Saturday 1 January 2000

Visions of a people-centred economy

These are the notes for a talk given by UNITYblog editor David on the subject of ‘Transitioning to a human-centred economy in Aotearoa’ at the Marxism Alive conference in Auckland, 27 June 2009.

New Zealand is the world’s biggest exporter of dairy products, not because we produce more dairy products than any other country, but because unlike other countries, we produce much, much more than is used here.

We are all now becoming increasingly aware of the environmental costs of producing all this “surplus” dairy produce for export: the pollution of our waterways, the drying up of streams, the greenhouse gas emissions from the belching cows.

So why do we do it? Why keep producing so much more than we need if the costs are so high? Why the continuing push for even more dairy farms? Obviously the answer is that the dairy farmers and their investors want to make more money.

We have a profit-centred economy, not an ecology-centred economy. But what about people? Isn’t the whole point of our capitalist economy that it is an efficient way to allocate resources and meet people’s needs, through the medium of the market? Isn’t it people’s needs (and greed) that compel us to produce all this milk and butter and cheese to feed people and to create jobs and to make money, which grows the economy, which pays for all our health, education and pensions?

That’s more or less how the story is told in the mainstream of modern economics, in the editorial pages of the mainstream media and the speeches of mainstream politicians.

Digging a bit deeper, one idea is that the market works as a kind of collective expression of the will of the people, that is the consumers. We all make our decisions about what we want, what we like, what we spend our money on, and – thanks to the magic of the market – these messages flow back to the manufacturing corporations. If they don’t give us what we want, we don’t buy it and they don’t make money, so they do give us what we want. Supposedly, we the consumers have the power. We are at the centre of this consumerist culture.

A a recent study by Otago University researchers highlights some of the reasons why this view of our economy is wrong. It shows that New Zealand’s dairy industry is not only despoiling out environment, it’s also failing to meet the most basic needs of the New Zealand people. Why? Because it is centred on profit, and a profit centred economy is not a people centred economy.  

Otago research

Otago University researchers say successive governments have focused on overseas trade in dairy products at the expense of New Zealanders.

“It means that milk, a basic nutritional product fundamental to children’s health, is often outside the reach of low-income families,” researcher Moira Smith said.

“Half a century ago, governments supported the right of every child to cheap milk at home. Now, this has been removed and serious health inequities have developed in New Zealand, particularly among lower socio-economic groups and Maori and Pacific peoples.”

“Unhealthy fizzy drinks, which contribute to our high rates of obesity and tooth decay, are cheaper and more heavily advertised than milk.”

Dr Louise Signal, added: “New Zealand’s emphasis on trade and globalisation is now dictating the health of our children through the high cost of milk and milk products.”

The research team said the government should consider taking action to make milk more accessible:

• Implement price control or subsidies and not rely on a relatively uncompetitive domestic market to constrain prices.
• Offer assistance to low income families to ensure they can afford to buy healthy food.
• Include milk as part of a ‘Breakfast in Schools’ programme in lower decile schools.
• Reduce or eliminate GST on health food choices.

Two points I’d like to highlight here:

1. in the biggest dairy exporter in the word poor people can’t afford milk and it’s affecting their children’s health.

2. The market is dictating to consumers, not the other way around. Not only by pricing milk out of their range, but by making fizzy drink cheap and advertising it too.

It was as a result of these sorts of absurd inequalities that early socialists began to question the working of the capitalist economy and began to imagine people-centred alternatives.

Visions of the future

These visions of a different kind of society played an important role in the early days of the socialist movement.

Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy’s (first published 1888) was a bestseller in the English speaking world. It imagines a Boston man waking up in the year 2000 to find that the USA has been transformed with a state-owned “nationalist” economy where the wealth and goods are equally distributed, working hours have been reduced and people retire at 45.

The novel inspired Bellamy Societies in this country in the 1890s and again in the 1930s.

Another nineteenth century socialist to imagine how different society could be was the famous poet and Arts and Crafts designer William Morris. While Bellamy was a “nationalist” and “counter-revolutionary” Morris was a “revolutionary international socialist”.

Unimpressed by Bellamy’s vision, Morris wrote his own dream of the future News From Nowhere. However, today I’m going to share a few quotes from an earlier essay How we live & how we might live, written in 1884.

In it Morris sums up his “claims for decent life” as: First, a healthy body; second, an active mind in sympathy with the past, the present, and the future; thirdly, occupation fit for a healthy body and an active mind; and fourthly, a beautiful world to live in.

It is from this last “claim” that I shall selectively quote:
[F]actories or workshops, should be pleasant, just as the fields where our most necessary work is done are pleasant. Believe me there is nothing in the world to prevent this being done, save the necessity of making profits on all wares...
It is profit which draws men into enormous unmanageable aggregations called towns, for instance; profit which crowds them up when they are there into quarters without gardens or open spaces; profit which won’t take the most ordinary precautions against wrapping a whole district in a cloud of sulphurous smoke; which turns beautiful rivers into filthy sewers, which condemns all but the rich to live in houses idiotically cramped and confined at the best, and at the worst in houses for whose wretchedness there is no name.
When they are no longer slaves they will claim as a matter of course that every man and every family should be generously lodged; that every child should be able to play in a garden close to the place his parents live in; that the houses should by their obvious decency and order be ornaments to Nature, not disfigurements of it; for the decency and order above mentioned when carried to the due pitch would most assuredly lead to beauty in building. All this, of course, would mean the people—that is, all society—duly organized, having in its own hands the means of production, to be owned by no individual, but used by all as occasion called for its use...
It’s rare to find such a lyrical vision on the socialist left today. Is this because of the apparent failure of attempts to realise these utopian visions? The Wikipeadia article on Looking Back argued that Bellamy’s vision was realised in the policies of the USSR, while one conspiracy theorist tried to link him to Nazism. An entry in the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand gives a more positive view:
Many features of New Zealand life – full employment, home ownership by working-class people, free education and health service, motherhood endowment, universal superannuation, and other State-supplied benefits – were proposed as radical measures by Bellamy disciples in 1890, and the Edward Bellamy Society helped to establish and shape them in the late 1930s.
The socialists of 120 or even 70 years ago could look back on a recent history of slow but successful struggle for social and economic reforms – such as the legalization of the union movement or the winning of the vote for working class men and then women – The idea that society was progressing toward something better, whether you believed that would come about through gradual reform or revolution, seemed much more plausible than it does today.

Today the imaginations of the socialist Left seldom get beyond imagining a return to the Welfare State, the rise of a new socialist party, or a revival of trade union militancy. Would we be better able to achieve these more immediate goals if we had a more attractive vision of what a “human centred” society might look like?  

Environmental vision

There are still people and movements who imagine what a more people-centred society may look like. It is perhaps not surprising that they come from the environmental movement, which, unlike the more economically focussed Left has had the benefit of feeling that their concerns and causes were gaining adherents, even if the environmental crisis was getting worse.

Here’s one of those visions of the future:
Happy residents walk and cycle through streets of abundant colour, lined by productive fruit trees and vegetable gardens. Musicians enliven front yards and community parks, as people talk to their neighbours and trade local produce. There is much greater interaction between young and old throughout the community, while current-day clusters of shops have become miniature village centres—hubs for active transport (walking and cycling) and locally grown produce and manufactured goods. Development is now carried out on the human scale, reflecting distances that people can walk or cycle (rather than the automobile scale), which significantly reduces the number of cars. Electrified light rail lines connect different suburbs, but many people work locally. Fences have been removed, the marae is a greater part of the community, most houses use solar thermal water heating and the local fish and chip shop sells fish caught in nearby streams.
The above is the result of a “visioning day” held at my local St Albans Community Centre in March, by the Transition Initiative St Albans, part of the international Transition Towns initiative, which, according to the new Zealand home page are: [P]art of a vibrant, international grassroots movement that brings people together to explore how we – as communities – can respond to the environmental, economic and social challenges arising from climate change, resource depletion and an economy based on growth.  

Contemporary visions

Visions of a future society are not a strong point of contemporary socialists and I am no exception. (Although I suggest this is something we pay more attention to.)

So rather than give you my as yet unformed vision of what the transition away from capitalism and towards “a people centred economy” might look like, I’d like to draw your attention to the real-life right now example of Venezuela. Here we have people, the workers, the poor farmers, the indigenous people, the urban poor, moving to take centre stage in their society and trying to move their society and its economy so it is centred around them. Here, as one Venezuelan put it “the people have awoken”.

Although from the outside it may look as if the whole movement is centred around just one man, President Hugo Chavez, this is only part of the picture. Without active participation of the people, Chavez would not be there. Without the mass protests he would have been killed in the coup. There is a revolutionary dynamic between Chavez’s leadership and the initiative of his supporters, between the elections and the protests, between the top-down reforms of the government and the bottom-up actions of the grassroots. There are obviously many differences between Venezuela and Aotearoa. But I think there is also much we can learn. Venezuela’s revolution has centred on Chavez, but it began before anyone had heard of him, with the mass protests against the free market reforms in the late 1980s, which were brutally repressed. Chavez emerged as a champion of the people through his failed coup attempt. This showed he was not going to compromise with the corrupt establishment. He wanted to get rid of them. But when Chavez decided to stand for president he headed a broad coalition of parties, some old, some new. The coalition included communists and socialists of various sorts, but Chavez didn’t call for socialism. Chavez and his close comrades had a vision of Venezuela’s future, or independence from US domination, of sharing the oil wealth among the people. Chavez has become more radical and his supporters have become more radical, as through the struggle to build a more people-centred society in Venezuela they have come up against the resistance of the Venezuelan elite (the old politicians, the business people, the top civil servants) and of the US.

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