"Helping Disadvantaged People"; A Different Approach.
Social Work, Univ. of NSW.
The global economy is depriving increasing numbers of people of jobs and reasonable lifestyles. At the same time resources available for assisting 'disadvantaged groups in our society are becoming more and more limited. Conventional "welfare" strategies therefore cannot hope to make more than a dint in this problem. There is however a radically different approach, focused on the notion of people coming together to develop their capacity to produce for themselves some of the basic things they need. The long term significance of this is approach is potentially enormous, because it could be the first step to the development of sustainable new local economies.
The Global Context.
It is very important to place the discussion of welfare in general and of particular projects in the global context. We have entered the era of "globalisation", i.e., an era in which a massive restructuring is taking place to build a unified world economy giving the corporations and banks great freedom to determine economic activity and development. Governments all around the world are actively facilitating this, partly because they all believe in neo-liberal doctrine ( or "economic rationalism or the "Washington consensus"), but mostly because they how have no choice given that the corporations and banks already have so much control.
Development now takes whatever form the transnational corporations and banks want. Governments do not ask "What do we need to solve our problems and give all of our people a high quality of life, and how can we organise our productive capacity to do this?" Development has come to mean encouraging and helping the business sector to invest (...because only then can we expect to have factories, goods, jobs and export income.) All countries must therefore compete strenuously against each other to get transnational corporations to come in and set up their plants, which means there is a "race to the bottom"; you must offer better conditions (tax holidays, subsidies) and lower wages than any other countries do or they will go somewhere else.
Above all the global economy is polarising; the transnational corporations and banks can thrive best by focusing on providing goods and jobs for a decreasing proportion of the world's people, the increasingly rich few. The corporations are also "down sizing", energetically reducing their employees. (The top 500 US corporations cut their employment by some 30% since 1985 while increasing their sales 140%. ) Increasing numbers of people and regions even in the rich countries are becoming totally irrelevant to the interests of the corporations, and to the national economy. The corporations and banks can thrive without selling them anything and without needing to employ them.
One consequence of golbalisation is that states all around the world are cutting their spending dramatically, meaning that public services are being
reduced, including especially the many welfare-related sectors. This is primarily because states are not able to collect much tax from corporations (...half the corporations with branches in Australia pay no tax here) and because they must not try to collect much tax from corporations or the corporations will relocate their investments in some other country. Countries who do not adopt policies which suit the corporations will be judged by the international credit rating agencies to be poor investment propositions and the banks will then charge higher interest rates on loans to corporations who want to invest there. There is therefore continual and increasing pressure to cut spending on public services, education, health, welfare etc. (...but not prisons; more of them are needed to cope with the resulting social breakdown.)
Governments eagerly do these things. Even if they didn't all believe in the neo-liberal agenda, they have no choice. Just imagine what would happen if Mr. Howard suddenly decided to increase spending on welfare, education, health, aged care, to re-establish country railways, to protect and subsidise collapsing industries and raise the minimum wage. Not only would he have to increase taxes greatly to pay for these changes, making foreign investors leave, but the production cost of our exports would jump, meaning that we would lose many of our export sales. We are already heavily in debt and greatly dependent on imports and therefore on export earning.
In the Third World globalisation has had much more catastrophic effects than in rich countries. It has been well described as a process of recolonisation, orchestrated primarily by the Structural Adjustment Packages of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These force Third World countries to dismantle their economies and remake them in the form that is a bonanza for the transnational corporations and banks, especially as these are then able to come in and take over many of the firms to get free access to many more resources, land, forests and cheap labour.
All these trends can be expected to worsen. There is enormous pressure from the governments of the richest countries to drive the globalisation through into formal trade and investment agreements that will give the corporations and banks everything they want and take from governments their remaining capacity to control their own economies.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the significance of globalisation for the majority of people in the world. It is devastating the lives of hundreds of millions and literally wrecking entire national economies. (See especially Chussodovsky, 1997.)
Much less well understood is the fact that affluent-consumer society is running into a savage resource and environmental "limits to growth" problem. It is a grossly unsustainable society. There is no possibility of keeping up Australia's present rates of resource consumption and environmental damage. Petroleum is an especially alarming problem. World supply is likely to peak within 20 years (See especially Campbell, 1977, and www.dieoff.org) We are very likely to move into an era of great scarcity before long, meaning that state resources for welfare purposes will be even more severely limited in coming years.
Now in this context it is a very serious mistake to think that governments can be persuaded to do more for poor and disadvantaged groups. Not only are they ideologically opposed to increasing welfare spending, they are increasingly unable to do so.
The key argument in this document is that this global context makes clear that the choice before welfare agencies is either to a) increasingly compete against each other for a share of the ever-diminishing resources, and to fight rearguard actions to help some of the increasing numbers being dumped by society, or b ) break out of the conventional economic mould and work for the construction of alternative local economies in which disadvantaged people can begin to apply their productive capacity to meeting some of their own needs.
The Alternative Approach.
The basic concern in "welfare-related fields has been to secure assistance or resources from the state for disadvantaged people, and to enable them to enter the workforce. Often these efforts focus on empowering people to take some control over their own situation, but again the goal is almost always to increase the capacity of people and communities to be given or to earn a better share or deal from the existing state or economy. However the focus in the alternative approach is quite different. It is to enable people and communities to develop their capacity to produce and organise for themselves some of the basic things they need. Some but little attention has been given to this possibility, yet it has enormous potential.
Consider the huge amount of productive capacity that resides in the time, skills and energy of the one million Australians who are officially unemployed and the many more who have been discouraged from entering the workforce. They probably have a combined productive capacity equal to one-fifth of the GDP! Yet all that labour and talent presently produces hardly anything, while those people suffer idleness, depression and impoverishment. This is one of the most objectionable contradictions within our economy. There is within any suburb or dying country town a huge capacity to produce many of the things that many people there need but do without. All we have to do is organise it, and in principle this is very easily done.
The crucial step is to set up a general community "firm" i.e., for a small group to come together and organise to cooperatively produce various goods and services which its participants need. The most obvious category to begin with is food, through the setting up of a community garden, but this should be accompanied by a workshop. Even if very small and primitive this will enable the repair and making of many things. We can begin to collect and recycle items that are being thrown out, especially the many valuable things put out on council garbage collection days. We can find out what factories and farms dump useful materials, including biodegradable inputs for the garden soils. We might be paid to take some of these.
As we accumulate participants with wider experience we might be able to begin repairing furniture, fridges and other appliances, bicycles and cars.
Our main purpose would be to grow, repair and make things for ourselves, but we could also sell some of these to raise money to buy tools, seeds, hardware etc.
Note the importance of taking a collective approach. The concern is not to assist individuals to set up their own mini-enterprises, or to begin their own private garden plots. Many individuals might not know much about growing vegetables but if we work as a group all can benefit from the expertise a few have, and all can learn from them. The group therefore should discuss and plan together, working out what new ventures their combined talents and interests and needs might make it possible to try next.
Obviously the cooperative approach should have considerable benefit in terms of providing participants with a sense of community and solidarity, purpose and competence. There would be direct and immediate benefits from contributing, not just being able to help produce useful and needed items, but in terms of access to company and worthwhile work.
Thus we should be able to bring much more benefit to participants than would come from the establishment of a LETSystem. These have been quite valuable, but their main drawback is that they involve people in trading as individual entrepreneurs and it can be quite difficult for individuals to find much that they can produce and sell. LETS elegantly solves the problem of people not being able to trade because they have little or no money, but that is not the central problem in economic renewal. The core problem is how to enable people with needs to begin producing; i.e., the big problem is getting productive enterprises set up. Most disadvantaged people do not have many skills, least of all the capacity to organise a "firm" and to market their product in a viciously competitive economy that does not have a place for everyone. The evidence is that participants in LETS are not able to make more than about 5% of their purchases within the system. (Douthwaite, 1996.) It is very difficult for individuals to produce many of the things we need in everyday life.
The community firm enables people to avoid having to compete in a market place for scarce sales opportunities in order to earn the capacity to purchase what they need. Above all the cooperative firm deals with the production of necessities, whereas people in LETS often can only find relatively unnecessary things to try to produce and sell.
The fact that our cooperative firm might not be able to produce things very "efficiently" is almost irrelevant. What matters is not that the cabbages we grow would cost more than those in the supermarket if our time was taken into account. What matters is the fact that we can produce good cabbages for ourselves, thus enabling the scarce money we save by not having to buy them to be spent on something else...and the fact that in growing the cabbages we get other benefits such as enjoyable activity.
Note also that our cooperative firm avoids the undesirable effects that result when a person in a LETs manages to sell something and thereby takes that sale and that income from someone else who needed it, or when an employment training scheme manages to get a previously unemployed person into the workforce and thereby takes the job that someone else could have got. Much of the effort apparently going into helping disadvantaged people is only helping some to beat others in the zero-sum struggle to get the scarce jobs, and is making no difference whatsoever to the overall amount of deprivation and unemployment.
At first recording of inputs might not be necessary, but it will be latter when the goal becomes integrating our activities with the normal local economy. (Below.)
Bread baking is an important area of activity that could be taken up early. We can organise a day on which we get together to bake, again mostly for our own use but also to sell to raise cash. An oven can be made from clay, and fuelled by wood. This could be set up at the garden site.
Poultry keeping could also be organised from the start, as well as herb patches. A neighbourhood "gleaning" operation can also begin early, whereby we get permission from people with fruit trees in their yards to take their surplus, maybe in exchange for some odd jobs.
Car repair and maintenance is another area where our participants would have skills enabling some degree of collective self-sufficiency and cost cutting.
Later fruit trees could be planted at the site. Fish can be produced from small tanks. Tubs can grow edible plants such as water chestnuts, rushes, water lilies and taro.
We can also organise collection and compilation of useful information , such as sites where free goods can be obtained, where the cheapest sources are, where we can get advice on various topics, where scrap materials can be obtained.
We should connect with local retired people, especially to benefit from their gardening knowledge regarding local conditions.
When we meet at the site at the agreed times we are practising that most effective activity for local economic renewal, the voluntary cooperative working bee. When we chat over what a to set as the next task for the working bee we are practising participatory self-government, another crucial element in the development of local socio-economic self-sufficiency.
The garden site and its associated activities would make a major contribution to leisure and cultural enrichment. We should organise regular events and celebrations. At one time in the week we might have a bread bake, mini-market, working bee, planning meeting, slap-up dinner and self-made entertainment.
Connecting with the normal/old economy.
So far the discussion has only been about organising low-income and unemployed people to begin producing for themselves some of the things they need. Thus we have created a new sector of economic activity involving some of the many people who previously were relatively poor and unable to work. However there are not that many important items that the people in this new sector can produce for themselves. For example they can't realistically produce radios. Thus the next step must be to enable people in this new sector to trade with the normal/old firms that exist within the locality. These firms are selling many goods low income people want but can't produce for themselves and can't purchase because they have little "normal" money.
Our cooperative must approach businesses in the locality from which our people would like to purchase, and try to work out what we can sell to them. The most likely categories are things like vegetables, labour, compost, eggs, and especially labour. We could become known as an agency local firms can approach to get particular jobs done. If we explore this as a single collective firm we will surely have a much greater overall effect than if we leave individuals to do it. We can get our best people to take on parts of the task as a team. The famous success of the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain indicate the great power to research and organise that comes when a collective approach is taken.
Obviously the more we can sell from our collective firm to individuals and firms in the local economy the more money we can earn to purchase those many important things we can't produce for ourselves. However there is no net benefit to society if we win a supply contract from a local firm which used to be met by someone else who then becomes unemployed. We must avoid trying to enter the normal economy to compete against others for the scarce and insufficient opportunities that exist there to produce, sell, work and earn. The fact is that in general we, the unemployed and disadvantaged, cannot do that; we are unemployed because the economy does not need us. If your collective firm does manage to break into the normal economy by persuading a firm to buy from us all we are doing is taking that work from others somewhere and making them unemployed.
Thus in order to connect constructively with the surrounding economy we have to create a whole new sector of economic activity in which we who were previously economically inactive can supply new things to the local economy and thereby acquire the capacity to purchase things from it, and in which firms which previously made no sales to us can start doing so.
Now the amount we can purchase from the existing economy will obviously depend on the amount we are able to sell to it. For instance if we can start selling vegetables to the local restaurant we can earn the income to start buying meals at the restaurant. Obviously the capacity of our people to buy from the old/normal economy is set by their capacity to buy from us. We have to be selling many things to them in order to get the money to pay for the many things we went to buy from them. So the our cooperative must think out and explore the possibilities, discuss these with local firms and organise our people to produce and supply.
Small businesses in the old/normal economy typically do not have much money to spare, so the restaurant will probably be willing to undertake payment for the vegetables in LETS currency we will "lend" to him to get the process started; i .e, he can begin his involvement in LETS by spending LETS money before he earns it. (A new LETSystem can't start unless many people buy before they earn.) He will earn the LETS later to pay off the debt by selling meals to our people with LETS to spend. ( He will also know that he is not taking on a big risk of being unable to earn the LETS he needs to repay the debt, because even if people in our cooperative don't buy meals he can earn them by providing meals to others within the system he has joined.)
It should not need to be pointed out that it is very much in the interests of the firms in the old/normal economy to start participating in the new sector, because it involves a lot of producing and selling that was not previously taking place. The restaurant owner can increase his sales greatly. Later we can begin doing thing further afield in the locality, such as getting council permission and assistance in planting "edible landscape" on parks and wasteland, getting contracts to recycle wastes, and especially establishing materials and goods recycling opportunities at the local garbage tip.
The later stages.
Later in the process we could tackle more complex elements in the economic renewal vision. One of these is the development of the local commons, that is the sources of materials, food, leisure, amenity on public land, including woodlots, ponds from which we and all others in the locality can increasingly derive valuable things. For example in the longer term our cooperative should be planting and harvesting small fuel wood and timber plantations, working bee hives, planting public orchards and herb beds, reeds and bamboo clumps, and pits for pottery and building clay (the pits then become ponds.) Working bees joined by anyone from the surrounding suburbs would build these things and maintain them, thereby becoming powerful agencies for local development. They can for example build premises for new small businesses by working bees (out of earth and recycled materials, and therefore very cheaply). These become property leased by the cooperative.
A local market day is another very important institution to set up, enabling little people to earn some income from the sale of garden or craft production. It is also important in social bonding, giving people another opportunity to get together and discuss local affairs.
In time the meetings at the garden can develop into town meetings at which many issues to do with the development and functioning of he area are considered and voted on.
The Long Term Vision; Saving the Planet!
To this point the discussion has been about the things that disadvantaged groups and communities can do to help themselves through focusing on self-sufficient productive strategies. There is however a far greater potential significance for these initiatives. They can be the first steps towards the eventual reconstruction of local economies into the form that is required for a sustainable world order. Many of us within the "limits to growth" and Global Eco-village movements firmly believe that the way to move from our presently highly unsustainable industrial-affluent-consumer society to a just and ecologically acceptable society has to begin with the establishment of small local community gardens and workshops which enable regions to begin becoming more self-sufficient and cooperative.
To repeat, there is now an overwhelmingly convincing case that the consumer society, with its obsession with affluent living standards and endless economic growth, is an enormous mistake, that it involves rates of resource consumption and ecological impact that are far beyond those that can be kept up for long let alone that all the world's people could share, and that it involves grossly unsustainable rates of ecological damage. (Trainer, 1995, 1998, 1999.)
For about 20 years there has been an increasing literature arguing that a just and sustainable society cannot be achieved without fundamental transition to a much less affluent living standards, small, highly self-sufficient local economies, much more cooperative and participatory systems, and a totally new economic system which is not driven by market forces, the profit motive or growth. (It might however still have an important place for free enterprise in the form of small private firms, and for markets.) The alternative, sustainable way is well described as "The Simpler Way". (The argument is detailed in Trainer, 1995.)
We now have a global Eco-village Movement in which many small communities around the world are pioneering the development of settlements and economies along these lines. I have no doubt that the fate of the planet depends on how successful these ventures will be in showing the mainstream that there is an alternative to the consumer way that is both workable and highly attractive.
The two areas in which it is most important to try to develop Eco-villages are the dying country town and the city suburb. In both it is difficult to imagine a better way to begin other than by a small group coming together to form a community garden and workshop, along the lines described above. These ventures do not have to be focused on disadvantaged groups, but that is a ready beginning point likely to attract assistance from government and social justice agencies.
Following are brief notes on some further elements that might be involved if the project introduced above were in time to develop towards this wider vision. The hope is that the activities begun at the garden and workshop site can slowly spread out into the surrounding community, drawing more people into locally self-sufficient productive and cultural activities.
The town or suburb should at some stage establish its own bank or credit union. Normal banks take our savings and lend them to corporations far away. Our town bank should have as one of its rules that the savings of local people will only be lent for projects within the region and that top priority will go to borrowers who intend to develop the area in desirable ways. This is what happens in Maleny's town bank (credit union).
We can organise campaigns to accumulate voluntary donations of capital for particular development projects that are important for the town. We can also operate voluntary taxation schemes. Some communities have low or zero interest town development accounts into which those who are willing and able deposit some of their savings because they wish to support desirable local development. Note how those developments can proceed even if only a small number of people support them; it is usually not the case that nothing worthwhile can be done unless all agree.
In the longer term one of the important tasks for to work on is reducing he area's import dependence and increasing its capacity to produce for itself many of things it needs. We are probably going into an era of intense scarcity so in the sustainable way it will be crucial to enable all regions to look for items that are being imported into the suburb or town but which could be produced there, and to assist in setting up local firms to produce them.
In a satisfactory society there would be much less emphasis put on economic affairs than there is in our present society. The production of all the things we need for a high quality of life within The Simpler Way would be easily and quickly achieved, enabling most of our attention to be given to more important things.
We would also move as much economic activity as possible out of the market sphere. In addition to the appalling effects markets have on distributions of resources and wealth, and the inappropriateness of development the market causes, market transactions are in principle socially damaging. The market involves us in self-interested calculations, often in a hostile and predatory arena. It is not a situation that enables, let alone encourages benevolence or concern with the public good.
A satisfactory economic system would firstly have no more than a small market sector and would place it under firm social control, so that considerations of morality, tradition, justice and ecology would take precedence over the considerations of profit or monetary cost and benefit. Economic "efficiency" would not be very important; often we would do what was not very profitable or what did not maximise monetary returns on investment, in order to maximise various social, moral or ecological benefits.
More importantly, a good society would have as much economic activity as possible organised in terms of "gift and reciprocity". We would produce many goods and services and give them to each other and to the community, knowing that many of the things we need would be given to us. Economic activity within good families is based on this principle of giving (rather than getting.) Working bees, recycling systems and voluntary taxes are ways in which we can give to our communities and receive from them. The community commons provide "gifts" we can all take, and contribute to. In a satisfactory community surpluses are given to others or left in the neighbourhood workshop, and people willingly give their time and skills to each other. The more we give the stronger the feelings of appreciation, social debt and reciprocity and therefore the stronger the bonds of good will between people. These many forms of giving build and multiply community solidarity and real social wealth and security.
Good will, generosity and helpfulness are like knowledge in that the more that any one of these is given away to others, the more of it there is! On the other hand our present economy only deals with zero-sum transactions; if you buy or take something , no one else can have it. For these reasons another important task for us to work to move the local economy from a monetary basis towards a "moral" basis.
The overall long term goal of this project is not "prosperity" conventionally defined. It is not to do with raising participants' "living standards" defined in terms of GNP per capita. It is not to bring more income into the region. The ultimate goals are to enable the town, suburb or region to provide itself with many of the basic goods and services needed to ensure that its people can have a satisfactory and secure quality of life and to enable all those excluded by the old economy to have access to productive activity and incomes, secure from the unreliable and predatory national and international economies.
The main concern in this document has been to show that first steps towards achieving these extremely important long term goals, which are literally to do with the attempt to head off the looming catastrophic breakdown of industrial-consumer society, can be taken through attempts to shift from conventional welfare strategies to more self-sufficient productive strategies.
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