Advent Vision of a New Economy
By Marianne Comfort, Institute Justice Team of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas
It may be no coincidence that I attended a talk by Gar Alperovitz and Ralph Nader in the middle of Advent.
Alperovitz, author of a book calling for democratizing the economic system, and Nader, the renowned consumer advocate, spoke at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C., about laying the foundation for gradually transforming capitalism. And that might take decades, they said.
We need more than corporate reform, which wouldn’t change the basic power structure, they said. And the country isn’t ready for revolution, they added.
Instead, they’re calling for individuals and local institutions to build up an alternative system of cooperatives, public utilities, community banks, land trusts and neighborhood corporations.
That’s certainly something to ponder during this season of pregnant waiting, as we read scriptures reminding us of God’s promises of peace and justice and those who said “yes” to God’s plan for bringing that vision to birth.
Am I – are we – willing to invest in what might be some of the steps toward a whole new economic system that we might not live to see? Can I look at joining the local food co-op as more than getting a 10 percent discount on my groceries each month? Will I move my money from an out-of-state bank with a branch behind my workplace, to a regional credit union that might be less accessible to me, because of a vision of the benefits of community-based financial institutions? Will I become a member of a community supported agriculture farm to share in the bounty and the risks of the harvest, and to have a closer tie to the growers of my food?
Right now, these might seem like disconnected consumer decisions that have no overall community impact. But Alperovitz illustrated how putting together some of these alternative business models with a little bit of economic planning at the local level can begin to “democratize wealth,” as he calls it.
He talked about a strategic effort to create jobs and wealth in underserved neighborhoods of Cleveland through worker-owned cooperatives that are linked together under a partnership with city government, the Cleveland Foundation, Case Western University and two healthcare facilities. Evergreen Cooperatives now consists of an industrial laundry, solar panel installation and greenhouse food production – whose clients include the above partners as well as other institutions and businesses.
It’s in the desperate cities of the Midwest, which have lost manufacturing jobs and whole industries, where many of the opportunities for a “new economy” are emerging. But Ted Howard, founder, along with Alperovitz, of The Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland, said there are some beginning discussions among universities and hospitals in the Washington, D.C. area about designing an initiative similar to the one in Cleveland.
While Alperovitz shared a vision of a so-called new economy, Nader was more like the prophet crying out in the wilderness against the current system and our complicity in it by not taking back the power that is ours.
We shouldn’t be asking just for crumbs like an extension of unemployment insurance or an expansion of Food Stamps (now known as SNAP), he said. “Corporations’ power comes from our belief that we have no power,” he said.
He listed all the public resources that we as citizens own through the taxes we pay: government research, the airwaves and public lands, to name just a few. Yet corporations benefit most from these, he said. “People should get residuals of all the profits going to wealthy corporations,” he said, and he cited the share of oil revenues that Alaskan residents receive each year as an example of what that could like on a larger scale.
Pushed by questions from audience members, Alperovitz conceded that the design of a new economy requires addressing racism, environmental concerns, climate change and imperialism that comes from an expansionist mentality. He suggested creating a theory, then designing practical projects from it and, finally, building politics around it to change who owns the capital.