Imagining something better

Thomas Friedman wrote, in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, that there’s “free market vanilla and North Korea”. Personally, I thought we were taught as children that our imaginations are our limits. I guess there are really only two choices about economic systems for as long as we think there are only two. You know what that means? It’s time to get our brain boxes on and start imaginifying something better. Otherwise we’re screwed.

Another American, one who was a pretty deep thinker about all this stuff, Market Luther King Jnr actually had a bit to say about this straight-jacket choice between North Korea or vanilla.  In a speech in Atlanta, Georgia in 1967 MLK Jnr told his audience that “Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the Kingdom of Brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of Communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis.” In other words, c’mon people there’s got to be a better way of doing things.

I’d like to propose a higher synthesis (one which I didn’t actually come up, for that I’d like to thank David Schweickart, who has already written about this in a much clearer way than me). First, we have to take a step back and look at the main features of our economy today:

(1) There is a market for the production, exchange and consumption of goods and services.

(2) Most people make a living through selling their labour in return for a wage.

(3) Capital is mainly privately controlled, the profits from your work generally go to a narrow network of major shareholders and powerful elite managers.

Okay, reality is messier, much more complex, and sometimes it gives you hangovers. However, I think the three points above describe the main features of how we experience our economy on a day to day basis. We work all day to the direction of a manager/supervisor in return for a wage we can use to go and purchase the stuff we need/want down at Coles/Woolworths. This is supposed to be the acme of human development – if we think this is the peak then no wonder there’s so many of us who are depressed.

As an aside, has anyone ever noticed how (1) above is generally used to justify (3). Capitalism is a friendly country town shopping strip where you are free to choose those goods and services that are best for you from a range of helpful retailers, so therefore, the major profits of our productive activity need to accrue to a small elite. I think it’s a bit of a meme. This comes from that Soviet Union experience that really didn’t work out well/ at all – a system where there was no market for goods and services and the profits accrued to a narrow elite of State bureaucrats.

There’s another way though. Call it whatever you want – socialism, economic democracy, a cop out – but I think it’s possible, realistic and needed to get through the shock that’s coming in an equitable way. The main features of this system are:

(1) There is a market for the production, exchange and consumption of goods and services (don’t worry peeps you can still buy some beer from a bar or go shopping for a television).

(2) Workplace democracy – where you work/your company is run on the basis of one worker one vote not one dollar one vote. I don’t have time to elaborate on this further here other than to note that this article provides a useful jumping off point for further research on the topic, and the best beer I’ve ever tasted comes from a worker co-operative.  Word up to Full Sail brewery. No doubt there will be future blog posts about this.

(3) The social control of capital.  If you think this can’t happen in Australia then you need to brush up on your history. One of our greatest Prime Ministers, Ben Chifley, got within a bee’s dick of nationalising the entire banking sector. Besides, after going through 2008 I doubt there’s any way “we, the people” could possibly screw up the banking system more than those Wall Street Wankers. Anyway we paid for the losses, so we might as well get the sector to be more socially useful.

As I’ve stressed before in this article, reality is messier and each of the three points needs to get threshed out in much greater detail but I’d like to think that the three principles above sketch out the beginnings of a workable system. Could the system work? I think it can and will go into further detail in future posts. Can we realistically get there? Change is a universal constant. It would be more unrealistic to think things will always remain the same. However, I think we can use a mixture of reformist and anarchist strategies to build this up to the brink of becoming the dominant norm. The question is what do we call it?


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