Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Nicole Foss in Milwaukee

Monday night I had the privilege of seeing Nicole Foss speak for the second time, this time with her new speaking companion Lawrence Boomert (BOW-mert) from New Zealand. Of course, this is highly recommended, and you can see their travelling and speaking schedule on The Automatic Earth. I was offered an opportunity to hang out and drink some wine with the guests, which I’m sort of regretting passing up. How often do you get to hang out with people knowledgeable about our coming situation in person? It might be arrogant of me to assert that I know more about these underlying issues than most people in attendance, but Nicole and TAE was a big influence on me, and 800+ posts gives me some claim to expertise, so I would have loved to have a more in-depth conversation with them and to pick their brains a bit. But, alas, it was 10:00 PM and a Tuesday work day loomed on the horizon. Oh well…

The topic centered around what communities can do given the ongoing breakdowns in government, finance, and the economy in general. Nicole gave a concise explanation of the economic situation we face that’s probably familiar to most of you. Since the last time she spoke, events such as Cyprus seizing creditors’ deposits to make the banks whole (rather than printing money via keystrokes as in the U.S) and Detroit’s bankruptcy have occurred, and she integrated them into her analysis. Then Lawrence spoke primarily about topics such as localized economies, grass-roots movements, guerrilla gardening, Permaculture, local currencies, time banking, community co-ops, the sharing economy (e.g. Couchsurfing) and the like, with examples from Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere..

It’s always difficult to come up with a timely and contextual question in the all-too-brief Q&A session after. I did get in the last question, which was, to paraphrase, whether the fact that large-scale institutions such as state and national governance are increasingly taken over by the wealthy and powerful and run for their benefit makes them useless, and whether we should just abandon any hope of trying to fix or reform these institutions. Her answer (again, paraphrasing) was that yes, in essence, the social inertia embedded in these institutions makes them irreformable, and they are a way to siphon off people’s efforts into useless activities rather than what they should be doing – specifically building grass-roots solutions in their own communities. She felt that government would be unable to respond adequately to the rapid challenges facing communities in the future because of their size and distance. As she put it, “rather than trying to run with the dinosaurs, become a mammal.”

I think Nicole’s answer was a good one, but my concern is that these institutions still have an awful lot of power in our society today – the power to tax, the power to spend, the power to regulate, the power to incarcerate, the power to create money, and the power to drop bombs and fly drones. I think that ignoring these powers seems a bit dangerous to me. Ultimately what backs currencies is the power to tax, which is why community currencies seem more like a feel-good sideshow to me rather than a real alternative solution. The ultimate problem with our money is that most people don’t have enough of it, and printing easily-counterfitable pieces of paper isn’t going to fix that.

More broadly, I fear that this feeds into the “divide and rule” tactic deployed by the elites to maintain their control over us. By abandoning the field to a small cadre of highly disciplined malignant plutocrats, well-funded political mandarins and ignorant zealots, you enable the effective, uncontested, political takeover over these institutions. And they can do a lot of damage. For example, if you were opposed to the Nazis during their rise to power, you could certainly abandon politics, retreat to an Alpine village, and try to build an alternative. But that probably would not have saved you nor the millions who perished after the fanatics and authoritarians took control of the levers of power (especially if you were Jewish).

For intelligent, well-meaning people to abandon our political institutions just assures that control will be even more heavily concentrated among the right-wing plutocrats and oligarchs, who can now not worry about any concentrated opposition to their power forming as it did during the Progressive Era. That era was marked by a slow emergence of honest civil servants who believed in using America’s institutions to do good and promote a more healthy society. A lot of things we take for granted today came out of that era, from sidewalks, streetlights and clean drinking water to Social Security, Consumer protection and Unemployment Insurance. Must these be abandoned? And, it should be noted, local economies were much more healthy and thriving back then than they are today. I must note that both Nicole’s and Lawrence’s native countries have managed to implement socialized universal health insurance, something unimaginable in the United States. Why?

There’s a lot of talk about us “pulling together” but that’s what stopping reform at every level – divide and rule can be deployed it just as effectively to stop community solutions as it can to prevent governmental reform. How many people, fed a steady diet of right-wing media, are convinced that such measures promoted by Nicole and Lawrence are “communism” and need to be stamped out by any means necessary (including violent ones)?

This tendency on the Left to withdraw, to ignore the wider society, is a dangerous one, and I think it feeds in to the Right’s ultimate goal – to make the people so disgusted by government, afraid of it, and demoralized for any hope of reform that it can remain in their hands forever, and they can use its power to choke off any opposition, from outlawing community currencies, to regulating small businesses out of existence, to auctioning off essential public services to Wall Street, to throwing protestors in jail*. As the famous line goes, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” If that isn’t the best one-line summation of modern-day America, I don’t know what is.

So I don’t mean to poo-poo community solutions because I believe they are important and necessary. But I worry that such measures are necessary but not sufficient. I don’t know what to do, nor what the answer is. But I think people are clinging to these ideas out of starry-eyed hope and ignoring solutions that will really fix our problems at a deeper, more fundamental level because they are just too difficult. And that’s exactly what they want us to do.

Anyway, I’m sure that opinion is controversial. Feel free to weigh in with any thoughts or ideas.

* This isn’t theoretical. Just today I received an email from AirBnb about New York City’s efforts to shut it down and by issuing a subpoena for all Airbnb hosts. This is surely to defend the hotel industry from competition. Go sign their petition if you'd like.

Greed, Revolution, and Governance (Naked Capitalism) See especially the last two paragraphs.


  1. I think the best bet is to use a parallel process:

    Re-localize and reinvent, but stay involved in politics for a few reasons:

    1. Recruitment
    2. Informing the people about what is going on
    3. Proving to everyone that the elites have no intention of implementing anything other than superficial reform.

    However, since the main effort will eventually be on survival, we must relocalize fast.

  2. It's easy to focus on the local as that is what will ultimately allow us to sink or swim. How can we protect the local from people and institutions that want to remove our powers to be self sufficient? Political participation is one way, keeping things under the radar might be another. I think any violent means would be off the table as it would present a target of opposition to take out. What else might work?

    1. How about this:
      Using local politics, convince local authorities to refuse to participate in federal schemes to interfere with localism, farmer's markets, barter networks, alt currencies, etc.
      The federal government will be completely unable to repress local initiatives without the cooperation of local authorities.
      Remove any local politician who helps the feds, either overtly or covertly.
      Kick the bums out!

    2. "Using local politics, convince local authorities to refuse to participate in federal schemes to interfere with localism, farmer's markets, barter networks, alt currencies, etc."

      Oh right, Publius, throw up a red flag and say, here we are, come hit us! Shakin me noggin.

    3. Easier said than done. I've told this story - local municipalities are filling the void left by the bought-and-paid-for Federal government and raising minimum wages and requiring paid sick time off. Here in Milwaukee, an initiative passed by democratic referendum to require paid sick leave. The state legislature, in the hands of Republicans, took steps to make that illegal. They also continue to forbid things like raw milk buyers cooperatives. All their talk about "freedom," "small business" and "local control" is just pablum they sell to the heartland rubes who vote for them; the only animating principle of the Republican party is preserving and enhancing corporate power at the expense of the public. It is Democrats, particularly at the local level, who I have seen as the most receptive to building new local initiatives. Unfortunately, these politicians have to deal with a lack of resources due to a shrinking tax base and hostility from wealth-sponsored kept politicians above them

    4. Yeah. That's why I go with flying under the radar. But a few friends in right places don't hurt either. :-)

  3. I liken it to education. the reason the "more education" meme makes no sense whatsoever is because while this will help a particular individual to enhance their job prospects, it makes no sense on a societal level. If everyone in a society goes out at the same time to get more education, you just end up in an arms race and with the same economy you had before, just with unemployed people with more education and student loans. This is the strategy we have pursued in this country.

    Likewise, while local initiatives and preparation is a good thing for individuals to implement, I'm skeptical whether they can fill the void on a societal level without existing institutions. For example, if all of the non-local businesses in Southeastern Wisconsin went under, from Wal-Mart to Citgo to USBank, there would not be enough "local" jobs to employ the 50+ percent of the workforce that would be unemployed. And there would not be enough jobs at "local" companies like Harley-Davidson, Kohl's, Manpower, Northwestern Mutual and Johnson Controls, because they are dependent upon a healthy national and international economy too (even now there are not enough jobs there). We are more interdependent than we realize, and I'm skeptical that "unplugging" is possible for most, even if it is possible at the individual level.

    Having said that, just as I would recommend more education for an individual looking to enhance their job prospects (with minimal debt, of course), I would recommend self-sufficiency and unplugging from structural dependencies on the system to the greatest extent possible for an individual as well. But as I said, necessary but not sufficient.


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