Thank you very much for your kind introduction. Several of those things you mentioned I haven’t quite done yet, but maybe I will before I get older. I’m aging very quickly. I’m told that time is moving faster now than it ever has before, and if anyone here understands what that means, I would like you to explain it to me.
I am highly honored to be here. Some of my heroes have given Schumacher Lectures, which have been preserved where I’ve been able to read them, and I have been deeply moved by them. People like Leopold Kohr, Ivan Illich, and Wendell Berry. Now I have been given the opportunity to stand on this stage and continue the work that the Schumacher Center has been doing for nearly four decades by offering a platform and a means of repository for some challenging ideas for these challenging times we live in. It is an increasingly complex world, so complex that no one can possibly understand all of it. But there’s a need to understand the parts that we can grasp in a way that motivates us to look carefully at those parts and not settle for superficial, sloganeering, social-media, Twitter-type lines on what’s going on and what it really means. We need to get beneath the surface and understand things deeply.
I’m going to use this as an opportunity to do something that most people I know won’t do. If I chuckle periodically, it’s because I’m asking myself if I’m really going to say this. Yes, I am; I want to talk a little bit about the question of the Just Transition Framework that Movement Generation has formulated and shares. In it they raise the question of what the current form of governance is in the extractive economy. I challenge the idea that the current form of governance in the world is militarism. If we think of it as militarism and don’t recognize it as the “rule of capital,” we might explain that formulation by saying that capitalism uses militarism. It absolutely does. But capital dominates in a pervasive way, not only the military but also entertainment, athletics, news, education, and professional sports. Every system is dominated by capital. It’s pretty clear to me that we all live under the rule of capital. That is the current form of social governance.
Sometimes we don’t quite grasp this situation, particularly given that we live in a world where in recent years it has been decided that everything useful and good is capital. You’re told not to worry about the fact that you don’t have any money because you can have social capital, or political capital, or spiritual capital, or basket-weaving capital. There is always some kind of capital you have, and it’s almost like being on the Oprah show when she gave all 276 members in the audience a brand new car and told them to look under the seat, where they found a note telling them they had won a car. “You’ve got capital.” “You’ve got capital.” “You’ve got capital!” “Everybody’s got capital!” So how could you be against capitalism? It’s the most wonderful thing! Don’t worry about the fact that money is being concentrated in the hands of a few people with the singular logic of using that money to expand itself into more and more money, which dominates the world and increases power for a shrinking handful of people while making everybody else live precariously. And don’t worry about not having that kind of capital because it’s no better than the kind of capital you already have.
I think that something is being done to obscure our understanding of the nature of our times in such a way that makes it more rather than less difficult for us to carry on the kind of struggle that we need to and to identify the actual nature of the system and the conditions we live under.
I have a friend who has suggested to me that perhaps we shouldn’t talk as much as we do about democracy because “democracy” is a Greek word. My response is, Okay I’m having this discussion with you in English, and you have pointed out that this is a Greek word meaning something that isn’t practiced in a bicameral election system in West Africa, and I’m not sure how to look at this. How do I identify a big concept with a continent? Is it a question of where the idea of democracy came from, how it was developed, where it was named, or where it is used? I think it is incredibly important to be able to do what is “of, by, and for the people,” regardless of how we want to name it, and many of us use the word “democratic.”
I also want to challenge us to think about democracy in a way that embraces what I refer to as “SASH.” I’m talking about the Spirit, the Art, the Science, and the Habits of democracy. If you’re not governed by the spirit of democracy, and you come to me saying, “We’re going to use consensus,” I will think for a minute and decide that I know how to foil your plan and get my way. I’ll phrase things in such a way that you can never construct a uniform consensus, and then I can block the decision. Or say we’re going to use Robert’s Rules of Order, or instead we use Roberta’s Rules of Order. Unless you’ve got the spirit of democracy and believe that it is important to understand what “of, by, and for the people” means, and unless you’re guided by a creative sense of being able to identify and come up with new and beautiful ways to bring it about—which is, I would say, the art of democracy—then you will be in trouble. If you’re not able at some point to identify the science of democracy, and if you’re not able to do it over and over and over again until it becomes ingrained into how you think and how you do things, which is to say to develop the habits of democracy, then you will still have some challenges to contend with. To me the core of democracy is our ability to think together with others in order to understand how the world really is and how we should behave in the world. That’s the democratic essence, even if we name it with a Greek word.
I also want to express my disagreement with another group I know whom a lot of people praise very highly. This group has been making the claim that they are putting together a series of nine interlocked worker cooperatives that have to do with the transformation of local government in what is to become the most radical city in the country and that this is a profound way to move forward. But sadly this level of work is not there, and if you go and look for it you’ll see that it’s not there, although I did talk to some people who went and they couldn’t even tell that it wasn’t there. I wanted to scream at them, “The Emperor has no clothes!” You have to look closely. If you look at a quarter acre of land in the backyard, you can’t call it Freedom Farms. That would be insulting Fannie Lou Hamer, who actually built Freedom Farms and fed hundreds of families and built spin-off organizations. We have a capacity and a tendency to identify things that are fashionable and to promote them above and beyond what they actually are, to the detriment of building movements.
I say this not to be mean or to try to expose something but because I want to win, and we can’t win by being deceitful about what’s going on. We have to express the hard real truth. I’ll tell you, for example, about the Renaissance Community Cooperative grocery store in Greensboro, and I’m going to start off by saying that we were told we couldn’t do it. Well, we’ve done it. We’ve got a store going that’s open and feeding seventeen families. The money those families save by buying there is paying their rent and sending their kids to school, but we’re having a hard time getting the revenue up to what we need for the store to be sustainable, and we’re struggling to stay open. [Editor’s note: Sadly, the store subsequently closed its doors.] Making a go of a grocery store in a working-class neighborhood in a food desert is hard work. I don’t want you to think anything other than that because you’d be asking me for information about how you can do it, and I’m still trying to figure out how to do it myself, but I can tell you that it’s hard, which is one of the most important things you need to understand about it before you try to do it. I think we have to be radically, ruthlessly honest about our strengths and our weaknesses. In the absence of that, we mislead people, which does not advance the movement.
Having gotten out of the way that I disagree with a bunch of people, I want to say a little about me. I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1949. I grew up there in the 1950s and 1960s. I graduated from high school in 1967, which was ten years after the crisis in public education in the United States when the President had to send the 101st Airborne out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to Little Rock so that nine Black children could enter a school without being injured or, quite frankly, killed. That’s what was at stake there. I grew up within the Black Freedom movement. I grew up in a house full of guns, yet I have never pointed a gun at anybody in my life and I hope never to. But my father wanted us to know how to use them. He used to talk vaguely about protecting the home. We didn’t hunt, but he took us all out target practicing and he talked about wanting us to be able to protect ourselves. I never knew what he meant. As for somebody stealing from us, we didn’t have anything worth stealing. Nor were we the kind of folk who would shoot a person for stealing something.
That just wasn’t who we were.
My father had passed away and I was in my 50s before I found out that when my daddy was 18 years old, a man named John Carter was lynched there in Little Rock on May 4, 1927. He was shot a hundred times and hanged on a lamp post. After he was taken down, the coroner came and asked, “Anybody know what happened?” Everybody answered, “Uh, we don’t know what happened.” And the coroner wrote down “death at unknown hands” while standing in the crowd of murderers who had killed Carter. Later, somebody asked, “Anybody want to drag this nigger through town?” And all the hands went up. So they tied the body to the back of a pickup truck, drove it to the center of the Black business district in Little Rock, and broke into the largest Black church in town, which was Bethel A.M.E. Church (that was the church my mother would have been attending, but it wasn’t a Sunday). They took out the pulpit furniture and used it to build a pyre on which they burned the body. Charles Moyer, the mayor, and Chief of Police Rotenberry left town. Around 10 o’clock that evening, somebody was seen on the street directing traffic around the scene of this lynching with a charred arm from the body. Then, when the mob started fanning out into the rest of the East-End Black community, that’s when some people came out onto their porches with shotguns and said, “We don’t know what ya’ll are doing, but you’re not going to bring that mess up here.” It was then that I understood why I had grown up in a house full of guns.
It’s a story that isn’t often told. This is an opportunity for me to share some things that I don’t get a chance to talk about often. The next major racial incident was in 1957, and although there were again lynch mobs on the streets of Little Rock, fortunately the military came this time. The federal government had changed sides. A lot of people don’t understand this about the Civil Rights movement, and I want to say it here very clearly: what happened in the 1960s and 1970s wasn’t so much that Black people became more courageous, finally stood up, and moved to the front of the bus. They had been standing up and had been courageous all along, but they were often shot down and slaughtered—in Elaine, Arkansas, during the “Red Summer” of 1919, in Louisiana, in Memphis, all through the period following the end of Reconstruction and even during Reconstruction in the 1860s and in 1874 in the election riot near the small town of Eufala in Alabama, and in Wilmington, North Carolina. Folks have been standing up and we’ve been slaughtered, often with the federal government taking the side of the murdering hordes coming into our community, displacing people, stealing their property, and chasing them out of town. The federal government was on the racist side.
Then, during the Cold War there was the question of how to deal with the emerging nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. When given a choice between the United States and the Soviet Union those countries would say, “Look over there at the United States, look at how they treat the Black folk.” John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, explained to him, “We need to do things differently,” so he had the federal government switch sides, resulting in the intervention of the Army in Little Rock in 1957 to allow nine Black children to go to an all-White school. This move toward switching sides was sometimes effective, sometimes ineffective. Unfortunately there were sinister agents like J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, who was supposedly protecting our rights, but if you ever see the movie “Mississippi Burning,” don’t believe it. That is not how it was.
So there was a shift, which enabled some people to move forward by leaps. Every time you take a step forward, you’re able to open new doors, new avenues, new opportunities such as the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which I consider really heroic work, especially when those young folk went into Mississippi, where other civil rights groups had been afraid to go, to build organizations and when there were only a few people like Medgar Evers already there on the ground. Very few could withstand what he had to. I went to his home about two weeks ago and saw the bloodstains on the driveway that were still there from when he was shot in 1963 coming back home to his family from a meeting. A lot of other people were courageous too, and with the shift in the federal government’s position some of us survived in a time when we might otherwise have been slaughtered. But survive we did, and it’s all part of a Black radical tradition that continues and is alive today. It’s alive today with young people like the speaker who’s coming up after me, like the people I know who are working with me in the Black Land and Liberation Initiative, like the people building independent communities in liberated zones—places like Wildseed Community Farm that’s not far down the road from here. There is a Black Liberation movement that is alive and vibrant and well today and a Black radical tradition that it’s a part of.
I’m going to talk about economics in the context of a Freedom movement because I think there’s a lot to be learned about economics by trying to understand freedom, and there’s a lot to be learned about freedom by understanding something about economics. I hope to have a chance to introduce to you some people you may not have heard of before, but I trust that their thinking and their writing will help to illuminate some ways of understanding the current contradictions in the economy.
You all know that Harriet Tubman once said: “I freed a thousand people. I could free a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Does anybody know that Harriet Tubman said that? Would anybody here be disappointed to know she never said that? Well, she didn’t! There’s no evidence for that quote that is any earlier than about 1990. So somebody made it up, attributed it to her, and spread it around. What I am trying to do is to expose things that are not true. There are some things she actually did say that I think are worth hearing: What she did say at a suffrage convention in New York in 1896 was, “I was a conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say—I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.”
What she did say to Sarah Bradford as recorded in Harriet, The Moses of Her People (1886) was: “I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty, or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive. I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted, and when the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me.”
What she did say to Sarah Bradford as recorded in Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1868) was: “… there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land; and my home, after all, was down in Maryland; because my father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were there. But I was free, and they should be free.”
What she did say in 1855 to Benjamin Drew in the city of St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, was: “Slavery is the next thing to hell.” Now, why would someone who knew that slavery was the next thing to hell think that she hadn’t saved more people from it because they didn’t know they were slaves? Sadly, it fits into the narrative about slavery really being kind of benign, even being kind of fun for some people, and they didn’t really mind—they got a chance to drink every Christmas. No, Harriet Tubman didn’t say that. It is useful for us to know that. But she did say to Benjamin Drew: “I grew up like a neglected weed—ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it. Then I was not happy or contented.”
And to Ednah Dow Cheney, South Carolina, 1865: “…I prayed to God to make me strong and able to fight, and that’s what I’ve always prayed for ever since.” Earlier, in 1859 in New York City, “God’s time (Emancipation) is always near. He sets the North Star in the heavens; he gave me the strength in my limbs; he meant I should be free.”
That’s what she did say. And it’s so much better than “I freed a thousand people” because it wasn’t actually a thousand, and she didn’t believe, nor should we, that there were people who didn’t want to be free, not even those who didn’t understand exactly how they were going to be free.
We have to deepen our understanding of what freedom even means, and for that I want people to know about something that happened in 1865. It was on Thursday the 12th of January when twenty ministers, at that time called Negro ministers, met in Savannah, Georgia, with William Tecumseh Sherman, a general in the Union Army during the Civil War, and Edwin M. Stanton, then Secretary of War. Sherman asked, “What do you people want?” One of the ministers was Garrison Frazier, who was 67 years old, born in Granville County, North Carolina. He had been a slave until eight years earlier, when he paid $1,000 in gold and silver to buy himself and his wife their freedom. That was a lot of money back then, yet somebody who was enslaved and able to do only odd jobs to scrape together a little here and there found it important enough to pay $1,000 for their freedom. I see White people wanting to work in Black communities and wanting to go there with their charitable ideas, and they say, “You know, those people over there don’t have nothing, so we’re just going to have to give them something.” That impairs the dignity of the relationships that can be formed when you recognize that everybody needs and deserves to be free and when, if given an opportunity, the people who want to be free are willing to contribute to gaining their own freedom. To the extent that we ignore this, we devalue the very people we’re talking about.
As for those twenty Negro ministers in Savannah who met with Sherman and Stanton, they were asked by Sherman to “state what you understand by Slavery and the freedom that is given by the President’s proclamation.” Frazier, who was speaking for the group, responded: “Slavery is receiving, by irresistible power, the work of another man, and not by his consent. The freedom, as I understand it, promised by the proclamation, is taking us from under the yoke of bondage and placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor, take care of ourselves and assist the Government in maintaining our freedom.”
I can’t come up with a more profound description of slavery and freedom. Slavery is when you have to work your ass off and someone else gets the benefit of your labor, without your permission, by force. When Frazier said he wanted to be free, he didn’t mean “I want to float around like a bee… to blow in the wind like a leaf.” He said, “I want to be able to work and retain the product of my own labor.” In fact, later in the meeting he declared, “We would like access to land; if we had land, we would work it with our own hands until we could pay for it.” He wasn’t even trying to get people to give him land; he wanted some land to work on so that he could pay for it, then move Black communities to be self-reliant and independent. It’s so important that today there are people working on matters of land who have the same understanding reached by a simple man who had become a minister and found a way to scrape together $1,000 because he wanted so badly to be free. He knew that what he needed was the opportunity to retain the product of his own labor. And doesn’t this let you know that so many people in today’s world are still really not free?
I’m going to talk about the connection between the product of one’s labor and freedom. And I want to posit the claim that most of us, except in extraordinary circumstances—if someone is very sick or injured or near death—are capable of being productive and producing more than we need for ourselves alone. It is this excess, this surplus that, when accumulated by a capitalist and used for the purpose of its own expansion, becomes capital. When this excess is accumulated by a landlord, it takes the form of rent. When the excess is collected and accumulated by some governmental structure, it takes the form of tax revenues. But it’s all rooted in the fact that productive people are capable of producing more than they need for themselves. Otherwise there couldn’t be an exploitative system. If you take so much from people and don’t leave enough for what they need for themselves, then they die. As best as I can tell, that is the system of slavery practiced by the French in Haiti from 1625 to 1789. They literally worked people to death, having found out it was cheaper to buy more enslaved Africans than to let them have what they needed in order to stay alive. That’s outrageously cruel.
Only the other night I was watching a video about a French inventor, Jacques de Vaucanson, who in 1750 invented a machine that is the basis of what is currently the modern lathe. It’s a machine tool used for turning round pieces and boring accurate holes. It was this invention that paved the way for the Industrial Revolution and modern, high-precision tools. His lathe helped to bring about the world that has evolved since then and the incredible expansion of wealth. As I watched, I thought, wow! All of that came from this person who was so smart that he made a lathe. But wait a minute, what would have been the conditions required for him to make his lathe? While he was inventing it, he was not growing potatoes or chasing down chickens to eat. He must have had somebody who was growing food for him to eat— enough food so that he could have the leisure to be an inventor. More than that, his lathe was designed to make copper cylinders that were used for making moiré silk. For him to put the research and time into building this machine, there had to be a sufficient market for moiré silk, made up of people who could afford to buy this luxury fabric made by special machinery. What would that market have been? Where would people have gotten that kind of money? Oh yes, from a sugar industry in Haiti run by slave labor. And there was a huge amount of profits that were being repatriated to the elites in France while people in Haiti were being worked to death. This is what was going on in Europe: the piling up of power and money that allowed for a leisure group of people sitting around inventing machines and other people buying luxury goods. The video left all that detail out.
We have a picture of modernity and progress that has to do with brilliant people coming up with great ideas, leaving out the fact that the fundamental basis for any and all of that happening is people’s labor. Let’s go back in history. Take the pyramids in Egypt. Do you all realize that there wouldn’t be pyramids in Egypt if working people in Egypt’s agricultural sector didn’t grow enough food to feed themselves and their families and feed all the people who built the pyramids? There wouldn’t be any pyramids without those agricultural workers. This is one of the uses of social surplus, but I want to make it clear that the social surplus going into building the pyramids was never capital. For it to become capital, there would have had to be a liquidity event converting that labor product back into money. As far as I know, no one ever sold a pyramid after it was built. But on the other hand, the depreciation schedule, the straight-line depreciation schedule, had to be really interesting. Go look at the pyramids. They’re still sitting there after thousands of years.
We can look at situations in the modern world and see that excess production, which is surplus value, often goes into community wealth. Sometimes it can go into capital. Community wealth and capital aren’t the same thing, so if I identify a bunch of money in a community, I won’t know whether it’s capital or not unless I also know whether or not the money is being used to expand itself. Otherwise, it could simply be community wealth. All of it comes from value created by human labor.
Surplus accumulates. This is useful because there are cyclical, there are acute, and there are chronic reasons why a community would want to make sure to produce a little extra and store it up. Cyclically, the winter comes and you can’t grow as much as you did during the summer, so it’s a good idea to plant extra during the growing season so you can store it up and have it for the winter. Acute conditions can arise: locusts can appear, and they can wipe out the crop of an entire field and then fly on. There can also be chronic conditions that last over periods of years.
There can be weather change—oh no, the climate couldn’t change, could it? Maybe it could. A long time ago there might have been changes in the weather when a particular area would undergo a drought that might last for several years. If farmers had been able to store up enough when the harvests were good, they would be able to get through the drought until conditions became optimum again.
It’s important for people in communities to store up extra surplus, which under capitalism becomes capital and dominates everything else, but in previous times it was the buffer that helped people stay alive and not go hungry. That was community wealth. A wealthy community is a community that’s capable of producing enough surplus to do some of what it wants to do. This surplus can go into building monuments, it can go into making jewelry, it can go into storing grain for bad weather, and it can go into a lot else that contributes to community wealth. We need not think that our task in the world is to contain the expansion of capital when it might actually be to continue the expansion of community wealth. Do you see the distinction I’m making here? If we narrow down what community wealth is good for, we might think it all needs to be capital and grow on its own. Suppose we’ve got a savings club where we can put some money together. Maybe we need to put it where it can draw some interest for us now. That would make it be capital. Or we might instead need to put it in band uniforms. And don’t tell me that’s band capital. We might need it to put in education and health care systems.
When I think about an economy, I’m thinking about engaging in meeting people’s needs and elevating the quality of life. Meeting of needs takes place in the arena of consumption. People have to eat to stay alive, but elevating the quality of life is in the arena of production and has to do with how we utilize our surplus to benefit the communities we’re a part of. For that, we need to identify how the community’s wealth has been held and how it has been stored and find ways to redirect that wealth back into communities in such a way as to meet needs and elevate the quality of life.
I’m engaged in building the Southern Reparations Loan Fund as part of a financial commons that is being renamed Seed Commons. We all know the generative properties of seeds. That’s how we look to use the resources we’re generating and gathering right now from low-hanging fruit from people who want to make a social impact and make a difference. There are people who have inherited wealth and recognize it’s not theirs to hoard. These people want to make their wealth available to communities—we’re glad such people exist. Later on, there might be a time when other ways open up to gain access to the community’s wealth that is right now privately held and not benefitting the community. But I don’t know how to confiscate the property of a whole bunch of rich folks. As soon as I figure it out, we’re going to be doing it.
You know, there’s something I had been saying about the Black radical tradition, and I want to share part of what H. Rap Brown wrote in 1968 when he was in prison. He said that every day that one has to compromise with a corrupt system and isn’t able to do anything about it takes away part of one’s humanity and that no slave should die a natural death. He said that if somebody dies and there is celebration in the slaveyard, you have to wonder why because that means somebody remained enslaved without having built the fight and rebelled.
I’ve come to understand two things: on the one hand, many of us who are African-Americans in the United States are the biological descendants of those people who did not jump overboard and take their children with them, refusing to let them be enslaved. These ancestors of mine decided they would persist because they thought that at some point there was going to be a brighter day, and they were going to hold on for that. We are descended by blood from that crowd, but I also realize that to descend from someone is not only to descend biologically but also spiritually and culturally. We also inherit the values of those who did jump overboard, saying “I’ll be dead before I’ll be a slave,” as Harriet Tubman said. We are their descendants and carry them with us, inside us, every day. We carry the genetic material of one group of folk, but we also carry the intellectual, emotional, cultural, and spiritual experience and residue of another group. All of this is important in terms of who we are and what we have to do and be.
We are building a new world, and I want us to stress the idea that we have to build freedom. We won’t find it, we won’t just fight for it, we have to actually construct it. I have an idea I’ve been sharing with some friends, and it seems to resonate with them. It’s about building liberated zones. Suppose there had been elections on plantations and you were told you’re going to be able to vote on who the next overseer will be. “Oh,” you might ask, “can we pick anybody?” “No no no no. You have to pick from among the ones you’re told you can pick from. They’re going to come out here and tell us what they’re going to do.” So one of the overseers says: “If elected, I’m going to limit the number of lashes. We’re not going to give you more than 50-75 lashes because if we whip somebody 100 times, it can damn near kill him. So I’m going to put a limit on the number of lashes.” Some of the slaves say, “Hmm, that’s interesting.” Another overseer candidate says, “I’m going to promote keeping families together until Ole Massa have to sell you to make a little extra cash, but until then families can stay together and live together in the quarters.” Some of the slaves again say “Hmm, that’s interesting too.” In the back row one slave is looking up into the sky. I think he would have been my great great great uncle Willie. When somebody asks him what he’s looking for, he says: “I’m looking for the North Star because first chance I get, I’m out of here! I’m not all that interested in figuring out whether you’re going to limit the number of lashes or keep my family together until somebody needs to do otherwise. Those things might make a difference but not enough difference.”
If we’re talking about freedom, we have to figure out how to keep the North Star in mind. We have to figure out how to keep our eyes on the goal. Isn’t that goal to construct and develop a society in which all working people have the chance to benefit from the product of their own labor? Again, I’m approaching this from the standpoint of being productive, not from the standpoint of enhancing consumption.
There’s a big issue at present that a lot of people are talking about, and my guess is that some in this room think a guaranteed annual income would be a great step forward. But I think it is a terrible idea. What do I mean, it’s a terrible idea? At the level of consumption you cannot solve a problem created in the realm of production, which strips away people’s capacity to be engaged in production, offering instead that they’ll be given a little something, and everything else stays the same. In fact, quite frankly, that false solution lubricates the capitalist system, easing the contradiction that’s built into capitalism: constantly expanding production but not having sufficient people to buy what is produced because you pay them wages too low even to buy the product of their own labor. In this system other capitalists have to buy the extra that workers cannot buy, but they will buy it only if they think they can expand their production and sell what they produce. With a guaranteed basic income they can expand because the government will print money, pass it out, and people will get some. This is a terrible idea. Don’t be mad at me; I’ll make my point more clearly later in an article I’m writing for YES! Magazine.
I am reminded of Bongani Finca, a South African Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner who came to the United States. He told a story about Mr. Smith, a White man, and Tabo, a Black South African who was in South Africa during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission period. Mr. Smith had stolen Tabo’s cow. He found out that if you go before the Commission and tell them what you did, you will be given amnesty and won’t have to worry about it anymore. He goes to Tabo and says: “I stole your cow. I realize how wrong it was. I’m very, very sorry, and I know I shouldn’t have done it. I do want you to forgive me.” Tabo is visibly moved; he never thought he’d hear Mr. Smith apologize for what he did. So they shake hands, they hug each other, and they probably even pray together. Then Smith starts out of the room, and Tabo calls, “Wait!” Smith turns around, “Wait for what?” Tabo: “What about the cow?” Smith: “This has nothing to do with the cow. You’re ruining our reconciliation.” But it has everything to do with the cow. What if Smith said, “You know, I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you a supply of butter.” Then Tabo would need to explain: “No, you give me back my damn cow, and I’ll give you butter—and be able to feed myself and my family.” We need to be productive, and a guaranteed wage doesn’t change that. We want to create opportunities for all workers to be fully productive and express their dignity through that productivity.
Because I’ve been standing here too long, I want to end by sharing two more points. There’s a theory going around that labor and being productive are going out of style because we’ve got robots that can make robots, so let’s just tax the robots and then introduce a guaranteed minimum wage. The trend toward having everything made by robots probably is not as far along as people on the street think it is. My guess is that most of the clothes you’re wearing were not made by a robot but on a sewing machine —pretty much like the one that was invented in the mid-19th century—sewn in another part of the world by women you don’t have to see. Most of the clothes you’re wearing are that, most of the shoes you’re wearing are that, so is a lot of our food grown in the traditional way. So the notion about robots having taken over everything is probably exaggerated, and the idea of robots making robots, which some people propose, isn’t even a good idea. I’ve seen “Terminator 3”; I don’t want to see robots making robots.
We have a situation in which the place of robots is being exaggerated. The assumption is that we have throw-away people and we’re going to have to give them something to buy what robots make. I say, Why don’t those of us who want to build a new economy find the people who have been thrown away by the old economy and use them as the basis for building a new economy? Why don’t we find productive spaces and make sure the resources required are there for them to be productive? Because to be productive is transformational. If you have been told all your life that you’re worth nothing, you can’t do anything, and then comes the day when you point to a building and say, “I built that,” then you know you can’t be worthless. We’re going to have to find a way to build the new economy out of the people thrown away in the old economy and build something that’s really humane.
I want to conclude with something that my dear friend Hildegarde Hannum, who is on the board with me at the New Economy Coalition, and I had been talking about. I shared something with her that I had written, and she said, “Ed, you should make that part of your Schumacher Lecture.” I had told her I invented a religion that might sound to some people kind of weird. I have known a lot of people all my life who tell me they believe every single word of some doctrine in a book, and sadly I realize a lot of them haven’t actually read every single word of it. I wanted to come up with a religion whose description was short enough to fit on one page so that you could actually read all of it. I periodically read it to people. My religion is called the “Heretical Church of the Latter Day Infidel.” The reason for the word “heretical” in its name is that the Greek root of “heresy” is “to choose.” This means that heretics choose what they believe and understand rather than accepting dogma. Obviously infidels are the people who are not faithful, so I’m a heretic and an infidel. Listen to it; it’s very short and I’ll end with this:
Remember that all memory and all truth are selective and incomplete, including whatever may be true here.
Statement of beliefs: I struggle to avoid all dogma; I believe in the changing, inconsistent, contradictory harmony of a complex emergent universe and little else.
I believe in loving and being loved.
I believe in making and appreciating beauty. I believe that seeking the truth by questioning everything is the holiest of activities.
I oppose violence, including violence against me.
I believe in finding good wherever it can be found.
I believe in creating good whenever possible.
I believe in strengthening the weak and exploited so that they can do for themselves.
I believe in taking away the unearned, undeserved strength and advantage of exploiters so they can rejoin the human mass as equals rather than as selfish superiors.
And I believe in creating the world I would want to live in.
Opportunities can be found all around us.
Where there is justice we have the opportunity to grow and prosper, where there is great injustice we have the opportunity to fight for a better world.
Our moment is this moment. There is always something important to do. In every moment there is meaning, and in every moment great beauty can be created.
We need not look for meaning in things or situations, we create meaning rather than find it.
True freedom is not so much about making a choice as it is about creating the choices that are made available.
The essence of democracy is less in finding opportunities to register our opinion than in creating opportunities to think together with others to form our ideas of how the world should be and how we should behave in the world.
And finally on sharing: leave for others as much as you take for yourself. Share with others what you are able to share. Be as responsive in consideration of other’s desires as you would wish them to be in consideration of yours. Live so that all others could live like you, and we would have a happy world. No more than this should be asked of anyone. No more than this is needed.
That’s all. Thank you very much.
Question and Answer Period
Question from Leah Penniman: In the spirit of what you open with, Baba Ed, talking about vulnerability and mistakes and being brutally honest, I would love to hear what you think our current generation of activists is getting wrong.
I have never thought anybody would want to hear what I think on the subject, but you’ve given me a chance to do it, and I’m going to do it. I’m afraid that part of the way we have embraced aspects of identity politics takes us away from some of the things that I think are necessary for us to win. My approach is that I want to win, and so I want all the folk who might help me win to be engaged in helping to win. I’m not all that worried about what took them so long to want to fight against the system. I’m happy that they are fighting it now, and I want to clarify why they should fight it. I think that one of the ways to be clear is for all of us to try to understand the interrelationship between power and privilege. There’s an assumption that can be made from the outset that everybody with privilege has an equivalent level or layer of power. The way it works is that the people with the most power are able to confer an amount of privilege on a buffer layer that helps to protect them from the people who will one day want to carry torches and pitchforks and straighten the system out. The privileged stratum—I don’t want to call it a privileged class because it’s not a single class; it can actually be made up of people of several different classes including small commodity producers—of this privileged layer is the petite bourgeoisie, if we want to use the French word for it. There are even working-class people who can be in a privileged stratum. Lenin called them the labor aristocracy, and certainly privileged are the very lowest levels of the bourgeoisie, who are not the main owning class. Bureaucrats and a lot of other folk can also be in that privileged stratum. They have a certain level of comfort and varying levels of security within the existing system. Sometimes they get damaged in such a way that their security falters, and they find themselves no longer feeling comfortable in protecting the old order. I welcome them immediately and assign them certain things to do that will help them understand the situation more deeply and will engage them in activities to weaken the exploiting classes. I think there’s a problem when activists ask newcomers to activism, “What took you so long?” A big deal is made of getting these new forces from the recently injured privileged strata to own up to the fact that they used to do well and were not involved in supporting our struggle. This can be counterproductive.
I’m not against people owning up to the fact that they used to do well, but I think that ultimately the task is to figure out how to embrace and include them till they prove themselves unwilling to continue to struggle against the enemy. All those who will help me fight against the folk we need to fight against are folk I want to be working with at some level. And so I’m not going to start off by telling them how disappointed I am with them for having been slow to realize that they and I have the same enemy. I want to strike some blows while we are together, and if they change their minds later, I figure we engaged them for all that we could accomplish while we were together.
Q: I’m an anti-war activist, and I know that to end war I have to end the war economy, so we encourage folks at CODEPINK to grow their local peace economy. And in the process what we’ve seen is that the culture we live in is a war economy. Because you spoke to habits, I want to ask you: What are the habits that we need to develop that aren’t encouraged in the capitalist culture we live in?
Intelligence and thinking are not encouraged. I mean, what we do to children in public schools is a serious problem. I’ve been in schools where kids are taught to get in a straight line a certain distance from the wall, not speaking, and follow behind the person in front of them. The only situations in adult life where people have to be in a straight line and not talk are if you’re in the military or in prison. Why are we satisfied teaching our kids how to be soldiers or inmates? And why is the critical thinking they ought to learning altogether missing? Instead, they are taught a non factual version of American history that’s got Columbus and his men sailing the ocean blue on the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria —discovering America, defending colonialism and exploitation and imperialist genocide. Why is that the history that’s being taught?
Why are schools insisting that students who may never have any urge to focus on a certain part of mathematics, aren’t particularly good at it now, probably won’t ever be, and in their adult life will never use it once, are subjected to this math so that we can weed them out as losers and so that people who don’t do mathematics think they deserve a job at McDonalds because they’re a failure in life. They think there’s something wrong with them, but there really is not. I love mathematics, it’s easy for me, but it’s not easy for everybody. There are other people for whom singing is easy. Singing is difficult for me. I try to sing, and no one can stop me, but you wouldn’t want to hear me sing.
We have an educational system where students are not encouraged to do the critical thinking they need to do, again under the domination of capital, where the questions are: Will we get any money from the federal government? What will the ad valorem taxes in the neighborhood do? Which schools have which resources? We’re doing a terrible job of training young people to be critical thinkers who will be capable of taking over the world that they will inherit.
Q: Tell us more about a liberated community.
I use the phrase “liberated zone.” I don’t know how long this terminology has been used, but if you think about liberation struggles you’ll notice that there was often a liberated area to which people would go for respite and getting themselves together to wage some of the forays into contested areas near that liberated zone. When I think about people escaping slavery, I think they too would have needed a space, a place where they could be that had to have several characteristics, and this comes from an African-American political economist named Lloyd Hogan. I haven’t had a chance to tell you about him, and I want to. Lloyd is 95 years old. He wrote a book on human population dynamics that he finished at age 94. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, and occasionally I get a chance to go there and hang out with him. In a book he wrote in 1984, Principles of the Black Political Economy, his analysis was that every sustainable community has two things going on: one, he said that in a hundred years everybody who’s alive now—think about it: everyone who’s in this room—will probably be dead. And yet this room doesn’t have to be empty because what we will do in the time between now and then is reproduce another population to replace this one. According to his analysis of the population, it includes not only the living population but also the dead, and it also includes the children yet to be born as the significant people for us to care about.
A liberated zone has, in his terminology, an internal labor process that reproduces the population and an external labor process that produces the food the population requires. If we don’t have an internal labor process that is able to reproduce the population, then at the end of one generation it’s all over. And if we don’t have an external labor process to produce food that the people in the internal labor process use to produce people, then, after less than a generation, it’s all over because people will starve to death. It is the interplay between the internal and external labor processes that characterizes every economy. Every economy can be analyzed by how these two processes exist and what they do. A liberated zone has to have both. If it is to be a continuous and sustainable community, it has to be a place that produces people, and it has to be able to produce food. I submit that in order for people to produce food they also engage in and produce meaning. So you produce people, you produce food, you produce meaning to make it worthwhile, and then you have to be willing to defend what you have produced. To me that’s the whole deal. And the entire realm of the production of meaning has to do with culture and art and spirituality and music and all of the different ways that we engage with each other to make life something other than getting up every day and making sure we have enough to eat and then going to sleep and then waking up and doing it again the next day. Instead we do things to try to make our life meaningful, and that is the life that we’re willing to defend and fight to protect.
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives in Epes, Alabama, owns 1100 acres of land on which its rural training center is located. It needs a new dormitory building there to house guests and students who come to be trained. When I met with the new director, he asked me, “Ed, how are we going to get the resources to put up a new building out here?” I answered: “Why don’t we go recruit some young folk from various communities, people who have been thrown away in those communities, and why don’t we bring them here? We can let them stay in the existing dormitories, teach them something about growing food so they can participate and feel productive from the day they get here; let them have music and culture and a hip-hop studio if they want to make something they can produce. Then we can bring in artisans who will teach them how to build the building. Once you build this new building, you will have transformed these young folk, who will say: ‘What do you mean, I’m nothing? Do you see that building? I built that.’ At the same time they’re beginning to build a community that cares enough about itself and what it does so that it is willing to protect it and defend it, share it and spread it. They could build a liberated zone on that 1100 acres of land.”
After I first suggested that in Epes, I talked to some people in Detroit about it, and I said, “Well, you can do that up here too. And maybe there can be a network, a connection between doing it in one place and another place.” Then I heard about Wildseed Farm in Millerton, New York, and Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, New York, and I realized that can be part of it too. And so we could conceivably construct a network of places and spaces where people are engaged in building the new world we envision on the foundation of people in the old world and the resources coming out of the old world that can be channeled toward something useful and productive. That’s what I mean when I refer to liberated zones that are willing to protect what they do, which is to produce people, food, and meaning.
One last thing I want to say very briefly: We talk a lot about land. Land is incredibly important. Land is foundational, water is life, air is essential. The living layer of life on earth is sacred. Everything else is human, social production. Everything. And human, social production ought to be instrumental, a tool used in the interest of that which is sacred—the earth, the air, the water, and life.
What’s wrong with capitalism? If you ever need a brief explanation, it is this: Capitalism has taken what is sacred and made it instrumental while taking what should be instrumental and holding it as being sacred. The expansion of capital is taken to be sacred, and you use up people and the air and the water and the earth in order to get that capital expansion. What’s wrong with that? It’s stupid.
Q: How can what has already been deemed capital wealth become community wealth, and who are the people already working deeply in this area?
I’m so glad you asked that question. An NPR radio program a few years ago was about “the great big pile of money.” It was an attempt to describe how the financial crisis of 2007-2008 happened. Some people were trying to figure out new forms of investing. We live in a very mature world system that has led to the accumulation of huge amounts of money, and the owners are all seeking places to invest this money to get certain levels of returns. A large part of the investing being done now I describe to people by talking about development. Do you have any idea why virtually every city in this country is run by developers? It is because urban development efforts are one of the ways investors can find something to do with the gigantic pile of money that they have. But there are other things that could be done with this money. There are a lot of community needs that are not being met, a lot of infrastructure that’s not being built or repaired. There are also possibilities for investment in a growing workers’ coop movement. I don’t want to deceive you into believing that it is robust enough to absorb the entire big pile of money, but it can grow, and it’s important for it to grow in addition to other kinds of cooperative financing going on in communities.
In order for worker cooperatives in marginalized communities to grow, it’s not merely a matter of throwing money at them. Finance has to be coupled with a level of technical assistance to help people who have never built businesses to be able to do so. I was trying to be careful about how I said this because we have to realize a lot of people are building businesses every day. The problem is that they are not very stable, and many of them turn out to be illegal. That can be something as benign as selling DVDs out of the trunk of your car to selling hip-hop beats. It can be a business selling individual cigarettes or weed or strong pharmaceuticals. If you don’t pay tax on it, it is illegal whether the product is legal or not.
Many people form businesses without having formal business plans. They are not officially registered. They don’t use QuickBooks to keep up with their balance sheets or profit and loss statements, and they don’t pay taxes on their business income. You have to be able to do all that for your business to be sustainable over a period of time. You have to take care of those formalities if you don’t want someone to come and close you down, seize all your assets, and make the people miserable who have been working really hard with you. If we want to help people in our community build stable, sustainable businesses, we need to couple business lending with technical assistance that includes developing business plans with value propositions and help them create income statements and understand revenue streams and cost structures.
I’m right now working with some people on business development and finance. We’re building a financial cooperative that is national in scope and that is rooted in local, community-based lending efforts that identify people within those various communities who have potentially productive projects they’re interested in. This integrates the access to capital with the technical-assistance training that is needed to help people be successful in such endeavors. Within the past few months we helped members of an immigrant community in Asheville, North Carolina, buy a small trailer park that will be a housing cooperative. The members of this group describe themselves as having mixed status, and you can understand the complexity of what that might mean in the United States right now.
They were able to buy this small trailer park with four units and room for expansion for $250,000. They got help from the Southern Reparations Loan Fund after they had themselves raised $55,000 within their local community through a savings circle. We supplied a loan for the other $195,000. But more than that, the group that helped sponsor and work with their project on the ground in Ashville are now coming into the financial cooperative to build a branch of the financial cooperative within their community that will be part of the Southern Reparations Loan Fund. We also have a group we are working with as part of loan funds in Charleston, West Virginia; Lexington, Kentucky; and Clarksdale, Mississippi, the home of the Blues. Our folks in Clarksdale are doing some really exciting work in an 11-county area in the Mississippi Delta, so the Southern Reparations Loan Fund is growing bigger, and in each of those places we’ll be offering shared back-office systems, shared learning through a network of peer lenders, and access to a pool of shared capital.
This is part of what we’re trying to do. I just flew here from San Francisco, where I was at a gathering held by Social Capital Marketing (SoCap) for social impact investors. On one of the panels we talked about ownership and the racial wealth divide; on another panel we talked about the financial cooperative I have been describing. There was a lot of interest, and there will be a prospectus circulating soon to give people an opportunity to invest in the capital pool. We are seeking well-intentioned people who recognize the importance of putting resources back into marginalized communities to help capitalize this shared pool of money. I hope they are not trying to get venture-capitalist rates of returns on their money because it’s not going to happen. This is because the business projects that the people I know are working on are not going to exploit large numbers of people, which is ultimately the only way large profits are made in any business venture. That is because human labor is the source of the production of all value. If you see somebody get really rich, it is thanks to finding a way to accumulate surplus from a whole lot of people. Google, for instance, has found an almost magical method to extract value, and you hardly even knowing it’s being done. You are being persuaded to produce a product that they can sell you without you thinking that you’ve given up anything, yet it’s still fundamentally the result of surplus value coming from laboring people during social production that Google is acquiring and building into capital, looking for the highest return on it. Instead, it should be returned to communities to meet needs and elevate the quality of life.
I’m going to wrap this up by quoting my friend Lloyd Hogan as he talks about the internal labor process. I want to pass on to you a picture he paints, which I find fascinating. On page 20 in Principles of the Black Political Economy he says:
Birthing of babies, nurturing them, amusing them, educating them, politicizing them, mystifying them, moralizing them, socializing them, inculcating into them the mysteries of peoplehood, rearing them into adulthood—all these activities are integral parts of the Internal Labor Process.
Internal Labor Process is the borning ground of the human population. It generates the basis for the surviving population at any given moment in time.
This is what we do with the people we care about. This is where the children yet to be born are produced within their communities, which are made up of people who embrace even those who are the living dead—those whose memory we know, those whom we made promises to but who are no longer with us and even the people before them, those on whose shoulders we stand. Whether they were the ones who absolutely refused to bow down or the ones who had to bow down and take it so that they could birth babies who would be able to survive and realize the future in the future. All of that represents part of our community, and it is for all of that to which my life and the work we do is dedicated. I believe this is true for many others here in this room. I also believe we have to continue to bring people to that vision of what community is like and BUILD FREEDOM!
I used a word trick in stating my religion when I said I believe in a complex emergent universe and little else. There isn’t anything else. That’s big enough. We are part of that universe. It’s here, and it includes aspects that are way more complex than I or anybody else is capable of understanding. It continues to develop, and we are participants in its design and building—in the creation of the world that will exist for the children yet to come.