Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Life was without money

The disintegrating affects of money as we know it under capitalism have been the source of many historical, sociological, political and economic analyses, especially during the 21st century. There are many fewer examples today where we can observe the eroding impacts of contemporary concepts of money and the institutions ruling global trade. However, one example is Vanuatu.

Here is a quote from a short SBS dateline documentary, Vanuatu's Piggy Bank, screened 3 April 2012 and that you can watch — or read the transcript from — online:
Vanuatu is very fortunate because we can still imagine a different sort of society, a different economy, a different way of living that is not what most of the rest of the world has gone into — the local economy idea, the green economy idea, we already have it.
This item makes a good discussion piece and stimulates many questions around what money is and why we have it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Underdevelopment the monetary way

I’ve just returned from the weeklong international Degrowth in the Americas conference in Montreal. Some of the discussion reminded me of arguments raised by people, such as Kirk Huffman and ourselves, who rail against capitalist approaches to development which are responsible for eroding the self-sufficiency of the world’s Indigenous people living in self-sufficiency. Stephen Corry — Tribal Peoples for Tomorrow's World — wrote about this in the Guardian (24 November 2011) here. Extracts follow:

What should development mean for those who are largely self-sufficient, getting their own food and building their dwellings where the water is still clean — like many of the world's 150 million tribal people? Has development got anything helpful for them, or has it simply got it in for them?
It's easy to see where it has led. Leaving aside the millions who succumbed to the colonial invasion, in some of the world's most "developed" countries (Australia, Canada and the US) development has turned most of the survivors into dispossessed paupers. Take any measure of what it ought to mean: high income, longevity, employment, health; low rates of addiction, suicide, imprisonment and domestic violence, and you find that indigenous people in the US, Canada and Australia are by far the worst off on every count — but no one seems to heed the lesson.
These are the consequences of a dispossession more total in North America and Australia than almost anywhere on Earth. The colonists were determined to steal tribal lands, and unquestioning about their own superiority. They espoused politico-economic models in which workers produced for distant markets, and had to pay for the privilege. The natives, using no money, paying no taxes, contributing little to the marketplace until forced to, were "backward". At best, they were to be integrated to serve colonist society.
Colonialism set out to take away their self-sufficiency, on their own territory, and lead them to glorious productivity, as menials, on someone else's. There's little point in calling for retroactive apologies for this because it's not confined to the past: most development schemes foisted on tribal peoples today point in exactly the same direction.
Two of its main themes are housing and education. Traditional housing has many benefits — not least the fact that it's free — but development decrees it must be replaced by modern dwellings. In West Papua, the tribespeople put their pigs in the new houses and live in the old. Rwanda recently outlawed thatchaltogether; everyone must use metal sheets, by law.
So what about modern education? … It's no hidden conspiracy: it's openly designed to be about turning people into workers, scornful of their own tribal heritage.
… As for large scale infrastructure development — dams and mines, even irrigation — its real effect on the ground is invariably to enrich the elites while impoverishing the locals
… Everyone wants control over their future, and not everyone wants the same things out of life, but such truisms are hardly ever applied.
"Development", at least for most tribal peoples, isn't really about lifting people out of poverty, it's about masking the takeover of their territories… As a Botswana Bushman told me: "First they make us destitute by taking away our land, our hunting and our way of life. Then they say we are nothing because we are destitute."
In a 21st century of expensive water, food, housing, education, healthcare and power, self-sufficiency has its attraction. It may not boost GDP figures, but there are many tribal peoples in the world who live longer and healthier lives than millions in nearby slums. Who's to say they've made a bad choice?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Degrowth conference

Currently I'm at the international Degrowth in the Americas conference here in Montreal, where students have spent a lot of the last few weeks demonstrating against rising educational fees and debts. Many at our conference are vocally supporting the students and many of us are wearing red felt squares like badges to show our support.

I presented a paper on the chapter by Eduardo Galeano that never made it into the Life Without Money book due to complicated copyright issues. Also, I led a participatory symposium on Money and Degrowth — Future Scenarios, on which a report will appear in a few weeks. Last night I walked back to my digs with police cars and fire engines blaring and sparkling along the streets.

The students here have been on strike from well before May Day, because of educational fee rises and debts. Each night they go on long walks rousing popular support and tying up police resources. When it is warm they will march half-naked. As they walk their route appears on the maps at the following URL, so you can follow their route and know where they are to join them. Each march is archived after each day ends and there are regular video reports through CUTV:

Last night they had called for pop up demos by red-topped demonstrators on all the corners of the city and had a map displayed where people could sign up to signal where they would be, but somehow it seemed to fall through. Many students have been arrested and some have been held without a clear idea of what's happening to them. The minister for education was replaced a couple of days ago.

For an idea of the actions see:

For background see:

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Keenan: On Motivation to Work

Here is another post written by Keenan (see Post 1 directly below), this time on motivation to work in an egalitarian communal society.
The members of Twin Oaks have intentionally designed a community that is equal: equal resources, equal political empowerment and equal access to spiritual options. Consequently, the community has been an unintentional 45 year-old experiment on motivation because we have removed all extrinsic motivation — no pay raises, no bigger house, no better job title, no bigger office, no prestige positions, and no wealth to pass on to the next generation. So, with no motivators, is there, then, no motivation?  The answer to this question is an obvious ‘No’ to any Twin Oaker. But the question of motivation is fundamental to the design of western society. In fact, it seems that the central divide between right and left political theory is over the issue of what motivates people so you’d think they’d have sorted it out by now.

Conservative (right) thought is based on the premise that humans are motivated by societal stratification. The news headlines today are all about the tragic loss in productivity if millionaires are taxed at a slightly higher rate. Conservatives claim that any constraints on stratification hinder society’s organizing itself efficiently, i.e. the best don’t rise to the top. Once they are at the top their effectiveness must not be constrained by lesser people and their nasty laws or motivation-sapping taxes. Conservative rhetoric maintains society would be destroyed by any experiment in equality. The most compelling theoretical support for societal stratification is from Ayn Rand. In Atlas Shrugged she describes the outcome when the cream of humanity decide to desert productive endeavour: society collapses because no one is motivated to be productive. Liberal (left) thought supports a flatter, more equal society, i.e. where everyone has equal opportunity to advance.

The structure of Twin Oaks is actually off the edge of the left-right scale. An extremist on the liberal end of the spectrum would design a society where there is absolute equality of opportunity but would still allow for some societal stratification. Twin Oaks takes a long leap farther, maintaining that any stratification of any sort leads to some groups becoming elites. The development of elites inevitably leads to additional stratification. And societal stratification leads to many bad outcomes: a permanent underclass, crime, unemployment, an overly empowered and disengaged overclass, and things like that.

After 45 years of existence, what’s the result at Twin Oaks? It is this: a grace wholly gratuitous. Members of Twin Oaks have not fallen into the state of desuetude and apathy feared by the right. Members create beautiful crafts and display amazing musical talent, which come from a great deal of discipline and practice. Members of Twin Oaks have written books, plays and songs without payment. Furthermore, Twin Oaks has started several businesses and operates them successfully in the competitive marketplace.

Rather than motivation evaporating, it seems that some people remain motivated despite the disincentives of other members not believing in, or likely to be overcritical of, certain projects. Some people work beyond the quota asked of them continuously. On any given day there are members taking on tasks beyond the minimum required, performing feats of creativity, effort, and grace. ‘In the absence of any extrinsic motivator, does human motivation disappear?’ — ‘No!’

It’s a wonder that conservative and liberal theorists manage to continue to debate this. A stratified society is not a good environment. It creates an environment of fear, distrust, outrage, disempowerment and victimization. The way out is upward — a few people given enough liberty will hit the jackpot. There’s your motivation in a conservative world. The resulting myth is that humanity cannot afford to experiment with a kinder, gentler, more cooperative and supportive way or humanity will fail due to a lack of motivation. But the ongoing success of Twin Oaks and the continuing examples of individual motivation disproves it.

It’s not necessary to understand exactly what motivates people. Sociological studies of human behaviour show that good environments result in good people. Why do we do what we do here at Twin Oaks? The desire is to make a difference, to do work that is meaningful, to receive praise from one’s peers, the desire for self-improvement, to challenge oneself. Essentially, we are motivated by the profound and fundamental desire for simple personal agency.
The photo shows the Twin Oaks dairy; their cows provide milk, yogurt, cheese and meat for the community.

Keenan: Twin Oaks, a Template for a Market-free Society

Currently I’m visiting Twin Oaks, a community in rural Virginia on which one chapter in Life Without Money is based. That chapter is specifically about the Twin Oaks labour credit system. Twin Oaks is an example of a hybrid, which models a strategy to a money-free world. Internally the community runs without money, they have a reasonable level of collective sufficiency, ‘one purse’ in terms of relationships with the mainstream economy and collectively decide on how and what they produce. 

One of their oldest members, Keenan, has been talking with me and just posted some papers about his views on the Twin Oaks community notice board. He's allowed us to post them. You might want to take a look at the Twin Oaks website here 

These conversations have reminded me of all the economics I learned back in my days of studying Business Management. Back in those years I consistently felt that I was being indoctrinated into a paradigm of human nature that was at odds with basic human decency. Anitra’s perspective and reading her book have given me a new lens to look at Twin Oak’s systems.

At Twin Oaks we are not bound to an irrational economic philosophy. When asked what ideology or philosophy Twin Oaks uses in guiding our decisions we can only gesture vaguely in the direction of our collective judgement. This puts us out of step with (what feels to me like) the cult-like behaviour of the mainstream society, which makes irrational decisions and creates bizarre outcomes.

Mainstream economists use money as a measure of all economic activity, right? Economists claim that the use of this common measure is a necessary prerequisite for rational economic action. So, let’s look at Twin Oaks and our collective decision-making (ostensibly free of economic ideology) and see how it stacks up against the economic structure of mainstream society.

The market and employment
The mainstream economy has unemployment, sometimes higher, sometimes lower, but there is always some unemployment. Twin Oaks has zero unemployment; Twin Oaks has always had full employment. Score one for Twin Oaks!

The mainstream economy exchanges cash for labour. Twin Oaks does not. There is plenty of work that needs doing in the world, why, then, is there unemployment? In the mainstream economy every worker wants job security; without a job there is no pay check. A person cannot casually try out being a teacher, a farmer, a mechanic, an accountant etc. Students must pick a career path early, expend lots of time and money getting the required certification and only then see what the work feels like. Additionally, it does not pay to be a dilettante in the mainstream culture. Work security comes from working full time, and work satisfaction comes (if it comes at all) from getting promotions.

Because Twin Oaks does not have a market for labour, there are no protective barriers around jobs. Anyone can try anything that they want to try. The outcome is a labour scene that is far different from the mainstream labour scene. No one works at one job; people easily switch jobs. We are almost all dilettantes here. Our labour system is rational. People are happier not having to work 40 hours at one job. People are happier not being stuck in a career they hate. And still the work of the community gets done. There is no work sabotage, or sneaking off with inventory.
Because there is no unemployment, there is no class stratification. Because there is no class stratification there is no poverty, no crime, no need to hire a police force, or live in a state of constant fear.  Doesn’t that seem like a better labour force design?

Production at Twin Oaks
Twin Oaks is hardly outside of the market economy in our businesses. Twin Oaks’s hammocks business has been thriving for over thirty-five years while other hammocks businesses have gone bankrupt. Twin Oaks’s tofu business and East Wind’s nut butter business demonstrate that a communal society can successfully start and operate a capital-intensive business using a labour credit system.

Additionally, our communal reliance on a multivariate decision-making model (i.e. common sense) rather than a linear (cash-based) economic decision-making model leads to more rational business decisions. For instance, a very well established and well-known leisure goods company approached Twin Oaks to make cotton hammocks. Twin Oaks had, at that time, slack production capacity. The offer sounded very profitable for Twin Oaks.

But Twin Oaks turned the offer down. Why? Because cotton rope is hard to work with; the rope is heavy and would have contributed to more wrist injuries. Also, cotton hammocks don’t last as long. We would be selling an inferior product at a higher price. None of the workers wanted to work with cotton hammocks. If the order had been accepted, it is likely that workers would have found work elsewhere in our community.

Health, happiness, and ethics won out over mere profit. How do you measure that decision? Literally, how can you measure happiness? Or health? Or ethics? Those considerations don’t have much of a place in the mainstream economic model. Doesn’t this make it somewhat suspect?

When another home goods import company dropped Twin Oaks hammocks, there was no desperation or impetus to start making a shoddy product, do false advertising or planned obsolescence that are common strategies for mainstream businesses. Workers switched to other work, the community expanded smaller businesses and everyone took an equal pay cut, metaphorically speaking.

In looking at production, Twin Oaks’s model works better than the mainstream model.

The photo shows rows of strawberry plants and corn in the many productive gardens at Twin Oaks with some of the community's solar panels in the background. To the right of the panels you can see the roof of their dairy (see post above for a close up.) Twin Oaks has a saw mill and practices sustainable selective forestry from its 500 acres of woodland and farm. There is a tofu making business, which relies on a regional farmer for its soy beans. They make other soy products for the market and for community consumption. Twin Oaks has bees which make honey, and help with making the community's orchards more productive. Vegetable and herb growing serves the kitchen with fresh food and drying, preserving and storing produce allows for year-round use. Hammocks and hammock chairs are made for sale and some of the community freelance for publishers in producing book indexes. They fix secondhand bikes for free use around the farm. Some members make chairs. There are communal, as well as personal, clothes and books.