Most people have been brought up to believe that the competitive, grow-or-die, absentee-shareholder-owned, “free”-trade “market” economy is the only one that works, the only alternative to a socialist, government-run economy. This myth is perpetrated in business and other schools, by the media, by accountants and lawyers and bankers and, of course, in the business world. This amoral-capitalist economic model has “succeeded” in the same hostile way our species has “succeeded” by brutally suppressing, starving for resources, using power to steal from, and, when all else fails, killing off anything deemed a “competitor” or threat to its monopoly on power and resources. It relies on massive subsidies and near-zero interest rates thanks to well-rewarded political cronies, on political graft and corruption worldwide, on oligopoly and restraint of competition, on wage slavery and worker ignorance, on phony money and unrepayable debt, and on advertising, human insecurity, ego and greed to create an artificial demand for its shoddy, overpriced crap. And, on top of all that, it’s utterly unsustainable.
For an alternative, natural economy to work, we either have to wait for this amoral-capitalist economy to collapse (which it will, but probably not for a few decades), or we have to plant the seeds for this alternative economy in the cracks where the current one is already failing most badly at the community level where the economy is most obviously failing to produce meaningful work, sucking resources, wealth and opportunity out, and dumping mass-produced and imported crap that ends up in the landfill, and pollutants in our air, water, soil and food that make us sick and contribute to climate change. But before we can plant these seeds we need to unlearn the nonsense we’re taught and told about economics, and learn how a healthy economy actually works.
Perhaps the best way to explain this is by showing models that contrast the features of the amoral-capitalist economy with those of a cooperative natural economy. Let’s start by looking at two enterprises, a traditional amoral-capitalist one and a cooperative natural one:
The diagram above is a slightly cynical but not unfair depiction of how most entrepreneurs taught amoral capitalist economics start and run their businesses (and I advised hundreds of them, so I’m not making this up):
This unhappy process explains why most traditional enterprises fail, and why the biggest companies in most industries form collusive oligopolies that control the market, the politicians, and the media, and become “too big to fail” (so if they do screw up, the government the taxpayer bails them out).
It has evolved this way for simple Darwinian reasons. It’s what works when the “market” is given some simple (amoral, dysfunctional) rules to operate and is then left to its own resources. It’s a Frankenstein monster, but it was inevitable.
Now let’s look at how a community-based, cooperative economy could work, if it were made up of natural enterprises that “flew under the radar” of the corporate giants, and used a completely different set of processes and rules to get established and operate:
As co-operatives of many different types have found, the hard part in doing all this is the re-learning of what collaborative enterprise is all about. It takes a lot of practice, but it’s a natural human endeavour. There are excellent facilitators who can help with enterprise formation, the basics of peer production, invitation (of people in the community to identify and explore unmet needs), consensus, and conflict resolution. Most lawyers, accountants, bankers and traditional consultants should be used as little as possible, since they tend to perpetrate the traditional economy myths and lack the information and experience to know what’s needed in cooperative, natural enterprises. In time a new school of professionals practiced in the natural economy will emerge I’ve heard that Credit Unions in Germany, for example, now offer “turnkey” financing packages for local wind and solar energy co-ops, complete with training.
As we relearn how to make a living for ourselves, we will be able to help each other out, and establish networks and alliances to share skills, knowledge and resources. I can imagine the growth of a Gift Economy (or what I call a Generosity Economy) blossoming in the abundance of appreciation, know-how, saved time and strengthened relationships that a cooperative natural economy engenders. With time, a community might be able to wean itself off dependence on the amoral-capitalist economy entirely, so that when that economy collapses it will already have made the transition to a steady-state natural economy, and be in a position to help other, unprepared communities with the terrible struggles they will then face.
It’s entirely possible, if we have the will to do it. I see it starting to happen already in some progressive communities that have Transition Initiatives underway. But I have a sense that it will take a few more economic, energy and ecological seismic shocks before many will wake up to the need to find a better way to live and make a living. I’m not sure it won’t be too late by then, but, if we’re in time, we’ll have some models and communities to show us the way.