The Next System Project at Left Forum 2015

From The Next System Project:

We are in an era when systemic critique of the economic and political institutions of the United States is poised on the edge of mainstream consciousness: the realities of a changing climate, an irrationally destructive financialized economic system, a long and steady historical trajectory concentrating political power along with wealth, and a monstrous apparatus of prisons and policing are becoming impossible to ignore. How can we consciously come together around this opportunity to offer a coherent vision of what a “next system” might look like? How can such a vision work to orient and inspire concrete actions to begin building the world we want to see?


Moderated by Keane Bhatt, The Next System Project

Blood, Bones, and Dirt

Earth, photographed by Voyager 1.

Adapted from the opening plenary speech at the Jackson US Social Forum People’s Movement Assembly on Just Transition and Economic Democracy. The image above is of Earth, photographed by Voyager 1.

This big, wet, ball of Dirt, spinning as it floats through space with the Sun shining on it was all that we had and all that we needed. At one point we all had access to it. We didn’t make it, we were born from it. Some call it Mother Earth out of respect, but we must all respect the wet warm earth as the source of all. Over the years we engaged our labor with the earth and made things to meet our needs and elevate the quality of our lives. We built shelter, made roads, planted food, developed science, developed agriculture, created tools and refined and improved them constantly. We discovered things we reflected on our lives and our needs and our communities and developed the core of information that we passed down generations at a time. We stored food and goods for later days and future generations. All that we made from our living labor, that I call Blood, is the value that living labor alone can create, and once made, it is dead labor, Bones, in service to meeting our needs and elevating the quality of life.

So that is all there is — Blood, Bones and Dirt. Living labor, dead or past labor, and nature—the earth. Once, the earth belonged to us all, but it is now “owned” by a few who exploit its resources and determine the conditions for its use. That same few “owners” appropriate all of the dead labor that they can, particularly the dead labor that is used to enhance the productivity of living labor. They own the community’s wealth that was generated by the labor of us all. That is the system that we live under. Where this ownership of the Bones and Dirt confers enormous power to a few people in the world whose interest is not in meeting needs and elevating the quality of life, but rather their interest is in increasing their degree of ownership and control; their wealth and power.

This system, where nearly everything on earth is owned by someone, means that the access and use of everything is restricted by an owner. While this may make sense for the product of our individual labor or for personal items like toothbrushes, clothes or even jewelry, it makes no sense for large expanses of land nor the technology, tools and factories for production that are needed by everyone for all of us to have opportunities to be productive. These things that were socially produced and that are needed to enhance the productivity of labor have been appropriated as the private property of the owning class. That type of ownership is neither natural, inevitable nor beneficial for the majority of people. It is the product of centuries of theft backed up by creative legal structures and outright violence. It is only by maintaining a system of coercion and violence that the majority of people can be kept away from the product of their own labor the Bones and the access to nature, the ball of Dirt that is the basis for all that we have.

The resulting system means that people who are able to be productive and can produce more than they need to consume, allowing for a social surplus that continues to enhance our lives are instead left idle and despairing. Those who are capable, ready and eager to work to provide for themselves, their families and their communities are prevented from doing so because the owners are unable to make as much profit from people working as they would like to make.

Another by-product of this system of ownership is the extraction from nature at unsustainable rates that leads to ecological devastation and the ruin of the earth’s capacity to provide for human and most other life.

The call for A Just Transition is the call to give us back our Bones. Give us back the huge pile of wealth that we have created so that we can use it to be productive, to meet our needs and the needs of our community for generations to come and live in harmony with nature. These Bones should form the framework on which we build with the materials from the earth, the Dirt, to make all that we will ever need. But instead they are used to box us in, to dominate and control our lives as even more value is extracted from our labor.

But we must also understand Power. It is the capacity to convert your dreams and aspirations into reality, to shape and control the unfolding of events. There are three aspects of power: The concentrated power of others can crush you, and it will crush you if you don’t resist it. So we build resistance struggles to survive. The concentrated power of others can possibly help you, if you direct it and advise what is needed. And so we build advocacy movements to direct concentrated power and wealth in ways it can be useful. But we don’t always have to accept the existence of concentrated power outside of us that we must Resist or Advise. We can be the power of our own lives if we build the necessary structures and institutions to meet our own needs and elevate our own lives. We can be power by Doing for Ourselves. Resistance, Advocacy and Doing for Ourselves represent three aspects of how we relate to power that can be found together in different proportions. As long as oppressive systems and concentrated power exist, we will always have to do some Resistance and Advocacy work, but we need to remember that the goal is for us to organize ourselves to be the power within our own lives and communities. We must create the world we want to live in by doing for ourselves.

When we understand that all real value is created by human labor, we have beautiful new ways to understand the world. That does not mean that everything that we find valuable is created by labor. As we have said, this big wet ball of dirt has everything that we work on with our labor to create value. Think of air and diamonds. Few people would think of buying air. We don’t need to because it is here for us to use. If we go without it for just a few minutes we will die. It is absolutely important. On the other hand, gold and diamonds can be avoided all together for your entire life. No one would die without them, (although many people have died for them). But their value lies in the large amounts of human labor that go into their discovery, retrieval and “prettification”. Gold and Diamonds will continue to be exchanged for much more than air and water, not because they are more useful, but because they are embodiments of more concentrated labor.

The whole world of money is an abstraction of, and a reflection of the world of values created by labor. Money serves to measure, store and facilitate the exchange value. Anything that can be used to do this, whether it is stamped in a piece of metal, written on a piece of paper, encoded on a magnetic strip, on a piece of plastic, or just kept as accurate accounting records in a reliable and secure place is money. The world of money enhances and reflects the world of values that are being exchanged. Finance can be thought of ais the general realm of money. At one point in time financial services developed to help people do very specific things that made sense to do. The process of trading over long distances was made easier by money, using accounting, credit and finance rather than trying to carry pineapples and mangoes to the folks who had wool and meat. Something can be bought or sold at great distance and over long time delays from where it was produced allowing people all over the world to share in the bounty and productivity of the earth without wandering all over the globe.

The rise of financialization, has however, taken these conveniences to levels of destructive absurdity. In these times people buy and sell money itself along with gambling on the possibility of unknown future events then buying and selling the speculative possibilities of the future. No one really needs a derivative, but the amount of financial activity tied up into trading abstractions that are not needed, have no use value whatsoever and are only bought and sold in order to buy and sell more of them at a later time, or take advantage of those who bet the wrong way is obscene. The collapse of the housing market connected to securitized cash flows based on mortgages which were themselves predicated on constant, never ending inflation of housing values is an example of the damage caused by financialization gone wild.

But proper financial work is an opportunity to access the Bones and Dirt needed for our labor to be fully productive. This is why we are building the Southern Reparations Loan Fund for the development of sustainable cooperative enterprises that are democratically owned and democratically controlled. This loan fund is based on three principles:

  1. It is Radically Inclusive. That means that you can’t turn down folks because of who they are. They can be Black, poor, previously incarcerated, queer, trans have bad personal cred histories and still they are qualified to access credit for building cooperative community enterprises.
  2. It seeks to Maximize Community Benefit. That means that it will not waste financial resources on projects that are not able to be sustainable and productive, but also that that it will not simply preserve the financial assets by not risking them on meaningful projects with the potential for great community benefit.
  3. It seeks to be Non-Extractive in its lending. That means that it does not seek to take more out of a community than it helps to create and puts in, nor will it take anyone’s house or their previously accumulated business and personal assets.

These three principles make the SRLF different from other loan funds, even those that claim to help folks who have little access to finance. The others will do all three of the things that SRLF will not do. They will turn you down for who you are, preserve rather than risk their assets on community benefits and take your house.

Finally I want to make a point about reparations. Forty acres and a mule was a unit of production, not a unit of consumption. It had nothing to do with the “forty acres and a Bentley” that some think is the modern equivalent. A mule could help grow its own food, feeding itself and your family. A Bentley only helps you spend more money. We think that by building this type of financial entity, we honor the spirit of those who, following their forced enslavement, called for reparations as an opportunity to be productive, as a way to be in control of their lives as producers rather than mere consumers. They asked for Bones and Dirt. We still struggle to make this a reality.

Brooklyn community crowd-funds bail money

Brooklyn Bail Fund

Criminalization of poor people is nothing new. One of the forms it takes is to assess exorbitant fees, harsh penalties and in some cases jail time for minor infractions. The blog post linked below highlights a new approach to dealing with one aspect of this problem. It’s important to note that the author of this piece brings attention to the fact that this approach is a NOT a solution to the larger systemic issue is of criminalizing poor people.

Read more here

Traveling through the Delta

Ed Whitfield recently spent a few days traveling through the Mississippi Delta. Here are some photos and reflections from that trip. The above photo was taken at Red’s Blues Club in Clarksdale MS.

A stop in Mound Bayou MS is always inspiring to me. This is the cradle of Black independent development in the USA.

Founded by former slaves, this was the first and largest Black town in the U.S. It boasted having the best health care in Mississippi. It had a successful bank, insurance company and later an agricultural cooperative that ginned it’s own cotton and treated people fairly. There was a big business in sweet potatoes too.

The fraternal group whose sign you see below grew out of a secret society which had planned to recruit an army across the country to fight to free slaves. It gave up these plans only after the civil war broke out. The hospital that it founded offered care to people from all across the state. The boarded up building in the photo is the lodge hall of the International Order of Twelve Knights and Daughters of Tabor.

Despite its small size and poor funding, Mound Bayou had – and still has – excellent schools, winning competitions against larger better funded schools across the state in music, academics, and sports. The girls just won the state basketball championship with a 31 – 0 season. The schools are being threatened with closing from consolidation efforts to increase diversity and gain more funding. This will be a great loss.

Knights & Daughters of Tabor - Mound Bayou

Knights & Daughters of Tabor - Mound Bayou

The Riverside Hotel was once a black hospital in Clarksdale Mississippi. The room I stayed in, shown below, was one of two operating rooms. I mused about how many people had died there and that is when I was told that Bessie Smith was one. She never regained consciousness after an operation in which her right arm was amputated following a severe traffic accident.

In the period since its conversion to a hotel in the 1940’s, many other notable entertainers stayed there. Now it is the temporary home for blues tourists from Europe and Japan who are seeking more authenticity than comfort. There are common toilets in the hallway, and if you get cold during the night you can knock on the wall and the host will come into your room to light the un-vented heater. But two people can stay there for $65 which includes tax.

Riverside Hotel sign

Ed at Riverside Hotel

Riverside Hotel room where Bessie Smith died

Leaving Clarksdale Mississippi this morning, the site where bluesman Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical skills, I passed the Hopson plantation. Over a thousand slaves and their share cropping descendants once worked on this plantation. The former slave owners sold the homes of black agricultural workers to the devil for a mechanical cotton picker made by International Harvester.

In 1943, newspapers from across the country came to witness the beginning of the end of blacks in cotton. From split school sessions that subordinated education to the cotton season, to being totally dispossessed from the land in little more than a generation, it was quite a transition. This picture shows the commissary at the Hopson plantation which is now converted into a blues venues with an on-site motel where visitors can stay in a remodeled, air conditioned share cropper shack.

Hopson Plantation

This morning before leaving the Mississippi Delta, even though I was running late, I had to stop by the memorial to my hero Fannie Lou Hamer in her home town of Ruleville MS. This is a bigger than life bronze that overlooks her grave site on a small park.

Ed Whitfield at the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden

Fannie Lou Hamer historical marker

Fannie Lou Hamer memorial

Fannie Lou Hamer statue

Fannie Lou Hamer tombstone

Schumacher Center: Economics, What’s Esthetics Got to Do With It?

Jane Jacobs

This article was originally published by the Schumacher Center for a New Economics.

In her 1984 book Cities and the Wealth of Nations, the remarkable Jane Jacobs writes not about economics, but about economic life. She observes economies in motion, not in stasis, and argues that city regions are the heart of that economic life – pulsing, changing, and engaging in “exuberant episodes of import-replacing.”

She worries that the policies of nation states hold back the individualized development and diversification of cities, leading to stagnation and deterioration. She seeks examples of how cities can counter this generalized tendency to decay under the monoculture of a national economy. She finds hope in the cultivation of differentiated form and style. That is to say, she finds it in esthetics.

In the final chapter of Cities and the Wealth of Nations, titled “Drift,” she references a Japanese anthropologist, Tadao Umesao, who “observes that historically the Japanese have always done better when they drifted in an empirical, practical fashion than when they attempted to operate by ‘resolute purpose’ and ‘determined will.'”

Umesao coins the phrase “an esthetics of drift” to describe this characteristic. Jane Jacobs adapts this concept to describe what is required of cities to remain open to the place-based innovation that will foster creative and appropriate new small businesses.

“In its very nature, successful economic development has to be open-ended rather than goal-oriented, and has to make itself up expediently and empirically as it goes along.”

“‘Industrial strategies’ to meet ‘targets’ using ‘resolute purpose,’ ‘long-range planning’ and ‘determined will’ express a military kind of thinking. Behind that thinking lies a conscious or unconscious assumption that economic life can be conquered, mobilized, bullied, as indeed it can be when it is directed toward warfare, but not when it directs itself to development and expansion.”

“All big things grow from little things, but new little things are destroyed by their environments unless they are cherished for reasons more like esthetic appreciation than practical utility.”

Wendell Berry made much the same argument in his historic 2012 Jefferson Memorial Lecture, but he would use the word “affection.” It is lack of affection for community, for place, for people, for land that has wrought such an ugly economy and degraded the countryside and the lives of country people.

Judy Wicks would call it “Love.” (See video below.) Her love for her Philadelphia neighborhood, for her customers and staff, for goats and pigs and chickens, led her to grow the particular business that was the White Dog Cafe, and to shape its particular relations with the farmers who raised the greens and pork served at the restaurant. There will be no chain of White Dog Cafes. There cannot be. It grew from a specific aesthetic, a cultivated affection, and the boundless love of a single woman. But it inspired replication – suggested a form and style – and led to a bubbling up of other “new little” enterprises in the city – a step towards turning Philadelphia into the vibrant, diverse, job generating, import-replacing city Jane Jacobs would wish.

This Valentine’s Day, the staff of the Schumacher Center sends its love to all those entrepreneurs and their citizen partners who have cultivated an “esthetics of drift” in their business approach, cherishing their place-inspired creations, and encouraging multiple episodes of lively imitation.

United for a Fair Economy’s State of the Dream 2015: Underbanked and Overcharged

Dr. King at the March on Washington

United for a Fair Economy (UFE) just released their annual State of the Dream report. Included in that report is an historic overview of the policies and practices that have helped to create our existing economic inequality. The following Tweets highlight some key pieces of the UFE report.

People of color and women still suffer disproportionately from the effects of these policies that were enacted decades ago, when overt discrimination was the accepted norm.

Click here to learn more and see all of the Tweets collected at Storify.

To learn more about United for a Fair Economy go to:

Pitfalls of Buy Black/Black Capitalism

Buy Black (via Twin Cities Daily Planet)

During recent Kwanzaa celebrations there was a call for collective economics. “Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.” This was explained by many as a call to “Buy Black” with others accepting that it was a call for supporting “Black Capitalism.” I want to offer a critique of this understanding from the standpoint of what would be progressive and beneficial in a transformative way to the black community.

Continue reading Pitfalls of Buy Black/Black Capitalism

After Years Without a Grocery Store, Greensboro Neighbors Are Building One Themselves — And They’ll Own It

This article is presented as part of New Economy Week, five days of conversation around building an economy that works for everyone. Today’s theme is “The New Economy Is Close to Home.”

In Northeast Greensboro residents just want a grocery store.

In the late 1990’s the local Winn Dixie that had served the neighborhoods around Philips Avenue for many years closed down. Winn Dixie and other large grocery chains divided up market territory resulting in the closing of some stores despite their profitability. The loss of this Winn Dixie turned Northeast Greensboro into a food desert.

Continue reading After Years Without a Grocery Store, Greensboro Neighbors Are Building One Themselves — And They’ll Own It