Alternative Economic Systems, untangling the tongue-tied transition from capitalism to cooperation.
By Lucie Bardos
It is so easy to get overwhelmed thinking about the term “economic systems”. As the words roll off my tongue I envision millions of pieces of string binding everyone in the world together: the laypeople to the mega corporations and governments, to the mom n’ pop store down the street, to the big banks, to friends and family — each string representing an economic transaction of some kind. In the middle of it all, it’s easy to feel tangled up.
From talking to my peers, I have found that quite a few people share these sentiments. So then how can we get ourselves untangled? How can we tug at those strings in such a way that causes the least harm to others and votes for thriving interdependent economic communities rather than mammoth oligopolies? Many of us involved in alternative lifestyles, activisms, and social movements — of which permaculture is one — are often searching for innovative and place-appropriate ways to do this.
One of my favourite professors at university — a feminist activist who was fighting alongside people threatened by multinational corporations in Guatemala and elsewhere — once said something along the lines of “when we study capitalism, we tend to focus on IT and its negative effects, to the point where we sometimes limit our ability to even recognize the myriad non-capitalist forms of economic exchange that we and communities around the world engage in every day.” This simple statement was definitely an awakening for me. Yes, it is important to analyze and actively oppose capitalism, especially since it is arguably the most powerful force shaping global society, but it is equally important to value and lift up the alternatives that already exist and have in many cases existed for millennia!
Let me ask you this: have you ever swapped clothes, seeds or services with a friend? Have you ever been given or have issued an IOU? Have you ever shared the story of a small business or non profit with your social network because you believed in what they stood for? If you answered YES to any of these, then you have already engaged in non-capitalist forms of economic exchange. Perhaps you leveraged your social capital to help a friend, or perhaps you have engaged in reciprocity, gift giving, or bartering in order to meet your needs or the needs of your loved ones.
For many of us, when we think of the word “economics” our minds might quickly jump to flows of dollars and cents; however, The Free Dictionary defines “economics” more broadly as that which “deals with the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, or human welfare”. For myself, I like to think of economics as “the ways that we meet our needs through the exchange of goods and services”. With this wider definition in mind, we can really expand and explore what it means to participate in economic exchange.
By doing case studies on economic traditions, such as the reciprocity-based Potlatches of the Northwest Coast Indigenous Peoples; local currencies which promote the circulation of economic energy within a specific region; or credit sharing which helps all parties involved in a deal determine what constitutes a fair exchange of goods or services rendered, we can observe diverse culturally and historically rooted economic stories. These stories offer lessons for ways that people have engaged and can engage within economic circles, ways that promote the ethics of caring for people and the earth, as well as fair share.
In my life, I have had the opportunities to study permaculture, work on a community currency project, participate in time banks and mutual credit initiatives, and work within the Degrowth and Transition Towns movements. All of these experiences have gifted me with invaluable tools for navigating my economic reality. I have calculated that during the past 12 months I have participated in the exchange of over $5000 Canadian Dollars worth of goods and services without the need for any Canadian Dollars. As someone who works within the non-profit sector and qualifies as a low-income person, having the knowledge to access and identify wealth through alternative means has enriched my life greatly.
Alternative approaches to designing our economic systems which engage with concepts like local currencies, basic income, credit sharing, and interest free loans, can help vulnerable communities become economically stable, they can help people reduce stress and improve mental health, and they can help people express their gifts and talents in ways that are not exploitative.
I think the greatest boon that rethinking economics has given me, is the increased sense of agency in my life — feeling like I am able to meet my needs and experience abundance even if my economic profile might suggest otherwise. If we are able to engage in more of the kind of work that allows us to redefine, reimagine, and critically redesign what terms like ‘currency’, ‘wealth’, ‘capital’ and ‘economics’ can mean, then I think that the potential for positive change is truly great.