow a crop of seaweed in six weeks. The majority of the work is done on land, where women work together stringing small young plants through ropes, which are then tied to sections of bamboo that form a raft. When the assembly is complete, the women move the rafts into shallow water. Women will typically plant and harvest one raft a day. Both fresh and dried seaweed is sold to seaweed processing companies at a fixed rate determined by the farmers themselves at the beginning of each year.
During a recent trip to India, I witnessed this process firsthand. Many women in coastal villages have turned to seaweed farming, bringing them economic opportunities while contributing to their families' income—not an easy thing to do in a male dominated society.
And this is not just any income. Women earners are more likely than males to save their money or spend it on their families, according to government officials and seaweed industry insiders.Keeping women's income safe
Since the 1960s, agricultural crops cultivated by farmers in hard-to-reach villages in India have tended to go through a number of intermediaries, or “middlemen,” before getting to the market. Historically, farmers have struggled with middlemen taking advantage of their role and pocketing more than their fair share of earnings.
If rural women are benefiting from the seaweed industry, what's happening to make sure that money is secure? The answer, at least in India, is quite a lot.AquAgri also works directly with farmers to make sure the money it pays out goes into local hands and helps to build long-term livelihood.
Engaging in contract farming ensures the entirety of a farmer’s harvest will be sold directly to a company at a prearranged price, without going through middlemen. According to a recent report by the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, nearly 5,000 rural poor from a single southeastern district alone engage in farming, transporting, and selling seaweed through contract farming.
Their efforts are supported by private investors, industries, NGOs, and financial institutions like the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development and the National Fisheries Development Board. The Indian government has also been proactive in encouraging environmentally sound and socially responsible seaweed farming.
On the private industry side, the company AquAgri Processing has helped lead the effort to provide rural women with seaweed growing contracts. AquAgri was created when its current managing director, Abhiram Seth, left PepsiCo—which had initiated the contract farming model for seaweed farming in India in 2000—and started his own company in 2008. Currently, women comprise 75 percent of AquAgri's workforce.
AquAgri also works directly with farmers to make sure the money it pays out goes into local hands and helps to build long-term livelihood. Through its "Growers Investment Program," the company deducts, saves, and matches 5 percent of each seaweed worker's pay. This is especially helpful for farmers during the monsoon season, when for three months the seas are too unpredictable for farming.
Policy makers around the developing world are often stumped when asked how to ensure that rural women have access to income. As the demand for seaweed-based products increases, they might consider learning from what India has done with this industry.
Shilpi Chhotray wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.
Shilpi is a consultant at Future 500, a global nonprofit organization specializing in stakeholder engagement and building bridges between parties at odds–corporations and NGOs, the political right and left, and others—to advance systemic solutions to environmental problems.
Shortly before midnight on March 6 I departed Kuala Lumpur on board a Boeing 777 bound for Tucson, via Tokyo and Los Angeles. That was just 26 hours ahead of the mysterious flight MH370 which departed from the same airport just after midnight on March 8 and has become the object of a massive search and equally massive speculation. I get an uneasy feeling when I consider how close I came in time and circumstance to being on that plane. Now, more than a month later, the mystery of the flight’s disappearance seems no closer to being solved.Given the changing and contradictory news that has been provided by Malaysian authorities and others involved in the search, I can’t help but wonder if the news is being manipulated and crucial information is being withheld from the public. Why haven’t we heard more about the passengers? Who they are and what might they have been involved in? One tantalizing fact that is no longer mentioned is that 20 of the passengers were employees of Freescale Semiconductor, which according to the Express (UK) “makes powerful microchips for industries including defence.” The Express article, Malaysian plane: 20 passengers worked for ELECTRONIC WARFARE and MILITARY RADAR firm, reveals some facts about the company’s ownership that raise suspicions and ought to be fully investigated. A casual search of the internet will bring up plenty of other possible scenarios and explanations of what might have happened to flight MH370.
Russia, Ukraine, and the New world Order
While still in Malaysia I picked up a copy of The Star (March 4 edition), one of Malaysia’s leading daily newspapers. One of the main articles had to do with the crisis in the Ukraine. The headline read: Ousting democratically-elected leaders, with the sub-head, The ousters of democratically-elected leaders have often been carried out directly or indirectly by champions of democracy themselves, thus suggesting how hypocritical and disingenuous western politicians have been in any number of cases where regime change has been the intended result. The article was written by Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, who is President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST). You can read it here.As western leaders vilify the Russian leadership and the media beat the drums for “sanctions,” it is important to keep in mind that the Ukrainian government of PresidentViktorYanukovich was democratically elected in 2010, and he was forcibly removed by a coalition that includes neo-Nazis and fascists, backed by western countries intent on bringing Ukraine into the EU orbit and NATO.If the United States and EU are really interested in a negotiated settlement, they will need to seriously consider the Russian point of view and address the legitimate concerns of the Russian government. Floyd Rudmin’s recent article in Counterpunch, Viewing the Ukraine Crisis From Russia’s Perspective, provides some fundamental background facts that provide a more complete picture.
It’s Time to Put Money Out of its Misery
Last month I wrote an article for publication in Transformation as part of their 9 article series on money. Now, editor, Michael Edwards has provided a wrap-up piece, It’s time to put money out of its misery. Read it here.
Traveling with Children
One curious thing I noted during my recent visits in Southeast Asia is the number of young adults that I saw traveling with small children. In one instance I happened to be on a motor coach going from Penang to Kuala Lumpur. Among the passengers were two Scandinavian couples in the company of two infants and one toddler. This experience put me in mind of a very acute observation made by some long forgotten sage (it might have been Ogden Nash, but I can’t swear to it): The definition of a baby–“An alimentary canal with a loud noise at one end and a foul odor at the other.”
Actually, I think it’s wonderful that so many young people are willing and able to balance child rearing with their search for adventure, but it’s too bad the children will have little of it to recall.
Sharing the Commons
One thing that seems certain to me is that the new paradigm society will come about through radical sharing and a major shift of our collective energies toward projects that promote the common good. On the Commons has just announced the offer of their new e-book Sharing Revolution: The essential economics of the commons by Jessica Conrad. You can download the free e-book here. I’ve not yet read it, but I’m confident that it will prove to be a major resource in “helping people connect and collaborate to advance the common good and develop greater economic autonomy.”
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On his way into work every morning, Chokwe Lumumba, the late mayor of Jackson, Miss., used to pass a historical marker: “Jackson City Hall: built 1846-7 by slave labor.”
The building, like the city around it, came into being when African American lives didn’t count for much. Unpaid black workers created Mississippi’s plantation fortunes; as recently as the 1960s, their descendants were still earning $3 to $6 a day as sharecropper farmers. Today, black Jacksonians are almost 10 times as likely as white residents to live in poverty or surrounded by it. There’s no need for a historical marker to trace the roots of the city’s enormous wealth gap. The question is how to narrow it.Lumumba had the vision of a radical, but the manners of a movement-builder.
Mayor Lumumba had a plan. Believing that history of a new sort could be made here in Jackson, he sought to use public spending to boost local wealth through worker owned cooperatives, urban gardening, and a community-based approach to urban development. His vision, developed over years in social movements, not only prized black experience and drew on the survival strategies that black Americans had come up with over the decades, but also set out to prioritize in the city’s policies the very people who until now had been on the bottom of the state's list. The goal, he said, was “revolutionary transformation.”
In promoting what he called “solidarity economics,” Mayor Lumumba was continuing a long tradition. “Name any famous African American leader, Ella Baker, [W. E. B.] Dubois, Marcus Garvey, A. Philip Randolph, they were all proponents of co-ops,” says Jessica Gordon Nembhard, author of Collective Courage, a new book on the African American experience with worker-owned cooperatives.
“I can’t find any era when most of our leaders weren’t talking about co-ops in one form or another,” says Gordon Nembhard.
“The most significant things happen in history when you get the right people in the right place at the right time, and I think that’s what we are,” Mayor Lumumba told me this February in Jackson.
Less than two weeks later, on Feb. 25, he died after just seven months in office. Now Jacksonians are working to keep his vision alive, not just for the sake of their city, but as a model of alternative development for the nation.The solidarity economy The capital city of Mississippi, population 175,000, Jackson is home to some of the poorest citizens in the nation and a higher percentage of African Americans than any other city except Detroit (just under 80 percent).
The racial wealth gap is extreme—laid down, like the city’s infrastructure, decades back. A few years ago, the federal government stepped in, threatening the city with massive fines if the infrastructure crisis wasn’t addressed. But no federal agency stepped in to address the inequality crisis.
Which is why the election last summer of a new mayor who took race and poverty seriously, was a big deal, not only in Jackson, but around the country.
According to a 2013 study by the Economic Policy Institute and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the gap between the rich and the poor grew more in Mississippi in the last few years than in any other state. (The top fifth of households saw a 19 percent gain in income from the late 1990s to the mid 2000s, while the bottom quintile of earners saw a 17.3 percent drop.)
Remembering Chokwe Lumumba
Can you be a revolutionary and a mayor? Chokwe Lumumba did his best to be both.
Lots of leaders talk about reducing poverty and inequality. But Mayor Lumumba ran on an innovative plan to do it and received 85 percent of the vote in June 2013, after beating out the the incumbent mayor and a well-funded former businessman in the Democratic primary. A former public defender and longtime radical activist, Lumumba had the organizing support of the group he co-founded, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, along with the Jackson People's Assembly, a neighborhood-based participatory democracy group, and the Mississippi Disaster Relief Coalition, which he’d helped to convene after Hurricane Katrina.
Short of funds, but rich in organizers, Lumumba advanced what he called “The People’s Platform” to revitalize the city—not by chasing away the people with problems but by tackling the wealth gap’s underpinnings: the asset and income disparities that drive populations apart.
“Mayors typically don’t do the things we’re trying to do,” he said. "On the other hand, revolutionaries don’t typically find themselves as mayor.”
Typically, mayors attempt to increase their city’s “assets” and reduce their “liabilities” through promising investors they’ll provide high-quality services at low prices and cutting taxes and crime rates. This February, Lumumba said he’d be doing “some” of that, but he also had a larger goal. Not urban renewal through what he called “urban removal,” but urban revival—for everyone.
“The mission is to accomplish economic development together,” he said.
When it comes to oppression in America, said Lumumba, Mississippians had experienced the worst of it for a long time. In terms of exploitation, disinvestment, deindustrialization and so-called “white flight,” he said:
What’s exciting to me is the prospect of going from worst to first … to take groups of dispossessed black folks here and others, and make us controllers of our own destiny.
The city’s old infrastructure and its corroded pipes, he believed, could actually help.
----Rebuilding infrastructure—and the economy
Two years ago, a consent decree signed with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice committed the city of Jackson to raising and spending an estimated $1.2 billion over the next 17 years to repair and upgrade its infrastructure.
Lumumba’s first order of business after taking office on July 1, 2013, was raising water and sewer rates and building support for a 1 percent increase in the sales tax on certain items, to be spent specifically on the infrastructure project. In a citywide referendum held this January, an astonishing nine of out 10 residents voted "yes."Even as Lumumba replaced those leaky pipes, he planned to stop city money from draining away.
While he initially opposed the sales tax as regressive—and especially the special commission that the state set up to spend the sales-tax dollars—Lumumba eventually agreed to raise the people’s taxes but pledged that his administration would put as many of those dollars as possible back into the people’s pockets.
To accomplish that, he laid out clear principles: buy local and hire local people. According to the census, whites, who make up just 18 percent of Jackson’s population, own nearly 70 percent of businesses in the greater metro area. Under Lumumba, major employers would be required to hire 60 percent or more of their employees from within the city limits. To further expand the economic base of the majority population, he wanted half of project subcontractors and partners to be so-called “minority” developers.
“We want the wealth that is going to be generated here to stay here,” Lumumba often said in speeches.
To ensure the commission’s spending stayed local, he sought to change the city’s laws.
“We have to have rules,” he said. “One of the rules is, if you come to Jackson, you have to hire the people of Jackson.”
As a first step, the city changed its own hiring practices. City data showed 635 nonresident city employees, whose salaries totaled more than $20 million a year. Even as Lumumba replaced the city's leaky pipes, he planned to stop city money from draining away and supported legislation to change the residency requirements for city workers. This January, Jackson's City Council voted to ensure that the money the city pays in wages stays within the city limits. All new city employees will have to be city residents. It was to have been only a beginning.
The city is now facing its future without Mayor Lumumba. Chokwe Lumumba died of reported heart failure at the age of 66 on Feb. 25, less than two weeks after we talked.
Next week, on April 8, Jackson will elect a new mayor. The crowded field of candidates includes Lumumba’s son, Chokwe Antar, a graduate of Tuskegee University in Alabama and the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Texas. Chokwe Antar Lumumba worked on both his father’s campaigns—for Jackson City Council in 2009 and for mayor in 2013—and has the support of his father’s grassroots political machine behind him, not to mention his name’s deep resonance.
But Lumumba’s supporters aren’t hanging their hopes solely on the next mayor. “The vision that he represented—the People's Platform and the solidarity economics, were all social movement pieces," says Kali Akuno, director of special projects in the late mayor’s administration. "They weren't framed by him alone.”
Lumumba’s plan for economic democracy was backed by the Jackson People’s Assembly, a self-organized process of local consultation that took off during Lumumba’s 2009 run for city council. Attended by voters and vote-seekers alike, the assemblies were held across the district and are expected to spread citywide in 2014.
“We started by going out into the community asking people, ‘What do you want government to do for you?’” Mattie Wilson Stoddard, vice chair of the Jackson People’s Assembly, told me.
The Jackson People’s Assembly is one of the sponsors of “Jackson Rising: New Economies,” an international conference taking place in May which was to have been a launching pad for Lumumba’s solidarity economy project.
“Jackson Rising is more important than ever,” says Akuno, the late mayor’s point-person on the conference, which focuses heavily on education and organizing around the development and incubation of cooperative enterprises. “We can’t build economic democracy alone.”
In different hands, the city’s infrastructure spending could trigger a development gold rush of the sort seen in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, which resulted in disastrous speculation and permanent displacement, especially of low-income residents. Jacksonians need to know their options, says Akuno. Members of worker-owned enterprises in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Basque region of Spain have been invited to come share strategies for creating and keeping wealth in the community.
“We need to make sure we’re not robbed again, but get something that's going to benefit our children and our grandchildren,” Akuno says of the infrastructure fund.
The best way to do that, Akuno and the other organizers of Jackson Rising believe, is by capturing and concentrating wealth in the hands of local people through solidarity economics and worker-owned cooperatives. It is not a new concept in these parts. Far from it.
When asked if co-ops were a “hippy” thing, Mayor Lumumba’s patrician face cracked a grin and he replied, “There’s a little hippy in all of us. And I think the hippies probably got a lot of it from what used to happen in Africa.”
----The first black cooperatives
“The community I grew up in, in a sense, was a co-op although we didn’t use the name,” recalls Lumumba supporter Hollis Watkins, co-founder and president of the Jackson-based movement support organization, Southern Echo, “If you needed work done on your farm before the rain came, we all stepped in. At some point you knew your turn would come.”
Hollis was born to sharecroppers in 1941, the youngest of twelve children.
After graduating college, Watkins joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, a grassroots-based black liberation organization, that played a leading role in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“When we talked about rights, economics was always part of the program,” Watkins recalled. “Our people understood that education and jobs and political empowerment were all intertwined.”
Jacksonite Melbah Smith, who worked with Watkins at Southern Echo, and before that with civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, grew up on her grandfather’s farm in Brandon, just fifteen miles east of downtown Jackson. She still remembers the good times—like “hog-killing time,” when the community would pool skills and tools to butcher meat. But she also remembers the hard times: “Ours was the last home in the county to get electricity or a telephone.”
Smith went on to serve as the Mississippi Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a regional nonprofit which has helped create or support more than 200 cooperatives and credit unions in 10 states, providing services and meeting needs that were going unmet.
“Cooperatives were born out of a need to bring services to underserved communities,” says Smith. Co-ops were also as a way to survive discrimination.
Smith’s grandfather collaborated with his brothers to buy farmland after emancipation. Her father, born in in 1910, grew up under the system of de facto and de jure apartheid known as Jim Crow. Under Jim Crow, not only were impossible obstacles erected to deny African Americans the vote; black farmers were also denied loans and credit from white-controlled local banks.
The first black cooperatives date back to the colonial age and “beneficial and burial societies”—founded by slaves who gathered dues covertly to pay for one another’s burials. Free blacks started insurance companies to pay for cemeteries and doctors’ bills. The first, according to a study by NAACP founder W. E. B. DuBois, was incorporated by the AME Church in Philadelphia in 1787.In his 1907 study of black economic cooperation, DuBois includes the Underground Railroad, which transported hundreds of thousands of refugees across thousands of miles, via cooperating networks of supporters, organizers, and sympathetic landowners.
After the Civil War, “freedom” for millions of formerly enslaved men and women turned on their ability to combine their means in order to purchase land and sustain themselves—or find themselves forced back into bonded labor on their former plantations.
“The wonder is not that so many, but that so few, have needed help,” DuBois quotes a chief of the federal Freedmen’s Bureau, which was set up to assist freed blacks in 1865.
Almost 100 years later, black political rights were still tied to black economic resilience. When the civil rights movement of the ‘60s started, recalcitrant whites responded by exploiting the economic vulnerability of the movement’s base.
“The Selma to Montgomery marchers couldn’t stay on sharecroppers’ land” recalls Jackson Rising supporter Wendell Paris, who helped organize the historic 1965 voting rights march that took place some 250 miles to the east of where he now lives near Jackson. Hundreds of tenant farmers were evicted for standing up for their rights.Economic power is political power
The land of the Mississippi River Delta is famously fertile; rich enough to capitalize the early U.S. economy. But the people who have worked that land have rarely been enriched.From the founding of the United States through the Civil War to the modern era, the plantation class, with overwhelming power and resources, has fought to keep their advantage. In the civil rights era—along with lynching, firebombing, and assassination—farmers who joined the NAACP would lose their loans, and African Americans who registered to vote risked losing hard-to-come-by employment.
Wendell Paris remembers spending a week persuading an older domestic worker to register. He took the woman, named Catherine Jones, to the registrar’s office every morning, starting on a Monday.
“She’d stay there all day too afraid to sign her name.” Finally, that Thursday afternoon, she signed and by Friday morning, she’d lost her job.
“Reprisals were immediate,” Paris recalls.
Known for her role as a voting rights activist and founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Fannie Lou Hamer also started a co-op, “Freedom Farm,” to support civil rights activists punished for their work.
With Hamer, Watkins started buying clubs and selling co-ops as a way to help poor families he met through the Head Start program. “They needed some economic stability before they could even begin to change the political situation,” says Watkins.
In the 1970s, Watkins went on to manage two large farms bought by the Nation of Islam in Mississippi. “As manager of the Nation of Islam’s farms, Watkins was able to buy farming supplies in bulk and share costly farm equipment with poorer farmers. Paris was doing the same with SNCC in Alabama.
The white establishment was quick to react to the co-op push, fearing, presumably, that black coops could shift the power-balance.
“At one point we bought cows and white folks poisoned the water and killed the cows,” says Watkins.
Paris remembers finding a market in New York that would pay almost three times the price Alabama farmers could get locally for their cucumbers. The local growers’ cooperative rented a truck. On just their second run to market, state troopers pulled them over. “We asked Governor (George) Wallace why he’d stopped our truck. He said he didn’t have to tell us why. He could detain any vehicle for 72 hours,” recalled Paris.
“Seventy-two hours later, we opened the door and the entire load poured out.” The cucumbers had liquefied in the burning summer heat.
Having retired from the federation, Melbah Smith directs the Coalition for a Prosperous Mississippi, which works to change Mississippi's laws concerning cooperatives. Currently, only agricultural-based entities can incorporate in Mississippi. Any other type of cooperatives must be charted out-of-state. According to the coalition, 44 percent of the 162 non-agricultural co-ops in Mississippi report that they could not have opened their businesses had it not been set up as a co-op.
“Co-ops are part of how we grew up,” says Smith. In her view, their future is bright.
Just as cooperation worked for rural Mississippians—providing electricity or loans or social services in poor communities—so too can city dwellers use the cooperative model to pool resources and share the risk of starting a business. Cooperatives provide a way for low-income communities to build assets and create wealth, the decisive factor in narrowing the racial wealth gap. They have a strong track record of raising wages for their members too, and of staying put. Indeed, the experience of working together on an equal footing with co-workers often leads to to other sorts of civic engagement.
Which is part, no doubt, of what Smith will be telling participants at the Jackson Rising. Still not retired, she’s helping to plan the conference.
The immediate threat poor blacks face today in Jackson comes from outside developers and speculators with the resources to move in and take over their neighborhoods.
Nia Umoja belongs to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. She moved to West Jackson last year with her husband. For just $1,500 they were able to purchase a single family home a couple of blocks off Capitol Street (a major east-west thoroughfare), within walking distance of the city zoo and Jackson State University.
Like the majority of the homes around hers, Umoja’s house needs work. When she moved in, the empty plots on two sides of hers were overgrown with high, scrubby trees and bushes. According to recent surveys, some 40 percent of the lots nearby are abandoned or vacant. Eighty-eight percent of the population lives in poverty. Payday lending stores outnumber groceries 10 to one.
“You have to start with what you have to get what you want,” community organizers say. What West Jackson has is a lot of overgrown land, a lot of underemployed labor, and a good amount of (albeit rusty) farming experience.
“The people here have lost their voice, but they’re not resource-less,” Umoja told me. When she surveyed her neighbors about their assets, she found that while they may not have considered themselves “skilled,” they had talents. “They grew up on farms,” explained Umoja. “They know how to grow things.”
In August 2013, Umoja helped establish the Cooperative Community of New West Jackson with the hope of establishing a cooperative farm. Under Mayor Lumumba, the group was able to clear 1.5 acres of vacant city-owned land just off Capitol Street. Near the north end of the plot sits an abandoned Dairy Queen whose forecourt would make a great green market, she says, if only she could get the long-absentee owner to agree to sell, or the city to take it over.
Umoja and her colleagues have grand plans for what they are calling the Grenada Street Folk Garden, but private developers are already coming around and just a few blocks away, lots are already selling for $40,000 to $80,000.
Some would like to see gentrification come to West Jackson, like it came to the city’s North Midtown section. That area too, was a high crime, low income, low-property-price area not long ago. Now it’s one of the city's leading neighborhoods, thanks to development funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. With help from Habitat for Humanity and private “green” developers, the Jackson Housing Authority demolished dilapidated houses, retrofitted others, and watched rents and property prices rise.
In 2012, a group of institutional stakeholders in West Jackson—a group including Jackson State University, the Center for Social Entrepreneurship, the Jackson Zoo, Jackson-Evers Municipal Airport, and the Voice of Jackson Calvary Ministries (a church group)—hired Duvall Decker Architects, the same firm that worked on North Midtown, to draw up a master plan for West Jackson. Some are already calling it the “Capitol Street Corridor.”
At a community meeting convened by architect Roy Decker this February, Umoja and Akuno were shown half a dozen colorful maps, detailing “assets” and “concerns” in the West Jackson neighborhood. On Decker’s maps, the Cooperative Community of New West Jackson sits on plots featuring almost no assets and many “concerns,” including homelessness, crime, a high proportion of vacant properties, and few businesses or public services. Still, when Umoja got a chance to describe her garden plan, the response was mostly positive.
“Sounds good. Like hog-killing time in the old days,” said one resident.
“We just have to work harder to get the word out,” Umoja said.
Whether change is driven by worker owned co-ops or outside speculators, it’s going to take some doing to achieve “revolutionary transformation” in Jackson. Investment is driven by demand, says Mukesh Kumar, professor of urban planning at Jackson State University, and right now, Jackson has very little of that. Downtown is already circled by a big sticky suburban ring, sucking shoppers, contractors, and prime business out of the city's center.
The Greater Jackson Chamber of Commerce, which backed the North Midtown plan, is setting its hopes for growth on further development of the city’s “medical corridor,” the building of a 1,500-acre downtown lake, and an arts and culture expansion to “attract talent.”
It’s hard to see how any of those plans will work. Several major hospitals (including Baptist Health Systems, University of Mississippi Medical Center, and St. Dominic's) and as many major colleges have left the inner-city core poor up to this point. For tourists, Jackson’s competing with Nashville and New Orleans.
At least Mayor Lumumba’s plan to stimulate internal demand through local employment in public works has a proven track record. Federal public works programs helped recovery after the Great Depression, just as reconstruction projects helped rebuild the south after the Civil War (until they fell victim to Jim Crow). As civil rights organizers learned, for people to participate in the political process, their economic necessities need to be seen to. After years of ineffective government, Jackson needs both political, as well as economic revival.
Lumumba had the vision of a radical, but the manners of a movement-builder. He reached across political lines to build support for his plan. One of his first calls after his election was to Duane O’Neal, head of the Jackson Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Before Lumumba’s death, O’Neal said he’d already had more and “more meaningful” meetings with the new mayor than he did with the preceding administration in all the 16 years they had been in office. Lumumba won respect because, as O’Neal put it to me, “he’s shown himself to be a man of action.”
Lumumba’s mission was “development together.” He understood his goal was, as much as anything else, to re-engage the city.
“The job is not a single individual affair but a collective affair, and the creation of jobs is not an individual affair but a collective [one.]”
Cooperation in the handful of urban gardens currently in Jackson, has already brought people together, says Akuno. What Jackson does not yet have are any worker, producer or housing cooperatives. Only a few cooperative Credit Unions operate within the city limits. Jackson Rising seeks to change that.
With only a few months to go, organizers of the Jackson Rising conference were struggling this February with how to appeal simultaneously to entrepreneurially minded students and Nia Umoja’s hard-up neighbors. Charlotte and Luke Landemeaux, founders of Jackson’s one existing food co-op, Rainbow Foods, (incorporated in Delaware), were feeling anxious about competition from Jackson’s first Whole Foods, which has just opened its doors. But everyone’s immediate problem was a good one. The first in a series of “Grassroots Economics” meetings, intended to build to the May conference, was filled to capacity.
In the 1960s, when they were fighting for bottom-up democracy, Fannie Lou Hamer and the members of SNCC used to say “The people must decide.”
Chokwe Lumumba and the Jackson Peoples Assembly used this phrase over and over during his campaign. Even though he’s gone, it’s hard not to hear those words echoing around Jackson more loudly than ever.
As they ask themselves which way forward for Jackson and Jacksonians, the answer comes: “The people must decide.”
Laura Flanders wrote this article for YES! Magazine's Commonomics project. Laura is YES! Magazine's 2014 Local Economies Reporting Fellow and is executive producer and founder and host of "GRITtv with Laura Flanders." Follow her on Twitter @GRITlaura.
Natalie Lubsen contributed research to this article.
I have often pointed out, but almost no economist is willing to admit, that central governments play an essential role as “borrowers of last resort” to keep a flawed system of money and banking from collapsing. In their collusive arrangement with the banking elite, government’s debts will be monetized through the actions of their respective central banks. This is the process of currency inflation, which is now euphemistically called “quantitative easing.”
The empirical data makes this plain to anyone who cares to look at it and put two and two together. The Bank for International Settlements has just reported that global debt has increased more than 40 percent in just the past six years. You can find more details about that in this recent Bloomberg article: Global Debt Exceeds $100 Trillion as Governments Binge, BIS Says.
When debt growth, fueled by compound interest, hits the wall of physical reality, something’s got to give.
This article was written by David Bollier for Bollier.org, where it originally appeared.
Why should investors always have the upper hand in "development" plans when the resource at stake is a beloved building or public space? Why should the divine right of capital necessarily prevail?The Community Pubs Minister extols "the importance of the local pub as part of our economic, social and cultural past.
How refreshing to learn that England has created a special legal process for preventing market enclosures of community pubs. There is even a Community Pubs Minister, whose duty it is to recognize the value of pubs to communities and to help safeguard their futures. So far, some 100 pubs have been formally listed as "assets of community value."
I know, I know—what would Margaret Thatcher say? "Damned government interventions in the free market!" Fortunately, that kind of market fundamentalism has abated for a bit, enough that the Community Pubs Minister—Brandon Lewis, a Conservative Party member of Parliament!—now extols "the importance of the local pub as part of our economic, social and cultural past, present and future."
He adds: "We have known for hundreds of years just how valuable our locals [local pubs] are. Not just as a place to grab a pint but also to the economies and communities they serve and that is why we are doing everything we can to support and safeguard community pubs from closure."
The topic was recently featured in The New York Times, which noted that 7,000 pubs have closed since the 2008 financial crisis, "leaving some small communities confronting the unthinkable: life without a 'local,' as pubs are known." For example, residents of the village of Hampstead are distraught that a group of outside investors has bought the 300-year-old Old White Bear pub, which they plan to convert into a six-bedroom luxury house.
Some 2,000 Hampstead residents have signed a petition to have the Old White Bear declared an asset of community value. Said one resident: "You rip the heart out of that, and we're either all going to wander the streets like zombies or stay indoors and not see each other ever again."
If a community has registered its pub as an "asset of community value" and it is then offered for sale, the community has the right to "pause" the sale of the endangered pub, shop, library or football ground, in order to prepare a formal bid to buy it. The government has even prepared a guide to Understanding the Community Right to Bid, and it offers an advice service for studying the feasibility of a community purchase.
I suspect that even with this government support, it's still quite difficult for communities to actually buy and maintain endangered pubs. But how terrific that there is such a legal right to assert long-term community interests.
Of course, the precedent invites expansion: If the government can shower tax breaks and subsidies on investors, why not give significant financial support to commoners trying to buy "assets of community value"? Why should commerce get all the subsidies?
And if localism is truly valued, why not fortify local communities to protect themselves against absentee investors who care little about the long-term well-being of the community or local ecosystems?
Why not show the same respect to commoners in India or Kenya or Indonesia whose equivalent of the local pub is under siege by multinational investors? Native peoples who are deprived of their "assets of community value" are just as likely to "wander the street like zombies" if those assets are suddenly bought, fenced off or destroyed.
Still, let us be grateful for this legal and political precedent. It's something to build upon: full recognition and support for owning the things that really matter to a local community.
This article is excerpted from Bollier.org, featuring news and perspective on the commons from David Bollier. He is author of the new book Think Like A Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons (New Society Publishers), an engaging and illuminating look at the the promise of the commons as a way out of many current problems. The founding editor of OnTheCommons.org, Bollier now works on a variety of commons projects with international and domestic partners.
This article originally appeared at Truthout.
As America moves more deeply into its growing systemic crisis, it is becoming increasingly important for activists and theorists to distinguish clearly between important projects and "institutional elements," on the one hand, and systemic change and systemic design, on the other.
The recent economic failure of one of the most important units of the Mondragón cooperatives offers an opportunity to clarify the issue and begin to think more clearly about our own strategy in the United States.But what do you do when you are up against radical cost challenges from Chinese and other low-cost producers?
Mondragón Corporation is an extraordinary 80,000-person grouping of worker-owned cooperatives based in Spain's Basque region that is teaching the world how to move the ideas of worker-ownership and cooperation into high gear and large scale. The first Mondragón cooperatives date from the mid-1950s, and the overall effort has evolved over the years into a federation of 110 cooperatives, 147 subsidiary companies, eight foundations and a benefit society with total assets of 35.8 billion euros and total revenues of 14 billion euros.
Each year, it also teaches some 10,000 students in its education centers and has roughly 2,000 researchers working at 15 research centers, the University of Mondragón, and within its industrial cooperatives. It also actively educates its workers about cooperatives' principles, with around 3,000 people a year participating in its Cooperative Training program and 400 in its Leadership and Team Work program.
Mondragón has been justly cited as a leading example of what can be done through cooperative organization. It has evolved a highly participatory decision-making structure, and a top-to-bottom compensation structure in a highly advanced economic institution that challenges economic practices throughout the corporate capitalist world: In the vast majority of its cooperatives, the ratio of compensation between top executives and the lowest-paid members is between three to one and six to one; in a few of the larger cooperatives it can be as high as around nine to one. Comparable private corporations often operate with top-to-median compensation ratios of 250 to one or 300 to one or higher.
Although it has been criticized for violating its cooperative principles through somewhat "imperial" control of some of its foreign operations, for its use of non-cooperative labor, and for a less-than-active concern with environmental problems, in recent years Mondragón has begun to address deficiencies in these areas.Bankruptcy for Fagor Electrodomésticos
Mondragón Corporation's historically most important unit is Fagor Electrodomésticos Group, which makes consumer appliances—"white goods" such as dishwashers, cookers and other related household items. It is the fifth-largest manufacturer of such products in Europe. It employs roughly 2,000 people in five factories in the Basque region and has and additional 3,500 in eight factories in France, China, Poland, and Morocco. Its direct predecessor (ULGOR) was the first-ever Mondragón cooperative—established in 1956 by five young students of José María Arizmendiarrieta, the spiritual founder of Mondragón cooperative network.
Mondragón recently announced that Fagor was failing and that the company would be filing for bankruptcy protection. Ultimately, Fagor was unable to find financing to pay off debts of around $1.5 billion related to a 37 percent slump in sales since 2007 that resulted from Spain's economic crisis and housing market collapse. Under Spanish law, the company now has four months to negotiate with its creditors—which include the Basque government, banks and others—and formulate a restructuring plan.
As part of any restructuring or liquidation, Mondragón will provide jobs and income security for a certain period for some its workers in Spain. This is one of the cooperative network's great advantages. It has announced that its internal insurance company Lagun Aro will pay 80 percent of the cooperative members' salaries for two years, and the corporation will strive to relocate as many employees as possible to other cooperatives in the network.
The fate of the roughly 3,500 non-Spanish wage laborers (i.e., not cooperative members) in other countries, however, is unclear.Some specific problems
Given its importance, we are certain to see any number of economic reports on the specific problems that created the failure of Fagor. The larger questions posed by the failure, however, are the relationship of large-scale economic institutions to the market in any system, and the lessons for long-term systemic design for people concerned with moving beyond the failings of corporate capitalism and traditional socialism.Moving to scale means that the fate of the institution also rests on the fate of the larger market.
Mondragón itself, and proposals for systemic change based on larger-scale cooperatives in general, have only occasionally directly confronted some of the larger challenges that the market poses to cooperative institutional forms. Mondragón's primary emphasis has been on effective and efficient competition. But what do you do when you are up against a global economic recession, on the one hand, or radical cost challenges from Chinese and other low-cost producers, on the other?
The same challenges face anyone who hopes to project a new system based on cooperative ownership in any country. There is nothing inherently wrong with such a system; far from it, the principle is one to be advanced and supported. The question of interest, however—and especially to the degree we begin to face the question of what to do about larger industry—is whether trusting in open market competition is a sufficient answer to the problem of longer-term systemic design.
The Fagor failure is a strong reminder that ignoring the question can have consequences.
The specific problems are obvious: The first has to do with whether any system allows the global market to set the terms of reference for the economy in general and specific (larger scale) firms structured along cooperative lines in particular. A serious "next stage" systemic design almost certainly will have to adopt one or another form of "planned trade" rather than "free market trade"—else the fate of specific firms, and specific groups of workers, and also the communities in which both exist, become subject to the ever-intensifying challenges as corporations play one low-wage country off against another, with the destruction of wage standards and firms (cooperative or otherwise) the inevitable result.
The second challenge takes us beyond the question of planning in connection with trade to planning in connection with the domestic market: It was never the goal of the Mondragón Corporation to seek a planning solution to the problems of the Spanish economy. Nor was "changing the system" part and parcel of its primary mission. It always sought to compete successfully in the existing system, at the same time demonstrating a superior form of internal organization.
Americans concerned about fundamental, longer-term change need to ponder this particular point carefully. The challenge any system-changing vision presents is at least twofold: First, how to include new models of cooperative organization in a larger strategy that includes managing (and restructuring) the wider economy in its goals; second, how to begin to think through much more carefully issues of sectoral planning within larger democratic or participatory planning goals.
Almost certainly many smaller-scale cooperatives can succeed, if carefully managed, in small markets. But moving to scale—as Fagor did in entering the global market for appliances—means that the fate of the institution also rests on the fate of the larger market, and on competition within that market, whether global, as in the case of Fagor, or domestic, as in the case of many other industries.
Space does not permit a full discussion of how participatory planning might be achieved to deal with large-scale unemployment, and economic management in general—two of the severe challenges that have crippled economic development in Spain and contributed to Fagor's problems. However, some of the key questions and possibilities for beginning to think through sectoral planning as part of a larger approach are suggested by considering how one significant scale industrial sector might be dealt with.
A good reference point is the auto industry in the United States. Assume, for the moment that the auto industry were to adopt new forms of worker or worker-community ownership structures. (One somewhat limited form of this, by the way, actually occurred during the recent Great Recession in 2009, when the government and autoworkers' employee health care benefit fund assumed ownership shares in Chrysler and General Motors.) The question in the future is how might we utilize worker and community ownership more effectively and move beyond seeing the companies narrowly (like Fagor) operating in a capitalist sea and market system?
One important point: A viable alternative systemic/planning solution likely would extend the reach of these companies far beyond selling cars. Such a solution might, for instance, involve developing a long-term national investment plan to invest in worker and community-owned transportation companies in order to shift spending from cars to more efficient high-speed rail and mass transit.
Work published by the Democracy Collaborative in 2010 helps clarify how this might be done: Three alternative scenarios for how population growth to 2050 might be distributed between cities and suburbs were analyzed. The data showed that even the smallest shift in population patterns requires dramatic changes in intra-city and inter-city transportation, both to absorb the anticipated increase in population and to achieve necessary reductions in carbon emissions.
All three options would require major expansion of local public transportation, at an annual cost of at least $240 billion—$140 billion for increased operating costs and $100 billion for capital spending.
Additionally, the number of long-distance trips traveled by airplanes (the worst form of transportation from a carbon emissions standpoint) and cars would have to be reduced and replaced with high-speed rail. A good benchmark for costs on this—$2 trillion over 15 years for 25,000 kilometers of high-speed track—was put forward by Canadian analysts Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl.
In turn, expenditures under this "plan" would be targeted to place-based economic development strategies around economic institutions structured either as worker-cooperatives or, following new models emerging in Cleveland and other cities, around joint community-worker cooperative structures.Time to get serious
The details of any serious democratic "planning system" inevitably would change as greater sophistication and knowledge are developed—and, as noted in the above example, we looked only at one sector, rather than the larger system as a whole. Also, any larger-scale, system-changing planning effort likely would utilize direct planning as well as carefully managed markets in defined areas. The critical point from the perspective of our immediate concern is that it is time for activists and analysts who hope to build upon principles of cooperative worker ownership or joint cooperative-community ownership for larger-scale firms to get serious about the larger systemic planning issues involved.
The fate of Fagor—and the future of many other cooperatives now attempting to compete at higher levels—suggests that if "the system question" is not addressed in theory and in practice, and in sophisticated longer-term design, many of the hopes generated by even so brilliant an experiment as Mondragón may be thwarted by forces more powerful than any one element in a system can handle alone.
Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.
Gar Alperovitz, author of What Then Must We Do?, is the Lionel R. Bauman professor of political economy at the University of Maryland and co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hannna is senior research associate at the Democracy Collaborative.
- 6 Ways to Fuel the Cooperative Takeover
- Gar Alperovitz on Cooperative Economy: “I’ll Bet My Life on It”
- The Economy: Under New Ownership
On my way back to the U.S. from Kuala Lumpur, I picked up a copy of the Financial Times (March 7 edition) in Tokyo while waiting for my connecting flight. As expected, I found numerous articles relating to the Ukraine situation, but one stood out amongst the rest. It was titled “Putin loyalist points finger at ‘global financial oligarchy.’”
I was surprised but also pleased to see this affirmation of my long-held view that the present geopolitical turmoil is not so much a contest among nations, but a global class war being waged by an elite oligarchy bent on creating a New World Order in which they hold the reins of power. Oddly, when I later tried to locate the article on the FT website, it was nowhere to be found, but I did find an article from the previous day’s edition which quoted the same “loyalist,” Vladimir Yakunin, making the same arguments. That article is titled, US accused of ‘trying to destroy Russia.’
Yakunin is described as a “former senior diplomat” who now heads the Russian state railways. He has accused the US and a “global financial oligarchy” of organizing the violent overthrow of the government in Ukraine, and of trying to “destroy Russia as a geopolitical opponent.”
Both articles are based on the same interview and quote Yakunin as saying, “A CIA analysis . . . described three possible scenarios for the development of the geopolitical situation. The most acceptable scenario was considered to be one in which a certain world government is created – and the realisation of this project is in line with the concept of global domination that is being carried out by the US. We saw this in Iraq, we saw it in Afghanistan, we saw it in Yugoslavia and in North Africa. Today, the borders of carrying out this doctrine have moved to Ukraine.”
That article goes on to say, “Mr Yakunin said the west had consistently reneged on its assurances to Moscow since 1991 that it had no intention of encircling it by expanding NATO to include countries on Russia’s borders. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the three Baltic states have joined the alliance as well as eastern European countries – including Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania – most of which were once in the Warsaw Pact.”
“’If you look at things objectively, [the former German chancellor Helmut] Kohl swore to [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev that the exit of Soviet troops from Germany would not lead to NATO’s approach towards Russia’s borders. But in reality everything that has happened is the exact opposite.’”
If one is willing to look at the record of history, especially monetary and banking history, he can easily see that Mr. Yakunin’s charges are entirely valid.
Carroll Quigley, historian and advisor to Presidents, told us long ago that the would-be rulers of the world have a plan: “The powers of financial capitalism had a far-reaching plan, nothing less than to create a world system of financial control in private hands able to dominate the political system of each country and the economy of the world as a whole… Their secret is that they have annexed from governments, monarchies, and republics the power to create the world’s money…” (Tragedy and Hope, 1966).
That is the essence of the New World Order that has been touted for decades by American political leaders, notably the first President Bush.
Now, the annexation of Crimea seems a natural step for Russia to have taken to not only protect its military installations there, but also to resist the advancing NWO. While the western propaganda machine gave it short shrift in its attempt to paint Putin as the “bad guy,” Putin’s speech is well worth considering. You can find the full text here.
And lest we be seduced into thinking that the Russian reaction is a simple act of aggression, read this background and analysis by Chris Kanthan: Ukraine: A Candid, In-depth Discussion.
Even a casual observer of recent geopolitical history can see the pattern of encirclement, neutralization, and domination that has characterized western policies over the past several decades. It is clear that the consolidation of power and the imposition of the global fascist New World Order is all but complete and that all remaining obstacles must be removed, one way or another.
# # #
Can worker-owned co-ops lift families out of poverty? That's the question the Community Development Committee of the New York City Council took on in a first-of-its kind hearing convened by Committee Chair, Maria del Carmen Arroyo. Commonomics partner GRITtv was there, and spoke to Council member Arroyo in our studio afterwards.
"The question is, how do we, in the City Council, working in partnership with the speaker and the mayor's office create an opportunity for us to support and encourage the development [of worker coops] and strengthen the ones that already exist?" Councilmember Arroyo told me.
Of the many businesses in New York, only 23 are worker co-ops. But those that exist have a strong record of raising wages and reducing poverty, especially in low-income, low-wealth communities like Arroyo's South Bronx district.
At the packed February 24th hearing, workers, owners, and advocates spoke about the challenges co-ops in New York City face. In addition to cumbersome government protocols and lack of funding and technical support, there is a shortage of information. No government contracts currently go to worker-owned businesses. I asked Arroyo if New York City under Mayor Bill de Blasio will change any of that.
"At the end of the day, talk is cheap," concluded Arroyo. "We need to work to put this opportunity out in the community and empower the local community residents who have an idea about a business but may not have the wherewithal to put it together that we also provide the technical assistance to ensure that they will have all of their bases covered."
Contents. (This edition will be timely but brief).
Back to America
My latest article
Degrowth Conference on Social Equity and Ecological Sustainability
Hi, Well it’s just a matter of hours now before I board my flight that will take me back to the United States. I always find other places and cultures interesting, but four months abroad has been long enough and I’m looking forward to being back in more familiar territory, seeing friends and family, and discovering what the universe has to show me next. To begin with, I’ll be enjoying the relative calm and quiet of the Arizona desert, then looking for a more permanent place to hang my hat.
My latest article
I spent a good amount of time over the past few weeks writing an article that I was invited to submit for publication in an online journal, Transformation, published by Open Democracy. I’m pleased to announce that my article, Money, debt and the end of the growth imperative was published yesterday. You can read it here,
Upcoming Degrowth Conference on Social Equity and Ecological Sustainability. Call for papers extended to March 14th
A recent message from Birte Ewers announces that the 4th International Degrowth Conference to be held in Leipzig Sept 2-6, and that the original deadline for submissions of short papers has been extended. The deadlines for other formats have expired but deadline for “short papers” is now March 14th. The review process will be concluded by the end of April. See the conference website at http://leipzig.degrowth.org/en/http://leipzig.degrowth.org/en/ and the Call for Papers at http://leipzig.degrowth.org/en/call-for-papers/ for details.
About The Conference:
4th International Degrowth Conference on Social Equity and Ecological Sustainability – Bridging movements and research for the great transformation.
The International Degrowth Conference has reached its fourth venue. Since Paris 2008 the debate on how to move away from a growth-oriented economy towards a more sustainable society has drawn world-wide attention. The fourth international conference will take place in a country that is considered as the European engine of economic growth.
Different traditions of growth critique, such as the concept of a post-growth society stemming from the German-speaking community and the French and Southern European degrowth debate, are invited to a fruitful dialogue. The conference seeks to bring practitioners, activists and scientists together and encompasses various formats for presentations, interaction, workshops, and exchange.
The 4th conference will address following thematic threads (abstracts for short papers can be submitted to any of them):
- Organizing Society (Emancipatory politics, participation, institutions)
- Building a social and ecological economy ((Re-)productivity, commons, society-nature relations)
- Living conviviality (Buen vivir. Open knowledge. Convivial technology)
For my current journey in Southeast Asia, Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur) serves as both my entry point and exit point. Flights to and from KL tend to be cheaper even than Bangkok, and I always enjoy spending some time in Penang, which is only about a 4 ½ hour bus ride from KL Thailand is easily reached from there.
Malaysia is quite a developed country, though it still has some third world charm, as well as annoyances, like the roar of motorbikes zipping around through every available space, making it difficult and dangerous for pedestrians to cross the streets. Sidewalks, if they exist at all are usually obstructed by parked motorbikes, or food stalls, or even workshops that flow out into the public spaces.
One interesting thing about Malaysia is language. Almost everyone speaks some English and signage is usually in both English and Bahasa Melayu, or Malay language, which derives many words from English. Malays have developed what seems to me to be a very reasonable pattern of phonetic spelling.
Here are a few familiar English words with their phonetic Malay spelling, which I think we should adopt.
My pictures from my November visit to Penang
Pictures from my February/March visit to Penang and Kuala Lumpur have not yet been uploaded.
Joke of the month
Certainly not original, but here it is; some of you may appreciate it.
You know you’re old when you and your teeth no longer sleep together.
May you enjoy this season when life springs anew,
This infographic was developed by the group New England New Economy Transition.
Chokwe Lumumba, an extraordinary leader with a vision of liberation forged in the 1960s Black Power movement, died on Tuesday after eight transformational months in office as Mayor of Jackson, Miss.
A founder of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, an activist attorney, and a former City Council member, Lumumba was elected Mayor of Jackson in June 2013 with 86 percent of the vote—despite being massively outspent. In office, he brought people together across class and race lines and thawed a multi-year freeze between the city and state legislators.
His language was direct and his goal was "revolutionary transformation." He not only inspired his own community, but he also disarmed his critics with a tireless commitment to building support for his twin goals of political and economic democracy.
"The mission is to accomplish economic development together," he told me in an interview just two weeks before his sudden death by heart attack. We met in his office in Jackson City Hall on February 12 to talk about "solidarity economics" for an upcoming article for YES! Magazine's Commonomics project.
Here is our full conversation.
Laura Flanders: First off, congratulations on your election.
Chokwe Lumumba: Thank you.
Flanders: What do you want to accomplish?
"I went to law school to defend people who had no one to defend them and causes that nobody would defend."
Lumumba: We want to accomplish a revolutionary transformation. We are party to statistics which demonstrate that our people, black people in particular and probably the majority of the Mississippi population, are at the worst end of all the vital statistics. When it comes to the discussion of oppression in America, we’ve been experiencing the worst of it for a long time. What’s exciting to me is the prospect of going from worst to first in a forward-moving transformation which is going to take groups of dispossessed black folks here and others and make us controllers of our own destiny.
We are not foolish enough to think that it is a mission that can probably be accomplished here in the absence of fundamental movement in the rest the world, but we think we can start that movement and help carry it forward, and help advance it in a really powerful way. So that’s what excites us.
Flanders: And your specific goals?
Lumumba: We find ourselves in a situation where we are in the "Kush" district. Kush is an ancient name for an area around Egypt, which in ancient times, encompassed a historically black community which became the genesis of Egypt and Ethiopia and others. We use the terminology to refer to a "black belt," areas which are predominantly black, but there’s a distinct reference to a formation of black counties in Mississippi: Tunica to Wilkinson, all contiguous, 18 counties, 17 of them majority black including Hinds county where Jackson sits, only one majority white, and it teeters on the edge of being majority black.
"Kush," the concept, is larger than Mississippi. It goes across the border into Louisiana and the predominantly black counties of Louisiana and Southeast Arkansas. This is really a broader area than where we are, but we in Mississippi are the center of commerce of that area. We’re 85 percent black. This is an important area because it gives us a chance to demonstrate real vitality, to vindicate that terminology of black power which was used years ago, but was so much in search of definition at the time.
Flanders: What do you mean?
Lumumba: We knew we were getting short-changed in the whole so-called integrationist movement, which in truth was a struggle for democratic rights; in our struggle against Jim Crow, we knew we were coming up short. And so we defined ourselves as being in a struggle for Black Power and became a black liberation movement with various different objectives. One which was central which we set out for ourselves was for us to develop a sense of self-determination for all people in America. And this is a region where that purpose is particularly important and where it can be particularly achieved, or at least get off the starting blocks. That’s the vision.
Flanders: And how does that vision intersect with your mayoralty? What tools do you have in your tool box as mayor to make that sort of change?
Lumumba: We’re still figuring that out. We’re still unpacking. We know it’s not the normal things mayors do. …
Flanders: Which is?
Lumumba: Mayors normally help out the economic powers-that-be and try to make sure they can avoid the issue of crime as much as possible, and point to prosperity by moving and shuffling people around in a gentrifying set of circumstances, by trying to get the poor people out of town and getting rich people in.
We are way different than that and we don’t mind saying it. In fact, we just had an interesting discussion at the city council where one of the councilmen (I like to think partly inspired by my inauguration speech), actually brought up a resolution against gentrification and it was part of a conversation which got us to try to explain the problems with gentrification and why we want to move ahead.
Flanders: Can you be a revolutionary and a mayor?
Lumumba: Mayors typically don’t do the things we’re trying to do. On the other hand, revolutionaries don’t typically find themselves as mayor.
Change does not come on thoughts alone; because we have a revolutionary ideology and give speeches on it. It comes because you can change the material conditions of people, and get people to assist in the change, be the mainstay in the change in their conditions. And so, how do we achieve that, that’s the real challenge for us. We don’t think we can do it in the way we did it in the 60s and 70s. We raised up millions of people in fiery speeches and that was good—I’m in love with that period—but at the same time, the people been suffering for a while and fiery speeches are not going to do it.
We’ve got to tell them how we’re going to fix their streets; how we’re going to feed them, how are they going to eat, where are they going to live. How are they going to avoid being in a neighborhood which goes unattended for so long that it becomes a target for urban renewal which is really just urban removal and then they lose their homes and they turn around and they’ve got condominiums there, and they can’t afford to buy a condo and then they’re shuffled out to the outskirts of the city where once again, they find themselves in another community of poverty, or even in a community of poverty outside the city.
How the kids are going to get a real education as opposed to just showing up to school and being on the pipeline to prison? Those are the material things we’ve got to change. That’s an exploration process. It doesn’t require any less knowledge or commitment to the ideals we started off with, but it requires the ability to translate the message in ways that people can understand and become part of and can teach us. We have to understand the language of the people.
Flanders: Typically mayors cut taxes, grant subsidies to potential employers, create low tax or no tax empowerment zones and woo big-box stores to come to their town. How much of that will you do?
Lumumba: We’re going to be doing some of that. Some of that is involved. We have to create economy. That has to happen. What is revolutionary is that we want to convert this economy into something different at some point. But you have to create economy and what you convert it to is not necessarily what creates it. And so for instance the idea that we started out this administration on is infrastructure: We have to convert infrastructure into economic growth."Even though we’re great revolutionaries, we’re worried about the potholes in our street too."
When we talk about economic growth, we’re not talking about bringing a bunch of companies in that can make a bunch of bucks and hope they spend ’em in our city. We’re talking about creating jobs, creating new companies and then we move from there to talk about cooperatives which can become some of those jobs, some of the solidarity economy where we can begin to band together people so they’ll understand that a job is not a single individual affair but a collective affair; the creation of jobs is not an individual affair but a collective. The mission is to accomplish economic development together.
We have to convert and teach that. It is our view that you can accomplish that better by putting people in a position where there is some production coming forth in the economy rather than people [being] worried about survival every day of their lives, for whom it’s difficult to confront anything because they’re fighting just for existence. So what we’re doing is creating movement and economy by that infrastructure thing. And we’ve done things in order to raise revenue, which is going to go into our infrastructure. We’re going to use that to create jobs, and expand job creation to nontraditional companies.
Flanders: By revenues you mean the one percent sales tax the electorate passed by referendum this January?
Lumumba: The sales tax as well as, we raised water rates and sewer rates. Ours were the lowest in southeast—only half as much as next place—and that was true because [as a city] we had kicked the can down the road, promising we’d fix the water system but really not being equipped to do it. What we did is we started by trying to raise revenues, and now it’s our obligation to make sure those revenues fall into the hands of people and to keep seeking other revenues from those forces who should be paying and aren’t doing it. We’ll be making some demands of the state and federal government, but in addition, we’ll be figuring out ways to get the corporations to pay their fair share.
Flanders: Where does the solidarity economy come in?
Lumumba: As we do, in order to create a permanent atmosphere of change, that’s where the solidarity economy of change comes in. You don’t want to simply invest in what exists already hoping that the next group of entrepreneurs are not as greedy as the last one.
Flanders: A lot of people think co-ops are a hippie thing.
Lumumba: I can understand that [laughs]. There’s a little hippie in all of us. And I think the hippies probably got a lot of it from what used to happen in Africa. What are the real roots of it? We feel—Black people feel—that the roots are shared in an understanding of a common culture where economy is something to be shared by all people together.
The economic fate of everybody is in the hands of everybody. And so the movement of society depends on "Ujumahaa," meaning cooperative economics, or "Ujemma," [meaning] cooperative work and responsibility, two of the principles of Kwanzaa. Those are some of the principles we think come from our native mother/father land, which are healthy principles and which, in many instances, hippie communities and other communities tried to adopt at different points in time. We feel we have to return to those principles in a practical way and make it work in neighborhoods that we live in.
Flanders: What did you learn and who from?
Lumumba: I learned from a powerful movement, perhaps one of the most powerful movements the world has ever known and it’s still going on. It has declined, but we’re trying to make sure that we build it back up. I stepped into the picture at a time when a great civil rights movement had taken place and people who had been denied fundamental democratic rights and civil rights had stood up: Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, and had won to the degree that it was clear that our claims to fair treatment were beginning to be universally recognized and accepted as legitimate, inevitable claims.
However, at the point I stepped in, there was still a power vacuum, and so as I learned from what Fannie Lou and Medgar had done and specifically spent many hours with SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] people discussing what had gone on, I recognized that instead of gaining power we were really losing power. We weren’t gaining power from what had been going on.
Flanders: Please explain."I’ll be bringing youth into summer jobs programs, urban development programs."
Lumumba: How to say it? The oppressed have kind of a perverted power because they had segregated communities, at that time, where business was able to flourish, and those were dying. They were losing the economic trappings, if you will, of the segregationist system because the markets that blacks had controlled were beginning now to decline. And we can take you to streets here that manifest that decline. People were turning from being just poor to being destitute. Not only in cities, but in rural communities where people who had land, and could grow some food and cook you some food—you worked for SNCC and they could cook you some food. Well they couldn’t cook you no food because their land had been taken from them.
All of this was occurring and simultaneously the need to manifest the exercise of self-defense was apparent. You had a situation where Jackson State students had just been killed and that wasn’t unique. It was happening all the time. Civil Rights workers had been killed. And so many had been killed before they were killed.
I was influenced by Kwame Ture, by Malcolm X. Still am. And one of the things that’s part of that influence [was the idea that] it’s time to step away from unmitigated attacks on our people without response. We were in a period. Imari Obadele—president of the Republic of New Afrika. Muhammad Ahmad … Amiri Baraka … all of these and of course … Queen Mother Moore. These were people who equipped us to get through that period because they taught that two things were needed: [First,] self-determination. That’s why we have a power vacuum, because you don’t control your own destiny, your don’t own your own land, you don’t govern any territory.
And secondly, you’ve got to defend yourself. The whole idea of water hoses and dogs may have been great to demonstrate what kind of place this was. You never want to plan to have your own people get killed or slaughtered, but the reality is, we’ve seen that in many other places in the world. At a certain point, you have an obligation to curtail that without giving up the struggle.
Flanders: Can you tell us about the Republic of New Afrika?
Lumumba: My teachers called ourselves the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika and we believed it. We believed in everything that the RNA declaration of independence said in terms of the aims of the revolution. We were really ahead of our times for a "nationalist" organization in that we said we were for a society which promoted and demanded equal treatment regardless of gender, color, or class.
We came to the center of white supremacy. Absolutely antithetical to who we were. And we fought it in many different ways: physically, teaching, in the courts. I did a bit of all of it, but the reality is God blessed me to come out of the period—not to be killed, not to be destroyed emotionally and psychologically as so many were—blessed me to the point that when we decided to readapt some of our tactics, to not do the old Panther thing, where you barricaded yourselves in and shot back if the police came, but to have a community approach where clearly you’d defend yourself if you had to, but you recognized that your biggest defense is your community, and the work you did in that community and helping the children in that community. We began to adopt youth programs and many others.
I went to law school to defend people who had no one to defend them and causes that nobody would defend. And in that way we really integrated ourselves along with a lot of other people who’d been doing that kind of work. But we also had a political program that talked about power. Not just defending yourself today against the system, but how do you take power within the system?
Flanders: What will you actually be doing to develop economic and political democracy?
Lumumba: We have to do a lot of community development. We will be urging people to participate in our community programs, which deal with things like gardening; something that pulls the whole community together in something that shares cooperatively the produce. [We’ll be] dealing with security. Pulling people together to deal with security. We’ve started a "not on my block" project to stand against antisocial behavior. We passed an anti-racial-profiling law. We’re seeking to pass a human rights commission through the City Council, like a police review board although a human rights commission is broader.
We will be trying to organize the community in such a way as we incorporate housing programs. We have to create housing that grows the people with the economy.
At the same time, the unique position that we’re in is that I’m the mayor. [Laughs] I can talk about a lot of things and actually try to do a lot of things we couldn’t have done years ago, but at no point am I in a position where I can do all the things that the people need for liberation. The question becomes how to keep that liberation movement going? I’ll be encouraging youth to get involved in that liberation movement; bringing youth into summer jobs programs, urban development programs, and at core of curriculum is going to be an understanding of who they are and what they should be fighting to achieve. That’s the training of the future and that’s why it’s so important.
Flanders: How would you describe the pressures you’re under?
Lumumba: I think there’s pressure on every mayor who’s trying to do the right thing by their people, and that’s the pressure of a capitalist society, which does not want to give up a dime. They basically want to constrain the people in every way they can. Gentrification is a big part of that—housing declines in certain areas and grows in other. Inequality is a part of that.
What makes us a little bit different is we’re not just trying to defend ourselves against that sort of stuff, we’re trying to destroy that kind of stuff. We’re trying to defeat that. We want to create something different. We don’t just want to carve out a spot on the globe where we don’t get affected by it as much as the next guy. We’re trying to destroy it not only here but all over the world.
Flanders: What do you mean by "it"?
Lumumba: By "it" I mean capitalism, exploitation, racism. You know, Dr. King gave a speech at Riverside Church that I’d never listened to until a few years ago—I read it and it’s just as good as anything Malcolm ever said. He identified "three evils": racism, economic exploitation, militarism.
Those are the kind of things that we really want to destroy. The destruction of it is going to take many forms. The maturity of our movement is we can work with different forms and different approaches.
That makes us different and puts a different burden on us and it’s not as big as it’s going to be. Right now a lot of people are just trying to figure us out. The people have figured us out. That was an election that didn’t get won because of money. We had the support of folks who had an opportunity to see what people close to me had done for many years: working with young people, food programs, youth programs, anti-crime programs, a wealth of programs trying to help folks.
Flanders: I just came from talking with Duane O’Neill, the president of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce. Are you concerned about how he might react if I go away and say that you’re for destruction of capitalism?
Lumumba: No. I think that ultimately we define ourselves. We’ve taken a big step forward and as we take steps forward, we have to consciously put out our message and try to make it equivalent to what will continue to move the movement forward. There are things you could talk about that would probably set the movement back. But you have an obligation to teach the people because if we don’t we’ll become obsolete like anything else. I like Duane. I don’t like people I like to be mad at me, but we’re beyond that and we’re beyond worrying what somebody thinks about us personally.
We represent something that they need to do and what they’re trying to do… that’s why Duane and I have come into contact in the first place. Our economic development theme, development through infrastructure, is the only thing that’s on the table in Jackson. They don’t have a way forward for what we’re talking about. What we have to be careful of is that they don’t take our way forward and take it someplace else.
Hopefully, we can convince Duane and other people that what we’re talking about is best for everybody, not just the oppressed or black people or poor people, but best for enlightened people and we give speeches like that. We do. I don’t know what part of it they believe.
Flanders: In 1907 W.E. B. Du Bois talked about black America being at a crossroads between individualist competition and capitalist exploitation and cooperation… Doesn’t the history of the 20th century suggest that black people chose? They wanted their piece of the American Pie?
Lumumba: For the most part, most of us didn’t do very well with the choice. People have to reexamine where they are and maybe even redefine some things. We don’t go out in the community and talk about capitalism and say we have to destroy capitalism. That’s something we would have done years ago. We were ideologues.
We’re still carriers of the message, but at the same time we have to be movers of the people. We’re still saying the same things when we go out there and say gentrification is not going to be accepted, that businesses can’t come in and refuse to hire who we say they should hire, and we start beating on the door of the chamber and talk about cooperatives and businesses that serve the people. We’re saying where we’re going but we’re not using trigger words that trigger a resistance to what we’re trying to do at this particular point of time. Come to a class at the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, perhaps, and that’s a different thing. We want everyone to be enlightened to the language that describes political events, but we also want to use language that communicates…
I tell a story, perhaps I tell it too much, of campaigning for city council in a black neighborhood called Presidential Hills. I’d lay out all the things I wanted to do and after everything I said, a lady there would say: "We need love." I’d lay out some more things and she’d say again, "We need love."
I came back and laid out my principles leadership, organization, values, education on a flyer [so as to spell out] LOVE and started talking about love. But then there was a lady heard me talking and came up to me; "You’re saying all that about love and doing all these great things but how are you going fix that pothole?"
First of all, even though we’re great revolutionaries, we’re worried about the potholes in our street too. How we create the recognition that the potholes are part of the repression—where they’re repaired and where they don’t get repaired… All of those things you can give more attention to in the position we’re in now. Now we have to be very specific.
Flanders: Thank you. Last question. The City of Jackson sits in a particular place, atop two tropes of American capitalism: that you get ahead by work and you can find land to call your own. Jackson sits in the middle of the old Confederacy, on land seized by the Andrew Jackson from the native Americans. I couldn’t help thinking, passing that sign on the city hall that reads "built by slave labor" that that makes this place a particularly significant place for what you’re trying to do. Do you think about that as you walk through the door?
Lumumba: This is the place and this is a special place. I think some of the most significant things happen in history when you get the right people in the right place at the right time and I think that’s what we are.
When you talk about a building, which is designated as being built by slaves; that’s the right place. When you talk about people who’ve been under this oppression all of their ancestors’ lives and their lives, those are the right people. And this is the right time; the people make that true. The people make the time, because the election of the leadership is a reflection of the readiness of the people. And the fact that they have decided to put into leadership a group of people who have dedicated their lives to revolutionary change and had an opportunity to chose otherwise, says a lot for why we are about to transform this situation in Jackson … to a vital situation to change the world.
Flanders: And what role does solidarity play?
Lumumba: The role of solidarity economics is central because it is the economic transition from what is to what must be.
Flanders: Is Jackson rising?
Lumumba: We’re open for business, for people to come down and live. If you have a cooperative you want to put together or to work with, come on down. Finally, we’re going to be asking for resources, so if you want to do that you can call (601) 960-1084 and ask for Brother Kali. He’ll set you up.
Jackson is rising off the charts and we’re going to have a conference of that name too. That’d be a good time for people to come down and see what we’re doing, in May 2014. Come on down and participate.
The most phenomenal migration in our time is probably to Atlanta where 500,000 black people moved in a 10-year period from 1985 to ’95. Once we get that many moving here to Mississippi, then you will be dealing with the next formation, you can put it that way, one which will be solidly behind revolutionary change and development.
Read more about the late Mayor Lumumba’s economic plans and the Jackson Rising: New Economies conference, upcoming from Commonomics, in YES! Magazine.
Conference organizers say their plans are going ahead. Jackson Rising will take place May 2-4 at Jackson State University.
Laura Flanders wrote this article for YES! Magazine's Commonomics project. Laura is YES! Magazine's 2013 Local Economies Reporting Fellow and is executive producer and founder and host of "GRITtv with Laura Flanders." Follow her on Twitter @GRITlaura.
On a Saturday in September, more than 125 volunteers showed up with tools in hand and built six new 16-by-20-foot houses for a group of formerly homeless men. It was the beginning of Second Wind Cottages, a tiny-house village for the chronically homeless in the town of Newfield, N.Y., outside of Ithaca.
On January 29, the village officially opened, and its first residents settled in. Each house had cost about $10,000 to build, a fraction of what it would have cost to house the men in a new apartment building.
The project is part of a national movement of tiny-house villages, an alternative approach to housing the homeless that's beginning to catch the interest of national advocates and government housing officials alike."It's certainly something that we would encourage other communities to take a look at," says Lee Jones at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
For many years, it has been tough to find a way to house the homeless. More than 3.5 million people experience homelessness in the United States each year, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Shortages of low-income housing continue to be a major challenge. For every 100 households of renters in the United States that earn "extremely low income" (30 percent of the median or less), there are only 30 affordable apartments available, according to a 2013 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
But Second Wind is truly affordable, built by volunteers on seven acres of land donated by Carmen Guidi, the main coordinator of the project and a longtime friend of several of the men who now live there. The retail cost of the materials to build the first six houses was somewhere between $10,000 and $12,000 per house, says Guidi. But many of the building materials were donated, and all of the labor was done in a massive volunteer effort.
"We've raised nearly $100,000 in 100 days," he says, and the number of volunteers has been "in the hundreds, maybe even thousands now."
The village will ultimately include a common house, garden beds, a chicken coop, and 18 single-unit cottages.
"Camp Quixote" becomes a village
"The typical development for extremely low-income housing is trending up toward $200,000 per unit. That's a lot of bills," says Jill Severn, a board member at Panza, a nonprofit organization that sponsors another tiny-house project called Quixote Village. (The organization's name is a play on Sancho Panza, Don Quixote's sidekick in Miguel de Cervantes' classic novel.)
Quixote Village opened in Olympia, Wash., right before Christmas. But it began in February 2007 as "Camp Quixote," a protest held in a city-owned parking lot. A group of homeless people assembled there to oppose an Olympia ordinance that made it illegal to sit, lie down, or sell things within six feet of downtown buildings. When police evicted the campers eight days after the protest began, the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation stepped in to help, offering temporary refuge on their land.For five years, the camp's location rotated, moving and reassembling every 90 days at one of several different local churches. Panza was formed by a corps of volunteers from the faith communities assisting the camp, and the organization worked with the city council to secure and rezone a parcel of county-owned industrial land near a community college and create a permanent site for the village. In December of 2013, the residents of Quixote Village settled into their new homes there.
Quixote Village has fostered a positive relationship between its residents and local government and police, says Severn. Despite this, the project was held up in court for a year by a local organization of businesses and landowners called the Industrial Zoning Preservation Association, which cited concerns over the potential impact on local businesses in a nearby industrial park.
Panza used the time to fundraise and build an outreach campaign to win over the public. They had the support of legions of volunteers, mostly from local churches, who had staffed the camp.
"Having hundreds of [residents] get to know people that were homeless made a huge difference in the success of getting this off the ground," says Severn.
Today, the 30 structures that make up Quixote Village are home to 29 disabled adults, almost all of whom qualify as "chronically homeless," by the standards of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.Homelessness in Austin, Texas, costs taxpayers more than $10 million per year.
The residents also have a common space with shared showers, a laundry, garden space, and a kitchen. By sharing these amenities, the community was able to increase the affordability of the project and design a neighborhood they believed would fit their needs and make them more self-sufficient.
The shared space has also helped them create a supportive community. The residents, who are self-governed, have developed a rulebook that prohibits illegal drugs and alcohol on the grounds and requires that each member put in a certain number of service hours per week. They meet twice a week in the evenings to discuss problems or concerns and to share a common meal that they take turns cooking.
The main complaint right now, says Raul Salazar, the village's program manager and only full-time staff member, is that the postal service still hasn't started delivering mail.
The cost of units at Quixote Village is significantly higher than at Second Wind—about $88,000 per unit—but that's still less than half the cost of the average public housing project, according to Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Quixote has had access to state funding and local community grants, as well as private funding from individuals, businesses, and two Native American tribes. The project also received a Community Development Block Grant for $604,000 from the State of Washington Department of Commerce and a $1.5-million grant from the Washington State Legislature.
Two architecture and design firms, MSGS Architects and KMB Design Groups, also contributed design services pro bono, and the Thurston County Commission is leasing the land to Quixote for $1 per year.Gaining acceptance
Many other tiny-house projects are just beginning to get of the ground, raise money, find land, and gain approval from local officials and members of the public. But the unorthodox nature of the small houses presents unique legal zoning limitations and barriers that limit where tiny houses can be stationed.
In Madison, Wisc., Occupy Madison has been facing this very challenge, as the group forged ahead with plans for a tiny house village.Each home will be about 99 square feet if you include the porch, and volunteers enjoy the joke: "We are the 99 square feet!"
In the spring of 2011, prior to the launch of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a series of protests at the Wisconsin State Capitol—focused on the state's controversial anti-collective-bargaining bill—prompted additional legislation that prohibited groups from gathering without a permit. When the protests joined forces with Occupy in the fall of 2011, this created a unique opportunity for the voices of the many homeless people in Madison to be heard.
"There were some great moments throughout the Occupy movement where a lot of dialogue was going on between the people without homes and the people with homes," says Allen Barkoff, one of the board members of Occupy Madison, Inc., a nonprofit formed in December 2012 to address the need for legal places where homeless people in Madison could congregate and stay safe. The organization first looked into buying an apartment building or a shared house for the homeless but ultimately settled on tiny houses as the most flexible and economical way to create homes for people.
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In this case, the cost of building the tiny homes comes to around $5,000 each, funded by private donations and an online crowd-funding campaign. The nonprofit also plans to apply for some city grants. Each home will come with a propane heater, a composting toilet, and an 80-watt solar panel array—and will be about 98 square feet in size, 99 if you include the porch. (The volunteers enjoy the joke: "We are the 99 square feet!")
But the question of where the houses can legally be located is still up in the air. Volunteers are now building houses for six people. Because of a recent ordinance change, the houses are allowed to sit on church property in groups of three. City regulations also permit them to be placed on the side of the road, as long as they are relocated every 48 hours. But Madison's snowy winter makes the houses hard to move, explains Barkoff.
Now Occupy Madison, Inc., is in the middle of a lengthy process to purchase a parcel of land on the east side of the city to accommodate 11 houses, along with a central building (a converted gas station) that can serve as a workshop for making more homes. This spring, they will continue to hold neighborhood meetings about the project, talk with police, and work with the Madison Planning and Development Department—and, eventually, the city council—to negotiate zoning issues for the village.The real cost of homelessness
Efforts to break through the red tape and raise money to house the homeless almost always pay off for a community. Even the most expensive tiny-house projects—such as a new, ambitious $6-million campaign to build a 200-person tiny-house park this year in Austin, Texas—can't rival the cost of homelessness to taxpayers, which was more than $10 million per year in Austin, for example, as YES! reported in December 2013."It's a very important step in terms of the kinds of services we should be providing to people that need assistance."
"Chronically homeless people—people who have disabilities and are homeless for long periods of time—can be very expensive to systems of public care," explains Roman. In 2007, the National Alliance to End Homelessness compiled three studies showing that it costs the same or less money to provide permanent housing as it does to allow people to remain homeless. In Denver, Colo., a housing program for the homeless reduced the costs of public services (including medical services, temporary shelter, and costs associated with arrests and incarceration) by an estimated $15,773 per person per year, saving taxpayers thousands of dollars.
Government officials and city planners are beginning to see the tiny-house village as one viable solution for addressing homelessness.
"It's certainly something that we would encourage other communities to take a look at when it comes to creating solutions for housing the chronically homeless," says Lee Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "It's a very important step in terms of the kinds of services we should be providing to people that need assistance."
Currently, the various efforts to house the homeless in tiny-house villages comprise a small and pioneering movement: But each new project helps create lessons and a model for other communities.
For example, Quixote Village, as a recipient of state funding, is considered a "pilot" project: It is required to report its progress to the state legislature in five years. In the meantime, says Severn, the residents will be settling in, putting in garden beds, building a carpentry workshop, searching for jobs, and simply living their lives.
"One of our residents has been homeless for about 25 years," Severn says. "He told me he's excited to start a little rose garden. It really touched me to hear that."
Erika Lundahl wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Erika is a freelance writer living in Seattle.
Some of Europe's biggest film stars are promoting a tax on Wall Street speculation through a new short film. David Yates, who made the last four Harry Potter movies, is the director, and one of the actors is Andrew Lincoln, the star zombie-fighter from the hit TV show "The Walking Dead."
The video is set 10 years in the future, with Lincoln anchoring a newscast looking back at the impact of the tax. Bankers from Spain, Germany, and France boast about how the tax has generated revenues to help fund public services and combat poverty and climate change.The video is timed to influence the final phase of negotiations over a tax of less than one percent on each trade of stocks, bonds, and derivatives.
Meanwhile, a British banker (played by Bill Nighy from the comedies The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Love, Actually) becomes increasingly embarrassed over his country's failure to implement the tax and eventually throws a complete hissy fit.
The video is timed to influence the final phase of European negotiations over a tax of just a fraction of one percent on each trade of stocks, bonds, and derivatives. Eleven governments from the European Union have formed a "coalition of the willing" to coordinate such a tax. They include Belgium, Germany, Estonia, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Portugal, Slovenia, and Slovakia.
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The international aid agency Oxfam helped produce the film and is hosting a "million strong" petition that could make the tax the most popular in history. For four years, John Cavanagh's organization, the Institute for Policy Studies, has worked with Oxfam and numerous labor, environmental, public health, and other civil society groups around the world as part of this campaign.
It's been thrilling to watch the progress in Europe, and once people there start raising massive revenue from the tax, it will boost momentum in the United States. While the Obama administration is not yet supportive, there are several congressional proposals that include some form of financial transaction tax.Many financial experts say the tax would help curb dangerous speculation that has no value for the real economy.
Rep. Keith Ellison has introduced the Inclusive Prosperity Act , which proposes tax rates of 0.5 percent on stock, 0.1 percent on bond, and 0.005 percent on derivative trades, with exemptions for lower-income investors. Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. Peter DeFazio have proposed a slightly more modest version, which could be expected to raise $350 billion over 10 years.
Beyond the revenue benefits, many financial experts argue that the tax would help curb dangerous short-term speculation that has no value for the real economy. IPS has helped organize a letter signed by more than 50 financial professionals who believe "These taxes will rebalance financial markets away from a short-term trading mentality that has contributed to instability in our financial markets."
We've had the people on our side for some time now. In a January 2013 poll conducted by Hart Research, 62 percent of Americans approved of a "small tax on all stock/bond/market trades." Having major cultural figures join the fight will greatly increase our chances of overcoming opposition from Wall Street.
John Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.
Robin is a Professor of International Development at American University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is director of theInstitute for Policy Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy Working Group. They are co-authors of three books and numerous articles on the global economy, and have been traveling the country and the world for their project Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability.
But New Mexico is losing its traditional landrace varieties of chile, due largely to modern agribusiness and the societal shift away from small farms. "Landrace" is a term for domesticated plants and animals that have been raised in a specific area for long periods of time and have adapted to a particular region. They have a much broader genetic spectrum than modern hybrids, which are bred for a narrow range of specific traits. These older landrace varieties are remarkably resilient and their DNA is a valuable genetic resource, especially as we face climate change and increasingly unpredictable weather.Worldwide, we are losing traditional, local varieties of domesticated plants at an alarming rate. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that "Since the 1900s, some 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers worldwide have left their multiple local varieties and landraces for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties."
Chile was first cultivated in Central and South America—the word chilli is from the Aztec language, Nahuatl. Spanish Captain General Don Juan de Oñate, who colonized the Rio Grande, is generally credited for bringing chile seed from Mexico in 1597. Since Oñate's arrival, successive generations of Native and Hispanic farmers in New Mexico have been selecting and planting chile that exhibit characteristics favorable to their particular locale. Dozens of distinct chile landraces have developed along the Rio Grande Valley, each named for the place it has been cultivated: Cochiti, Escondida, Jemez, Puerto de Luna, and so on. And in the higher altitudes of northern New Mexico—where summer afternoons that soar to the 90s are often followed by nights that cool to the 50s—local varieties cope much better with the temperature range than lowland varieties.
It's not just about survival. "The cool nights and hot days are what give our chile its incredible flavor," claims farmer Matt Romero, dangling a specimen of his family's Alcalde chile variety between his thumb and forefinger. He adds, "This chile is ready to harvest in 70 days." I met with Romero at his farm in the village of Alcalde on a hot late-August morning. The Rio Grande rumbled just a couple hundred yards away, beyond an impressive stand of cottonwood and locust trees. Romero's lush fields of cauliflower, eggplant, squash, and chile contrasted with the dry, naked bluffs rising across the river.
High-desert mountains, like the Sangre de Cristos that surround my hometown of Santa Fe and the Romero family farm in Alcalde, offer conditions that can augment greater levels of genetic diversity. I learned this one fall afternoon while I sat underneath a narrow-leafed cottonwood tree. I had taken my two daughters to Little Tesuque Creek so they could play on their favorite swing, a tire suspended by a thick rope from a large limb of the cottonwood. The creek is dry in early October, and autumn leaves filled the narrow creek bed. The girls shrieked in delight as they swung over the silent stream of leaves, golden in the glow of late afternoon, while I sat nearby in the sun and read.
I had taken along Gary Paul Nabhan's book, Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine. Nabhan, a farmer, seed conservationist, and ethnobiologist, expands on the pioneering studies of Nikolay Vavilov, a Russian botanist and geneticist renowned for identifying the centers of origin of domesticated plants. In his global travels from 1917 to 1933, Vavilov discovered that semiarid, mountainous regions were ideal for fostering reticulate evolution, a process that requires a delicate balance between isolation and hybridization.
Nabhan explains that when seeds are dispersed into distinct watersheds, they become isolated from others of their own species by the harsher, non-arable terrain surrounding the watershed. This microclimate, with its various "bugs, birds, and microbes, places new selection pressures on the plant population, and it sooner or later diverges from its source population." Seeds and pollen from other locations make their way into each isolated valley either by human hands or carried by animals, floods, fires, and high winds, providing a limited, but crucial, source of novel genes.
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That golden afternoon, I put my book down and looked across the dry creek. I realized my girls and I were playing and reading in the very kind of watershed Nabhan describes. His description of reticulate evolution gave me a new understanding of the relationship between food and place. When Hispanic and Native farmers began planting the Aztecs' chile seed, each watershed and valley was isolated enough that in the ensuing four hundred years, under the influences of both natural selection pressures and human cultivation, each landrace diverged from the original seed stock and each valley developed a slightly different landrace from the next.
Chimayó chile has adapted to cope with the diseases, pests, and drought patterns specific to the Chimayó valley; Jemez chile has the genetic information to survive conditions in Jemez, and so on. This diversity is valuable for sustaining our future food supply. Paul Bosland, Regents Professor of Horticulture at New Mexico State University (NMSU) and director of the Chile Pepper Institute, emphasizes that "the genetic diversity found in these [landrace] varieties will be very useful as the climate changes," especially as we experience drier, more volatile weather.
Traditional New Mexican farmers are aging, and younger generations are abandoning farming. Those who do still farm find it hard to resist the higher-yield crop varieties that can bring in more revenue. But because modern hybrids like Big Jim or New Mexico No. 9 are selected for specific traits like thicker, straighter fruit or higher yield, they lose the complex genetic makeup of their progenitors. Homogeneity provides a more consistent crop, but increases a crop's vulnerability to disease and difficult growing conditions.But landrace crop varieties are going extinct, too, and just like the Dodo, once lost they’re gone forever.
Landraces are "fading fast," explains Kraig Kraft, co-author (with Nabhan and Kurt Michael Friese) of Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail. "The problem is that, with the declining number of growers for each of these types, each population or variety of chile has fewer and fewer plants out in the field, reducing the genetic diversity in each."
When modern hybrids cross-pollinate with landraces, the resulting seed is contaminated with some of the genes of the hybrid. A study by Bosland and his colleagues at NMSU explains that the landraces that made the newer New Mexico chile cultivars a commercial success have already been lost. Farmers either stopped growing them in favor of the new varieties or crops were "genetically 'swamped' through uncontrolled outcrossing" with hybrids in neighboring fields.
Extinction is often associated with undomesticated species—frogs from the Andes, birds from the Solomon Islands, medicinal plants from the Amazon. But landrace crop varieties are going extinct, too, and just like the Dodo, once lost they're gone forever.New demand for heirloom chiles
There are probably more landrace chiles growing in Chuck Havlick's little experimental plot than in any other single location in New Mexico. As we walked along ridges and furrows, Havlik, an NMSU graduate student, pointed out the subtle differences between varieties with the tenderness of a loving parent. He hopes his studies will eventually help chile farmers "find more economic value" in their local varieties and that awareness of the landraces will help communities protect them for future generations. Havlik is hopeful; he believes there is a burgeoning market for place-specific food.
"These varieties have become cultural markers for small communities within the state," he says. "There is passion in these communities for the chile they grow. There is pride."
Even conventional farmers are slowly beginning to respond to the consumer trend toward local varieties. John Bunker, owner of Fedco Seeds in Maine, has made a name for himself in the last forty years saving old apple varieties and has developed a large and diverse following. He has even, as he puts it, "wormed his way into the hearts" of nearby conventional orchardists, even though they initially thought his obsession with old local varieties was crazy: "I got to know a few commercial apple growers over the years. They would frequently say that the old varieties were just yuck and that we should just get rid of them. Now my commercial orchardist friends say, 'Hey, I sold all the heirloom varieties I had today. I could have sold twice as many!'"When we support farmers by buying their local varieties, they have more economic leverage to continue their work.
This is the good news about preserving heirloom and landrace varieties—we have power as consumers and eaters. Whether we're chile-eaters, apple-eaters, endive-eaters, or all of the above, we can seek out varieties specific to our region. Farmers markets and CSAs are gaining ground, and any eater should be able to be part of the Slow Food movement.
Matt Romero is proud of the Santa Fe Farmers Market's robust food stamp program. He feels that many of the folks shopping at his stand know they could make their penny or food stamp go farther in a big box grocery store, but they choose his food because it’s local, fresh, tastier, and more nutritious. When we support farmers by buying their local varieties, they have more economic leverage to continue their work and plant the crops that can help carry us to a safer, more sustainable, more stable, more satiating food future.An uncertain future
It's an especially cold, wet December. I trudge through ten inches of snow to the extra freezer we keep out in our shed for a bag of Romero's Alcalde chile. The smell of it defrosting in the sink brings warm October afternoons into my kitchen.
As I watch my husband chop green chile with garlic and then add salt, much the way his mother did and his grandmother before her, I think of the stories behind this ancient food: how it was first cultivated alongside avocado and beans, how the Aztecs perfected the art of chile domestication and had markets filled with dizzying arrays of different varieties, how the Spaniards, not wanting to live without this new, adored food source, brought seed north with them to New Mexico, and how it has been shaped both by the people who have grown it and by the high-desert-mountain valleys that have sheltered it for the last 400 years.
This food has traveled thousands of miles, endured tens of thousands of fall harvests, and fed generations. This is one of the many ancient stories that accompany the food on our table. As my daughters, my husband, and I sit down to eat, I wonder: Will we continue to plant, eat, and save these old varieties? Will we honor their stories?
Nina Bunker Ruiz wrote this article for Education Uprising: The New Rebels Taking Back Our Public Schools, the Spring 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Nina is a freelance writer native to New Mexico. She currently lives in Santa Fe with her husband and two daughters.