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The Extraordinary Possible

Beyond austerity, glimpses of climate justice and a democratic economy

by Reilly Yeo



Salmon habitat has been reclaimed along Vancouver's Still Creek. What if we kept going? Photo: Duncan Creamer/creative commons
 
In Vancouver, why do we start events with an acknowledgement that we are on the unceded territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and Səl̓ílwətaʔ (Tsleil-Waututh) peoples? This can easily be a token gesture. It can be thoughtless or pretentious. But when done with right intention, it’s a sign: we know how much ownership matters.
 
The malls are teeming with people now during the winter months. These are where you take your tai chi class and offer dana, where you buy or barter produce from the greenhouse. Anchor institutions such as hospitals and schools get whatever they can’t find at farmer’s markets here, too, creating local demand that sustains local supply. The arcades are divided by pay-what-you-can produce boxes; kale and spinach wave cheerily at you as you pass the huge Maker Library, with its public 3D printers, and the Mennonite import shop.
 
A ticker on the wall keeps you up to date on how the local markets are doing—how how much solar has been pumped back into the grid and where it’s going, whether the turbines are running faster today than yesterday, how much food is coming into the city and how much is leaving it. The wall of batteries the city bought with money from green bonds glints in the light. Does it hum, or is that just your imagination? Sometimes you go look at your mother’s name engraved on the second row of batteries—she was one of the first investors. Below her on the first row are all the people who were given the bonds as reparations. Money doesn’t mean the same thing when things are so abundant, when income means that people work more for passion than survival. But it’s still nice to have sometimes.
 
You stroll along, where people used to avoid eye contact; you wave when you see the people you met at PB last year, soccer moms from the west side, young tech entrepreneurs, retired teachers from Marpole. You don’t go to the same concerts or restaurants as they do, but the mall is still a place where you see different kinds of people.
 
Collaboration, sharing and cooperation are all good things. But until we start addressing the fundamental question of who owns what and how, real economic justice will remain elusive.
 
Rethinking ownership would mean recognizing that owning land and resources is a privilege, not an entitlement—it’s a set of stewardship responsibilities to a wider community. This shift from entitlement to stewardship is crucial. First, because it means true respect for Indigenous ways of knowing; and second, because whoever owns ultimately gets to decide.
 
No matter how benevolent the owners, concentrations of ownership are anti-democratic. That’s why a radically better economy would be a democratic one; it would diffuse the responsibility of ownership much more widely throughout society.
 
“Democratic” isn’t exactly a magic word. It’s almost academic, almost jargon. What it should mean is not the rule of the 50 per cent plus one, a red herring for a just decision, but rather this: that in any given decision, those who are most impacted get to decide. They get to be the stewards.
 
This is why “subsidiarity” emerges as a lighthouse word in new economic thinking. Despite its jargon-y appearance, it conveys an important principle: decisions should be made at the lowest level possible. Combine subsidiarity with democratization, and you see the wisdom and inspiration behind participatory budgeting (PB), bringing people together to make decisions about commonly held resources in community.
 
You occasionally see the same movies, at Scotia Credit Union theatre. Female characters in movies are allowed to talk to each other now, even if a man’s name is never mentioned. That was dictum 55 of the 99% Theses.
 
PB means public ownership can be democratic—not a magic word, but a magical idea. Instead of taxation concentrating resources in a powerful and co-optable bureaucracy, if done correctly PB means taxation can lead to a meaningful redistribution not just of money (which is so often temporary) but of power (which can be permanent). It happens mostly at the civic level, but it makes sense on even smaller scales, like the level of an individual public housing project. It takes the principle of subsidiarity and puts it into practice, devolving power to the lowest level.
 
Sometimes the lowest level possible is the global one. So in a world where we share a global climate, creating a truly democratic economy will require scaling some decision-making upward. It will also mean shifting the balance of meaningful decision-making power southward and eastward, especially to those small nations where the impact of climate change will be literally apocalyptic.
 
This is where using the distributed communications potential of the Internet and crowdsourcing policies makes sense, but also where movements need to be stronger, more globally minded and more rooted in an analysis that highlights the need for systemic change.
 
Of course, the Theses had very little to do with the change . . . or maybe it did, as more people got in on the joke, understood the irony of its strident tone and saw the sincerity of the vision behind it. Any political video that goes as viral as Gangnam Style must make some difference. But really, things shifted when people started seeing local theatre again, when cord-cutting meant they left TV for the Internet en masse, and the big producers realized the public had options. Like most things, it was a combination of some long, slow burning and the occasional spontaneous combustion: #yesallwomen plus years of feminist organizing and the long, hard slog of community-engaged artists in the age of austerity.
 
The Internet reminded us that we love babies and animals—that we can be gentle creatures, our bellies exposed as we walk on just two legs. That armour of misogyny got easier to shed once so many men realized it wasn’t making them happy. No one listens to 14-year-old men’s rights activists on Reddit anymore.
 
Of course, global economic democracy will force us to take on perhaps the biggest problem of all: finance. The financial transaction tax, dealing with tax havens and preventing capital flight whenever progressive-leaning governments get elected all require global cooperation. There are many things we can do at the nation-state level, like public banking and bank transfer days and debt strikes, but so long as capital can move more easily than workers can, we need international agreements.
 
So while we devolve control of our energy system to communities, through solar and wind and micro-hydro and tidal, as one way of moving beyond corporate power, we’ll also need alternative visions for things like the WTO and World Bank and IMF.
 
That feels impossibly daunting, but even there we can see signs of change. The IMF hasn’t acknowledged its role in the destruction caused by SAPs, by trade “liberalization” that protects and favours rich folks in rich economies and other elements of the Washington Consensus—a 30-year uncontrolled and failed experiment that has gone hand in hand with continued imperial wars. But it has now been clear that it believes countries (including Canada) need to raise taxes and, incredibly, that declining unionization rates hurt rather than help economies. This is hardly an epiphany, and hardly news to anyone in the real world, but we can ask how we build to a tipping point, a paradigm shift, from these small changes.
 
The words “markets” and “trade” no longer fill us with dread. At your uncle’s store, open trade means he gets potatoes straight from farmer co-operatives in Peru, in colours from indigo to pale pink. Of course, most days you get your potatoes straight from Delta in the expanded Agricultural Land Reserve, since without the carbon costs connected with transport, they are so much cheaper. But every now and then you want a little magenta on your plate, with some salty butter. These are the little luxuries everyone can afford now.
 
Love and care flow down like rain—and we’ve designed equally simple and effective systems to make every drop count. We no longer take them for granted or see them as a nuisance. Feminist economics deconstructed our whole understanding of money and worth. The ripple effect of all those first-year arts students thinking through how commodifying what is truly valuable and life sustaining—mother’s milk, ocean currents, the air—would destroy the even more valuable relationships behind them brought us all to better understand the paradox and limitations of markets.
 
It’s no wonder we decided parenting and teaching and caring for babies and elders should be better compensated. It’s no wonder we came to more reverence for all the people of colour who traveled across the world to do this work here. We stopped treating them as servants, or worse, as threats.
 
It’s no wonder we offered citizenship or paths back to family and community once we came to understand these are the world’s most necessary professions—that care and tenderness make the strength and inventiveness of all genders possible. It’s no wonder solidarity led to better organizing.
 
It’s fun to visit dads and moms during the weekdays now, in the nine-to-five time slot that used to be completely devoted to work. You love the thrill and focus of a shorter workweek, of getting everything done while you are energetic and lively, and then stopping by for those visits where time slows down. When you too are invited to wonder why, for example, dandelions turn into fluffy white balls that can be blown and scattered on the four winds.
 
The answer of course is stronger, bigger social movements. Social innovation and philanthropy aren’t the answer; taking it back to the beginning, they don’t do enough to address the fundamental question of who owns and controls resources. But we also need to learn not to discount the genuine good will and perspective of people like Peter Buffett (google it), people who have grown up with privilege and for whom politicization might take some time and some different experiences. Some high horses will need to be dismounted, especially by those of us who also have privilege and can afford not to get angry sometimes. We can stand to focus less on shaming people and more on persuasion. Things like classism and colonialism exist behind entire systems designed for their concealment; we benefit from being empathetic to those who haven’t yet taken the red pill. Our good arguments about these things matter. So do our compelling, joyful visions of the alternative.
 
On the days when you are lonely, you forget what a relative utopia this is. There is still no cure for cancer. Nothing will bring back over 1,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women. You surrender to those feelings, which are no longer considered taboo. You could weep in public unashamed, but you go into the forest where the trees are your companions. A hiker crosses your path and hands you a handkerchief.
 
Compelling and joyful visions arise when we recognize how concentrated ownership and power hurt us all, including the owners and the powerful (though in extraordinarily different ways). I have some pieces of those visions, and so do you. On my own, I can’t tell you precisely how housing and manufacturing and trade and food systems and politics get democratized, but I feel confident that together we can turn nascent good ideas into stories that will excite and motivate even the mainstream. When people feel that surge that comes from power-with, power-together, we want more of it, and we want to share it. It’s so much better than power-over, which leaves us fearful and alone.
 
That’s not to say that it doesn’t feel scary, that it doesn’t require sacrifice and pain. Unlearning requires stamina. Democratizing our governments and our workplaces and even our families in the era of climate crisis and increasing poverty feels for many like trying to rebuild a raft while it carries us, blind, across a stormy sea. We need to work together to clearly articulate what lies on the other side, and how our methods—which are in some ways new and in many ways centuries old—get us there.
 
Human nature hasn’t changed; it’s just become more obvious how malleable it always was, even after centuries of learned selfishness. This makes more sense now that we understand nature differently. It doesn’t mean original and unchanging; it means skillfully evolving in every moment. We learned how to get inside that flow, instead of letting our fear impede it.
 
You and I meet, in a place where it feels natural to whisper. Beside the concrete, the salmon are spawning in the stream again, their movements slow. Like us, they can finally return home.

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