Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Crisis as Opportunity

These are truly challenging times. People are losing their jobs and homes and businesses are shutting down, while the government is giving billions of taxpayer dollars to banks and corporations to bail them out, as well as to the military to fight unjustifiable wars. Corporations are simultaneously stealing and polluting our collective commons. People are working harder for less money and less free time doing work that is alienating and doesn’t reflect their values.

The centralized monetary system creates money out of debt and so money tends to accumulate wealth and power into the hands of small percentage of the population. The real wealth of communities should stay mainly within the communities themselves to assure that the local economy is taking care of its people, its environment, and to give communities some measure of self-sufficiency and also self-determination about how they spend their time, energy, and money. We can do much of this with community currencies.

There are hundreds of regions in the US using their own currencies and over 2000 across the world. Some of the most successful are Ithaca paper hours, Berkshares which involves 360 business and 5 banks, Timebanks USA which has over 120 community timebanks. There are many other kinds of mutual credit systems, including LETS or Local Exchange Trading Systems of which there are over 140 in the world and the WIR Bank in Switzerland that circulated over a billion and a half Swiss dollars in 2004 and kept small businesses alive during recessions.

In a mutual credit system there is never scarcity. Credit is created by a transaction between two businesses or people when a good is produced and sold or a service is given, instead of through a loan from a bank that charges excessive interest for profit. In mutual credit there is no interest. There is simply mutual aid that is registered in an accounting system that pools the productive wealth of the given community. It is a way to create a commons of resources so that everyone is taken care of regardless of their value to the market or regardless of the scarcity of US dollars. Timebanks have the added stipulation that everyone’s time is equal- one hour for one hour and because of this they are considered tax exempt by the IRS. Women and people of color make a fraction of what a white male makes per hour in the market for the exact same job with the exact same qualifications. In Timebanks, everyone makes the same amount so that prejudice and accumulated privilege is not permitted. It is also a way of saying that we honor everyone and their time here on Earth rather than seeing them as a function of the profit system to be exploited for maximum gain.

Community currencies are a significant part of the solution. However, in order for them to work well we need to completely reconstruct our economy. Everyone should have adequate housing, food, health care and access to low cost, clean transportation- call this grassroots, participatory socialism if you will. We need to retrain people to provide jobs that are both useful to their communities and healthy for them. We need to replace goods that are imported from sweatshops with locally produced, sustainable, quality goods, ideally using recycled materials as much as possible and fixing goods that are broken instead of throwing them away. We need to give our communities more control over government spending through participatory budgeting. We need redesign our communities so that people start connecting again locally and face-to-face to rebuild trust. We need to recognize our spiritual and material interdependence. Let this new consciousness bloom in a thousand ways.

None of this will be easy. It will be a long struggle, but we are already working on it here in the San Francisco Bay Area, designing community currencies through Bay Area Community Exchange and creating a communal time exchange. The JASeconomy (Just. Alternative. Sustainable economy) project, initiated by the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives, is also hosting a conference and festival on Sept. 26 in Oakland to attempt to demonstrate and synergize all the different aspects of the alternative grassroots economy here in the Bay Area. We hope you join us and build this movement together.

We have the power to create a loving, abundant, sustainable and equitable economy. Let’s use this crisis as an opportunity to remake our economy to reflect our highest values. Now is the time to take our economy back.

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