George Catlin interviews Roar Bjonnes, coauthor of Growing a New Economy
A Four-Part Interview Series on the Next Economy
Catlin: It’s not like the economy is working for us. Rather, we’re working for the economy at this point. And so, we pretty much have to do whatever the bankers tell us has to be done to keep the whole system going. Anyway, so that’s what I’m seeing, the tail that’s wagging the dog. But I’m not sure it is the tail anymore. It’s beginning to feel more and more, like it’s the brain, or some demonic part of the brain that’s telling us all what we have to do. Would you comment on that?
“Let the banks fail. Let them go down and take the ship down with them, because they created this problem.”Erik Reinert, Economist
Bjonnes: Yes, I agree very much with what you’re saying. The Norwegians and the Swedes, they are practical people in many ways, even though, as I said earlier, they have become part of this speculation economy as well. We saw that with Iceland [during the crash of 2008]. Iceland became a hotspot of investing, prior to the economic crash. We write a little bit about this in the book. However, when the stuff hit the fan, so to speak, then Iceland did something that other countries should emulate: they let the banks fail.
Some economists, such as Eric S. Reinert, the Norwegian economist, who we quote quite a lot in the book, he said: “Let the banks fail. Let them go down and take the ship down with them, because they created this problem.” And that’s essentially what Iceland did. They let the banks fail. They didn’t allow the taxpayers to bail out the banks, which is what happened, as you so wonderfully stated, in America. Here, we let the taxpayers pay for the massive failures of the banks. We paid the people who created the big mess. On top of that, they themselves cleverly created a new financial speculation system, which gave them even more money. Sometimes more money than they previously earned. This is an outrageous system of economics, and we need to stop it.
At the same time, as I said in my introduction, I think that it is a system that will eventually implode because it is so unhealthy. It is so unbalanced. And I think that this quote by Sarkar that “Capitalism will explode like a firecracker” implies something about this. This system represents the essence of capitalist greed. And again, this system of rewarding greed is the essence of the problem of capitalism. And we cannot just keep reforming this system, keep propping it up. We are seeing the elephant in the room, but we are not really talking about the elephant in the room. What we need to do, is to start talking about that elephant in the room. We need to do something about it.
Catlin: That leads me to exactly the next question that I want to ask you. There’s a wonderful line in the book that says, “Capitalism has, in a sense, a self-destructive gene in its DNA.” Would you talk about that for a little bit?
Bjonnes: Yeah, as I said earlier, I grew up in Norway, and, like my father, I was part of the leftist movement in Norway. And I remember my father saying that, “People’s consciousness is tied to their pocketbooks.” He also said that “People need to understand that the essence of capitalist economics is profit.” Sarkar said the same thing, that the problem with capitalism is that it is based on “the profit motive.” Capitalism is based on Adam Smith’s idea that selfishness is good. The idea that, because selfishness breeds inventiveness and creativity, ultimately there will be enough profit created, enough good for everyone. But Sarkar said, in essence, that this gene is the real and essential problem with capitalism, this profit motive.
So, this selfish gene is also capitalism’s own self-destructive tendency. And this tendency needs to be curbed. We have tried to curb it, through tax reforms, and so on. But over and over, we see that these reforms have not been enough. And this is now being reflected by two very essential problems. One is the environmental problem, and the other one is the inequality problem. In a sense, we’ve created two planets, one rich, and one poor. So this is what we mean by the selfish gene. It’s an essential issue.
And so the very system of capitalism needs to be balanced by cooperation. Capitalism says selfishness is good, it is inventive, it is creative; it creates positive things; and it’s based on this idea of the survival of the fittest, as its social outlook. Sarkar, on the other hand, is saying that we have two tendencies as humans. Yes, we have this selfish tendency. But we also have something that he calls the gene of cooperation. The gene of helping others, of altruism. And this is the gene that needs to balance the gene of selfishness. And the way to do that is through creating economic democracy.
…we need to redesign the system itself. Not simply to reform the system, but rather to restructure the entire economy. So that the economy and the ecology become part of the same system of economics, and thus to remove the inherent weaknesses of capitalism altogether.
That’s why in Sarkar’s economy, private enterprise will be allowed only on a small scale. If it is not, the capitalists will always want more profit, more domination, more control. And eventually, no matter how many reforms we have, we will end up with the system we more or less have today. And because of this gene, the whole capitalist system is geared towards increasing concentration of wealth, of making some people super-rich and the general population poor. So that’s basically what that gene perpetuates. And instead we need to create more balance.
Because of this gene, on the environmental level, capitalism also tends to deplete natural resources, to destroy the environment, to take nature for granted, see it as a free lunch. And that is something that the environmental movement and the environmental economists have been very good at pointing out. They have documented this problem very well, and I think that this is something that more and more people are waking up to, this insight, and this wisdom.
So, what we are suggesting in the long-term solutions section of the book, is that we need to redesign the system itself. Not simply to reform the system, but rather to restructure the entire economy. So that the economy and the ecology become part of the same system of economics, and thus to remove the inherent weaknesses of capitalism altogether. And this is what I believe Sarkar has done in developing his new economic model.
Catlin: I want to ask you about the last time I think that capitalism was really challenged. Marx wrote, accurately it turns out, that workers would not stand for the system as it was operating then. And so, what I’m wondering about is if you have any insight into why we are so tolerant of the system now? I mean why aren’t we rallying in some way?
Bjonnes: As I said earlier, I think it is Facebook’s fault. It’s Mark Zuckerberg’s cleverness that got us all, made us lazy and complacent. I’m saying this as a joke, but as my math teacher used to say, “There’s always something serious in every joke.” So, I think that the capitalist system has been very, very clever in covering up its tracks. And that has been achieved in so many different ways.
The system of capitalism has become so clever in designing a system that makes us all into slaves. We have all become invested in this system. We have all become its sleeping slaves. During the housing crisis in the early 2000, I had friends who “flipped” houses. But then I thought, this is just crazy, this will crash very soon. And that’s exactly what happened.
The capitalist system has developed a very clever, very robust, very resilient system, and it’s very good at covering up its own problems, and in making us believe it’s okay. You know, if we vote for a Democrat, everything will be okay. Or, if we can get Trump out of office we’ll have a better world, and so on. But, it isn’t that simple. Therefore, I am heartened by movements such as Economic Democracy Advocates, by people that you have in your group who are asking the tough questions, looking for deeper answers. This is what we need more and more of now. And I think so many of the answers are there already. And I think the next thing is that we need to create that movement which says, “Enough is enough.” And I think that that movement is coming.
We need to create a movement which says, “Enough is enough.” And I think that that movement is coming.
Paul Hawken said something important a few years back. He said that there’s a growing movement throughout the world, of millions of people, a grassroots movement, which is never covered by the mass media. And that movement is quietly working on all of these issues, asking the right questions. And at the same time, building an alternative economy, an alternative environmental movement. Ecologists, local economy movements, and so on. They are discussing the commons, and they are using the resources properly. So that movement is there. And I think when the right time comes, when there is a deeper and more fundamental crack in the system; then I think we will see a massive change.
Catlin: Wonderful, I’m going to pause there. Thank you for that one. And Anita I’m going to just ask you to come on with any question, that looks like a good one
Anita: Sure, I have a question from Janet, and this is on the theme of the changes that are coming. And specifically, she’s asking, “How do you see the change to the capitalist system coming, and what can we as interested parties do to help bring about change?” And speaking to that, I think when there’s a crack in the system, there’s an opportunity for change to happen. If you could speak to that and anything now that we can help bring it about.
Bjonnes: You know, Leonard Cohen has this beautiful line, where he says, “There’s a crack in everything, and that’s where the light comes in.” And I think that is what is happening, that the light is coming in through the crack. What can we do, and what is being done? I think that on a personal level, it is very important that we walk our talk. If we speak up about saving the environment, then we need to also live according to those values as much as we can. So, on a personal level, I think that it is very important, that we shop at the farmers market, and support the local economy in a very direct and complete way. And that we boycott companies that we think are not healthy and not sustainable, and so on.
I also think that it’s very important that we join groups, such as your group, Economic Democracy Advocacy (EDA). I also think it is important that we educate ourselves; that we become activists; that we start to speak out. At the same time, as we are doing right now, it is important to study alternative ideas, to study alternative economics. But the major change will come through some form of crisis. Unfortunately, that is often how change happens. However, it is very difficult to say when, and how it will happen.
Anita: I’ve got a couple of questions that are really about who we are as human beings and our values. One of the questions here is, can we change the economic system to economic democracy without first changing people’s values from separation and selfishness, to unity? Who are we, and what is our relationship to each other?” So really questions about how we relate to each other as human beings, and can we really transform our economy, without first looking at that or somehow integrating that into the conversation?
Bjonnes: Wonderful question. It contains an important issue, which so far has been missing in the leftist movement, or the progressive movement. It is addressed to some extent in the environmental movement, the idea that we need to live our values. And, we could say, to some extent in the spiritual movement. However, in each of these movements, there are some missing links, some loopholes. In the spiritual movement, there’s a tendency to think that, it if we all become spiritual, then everything will change. In the environmental movement, there is the idea that if we all become environmentalists, there will be change. I think it is very important and fundamental that we walk our talk as much as we can. And so, this integration of our own values, the value of cooporation, the value of caring for the environment, taking care of our neighbors, and all of those community values—these are all fundamentally important. And at the same time, we need to practice deeper spiritual values, finding peace within so that we don’t blame others, don’t scapegoat others, and so on. All of those values and practices are very important.
So yes, I do think that real change will come. Sarkar spoke to this very clearly. He had a Sanskrit term, since he came from India, for a personality type he called a Sadvipra –and this personality, Sarkar said, is an integral personality, a leader type, who has integrated all of the different qualities of being human. It is a person that is spiritual, but who also understands the real world, who lives in the world, who is a warrior, and who understands injustice, economics, and social change, but who also deeply values spirituality and ethics. This type of a person, he said, will be the leader who will bring us the new economy, who will inspire us into the new world.
Catlin: Fascinating approach. I think that many of the people on the call are pretty involved in their own value-based living. And I think on lots of refrigerators that we have in our homes there is the quote from Gandhi saying, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I suspect Gandhi had in mind another sentence that would come after that: “Be the change you want to see in the world, and then go out and make it happen.” Which is what he obviously did so wonderfully. So Anita I think we’ve got probably time for another one for Roar to address now?
Anita: Yes actually I see there are a couple of them. “You state that capitalism is clever at disguising its problems. Do you think this is a concerted effort on purpose? Does Mark Zuckerberg really know what he’s doing long-term to the economy? And are these people, perhaps asleep slaves, as we are, just with more money?”
Bjonnes: Wow, great question. Yes, I think that there are some capitalists, that are very devious, very aware of the exploitation and the damage that they are doing, because this we have seen throughout history. We saw it in the early industrial era, when we moved from the mercantile economy into the industrial capitalist economy. The way that factory owners would treat their workers, you know child laborers, and so on. And this is in many ways still happening today, in many corners of the world. There are capitalists that are basically criminals. And so, you have people like that, who are in a sense demons in human form. Yes, there are capitalists like that, but I don’t think that Mark Zuckerberg is one of them. I don’t think so. I think that many of the people in Silicon Valley, and in this new creative bubble, they are, in many ways, well-meaning. But at the same time, as the questioner mentioned, unconscious about their own reality, about what they are creating. There is an unconsciousness about what they create, and there is denial.
Take Amazon, for example. There is a new book which just came out called Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century. It’s about people in their 60s, who travel in motor homes. A kind of underclass of people, who move from town to town. They work three, four months here and there, in an Amazon facility. And they live paycheck to paycheck. And so, these kinds of workers are part of the economy which Amazon has created. The bosses of Amazon may not think very deeply about that. But at the same time, we know that they are not really concerned about it either. So, there is a conscious awareness of the problems they are creating, but it may not be as demonic as the actions of a capitalist engaged in child slave labor. So, I think that capitalism can express itself in demonic and terrible ways, but it can also be unconscious, just part of an unhealthy system. As I said earlier, we have all become part of this unhealthy system.
And we need to speak to that, to that fact, that we have become slaves of the system. And Sarkar also spoke about that. He said that, in many ways, the capitalists are also slaves of their own system. And we need to reform them both—to restructure the system and also to reform the capitalists themselves.
…it is essential for people in America to understand that the power of people, lies more in economic democracy than in political democracy.
Catlin: Thank you once again, great answer. Roar, if there were three essential messages, which you really wanted the American people to get at, what would they be? So, I’m really asking you to think about this as if you were the education wing of Economic Democracy Advocates, and we want you to take on three messages here, what three do you think are the best places to direct energy?
Bjonnes: Okay, I haven’t thought it through completely yet. But let me try. There is one issue that comes up clearly for me. And I hope you’ll be happy I came up with that idea. It’s about economic democracy. I think it is essential for people in America to understand that the power of people, lies more in economic democracy than in political democracy. And this is not just for Americans, this is for people all over the world. And again, I think that this is one of the beautiful insights of Sarkar. This understanding that, on the local level, we engage in economics more than in politics, on a day-to-day basis. If we want to take the power back, we need to emphasize that the real power lies in economic democracy.
So that’s the number one thing. To say it another way, in order to balance the often futile endeavors of political democracy—and we see this in America again and again. How futile it is to think that the next president is going to create a better America. It is not that easy, of course. And so, to emphasize this need for economic democracy, and to educate people about that, this is very important. To let people know that the real power lies in creating economic democracy. This is the way that we can take back the power from the corporations, and from the politicians that are paid and bought by these same corporations.
Secondly, and this is part of economic democracy also, this idea that we need to create a vibrant local economy. We cannot have economic democracy if we don’t have a vibrant local economy. And that means that we need to emphasize the importance of a decentralized economy. That people in the local areas take back economics into their own hand and develop the infrastructure from the bottom up, on the local level. That means producing food locally. That means having industries in rural areas, and so on.
So for example, in the Southern Appalachia area where I live, there is a lot of poverty. Still, this area has tremendous potential. There is labor potential. There is vast amounts of land available, and so on. But it is largely unutilized. If this area had been anywhere in Europe, it would’ve been a flourishing agricultural area. So, there’s tremendous potential in America. But so much is wasted on this belief that if I work hard enough, I will become as rich as whoever. This myth of individualism is so ingrained in people. I think that this is something that is very difficult for many Americans to grasp and to speak to.
So, maybe that’s the third point, to emphasize the need for a more communitarian culture in America, for values that are community-oriented, rather than individualist. This rugged individualist, this myth is so strong in America, and it needs to change. This is perhaps the biggest challenge in America, to change that myth of the rugged individualist, because it is part of the culture. And I think that is perhaps why in Scandinavia people are more community oriented. For example, in Denmark, if you would ask someone if we should have a single-payer healthcare system, they wouldn’t think it’s even a question. They would just take it for granted that this is how it should be. That everybody should have healthcare, and everybody should have free education, and so on.
This is perhaps the biggest challenge in America, to change that myth of the rugged individualist, because it is part of the culture.
These issues are fundamental, all the basic needs, such as housing, education, medical care, etc., should be guaranteed for everybody. Not through welfare handouts, but through guaranteed employment and collective shared wealth. So perhaps those are the three main issues: economic democracy, the importance of a decentralized economy, and changing the American cultural mythos from individualism to a more communitarian spirit.
Catlin: Perfect, and that last point you addressed connects to the last question that came in that we didn’t get to. I’m not going to ask you to go into fully, but it was about the role of government.
Bjonnes: Okay. Yes the role of the government is very important. Again. this is another problem in America, that there is so much suspicion about the role of government. As someone said in the Michael Moore movie, Capitalism: A Love Story, “In Europe, the government is afraid of the people. In America, the people are afraid of the government.” So, I think it is very important to understand that the government has a very good and important function.
And again, we are not just talking about the federal government in Washington. But rather on the state and local level, as well, even down to the city level. So again, government needs decentralized politics as well. So, the government’s role is to set policies, good policies for the country. Good policies regarding the environment, regarding economics, regarding healthcare, and so on and so forth. So that is the role of government. And at the same time, it is important that the government sets rules for the economy, but also stays out of the economy, out of meddling with things on the local economic level, so that there is a clear separation there.
Sarkar also thinks it is better to have a party-less democracy than a party democracy. He thinks that it would be better if politicians were not affiliated with parties, but rather affiliated with policies. In other words, that they stand for policies, and not necessarily any certain political party. And this is something that many, such as Václav Havel in the Czech Republic, also talked about. But that’s for the future, a party-less democracy.
But yes, the role of government is very, very important. If we look at the Scandinavian model, we see a very different attitude towards the government, because people there feel that the government is doing good things for them. And even the right-wing party, the party that is equal to the Republican Party in the United States would never think of ever saying that we should take away universal healthcare from the people; that people should just fend for themselves, and find the best healthcare deal on the market. So, with a change in consciousness, we will also see a change in understanding the proper relationship between government and economics and good policy. And by giving people the freedom to implement good economic policies on the local level, then I think that there will be a shift towards the possibility of good government.
George Caitlin is the former president of Economic Democracy Advocates.
Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel