"I am not interested in dry economic socialism. We are fighting against misery, but we are also fighting against alienation . . . If communism isn't interested in this too, it may be a method of distributing goods, but it will never be a revolutionary way of life."
I landed at "CommonBound: Moving Together Toward a New Economy" in Boston, Massachusetts with the dilemma of having to critically report on a movement in which I've wanted involve myself for years. The conference was organized by the New Economy Coalition, a nonprofit with its own small full-time staff that works to connect people across the country operating in the "new economy" - worker-owned businesses and cooperatives, credit unions, community land trusts and other "post-capitalist" endeavors - in the hopes that this widespread structural rearrangement can form the backbone of a social, political and economic revolution.
Certain aspects of the "new economy" are not so new: living in harmony with the environment, for example - an oft-repeated value among the 700 people who attended the conference last weekend - is hardly a new idea to many indigenous cultures (some of which were represented prominently at CommonBound). And even in a Western context, Karl Marx praised the federation of worker cooperatives under the 1871 Paris Commune as a vision of "'possible' communism," which was strikingly similar to CommonBound’s vision of a decentralized, worker-owned economy facilitated by friendly municipal and state governments.
What is new, said Gar Alperovitz, the unofficial guru of the movement who has promoted bottom-up forms of organizing and wealth accumulation for 40 years, is the coalescence of like-minded people to hammer out what he calls the "content of the revolution."
"If you don't want state socialism and you don't want corporate capitalism," he asked me, "what are you talking about?"
Alperovitz makes a distinction between the "confrontation" and "content" revolutionary elements he believes are needed to overthrow corporate capitalism, and CommonBound was clearly convened to address the latter. The assumption shared by many was that vital "content" of a new society is the structural design of a person-based new economy. Hundreds of real-life examples for such an arrangement can be found at The Democracy Collaborative, an organization founded by Alperovitz.
Some of the most inspiring moments of CommonBound happened when those engaged in grassroots community-building shared strategy. One particular exchange stands out in my mind: A man from a dilapidated Mississippi town said he was having trouble inspiring local residents to open their own businesses, because the town's predominately black population was averse to putting up the financial collateral necessary to do so. A woman from the Northeast advised him to get in touch with a credit union that provides shared secured loans for just that context. The man's face lit up, and he said he would be in touch with the credit union.
Community developers weren't the only who showed up. I met an MBA student studying sustainable enterprise, a retired professor working as a consultant to advise businesses on how to consume less natural resources, an organizer against corporate abuse and the founder of a worker-owned bicycle messenger service, among many others. Everybody's separate efforts converged in a shared set of values: solidarity in the workforce, climate change as a catalyst for structural change and the dire reason for revolution now and a revulsion for the hollowness of conspicuous consumption and ravenous profit lust (contemporary capitalism's most sacrosanct values). Those shared values form a cultural framework on which a new economy can be built.
Yet values that exist only in relation to what they oppose are not enough to engender the collective spirit necessary to overthrow the most powerful corporate system in history and the ethos at its core. Some of the presenters confronted the weekend's spiritual problem outright. A speaker at the concluding plenary noted that the main piece missing from the conference was a "shared moral compass." Another representative of the New Economy Coalition argued in one workshop that any challenge to the status quo couldn't gain momentum without a deeper commitment to obliterating the vestiges of colonial oppression.
It was people of color, representing groups who've mostly suffered near the bottom of American capitalism since its inception, who usually raised those concerns. Fortunately, the majority of attendees (who were mostly white) bent over backwards to express how much they wanted to build an inclusive movement for humans of all identities. The stereotype of cooperative localists as only white organic farmers from Vermont is wrong. Still, among attendees, the fervor (rather than the commitment, which was uniformly resolute) for building a society free of oppression varied in intensity, depending on whom you talked to.
I don't mean fervor in the sense of policing purism. At best that fractures movements, and at its worst, it justified states' massacre of millions in Marxist-Leninist regimes. What I mean is constantly challenging ourselves to understand the deepest depths of social suffering, and how we (unconsciously but inevitably) are complicit in it.
You don't have to tell a black man serving 25 years in a private prison for marijuana possession or a 12-year-old migrant tobacco picker in South Carolina that the system is unfair. They know. The question is how you build something that matches that intuition. If we're going to build a people-based economy, its structural contours must be traced with ink from the darkest pits of human suffering in our current system. The structure must materialize from a spiritual conception.
Two friends and I spent much of Saturday night debating a young white attendee who argued that "structural changes" to the economy were more important than cultivating a discourse and spirit of inclusion, as if they were mutually exclusive. The framing was that "serious" things like fossil fuel divestment and collateral for opening worker-owned businesses merited more attention than sensitive-Sammy concern for "political correctness." It's a false and myopic - but familiar - dichotomy on the left, and far from elevating a list of priorities that may facilitate revolution more expeditiously, it entrenches the same identity-based resentment that serves the vacuous culture of capitalism so well.
That conversation actually had a happy outcome - with the man seeming to warm up to our side in the end - but I caught flashes of the same tension throughout the weekend. That doesn't mean the movement for a new economy is doomed, but it does mean there has to be more awareness that a new economy is worth pursuing only if it is foregrounded in a new society. There is no guarantee that worker-owned businesses or credit unions will actually operate differently from the sociopathic bottom-line philosophy of today's free enterprise system, no matter how egalitarian their charters. The change begins with the people working within institutions.
I was challenged and inspired in equal measure at CommonBound. As the weekend wound down, most people seemed aware that a heightened consciousness was needed to galvanize the movement and broaden its inclusion beyond the 700 there. Unleashing that spiritual wellspring will generate both revolutionary content and confrontation.