Economy Plan B: Building an Efficient, Resilient, Solidarity Economy

By Theo Kitchener 

So we need to build a new economy, right? And we’re trying, but it’s not happening fast enough, or going deep enough. So here’s a bit of a provocation, a suggested blueprint for one way of doing it.  It’s all fairly simple, won’t take much money, and could be transformative if we put all the pieces together.

Efficiency

People often frame efficiency as the opposite to resilience. As an end in itself, it can lead to brittle systems like the just-in-time ordering practices that characterise our insane economy. We absolutely need resilience, but in a world of scarce and ever scarcer resources, we absolutely also need efficiency.

Which has been leading me to think, I’m not sure anymore that we should be promoting the idea that everyone should grow their own food (and everything that can go into that – composting, raising seedlings, veggie gardening, caring for trees, bees, animals, aquaponics, etc.) as well as fixing their own bikes, making their own cheese, environmentally friendly cleaning products and various appropriate technologies, and so on. This is an old and important argument, we shouldn’t be trying to be self-sufficient, we should be trying to build community sufficiency. But somehow we all still end up trying to do it through self-sufficiency; we focus on getting our own place really well set up and learning a big swag of different skills, so we can teach others how to do it too. We think sure, I won’t do everything, I’ll just learn and do as many things as I can, and leave the rest to others. But we get really good at things by focusing really intensively on them. Someone spending say three days a week growing veggies will quickly become a much much better gardener than someone trying to learn veggie gardening plus composting, raising seedlings, managing fruit and nut trees, woodworking, making a composting toilet, rainwater system and so on like I have been. It’s also a lot less stressful to not have so many different things you’re trying to be on top of all at once. I know personally I’d much prefer to get really good at woodworking than trying to juggle all of it.

So I think we need to start co-operatives and work together to meet each others needs, specialising in different things. People could work in two or three different co-operatives if they want to for the sake of resilience and stimulation, but I wouldn’t go any further than that. That might not sound very resilient, but I think we just have to accept that we depend on other people, as scary as that might be. We’ll need specialisation to make this transition; no matter how well things go, people are going to suffer, and the more efficient we can be with the scarce resources we have, the less that will have to happen, and therefore the less likely it is that we will end up with some kind of localised fascism/warlordism as well.

Now, why have I been talking about co-operatives? Groups making decisions tend to make much better decisions than any one person can – you get a diversity of opinions, and talk it over logically. Of course you don’t need the whole group making every decision, co-operatives can include people with different roles and smaller working groups, so only decisions that are necessary for the whole group to make get made at that level (and most of these get made at the beginning while the group is still small).

Plus we all hate being told what to do. Especially when we know better than the boss – which we often do, because they’re not actually doing our job. Workers in hierarchical businesses tend to lack the incentive to really put all their energy into their work. Co-operateurs don’t have this issue because they can design their work the way they feel makes sense and are essentially working for themselves. I’d argue that with the crises we’re facing, we don’t have the spare capacity available to allow for bad decisions or people not giving their best.

Also in terms of efficiency:

  • these co-operatives should be constantly monitoring their performance and constantly learning so that they can get better and better at what they do.
  • they should open-source everything they learn so that other co-operatives don’t need to make the same mistakes and we create a community of practice that learns really fast.
  • at least two or three people in each co-operative should prioritise learning to be a good meeting facilitator so that we can minimise wasted time in meetings and make sure we hear from all voices (so we get better decisions and everyone is meaningfully involved).

Resilience

Our economy is heading for a financial crash of much greater proportions than we’ve seen so far. Resources and energy are already scarce and will become ever scarcer into the future, meanwhile we’ve damaged our environment so seriously that we can’t count on it to continue to provide for us into the future, so it makes sense to design our new systems to be able to withstand shocks of all kinds, and to minimise our destructive environmental impacts. In a nutshell, that means elegant simplicity. The kind of economy we should be aiming for needs to be a lot more basic and grounded than what most of the environmental and transition movement are currently going for.

For instance, I think we need to forget about large scale renewable energy and look at replacing our energy needs with appropriate technologies instead. We can use evaporative coolers (instead of fridges), solar ovens and biochar stoves, solar hot water, bicycle powered washing machines and so on. There are a myriad of these kinds of technologies that can be made with locally available materials, often out of waste materials. Where electricity would still be really useful, for example for internet connectivity and machine tools, we can make do with appropriate technology versions of renewable energy.

Tied in with thinking appropriately, I think we should focus on only producing things that people really need, and selling them at affordable prices. With the worst of the economic crisis still ahead of us, and a long energy decline following that, it doesn’t make any sense to start a cafe for example, even if it is selling all local food. People probably won’t be able to afford to go there in the future and it will likely go out of business. We need to focus on food production and appropriate technology and other necessities like medical care.

One of the main reasons a cafe won’t work is rent and start-up costs. I also think we need to forget about starting businesses with shopfronts or start-up loans. That may be the way a traditional business works, but that’s the past, and traditional businesses just aren’t resilient enough. We need businesses that don’t require too much money or planning to get started, and that won’t fall over when the economy goes downhill. Starting in a backyard, garage, home kitchen or spare room with a small number of people who don’t expect to get paid straight away, not paying for advertising and not taking on any loans is the least risky (and therefore also the least stressful) way of starting a business. Most people don’t generally believe they’ve got what it takes to start their own business, but I think if we redefined starting a business to mean providing something simple from home and selling it regularly to people you know, that would change, which would mean we’d get a lot more of the new economy built quicker.

Most of the risk in these kinds of co-operatives, would be of a personal or interpersonal kind – mainly burnout and conflicts, so I think it would be pretty important to put a lot of energy into managing those risks. I’m imagining there being a co-operative support co-operative (that’s a pretty boring name, but let’s call it CSC for now), which would organise a course for new co-operateurs.

Holistic Management, a very exciting planning and decision-making tool, which came out of Allan Savory’s land management work, could be a key way to prevent burnout and conflict. It involves planning what the group aims to achieve, as well as what they want to be like while they’re getting there, which enables groups to stop workaholic tendencies and other negative dynamics from getting in the way.

The CSC would also help to develop a culture for dealing with interpersonal conflicts. It would be naive to expect for everything to be rosy straight away, that sort of thing will take several generations if it’s even possible, so it’s best to be prepared. There would be training in good communication, assertiveness and particularly in responding to manipulative tactics. Mediation would be available wherever necessary and each co-operative would have a conflict resolution policy which would allow for the possibility of removing individuals from the group by a decision of the other members if they don’t have the interests of the group at heart.

The CSC could provide action-learning based training in managing money, business planning, privilege and oppression awareness, facilitation skills and so on. They could also offer organisational template resources such as a meeting structure, an online communication system, a conflict resolution policy, a decision-making policy, a partnership agreement and more. They would also connect co-operateurs with contacts or mentors who could help with skill development, legal advice and whatever else the co-operatives needed.

Additionally they could provide one-on-one coaching and/or action learning sets to help people workshop any issues they’re having in getting started. So often the things people struggle with in getting businesses started are actually personal issues, ie. ‘I need to get other people involved, but I don’t know how’, tends to actually be ‘I don’t think my idea is good enough’, or ‘I’m scared of working with other people’, both of which can be reframed.

Solidarity

In my opinion, profit is basically overcharging customers, or underpaying workers or suppliers in order to siphon off money into private hands, contributing to the issues created by inequality. So just on an ethical/solidarity basis, I only feel comfortable starting not-for-profit enterprises. We can still pay ourselves fair wages and operate in every other way like businesses, we just don’t need to set aside profits for anyone. I’d calculate prices by making sure we can pay ourselves a fair wage, cover all other costs and include a 10% or so error margin. Any money left over at the end of the year is either put into expanding the co-operative or donated elsewhere.

Now if we have a network of efficient, resilient, sustainable, solidarity co-operatives, how should they trade? I’ve always been keen on local currencies, but I’ve also always seen them as a stepping stone, to a time in the distant future where we could hopefully do without money at all and just live in a gift economy like Charles Eisenstein advocates. I felt like there wasn’t enough trust in our communities for us to get there straight away, so there was no point trying too soon.

However an exciting conversation with a friend recently got me thinking that if we build it in as expectations within a bounded system, then maybe we could just jump straight to an economy where people work a given amount (unless they have a good reason not to at the time) and are freely given whatever they need that’s available. Then in my research for this article, I read about the self-help co-operative networks that were around in the US during the Great Depression. Just one of them, the Unemployed Co-operative Relief Organisation in Los Angeles served 150,000 people and operated on the basis that each member would put in two days a week of work, and in exchange could have what they needed from the network – which provided food, medical care, shoes, household repairs, and a whole lot more.

So history shows that it is possible that a large number of people could get involved in a co-operative network or a solidarity economy which didn’t use any kind of money, particularly if they could see that it would be a way to actually get their needs met, which they’re unable to do in the faltering mainstream economy. Basically I think that if there’s a chance of it working out without the need for a stepping stone, then why try the stepping stone option?

As to why I think it would be better to have a solidarity economy than a local currency, I suppose it basically comes down to the question of whether we want to put a number value on everything we contribute and on everything we need, and what happens when these don’t match up. When we happen to earn more than we need, we might donate some of it to good causes, but we tend to spend most of it on things we don’t actually need and create concentrations of wealth that feed inequality. And then of course there are the people who don’t have enough – this is hardly ever a result of choice. It’s medical or mental health issues, or straight out lack of opportunities and economic disadvantages due to being part of a marginalised group. Nowadays it’s also happening to a lot of people who’ve just gotten themselves into way too much debt (that was socially acceptable at the time – it kind of made sense if the economy was always going to keep on growing).

The main benefit a local currency would have as opposed to a co-operative solidarity network is that it could cut out a whole lot of talking that we might need to do about who’s not contributing enough or taking too much. That one nearly had me back at wanting to create a local currency, but the thing is that all that talking is what we really need to do to get each other to understand that some people actually do have different abilities and some people have different needs. Plus it would mean we would get really good at actually doing that kind of talking, which would be unbelievably beneficial for our ability to work together and make good decisions as large groups, which would allow us to also build genuine participatory democracies.

Of course where someone was perceived to be ‘slacking off’ or taking more than they needed, perhaps they’d have a good reason when talked to about it that no one had thought of, or perhaps the talking the group would do, would create enough peer pressure for the individual to change their behaviour, perhaps some sort of compromise would be agreed to, or if necessary the person could be removed from the group.

Why go that far?

I believe that, if ever, now is the time to try our hardest to transform society into one that makes sense for both people and the planet. We have to build a system that makes sense for people if we expect to be able to work together well enough to fix this ecological and humanitarian shit-storm we’ve created. I know that sounds idealistic, even the idea that we might actually fix things. Of course it is, but there’s no point in not aiming for the sky. If we don’t, we end up with half-baked strategies like trying to convince governments to create large scale renewable energy systems, simply because we think it’s the most politically viable option, even though it’s actually highly unrealistic and wouldn’t really solve the ecological crisis at all.

I don’t think we’ve ever had the kind of chance we’ve got now to transform the way we do things. Everything is up for grabs, we need a new system, and if we’re the ones who are going to build it, why not design our new economy to be something really worth living for and living in? What I’m proposing has, I think, more of a chance of working than the slightly more conventional local currencies and not quite resilient enough local enterprises. Largely because it’s more likely to quickly become something that people can see being able to meet their needs.

Making it happen

So how would we actually make it work? Obviously you’d start with people who really believe in this vision (which would give you time to get the CSC set up and offering all it’s different trainings and resources concurrently to the first few co-ops getting set up). More mainstream unemployed people would probably only come on board later once the system is shown to be working for people. Almost every conversation I’ve had about this so far has found people who would love to get involved, so I don’t think finding the right people would be a problem.

None of this would take much money to get started. We’d just need tools (many of which we already have) and some supplies to start out with (and many of these could be found for free or cheap). There is actually quite a lot of money spread amongst a small percentage of the people who understand collapse and who generally want to do something both ethical and secure with their money. If even 5% of local funds of this kind were donated towards starting something like this, we’d have tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars, which would be more than enough to get started. There’s always crowdfunding as well. The incentive for people to donate money to something like this is that for many of us we can’t afford to buy land outright, and while renting, most people don’t want to invest in water tanks, fruit trees or other infrastructure; so there’s not much they can do with their money that will actually bring them a sense of security. While it’s a risk of course, I think it’s a worthwhile one considering the existence of a solidarity economy like this could offer a real sense of security, especially as it grows.

Each co-operative that could sell goods or services would still have to sell (in the national currency) some of what they were offering for two reasons:

  • At least at first, we would need to be able to buy supplies like bike parts that we weren’t yet able to produce in the system.
  • We would need to pay co-operateurs with some money so that they could cover their rent and other expenses that couldn’t be covered by our network.

Some percentage of money coming in, maybe 20% (which would be factored into the prices goods and services are sold for), could go towards:

  • the CSC helping people start new co-operatives (both covering CSC costs and also providing start-up cash and costs for new co-operatives (and similar networks) in their initial stages),
  • contributing to resilient solidarity economies in the majority world

The actual percentages of all of these things would need to be decided by the actual group starting the network. Likewise that group would decide how many days or hours they wanted to set as the standard working hours. I imagine though that it would be two or three days a week, along voluntary simplicity lines. If we’re living a simple life, we don’t actually need to work anywhere near as much as we do now.

We’re in the very beginning stages of getting something like this going here in Melbourne. This week we’ve got a first meeting with a few interested people to turn a small backyard farming enterprise into a co-operative. Meanwhile my partner is planning a first meeting to start a soil building co-operative, focusing on composting, biochar and humanure, as well as wanting to work on a co-operative a bit later to build tiny houses (to reduce rent, live more sustainably and obtain housing security).

Another co-operative I’d love to get going early on would be an appropriate technology co-op. It could make biochar stoves, evaporative coolers, and so on for everyone in all of the co-operatives. This would reduce everyone’s utility bills, reduce our ecological footprints and make us more resilient all at the same time. Beyond that, perhaps co-operatives specialising in water systems, seedling raising, orchards/food forests, aquaponics, chickens and other animals, baking bread, other  food processing, medical care, bike repair, sewing, carpentry, emotional wellbeing, child, elder and disability care, home-cooked social meals, micro-manufacturing, appropriate renewable energy, repairing appliances, making soap and other cleaning products, salvaging the waste of this crazy world we live in, weatherproofing houses, making panniers and bike trailers, and whatever else we think up.

We’ll be documenting what we’re up to and what we learn at http://www.doingitourselves.org/co-operatives. Feel free to get in touch through there if you’d like to get involved, either in Melbourne, or by working along similar lines and contributing to our collective learning from wherever you are.

Here’s hoping we can build an efficient, resilient, solidarity economy that can meet our needs, help solve the ecological crisis and transform society!

 

 

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