Rethinking Progress in a Time of Crisis

In the spring of 1888, the great American anarchist and publisher Benjamin R. Tucker wrote of the “till lately undisputed” idea “that the permanent tendency of progress in the production and distribution of wealth is in the direction of more and more complicated and costly processes, requiring greater and greater concentration of capital and labor.” By Tucker’s day, the processes of globalization were already well underway, and with them the growth of the precursors of today’s giant multinational corporations. The decentralist impulse was, as it remains, regarded as quixotic or retrograde. But as in so many other ways, Tucker was a man ahead of his time, predicting that “advances of which we know not” could actually undercut the trends of largeness and centralized power, if we allow them to. Today, the crises of out-of-proportion institutions all around us, we hardly have a choice but to rediscover ways of life that “exist outside of the market and state power.” We hardly have a choice but to meaningfully realign ourselves with the environments we inhabit and with each other in genuine communities.

The challenge is to continue to imagine and build alternatives to what Mary Berry has called “the siren song of limitlessness.” To this point, we’ve been woefully unable to resist that song, the result being tragic homogenization of the world under “extractive, reductive capitalism.” The loss of cultural diversity throughout the world is perhaps the single greatest tragedy of this process of homogenization. As Winona LaDuke has pointed out, “cultural diversity is as critical as biological diversity.” Indeed, genuine cultural diversity seems likely to be a precondition for responsible, future-oriented use of natural resources. The richness and diversity of human culture is the treasure to be protected because it is the source of the energy and ideas needed to reconsider prevailing thinking on the meaning of progress and growth. Cultural diversity is the “real, not token, human diversity,” allowing us to understand the world in different ways, ways that challenge the global system at the deepest levels of analysis. It is among the defining pathologies of our global civilization that it cannot imagine, much less comprehend, values that can’t be bought or sold in the capitalist market. To accept today’s idea of progress, one must take it for granted that the varying social and economic systems of all countries should be subsumed under a master global operating system, capitalism. As David C. Korten has noted,

Contrary to popular myth, a capitalist economy is not the same as a market economy. In fact, they are almost diametric opposites. A capitalist economy by design concentrates control of the means of production in the hands of the few to the exclusion of the many, which is exactly what our present economy does. It has of course won out over communism. What is less often noted is that it has also won out over democracy and a market economy. The capitalist economy features monopoly, financial speculation, absentee ownership, deregulation, public subsidies, and central economic planning by megacorporations. A market economy, in contrast, is organized by people engaging in the production and exchange of goods and services as a means of livelihood. A market economy features human-scale enterprises, honest money, rooted local ownership, and a framework of democratically chosen rules.

Proponents of capitalism like to call theirs a free market system. There is a benefit to refusing to grant them this, refusing to allow corporations and their servants in the state and the press to cloak themselves in the language of freedom and rugged individualism, as if capitalism isn’t a human-designed system of violence and theft. What will ultimately prove persuasive to those who have swallowed the dogmas of unlimited growth is they have misunderstood their cherished principle of free markets; they have used that principle, unobjectionable when properly understood, to defend a system that could hardly be more different from a legitimate free market.

A potential starting point is to acknowledge that the land question, violent dispossession permeating the history of capitalism. Land, the literal surface of our planet, is the common inheritance of every human being—and, more than that, every living thing in the biosphere. The very idea of absentee ownership is an outgrowth of humanity’s violent history, our characteristic love of conquest, theft, and appropriation. As Henry George observed, owning all of the land is tantamount to owning the people who live there and depend on the land for their survival. In a free, stateless society—one guided by the principles of mutuality and reciprocity, by the idea that, in the words of Winona LaDuke, “when you take, you must take only what you need and leave the rest”—we are only ever temporary caretakers of the land, stewards who hold it in trust for our communities and those of the future. By organizing such a system of land tenure, whereby individuals hold real property in trust for posterity, on a bioregional scale, we can have the best of both incentive paradigms: individuals are incentivized to take good care of their land, but no small group of individuals can begin to consolidate power and property in a way that threatens freedom and economic justice. Such a system aligns with, in Tucker’s words, “the Anarchistic view that occupancy and use should condition and limit landholding.” We need a new language and vocabulary to discuss such ideas, as long-stale (and never particularly useful) notions of left and right don’t explain our ideas very well. David Bollier has suggested the idea of a “Commons Sector,” emphasizing the idea of the commons as something that is neither the market nor the state, neither the private sector nor the public sector.

We now observe a stream of headlines about the growing demand for organic produce and for the meat of animals who live half-decent lives, roaming free rather than confined to industrial torture centers of big agribusiness. Going forward, a central pillar of our plan to restore dignity to poor, urban populations, many of whom feel socially detached and who are working in low-wage jobs devoid of meaning, must be the return of land. Landless, penniless, socially unmoored and alienated, this underclass has paid the costs, both social and economic, of the growth and progress myth. People will not feel positive social cohesion and community until they own the land on which they live and work, and until their work genuinely adds value in their places and communities. As the global capitalist monoculture careens toward collapse—and we see it already—local communities will need to be nurtured and made resilient. How can one imagine such resilience without a genuine, working connection between people and land? Economic justice (not to mention any considered free market impulse) demands that the land be returned to the people. Without the land, the project of building real communities and local economies can’t get off the ground. It turns out that for human beings, proximity to the people and processes underlying our products is vitally important to the project of community resilience and long-term stability. We’re blind to that which is very remote, numb to it. It is difficult, after all, for the twenty-first century’s impossibly busy producer-consumer to produce and consume at the expected rates while thinking about the fact that his clothes came from Sri Lanka or Bangladesh. It is likewise difficult for us to conceptualize the harms underlying this fact—so we happily pretend those harms don’t exist.

This crisis of detachment—from each other, from places, from our work, from the far-away countries on the global periphery that make our cheap produces—is of course also a crisis of democracy. Public decision-making bodies must be democratic and cooperative in order to properly respond to the needs of genuine, spontaneously-arising communities. Large, concentrated, well-funded pressure groups have seized on our inattention and ignorance, as well as on the power-lust of our government officials, to undermine the principles of democracy and foreclose meaningful citizen impact on public policy. What we need is direct and therefore distributed democracy, under which real people have a real, tangible say in decisions about their lives and about their communities are governed, possessed with actual democratic power rather than a meaningless vote between two parties that represent centralization, corporate monoculture, and the redistribution of resources upward to Western elites. In today’s United States, democracy is a word cynically stripped of meaning, reduced to an absurd game in which the two major parties use the corporate media to exclude serious challengers and eliminate fresh ideas. The people who live in and know a given community should make the decisions about that community, both because they have the particular knowledge necessary to make good decisions and because they will have to live with the consequences of any decisions made. The forces of lifeless and impersonal bureaucracy are killing our attempts to help those whom the global system has forsaken. The clear solution is much less of the modern state, of government strings and controls attached to the recipients of aid, and more directcash payments to those in need.

The capitalist crime of money and credit monopolization is as central to answering the social question today as it was in the time of Josiah Warren, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, William B. Greene, or Jane Jacobs. “The consequence,” says Susan Witt, “is an increasingly centralized manufacturing and distribution system that efficiently hides the ecological and social consequences of making the goods we use in our daily lives.” This hiding of consequences and shifting of costs is one of the key reasons that we must take great care to prevent the people who are currently destroying our world and traditional ways of life from cynically taking cover behind the language of freedom and individual rights. As Witt argues, we need a local system of credit, in which the community itself—not giant, global monopolies—decides “who would get the credit from the community.” Anarchists and decentralists of all kinds have proposed and implemented an interesting variety of community-based currencies and mutual credit systems. Many of these were precluded by or shut down by governments, which guard the money monopoly jealously. As Stewart Wallis has remarked, “there is only one free lunch in the world and that’s the one bankers have with money creation, because they can create money out of nothing.” If local communities enjoyed the same privilege, people can have access to the credit lines they need without becoming dependent on large, remote, exploitative institutions that don’t understand their community or their needs.

We can begin to imagine and embrace another model entirely, a non-capitalist one that is “a network of sustainable local economies.” The eminent scholar of anarchism George Woodcock noted that every crisis “has produced its decentralist movements in which men and women have turned away from the nightmares of megapolitics to the radical realities of human relationships.” These radical realities are still so untapped that we have reason for great optimism. But freedom and fairness won’t just happen on their own, if we don’t actively rebuild community life and resist the death cult of global capitalism.

David D’Amato is an attorney, writer, and law professor.