Economic Justice

Post-Industrial Systemic Transformative Thinking in the Contemporary Period

| José Z. Calderón |

Hidden too often in the mainstream’s version of history in this country are the many collective efforts that have created economic and political models of systemic structural change — models nationally and globally which have sought to create structural changes in Capitalism.  

We have the commonality that there is a need to advance a dialogue on the contradictions inherent in the system of capitalism, deepen research on the new local and global economic models that are emerging, and promote the growth of a movement based on the creation of transformative structural models of equity.   

With the inability of traditional politics and politicians internationally not being able to come up with viable solutions to a growing economic crisis, there is a growing movement to advance theories and practices for a new economy.  

This movement is one that is based on rethinking the nature of ownership and rethinking the definition of “growth” as a basis for gauging whether there is progress.  This is a movement advancing a transformation of the economy so that the public, rather than a small elite, little by little come to control the productive assets in the society.  

At the base of this rethinking is the turning around of a system that survives on the existence of an unequal stratification system and the divisions it creates on the basis of wages, wealth, and opportunity.  

An emphasis on the quantity of profit over quality of life has led to the rise of a right-wing movement to make sure that our potential power is scattered and decapitated through: deregulating and allowing corporations to spew chemicals in the air that result in more of us dying (particularly in people of color and low-income communities); through the cutting of our cutting health care; through incarcerating us (we have more African Americans in jail now than we had in slavery); through keeping us from voting by gutting the voting rights act and unjust gerrymandering; and through increased enforcement, deportation, and limits on asylum of our immigrant young people, families, and refugees. This movement, particularly evident in the policies of the past Trump administration, continues to rear its head by waging a war against our communities (and particularly those who have been in the forefront of any gains made in civil, human, and environmental rights in the last decades).  

We have the Alt-Right, the Bannons, the Rockford Institute, the neo-conservative movements in this country who promote white supremacist, racial-nationalist and neo-fascist ideologies, who push a deregulated free enterprise system, more funding for the military, and stand against anything that promotes a system based on equality. These are movements that continue to defend and promote the privatization of our economy and that, rather than advancing spaces and places of a more just and equal world, are seeking to foment a politics of individualism and ignorance about global warming and the economy.

This trend promotes an unregulated economic system where corporations rule, where the needs of our communities are put aside for the priorities of profit-making interests, and that advances a form of neoliberalism that places emphasis on privatization and consumerism with the outcome of destroying any ideology that truly advances practices for the collective good.  

To combat this right-wing conservative trend, we need a program that: transforms power at the top; abolishes a structure that allows the wealthy, the corporations, and businesses to manipulate the tax system in their favor; reverses banking concentration and supports a system of decentralized community accountable banks and credit unions; combats unjust gerrymandering; abolishes the electoral college; moves toward a form of proportional representation and builds a social movement in support of a living wage; health care with universal coverage; accessibility for everyone to a quality education; a guaranteed basic income; investment in pre-school, K-12, and higher education; public financing of elections; and trade agreements that ensure environmental and labor standards. 

At the local level, we need a social movement to create transitional forms of a new structure or a new system that is based on the collective and not just the interests of the individual. Some of these transitional forms include employee-owned enterprises; cooperatives; and businesses that are used in the interests of the community.  

About 130 million people in the country are members of various urban, agricultural, and credit union cooperatives. In Cleveland, Ohio, a group of worker-owned companies has been developed that is supported in part by the purchasing power of large hospitals and universities. The cooperatives include a solar installation and weatherization company, an ecologically advanced laundry, and a greenhouse capable of producing over three million heads of lettuce a year. The Cleveland model is not simply about worker ownership but the democratization of wealth and building community particularly in the low-income areas. They are doing this through the creation of community-serving non-profit corporations, a revolving fund, agreements that the companies cannot be sold outside the network and that they must return ten percent of profits to help develop additional worker-owned firms in the area. Further, an important element are the agreements with  local hospitals and universities who, until recently, spent their $3 billion on goods and services per year, outside the immediate neighborhoods. The “Cleveland model” has now won over these entities to be responsible as publicly-financed institutions and to allocate part of their spending and assets to the worker co-ops in support of a larger community-building vision. There are other cities now creating similar models (Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Amarillo, Texas, and Washington, D. C.) and there are unions, such as the United Steelworkers, that are developing co-op union models of ownership.

This is about an alternative form of municipal development and land use.  In some cities, such as Washington, D. C. and Atlanta, cities bring in millions by capturing the increased land values that their transit investments create. The town of Riverview, Michigan has been a national leader in trapping methane from its landfills and used it to fuel electricity generation (providing both revenues and jobs). There are 500 such projects nationwide. Many cities have established municipally-owned hotels.  There are nearly 2,000 publicly-owned utilities that provide power and broadband services  to more than 45 million people — generating $50 billion in annual revenue. In Alaska, state oil revenues provide each person living in the state,  dividends from public investment strategies.   

Related to this is the creativity of Community development Banks, like the Bank of North Dakota (a state-owned bank founded in 1919) that are designed to facilitate economic revitalization of poor communities.  In recent years, the bank returned $340 million in profits to the state. In Oregon, there are efforts to develop a similar bank, a “virtual state bank,”  with no storefront. The South Shore Bank in Chicago is another example (developed in 1973) that provides real estate management, technical assistance, job training, equity investment, and economic consulting. It has assets exceeding $1 billion with $150 million invested in low-income communities.   

All these models are closely related to what the New Democratic Movement (that many of us were part of) advocated in the 1980s: the development of a post-industrial society with concrete  innovative economic “transitional” forms.  

The Post-Industrial Society thinking of the 1980’s proposed a “struggle to develop the material basis for a strong cooperative movement” — and a society, not just based on “high levels of productivity” but on the maximum involvement of all the people. This outlook encouraged the development of small businesses, worker-owned cooperatives, and investment in human capital (particularly in education, housing, and health). It called for a society based on a revolution in the current mode of production where high productivity is possible through the development of the most advanced technologies. 

This direction, in the contemporary period, includes some contemporary writers and thinkers that are thinking along the lines of the need for a new economy. Some of the ideas that relate to the post-industrial thinking advocated in the 1980’s by the New Democratic Movement are now being promoted by such economists as Richard Wolff, Emeritus in Economics at the University of Massachusetts; Gar Alperovitz, historian and political economist; Marjorie Kelly and Ted Howard of the Democracy Collaborative; and Joe Guinan, Executive Director of the Next System Project and Martin O’Neill, Political Philosophy at the University of York.  There are many names being given to these models that, in addition, to post-industrial a post-industrial economy, include:  stakeholder capitalism, the solidarity economy, new economy, sharing economy, regenerative economy, and the living economy.

In connecting with some of these themes, in the contemporary period, economist Richard Wolff, proposes systemic change “where the nature of work is transformed;” where people “once again control production;” where the creativity of workers is valued, and where they are in “control of the entire product.” Agreeing with Marx’s notion of surplus value, Richard Wolff proposes “workers self-directed enterprises where workers, who produce the surplus capital, are in charge of the profit (and not the managers or executives). Similar to aspects of the post-industrial article, Wolff proposes that production works best “when performed by a community that collectively and democratically designs and carries out shared labor.” The transformative element for Wolff is the “reorganization of all workplace enterprises to eliminate exploitation … where the workers become collectively self-directed at their work sites.”  

In his book Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism, Richard Wolff proposes that these models are fine but that what needs to change is the class structure of production and that many of the systemic models, including private and state capitalism have had the commonality of advancing state-capitalist class structures of  top-down production that exclude the workers from production decisions and the distribution of their production. He proposes that even in the transitions from capitalist to socialist economic systems in various countries, there was a lack of prioritization or did not “explicitly include, or if they came to power, institute an economic system in which the production and distribution of surplus was carried out by those who produced it.” Overall, he argues that even in those countries categorized as “socialist,” there was a lack of prioritizing what he proposes as workers’ self-directed enterprises (where the workers who produce the surplus generated inside the enterprise function collectively to appropriate and distribute it). His solution of “workers’ self-directed enterprises” emphasizes that workers must partly or completely own the enterprises where they work and have a decision-making voice in the surpluses they produce. Such a transformation, from his outlook, will also advance the abilities of “workers to become informed, competent, and full participants in the democratic governance of the communities in which they reside.” 

Similarly, Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill in The Case for Community Wealth Building propose that organizing at the local level, in what they call “local justice,” can be a means of developing models (such as the ones that have been presented here as examples) that both take on the power of corporations and “build a more equal and democratic economy.”  

Gar Alperovitz, in What Then Must We Do, proposes a direction that builds models of democratizing wealth and the building of a cooperative and community-based economy from the ground up. Like aspects of the post-industrial article, Alperovitz proposes cooperative models that include community land trusts, worker-owned businesses, and employee stock ownership plans.

In this vein, Marjorie Kelly and Ted Howard, in The Making of a Democratic Economy, present models that are “making what was once radical seem more like common sense.” These models include: “cooperatively-owned work places; of cities committed to economic policies rooted in racial justice; of ethical financing and investing; of communities on the frontline of crisis-building” to show us that “a different economy is not just a theoretical possibility but that it is something happening in right now in the real world.” The models include policies such as that of the  Green New Deal (proposed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) to shift to 100% renewable energy in 10 years, to create tens of thousands of new jobs, and to advance the implementation of publicly-owned banks like the North Dakota Bank. Already, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and California Governor Gavin Newsom have committed to establishing state public banks. This follows with the thinking of Gar Alperovitz that a whole new economic system is emerging that already include models of economic development with racial justice at the forefront, employee-owned companies, and local purchasing by anchor institutions. Agreeing with other economists, Alperovitz presents “anchor” models that are not just about theory but are “real models” that have taken the example in Cleveland (the Cleveland Model) and are now being constructed in other places ranging from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Rochester, New York, and to Richmond, Virginia.

The rise of this new economy include worker-owned cooperatives ranging from the “Si Se Puede” cooperative (a Brooklyn house-cleaning enterprise owned primarily by Latinas) to union cooperatives (such as the Communications Workers of America Local 7777 in Denver (Green Taxi) where the leadership and board is made up entirely of immigrant drivers from East Africa and Morocco). Further, worker coops are being implemented now in New York City, Newark, Oakland, Rochester, and Madison. There are more than 6,600 employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) throughout the country with $1.4 trillion in assets and “businesses owned by the people they serve” (that include credit unions, agricultural cooperatives, and consumer cooperatives) that represent $500 billion in revenue and employ more than 2 million people.

There are four principles that involve moving in this direction:  

  1. Thinking of new ways to democratize wealth  
  2. Placing the building of community and what is in the interests of community in the forefront in all development  
  3. Decentralizing power in general – so that there is community input 
  4. Planning in the interests of quality of life  

The character of capital and corporations is that they have the highest level of planning in individual corporations that do everything competitively to reap the most profits with a culture of greed and selfishness in the forefront.  However, there is the capacity for a new kind of planning, with a culture of collectivity in the forefront, to use the earth’s resources to solve the many problems threatening our survival.   

Global Peace & Collaboration

Steve Clark Responds to “The Dollar as the World’s Reserve Currency”

| Steve Clark |

In this piece, Steve Clark responds to Dennis Torigoe’s recent article, “The Dollar as the World’s Reserve Currency.”

Thanks to Signe for raising a stimulating comment on Dennis’ piece in regard to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). I appreciate what Tom had to say and wanted to comment further.

A bifurcated agenda (MMT at home and financial imperialism abroad) would be inconsistent and morally reprehensible for any progressive, and I don’t think anyone in or around MMT takes such a position. Rather, at worst — and like Dennis (and most of us) — MMT advocates don’t have a clearly articulated plan for remaking the international financial order. They know how it works, but they don’t know how to assert popular control at that scale (currently, their focus is on gaining effective influence in sovereign states and, someday, “going global” from such new-found power bases). Rather than criticize MMT for the same shortcoming that we all share, we need to put our MMT thinking caps on, figure out the necessary “next steps,” and advocate for consistent financial restructuring across our both domestic and global economies.  This might require a think tank and a legal corps, but that could set us in the right direction.

It seems to me that when our nation’s progressive wing overcomes dual power (defeats neoliberalism) in the US (that is, for now, in the Biden Administration and the Congress), all nations and people stand to benefit because the world does, in fact, have an integrated, global, financial system (and I think Dennis would agree) in which the US dollar and the US central bank (the Fed) dominate decision-making and financial power (at the IMF/BIS/SWIFT/IIF etc.). 

Given this institutional domination, if/when American progressives gain the power necessary to implement a true, worker-oriented, social investment agenda in the US, we also will gain (or will be on the verge of gaining) the power to pursue a similar agenda at global scale (via the IMF, where we progressives will have just acquired dominant power, or via some new authority that we and the world create to replace the IMF).

Further, given the scale and breadth of today’s crisis, when American progressives finally break the power of finance capital in the US (winning majority control of our government), the rest of the world’s progressives (in countries everywhere) will demand we immediately break that same financial power globally as well. Having gained control of the US votes at the IMF, we will have no choice but to comply (twist my arm!). 

Few American progressives have given much thought to how this “next system” of finance must operate to meet the needs of the whole world, including its impoverished nations. Obviously, “trickle down” from the US to the world doesn’t work, but, for sure, there’s no way some kind of global planned economy will be imposed. Rather, the next system — which has to carry civilization through the era of climate change impact and mitigation ahead — will be some kind of global mixed economy in which private entities and markets operate alongside public investment entities and non-market allocations, both within the world’s many nations and in transnational forms as well (corporations, global NGOs, UN-determined public investments(?), etc.).  

However this next system shapes up, the world is never going back to the gold standard. It will remain on fiat currencies because that is the actual and only way, now, that nation-states and their markets can operate (if anyone can see beyond the era of fiat currencies, please let us know what that might look like!). When US progressives quash dual power and take general control of our government (sometime over the next few election cycles), the dollar will become our currency (the public’s currency!), and we can directly and forthrightly engage China, Europe, Japan, Britain — the other four IMF-approved-for-trade currencies — the Global South, and all other sovereign nations on the matter of how best to reconstruct and democratize global finance for the challenging crisis-mitigation era ahead (including, possibly, setting a new Special Drawing Rights (SDR) currency to replace the dollar as the global reserve… MMT suggests how that might be done).  

I think that forging a new system of global finance is a necessary piece of this era’s struggle, an issue to be resolved sooner rather than later. MMT is empowering because it explains not only how the system works (and, as a corollary, how finance capital exploits the system for its own ends) but, also, how our nation’s democratic majority can impose its will on the system, reprioritize its investment agenda, move on to global financial reform, and, thereby, tackle all the vital problems of our time.

To me, a crucial task, now, is raising the financial consciousness of voters so elected politicians fight for popular oversight of finance in the public interest. That’s how we overcome dual power (defeat neoliberalism) and win progressive legislative majorities over the next few election cycles. Right now, the MMT folks are leading this project, but they need allies as well as broadened popular grounding and intersectional collaboration. I hope we Leftists will walk towards them, learn from them and help them see and link more effectively, beyond the financial realm.


Tom Clark Responds to “The Dollar as the World’s Reserve Currency”

| Tom Clark |

In this piece, Tom Clark responds to Dennis Torigoe’s recent article, “The Dollar as the World’s Reserve Currency.”

I’m a big Dennis Torigoe fan.  As I told him at the 40th Anniversary event, having never met him before, I miss his writings from the Worker’s Viewpoint days and am very glad to see him still at it after all these years.  His response about Walden Bello last winter was very useful and enlightening.  And, as I commented on the Voices for New Democracy site, I do appreciate Dennis’ timely information about SWIFT, one of the ways the US exercises its hegemony, and INTREX, a potential remedy. He is still an authority in my view.  I’ve thought that we should invite him to present to our Finance Group on how he thinks about financial and economic issues and what his suggestions are for how we should think about them.

So it is with all due respect that I say that I found Dennis’ explanation of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) to be vague and unsubstantial, and his conclusion about reserve currencies misplaced.  

In his article, he mentions the name Wynne Godley. What he didn’t mention, and might have, is the substance of what that economist’s work is about.  As laid out in Chapter 2 of The Deficit Myth, Godley demonstrated the principle of ‘sectoral balances.’  Simply put, as author Kelton does, the government’s red ink (the deficit) is the non-government’s black ink (a surplus).  Or, more precisely, there is a ‘penny-to-penny’ relationship between the amount of the government’s ‘debt,’ as we so misleadingly call it, and the amount of the surplus held by the non-government sector (what you, me, the business community, the Chinese etc., hold onto in our wallets, bank accounts, 401(k)s etc.) as assets, and didn’t pay in taxes.  As Godley showed, this accounting is a fact, not a theory, and decisively exposes the myth that the national debt is somehow a burden to our descendants, any more than the massive deficits from WWII were a burden to us.

In fact, there was a recent Twitter exchange where someone asked about exactly what [Signe Waller Foxworth] wrote here and what was in Dennis’ article:  Doesn’t MMT get used to maintain US hegemony over the world financial system?  The answer is that framing it that way is backwards:  The dollar acts as the world’s reserve currency because the US is an imperialist power and has the military and political clout to enforce its culture onto other players.  In other words, the dollar’s status as reserve currency is a result, not a cause, of US imperialism.  Of course they use monetary operations (the accurate description of which is the basis for MMT) to further their domination; it’s what we used to call ‘cultural hegemony,’ and part of the ‘code of capital,’ as we have called it more recently.  But the work of Fahdel KaboubLua Kamal YuilleNdongo Samba Sylla and many others demonstrate how the MMT lens and the concept of monetary sovereignty can be used by progressive/revolutionary movements to improve the lives of their constituents as well as further expose the aggressive, oppressive roles played by the US and their neoliberal allies. 

To say one more thing, since you mention military spending.  As we all know the US military budget is nearly 3 quarters of a trillion dollars per year.  But notice that the Dems infrastructure and rescue proposals are for $6T total over 10 years, in other words about $.6T/year, comparable to the military expense.  What the MMT folk say is that we have enough room to do both, at least for a while. The MMT proposition is that there is no need to ‘pay for’ the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, education, childcare, reparations etc. by cutting the military budget or anything else.  Of course doing both seems wasteful and leaves in place an aggressive, damaging institution that we all hate.  (I say we can work on that problem as we go.)  But isn’t it worth it to get the good stuff that we really have to have and to highlight that possibility to those we work with?  I think so.

The point is that believing that we must first cut things like military spending to ‘pay for’ the social programs we know are so acutely necessary, is to swallow the ‘Deficit Myth,’ to accept that the US government has to ‘find’ the money it spends just like households, businesses and local governments must.  It’s just not so.
So the question is larger than, ‘how do we stop so much military spending?’  It’s ‘how do we get people the things they need?’ The MMT lens says we do that by writing and passing budgets that fund the programs we want, at least initially no matter what happens with the military budget.  Let’s do that and then the democratic will of the people we have established by working with everyone who will — what I think Steve means by ‘dual power’ — can decide later what best to fund for the long term, guns or butter, to use the old phrase.  The issue is getting our (small-d) democratic foot further in the door of this appropriations/spending process, using what ‘dual-power’ we can muster, not slaying old dragons no matter how righteous and right we are about how monstrous they are.   

Agree or disagree, I hope this is useful. Again, thanks for your response to my vids about the ongoing mainstreaming of MMT.


Signe Waller Foxworth Responds to “The Dollar as the World’s Reserve Currency”

| Signe Waller Foxworth, PhD |

In this piece, Signe Waller Foxworth responds to Dennis Torigoe’s recent article, “The Dollar as the World’s Reserve Currency.”

Thanks to Dennis Torigoe for a very informative piece in Voices for New Democracy about the privileged position the U.S. has in global finance due to the acceptance of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. I am wondering about the relationship between Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), that has captured the enthusiasm of many of us, and the sovereign role of the dollar in global finance. 

We are excited about MMT because it exposes the myth of deficit spending and describes the actual working of the economy. MMT shows the deceitfulness of rationalizing the government’s failure to provide for the basic needs of the people with excuses like we don’t have the money for this or we would have to raise taxes to pay for that. These rationalizations are false because the U.S. Government is the sole currency issuer and creates fiat money by spending it into existence, a feat none of us can accomplish, at least legally. It is no more difficult to find the money for universal health care, housing, living wages, education, immigration reform and addressing environmental destruction and climate catastrophe than it is to find the money for bombs, drones, guns, corporate bailouts and aid to foreign countries that are human rights abusers. The failure to provide a decent living standard for its population is exposed as due to a failure of political will and moral values, not a shortage of money. MMT opens the door to a more democratic process of managing the U.S. economy.

What I find challenging is what is precisely the relationship between MMT and the international financial arrangements that lead to U.S. dominance over other nations. The sovereign dollar plays a major, if not decisive, role in promoting U.S. imperialism. Could we, or would we even want to, create a paradise in the U.S. by trampling the rest of the world to death with imperialistic and financial action afforded by our privileged position in the global financial system? The relationship between MMT, with its potential benefits toward democratizing our national life, and the global financial system that fosters U.S. imperialism challenges our thinking in the fields of Economics and Ethics.  Could we (is it even economically feasible) or would we want to (is it even ethically justifiable to) utilize the tools of MMT domestically to fund education, housing, living wages, immigration reform, universal health care and avoiding the worst climate catastrophes if the US sovereign position in global finance continues to allow us the latitude to address Americans’ needs by immiserating other peoples?

Economic Justice

The Dollar as the World’s Reserve Currency

| Dennis Torigoe |

The US dollar is in a privileged position in the world as the global reserve currency which dominates international trade and commerce. As the world’s reserve currency, the US can continue to print as many dollars as it needs, run massive balance of trade deficits and use it to buy the world’s goods, basically swapping our paper for their raw materials and labor. The US can continue to increase its internal and trade deficits as long as it retains this world reserve currency status.

The bottom line: The dollar as the world’s reserve currency has been both an economic blessing and a curse on the workers and people of color in the US.  The US dollar’s role as the hegemonic reserve currency allows the US to deficit spend massively on the military and wars of aggression, while funding certain reforms to quell domestic resistance through targeted programs paid for by massive deficit spending.  At the same time the US dollar is used to plunder developing countries through high interest loans( by its de facto control of the IMF and the World Bank),  to attack other countries’ sovereign currencies and engage in unequal trade with developing countries.

The dollar as the world’s reserve currency has led to the gutting of domestic industry as US corporations, riding on the massive amounts of dollars printed by the US, drive for higher profits through outsourcing manufacturing and with them factory jobs to cheaper producers in Asia and elsewhere.  This has directly contributed to deindustrialization, structural unemployment and widespread suffering for a large swath of the American people.

Not only does the US control the creation of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, it also controls the mechanism which allows another country to use the US dollar in trade or finance, the SWIFT trade clearing system.  Through it, it has attacked countries like Iran and Venezuela though enforcing trade sanctions and caused untold suffering to the people of those countries,

The reserve currency status of the dollar allows the US to import cheap manufactured goods from other countries, particularly China, while paying for it in dollar-denominated paper or bonds. The US balance of trade deficit has soared, especially since the 1990s, as they give us real goods and we give them paper.

This cheap goods vs. paper payment has contributed to inflation being almost nonexistent, till now, from the 1990s to 2020.

Given the history of the imperialist wars, the plunder through unequal trade and economic and political aggression against the developing countries, the US owes reparations to much of the developing world which have to be repaid over time.  In our view, the only way to repay these historic debts and to raise the standard of living within the US is through unleashing massive postindustrial gains in productivity through a top to bottom reform of the present economic system.

However, we do recognize that replacing the US dollar as a reserve currency will perhaps take decades. In the interim, a Green New Deal-like program could be pivotal in accelerating the fight against climate change and the US’s advance in a post-industrial world.  However, the feasibility of such massive spending assumes the reserve currency status of the US dollar and the US’s own easy access to capital markets. Do the benefits that accrue to American workers from giant government programs come at the expense of people around the world? The answer is yes, thus the US bears a special responsibility to the rest of the world to fight climate change, inequality and injustice. As starters, the US needs to join or rejoin initiatives like the 2015 Paris Agreement, COVAX, the World Health Organization and revolutionize the character of international institutions like the IMF, World Bank, Bank for International Settlements, and the UN.

At the same time, we should seek first to promote alternatives to the US dollar’s reserve currency status and more equitable control of the world’s financial, trading and banking networks.


The US Dollar as the Global Reserve Currency: Is Modern Monetary Theory Only Good for Modern Imperialism?

When Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was asked how the potentially multi-trillion dollar Green New Deal was going to be paid for, she mentioned Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).  Coming into wider public view since then, it has become the answer for some on the political left to the question of how to pay for any major program proposed, from Medicare for All to Guaranteed Annual Income.

So what is this theory and how does it work, who benefits and who actually pays for what it promises?  We think it is usable by a superpower with hegemonic financial power through the use of the US dollar as the world reserve currency, benefiting the ruling class financially and politically.  It is paid for by the developing countries and their citizens forced to use the US dollar in trade and finance. And while it may give short term benefits to US workers, it creates an unsustainable global economy and prolongs the rule of the monopoly capitalists.

The bottom line: the US dollar’s role as the hegemonic reserve currency allows the US to spend massively on the military and wars of aggression, while funding certain reforms to quell domestic resistance through targeted programs and to continue to use the US dollar to plunder third world countries and engage in unequal trade.

It is one currency, one system.  They are interconnected. Given the history of the imperialist wars, the plunder through unequal trade and economic and political aggression against the developing countries, the US owes reparations to much of the developing world which have to be repaid over time.  In our view, the only way to repay these historic debts and to raise the standard of living within the US is through unleashing massive postindustrial gains in productivity through a top to bottom reform of the present economic system.

However, we do recognize that replacing the US dollar as a reserve currency will perhaps take decades.  In the interim, a Green New Deal-like program could be pivotal in accelerating the fight against climate change and the US’s advance in a post-industrial world.  However, the feasibility of such massive spending assumes the reserve currency status of the US dollar and the US’s own easy access to capital markets. Do the benefits that accrue to American workers from giant government programs come at the expense of people around the world?  As we show below, the answer is yes, and if so then the US bears a special responsibility to the rest of the world to fight climate change, inequality and injustice. As starters, the US needs to join or rejoin initiatives like the 2015 Paris Agreement, COVAX, the World Health Organization and revolutionize the character of international institutions like the IMF, World Bank, Bank for International Settlements, and the UN.

At the same time, we should seek and promote alternatives to the US dollar’s reserve currency status and more equitable control of the world’s banking networks.

Secular Stagnation Takes Hold in the US Economy

We believe that the US economy is in a period of what Lawrence Summers, the Harvard economist, calls secular stagnation.  He cites a number of factors pointing in this direction.

First of all, there has been a decrease in market-based investment demand overall, driven by a shrinking working age population which drives down investment in housing, consumer demand and production equipment.  Also driving down investment has been the lower cost and higher productivity afforded by the technology revolution.  He also argues that increased monopoly power in the US has stifled investment, as well as the refusal of the politicians to fund major infrastructure projects.  The net result has been that infrastructure spending is now one half of what it once was,

The other aspect driving secular stagnation has been the increased savings taking place in the economy.  Much more of the country’s income and wealth is going to the top economic earners, driving up the prices of assets like stocks and real estate, not into productive investments.  Moreover, because of the traumatic experience of the Great Recession of the 2009, people are themselves saving more as a cushion and banks have tightened lending rules, excluding many from purchasing homes and opening businesses.  Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has greatly increased all these factors.

What Is Modern Monetary Theory?

Modern Monetary Theory has been around for a while.  In her recent book The Deficit Myth, Stephanie Kelton, a leading proponent, cites her colleague Wynne Godley who in the late1990’s as a major inspiration for her thinking.  Basically, MMT argues that the government (in the US case, the Federal Reserve) can issue as much money to enable the Federal Government to spend as much money as it wants up to the point where economic demand in the economy outstrips the available supply of goods and services, at which point inflation and higher interest rates set in.  For a country with a sovereign currency, meaning it issues and controls its own currency, MMT believes that it can create money and the government can spend money as long as the goods and services exist for it to buy in its specific currency.

One of the major distinctions made by MMT is that unlike households and private businesses, a government with a sovereign currency does not need to balance its expenses with its revenues.  The government, as the creator and controller of the currency, can print as much money as it wants to pay off its bills.  But this means that governments without control over the currency with which they borrow or trade must use the US dollar to trade or pay off debts denominated in dollars or held by US-controlled institutions.  They are like households.  They need to get US dollars to pay off these bills.

How Does the US Ruling Class Use the Dollar as the Global Reserve Currency to Plunder the Rest of the World?

The countries that have the ability to follow MMT’s policies are the advanced capitalist countries of the world, with the US by far the most powerful.  Like households and businesses, the rest of the world has to get (through trade or borrowing) and use the major currencies of the West, mainly the US dollar but also the euro, the yen, the pound, and to a smaller extent China’s yuan, to engage in trade and finance with the US and major trading nations of Europe, Japan and China.  As we shall see, not only does the US control the creation of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, it also controls the mechanism which allows another country to use the US dollar in trade or finance. (Unlike the US, the European countries that share the euro are a work in progress. While they share a single currency and a central bank that issues that currency, spending decisions are still made, within limits, by their individual governments.)

The US dollar is in a privileged position in the world as the global reserve currency.  After World War II, the US was the world’s most powerful military and economic power. At the post war Bretton Woods Conference, the major allied powers and other signers agreed to the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency, then pegged at US$35 to an ounce of gold.

The Conference also created the International Monetary Fund, which was to stabilize currencies vis-a-vis the US dollar through loans and the World Bank which was to help develop international trade and finance.  Both were de facto controlled by the United States in its position as the biggest contributor of financial support, with US dollars, a currency that it created and distributed as its sovereign currency.

The US Dollar as the World’s Currency for Buying Oil Shores Up its Dominance

In the 1950s and 1960s, as the world’s economic and military superpower, the US dominated the world economy in trade, finance and manufacturing. Importantly, it also dominated the trade in the world’s most traded commodity – oil.  As the US dollar was the reserve currency in the world, almost all oil produced and exported had to be bought with US dollars. This worked until the US stagflation crisis (economic stagnation AND inflation at the same time) in the early 1970s when the US unilaterally pulled out of the gold standard of US$35 being exchangeable for one ounce of gold.  With US inflation and the dollar’s devaluation — its value “floating” depending on supply and demand — the oil-exporting countries of the Middle East lost purchasing power. They rebelled with the 1979 OPEC boycott by oil producing countries, refusing to ship oil to the West, which made the price of oil quadruple, from a fixed price of US$4 a barrel to US$12 a barrel in a matter of months.  With US dollars now gushing out of the US and Europe to the oil producers in OPEC, a new agreement was signed.  In 1979, the US-Saudi Arabia Joint Agreement on Economic Cooperation, in which Saudi Arabia, the biggest oil exporter, agreed to take only US dollars for its oil and to funnel them back into the US.  This again strengthened the US dollar’s hegemony on the world economic, trade and financial scene.

Since then, the US dollar has kept its position as the only truly world currency, though it is being potentially challenged by the euro and less so by China’s yuan. (On a secular basis, the shift away from fossil fuels, including oil, and the rise of digital currencies, especially sovereign-state-supported ones, pose challenges to the US dollar’s dominance in world trade and finance.)

The US Dollar Hegemony Helps Keep Wages Down Here and Oppress Low Wage Labor Overseas

The new millennium has brought historically low inflation to the United States, especially compared with the decades since the 1970s, as can be seen by the chart below.

At the same time, the US balance of trade deficit soared, especially since the 1990s, or as MMT author Kelton says, they give us goods and we give them paper.  What happened in that period?  The US started importing massive amounts of goods from the rest of the world, particularly China.  While the US has historically exploited cheap overseas labor and raw materials, from the banana plantations of Central and South America to the sewing factories in the Caribbean and Asia, now the US was buying manufactured goods from a fast-growing Chinese economy. At least one study shows that this had the effect of dampening price inflation.  This was especially true after the period of the Great Recession of 2008-2010, when the US economy was recovering.  According to A New York Federal Reserve staff report showing the impact on trade on US prices:

Lower Chinese export prices due to WTO entry reduce the U.S. manufacturing price index by 4.9 percent, while greater Chinese export variety reduce the index by 2.6 percent. The sum of these two values indicates that the total WTO effect on the U.S. price index is 0.076, that is the U.S. manufacturing price index was 7.6 percent lower in 2006 relative to 2000 due to China joining the WTO. Note that this fall is after correcting for any overall inflation in domestic and import prices that is common across industries in the constructed U.S. price index, since common trends would be absorbed by the constant term in (33).

So we interpret this 7.6 percent fall in prices as the real impact on U.S. manufacturing prices relative to inflation. Since manufacturing is only a fraction of the U.S. economy, this seemingly large effect is notably smaller than the aggregate 6.7 percent long-run U.S. welfare increase that Caliendo et al. (2015) estimate from the 2000-2007 China trade shock.

In a period of increasing impoverishment of US workers, this meant that their real wages were buffered by this lowered inflation and thus kept their standard of living from declining even more.  The fact that most of the imports from China are consumer goods and consumer spending makes up 2/3 of our economy means that the standard of living of people in the US is increasingly dependent on the continuation of US dollar hegemony. We are using massive amounts of printed dollars to keep the goods coming.  If there ever was a sudden stop to this, our living standards could fall precipitously.  As quoted by Siddiqui, Paul Samuelson expressed his deep concern about this:

More than a decade ago, Krugman (2007: 437) noted, “The United States has a remarkably large current account deficit, both in absolute terms and as a share of GDP. At the moment the country is not having any difficulty attracting capital inflows sufficient to finance this deficit, but many observers nonetheless find that deficit worrisome. This worriers see an ominous resemblance between the current U.S. situation and that of developing countries that also went through periods during which capital flows easily financed large current deficits, then experienced ‘sudden stops’ in which capital inflows abruptly ceased, the currency plunged, and the economy experienced a major setback.”

The Walmart’s and Amazons depend on the much lower paid labor making manufactured goods from China and the developing countries as an inherent part of their business models.  This was another way that the ruling class kept pressure for wage increases down and capitalist profits higher.  The other way was US companies offshoring production of things like sophisticated electronics at a fraction of the cost of what it would be to produce in the US.  The Apple iPhone is a prime example of this,

And how does the United States pay for this massive trade deficit?  As MMT says, we get real goods, we send them paper.  Basically by printing money that the world is obliged to take as payment. China now has over a trillion dollars of US Treasury notes that it has accumulated in trade with the US, about 7% of the total foreign-held US government debt.

US Global Trade Deficit 1950-2018

Thus the US ruling class continues to reap the profits of exploiting cheap labor from the developing countries in both raw materials and in manufactured goods because of its position as the creator of the world reserve currency.

The Cycle of US Interest Rates and Currency Attacks on Developing Countries 

Federal Funds Rate 1950-2019

In 2007 Joseph Stiglitz wrote an article titled “The Asian Crisis 10 Years Later” in The Guardian, explaining the Asian Financial Crisis which began in 1997.  In it, he laid out the timeline of the crisis:

In July 1997, the Thai Baht plummeted. Soon after, the crisis spread to Indonesia and Korea, then to Malaysia. In a little more than a year, the Asian crisis had become a global financial crisis, with the crash of Russia’s ruble and Brazil’s real.

In that year, George Soros’ hedge fund, the Quantum Fund, bet heavily against the Thai baht, which had recently dissolved its peg to the US dollar. Thailand did this after the dollar strengthened, and Thailand was caught in deteriorating terms of trade and thus an inability to pay the massive loans it had denominated in dollars. That was like blood in the water to the hedge fund sharks and other currency speculators to attack the Thai baht, betting that it would quickly devalue against the dollar.  George Soros’ fund’s $1 billion bet, in fact, wasn’t the biggest of the attackers. Julian Roberts’ Tiger Fund hedge fund bet $3 billion against it.  The attacks continued through the next two years.

What were the general conditions causing this financial crisis? As Stiglitz puts it, “[B]efore the 1997 crisis, there had been rapid increases in capital flows from developed to developing countries – a six-fold increase in six years. Afterwards, capital flows to developing countries stagnated.”   He went on to say, “Indeed, the two most important lessons of the crisis have not been absorbed. The first is that capital market liberalisation – opening up developing countries’ financial markets to surges in short-term ‘hot’ money – is dangerous. The only two major developing countries to be spared a crisis were India and China, both of which had resisted capital market liberalisation. Yet today, both are under pressure to liberalise.”

We think that the cycles of interest rates play a major part in the recurring financial crises. When US interest rates decline and a weaker dollar follows, US companies use the cheap money to buy up assets in these countries and US banks push dollar-denominated loans to them.  Then the crisis hits and the foreign investments become “hot money” and flows out of the country.  At the same time, Western banks stop lending and the economic crisis intensifies in developing countries.

Korea’s experience with the 1997 Asian financial crisis is an example of Western predatory attacks against a weakening currency leading to the attempts at an economic takeover of its most valuable assets.  Korea was  forced to borrow from the IMF to cover foreign loan repayments for its major industrial companies, the Chaebol.  Among other demands, the IMF demanded that Korea “open up” its financial markets to foreign investment, allowing 55% foreign ownership of its companies (Korea dropped limits altogether), which would mean foreign, primarily U.S., control of Korea’s companies.

As one report in 2009 stated in Korea’s attempt to instill anti-takeover poison pill measures:

Domestic M&A laws have been loosened since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, and in 2006 activist investor Carl Icahn and hedge fund Steel Partners floated the idea of buying tobacco monopoly KT&G…in what would have been South Korea’s first unsolicited foreign takeover bid, but no official tender offer was filed.

In 2003, SK Group, parent of top mobile carrier SK Telecom…and refiner SK Energy…, clashed with Sovereign Asset Management, which unsuccessfully sought to remove its chairman.

Those cases raised a red flag to unfriendly takeover attempts and led listed companies, including Samsung and POSCO, to spend $55 billion defending their management as of end-January.

“Our country has made hostile M&A attacks easy by removing a ceiling on foreign stock investments, but it has not had any means to prevent hostile M&A,” the justice ministry said in a statement on Monday.

The US Dollar and the SWIFT International Settlement System: Weaponizing the Dollar

On November 5, 2018 Al Jazeera ran the following headline: US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters that SWIFT could get slapped with sanctions if it provides services to Iranian banks blacklisted by Washington.

The article continued:

The Belgium-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Communications (SWIFT) financial messaging service announced on Wednesday it was suspending access for some Iranian banks “in the interest of the stability and integrity of the wider global financial system.”

What was this about?  Another way the US uses its hegemonic position as the world’s reserve currency is its weaponization of the currency clearing system used in global trade.  Today SWIFT (the Belgium-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Communications) system dominates the international trade payments system, which of course is heavily based on the US dollar,

As a whole, the US dollar is by far the currency of world trade transactions.  As Kalim Siddiqui wrote in his 2018 article “The U.S. Dollar and the World Economy: A Critical Review”:

the U.S. dollar makes up nearly 63% of central banks’ reserve currency holdings, against 17% for the euro and 2% for the yen (Siddiqui 2018a, World Bank 2017).

In the foreign exchange market, 90% of forex trading involves the U.S. dollar. At present, nearly 40% of the world’s debt is issued in the U.S.dollars (World Bank 2017, Willett and Chiu 2012).

SWIFT is basically a financial messaging system that allows its member banks to conduct payment settlements between international trade buyers and sellers,  According to Al Jazeera, the member-owned cooperative connects more than 11,000 banks, financial institutions and corporations in more than 200 countries and territories around the world.  It continues:

Think of SWIFT as the central nervous system of international financial transactions. The messaging platform enables financial institutions to send, receive and track information about financial transactions in a secure and standardised way that facilitates the smooth flow of funds across borders.

When the Trump administration wanted to punish Iran with sanctions, it used the US’ role as the world’s issuer of reserve currency as one of the ways to enforce it.  Al Jazeera states,

Countries cut off from SWIFT can be crippled financially because money transfer information can’t be forwarded to its banks.  When a country’s banks are cut off from SWIFT, it can’t pay for imports and can’t receive payment for exports… In March 2012, SWIFT agreed to not forward messages to any Iranian bank or individual that had been blacklisted by the EU. As a result, Iran’s oil exports plunged from around 2.5 million bpd in 2011 to around one million bpd by 2014.  The 2012 SWIFT ban was widely seen as instrumental in bringing Iran to the negotiating table which led to the 2015 Iran-nuclear deal.  When Iranian banks were reconnected to SWIFT following the 2015 Iran-nuclear deal, oil exports increased again.

While SWIFT is not owned by the US, it defies the wishes of the superpower at its own peril.  Al Jazeera states:

…There could be consequences if it resists US pressure to cut off Iran again. Richard Goldberg, senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think-tank, argued in this blog that in 2012, Congress authorised any president to impose sanctions on SWIFT’s board of directors (which includes executives from some of the world’s biggest banks) if it refused to disconnect Iranian banks blacklisted by Washington. 

As can be seen, the US can impose its will on SWIFT and use it as a financial weapon against its intended targets.

Europe Countering US Move on SWIFT

The US campaign against Iran and pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal, however, has not been supported by the major countries of Europe, who rely on trade and imported oil from the Middle East and want the best deal they can get in buying it,  To have Iran cut off from supplying oil to them and trading with them is a major problem for them,  To counter the US move against SWIFT by banning Iran from it, the Europeans have attempted to set up a separate shadow trade settlement system.

On December 1, 2019, six European countries joined a barter system for the Iran trade.  As reported by TRT World, the Paris-based INSTEX, which has yet to enable transactions, functions as a clearing house allowing Iran to continue to sell oil and import other products or services in exchange, to avoid US sanctions.  Paris, London and Berlin on Saturday welcomed six new European countries to the INSTEX barter mechanism, which is designed to circumvent US sanctions against trade with Iran by avoiding use of the dollar.

As founding shareholders of the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), France, Germany and the United Kingdom warmly welcome the decision taken by the governments of Belgium, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, to join INSTEX as shareholders,” the three said in a joint statement. The Paris-based INSTEX functions as a clearing house allowing Iran to continue to sell oil and import other products or services in exchange.

This, in itself, is a step toward freeing the world from the US dollar hegemony that has lasted over 85 years.

Ecological Justice Economic Justice

Climate Change, Social Justice Stalk World’s Central Banks

| Steve Clark |

Today’s global crisis has two major dimensions. 

On the one hand, exponential population growth, massive industrial expansion, and surging waste in our atmosphere (over the past century and a half) have forged an ecological catastrophe of existential proportions.

On the other hand, exploitation of “Global South” nations, extreme wealth polarization in every nation and worldwide, and persistent ethnic, racial, religious, gender and settler injustice have created a social catastrophe that stands between civilization and any effort to tackle this ecological reckoning. 

Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise Movement and others bear witness to impending ecological collapse, saying we have only a decade to make amends. Otherwise, civilization as we know it will go the way of the Roman empire and others that, in their times, outgrew and overwhelmed Nature and suffered centuries-long dark ages in their eventual collapse.

Despite decades of inattention and little leadership from most nations’ politicians, certain other key entities are considering or making adjustments. 

Among these are central banks (CBs). Whether from capitalist or socialist perspectives, many CB analysts and staffers and a growing number of governors recognize mounting ecological risks and, thus, the danger of economic collapse. They see the need to be proactive. 

Few central bankers, however, seem to appreciate the social justice necessary for a true ecological renaissance. No doubt, this shortcoming reflects the primary goal of western bank systems, maximizing private bank profit. 

The IMF, BIS and World Bank are run by the world’s central bankers, each voting according to the size of its economy. Of course, the US dominates. But, the matter of how to ensure adequate investment credit for the Global South — made even more apparent by the inequities of the current pandemic — is on the table but vexing for the financial elite. Despite rhetoric about a global climate crisis, most central bankers still find more ready focus in domestic concerns.

Below are some recent links with excerpts from various central bank climate commentators.

Yellen and Powell

Current Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen — the former Federal Reserve Chair (under Obama) — says, “President Biden has outlined an ambitious strategy to transition the United States to net-zero emissions and has mobilized the entire government to achieve it. At Treasury, our goal is to take this ‘whole-of-government’ approach and turn it into a ‘whole-of-economy’ approach”. Current Chair Jerome Powell, despite Republican criticism, also is on-board.


“The Bank of England is uniquely placed to explain the links and trade-offs between the low-carbon transition and other economic objectives, and to promote both where possible. It can retain its operational independence over monetary and financial policy even if the goals or parameters of policy are altered. Indeed, the choice of those goals is fundamentally a political question: political reform has modified the Bank’s purpose to suit historical and economic context in the past. The climate crisis presents an urgent change in context. The UK needs a central bank with a mandate which reflects that” 

How Debt and Climate Change Pose ‘Systemic Risk’ to World Economy

“The combination of debt, climate change and environmental degradation ‘represents a systemic risk to the global economy that may trigger a cycle that depresses revenues, increases spending and exacerbates climate and nature vulnerabilities,’ according to a new assessment by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and others, which was seen by The Times. It comes after months of pressure from academics and advocates for lenders to address this problem.

“’We cannot walk head on, eyes wide open, into a debt crisis that is foreseeable and preventable,’ the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, said last week as he called for debt relief for a broad range of countries. ‘Many developing countries face financing constraints that mean they cannot invest in recovery and resilience.’”

The Changing Climate of Central Banking

“Finally, even monetary policy itself has begun to align with climate issues. Late last year, Sweden’s Riksbank announced a new climate-related exclusion policy. Similarly, the BOE (Bank of England) is expected to indicate later this year how it will account for the climate impact of its corporate-bond holdings. Several ECB (European Central Bank) decision-makers have called for climate risks to be incorporated into corporate bond purchases and collateral policy. And the NGFS (Network for Greening the Financial System) has just published technical guidance for “adapting central bank operations to a hotter world.” 

IMF, World Bank must support developing countries’ recovery 

“Most developing countries cannot do more due to financing constraints. As public spending needs shoot up, the pandemic has significantly cut their revenue. Recent IMF research found ‘larger output losses are experienced by countries with lower GDP per capita,’ partly due to ‘lower fiscal stimulus.’

“With limited tax and other revenue, developing countries will need to borrow more, increasing their already high public debt. As the IMF notes, ‘The international community [needs] to provide additional support through grants, concessional financing, and, in some cases, debt relief.’” 

Central Banks should turn green

“In a sign of how far things have come, this week the Network for Greening the Financial System, which includes the world’s major central banks, published a ‘toolkit’ of ways monetary policy institutions can address climate change in their operations.

“As Klaas Knot, president of the Dutch central bank, told an FT (Financial Times) climate conference last week, ‘We shouldn’t be tempted to think that we are the primary actors here. The primary actors are really the governments.’ Central banks should follow, but first it is the job of democratically elected governments to lead.” 

Ecological Justice Economic Justice

Watch: Voices for New Democracy Forum on Economic Democracy

Since the stagflation crisis of the 1970s, the American economy has experienced a tremendous rise in inequality, massive disruptions to traditional forms of industrial capitalism, growing financialization, and increasing debt burdens to uphold our economic system. While some of these trends have been the result of international developments and technological innovations, many of these negative outcomes are rooted in an absolutist free-market approach to

With the contemporary Left now on the rise, and a world-historic pandemic prompting serious reconsideration of our political economy, now is the time to begin thinking seriously about the kinds of transformations we want to see – and how we can make such a transition.

In Voices for New Democracy’s latest monthly forum, J. Phillip Thompson – NYC Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives and former Associate Professor of Urban Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – offers a new perspective on building a more progressive, equitable, and sustainable economic system that he calls “economic democracy.” Drawing on both the insights and shortcomings of diverse movements from 19th century socialism, to consumer and cooperative movements, and so-called “price theory,” Thompson raises important ideas and questions about the current trajectory of developed economies and how we can adapt to build more just and equitable societies.

Read Thompson’s essay on economic democracy here, and watch the full forum below.

Ecological Justice Economic Justice

Essay: What is Economic Democracy?

| J. Phillip Thompson |

This essay compares a version of Economic Democracy (ED), in a thumbnail fashion, to two trends that have dominated thinking about the economy over the last two centuries; I label them ‘productivism’ and ‘price theory.’ Many books have been written on these topics, and a brief essay cannot begin to do justice to the many insights, arguments, overlaps, and nuances on all sides. Nonetheless, there are big enough differences between these different trends to at least establish them as distinct trends, with important consequences. The essay assesses how these concepts differ in four areas: (a) how they interpret value? ‘Value’ in economics refers to who and what contributes to overall economic well-being and prosperity; (b) their analysis of how community relates to the economy; (c) how they explain alienation, or social hostilities related to the economy?; and, (d) their understanding of the role science and technology plays in the economy. At the end, I address potential criticisms of ED from the Right and Left. For those not wanting to read the entire article, please read Section V at the end on criticisms from the Left as it is more or less a summary of the paper. 

I. Productivism

Who and What Creates Value?

Early (19th century) political economists such as David Ricardo and Karl Marx (who adopted Ricardo’s labor theory of value) argued that value was created by labor (workers) during the course of production. I label this trend ‘productivist.’ For productivists, the value of an item depends on how much labor it took to produce it. The price of labor was a combination of the cost of reproducing workers and the result of struggles between workers and employers over wages. This was a widely held view in the 19th century. Since people regularly saw workers plowing fields or stitching together products right in front of them, it seemed almost self-evident who and what was creating value. Today, with production of goods usually out of sight (and country), and with machines and software doing “work,” the connection between workers and value creation is less apparent. 


The founders of the US constitution had a weak sense of community, or the “We” of “We the People.” They restricted voting to property-holding white men. Racism and sexism aside, part of their reasoning was that political participation required time and education that only people with economic means could fulfill. Worries about mass political participation by street mobs steered by demagogues were heightened following the French revolution, where not only monarchists but left-wing democrats and anti-slavery advocates were suppressed, and sometimes executed. Yet, the corrective for such destructive mob action, e.g., providing ordinary citizens with the time and resources to effectively and wisely participate in governance, was not resolved during the founding or after. More than a few of the Founders believed that ensuring widespread property ownership was a way of making non-elite white men more responsible and capable citizens. Thus, when voting rights were extended to white men in the early 1800s, it was accompanied by aggressive seizures of land occupied by Native Americans in order to distribute the property to white males. Democracy, including civic participation of white men, emerged on the backs of native peoples, black slaves, and women. Civic participation of the excluded majority of the population, which the community issue raises, was pushed aside.  

Marx, a productivist in economics early in his life, theorized from England about the impact that emerging capitalism would have on civic organizations and popular consciousness. He argued that capitalist industrial organization was leading workers to associate in factories and cities, and their common fight against exploitation on the job would lead them to embrace ‘class consciousness,’e.g., that class rather than ethnicity or religion or nation would become workers’ main form of identity. Marx was partially correct. Trade unions did grow out of workplaces and became an important component of civic participation for workers, especially for white male workers in cities in the US and Europe. Marx did not deeply consider how slavery, colonialism, or women’s role in society would affect workers’ sense of community. 


The German philosopher Hegel argued that human beings are linked together and dependent on one another, even when this mutual dependence is not socially recognized.  Marx took this insight from Hegel and argued that capitalism (private ownership and control of large businesses) alienates workers from the products of their labor, and makes it seem as though the products of mutual efforts between workers and business owners belong only to the owners and investors. Because the role of workers is not recognized when owners put products up for sale, Marx argued that the entire system of capitalist alienation was embodied in the existence of each and every ‘commodity’ (a good for sale). To illustrate what he meant, imagine that a bunch of workers who make home building products in New Orleans became homeless after Hurricane Katrina. They also lost their jobs and income. When they went to HomeDepot, they saw a huge supply of homebuilding products they themselves had made, much of which would never sell because so few people had money after the hurricane. Yet they could not use the products they made to rebuild their homes, because they too didn’t have money. This is what Marx meant by people being alienated from ‘commodities’ that are actually the products of their own labor. Such alienation often makes little sense from a practical and humanistic standpoint. Making sense of deprivation in the midst of plenty, as in the New Orleans example, requires taking in an entire range of ideological arguments about the inherent benefits of capitalist social relations–that Marx argued were little more than smoke intended to confuse and mystify workers. The Hungarian economic historian Polanyi, writing in the mid-20th century, similarly noted that capitalism created entirely novel situations in human history where starvation took place even when food was available in other parts of the same community. 

Another part of alienation might be seen as inevitable. Hegel argued that people come to know things through interacting with them over time, e.g., knowledge is developmental and retrospective. Marx built on this perspective to develop a theory that all people first encounter capitalism lacking an understanding of its nature and consequences. Over time, workers gradually realize that capitalism has made them into an exploited “class,” and that they would be better-off running the economy themselves. This transition process Marx described as a class, “in itself,” becoming a class, “for itself.” Alienation of people from capitalism would be overcome by the actions of the people based on their gradually developed understanding of the system, and then their action to change it. There are many who now argue, however, that the entire classical tradition of social theorizing in terms of entire systems such as “capitalism,” “market society,” “socialism,” or “democracy,” creates an illusion of coherence and irreversibility of social institutions which robs people of their agency. Law, government structure, and markets, are the cumulative result of innumerable political struggles and compromises at various points in time. Once established, these institutions affect the present, but they do not determine the course of the future—people do. In this view, grandiose theorizing is itself alienating, and so is positivist social science which takes current institutional arrangements as an unquestioned given. 


  Marx was one of the original theorists of technology. Again leaning on Hegel, Marx viewed capitalism as a stage in human development that would be superseded by other stages. In unfinished later work, Marx argued that his productivist approach was only valid for the earlier stage of capitalism. In late capitalism, human labor would be displaced by science and technology. Science and technology would be the product of “social knowledge,” developed through schools and intellectual discourse, and not reducible to individual worker or entrepreneurial inputs. As science and technology enabled enough production to take care of basic human needs at little cost, there would be little reason, other than capitalism’s antiquated social relations, to limit workers’ interests in pursuing their passions for art, sports, literature, exploration of new frontiers, etc..  Marx also theorized that as technology replaced human labor, under-employed workers would not have enough buying power to sustain profits, thereby leading to stagnation in advanced capitalist countries. Many economists argue that this is consistent with what the US has been experiencing over the last 20 years. We will return to this theme at the end of the essay. 

II. Price Theory

Who and What Creates Value?

Government policy, and general thinking about the economy, has been primarily guided in recent decades by a narrative variously called “neo-liberal,” “marginalist,” and, “choice theory.” I will group these under the label “price theory” of value. Price theory is an image or story about how the economy works. Like productivism, it is not an empirically settled research finding. Problems in the productivist narrative created space for rival 19th century interpretations of how value is created. In price theory, value is determined by how much money (the marginal amount) people are willing to pay for an item given their other priorities. The price narrative seems commonsensical today because it fits with our current consumer experiences, where most people think of the economics in terms of shopping rather than themselves making or growing the things they buy (only 11% of the US workforce make or grow things). Unlike productivism, price theory leaves room for psychological factors like fashion, having nothing to do with the amount of human labor expended to make a product, that may drive the value of a good up or down. 

While price theory has a more sophisticated view of the consumer side of the market than productivism, its approach to social relationships during the production process is wanting. Price theory takes a flat face-value approach to evaluating the contributions people make to the economy. Opposed to the productivist view that producers (workers and farmers) put value into their products which is then represented in prices, price theory turns things the other way around. If people are willing to pay a given amount for a product or employee, then that is what the product or employee is worth. They posit this not only as a statement of fact in terms of money payments, but as a peoples’ verdict of actual value to the economy. People and firms making the most money is considered as evidence that they contribute most to the economy. Adherents call this “the market speaking,” and argue that is it similar to democracy. Yet in this “market speech” only money has a voice. Price theory became popular in direct opposition to workers’ and socialist movements in the late 19th century, and again in the late 20th century in opposition to domestic and global movements for economic equity.


Price theory’s contention that the value of something consists of what people will pay for it, and that market speech is freedom, is a kind of (libertarian) anarchism. In this worldview, entirely unsupported by empirical evidence, people are considered as self-interested atomized individuals. Their market “speech” is not a spoken language between people, it consists of data on how individuals spend money. ‘Community’ to them is simply an agglomeration of actors sharing like self-interests; what really matters are individual choices. To understand why this is anarchistic, we need only to take a step back. Is what is good for society simply the sum total of individual desires? Are what individuals desire necessarily what’s best for them? Wouldn’t the answer depend on how their desires came about, or their level of maturity? For example, is a young persons’ desire to smoke cigarettes the result of her education about the risks of smoking, of robust and informed discussion about smoking with family and teachers, or is it the result of heavy marketing to children of candy flavored electronic vapes, and of peer pressure during junior high school? If the latter, would we still say that vape and cigarette sales contribute value to the economy? Would we say that we don’t need civic associations or government to play a role in guiding young peoples’ thinking, or in regulating cigarettes and vape? Similarly, does a family willing to pay more money for a house in an all-white neighborhood mean that all-white neighborhoods contribute more value to the economy? Are we okay with people choosing housing based on race, with no consideration of its effects on the larger community and democracy? Price theory would be silent on both questions, because price theory has no concept of social value, or of human development, or of how civic institutions are needed to shape values in ways that create mutual prosperity and wellness. This libertarian anarchism slides into corporate domination when corporations have free rein to influence peoples’ preferences for the narrow aim of selling their products. We saw this during Facebook’s and Twitter’s acquiescence to white nationalist and fascistic use of their platforms to undermine the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. Unrestrained “free market” anarchistic capitalism leaves little role for civic associations, social ideals, and government; it provides corporations with an open field to control or undermine democracy. 


Although some neo-Marxist versions of price theory (choice theory) discuss the clash of self-interests between workers and business owners, price theory gives little attention to alienation. Labor domination and exploitation are important topics for productivists, but price theory focuses narrowly on individual market choices. When it comes to income distribution, price theory simply assumes workers are paid according to their economic contribution (their ‘marginal product’); there is no exploitation. Opposition to this “neo-liberal” blind-spot undergirded labor’s opposition to the Obama administration’s global trade initiative (TPP). Allowing “the free market” to set prices for labor ignored the fact that some European countries subsidize certain industries for political reasons, and that other countries allow child labor, e.g., there is no such thing as a politically unmediated free market. Price theory can lead to absurd ideas, including how the US measures the Gross National Product (GDP). Many things that cost a lot of money, and are therefore counted as adding value to our GDP, in fact do the opposite. High healthcare spending, for example, is counted in the GDP as adding value, but it mostly reflects poor community health and administrative waste. 

Price theory operates at such a high level of abstraction that it tends to blind people to real world exploitation and the human cost of economic choices. Landlords, for instance, who own apartments near transit stops, or near workplaces in cities where housing is scarce, can jack up prices, thus diminishing resources young renters need to continue their education or maintain their health. Raising the rent does not make landlords value creators, as the price narrative suggests. Similarly, price theorists have glibly assumed that workers can move to whatever part of the country offers incrementally higher wages for their services—this is how, they say, the market achieves optimum efficiency. A workers’ family history (their parents and grandparents buried in the local cemetery) and community ties with church and neighbors do not matter in their calculations—neither does mental health. 

Price theory also grossly mischaracterizes the role of government and civic actors in creating value. In their view, government is an interest group just like corporations. Government policies, however, not only impact markets, they determine what markets will be. For example, banks depend on federal insurance to attract deposits that they can then invest. Otherwise, financial markets would shrink. Very often the private sector takes credit for value created by government and civic actors. Uber makes profits, for example, but the institutions that make Uber successful include the federal government which made risky long-term investments to develop GPS and the Internet, the universities that did the research for government, the state and local agencies that build roads and maintain street lights, and the public schools that taught consumers and drivers how to read. Government, universities, public schools, community non-profits, and workers all created value that Uber takes advantage of. Misunderstanding value creation lies behind the conservative notion that government should stay clear of business, and that non-profits and public workers deserve less compensation than private sector ‘value-creators.’ Not only factory workers are alienated from the fruits of their labor in neo-liberal practice, so are government actors and non-profits. 


Price theory imagines little beyond market transactions and lacks conceptual resources to think through the social implications of current technological developments. With their focus on individual choices, price theorists often imagine that they are getting down to the granular essence of human behavior in a way that parallels natural science. They develop extensive mathematical models in an attempt to prove that the economy strives for states of optimum “equilibrium” in much the same way that the human body strives for equilibrium. Imagining the economy as a natural (or supremely rational) organism, they do not imagine another economic system superseding this one. When confronted with the challenge of technology displacing workers, and thus continually depressing consumer demand, they turn to ad hoc fixes like Universal Basic Income (UBI), e.g., giving workers money to keep demand going and prevent economic collapse. Yet, technology poses other challenges beyond reduced consumer spending. The most dynamic parts of the economy today are driven by science and technology—software, computers, robotics, bio-engineering—and science and technology emanate from the brainpower of highly trained scientists, engineers, machine operators, etc.. Such brainpower comes from the widespread cultivation of peoples’ abilities, and not only or especially market actors. The creators of scientific and technological capacity are typically people who don’t sell anything at all: government employees issuing research grants, teachers at universities, and school teachers who educate and cultivate children. In the price narrative, where one’s income determines worth, these key contributors to the tech economy are made to appear relatively unproductive and unimportant, and brainpower is massively underdeveloped. 

III. Economic Democracy

Who and What Creates Value?

Beyond biological and ecological necessities, human beings decide what they value in the context of their upbringing and social environment. The key question is how; through what structures and developmental processes do people make value decisions? Broadly speaking, there are three ways people can express their economic priorities. One way is through the market. We can question whether people’s priorities, especially poor peoples’ needs, are meaningfully captured through an impersonal system where individual consumers make choices solely through what they purchase—as the price theory model maintains. Another way is through government. There are a few countries where government planners decide what and how much to produce or buy for the entire country. This is the state socialist model, which has proven problematic in incentivizing innovation as well as in meeting citizen demands for a diversity of products. A third, and least familiar approach in the US, is a ‘civic-economic’ or cooperative model where citizens (workers and consumers) directly govern businesses across the spectrum. The concept of ED is often conflated with cooperative firms, however it can apply just as much to market-dominated and government-dominated economies. The key is that citizens are enabled through civic intermediary organizations to steadily develop and expand the scope of their collective and informed decision-making about their value priorities. In a market society like the US, citizens can organize collective purchasing groups to reward firms that comport with their priorities, and shape markets that way. They can also organize for participatory pension management through unions, they can organize masses of shareholders in big companies. And, they can use their voting power to pressure government to impose rules and regulations over market actors. All this is in addition to increasing the number of cooperative firms. In practice, most countries mix all three of the above systems in different ways. For example, Scandinavia has more government planning (social democracy) than does the US. Parts of Spain, Italy, and Canada have a lot more cooperative firms than the US. 

Why is putting citizens at the center of economic decision-making important? First, it guards against tyranny and exploitation. Many call the US economic-political structure an oligarchy (a form of tyranny) because of the excessive influence of a small number of wealthy donors (from large corporations) on government. Second, ED enables workers and community members themselves to define the common good, not private firms claiming to speak for the people, in the forefront of public policy. Private profit-seeking firms do not develop products or innovations to benefit the general public, unless it makes money for them specifically. Many things citizens need and want, clean air for example, do not emerge from private firms. Last, ED focuses on building bonds among citizens and humanity beyond our borders. In ED settings, citizens are able to deliberate collectively through an array of ‘civic-economic’ intermediate organizations that are not government-controlled or manipulated by big corporations. Citizens debate and agree upon their economic priorities, which are then expressed in their individual capacities as voters and consumers, but also through the policies of an array of worker-owned ‘civic-enterprises.’ The goals of ED mirror those of political democracy. A key argument for ED is that it provides a practical means and multiple venues for developing habits of good citizenship, good governance, and shared prosperity, on a daily basis. The absence of ED is threatening political democracy.   

Government is critical for ED. For starters, government is needed to curb and compensate for inherent disfunctions of markets. As the economist Keynes argued nearly a century ago, the public cannot trust markets to function smoothly based on individual choices, as price theory argues, and must intervene when people act out of irrational “animal instincts” like fear, hysteria, or ‘group think’—such as when the economy froze in 2007. Also, left alone, capitalism’s drive for ever higher profits, and ever lower wages and taxes, makes life unbearable for most of the population. Workers’ use of democracy to win government relief measures are ironically what enables capitalism to not self-destruct. Government regulation of the market economy, and smoothing out of its unequal outcomes, helps ED to develop by stabilizing markets. Government is also needed to bolster and protect civil society from domination by powerful private actors such as corporations. Labor unions, for example, have a hard time staying in existence without laws ensuring freedom to organize and fair bargaining. 

Government powerfully shapes the economy in a myriad of ways. Allowing the Federal Reserve to operate as a private agency, for example, provides money to banks with no requirements beyond return on investments (profits). This structure empowers private banks to be major decision-makers in the economy. Through taxation policies, government regulates how much inequality is permissible. Government also sets the rules that shape markets, and helps determine winners and losers in many markets through its procurements and subsidies. What’s even less understood is that government is the nation’s leader for innovation. Many key innovations, such as computers and the Internet, took many years of patient investment with high risks—no venture firm would do that. 

Government is also the most powerful means for transforming the economy towards ED. Government could dramatically increase public and civic ownership and voice in the economy in a myriad of ways. Government could easily take ownership shares when it invests in companies, or put policy requirements on such companies. Tesla, for example, received a $465 million loan from the Federal government in 2009. Unlike a venture capital firm, the Federal government only asked for shares of the company (3 million shares) if the loan wasn’t paid back. Since then, the value of Tesla stock has soared, making Elan Musk one of the richest persons on earth—government got none of the upside, nor any voice in the company. This is the typical approach for state and local government as well. Our economic ills can be powerfully addressed by redefining government’s role in the economy, in addition to democratizing how firms and other economic institutions are owned and operated. Government’s role in the economy should be to: (a) provide for the social and physical infrastructure needed for both people and enterprises to thrive; (b) educate the public on the value of social cooperation (multi-racial democracy), and enable citizen participation and control over major economic decisions; (c) ensure that markets are inclusive, diverse, and equitable; (d) protect the earth. ED moves toward a society where citizens are better educated and knowledgeable about economics, well paid, and engaged in economic decision making at all levels: on the job, in community-owned ventures, through stock and pension management, and through officials they elect to serve in government. Such a society needs a robust and independent civic sector including independent media and universities, non-profit advocates and watchdog groups focused on both government and economic institutions. ED would encourage, or at least remove many economic obstacles to, cross-national cooperation fostering equitable development world-wide, as opposed to militaristic approaches in support of economic predation. 


Community, from the local level stretching to the transnational, is the central concept in ED. This section begins by explaining why Americans tend to have a narrow individualistic idea of freedom, one that is separated from community membership. I then argue that freedom in the US has long been racialized. Ways to overcome racial division and establish a common attachment to community are then discussed. The section ends with a discussion of the need for civic infrastructure to realize the promise of democracy; ED is a key part of that civic infrastructure.


To build a vision for community life in an ED, it is useful to tie in the concept of ‘negative’ versus ‘positive’ freedom. Negative freedom means the absence of domination, usually from the state. If government does not interfere with the content of mass media, for example, then the press enjoys negative freedom. Positive freedom concerns (at least) two things: the actual ability (ways and means) of citizens to pursue their goals in life; and the actual ability of citizens to make government, and we would say also big corporations, adhere to their collective will. Positive freedom advocates maintain that the ability of citizens to make government bend to its “collective will” goes beyond having elections and counting individual votes; to truly hold government officials accountable, citizens need time, money, an independent media, ways to monitor elected officials, and ways to deliberate constructively with other citizens. Positive freedom is implied in the notion that government authority is based on the “consent” of the people. In order to give consent in a meaningful way, citizens must be aware of what they are consenting to, which suggests they already have the capacity to collectively “self-rule.” What is meant by “self-rule” is that citizens have the ability to formulate proposals, to freely debate and deliberate ideas with other citizens, and then to have their priorities implemented. In the US, freedom is generally understood as “negative,” which does not require a rigorous evaluation of civic capacities, nor thinking much about others. 

Freedom and Race

There are good reasons why a thin negative concept of freedom predominates in the US. It’s largely because freedom was defined, for hundreds of years, against the backdrop of slavery. Not being forced to labor for free; not being physically confined to one’s place of work; not having your employer totally control your family and personal life; not having any rights against the state; these were all negative liberties that white men had, and slaves did not. Comparing their condition to slaves, white laborers felt free simply not to experience social death. White workers’ freedom, limited as it was, was inseparable from their being considered “white.” 

Positive freedom would have meant the ability of early Americans to formulate, through associations of their own, policies they wanted government and major economic actors to implement. Some of the more radical Founders (and grassroots dissidents) had such a vision for the US, but to demand popular power of this magnitude was too much for most Founders (a majority of whom were slaveholders) who were concerned that the popular masses would seize property. (This is how the US ended up with such a mal-apportioned Senate.) Today, the technical/bureaucratic apparatus of government and the lop-sided political influence of large corporations are obstacles to positive freedom, and like before, elite resistance to popular participation and power remains strong. Elites, however, are no longer the main impediment to ordinary citizens obtaining the ability to govern the economy. The greater barrier is racial division amongst the people: division elites cultivated after the founding for even greater protection for property than the barriers erected through the structuring of the US Senate, Electoral College, and Supreme Court.

Racial division disables constituting the “we” part of, “we the people.” There has never been a broadly accepted sense of community, collectivity, or “we,” in the US. Historically, no ideological trend has been as convinced of the inevitability of solidarity among workers across race as followers of Marx. Marx called white workers’ desire to be considered as “white,” “false consciousness,” in the belief that their material interest in solidarity with non-white workers–especially when thrown together in factories and city slums–would cause them to eventually abandon white identity. Yet, this did not happen; it is a prime example of 19th century theoretical overreach. W.E.B. DuBois, revising Marx, coined the term “psychological wage” to make the point that white identity meant more than money to most “white” workers. Marx did not anticipate that racial segregation in housing, schools, and other parts of civil society might create formidable physical barriers between workers, and instead of cross-racial solidarity growing out of workers’ lived experiences, the opposite might occur. 

Taking insights such as DuBois’s into account, black advocates and scholars have for two centuries attacked the dominant American narrative of a consensual “we the people.” To have the population considered as a “we,” there should be some sense among the population that they belong together, a willingness of different parts of the population to listen to one another, and enough mutual respect to uphold the rights of others–such as the right to vote. Even today, neighborhoods, public schools, churches, and social organizations are de facto racially segregated between whites and blacks, and to a lesser degree between whites and Latinos. This civic separation structures political division. 

Racial domination also takes place through the resource inequities across civil society. Aside from labor unions, civic organizations are funded through member contributions, corporate donations, or foundations funded by wealthy individuals. Low income communities, and especially black and Latino communities, have limited resources than can be tapped to establish participatory civic organizations. Corporate donations steer civic organizations towards compliance with their corporate priorities. Foundations are more varied, but typically offer small grants, and they also steer civic organizations towards the changing priorities of the foundation boards. Although many students of civil society call for increased funding for civic organizations to improve democracy, none to my knowledge have proposed alternatives to the three options above, thus continued dependency of black and Latino groups on white (tax subsidized) charity. 

I traced above only the surfaces of racial division in civil society, its moral underpinning is white racial hatred and unwillingness to associate with people deemed inferior. Overcoming this division is the key to extending a full (positive) democracy. Overcoming requires two kinds of work: constructing multi-racial democracy as a counter-narrative and counter-culture to racial superiority; and, engaging people from all races and backgrounds in common work and dialogue. Before discussing some next steps on these issues, I want to discuss DuBois’s view on how power is constructed in the US. 

DuBois argued that Western capitalism’s origin in slavery led civil society and government to be structured as a racial hierarchy. The inculcation of racial hierarchy was initially to justify and support a settler slave-capitalist system. Later on, racial hierarchy became important for maintaining popular white support for sustaining capitalism, especially during economic crises. Opposition to capitalism, and calls for economic reform, were frequently derided as synonyms for racial integration—which no decent white person would want. Even so, the content of white privilege offered few positive freedoms for whites: sometimes white workers got slight wage differentials above workers of color; if black workers were available, white workers might be spared the very worst jobs in a factory, farm, or household. White workers recruited into the police and military were celebrated, especially for their essential assistance in supervising and repressing non-whites. Still, the system was fragile. When an inter-racial movement of farmers and workers (Populism) emerged in the late 1800s, the government went so far as to forcibly segregate (through the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision) the nation by race. For black people, this meant that civil society and the market were not even areas of negative freedom. 

Once government and cultural institutions took a certain shape, they were not bound by the conditions of their origins; they developed a life, logic, and dynamics of their own. This has enabled racial division to play multiple roles throughout US history. For example, the shift from slavery and Jim Crow economies hasn’t made race less important. In the last half century, while black people’s role in the economy has diminished, their importance in politics has increased and the political value of anti-black racism has far exceeded the direct economic value of super-exploiting black people on the job. Racial division and the narrative of undeserving blacks winning unfair advantages via government policy and programs in fact has facilitated conservative and corporate power over the entire governmental apparatus, from foreign policy and taxes to the environment, enabling wealthy corporations their best means for gutting government while enhancing their own fortunes with tax breaks and other advantages. 

Our emphasis on multi-racial ED stems from the above, and differs from ED advocate efforts that narrowly focus on providing workers with more voice within firms, or on forming coops. Like traditional trade unionism, these latter ED efforts follow the productivist legacy that workers’ material incentives for solidarity will outweigh racist culture and politics. The reasoning goes back to 19th century assumptions that the traditional Left shares with the Right. This is the view that human beings are primarily individualistic and materialistic, and that other aspects of their identity like their race (or gender designation) supposedly pale in comparison. Yet, we cannot expect ED to broadly expand and stay on track without abandoning this naïve belief in automatic economic solidarity and addressing the country’s racial divisions: squarely confronting conservative manipulation of deeply rooted racial animosity to battle multi-racial organizing— a strategy they know to be the best approach for propping up corporate oligarchy. This will not be an easy task, it requires lots of resources and new methods for countering racial domination in civil society. 

How do we engage people who see no reason to do so? I mentioned the need for material incentives, but economic interest has not been sufficient historically. We need to change the culture that gives rise to racialized (superior/inferior) identities. There are many strategies for such engagement (and a need for more), none of which are contradictory. We could follow Frederick Douglass’s approach of lifting up the revolutionary aspirations of many of the Founders of the US, and thereby redefining the meaning of being a US citizen. In Douglass’s 1852 July 4th speech, he focused on the more radical of the founder’s: “They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was “settled” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were ‘final;’ not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation.” Continuing in this vein, countless white Americans have indeed fought racism, and many gave their lives for this cause, yet few Americans know this history because it has been buried. For example, large numbers of European revolutionaries joined with the US abolitionist movement and volunteered to fight during the US Civil War. Many of the officers of black regiments during the war were drawn from the ranks of abolitionists and European revolutionaries. By the end of the war, over half of the Union army consisted of black and immigrant soldiers. Courageous farmers and workers joined inter-racial movements such as the Populists and IWW during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many white activists fought side-by-side during the civil rights movement, and many died doing so. There is no shortage of white anti-racist heroes, showing that there is not only one way to be white, but there is not even a name for this powerful white anti-racist trend in the US. Similarly, there are many examples of black Americans fighting against the oppression of Asians and Latinos, and vice-versa. Again, there is no name for this trend. Giving names to these longstanding struggles for an inclusive multi-racial democracy, and re-educating Americans in schools and media on the fight that has made America democratic (to the extent that it is), is fundamental to moving beyond negative critiques, and creating an appealing national identity Americans can take pride and inspiration from. 

Douglass’s rhetorical strategy may have influenced Howard Washington Thurman, whom I’m told profoundly influenced Martin L. King’s rhetorical approach. Thurman believed that oppressed people hold on to kernels of truth and inspiration even when those kernels are embedded in webs of lies and mystifications—like finding a ripe apple in a bushel of rotten apples. For example, the American Dream is a falsification of history and a mystification of systemic oppression. Yet Thurman said, “Keep alive the dream; for as long as a man has a dream in his heart, he cannot lose the significance of living.” King clearly thought long and hard about this. In his rhetoric, King talked about how the American Dream was for the most part “bankrupt,” but he then went on to say that he had a different American Dream. In King’s version of the American Dream, he spelled out the aspirations of much of the black population, e.g., what the Dream could and should be. I would call King’s strategy one of ‘Critique and Affirmation’: embedding critique and truth-telling within the context of affirming peoples’ gut instinct that having a collective Dream is important. 

Thurman did the same thing in a religious context. He took the classic parable of ‘turning the other cheek’ from the Sermon on the Mount, which had been used for centuries to preach passivity to slaves, and reinterpreted it (perhaps accurately). He argued that Jesus was saying  oppressors keep the oppressed off balance by making them constantly react to their attacks (such as slaps). If all the oppressed do is react, they will never have the space to think for themselves, and strategize for their own liberation. So, what Jesus meant by ‘turn the other cheek’ is not to submit to oppression, but to develop enough internal fortitude to not allow slaps and blows to control your thoughts and emotions. In this way, Thurman helped transform black theology from an often passive doctrine into a militant one. I saw this in practice as a kid. The power of the approach was that it started from concepts and metaphors that people had already internalized, and then gradually changed what those concepts and metaphors meant to people.

Environmentalists and anti-war activists have a different and more existential approach; they point out that human survival on earth depends on nations cooperating worldwide to limit carbon emissions. This cannot happen if nations continue warring, or preparing to war, with one another. Peace activists also warn that many nations hold stockpiles of nuclear weapons and other nations are attempting to obtain them. We are never far from nuclear catastrophe. Survival of humanity is a second, and urgent, reason for Americans to re-examine their identities. A third existential reason is spiritual. The greatest argument for democracy and equality is the commonality of our existence: we do not know the origins of life; we do not know the reason for our existence, nor our ultimate destiny; we do not know our place in the universes; we all share life on earth only briefly. These are profound truths that animate religion and spirituality. Today’s climate deniers are not only science deniers, they deny the existential truths of human existence. They deny the fundamental tenants of religion that we love one another, and instead maintain that it is impossible to have a system of government and cooperative living that is anything more than the assertion of naked self-interest. The philosopher Hegel rightly said these latter views were the traits of a de-humanized society. Climate deniers thus, in essence, also crush the soul of our democracy. At various points of US history, other anti-humanist movements have sought to do just that. One hundred sixty one years ago, slaveowners were saying democracy doesn’t apply to black people or women. Social media at the time was mainly the church. So much of the debate centered on whether God intended for all people to be treated equal. The abolitionists said that God most loved the marginalized, the oppressed, and the meek. The slaveowners retorted that the abolitionists are spreading fake religion–the fake news of their day. When the Civil War concluded, 125,000 Union soldiers marched in jubilation through the streets of Washington, D.C.. The song they sang as they marched commemorated the great white abolitionist, John Brown, and what they called God’s truth, which was about the common humanity and equality of all people. The song was the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic:’ 

“John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on. He captured Harper’s Ferry with his nineteen men so true, he frightened old Virginia till she trembled  through and through. They hung him for a traitor, they themselves the traitor crew, but his soul goes marching on.

As he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free. His truth is marching on. He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgement seat. Oh be swift my soul to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet! Our God is Marching on. Glory, glory, hallelujah: His truth is marching on!”

In this country there is actually a great spiritual tradition of action towards multi-racial democracy (God’s “truth” of human equality), an antidote to the deep anti-democratic trends just mentioned, that must be lifted up and build upon to re-brand the meaning of freedom in America. Many in the civil rights movement took such an approach, and they learned from the experience of many wars that violence does not advance society, moral and spiritual learning does. Violence can initiate chains of revenge and resentment that block social advancement altogether. Martin L. King, Jr., noted that wars were the result of collusion between government and corporate elites, and called upon civil society to rise up (non-violently) to restore and develop democratic multi-racial governance of all of society. 

Building Civic Infrastructure

Democracy, like any other institution, requires and infrastructure and resources to function. If citizens are to truly govern society, e.g., if their consent is to be well-considered and meaningful, there needs to be infrastructure and resources available to support them. Regarding resources, I mentioned three options earlier: member or community donations, corporate funding, and foundations. Government funding for civic organizations is another option, but a limited one. Government funding for civic organizing and civic media is unlikely in the short term because Americans are divided, and cannot agree on which organizations are neutral. Funding is often a form of control, and if the purpose of civil society is to make government accountable to something outside of itself (the people), having government control funding of civic organizations is a tricky problem to navigate under the best of circumstances. A serious current danger with government funding for civic organizing is that some parties will want to use such funding to build organizations that are undemocratic and potentially violent. 

Another option is the most simple and obvious of all, it is to learn from those who have made progress influencing government from civil society. The standout cases have been labor unions and business advocates. Labor unions organize workers to take a bigger share of market returns (or government budgets) from employers. They then use a portion of the gains they receive to fund their own advocacy and capacity building. Businesses, far more extensively than unions, take a portion of their market profits to fund policy development and political advocacy. What we propose is innovating the labor union model beyond its origins in 19th century productivism, which focused on organizing workers in production sites, to incorporate the power of workers and their families as consumers. This is terrain productivists have largely ceded to the business community. Money gleaned from the consumer side of the market can be used to fund civic organizing, policy development, and advocacy; it is a far greater source of potential funding than what can be squeezed out of unions representing 6% of the workforce. A second benefit from this approach is that it allows communities of color control over resources they glean from community bargaining efforts. They can thus fund and scale up their own organizing and advocacy without depending on the good wishes of corporations, foundations, or other white dominated institutions. 

A second, and related proposal, builds on the productivist approach of increasing democracy at workplaces, by broadening the notion of “private businesses” to “civic businesses.” To clarify the difference, it again helps to go back to the early period of business development in the US. The first large businesses in the US were slave plantations. It was slaveowners who insisted that their business operations be considered entirely private, immune from the democracy being established as the country’s ethos. This was a hypocritical stance from the beginning, as noted at the time, since plantations were never “private,” they depended on government (the public) to repress slave rebellions, catch runaways, and provide other services. Plantations were autocratic in the extreme; slaves were often whipped to increase productivity, which became a norm for increasing economic “efficiency.” These plantation ways of thinking about business organization–top down, oppressive, workers having no voice—became a norm for business management in general. The idea that businesses could help train workers in participatory governance, or that businesses could be venues for peoples’ control of economic decision making, or that equality could be a boon to economic performance rather than an impediment to it, sounds strange in the US because we have not yet fully reconstructed the economy from our slavery background. Yet, there is no inherent reason why businesses cannot be turned into organs for strengthening civil society the same way that labor unions can. Creating such “mission oriented” businesses that can allocate a portion of their earnings for advocacy and civic capacity building is another pathway for funding civil society. One can imagine that with a proliferation of civic businesses and consumer bargaining units (community collectives) rooted in different communities, there will be opportunities for mergers and acquisitions among them that will involve not only money but earnest and free discussions about our racially divided past and shared dreams for the future. This would be progress towards multi-racial ED. 


Descriptions, complaints, and academic arguments about alienation tend to come in two forms: the desire for freedom against government domination and bureaucracy, and a more recent similar fight against corporate domination and bureaucracy. Western accounts of freedom in the context of community describe the emergence of a “public sphere,” meaning civil society and as an autonomous part of society free from domination by the state. In recent decades, there’s also been a third line of critique directed against embedded racism and patriarchy within civil society itself. The racial critique is that there’s been a silence in much of the civil society literature and discourse about systematic oppression of non-whites, including slavery, segregation, and the outright exclusion of people of color (especially blacks) from so-called free civic and market institutions. The race issue is typically considered as a “problem” associated with people of color, but race is a steering construct for white Americans as much as it is for any other group. White’s predominant conception of freedom as negative and procedural, and the continued celebration of Western society’s racialized civic culture, in a DuBoisian line of critique, leads whites to misdirect alienation in their own lives towards people of color. That is, most Americans, including whites, work under conditions of neo-dictatorship in their workplaces, having no voice in firm goal-setting or operations; they are declared free, but many do not feel that way. Ordinary Americans pay substantial sums in taxes (while Amazon paid no income taxes last year) for military, police, and prisons to enforce racial domination and corporate interests (such as oil), yet feel their urgent needs and hopes aren’t met. Moreover, because of inequalities and resentments built up over centuries, Americans live in fear of each other, especially whites’ fear of non-whites. Citizens are armed to the teeth, mass shootings and suicides are frequent, and drug abuse is  rampant. If this is what freedom represents, many people lose hope in a better America, and in democracy. Alienation is widespread, and as the world watches, the lure of American democracy is diminishing. Yet, few whites connect these ills (and their own alienation) to America’s origins in slavery and racial segregation, and to their own concept of themselves as “white,” even if they’ve never met a black person.

Going back to Abraham Lincoln, his greatest worry on the heels of the Civil War was that most white citizens did not want to be part of the same community and polity, and certainly not put on an equal footing with black people. This is still the main alienation in US society. Economic inequality and government unaccountability, in the eyes of many whites, are the result of unfair advantages handed out to people of color. The pathway to changing the economy and government is to unite Americans, but unity necessitates overcoming this white racial resentment, which is so strong that it threatens the foundations of democracy. One need only look at the Republican Party’s opposition to the right of all Americans to vote, because they believe universal voting access undermines their ability to win elections as an all-white minority party. People of color’s demand for equal treatment threatens what many whites believe has made America a successful country, and it also threatens their superior sense of personal self-worth and backing from government. How to generate a will for unity in the midst of such distrust and dislike is the content of the racial alienation problem. 

The starting point for building unity across race, in my view, is changing white American’s image of black people as wanting to take material things away from white people. Black, and other people of color, need to advocate a broadly appealing economic platform to dispute that image. A forward-looking economic platform could meet white workers where they are, and help move them away from a zero-sum calculation that they have nothing material to gain by uniting with people of color. But this is only a first step; an economic platform will not fully remove the anxiety many whites feel about no longer being a demographic majority, with the ability to dominate society. As we noted earlier, another step must be engaging whites and people of color in moral discourse, as Martin Luther King tried to do with his image of a ‘beloved community.’ What would it be like to live in a world not consumed in hate and defensiveness, full of police and nuclear weapons? Why do we still adhere to notions of inferior and superior human beings? How does our culture continue to nurture these images? ED cannot settle for being an economic platform only, if ED does not address these moral questions that divide the nation, it will flounder on the same rocks—of short-sighted calculations of group self-interest–that have long undermined broader support for labor unions. 

Advocating for system change, whether in creating a new economy, or in changing how we conceptualize labor and community organizing, or overcoming alienation in civil society, requires imagination. Even harder is awakening imagination amongst those who don’t know they lack it: “the absence of imagination has itself to be imagined.” Another area, besides race, where this is particularly true is in the relation between women and the economy. The US model of corporations as private entities, with no particular obligations to serve the public, stems from a long and largely unquestioned tradition of treating the work of nurturing, educating, and caring for children, families, the sick and elderly as unpaid ‘women’s work.’ Price theory has nothing to say on this issue. Productivists have also downplayed women’s issues historically, since most women were not working in factories or other ‘points of production.’ There is little doubt, however, that democratic engagement of women in economic decision-making would prioritize the issue of unpaid, or demeaned and underpaid, women’s work in reproducing and caring for human beings. The exceptional income disparities in the US are a direct consequence of women’s oppression (the thinness of ‘negative freedom’), for it is women who are most affected by the absence of quality publicly funded universal childcare, the absence of guarantees for affordable housing, the absence of sufficient funding for quality K-16 education, the absence of adequate and healthy food for millions, and the absence of quality universal healthcare. These absences only ‘make sense’ because women (and today, often immigrant women) are expected to work in these areas for very low pay, effectively working as semi-slaves. 


In envisioning a future economy it is important to ground utopian goals in existing economic capabilities, e.g., “the forces of production.” Those capabilities are being driven by dynamic advances in science and technology in areas such as robotics, artificial intelligence, and gene-editing. These advances are poised to transform manufacturing, transportation, human services, energy, housing, education, communications, and healthcare—for better or for worse. Companies driven narrowly by profit-seeking have an incentive to deploy technology to replace human labor—causing unemployment. Ironically, these new technologies lower the cost of manufacturing and service provision dramatically, making it feasible to satisfy basic human needs worldwide. The conundrum is that even with technology providing the capability for abundance, technology’s ownership structure is undermining economic expansion because profit-seeking firms do not want to share the financial benefits of science and technology with workers and communities. And, unemployed and underpaid workers cannot buy many goods on the market. As mentioned earlier, Silicon Valley firms are promoting universal basic income (UBI) as a solution to this weakening of consumer demand, and as a way of calming resistance to big tech’s impact on vulnerable workers. UBI, however, is at best inadequate and short-sighted. As long as the design and use of technology is governed by short-term profit-making, it will further displace workers whose purchasing power is needed to sustain markets. The continued application of new technology will thus increasingly slow the economy down, and require ever more government intervention (more and more UBI) even to maintain workers at poverty levels. This leads to a downward spiral of economic stagnation—one we are already on, that makes little sense other than protecting extraordinary profits for small numbers of owners and investors. 

Used differently, technology could help create a very different future. Even a brief exploration can show this. Take battery powered vehicles. Most auto companies plan to convert to 100% battery powered vehicles in the near future. Battery powered vehicles consist simply of a battery and assembled parts, they can be manufactured and assembled in cities. Moreover, with computer-driven machinery, they can be designed with customer input and produced on the spot. The “autoworkers” will be designers and operators of advanced machinery. The “car” in an urban setting may be closer in size to a shopping cart than today’s conventional cars. Moreover, future cars will be “smart,” meaning often driverless, with traffic being regulated by AI via the Internet. Smart cars offer the option of ride-sharing on an extensive level; customers can use their smart-phones to call circulating driverless rideshare vehicles to take them where they want to go. Some transportation futurists predict such ridesharing will lead to far fewer individually owned vehicles, perhaps urban reductions by as much as 90 percent. The shift to smaller battery powered vehicles and fewer cars will lesson the need for entire streets and parking lots devoted to cars. This would open up space in cities that can be used for integrated affordable housing, planting trees, and beautifying cities (public art). 

Concurrent with new thinking about transportation is ocean sea-level rise and the need for carbon reduction. Two-thirds of the human population live in cities vulnerable to sea-level rise. New York City alone has 520 miles of ocean shoreline. As the ocean rises, cities will have to not only mitigate water rise through things like levees, but adapt to the ocean reclaiming land in many places. Ocean level rise is certain to force enormous rebuilding and relocating. This will create a huge number of jobs, and with sufficient job training and decent wage standards, it could create a pathway out of poverty for millions. Rebuilding also creates opportunities for creating energy in new ways, such as turbines that could possibly harness the energy of ocean tides as they pass through cities. Yet, crucially, this upheaval, in combination with changes in transportation noted above, creates an opportunity for citizens to remake cities to be inclusive, broadly prosperous, and beautiful, as well as green. Realizing opportunities for a better future requires that citizens be aware such opportunities exist, and are within their power to bring about. ED is shorthand for building the civic infrastructure to bring about such citizen awareness and capacity. With technology constrained by the narrow aims of corporate profit-making, its potent potential to enable human progress is veiled. 

IV. Conservative Counter Arguments 

The Private Sector Should Be Left Alone

Conservatives often argue that the private sector, if left alone by government and labor unions, will create prosperity for all through “the invisible hand.” Both the productivists and price theorists have long imagined that there is such a thing as an internally driven “private sector” that flows independently of government. This view is fatally misleading. Government makes the rules that create markets—in the same way that one cannot play a game of chess without rules to govern the movement of pieces. A key feature of a market economy, for example, is free and fair competition between firms. Without government oversight, larger companies typically buy out or undermine smaller firms, so that they can charge monopoly prices to consumers (this is the opposite of market efficiency). Many firms also, in their relentless pursuit of profits, pay as few taxes possible, avoid environmental regulation, and drive down wages. This leads to weakened national infrastructure and workforce capabilities, and erodes the social and ecological resources that all firms depend upon. Without government adeptly regulating business, firms focused narrowly on their own self-interest undermine social stability and imperil the earth. Far from being a hindrance to markets, strong government is critical for markets to function sustainably without causing social and environment distress. 

The above is not an argument for abolishing markets altogether. Markets allow people, firms, and localities, to specialize in what they do best while trading for things others do better. Markets are the best means societies have found for meeting wide-ranging consumer demand for specialized goods and services. In regulating or designing markets, however, their downsides must also be kept in mind. We can see how allowing a sub-set of market actors (big corporations) gain too much power, as happened in the US in recent decades, undermines social well-being. Corporate executive pay and payouts for shareholders has surged in large part due to their ability to press government for tax leniency. A consequence is less federal revenue, leaving the nation’s infrastructure in taters and workers’ social mobility among the worst in the industrialized world. Funding is so low for education that the US can’t meet the need for highly trained scientists and engineers; they must increasingly be recruited from other countries. 

Racial division, we have also noted, was cultivated within civil society to keep workers weak and divided. When private market actors have too much power, they use it to deepen social divides beyond race. Conservatives, for example, are pushing for the privatization of social security. Their goal goes beyond helping fund managers earn more commissions, there’s a political angle as well. Privatizing social security would encourage many seniors to push for higher dividends to their pension funds, and to oppose decent pay for workers. It’s a way of winning political allies for Wall Street by pitting grandparents against their grandchildren. Similarly, when affordable housing was financed through corporate tax write-offs (tax credits), community developers were encouraged to cheer for Wall Street profits over the demands of workers for higher pay–another way to divide communities. Yet, research has definitively shown (see Elinor Ostrom) that such divisions and the pursuit of individual self-interest do not produce superior economic outcomes as compared to cooperation within firms and across society. 

Markets are poorly suited for some initiatives, for example, projects that are hugely expensive to develop, take a long time, are highly risky, or serve society in common. Long-term infrastructure, like high speed ‘bullet trains,’ for example, are too expensive and difficult to build to allow for competing “bullet” rail lines (market competition). Such infrastructure is best financed and overseen by government. Government is also better at solving ‘first mover’ or ‘collective action’ problems. For example, imagine two companies, one makes electric cars and the other makes car-charging stations for electric vehicles. Car manufacturers hesitate to build battery cars until there is an extensive array of charging stations that can keep the cars running. But, the charging station manufacturers put off building an array of charging stations unless there are enough electric cars to make it worth their investment. So, nothing happens. In situations like this, government can invest in the charging stations while luring in the electric car manufacturer. Government adds economic value, as Keynes said, by doing things the market won’t.     

Economic Democracy Undermines Freedom in Favor of Totalitarianism

Another popular conservative argument is that interference with the “free market” based on consumer choice inhibits individuals’ freedom. Engaging citizens to set collective economic goals at any level raises the prospect of economic planning to help implement these goals. Conservatives frame economic planning as social coercion. The influential Austrian conservative economist Friedrich Hayek argued that markets do a better job incorporating individual innovation than planners can. Yet, Hayek ignored an important reality; big corporations already do immense planning  for example, to understand market trends, influence consumers, steer government legislation, and often to dominate markets —  not usually to unleash the innovations of small entrepreneurs. Hayek’s anti-government, anti-planning bias also meshed well with American business’s traditional opposition to government regulation—which, again, goes back to slavery. 

Still, Hayek’s challenge to ED raises a substantial issue. Would citizen oversight of major economic decisions necessarily lead to centralizing information and power in the hands of elite experts? What level of citizen oversight is realistic? Hayek believed that ordinary citizens cannot handle much information or do a lot of independent thinking. He thought that community organizing quickly turns into irrational mob action (as he saw in Europe during the rise of fascism), which is probably why he put more faith in markets as a more democratic mechanism than citizens coming together to reason and plan. Hayek hoped that citizens would be comforted enough by capitalism’s material comforts to reject grassroots action in politics. 

There is little question that uninformed and untrained citizens cannot be expected to make wise decisions concerning complex policy matters (that’s why civic infrastructure is so important). The related question is how much information can sensibly be conveyed to citizens, and how much training is possible? As in any major endeavor, the answer depends on both social ingenuity and technology. There are examples of extensive worker training and effective decision-making in worker-owned firms in Spain and elsewhere. But, we need a lot more experimentation and practical learning to develop this field. Technically, it’s never been easier to convey information to ordinary people. Inexpensive technology exists today, like smart phones, that can make information that was once difficult to obtain widely accessible. Technology can enable ordinary people to coordinate and collaborate around their higher values and principles–not just on negotiating prices and immediate self-interests. Social ingenuity exists too. For example, a group of progressive bankers in England (such things exist over there) developed a mobile phone APP that allows consumers to scan items in the supermarket. The APP shows what the producer of the shelf item pays their workers, the producers’ carbon footprint, and where they get their financing. Consumers can choose to support the green producer or not, or choose to support pro-labor employers if they so desire. This example shows how civic organizing and solidarity can be extended using a market mechanism. In fact, having only price and ingredient information available on consumer items, when people care about so many other issues, is itself a form of social coercion through the market, not the freedom that Hayek claims. Building the APP took ingenuity: a lot of meetings and planning sessions between groups that don’t regularly collaborate including labor and green activists, along with the bank. Rather than trying to pass government regulations banning bad employers and dirty companies, and building on their years of organizing work, they took a quicker route of simply allowing people to choose green and labor-friendly products through the market. 

Citizen control of the economy raises nearly identical issues as citizen control of government. If people are skeptical about citizen’s ability to govern the economy, it’s because citizens aren’t carefully overseeing government either—even though this is supposed to be the foundation of a government based on citizens’ consent. Citizen governance, whether of government or the economy, requires civic infrastructure to engage, inform, and train citizens. There are some instances in US history where such infrastructure was developed with government support, such as during Reconstruction, and the roll-out of the Tennessee Valley Authority and rural agricultural cooperatives under President Roosevelt. The Roosevelt Administration also  proposed the Industrial Recovery Act to rebuild manufacturing on a more democratic basis (regulating big businesses, increasing the role of labor and small businesses) during the Depression, but the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.  

Hayek was dead wrong about community participation invariably leading to demagogy and anti-democratic movements. The civil rights movement used community participation to deepen democracy, as did the Black Lives Matter movement. Most people are educatable. In NYC, for example, we learned that if we inform ordinary people about the basics of infectious disease, and make resources available to responsible local community-based organizations, the vast majority of people will adjust their behavior for the good of society. If we had not worked through trusted intermediary community organizations, and left control of Covid to the medical vaccine specialists, many more people would have died before vaccines arrived. Civic participation, when informed and deliberate, is a good thing for society.  

Hayek conceded that human beings are by nature social beings, but the operative emotion for his theory remained individualism and self-interest. This is the instinct that free-market capitalism celebrates, yet it is rebuked by modern psychology and behavioral science, not to mention practical experience. Hayek also operated at such a level of abstraction it allowed him to avoid real-life contradictions to his theory. The free market hasn’t, as Hayek predicted, been a universally democratizing force. It didn’t undermine slavery and hasn’t made white Americans anti-racists. Capitalism is currently thriving in very undemocratic countries.  

We urgently need community (civic) engagement, planning, and design to help avoid environmental catastrophe, improve public health, to engage and support disconnected youth, and ensure economic security for all—all the things markets are not doing. Hayek’s challenge is whether such planning compels us to operate our societies more undemocratically, by being governed by technocratic elites. In other words, Hayek asserts that civic engagement will ultimately make people more powerless. ED has more confidence in citizen’s capacity for responsible governance of the economy.

Economic Democracy is Socialism in Disguise

Does ED mean replacing capitalism with socialism? The short answer is, “no, not necessarily.” A better answer is that the question is irrelevant. To understand why, we need to notice two things about capitalism. Every capitalist country has already, because of popular pressure, incorporated aspects of socialism. Social security, universal healthcare, and life insurance were all socialist ideas. Every socialist country, also under pressure, has incorporated aspects of capitalism. China, a socialist country, is one of the largest capitalist systems in earth. The terms ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ do not capture the complexity, dynamism and syncretic of modern economies. Moreover, capitalism is not a free-floating economic system that looks the same regardless of government policies and social structures. Capitalism in China is very different from capitalism in Japan. Capitalism in Sweden and Finland are very different systems from capitalism in the United States. Modern economies may be better conceptualized as culturally and institutionally influenced inter-weavings of three types of economic structures: private ownership, civic (and non-profit) ownership, and government ownership. 

Another approach to answer the ‘capitalism vs. socialism’ question is to break the economy down into sectors. Different sectors of the economy are already more ‘capitalist,’ more ‘socialist,’ or more ‘civic.’ For example, government planning and ownership seems to be the only way high-speed rail has developed anywhere in the world. China’s government is now developing 13 high-speed railways; the US, largely because of the anti-government influence of price theory, hasn’t developed a single one. On the other hand, China is far behind the US in developing computer Apps. Most Apps come from small firms (including coops) having few limits on experimentation by highly-trained employees, and a culture of open discussion and dense sharing of ideas—often over the Internet. This is pushing China to open more opportunities for citizen exchanges, which seems to work best for APPs, so that they can compete with the US. If the US develops high speed rail, it will probably be a government project similar to China’s. In other words, the mega ‘capitalism versus socialism’ distinction is not very helpful in thinking about how economies operate. A better approach is to ask, ‘which institution or economic lever is best suited for X’; or ‘which combination of economic levers are best for X.’ 

V. Criticisms from the Left

Markets Are Bad

Often people on the Left oppose anything supporting ‘business’ or ‘markets’ as capitalistic, and inherently bad for workers and communities. Yet, markets existed before capitalism, and Marx argued there would be a role for markets after capitalism. Markets are a kind of game (with real stakes) designed to induce competition for the purpose of increasing efficiency in making something, or increasing diversity among products. Markets have winners and losers, just like games. Markets also don’t determine what kind of culture or institutions design them. Markets did not require slavery and colonialism, and there is nothing that requires markets to give winners huge rewards and losers little or nothing. I suspect that people who object to using markets to promote social justice are not so much opposed to competition or diversity in products as they are opposed to the US structure and culture of capitalism, which shapes how we experience markets in daily life. 

To imagine markets as capable of advancing social justice, one might think about how competition and diversity among products and services could be used to promote progressive values, and how market rules might be designed to not harm workers and communities. Further, many of the structures erected under capitalism can potentially help move society beyond capitalism. Labor pension funds, for example, have been a mainstay of luxury housing and business finance generally. With enlightened labor leadership, they could become a mainstay for building civic oriented business and affordable housing. On a global scale, labor pensions could be a force against low road labor and environmental standards. Redirecting these investments has to be done responsibly so that workers don’t lose their retirement income. This would require the creation of socially progressive investment firms that monitor companies and steer investments–using some of the tools that today’s investment firms created, but with a different set of goals and values. These values will necessarily include profit/loss statements (to protect workers’ savings for retirement), but profit/loss is only one of many criteria, and not necessarily the most important criteria for investment. Cooperative businesses in Mondragon, Spain, for example, consider firms that hire at-risk young people at zero profit to be more beneficial for overall community well-being (preventing crime and drug dependence) than some other firms that earn 20 percent returns. Similarly, workers and communities can be organized to put their savings into banks (or credit unions) that have progressive and participatory investment policies. Public companies, owned by stockholders (sometimes in the millions), can also be organized to change leadership and direction of the companies—similar to how political campaigns are organized. And, as discussed earlier, items for sale on the market can carry a bar code on their label with a link to the producer’s treatment of workers, environmental practices, financial backers, and so on. That way, consumers can be organized to promote pro-worker and pro-environmental company policies through the market itself. Global capitalism has created, in its avarice, structures for global monitoring, investment, and distribution that can be used to undo inequality when redirected with different goals and leadership. 

There is in the US a growing movement of small businesses, community development corporations, small investors, and local governments actively pursuing ways to make markets work for ordinary workers, communities, and the earth’s sustainability. The American Sustainable Business Council, for example, has grown to 250,000 businesses (similar in size to the US Chamber of Commerce). 

Technology is Bad for Workers and Communities

Technology, like markets, is often seen by the Left as undermining community and workers well-being. It often does. But, technology need not be utilized this way. Earlier I noted that Marx, late in his life, revised his theory of capitalism’s end. (A compilation of his notes was published as “Grundrisse” in 1939, but was not available in English until the 1970s.) In Grundrisse, Marx foresaw that science and technology would eventually obviate the need for human labor, making his productivist labor theory of value obsolete. He sketched a few implications, none of which he lived long enough to develop. One was that corporate profits would decline for long periods because underemployed workers would suppress demand for goods and services. Jumping off of this, some economists persuasively contend that capitalism today is characterized by long periods of “slow growth,” punctuated by short bursts of energy following new inventions in science and technology. Marx noted that productive capacity would increase dramatically, creating the social capability of satisfying basic human needs, but capitalist culture (greed) would deny needy people their rightful share of the rewards of productivity. A striking insight from Grundrisse, given that it was written in the late 1800s, was that science and technology is the product of “social knowledge”: the cumulative result of the cultivation of human’s critical thinking and awareness through families, schools, practical experiments, and discourse. If you think about machines run by computer software, the software is based on the accumulated experience of many machine operators translated into machine language. The code can be improved continuously based on further experience and insights simply by updating the software, without having to retrain perhaps thousands of human machine operators. The cost savings are tremendous, as is the ability to continuously innovate. A current example of production through social knowledge was the development of LINUX, the powerful free operating system created through online collaboration among thousands of engineers from around the world. The software was designed as “open source” precisely to allow anyone to contribute their ideas and to block corporate control of the product. At first, big corporations tried to compete with LINUX, but they gave up. No private corporation could compete with the brilliance and effectiveness of so many contributors sharing and debating ideas. Nor was there a conceivable way of paying all of the contributors accurately for their individual contributions. Social knowledge, free and open collaboration from anywhere, is by far the most dynamic productive force in human history. It is the material basis for whatever “system” transforms capitalism, because capitalism, with private ownership and patents, holds such broad social cooperation back. Marx speculated that as the role of social knowledge became dominant, capitalism would become obviously obsolete to society. We can imagine that given Marx’s revised theory, he would have abandoned his early idea of workers seizing “the means of production” as the path to revolution, since the means of production were no longer factories but social knowledge–which is not privately owned to begin with.

I argue, following this line of thinking, that the ability of social knowledge to develop is intimately tied to the ability of democracy to develop, especially in the area of economic decision-making. The key to strengthening social knowledge is a strong, inclusive, and participatory civil society, e.g., media, education, and culture as experienced through organizations including unions, schools, civic-businesses, families, and local governments. 

The US is on an opposite path, replete with examples of private appropriation of socially produced goods, and the exploitation of social knowledge. Walmart made its fortune by constructing “superstores.” The stores were designed to be within a 20 minute drive of at least 600,000 people. What made their strategy possible was the federal highway system and the massive subsidies government provides to the auto, oil, and gas industries. Walmart doesn’t pay the public back for using the public’s investment in cars and highways, nor do our laws force them to do so. Walmart also put many thousands of small businesses, such as local hardware and clothing stores, out of business through bulk purchasing and offering price discounts to consumers. Many decent jobs in small businesses were lost, and bad jobs at Walmart expanded. Walmart was a predator on small businesses. Had small hardware and bookstores organized cooperatively, they too could have obtained better prices for their supplies and offered competitive prices, and probably stayed in business. Similarly, computers and the Internet were developed over decades in university labs funded by the federal government. Amazon relies on the Internet for its entire platform, but Amazon doesn’t reimburse the public for creating the Internet. Ninety-seven percent of Facebook’s profits come from selling costumer’s data to advertisers, yet none of those sales are taxed. The same goes for Google. These online platform companies are also predators on small retail businesses such as bookstores.

Yet, these Internet platform companies could be taxed on data sales; workers and communities could be organized to bargain with them over prices and benefits the same way that labor unions bargain over wages. Social entrepreneurs could also create value-oriented platform companies to compete with them. The more decisive and needed transformation, what will enable different corporate regulation and taxation, is for the broad population to understand that these companies are unfairly profiting off of the publics’ creation of value all along the line. Government and civic investments in human development is the main source of profit in science and technology (including in the pharmaceutical and medical industries). It’s not just workers in factories whose “surplus value” is being stolen, the contributions of all people who pay taxes or educate children are being siphoned off to benefit the new “robber barons” of science and technology. Rip offs like those just described will continue until the public gains a different understanding of where value comes from in knowledge-driven modern industries. If the Left’s notion of “class struggle” is narrowly confined to traditionally defined workplaces, rather than taking on corporate exploitation of the entire government and civic edifice that creates new science and technology, then the Left will be less and less able to challenge the firms and institutions shaping the economy. In fact, that’s already been happening. 

Martin L. King focused on modern technology and science more than fifty years ago. He argued, in the spirit of ED, that science and technology should not be used for militarism or private gain at the expense of the poor. King saw the benefits that science and technology could bring, but only if America changed its values. Failure to use these new technological capacities for the people, in King’s words, causes, “unnecessary suffering.” King put building the bonds of community (“brotherhood” or “beloved community,” his words for civil society) at the center for remaking society, and making the most of science and technology:  

“Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”   

This is good advice for rebuilding our economy.

Economic Justice

The Coming Crisis in Affordable Rentals: Don’t Let a Crisis Go To Waste!

| Matt Perrenod |

As I write this, the Washington Post reports that the federally- imposed eviction moratoriums are fraying under legal assault from landlords. The article notes that as the pandemic has continued, and the moratorium extended, that pressures have increased on smaller landlords who lack the financial capacity to go month after month without revenue. What the article does not say is that even if evictions go forward, there is a likelihood that many of these smaller owners will fail financially. Eviction is an expensive process, and finding replacement tenants who can pay is not easy when large numbers
of potential takers are themselves facing hardship.

In emphasizing the impact on property owners, I am not attempting to downplay the destructive impacts of eviction on renters. The wave of evictions will take its greatest immediate toll on those families and individuals. This situation was created by a failure of the federal government to meaningfully fund relief for the millions who lost jobs and income as a result of the pandemic. The rent moratorium was at best a short-term fix, unsustainable over any extended period of time, and no substitute for the material relief Congress and the Trump Administration failed to provide. The $40B in rent assistance finally passed by Congress in March as part of the larger American Recovery Plan is likely too little, and very much too late for many.

What happens with the real estate, however, will likely have a larger long-term impact on the prospects for housing affordability for most tenants. And a lot of that real estate is likely to change hands over the
next couple of years, as small-scale landlords, under financial stress, sell or are foreclosed upon.

I’d like to refer readers to this article by David Abromowitz and Andrew Jakabovics, published last October in Shelterforce, a progressive housing journal. It lays out a persuasive case for the importance of rental housing stock owned by smaller, non-corporate landlords, who own about 7 million apartments in communities of fewer than 50 units, many of them in small 2 – 4 unit buildings. These are often the most affordable rental housing available, except for the small slice of the market that is already publicly owned or publicly-assisted. Roughly 1 in 6 of these small private landlords are in serious financial distress. Abromowitz and Jakabovics argue for a dedicated fund to assist mission-oriented owners to purchase these buildings, either from their current owners, or from foreclosing banks.

This echoes the situation during the last financial crisis, when millions of U.S. homeowners lost their homes through foreclosure. The federal government, which ended up as temporary owner of these properties through its control of FHA, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac allowed them to be sold off to the richest bidders. The immediate pain for the foreclosed families and individuals was bad enough, but in the aftermath huge private equity firms swooped in to buy these houses at fire sale prices, most of which remain high-priced rentals. We should not allow this dismal result to be repeated, with corporate owners jacking up rents on affordable units as the market recovers. But that’s exactly what will happen if the federal government once again takes the approach of “let the markets work.”

Fortunately, as I noted in a previous Voices article, we have on hand a nonprofit lending system, Community Development Financial Institutions, which are ready to channel public capital to recover this
important housing resource. And we have a class of nonprofit owners of affordable rentals who can take on the long-term ownership of these buildings as high-quality affordable housing. All it takes is the

Matt Perrenod is a consultant to nonprofit community development and finance organizations working throughout the United States.


The Left Should Be Talking About GameStop

| Harrison Neuhaus |

If you’ve been paying attention to the stock market over the past two months, it would be hard to avoid the incredible saga of video game retailer GameStop, which in early February became a flashpoint for a “very-online” revolt against hedge funds.

Doug Henwood summarizes the situation well, but the gist of the story goes like this: GameStop, a brick-and-mortar video game retailer, was being heavily shorted by a number of hedge funds due to the overall decline in brick-and-mortar retail even before the pandemic (as well as the gaming economy moving more and more online). GameStop got some good news with a few new investments and signals that it was beginning to move to e-commerce, which led to mild skepticism about the short positions. What really matters here is that a number of users on the reddit forum “Wall Street Bets” got wind of the short positions, realized that the shorts were oversold (113% of the company’s outstanding shares were being shorted), and started to take advantage of the situation by effectively pumping the stock. Overnight, GameStop stock skyrocketed as small individual investors motivated by the reddit board (and goaded on by each other) poured their money into the stock — not only driving up GameStop stock price by orders of magnitude, but also decimating the hedge fund short-sellers in the process. 

Almost immediately, Wall Street cried foul with sudden (and extremely out of character) demands for regulation. And their calls were heeded — a number of trading platforms like Robinhood halted all purchases of GameStop stock for days, only allowing holders to cash out. This, of course, only strengthened the resolve of the reddit investors, who have been firmly committed to holding the stock at any cost. Now the saga has evolved from a classic short squeeze by a new type of trader, to what a lot of the GameStop investors perceive as an existential fight to destabilize the system and screw over hedge funds using their own methods — even if they lose their entire investment doing it.

At this point, GameStop stock is a classic bubble ready to burst at any moment, held back only by the sheer will of reddit traders to hold their stocks and drive institutional short-sellers deeper into crisis. We already saw this when GameStop’s stock price fell by 40% on February 2nd. And while it rose back up to $348.50 per share earlier today (a sudden 40% increase), it fell back under $200 per share within 25 minutes, in an incredible rollercoaster of volatility. What makes this bubble unique, though, is the deliberate effort to create these conditions (led by small independent traders) simply to wreak chaos. It’s a microcosm of class war on the terrain of capital, and while GameStop itself is insignificant, the whole spectacle points to the deeper realities of our political economy — and a rising desire to burn it down. 

It would be a mistake to read this story as the righteous revolt of the working class against the capitalist class — many of the influential reddit users driving this short squeeze are clearly insiders that have access to Bloomberg Terminals and thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of dollars to spare to play on the stock market. And while many working people have gotten in on the action (and even shared stories of how cashing out enabled them to pay off their medical debt, buy a home, or take the pressure off providing for their families), this is not a mass working class movement. At the same time, the short squeezers are clearly motivated in some way by a deep anti-corporate sentiment, delight in using Wall Street’s own tools against them, and for many of them even small gains (compared to Wall Street norms, anyway) have been life-changing.   

But beyond all the spectacle and the trickle of positive stories, the real importance of this whole saga is what it demonstrates about our economic system. The GameStop bubble is a) clarifying the irrelevance of the stock market to the real economy and real people’s lives, and b) exposing the real way that Wall Street is a rigged game for the ruling class, which will immediately turn on its hegemonic principles as soon as money starts flowing in the “wrong” direction. It’s vital that the Left tap into both of these phenomena and channel them into efforts that can actuallychallenge corporate hegemony. 

The first point does not come as a surprise — Americans have long understood that what is good for the stock market does not always translate into the mainstream (especially during the pandemic, when capitalist fortunes have skyrocketed amid misery and death for most working people). But what makes the GameStop situation unique is that it exposes the process by which the stock market works, and how absolutely crazy it is. The concept of short-selling alone is nearly incomprehensible to many. Value here is not created by actually producing anything, but by pure speculation and conscious manipulation of markets. It’s obvious to most consumers that a niche brick-and-mortar retailer like GameStop cannot actually be worth more than Delta Air Lines or Kellogg’s — and yet for all intents and purposes, the stock market has no choice but to treat it as such. The fraud and speculation is palpable, and yet the rules of the system make it so. 

This is, of course, no surprise to socialists. You couldn’t ask for a better demonstration of Marx’s concept of fictitious capital — that is, “money that is thrown into circulation as capital without any material basis in commodities or productive activity” as David Harvey puts it. This form of capital has no substantive relation to material production, resources, or assets — it’s wealth that exists only on paper, that is based on abstract claims to future wealth, but for all intents and purposes is treated as real and current. What GameStop demonstrates to the general public is that these forms of value (stocks) are disconnected from real production, and are mainly driven by speculation (rather than productive investment) that does not feed back into the real economy. 

Is it any wonder, then, why the GameStop story gained such traction and why participants are styling themselves as anti-corporate crusaders? More and more, it would seem that Americans are realizing that working class people, on the one hand, must participate in the real economy and are subject to the discipline of the market, while the owning class, on the other hand, largely deals in a fictitious economy that can be easily manipulated and gamed precisely because it does not correspond to the real economy. And in the Post Industrial Society that we’ve built since the stagflation crisis of the 1970s, this divide is only growing as profit rates fall and workers are squeezed harder, while finance giants increasingly hold the power to shape global markets. It’s as though the financial economy — where most of our collective economic gains are flowing — exists above and independent of the real economy, inaccessible to the average worker because it does not have a physical site of production and is not materially beholden to labor. “All that is solid melts into air,” indeed.

But while many of the reddit short squeezers have embraced a nihilistic drive to “just burn it all down,” it’s important for the Left to highlight the opportunities here. We must go beyond the simple anti-corporate sentiment and demonstrate that this reality is not simply a “corporate” problem, but a systemic problem of capitalism. And if we accept that so much of our economy is based on fictitious capital, created at the stroke of a pen (or keyboard) and existing independently of real assets and production, we can also ask what we could do if we were able to use that to actually benefit working people instead of the owning class. This is the key insight of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), after all — in a world where the economy largely exists on balance sheets rather than bank deposits, the government could simply create more money for new programs and national projects whose benefits would flow to the public; if markets can be manipulated, we could instead manipulate them better ends; and in such a world, what possible justification could there ever be for austerity? We can’t content ourselves with mocking the absurdity of the status quo; we have to use this moment of clarification to posit new ways of organizing our economy that resonate with people’s needs. 

Just as significant as the absurdity of the market itself is the way that Wall Street has responded to it. Even on top of exposing (once again) the utter shadiness of our financial economy, the GameStop saga is also reigniting the class war in increasingly transparent ways. The short squeeze is, of course, nothing new to hedge funds — they pioneered the tactic in the 1980s and have used it ruthlessly, to great effect. What’s different now is that, for once, someone else is doing the squeezing and some of them are getting the raw end of it. This has them up in arms. They whined — without any self-awareness — about how reddit users are “manipulating the market” and were quickly able to shut down Robinhood. These swift, unprecedented steps to “correct” the market in these last few weeks over this trivial squeeze have been a slap in the face to anyone with a memory of the 2008 financial collapse. It’s been a “mask off” moment that clearly demonstrates the fundamental class antagonism between the interests of Wall Street and the interests of ordinary people. They all but admit that the game is rigged, and that therefore it must be unfair (or even illegal!) for them to lose. What the Left needs in this moment is to take this understanding further to help people recognize how these class interests are always taking action like this — they just hide it behind the scenes a little bit better. The analysis, of course, can’t end there and must ultimately point to mass movements against the capitalist mode of production as a whole, but the GameStop saga can be an important point of reference for the threat we all pose to the ruling class when we organize. 

Ultimately, the GameStop saga has not amounted to much and is likely to end up as a historical footnote, if that. It’s a bubble that is already bursting, and ordinary people will be left holding the bag. And Wall Street ultimately won’t feel the hit, outside of a few hedge funds — most of GameStop stock is owned by institutional giants like BlackRock, so the majority of the gains from this bubble are going to stay within the hands of the wealthy, anyway. But what we can take advantage of is what the situation reveals about our political economy, and connect that to the real squeeze that working people are facing every day in neoliberal America. And if we do this well, perhaps we can also begin to imagine new ways of seizing finance power for the collective good