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Boone W. Shear: Watering the grassroots economy

Though their legislative and leadership records might indicate otherwise, Romney and Obama might appear to represent opposite poles of economic visions. From an anthropological perspective, however, these visions constitute a narrow swath of possible ways to organize our economy, in short, how we produce, trade and consume stuff.

Indeed, even the most brutal form of neoliberal capitalism that would place all social welfare in the hands of the private-market, and the most “progressive” form of Keynesian economics that would support a strong, redistributive welfare state, share the same, taken-for-granted assumptions about economic behavior.

Both sides agree that people make rational choices for personal gain, that people are competitive and selfish. For those coming from the political right, this behavior is believed to be ultimately good for everyone. Successful markets and economic growth depend on rational, competitive decision-making, so economic policy should consist of removing all barriers in front of homo economicus. For those coming from the left, homo economicus must be kept in check and constrained. Markets, enterprises and finance must be regulated and taxed in order to avoid crisis and ensure that people are better able to compete in the economy and receive their fair share.

There may be differences in how we respond to the economy, but we all seem to be in lock-step agreement about what the economy actually is.

However, anthropologists — whose stock and trade is human diversity — know that competitive self-interest is one possibility among many for individual and cultural behavior. Economic anthropologists document societies based on sharing, gift-exchange and solidarity.

Consider our everyday practices. We all make economic decisions that go beyond a desire to outcompete others or a drive to get the most for our money. Along with individual gain, we share resources with neighbors by having them over for dinner and giving them gifts. We spend our labor power helping friends move, taking care of their kids or helping them fix their car.

If it’s true that people want to act beyond self-interest, why is it we insist on believing and acting like “the economy” is dominated solely by market forces (that must either be unleashed or restrained)? The economic anthropologist Karl Polanyi referred to this phenomenon as “the marketing mind.” He says we have been made to believe an “economistic fallacy” that tells us individual competition over jobs, money and personal gain in the market is equivalent to the economy itself. Ideas about how to make, exchange and consume stuff that are not market-based are dismissed from policy talks about how to “fix” our economy.

At a moment when social and economic inequalities in the United States are at historic highs, and when nations invested in free-market policies, as well as welfare states, are undergoing crises, we might want to ask who benefits from this limited vision of our economy and who suffers. Is it possible for us to intentionally make our economies in ways that encourage collective, ethical decision-making rather than individual self-interest? What sort of organizing, deliberation and political movement would we need to get there?

Today, community members, activists, organizers, students, laborers and politicians from across our state will come together in Worcester for the second annual Solidarity and Green Economy Conference to discuss precisely these questions.

Though fairly new to the U.S., the solidarity economy movement and its ideals are robust and influential in many places in the world including Canada, Brazil and other parts of Latin America, Europe and increasingly in Southeast Asia.

The movement is committed to developing enterprises, forms of finance, types of exchange and other initiatives that encourage the valuation of people and the environment before profit. It encourages collective, ethical decision-making over individual self-interest.

Western Massachusetts is fortunate to be awash with economic alternatives, many of which will be represented at the conference, including the Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives’ growing network of worker-owned businesses; the Alliance to Develop Power’s Community Economy, which brings together community building, community organizing and alternative economic development; and the Wellspring Initiative, which looks to draw on the purchasing power of large, “anchor” institutions like hospitals and universities to create a captured market for worker cooperatives and wealth creation in Springfield.

These initiatives and others give evidence to the assertion that “the economy we are waiting for is already here!” Now we need to create the organization, will, and desires to claim it.

Boone W. Shear is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst researching economic subjectivity and social movements. He lives in Amherst with his 6-year-old daughter Rose.

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