America is a country of rugged individualism. - I earned my money! - Free enterprise is the foundation of American greatness! - Don’t rock the boat. - Get with the game. - Don’t be left behind. - Go with the flow. - Policy should promote market certainty. - Why don’t poor people get a job?! - Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. - You reap what you sow. - If only they worked hard, the market would reward them!
Is this what the American dream has become?
Where is the inspiration?! Where is the aspiration to a higher goal, an advancement of humanity beyond pointless toil? The Great Recession is forcing a systemic shift. The current system situated on a bedrock of American exceptionalism seems empty, the illusion propped up by billions in advertising dollars meant to white wash reality. We have big oil destroying an entire ecosystem in the Gulf. The nuclear industry is more dangerous than ever. Big financial firms like Goldman pulled a reverse Robin Hood and took from Peter (you) to pay Paul (the CEO class). Vulture capital firms buy up entire retail chains, cut them to the bone, then flip ‘em on the market for a fat profit; it’s how one Presidential candidate made his millions.Despite the feel-good rhetoric, everyone of us knows the current system offers little inspiration for our shared future. As the great social commentarian George Carlin used to say:
“The owners of this country know the truth: It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
The owners of this country spend billions giving propagandists (some call them talking heads, others pundits) cushy prime time TV spots to regurgitate sound bites produced by think tanks like the corporate-financed Heritage Foundation. These propagandists explain away the hypocrisies of their corporate masters, and berate anyone who opposes their big money agenda. This is their game, rigged to support an ever-shifting set of rules, all at our expense. So obsessed are they with retaining their power, the owners of this country have shown they are willing to tank the entire global economy to retain their dominance, a point which became all too clear in the recent debt ceiling debate.The media is doing its part to put the blame on the underclass, labeling this group the American Lost Generation. The vast majority of people within the Lost Generation will never have the political clout necessary to attain the American dream of multiple mansions, fast cars, and star-studded birthday parties (a hollow existence if you ask me). The bottom 99% of the US faces an uncertain future with limited job prospects due to increasingly automated technologies owned by a few. What’s more, we can’t go looking to government for help either, since the corporate class has diminished government capacity to blunt the economic crises brought on by the owners of Western democracies.
What’s an entire generation of people to do?!
It may be true that we are a Lost Generation, but it isn’t written in stone. The proclamations of the think tanks only hold true if we continue along this path of dependency designed by the owners of our democracy.
The baby boomers preceding us were supposedly raised in a time of unparalleled prosperity. The union movement was strong, and the political classes struck a grand bargain with a number of protest movements: let us continue being rich and we will give you a stable middle class lifestyle. The illusion is that the political and economic system was a shared consensus system, democratically regulated to meet the needs of the masses while also providing room for the marginalized to attain the “American Dream.”
But this system was never ours to share. It was tweaked by the politically connected to keep people complacent.Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, and other social insurance programs have kept a number of people from dying, but they have not stopped the suffering of many; the result is a system of crisis prevention at best. Indeed from its very inception, the social safety net was being strategically dismantled by the ownership classes.
The owners have never played by the book like the rest of us do. The owners do their best to use mouthpieces in government and the media to frame their disaster capitalism as some form of populist reform when really it’s just another step backward to the darker days of industrialization where people lived their lives for the benefit of the robber barons in corporate-owned factory towns. A cursory glance at the double-speak is both telling and alarming. American politicians lovingly refer to corporate CEOs as “job-creators,” imbuing an almost God-like reverence for the wealth of the politically-privileged to stymie criticism of excessive waste generated by the tax revenue from single parents and working class seniors without pensions slaving away at box stores. Mandated government insurance programs we all pay into - like unemployment insurance or Social Security - are increasingly eyed by Wall Street investors as yet another stream of stable revenue. These programs are delegitimized by think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, called welfare instead of insurance by the media to make people believe they are excessive handouts to criminal elements, then they are “reformed” so as to make the insurance program less effective, which finally and inevitably makes the case for our beloved “job-creators” to take control and right the system.
The case is often made that the owners in corporate America care about their local communities and the people who work for them. The irony is that any time an initiative arises to make publicly traded corporations (and publicly privileged by corporate statute, since they are now limited liability and counted as “people”) operate in the interest of greater society, they oppose it. Transnational corporations are structured by law - and defended by pop culture - to extract wealth locally and consolidate that wealth within circles populated by CEOs, board members, and shareholders with no regard for their host communities (here I think the term parasite is appropriate).
The lesson is simple. Just as easily as the ownership classes created your social program or economic boom, they can take it away.
My Medicare-dependent grandmother would be left without life-securing medical care if the current budget plan by the Republican were to pass, a slap in the face to seniors nationally who paid for this care over the course of a lifetime of work. No less than the World Economic Forum - in the 2011 Global Risk Report - has gone so far as to note an endemic global failure of governance is resulting in broad disparity, food insecurity, and communities at risk to chronic system shocks, a persistent crisis brought upon us by these modern day robber barons on steroids. This is not just a crisis of the United States, but of the entire globe.
We must come to grips with the reality that corporate America is on the side of corporate America. Corporate America is not your friend. Unlike you, the owners of this country lack empathy, have borderline destructive personalities, and are not as charitable as you might think.
We cannot go back to the approaches of old, approaches that are easily co-opted through centralized political processes. The scale of centralization means the system is only accessible by those willing to donate to political campaigns and hire retired, overpaid politicians posing as lobbyists. Instead we must embrace a movement that has been building underfoot, a movement that puts power in our hands not by revolution, but by subversion. We, this Lost Generation, are tasked not to hope, but to create.
Build Anew Within The Shell Of The Old: The Cooperative Business Movement.
We don’t need the owners.
The message is clear: we must break our dependency on the owners of our democracies. Instead we must create a competitive social vision that meets the material and spiritual needs of the many. We don’t want an “alternative economy.” We need a competing economy, one the takes on this wasteful, lumbering corporate parasite with something human. We must build a system that cannot be taken from us by those who want to continue owning us.
How we get there is really not as difficulty as it may seem. People the world over, from Tunisia, to Syria and Chile - to name a few - are refusing to be a Lost Generation and taking ownership over their own lives.
Much has been written about the social business movement, led by such thinkers as the creator of micro-finance, Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank. And no doubt, Yunus has worked to create a vast amount of entrepreneurial activity and self-sufficiency in impoverished Bangladesh. However, the notion of the social business is the idea of “us helping them.” There is a subtle authority embedded within the conceptualization of the social business model that feels like more of the same dependency-building development, a sort of charity coming from up high.
What we need is less charity, more solidarity.
No other institutional model exhibits the ideal of solidarity than the cooperative business model.
The structure of cooperatives (as common property regimes) is built to infuse democracy into all facets of our lives. Democracy isn’t reserved for a one-off vote during the work week (in the United States, we call that process Presidential elections). Instead, cooperatives are intentionally designed to be run by those who use and own them (I doubt this is what was meant when Karl Rove coined the term “ownership society”). The Rochdale Pioneers purposefully designed cooperatives to work together systemically, to impact their communities, build civil society, and educate the masses about the cooperative business model.
This ain’t utopian. This is community bootstrapping. This is what can happen when people organize around specific needs for shared purpose.
Cooperatives globally touch the lives of billions of people. The remarkable worker-federated Mondragon in Spain is the most often referenced example, and indeed it is quite impressive. The 100+ worker cooperatives produce everything from foodstuffs to microprocessors, pulling down over $20 billion in revenue annually. But there is another cooperative model that I find to be the ideal in this era of corporate-state corruption and collusion.
The social cooperatives of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna were formed in part to circumnavigate the corrupted Italian government and provide critical social services throughout the region. Mafia-connected bureaucrats were denied tax dollars, and social cooperatives were tasked to provide them through a number of mechanisms. From the Wikipedia entry on social cooperatives:
Social co-operatives are legally defined as follows:
● the objective is the general benefit of the community and the social integration of citizens.
● type A co-operatives provide health, social or educational services.
● those of type B integrate disadvantaged people into the labour market. The categories of disadvantage they target may include physical and mental disability, drug and alcohol addiction, developmental disorders and problems with the law. They do not include other factors of disadvantage such as race, sexual orientation or abuse
● various categories of stakeholder may become members, including paid employees, beneficiaries, volunteers (up to 50% of members), financial investors and public institutions. In type B co-operatives at least 30% of the members must be from the disadvantaged target groups
● the co-operative has legal personality and limited liability
● voting is one person, one vote
● no more than 80% of profits may be distributed, interest is limited to the bond rate and dissolution is altruistic (assets may not be distributed)
When we talk about empowerment and meeting the needs of local communities, the social cooperative model goes a long way toward those criteria. But must we stop there? Can we think bigger and can we think better?
Building A New Model In The USA.
The owners of our democracy have done little to truly build community, or contribute to positive social change. The wages provided by our owners are one thing, but ownership of our democracy is entirely different .
Cooperatives have demonstrated immense capacity to operate as vehicles for social change. But what about a cooperative movement based upon a community emphasis?
The cooperative economy of the United States is comprised of roughly 30,000 businesses, owned by consumer, worker, and producer consortiums. There are over 300 cooperative grocery stores, thousands of credit unions, 900 electric cooperatives, and hundreds of utilities. Combined, these cooperatives employ tens of thousands of people, producing over $600 billion in revenue annually in the U.S. alone. That ain’t chump change.
Now imagine if you will a United States government that doesn’t favor business-killing box stores and instead helps small to mid-level entrepreneurs to work collectively to build the next generation of cooperatives, namely by removing the privilege-inducing laws given to major corporations. Corporate behemoths would have to operate within a true market economy against community-oriented businesses. But that isn’t enough. Cooperatives do need a leg up due to the centuries of privilege corporations have received from their government partnerships.
We should not call for tax breaks, or even direct subsidies, but instead corporations should continue to pay for the system they have manipulated for so long through their standard tax system with minimal deductions. Social cooperatives within the United States should receive a special designation to truly empower this form of community enterprise to flourish and foster a deep community wealth.
A social cooperative would not pay federal taxes, but would retain that portion of taxation for use within the social cooperative sector. The social cooperative would withhold the full amount of its federal taxes for three purposes.
First, a majority of the withheld taxes would be reserved for locally oriented social services. In doing so, the bloat of the federal tax and redistribution system would be cut out of the process. Further enhancing efficiency would be the targeted nature of social programs, created and administered by the member-owners of the social cooperative (such systems could feasibly be pooled with other social cooperative, coordinated in partnership with university social work programs in order to harness the skill set developed by longstanding faculty to enhance the outcomes of social investing).
Second, the withheld taxes could be put into skills training for real needs. The current system puts money into short-term jobs training programs created by and targeted toward the needs of major corporations (the corporation that hires you today may fire you tomorrow when the subsidy runs out). Social cooperatives could train people in both basic work skills for the truly underprivileged and the skills needed for a different kind of society, like conflict resolution and consensus decision-making. In this manner, skills training becomes both capacity building and contributes to civil society by empowering people to better understand how social systems work and what it takes to access and change them. Everyone becomes an expert when everyone is included in some part of the ownership process.
Third, the remainder of the withheld taxes would then be pooled into a revolving loan fund with the sole intent to grow additional social cooperatives and provide critical capital to expand existing social coops. Under this scenario the 30,000 cooperatives currently operating in the USA could remain under the current coop tax statutes, or shift to the social cooperative system. Regardless, the social coop model would incentivize education, cooperation amongst cooperatives, and community development, three of the seven Rochdale cooperative principles. This would go a long way toward making some longstanding cooperatives actually act like cooperatives and build a truly competitive social movement.
Picture if you will a social grocery cooperative. Are you unemployed and in need of food assistance? Your social grocery cooperative could feasibly administer food aid in the form of food stamps in partnership with the state government. What if you don’t qualify for food stamps, but you’re flat broke (it happens a lot)? The social grocery cooperative could trade off subsidized food for labor volunteered with the grocery store or another local social cooperative they are partnered with. In this manner, the member-owners of the social cooperatives are taking care of their own community not through charity, but through varying degrees of solidarity. The profit motive is replaced with the solidarity motive.
This is true decentralization. The necessity for impoverished rural and inner city regions to curry favor with politicians - for trifles just to scrape by to live another day - would be drastically diminished under the social coop model. Workplaces can extend the promise of democracy into the factory floor and connect it to the board room through the fusion of worker ownership as well. Laborers would be treated as owners, as part of the management process in a system bent on broad entrepreneurship, critical thought, and civic action as the prime mover, not just the inferior profit motive.
What about issues of accessibility to advanced technology? Communities have long ago ceded their production capacity to large corporations and state-run enterprise, meaning every community in the U.S. is dependent upon the expertise of a few to manufacture, transport and distribute the needs of the many. These systems are shrouded through intellectual property law that does more to prevent innovation and competition than to guarantee an entrepreneur a return on their invention. It’s not difficult to see how the lack of information coupled with resource scarcity of fossil fuels, metal ores, and clean potable water erects a substantial barrier to collective action.
Information As A Force Multiplier For Change.
Despite what politicians and pundits tells us, the owners of our democracy really don’t have much to contribute, whether it be jobs, critical social services, or even knowledge.
We don’t need them.
Groups around the globe are innovating technological pathways to address these issues in an open manner. Open source is a process by which the sourcing of a product or process is open for public dissemination. The more open source a product or process is, the easier the access to the schematics, meaning processes can be streamlined and products can be rapidly enhanced by volunteers. Once the source information is opened, technology can be enhanced and deployed in ways never before imagined.
Combine the cooperative model with the growing power of open source information sharing, and you are seeing a true force multiplier for a modern day community renaissance. Open source innovation then becomes more about building your community than seeking a fat profit.
My home state of Illinois is itself replete with small-scale machine shoppes, typically tasked with producing tools or specialty parts for global branded factories like Caterpillar or ADM. Who is to say these small-scale machine shoppes couldn’t specialize in niche products for regional consumption, thereby creating new markets for goods and enhancing the local production capacity. Machine shoppes could produce everything from screws to light switches, to clothes dryers, to riding lawn-mowers to cars. Indeed this capacity could even be redirected to making machines that make the machines (for particular inspiration, I would redirect you to the revolutionary work being done at Factor E Farm).
These machine shoppes could federate to create optimal economies of scale. The federation could hire a staff of engineers to direct innovation by operating websites dedicated to the advancement of open source product lines and technologies, thereby engaging a global community of innovators who contribute back to a shared web ring of developers.
Such a system need not come with sacrifice, even in terms of aesthetics. We are seeing additional advances in technology that make it possible to not only produce the standard daily needs of life in your own garage, but to also do it with attention to design and style. There are groups dedicated to open source clothing. Need furniture? What about contacting your local woodworking cooperative and asking them to manufacture a designer piece of furniture you downloaded online? Want to start a cooperative with automated computing? By all means you could consult with your coop computer techs on open source computing options. Concerned about the sustainability of your energy footprint? There are communities of people working on open source renewables, and the technology is only getting better.The more people who get involved, the quicker the innovation will occur.
Communities across the world are more readily equipped to take advantage of open source than you might think. In fact, many developing countries are actually hotbeds of high end manufacturing technology. Companies such as Nike, Adidas, and even Apple don’t make their own products; they contract out to manufacturers across the globe. Indeed these companies are increasingly bullying startups who infringe on ridiculously broad patents. By banding together in cooperative form, we can better protect these startups from the heavy-handedness of such corporate bullying that does more to accrue profit than to improve society.
Apple for example is producing cutting edge hardware packaged with elegant software, sure, but they don’t actually make their computers; Apple outsources to factory towns in Taiwan, South Korea, and mainland China. Nike uses computerized textile manufacturing in Indonesia. GM and Boeing produce components for their cars and airplanes all across the globe (Boeing’s dogmatic approach to outsourcing has hurt the bottom line more than helped).
The infrastructure exists everywhere for us to create abundant regional economies and to do it sustainably. Instead of the push-pull economy relying on hefty advertising outlays and government consumption of surplus production, we end up with a more dynamic demand-pull economy driven by regionally-oriented need. Cumbersome just-in-time supply chains would be a thing of the past. Gone will be the vast amount of waste from the over-production of cheap plastic trifles, which would then be replaced with more durable goods at the beck and call of the member-owners of a robust cooperative economy.
The ownership class will no doubt quibble about issues of efficiency, using such empty buzzwords as free enterprise and intellectual property theft. The reduced burden of the profit motive, diminished pollution from regionalized transportation and limited waste won’t be enough to quell the “constructive criticism” of the politically connected owners. Indeed, in their arguments railing against the inefficiency of such localized economies, they overlook one big component of their overhead cost; CEO pay and shareholder returns. Imagine the bloat added to the overhead cost of our products just by having the corporate infrastructure which pays the CEOs of dying car companies $20 million in compensation. In a cooperative, gone would be the shareholders, hedge fund managers and bureaucrats demanding profit maximization. Pay differential would drop, and other excesses (private jets anyone) would be a thing of the past. No longer would he with the most money reign supreme; in a coop, no matter how much money one contributes, every singular member gets only one vote.
We have each other. The owners want need us. It’s time we said we don’t need them.
We can and must have a new system. No system will ever be utopian, but we can agree it can at least be better… much better.
My message is this: we don’t need them. We can and we must have a system in which each community crafts its own solution. If we release the creative, collaborative capacity of every community, we can break ourselves free of the owners of this country and their disastrous cycles of boom and bust economies that do little to uplift this Lost Generation.
We are the change we have been waiting for. Not him, definitely not them, but certainly us. We can build a better system predicated on the better angels of humanity.
That is the calling of this Lost Generation.
By Keith Taylor
Keith is a PhD candidate in the Department of Human and Community Development at the University of Illinois. Keith previously worked as a Congressional legislative aide, and in university development.
Having grown up in the Midwest during a period of decline has inspired Keith to seek community-based solutions to many of the critical problems facing rural to mid-sized communities, particularly during an era of decreasing state and corporate assistance.
Keith’s research is focused on how various institutional governance arrangements impact community development outcomes. Of particular interest is exploring the efficacy of the cooperative model toward community development ends.
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