Recently, the USA based New Economy Coalition (NEC) held its second biannual national conference, Common Bound, in Buffalo, New York State. A handful of Australians were in attendance to learn about the stunning diversity of projects, organisations, collaborations and directions this expanding movement is generating. The coalition that now comprises over 157 member organisations came together after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. The groundswell of the Occupy Movement led to the energising of social and political momentum towards structural and policy alternatives to the existing corporate controlled economic system. As the seemingly disparate Occupy activists searched for democratic, equitable and sustainable solutions, their ranks flowed into and connected the many organisations that had already been working towards ecological, social and ethical economic systems and structures.
Now, almost eight years down the track, the New Economy movement has grown into one of the more formed and structured consequences of the Occupy Movement; a movement that was initially criticised for its lack of immediately tangible achievements, and unidentifiable leadership. Call it the New Economy, the Social Economy, the Solidarity Economy, the Durable Economy or whatever you like. All over the world movements under these different titles have been gaining momentum by bringing together networks of actors that support ideals rooted in community, democracy, social innovation, cooperation and mutualism. Although these movements have been strong in Central and South America for decades, we in other parts of the world are only really just starting to take notice and trying to catch up.
More recently, the movement in the US has been gaining momentum because as the stability of ultra free capitalism has crumbled class has re-emerged as a space to organise around. The class agitation that is shown on the right and left in US and European politics, most notably in the Brexit vote has been generated by a sense of resentment and dissatisfaction that the economic program of the past twenty years has not substantially improved life for working people. The level of economic growth has been dropping and this is forecasted to continue towards worsening economic stagnation. Meanwhile young people struggle to pay student loans, find secure and meaningful employment while widespread belief that future financial crises are not far away causes further social anxiety and tension. It is in this context, of the pain people are experiencing at the hands of neoliberalism and the lack of coordinated government responses to develop a new economic vision that addresses the level of social unrest, that the new economy movement is building steam. It is arising organically with a mixture of solutions sourced old ideas that are being merged with new concepts and technologies to be a powerful and viral force of change from the bottom up.
The member organisations of the New Economy Coalition who were in attendance at the Common Bound conference represent this movement that is scaling up and spreading through communities across the USA. The organisations are as diverse, synthesising, radical and visionary as the movement they have helped to coalesce. Time honoured and proven traditions of workers, buyers and consumer cooperatives, along with the new wave of social enterprises are invigorating existing models and innovating new models as part of the movement. With fervent grassroots inertia to advocate for, and scale up cooperatives as democratic alternatives to business as usual, they have become the foundational means of democratising the economy from the bottom up. Complementing this work, social, ecological and labour based academic traditions are developing innovative and intersectional new economic analysis that places capital as a tool of the people, not the other way around. Consequently, as grassroots activists and academics increasingly overlap in their theory and practice, the models, ideas, designs and structures that are being produced have growing practical application for grassroots, First Nation, communities of colour, labour organisations and enterprises.
At the Common Bound Conference, what appeared to be the most groundbreaking movement innovation was the deep embracing of diversity, and the principles of justice that were held front and centre as the core values of this movement. Grassroots racial, climate justice, gender, debt and caring economy activists and organisations were strongly represented, and asserted their rightful place as leaders of this movement. Coming from Australia, where our movements so often lack the diversity and relevance they need, this was immensely inspiring. Specifically, the way the Black Lives Matter movement and activists were deeply integrated into the program to place the urgently needed revolution of economic and racial equality at the forefront of issues, was evidence of how strong and interconnected their movement has become. This was critically important, because right now all through the USA I have noticed the fear and trauma people are bearing about recent events. The recent police killings of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling, the murderous violence against police and the consequent social trauma has left the air electric with uncertainty and fear. No more did I experience this than at Common Bound and other political conferences I attended where the activists who are struggling for peace and equality surrounded me.
This was what was so beautiful about Common Bound. It created a space for this pain, and helped to heal it in a way that empowered people to move forward. It was clear that the NEC and the movement culture has evolved with strategic intention. It has put the community struggles of those oppressed ahead of glossy policy platforms, simplistic, instrumentalist campaigns and ideological hairsplitting. The community leaders of these struggles, empowered by their mandate from directly experiencing the worst impacts of the growing extremities of capitalist dysfunction, showed their determination to ensure that a new economy is not just new, but a fair economy for all.
This strength rooted in diversity, has meant the New Economy Movement has been able to find expression for its policy objectives at the parliamentary level. The New Economy Movement has been embraced and expressed with clarity by former Democratic Presidential nominee and class agitator, Senator Bernie Sanders. The pinpoint articulate, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has also led strongly in critiquing the financial sector to create what has become a powerful duo communicating a radical economic vision. Throughout his nomination campaign, Sanders placed tearing down the walls of Wall Street and invigorating support for the new economy high on his agenda. Despite his consistent lack of major press coverage, with the support of the New Economy Movement, he has helped change the mainstream conversation in many ways. One example is the unprecedented consensus of opposition to the latest mutation of corporate rule in the Trans Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement. Through Sanders’ policy leadership both Trump and Clinton have been moved to oppose the agreement.
Despite this progress, there are even clearer signs that the public are recognising the need for deeper systemic change that solves the connected structural problems of the economy and the democracy. The aftermath of legislative inaction following the financial crisis and the obvious systemic political decay shown by the US congress budget deadlock debacle have given fuel to not only the initiatives of the New Economy Movement and their allies, but also to a push to reform the rules of the democracy itself. The Democracy Spring movement that is pushing for a transformation to the voting systems and deep procedural changes is leading the way. Since its inception, they have already had some of their platforms adopted, by the now Presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. They do not plan on stopping until they have achieved all of their goals, and democracy is given back to the people.
The context and growth of the New Economy Movement in the USA is part of a greater story of growing political struggle that has had many contributing factors to its success. If we are to build a similar movement in Australia we need to harness the energy of a similar set of cross cutting issues to replicate the level intersectional and movement diversity that they have achieved. However to do this we will need to take on an appreciation of the young but unique history and values of Australia. Values such as the ‘fair go’ that run deep into the blood of our policy infrastructure that support redistribution of wealth and the tolerance of difference, to some extent. Such values can hold congruence with the progression of a more cooperative and egalitarian economy only if those values are upheld and extended to all Australians.
Australia’s political economy movement ecosystem has been set by so many strong traditions. Traditions of powerful and organised labour, stridently independent rural communities and their ingenuity, communities with growing environmental appreciation, open hearted citizens seeking a more tolerant and welcoming Australia and the surging movements for Indigenous rights and reparations against what has been an onslaught of cultural, economic and land dispossession. We have many challenges ahead of us that these movements are continuing to face. What our challenges have in common is that they have all been created by the inequity, disconnection and violence rooted into the design of our economic system. From the second class treatment of African Americans through successive waves of shameful indigenous policies to the black-birding of the South Pacific, the greatest of our distributional challenges is rooted in race. There are great challenges too in the gender discriminatory reparations of different industries, class tensions flaring from our growing levels of poverty and the escalating crisis in housing affordability.For the rural areas there are the twin nightmares of extractivism and communal decay. These two trends are being driven in part by other countries and their corporations being allowed to buy up ever greater tracts of land and in turn control our livelihoods and ecosystems. These issues are the political mountains of our time. They are encircled by never ending suburban highways that are tearing at the fabric of our communities and dislocating us further from our purpose, family, identity and sense of place; all prerequisites for a healthy society and functional democracy.
Although we do not share the same history of slavery, military industrialism, extreme patriotism, national glorification and obscene inequality with the United States we sure do have our own problems. Our movement for a new economy will not be the same as what it is in the USA. However it will need to be rooted in the same important recognition. The recognition that many of our problems have been caused by the destructive, individualistic, privatising, segregating and consumptive economic system we have. The recognition that the excessive proliferation of this system is evidence that its ideological pillars of violence, dispossession, competition and growth have gone too far.
Although sometimes it does not feel like the tide of political momentum is with us it is important to recognise that our increasingly dysfunctional economic system does not have a plan nor the leadership to deal with the big problems of the day. The crises of inequality, globalization, racial reparations and the litany of consumption, population and economic growth addictions are not being responded to. Rather it is the consequences to these problems that the supporters of the economic status quo are reacting to. Be it the Tea Party, Trump, the Anti-Immigration protesters, One Nation or the more traditional economic mantle holders in the Republicans and Liberal parties. They are all moving towards a new politic of increasingly fear and anger-fueled movements. Movements that are successfully raising up the disengaged and disenfranchised with increasingly irrational but ferocious throbs of energy based on perceived cultural attacks, lost identities or a sense of threatened entitlements.
With the context of this economic leadership vacuum sustained grassroots social movements have the opportunity to develop and execute a deep, diverse and evolving economic vision for Australia. With polls showing that almost a third of Australian voters did not give their primary vote to a major party it is clear that the country is looking for new ideas and a transformation in the political and economic vision. Although we do not have the same level of class agitation that stemmed from the existing inequality and financial crisis as in the US context we do have many movements in motion inextricably linked to economic justice. Within these movements there is sufficient social hunger for a new political and economic vision. How we respond to this opportunity to generate a new vision needs to be thought out. We need to ask ourselves how we should reimagine the structural relationships between capital, power, nature and labour is the story waiting to be told.
There are so many examples of groups and networks who have asked themselves this question and have chosen a decisive course of action. Lock the Gate has helped to restore grassroots citizen democracy and change the debate on agricultural policy with concerted and sustained political activism that many rural communities have not seen for decades. The union movement has maintained the fight against privatization and indigenous networks are being increasingly invigorated by a wave of powerful young leaders determined to shape a new future for their people. Time and time again we have been inspiring one another with bold and courageous actions such as the decision of Doctors at Brisbane Hospital who refused to discharge an asylum seeker child who was at risk of being deported. The bold action that was in turn supported by strong community organising and solidarity in the form of vigils and protests.
If we take these examples of political courage and defiance against the dominant economic system and connect them with the construction of alternative economic structures by working with communities and nontraditional allies, we can develop a movement that confronts the existing establishment while simultaneously replacing it. Australia has a long history of farming cooperatives, community enterprises, credit unions, social entrepreneurship and union interventions in economic processes. This history gives us firm foundations and traditions of ethical, democratic and cooperative structures to build upon. The EarthWorker Cooperative has been a shining example of action to build worker control into our local economies while responding to climate change in a way that create jobs for those that are most at risk of losing employment. New projects like the Future Business Council are creating forward thinking alternatives to the cronyism and profiteering culture of the corporate elite that is suffocating political vision and potential. And of course things are being lead from the bottom up. More and more local governments are taking action to divest from fossil fuels and invest in community renewables. In other communities local economy initiatives like food shares, community supported agriculture and transition towns continue to proliferate exponentially. Just as the old and the new can merge so to can our efforts to reclaim our democracy merge with practical actions to renew our economy. As they come together these social veins of ideas and activity can weave together to caste a new scalable dream that can win mainstream recognition and change our political narrative forever.
There are so many opportunities to continue to weave our work together. By doing so we can connect our campaigns and initiatives that struggle for local, cooperative, fair and green values to be elevated in a way that brings them closer to addressing the major remaining challenges of equality and justice. Efforts to restore the role manufacturing plays in our economy can be made in a way that increases worker ownership so we do not lose our industries again. The class warriors protecting our rights at work might consider embracing systematic change through a stronger emphasis on union coops and Employee Stock Ownership Plans. Such a strategic realignment could to free the labour movement from the dance with out of touch capital and give social license to new enterprises as part of a solidarity economy. As we free land from the destruction of mining we can follow the lead of many new projects and work with the nearby communities to plan and implement new sustainable economic options that create a just transition for mine workers. The supporters of humane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees could find a new narrative in working more closely with the businesses of past refugees to illuminate how Australia’s economy benefits from the cultural diversity and energy migration brings. Australia’s own emerging Black Lives Matter movement has the potential to unite indigenous activists around a transformational vision that goes beyond land rights for economic reparations that places indigenous people with power and resources to continue leading the way in community and economic development in their communities.
The movements with the power to build a new economy are all in existence, it is just a matter of us all working together to connect to a common narrative that puts economic justice and equality at its core. However there is a big challenge for Australia in that we have been so well insulated by the economic turbulence the majority of the world has experienced. This has meant that we have not had nor do have the class and social agitation that is spurring new economic activity in other parts of the world. Whether a visionary new movement of seeding initiatives and capacity building can arise in a way that lays adequate foundations for the clearly encroaching more serious economic woes of the world that will affect Australia is the big question at hand.
This has started to happen in Australia with more and more signs of meaningful cross movement collaboration. Recently the first Australian New Economy Conference took place in Sydney where activists, social economy entrepreneurs, academics and community representatives came together to share and plan for a new economy movement in Australia. The coming together of this budding movement is overdue. It is time the growing initiatives bubbling up around peer-to-peer initiatives, commoning, maker movements, sharing, buen vivir, collaborative economies, solidarity economies, localisation and cooperative movements start to work together in a meaningful way. A network of the conference attendees will soon be meeting again to plan out the development of Australian’s own New Economy Coalition at a meeting in Brisbane this October. If out of this diverse group and the broader movement of actors where ever they are working, we can begin to find a united vision to tackle challenges cooperatively, a shared identity that can lead to a new economic story, and the solidarity to stand directly in support of frontline communities at the forefront of intersecting crises, then there is a lot to get excited about. Now that we again have a conservative government in power it is absolutely time for all the collaborators, cooperators and creators to start sharing and developing the common threads of this narrative so we can tell this story together as a united movement.