Posted September 12th 2018 at 8:00 am by
in Economic Democracy

Economic Democracy Rundown: Part 2

Hey, we’re back! So we looked at each video for its narrative and analytical strengths and weaknesses. Then we exchanged a series of emails with our thoughts. We edited and in some cases elaborated on our initial thoughts and are publishing them below, retaining some of the dialogue for authenticity. Our names are shortened below as LB (Lawrence) and ECF (Evan).

Here’s Part 1 in case you missed it.

Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe: Every TV news report on the economy in one

LB: I mean this video is really hilarious, and crazy with that Apprentice reference given the last election. But from a storytelling perspective, who are the heroes and villains? What are we supposed to do about this problem they are really cleverly displaying and mocking? It’s one thing to mock systems of power, and this video is so good at embodying that awful idea that “there is no alternative”… but there’s no solution or action pointed to here; just despair, which is a BIG miss for me. The point is so important, but then we are just supposed to sit and eat a Twix like the reporter is going to do? Yikes!

ECF: I think we agree pretty much. I absolutely love this video, I use it in college and graduate classes, I use it in workshops. I think of it like something The Onion could have produced–its sharp and sardonic and cuts right to the core of its target. But! It’s accusing the news of demobilizing people, of turning the economy into this totally amorphous complex machine of numbers that no one can control or do anything to change. That’s their point, but then they do the same thing but not saying anything about what you could do or should do differently! So, well, oops. So when I show it, that’s where I take the point next: ok so that’s how we are told the economy works, but let’s talk about how it actually works, who it serves, and how people have struggled to make it work differently. So in that sense it’s a perfect setup for that conversation. But if you don’t have that conversation….you’re just kinda like oh damn that’s messed up  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ .

Ed Whitfield on why the “teaching a man to fish” parable is a lie

LB: The narrative reframe using that analogy is fire. It works well because so many people know it and also because, as he says, they use it often to tell stories about how society and the economy work, or should work. Also, I really appreciate his angle on new forms of power. I’d never heard that before. Now that I think about it, I don’t hear about that idea at all in lots of talk about economic democracy, even at BCDI! It’s just, “re-organize old notions of capital and production.” Whaddya think about that? Do you agree or disagree? Either way, very interesting! Also, the hero is way underplayed! Who is it? The organizer(s)? The villain and victim are clear, but who are the sheroes?

ECF: I once called Ed Whitfield an “unstoppable juggernaut of truth” so, disclosing my biases here. I think this is a critical contribution into reframing how the economy works and could work differently. I’m working on revising the BCDI/CoLab curriculum right now as part of my job, actually, and that is one of the things that we clearly have to address, so thanks for that nudge ;).

I struggle to make use of the fishing metaphor in New York City because like, fishing isn’t really a popular activity. I also was somewhat surprised to hear from some community organizers that the analogy didn’t work for them because they use the fishing analogy in a positive sense around the idea of teaching people to organize to fight for their needs. So that’s just a different approach to using the fishing analogy. I just recently learned that Ed has another speech where he uses a Ham sandwich instead and I think (and he makes this point too) it’s more useful that way for an urbanized society where production and survival are often packaged for you in ways that living off of the commons of a fishery aren’t. But that aside: you’re right, the story itself doesn’t have a protagonist, but as an intervention into a story about the economy that addresses power, ownership, and oppression without using jargon is a huge contribution. The task that follows then is showing how this narrative of ownership of fishing poles and watering holes (or ham sandwiches) plays out in our daily lives, which is why I thought it would be good for us to talk about some videos that use concrete examples as well, besides just the abstract concepts and narratives.

Cooperative Economics Alliance of New York City (CEANYC) 

LB: So many narrative victories HERE! There’s a strong primary metaphor with the American pie divided up in different ways. There’s a clear villain: money and the idea of the ‘highest bidder.’ There are also clear heroes: the cooperatives! The video uses solid and simple (and delicious looking) visuals and narration. If the goal was to get people hyped on cooperatives, this seems pretty effective!

ECF: I’m a little biased here again since I contributed to the script a bit, so I’ll take a pass on this one. I remember discussing the concept of the video with my buddies/comrades in SolidarityNYC a few years ago and I still love watching it. I think it stands up pretty well.

LB: I mean it’s a little simple, there’s complexity in all of this that isn’t elaborated on here. For example, the video sort of suggests that building lots of coops will lead to social and racial justice, and like kinda skips over the social movement and politics of resistance and struggle. It’s short too, so it doesn’t get into the histories of how cooperatives have and haven’t been a part of these things. It doesn’t get into any specifics of how cooperatives work differently on a day to day basis. The part about sharing equally could be confusing for people who don’t know how cooperatives actually work. For example, just because you’re a member-owner in worker cooperative doesn’t mean you get paid the same wage and salary as everyone else. When people don’t know enough about how these things work and how not exotic they can be, we can create opportunities for false ideas to get in and set up barriers for people that aren’t real.

ECF: Yeah, coops are like very boring and normal in good ways too. There’s a tension I feel around wanting cooperatives to be totally normal and widespread, but also wanting people to have a strong sense of what makes them different and better. It’s a tricky balance that relies on lots of member education, and on coops being successful. I’ve also been a part of debates where people argue (often rightfully!) that being a part of a cooperative or being a coop booster means you’re white and middle class and think its just like a nice cute idea that doesn’t extend beyond your food cooperative or worker cooperative–in other words, isn’t a part of a systemic critique or broader transformative politics around power in society. Jessica’s [Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard] book has been, like, transcendently, stupendously valuable for undermining that narrative. It is a generation-defining book. But having been studying and working with cooperative folks for a while now, it is like, also absolutely true that lots of people are white and middle class and not radical. Speaking as an urban planning person, it’s also true in affordable housing and community development, it’s true in economic development, it’s true in lots of spaces. So this video could be mistaken for that kind of bland thing, definitely. Speaking as a CEANYC person, I think that’s part of our political north star–on one hand, to combine cooperative principles of mutual aid and support and their economic power with social movements more effectively, and on the other hand, also to bring social movement analysis, vision, and strategy into cooperative institutions where its been lacking. That fusion could be very powerful.

The Next System Project: What is Economic Democracy?

LB: There are some of assumptions in this one that undermine its points and the ideas its presenting.  For example, who is David Schweickart and why are we using his definition? Is that THE definition of economic democracy? Are there other definitions? And also, the idea of a definition of this system doesn’t really address the “how” part either–ok, so if economic democracy is super great, what do we do about it? I realize not every video can address all of these things, but the idea that there is a single definition of economic democracy seems misguided to me. If it’s his definition, as it says, can we just briefly note that there are lots of other definitions that have been offered and this is just one example?

ECF: I have overall found the Next System Project incredibly useful for expanding the horizons for my students in college and grad school, and giving them outlets for exploring ideas and concepts in accessible ways. This video is obviously not for the everyday person, which is okay, as long as it’s paired with stories that really make it concrete or understandable at the scale of everyday life. In some ways it’s sort of the mirror image of the CEANYC video maybe? Like CEANYC’s video is saying, all around the city there are these ways of doing things better; let’s do more of that! But it doesn’t address the how or anything about the broader systems change or how institutions currently work or what we’re working towards, aside from the very broad and vague values of democracy, justice, mutualism, things like that. To me they are like two trains leaving from two different stations heading towards each other, not to crash, but eventually they’ll meet in the middle and pass each other, connecting abstract concepts with practical daily life.

I also agree that defining economic democracy is tricky, because then we end up spending more time on whether something counts as inside or outside of that definition, rather than if something is worth doing. Focusing economic democracy on the workplace and ownership of enterprises and banks/capital also is limiting, because there are things that economic democracy maybe could address if defined differently or more expansively that might be more accessible to people not as matters of workplaces or finance, like education or health or racism and sexism. With this definition, how does economic democracy offer solutions to that? Some might say well you need other things for that, economic democracy isn’t for that, maybe that’s what the solidarity economy framework is for. Ok, that’s one response. But there are important principles about collective stewardship and democratic governance in economic democracy that could be really valuable to health equity or democratizing education or addressing systems of oppression. But you’d have to make the definition different and broader to do that. The main point is that these definitions don’t just *exist*, we make and remake them over time.

The Boston Ujima Project

ECF: I think this video is a great synthesis of some of the themes we’re talking about in terms of effectively connecting values and narratives and ideologies to everyday actions and practices that we can do now. Also it’s so critical to talk about finance in ways that are regenerative and non-extractive. We need lots of different kinds of finance in any economy! It is so powerful and necessary when used with the right values and structures. Although I find this video gets a little confusing at times with all of their projects, I think that’s a very common challenge when the economy is such a complex thing. Making changes takes lots of different approaches and lots of different people. That’s why we wanted to talk about several videos not just one, after all!

LB: Agreed! This video is largely about the actual mechanics of the project’s approach to reshaping the economy. I think this video tells the story of that reshaping better than any other video, from the scale of the individual person all the way up to the scale of the city, better than any of these other videos. The characters are visually black and brown folks in the city of Boston and the conflict seems to be framed as those folks versus extractive and harmful industries and practices. Definite win there, in my book. The victims are implicitly the residents of Boston, but I wish that was called out more explicitly. I’m also curious, from a solidary standpoint, if there is room for framing the victims people in Boston who aren’t black or brown. Given the purpose of this video, that obviously doesn’t make sense, but still I wonder what that might framing might do to build broader solidarity in the long-run. One last point on this one: there are many assumptions in here that make this video not really usable outside of “the choir.” For example, there is a strong hold to the assumption that people want to divest from ideas like prisons and fossil fuels. If you don’t hold that assumption, I don’t imagine this video would be particularly compelling after that point. Of course, I agree with that divestment, and given that this is a membership recruitment video, it’s great for it to turn off people who don’t agree. But at the point of needing/wanting to grow a base, the case for why those assumptions are important will have to be made to non-believers, heh.

The Democracy Collaborative: What is Community Wealth Building?

LB: This one points out pretty clear villains: corporations, the 1%, absentee owners, and somewhat clear heroes: the latina worker coop in SF, the public bank in North Dakota, and so on. Also, we are the victims, people in cities. We should be upset! The narrative feels pretty unfinished to me, though. The arc to me seems like they’re saying something similar to the David Schweickart piece:”if all corporations were owned by their workers or members, the economy would be all set!” Not only does that leave out the whole pathway from here to there, it also hides so many other questions, like what is the purpose of a job actually? Does it fulfill just one purpose or several? This video also holds with the assumption that people need jobs. The debate happening now between universal basic income and a job guarantee is going to make the “jobs” discussion more complex in the coming years. The imagery overall is excellent though; both the animation and the examples they highlight are very compelling.

ECF: I think that point you’re making about presenting “cooperatives” as a solution, is sort of like what the CEANYC video almost does too, which flirts a little too closely with the idea that a particular set of organizational forms would itself constitute something like justice, rather than being tools towards realizing justice (or self-determination, or whatever). I really appreciate how this lifts up local solutions of various kinds and various scales: a worker cooper and a state bank are very different, but are related and connected here, which is exciting for me because I see making connections between individual and small projects and bigger institutional forms is critical to the idea that we hear about so often in terms of needing to “scale up”.

I also very much appreciate connecting this to the problem of economic development subsidies, which I think most people agree are totally busted. No one likes the current state of affairs except companies like Boeing and Amazon.

My general critique is of the term inclusion, which I personally think needs to be contested rather than adopted. Our economic system is a burning building. Do we want to invite more people into participating in it as it hurtles toward collapse, or encourage reconstruction–in other words, build a different building from the ashes? Was 40 acres and a mule “inclusive?” Are reparations inclusive? If so, then okay, let’s be inclusive. I also think most of these videos could do more to connect to history, as you said with CEANYC, too. I think it’s so critical to say that these practices aren’t new at all. When you look at the histories of these kinds of cooperative economic practices especially in marginalized communities, the violence that they have faced makes arguments for inclusion harder to sustain. To paraphrase what my advisor, James DeFilippis, once wrote, these alternatives (if they really believe themselves to be truly oppositional alternatives) can’t just succeed at the margins forever–at some point if these institutions are presenting an alternative systemic vision (and that’s a big if), they will have to fight against the existing order. It’s a tough needle to thread, but an important debate.

This list is not meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive, but an initial foray into the kinds of media and stories that are being told about economic democracy, the solidarity economy, and movements for remaking the our neighborhoods and our world more democratic, just, and ecologically healthy. Are there other videos that hit the mark? Let us know in the comments and include your thoughts!

Lawrence Barriner II is Executive Editor for CoLab Radio, host of CoLab Radio on Air, and Program Director for CoLab’s Community Media work. He has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, is a trained facilitator, and leads storytelling and imagination workshops around Boston.

Evan Casper-Futterman is a 3rd generation New Yorker. He is the Director of the Economic Democracy Learning Center at the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative, and has been a board member of the Cooperative Economics Alliance of New York City since 2016. He received a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of New Orleans in 2011, and was a White House Intern in the Spring of 2012 in the Domestic Policy Council’s Office of Urban Affairs. He is currently a Doctoral Candidate (ABD) at the Bloustein School of Urban Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, studying economic democracy.

evan and lawrence

Comments are closed.