Tag Archives: Commons

Wading Into the Pond

The previous post discussed an ethical dilemma presented by Peter Singer concerning the choice between saving some fancy shoes or a drowning child in a shallow pond. The conclusion was that charity is the best we can do within the given social structures, but that justice requires counter-cultural living. The way of following Jesus is not charity, but justice. It requires a radical reorientation of our lives away from token charity to a new kind of Jubilee economics.

So, the question is how to incorporate these ideas into our daily lives. This is really the question with which I wrestle. Singer’s shallow pond dilemma is really more like the dilemma of two oceans and our ever more insular lifestyle. How do we make ourselves aware of how we spend our resources and the choices we make about what to buy? How do we recognize in our daily lives the impact of the choices we make? Finally, how do we attempt to live out something more than charity, embodying something “counter to the ethics of the culture” we’re in?

The Definition of Insanity
The oft quoted saying that, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results” has been attributed to Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Confucius, but more likely came from Narcotics Anonymous literature. If anyone, the addicts would know the truth of this saying. Likewise continuing to try and live counter-culturally as isolated individuals will not work.

The first thing we need to realize is that we cannot do it alone. To try and do it alone as an individual consumer is to continue within the same framework. Our awareness of the reality of the situation is muted by our own isolation from all the other individual consumers with whom we share the world. So, we must find particular people who are willing to walk this road with us. It is the particulars of our shared lives that shed light on our own inconsistencies and inadequacies. These are vulnerable relationships based on trust and shared values. These are the relationships many of us are lacking in North American culture.

We need to break out of our isolation, but we need more than just a book club. Waco just started a time exchange where people can exchange time and skills with each other rather than currency. Tool sharing is another way to build up community as the solution rather than individual consumption. Anything that you can do with other people that promotes community and shares resources moves us beyond the parameters of consumerism.

The Second Rule of Consumerism is… Do NOT Talk About Consumerism
The second thing we need to do is learn how to talk about our finances openly and honestly with others. We have all sorts of justifications built into our lives for the way we live. We have to make ourselves vulnerable to critiques of the choices we make. The prophetic strain of the biblical narrative calls into question anything, any structure, choice or lifestyle, that is complicit or participates in the oppression, exclusion and marginalization of those who bear the image of God as well as the exploitation and domination of God’s creation. Shedding light on those realities in our lives requires the aforementioned relationships of trust, honesty and vulnerability.

One attempt to shed light on our own participation in these systems of domination that I read recently involved agreeing to a corporate tax based on the grades of the corporations from whom we purchase goods and services (A practical, creative tax for a better world).

This “holy excise tax” is designed to 1) disincentivize our demand for unneeded cheap consumer goods and services (mostly bought from companies that grow profit for investors by hiding real costs); and 2) raise revenue to give to organizations that care for our most vulnerable neighbors.

We are using the Better World Shopping Guide, which gives companies from a large variety of categories a grade from A to F, depending on the social consciousness of their business practices, considering human rights, the environment, animal protection, community involvement and social justice. Companies rated B have a 10-cent tax on each receipt, while companies rated C, D and F get a 25-cent tax. In addition, the guide has a list of the top 20 corporate villains, including Exxon Mobil, Walmart, Verizon, Kraft, Nestle and Bank of America. We pay 50 cents each time we support these socio-economic goliaths.

This is just one example of a creative attempt to help reveal the realities hidden in our credit card statements. There are others as well. No matter how you try to learn to talk about our hidden financial realities this last point is essential to making it successful and healthy.

Misery Loves Company
The last thing that I think the church has uniquely to offer in this area is a theology of grace and love alongside the prophetic. Some Christians that have tried to radically live out biblical economics through a common purse or other methods have found themselves right back in the waters of domination and oppression as they create new forms of legalism and oppression. So, recognizing that none of us is completely able to live somehow outside the system is essential.

The goal is not in fact to live outside the system. In order to live counter-culturally you have to continue struggling from within the dominant culture. I have lived and worked closely with Christians that have a long history of attempting to live outside the system in isolated colonies. The unspoken reality is that they are much more a part of the world than they would ever admit, because they interact daily with people outside the colony and are the primary economic drivers in the region.

The question then is not “How do extricate myself from the systems of domination?” but instead “How do I begin to organize my life with others such that our existence challenges the status quo both within ourselves and the broader culture?” It is only as members of the culture and web of domination that we pose a threat or challenge to the system. (Why are the relatively small numbers of people involved in Occupy protests across the country such a threat to the Powers that they are willing to spend inordinate amounts of money to have the police and authorities attempt to forcibly remove them?)

This means that there is no one righteous, no not one. No one is able to say that they are embodying the reality we hope for. What we need is a confessing movement. Then we can take steps together to live out this new way of living that we have glimpsed in Jesus, not out of self-righteousness or guilt, but in the grace and love of the Prince of Shalom.

Coveting, Control and Captivity (Leviticus 25)

You can search this site for “jubilee”, “leviticus 25″ and “sabbath” to read more about the connections I make between Sabbath practices, ecology, economics, Jesus and Isaiah. To find something fresh to say about this central passage in the biblical narrative I turn to one of my favorite scholars.

The text of Leviticus 25 asserts both Yahweh’s radical intention and the radical social practice of entitlement that necessarily accompanies Yahweh’s intention. (103)

So, Walter Brueggeman sums up the well-known Jubilee chapter of Leviticus. Many people, particularly conservatives, hear the word entitlement primarily with negative connotations. However, the concept of predistribution which I mentioned before in relationship to Peter Barnes’ book Capitalism 3.0 is a more positive description of what Brueggeman means. Brueggeman also supports what I’ve often claimed for the importance of this chapter for understanding Israel, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in his book Finally Comes the Poet,

Israel’s theological conviction about the land is asserted positively in the great social vision of Leviticus 25, the text on the Jubilee year. A number of scholars now argue that this text provides the cornerstone for Israel’s ethical practice. (102)

Brueggeman makes this claim in the context of his exegesis of the command not to covet (Ex 20:17) in which he says,

Marvin Cheney has argued, and I agree, that covet in the Decalogue refers in principle to land tenure systems and land management policies. To covet means to arrange loan credit, tax, and inheritance so that some may have land that others should rightfully possess. That is, it is the systemic economic practice of greed. (99)

It is helpful to put the redistribution scheme of Leviticus 25 in the context of prohibitions against covetousness and greed. In other words, the Jubilee is the positive vision of what the world could or should be in light of the negative reality highlighted by the prohibitions in the Decalogue. Greed, or covetousness, is both based on and results in inequalities of the distribution of wealth and power. For the biblical world this comes primarily in the form of access and ownership of land. Brueggeman goes on to explore this further,

There is an important line of scholarship that argues that early Israel (which gives us the seed of all biblical faith) is essentially a social revolution concerning land tenure systems. This charter for “egalitarianism” culminated in the commandment against coveting that prohibits the rapacious policies of the state that characteristically monopolize law, power, and wealth… The Bible has understood, long before Karl Marx, that the basic human issues concern land, power, and the means of production. (99-100)

I have argued before in these virtual pages that a biblical economy is based on the land, and I’m happy to find confirmation from such a highly respected biblical, particularly Old Testament, scholar. Some will dismiss everything at the mention of that dreaded name, “Marx”, but will have missed the point Brueggeman makes that, far from being “Marxist”, the Bible is fundamentally human. Where Marx gets things right he happens to agree with the biblical emphasis on justice, egalitarianism and land reform. Most Christians read the Ten Commandments (and the whole biblical narrative) primarily in individualistic terms. What they miss is the socio-political context of these commands which were understood in much more radical terms by the original hearers.

So, Jubilee is the antithesis to coveting, but Brueggeman unpacks this further in terms of control and captivity,

The theological issue related to the land is sharing— respecting the entitlement of others. The preacher’s theme for those who gather is greed. Greed touches every aspect of our lives: economic, political, sexual, psychological, and theological. Greed bespeaks a fundamental disorder in our lives, a disorder that reflects distortion in our relation with God.

Central to this issue is the addiction to control that permeates human history. In verse 6 the text poses the question most people probably have when reading about letting the land lie fallow for a year, “What then shall we eat?” I hope to explore this aspect of Jubilee further, but the response of the text is that God provides abundantly, such that the people will still be eating from the produce of the Sabbath year three years later. Loss of control is scary, but God clearly promises that letting go of control is actually better than when we hold tightly to the reins.

This addiction to control is a kind of captivity or slavery. When we hold our possessions and wealth tightly, we are possessed by them. We become slaves to the things we pretend to have control over. Their is a subtle reversal in the relationship to material goods that most people don’t recognize in their daily lives. The logic of greed and coveting and the systems that perpetuate these values traps us in a spiral from which we cannot extricate ourselves. This kind of captivity is picked up by the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2) when he proclaims “good news to the poor”, “liberty to the captives” and the “year of the Lord’s favor”. Many scholars argue that this is a reference to the Jubilee, which is then appropriated by Jesus when he quotes Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth and says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). This proclamation of liberation from captivity which is good news to the poor is a thread connecting the Torah, Prophets, Gospels and on through Paul and James. This Jubilee thread weaves a tapestry that paints a picture of the “kingdom of heaven” at the core of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

But Brueggeman also admonishes that the prohibition against coveting and the positive command of the Jubilee are not based on a revelatory “because God said so”, but instead on real world experience.

This claim about God and the distribution of land is not accepted simply on the basis of revelation, but can be established in terms of social experience. Excessive land grabbing leads to death, whether in the family, in the church, in the faculty, or in Latin America. (101)

Living among people that are desperate for access to land, I can attest to the timelessness of this assertion. North American and western cultures have isolated themselves from the death that the injustice and inequality of economic systems creates, causes and exacerbates, but it is very real. Those at the very bottom understand that their inability to access land is the basis of their poverty and exploitation. For middle class westerners so detached and abstracted from their land base, it seems strange that people are still fighting over access to land. We have been sold the lie that we can solve poverty and basic inequalities in the system without dealing with the most fundamental issue of access to land and exploitation of natural resources. It is so important to recognize that this is not an arbitrary commandment, but one based on the social and economic realities of human existence which continue to apply today.

I’d like to share a story that Brueggeman relates which, I think, helps connect this ancient text and practice to our current context,

A concrete embodiment of the Jubilee command- ment was evidenced in a rural church in Iowa during the “farm crisis.” The banker in the town held mortgages on many farms. The banker and the farmers belonged to the same church. The banker could have foreclosed. He did not because, he said, “These are my neighbors and I want to live here a long time.” He extended the loans and did not collect the interest that was rightly his. The pastor concluded, “He was practicing the law of the Jubilee year, and he did not even know it.” The pastor might also have noted that the reason the banker could take such action is that his bank was a rare exception. It was locally and independently owned, not controlled by a larger Chicago banking system. (104)

Finally, let me end with this challenge from Brueggeman,

What if the central claim of the Tenth Commandment is true: that coveting kills, that taking what belongs to another destroys, and that life-giving social practice requires giving things back to people! (106)

Toward a Living Economy: Cooperative Self-Organization

In the previous post I explored the inherent contradiction between the desire to protect and conserve the environment and the need for development within the current economic system based on a growth economy examining the current political situation in Bolivia as a microcosm of this tension on a macro level. At the end of that post I suggested that the solution was to find a way to transition to a new kind of economy and development. David Korten wrote an article in Yes! Magazine entitled “Living Economies: Learning from the Biosphere” in which he said,

In our species’ immaturity, however, our dominant cultures have forgotten that our individual and collective well-being depends on the well-being of the whole. We must now step to a new level of species maturity, redesign the culture and institutions of our economic system to mimic the structure and dynamics of the biosphere, and learn to live by life’s rules. 1

Korten lists three key ideas that he gleans from the natural world about how we should organize our economic life together: 1) Cooperative Self-Organization, 2) Self-Reliant Local Adaptation and 3) Managed Boundaries. First I want to look at his ideas, along with some others within the idea of a steady-state economy. Then we will have to talk about how to get from here to there.

Toward An Anarchist Economy?
The first rule of “Cooperative Self-Organization” has to do with the principles of biodiversity and cooperation. Korten explains,

Ecosystems have no central control structure. Their health and vitality depend on processes of cooperative self-organization in which each species learns to meet its own needs in ways that simultaneously serve the needs of others. The more diverse and cooperative the bio-community, the greater its capacity to innovate and the greater its resilience in the face of crisis.” 1

The idea of not having central control structures sounds very scary to humans accustomed to all the trappings of civilization with its institutions, organization and hierarchy, but this is an invention of the human intellect and not something inherent in the natural order or observable in natural ecosystems. While many libertarians and advocates of a completely free market profess to believe in such a decentralized state of affairs, I’m not sure they would allow it when the time came to really let go of the control. Most of the more moderate advocates of a free market turn that phrase into a misnomer, because there is incredible attempts to impose central control and regulation on the system. Usually the rules are rigged to the benefit of the rulemakers, which might fit some natural law, but is unsustainable and thus violates the most important natural law: that the system itself must survive.

All of this makes me wonder what an anarchist (which is the leftist version of the libertarian impulse) economy might look like. I don’t hear a lot of discussion about this among Christian Anarchists that I read. But if economy only means how we order our lives together, then in terms of how we exchange goods and services for our own survival, any community of people that is able to sustain itself has some kind of economy. If there is any possibility of a practical anarchism that can be lived out, then there must be some kind of anarchist economics that governs or guides the way that people live together.

Diversity and Cooperation
What creates stability, security and flourishing in ecosystems is diversity and cooperation. Of course there is competition within and among species for sources of food, but this assumes a scarcity that is not the case in stable ecosystems. If you out-compete all the other prey species in an ecosystem for food then your survival will mean that you are now the only target left for whatever predators there are above you on the sacred predator pyramid scheme. There is a delicate web of interdependence in healthy ecosystems that demands both diversity of species and cooperation.

Financial investors already understand this principal somewhat when they diversify stock portfolios to lower the risk and secure a steady rate of return, even if it’s lower than higher risk portfolios. On a broader scale, however, our economy does not support the broadest diversity in terms of the kinds of business and other economic actors that it supports and/or allows to exist. On the contrary the current system heavily favors large corporations. The larger and more multinational the corporation, the more advantages it has in the marketplace.

Everyone gives lip service to small businesses, but no one is serious about taking on the rules that allow Wal-Mart and others to easily put small companies out of business wherever they go. Therefore the rule in a living economy based on the rule of diversity and cooperation would be to give real incentives for small businesses and those that are active in creating a community in which other small businesses can thrive. Korten puts the tension between healthy ecosystems and the privileges of corporations in these terms,

“In a living economy, the rights and interests of living communities of living, breathing people engaged in a living exchange with the natural systems of their bioregion properly take priority over the presumed rights of artificial corporate entities that value life only as a marketable commodity and operate by the moral code of a malignant cancer.”

This puts a further clarification on the practical implications. It cannot simply promote any small business, but small businesses that understand, value and promote the values of diversity and cooperation. They should embody these principles within their own business structures by following worker-owned models in which there is the most possible transparency, openness and sharing of both the rights and responsibilities of honest work. They should encourage other business and the interaction, cooperation and interdependence of businesses of all sizes, from a single person selling produce from their garden to the largest local company in the area.

Monocultures of any kind, whether agricultural or business, are a direct contradiction to principles that govern natural systems. They will likely fail in the long term for the same reasons that natural systems cannot be supported where biodiversity is lacking. The answer is to learn from science and promote the interdependence of natural system that create flourishing, dynamic, vibrant and healthy systems of diversity and cooperation.

Does Capitalism Need an Upgrade?

Peter Barnes book Capitalism 3.0 (which is available as a free PDF under a Creative Commons License at onthecommons.org) is a thought provoking and interesting read about the future of capitalism and the future of our world. Barnes vision both of what went wrong in the past and for how to create a more sustainable future within a capitalist structure are compelling. That’s coming from someone who tends to be pretty skeptical of capitalism’s potential to sustain us in the long term. The main idea of Capitalism 3.0 is that we have left the commons out of our economic equation and therefore need to create a commons sector to balance out the private sector that dominates our current model. Capitalism needs an upgrade.

The one-two punch of enclosure and externalizing is especially potent. With one hand, corporations take valuable stuff from the commons and privatize it. With the other hand, they dump bad stuff into the commons and pay nothing. The result is profits for corporations but a steady loss of value for the commons. (20)

One of the main points Barnes hits again and again is that private corporations are already using the commons for their own profit. The commons includes nature, community and culture. Nature is the example everyone thinks of when they hear “tragedy of the commons”, but streets, playgrounds, libraries, museums, laws and other shared gifts make up our communities. There are also cultural commons. One example of corporate abuse of cultural commons is all the stories in the public domain that Disney has turned into movies and profited from (Aladdin, Atlantis, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella to name a few) without adding anything back to the public domain. So, the commons is generally unaccounted for in our economics (except in the case of a few trusts and permanent funds which is, in large part, Barnes’ solution to the problem).

201105041549.jpg

I found Barnes’ history of the evolution of capitalism very helpful in thinking about how we might move forward within the current system (see chart on the right).

Demand, in other words, exceeded supply, and we lived in what might be called shortage capitalism. We could also call it Capitalism 1.0. After the change, we shifted into surplus capitalism, or what I call Capitalism 2.0. In this version, there’s no limit to what corporations can produce; their problem is finding buyers. A sizeable chunk of GDP is spent to make people want this unneeded output. (23)

Understanding this evolution of capitalism puts our current problems in perspective. The scarcity in shortage capitalism of aggregated capital led to the formulation of the modern corporation. This made it possible to aggregate more capital, but there were limits because of other factors. Modern corporations with abundant credit and seemingly infinite aggregated capital were not the more limited entity that were intended under shortage capitalism. By overcoming the limitations of credit and aggregated capital under shortage capitalism, surplus capitalism was able to create our global economy. However, this also created new problems and exacerbated others.

Almost all of the property rights under capitalism so far have been allocated to individuals and corporations. Federal management of forests and other natural resources has fallen heavily on the side of permitting corporations to extract resources for private gain without giving back or caring for the commons. There are some examples of trusts that function in the long-term interest of future generations on the state level. At the heart of this shift is another way of thinking about ownership, property and rights. Barnes’ description of trusteeship sounds a lot like the first chapters of Genesis.

First, ownership isn’t the same thing as trusteeship. Owners of property—even government owners—have wide latitude to do whatever they want with it; a trustee does not. Trustees are bound by the terms of their trust and by centuries-old principles of trusteeship, foremost among which is “undivided loyalty” to beneficiaries. (45)

Beneficiaries include future generations, which don’t factor in to our current economic system. Beneficiaries should also include non-human animals and ecosystems in terms of the natural commons. We all claim to value community, nature and culture. So, why haven’t we included the commons in the economic equation?

Capitalism and community aren’t natural allies. Capitalism’s emphasis on individual acquisition and consumption is usually antithetical to the needs of community. Where capitalism is about the pursuit of self-interest, community is about connecting to—and at times assisting—others. It’s driven not by monetary gain but by caring, giving, and sharing…It’s rarely imagined that community can be built into our economic operating system. In this chapter I show how it can be—if our operating system includes a healthy commons sector. (101)

I’m working on a post about Stephen Jay Gould’s book Ever Since Darwin. Even when he wrote that book in the 1970s it was becoming clear that competition was only part of the Darwinian equation describing the adaptation of species to their environment. We have selected only (or at least primarily) the mutations related to competition as we have developed our capitalist system. Without further adaptation this system will cause its own extinction and possibly our own. Barnes illuminates the possibility of including the altruistic aspects of our human nature through trusts, permanent funds and rights delegated to a commons sector.

As a final note, I was very struck by the idea and possibilities of “predistribution of property”.

The late John Rawls, one of America’s leading philosophers, distinguished between predistribution of property and redistribution of income. Under income redistribution, money is taken from “winners” and transferred to “losers.” Understandably, this isn’t popular with winners, who tend to control government and the media. Under property predistribution, by contrast, the playing field is leveled by spreading property ownership before income is generated. After that, there’s no need for income redistribution; property itself distributes income to all. According to Rawls, while income redistribution creates dependency, property predistribution empowers. (105)

In my mind this changes the whole conversation about a more equitable distribution of resources. It frames the question of inequality of wealth in terms of property rights. It also transforms the concept of property rights into the right to property which is what we find in the Jubilary laws of Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15. The obvious question is what the mechanism would be for creating such a predistribution.

The answer lies in the commons—wealth that already belongs to everyone. By propertizing (without privatizing) some of that wealth, we can make everyone a property owner. (105)

Barnes goes through a lot of detail about how all of this would work including specific trusts and permanent funds at local, state and federal levels, how they might function and what they would manage. I would encourage my economically-minded friends to read more of the detail and give me some feedback. As I said before, even though I tend to be doom and gloom about capitalism’s track record and future possibilities, I don’t have much negative to say about Barnes’ upgrade. It answers many of my questions and the historic problems of the capitalist experiment. The main question seems to be whether or not the current system has the capacity to make these kinds of changes. Barnes is hopeful, but cautions that the window for action in implementing these rights is narrow. I remain skeptical, but Barnes challenged me to envision possibilities I hadn’t imagined and that’s always a good thing.