The Next Economy: Understanding the Problem, Envisioning Solutions IV

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  • Roar Bjonnes is the co-founder of Systems Change Alliance, a long-time environmental activist and a writer on ecology and alternative economics, which he terms eco-economics.

George Catlin interviews Roar Bjonnes, coauthor of Growing a New Economy

A Four-Part Interview Series on the Next Economy

Part Four

Catlin: And that leads me to the next question I’d like to ask. 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?

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, which 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?

Photo by Martin Adams

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Photo by Chris Slupski

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 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.

Catlin: Thank you. Anita, I want to just keep going, with what you’re seeing on your screen there.

Anita: Sure, 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?

…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.

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?”

Photo by Viacheslav Bublyk

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.

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?

…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.

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 rather 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.

…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.

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.

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.

Photo by Marco Oriolesi

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.

…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.

Catlin: Here is a question from one of the participants: I’ve heard a lot of people that share what’s happening with capitalism in terms of what you’ve talked about in your book. There are a lot of people who want to do something. So, I really have two questions. One, how do we reach all these people, and secondly, what can we have them do? They all want to do something, but they don’t know what to do to bring about this change, and I don’t either. We talk about it, but what do we do? What do we tell this mass of people that are getting onboard slowly, how can they be involved and how can they make a difference?

Bjonnes: These are important questions and also very big questions. I ask myself the same question. What can I do?  I’ve written two books about alternatives to capitalism, and I’m trying to reach people that way. So, each person, each individual will have to ask themselves, “What can I do? How can I reach people?” For example, if you are a writer, you can write letters to the editor of the newspaper. If you are more of a hands-on person that likes to do activities, you could do activities — let’s say, for example, if you are into growing things, you can maybe form a farm community or do something in a local community around that. So, I think the first question to ask is what can I do and how can I contribute? Now, on the larger level, I think that what you are doing in EDA is important. You’re into education and advocacy, so every organization starts with something, has a goal, has a certain set of values that they want to follow and so on. So, education and study are very important. I think that’s the first step. And then find some way of being an advocate, and you’ve already started that by forming a website. You’re studying. You’ve been studying my book. And then the next step will be to create some kind of advocacy or some kind of movement.

If there are certain issues that are pressing in your local area, then take up that issue and form a committee and a movement around that. That is one way to go. And then the next phase would be to involve politicians, local politicians, to see if policies can be changed and so on. So I think a step by step way of doing things is important and to accept that failures will be made, mistakes will be made, and at the same time, accept that small incremental changes may be as important as the big changes, because the big change is going to come from the small incremental changes. And lastly, what is really important, I think, is that we walk our talk as much as we can. So, if we are into local food, organic food and we are able to grow something — like for example here where I live, we have some land, so we grow a lot of our own vegetables. Those are small activities that we can do, but we can also be advocates and be writers and be spokespeople for the bigger vision and the bigger activities as well, so acknowledging the importance of making small changes that can lead to bigger changes and work with that in as many ways and as creatively as possible.

Photo by Jonathan Hanna

Catlin: I’d like to step in here, Roar, and point to a few of the specific things that are advocated in your book and through PROUT that, when I really think about it, create partially an answer to the previous question.  I’m just going to name two of them now and allow you to comment on them if you want. One is that it seems to me one of the main suggestions in the book is to try to get cooperatives to be the most common business structure, worker-owned cooperatives. It’s amazing to me actually how many of them there are now in the United States. Someone recently sent me an article about two women who are so sold on the idea of cooperatives that they’ve left very good corporate jobs to just push the development of cooperatives. That’s something that we can be looking for ways to implement in our own lives, and we can certainly be thinking about what are the kind of legislative changes that would be necessary to make it more possible for cooperatives to thrive. The other one that really jumps out from your book  is this idea of full employment. I think that that is really an achievable, important ideal: full employment for everyone at a living wage.

Bjonnes: Right, yeah, exactly. As I mentioned earlier, if we want to change capitalism, if we want to change the economy, we need to restructure the economy. And so as we mentioned in the book, Sarkar suggest a restructuring of the economy into a three-tier structure, which is in many ways the best of capitalism and the best of socialism. So, there is the state, the government from the national to the local level, that controls certain key industries such as electricity, water, infrastructure, and so on, to make sure that these vitally important features of the economy are available for everyone. And then the largest part of the economy will be, as you said, cooperatives. In other words, the corporations will be turning into cooperatives and then capitalist private enterprises can thrive on a small scale, so that’s the three-tiered structure of the economy. And part of that, as you also mentioned, is guaranteed employment at a living wage. That is very, very important. For example, here in Asheville, North Carolina where I live, we have in the city a living wage campaign, so for example, there is an Asian restaurant that doesn’t accept tips because they’re paying their workers a living wage.

And so, you can go there and eat at a reasonable rate, but you also know that the workers there are paid well. So many initiatives like that are taking place throughout the country, so yes, I would agree with that. Also, cooperatives, there are quite a few cooperatives in this area as well. And as a matter of fact, on the land that I live — I live in a small eco village, and we are now working on starting a farm cooperative. Prama, where I work, is itself a kind of a cooperative, so yeah, I think that those two issues are very, very important. Developing a cooperative spirit in business is very, very important. And then there’s the second issue of a living wage, because everybody should have the right to earn enough money, have the purchasing power, to have the basic necessities. That is also a foundational issue, which will reduce inequality and poverty.

Catlin: It’s such a different view. I’m really glad you began this whole interview by talking about the additional piece that you bring to contrast the capitalist view, capitalism being just focused on profit and that Sarkar and your book is saying, that no, there’s this other motive, which is the sharing motive—that making-it-work-for everyone motive. It could be called the cooperative sphere of society. That’s why we’d want a living wage, because we care about everyone having a chance.

Bjonnes: Exactly.

Catlin: I keep thinking about whether there’s some phrase which the liberals could latch onto, which we could use as our catchphrase, sort of the equivalent of the flag-waving part that’s used by the right wing. It occurred to me that there’s  a thing called The Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag, which you may not be familiar with, but all of us probably had to say it with our hands over our hearts as school children, and it ends with an amazing line. It ends with the line “with liberty and justice for all,” and I’ve recently thought that’s actually what we’re all about. We’re about liberty and justice for all. We want real freedom, the kind of freedom which you can only have if you have enough money to support yourself. And we want justice for all, real justice, not just a kind of punitive and legalistic justice, but the sort of justice where everyone’s getting a fair deal. So, I see that language is right there within our system, and maybe we just need to bring it to the fore and make it actually happen somewhere.

Bjonnes: Yes, exactly. I think that it’s very important to point towards those issues in the American society and the American mythology that represents these values. I think that is very, very important and the best way to bring people together. Yeah, that’s a wonderful point.

Catlin: Let me ask you another big question, which has to do with strategies going forward. You’ve advocated these incremental changes in the last half hour here, and there’s also a thought that I think also exists in the minds of many people, which is that there is some big crisis coming and that it’s during a post-crisis when people are really going to be open to systemic change. Do you have any comment on that?

We must advocate for these same issues and these same values, but even more importantly, we must try to walk our talk, engage ourselves in starting cooperatives or working cooperatively.

Bjonnes: Right. Yeah. I think that it is very likely that we’ll have some kind of a crash, because of the way that capitalism is structured and is inherently dysfunctional. And often when we are in a dysfunctional state, we need some kind of a crash in order to get out of it, and so I think that that is very relevant to the economy as well. However, if we’re just sitting around hoping that the crash will come and then everything will be hunky-dory after the crash; that is a false way of looking at it.

That’s why I think it is so important that we study, that we educate ourselves about the issues, and most importantly, that we become active. We must advocate for these same issues and these same values, but even more importantly, we must try to walk our talk, engage ourselves in starting cooperatives or working cooperatively. For example, in your own organization, looking at those issues, are you working cooperatively, how much do you value the values that we talk about and how much do you actualize them in your work, and so on. So, I think both are important and that’s why I think that examples are important. Let me give one example. Last year when I was in Denmark at a convention, we had invited some people from the global permaculture organization. As you know, they work with land use and how to bring a small-scale farmers together in developing permaculture farms. In other words, creating or recreating a farm the way it used to be, when you had chicken and pigs and cows and corn and vegetables all growing together, and also utilizing the forest for harvesting and so on. So the people active in permaculture are very good at doing that, but when we came together, we both realized that we are not so good at developing permaculture farms or permaculture villages, but we’re really good at seeing the big picture. We had some very interesting meetings and interactions, so I think that it is important that we see the big picture; that we study the issues; that we do the research, but at the same time, that we also engage with people that are active on the ground. So both strategies are important, because then we are creating examples of thriving economies, cooperative economies, and hopefully also enable people to earn a living wage through these economies, so that when there is a crash, we already have good examples of the future economy.

…it is important that we see the big picture; that we study the issues; that we do the research, but at the same time, that we also engage with people that are active on the ground.

Another way of explaining this is in an evolutionary sense, and going back to what we talked about earlier, I believe that what we are seeing is the evolution towards a more cooperative economy. This is something that is in our genes, and it is an inevitable result of the global breakdown that we’re facing. It is going to be the way that we will save ourselves, so the growth of cooperatives is already happening. All the systems that Sarkar talks about — and that’s why I believe that more than Marx, who was very good at pointing out the defects of capitalism, that the strength of Sarkar and others like Schumacher, Polanyi, and so on is that they pointed towards an alternative vision. And when we look at it, when we take it apart, for example, the three-tiered economy, it already exists. It is not something that Sarkar invented in the attic when he had a bright day, but rather he’s putting the pieces of the puzzle together, the pieces of the puzzle that are already existing as an outgrowth of human evolution. So, when I see that, when I contemplate those issues, it gives me tremendous hope and tremendous inspiration to move along, because I know even if it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, it is bound to happen at some point because this is the way that we need to move in terms of human evolution.

Catlyn: Perfect. Here’s another question from Betsy. In Norway, for instance, is the agriculture more like local family farms or more like American agribusiness? Let’s start there. From the agricultural standpoint, is that an example of what we could point to?

Bjonnes: Okay, good question. Yes, I think that compared to the United States, Norway has done a much better job of taking care of its farmers because Norway is a mountainous country. It’s interesting because now that we are developing this farm here on our land, we ended up buying some equipment that have been used on small farms in Norway for the last 50 years probably. These are small, two-wheel tractors that are very good at working at steep hills because it’s very dangerous to drive a regular tractor on steep hills. So, it just dawned on me that one of the reasons why Appalachia is poor is because they don’t have that kind of equipment here. They’re not used to using these kinds of tractors. But if they did, you can actually grow a lot of different things here. The climate is relatively warm, much warmer than the Norwegian climate. So yes, I would say that Norway has done a much better job than the US in terms of taking care of its small farms, but because it is a capitalist economy, it’s not good enough and that’s very frustrating because when I studied the economy in the mid-’70s in Norway, I could already then see the change for the worse, and I wrote some articles in some of the national newspapers at that time about this.

Photo by Danielle MacInnes

I was seeing the writing on the wall of what was coming to happen, coming to be. So yes, Norway has also had those changes, but not to the same extent as the US has. Another example of an alternative economy and probably the best in terms of a cooperative economy is the Mondragon economy in the Basque region of Spain where you have 80,000 people engaged in several hundred cooperatives, and I think that is probably the best example of a functioning, very effective and very successful cooperative economy. As I understand, nobody has been laid off since the 1950s. What they do is, they retrain people and they basically bring the worker from one co-op into another co-op whenever there is a problem with labor, so these are some examples. In Denmark, you have a strong cooperative housing movement where people live together cooperatively. For example, they may share a meal once a week, the rents are lower, they may have a kindergarten in their housing complex and so on and so forth, so that’s a very strong movement in Denmark. These are some examples of where we need to move on an international scale to build a more cooperative and sustainable economy.

Catlin: Here is a question form Greg. One of my big fears is when we get some form of collapse, or a vacuum, that this country has a tendency for violence. Is there a formula for a better transition phase from capitalism to where we want to go – making the transition the least violent? I know we need to educate ourselves in terms of what we need, and for people to understand the education systems, but there’s also the psychological aspect of how we’re going to behave in the middle of a transition when people don’t get their needs met. I haven’t really read much on this. Do you have any kind of opinion on the best way to keep violence to a minimum?

Bjonnes: Well, that’s an issue that I’ve thought a lot about, but I’m not sure I have a very good answer. I think that the United States is in a very unique situation, that here is this potential for violence. In the rural areas here where I live, everybody has a gun and there is a tremendous fear of the government, and many of the people that are my neighbors, they say they have guns because they’re afraid of the government. Of course, in a situation where there is a collapse of the economy, where the infrastructure falls apart and so on, there will unfortunately be a tendency towards violence to safeguarding one’s own resources, and then other people who don’t have them will want to steal and so on. A kind of civil war might develop.

I think again, we need more education. Sarkar said that the more intellectual a country is, the more aware and the more educated we are, the less violence there will be in a crisis situation, when there is a collapse.

That is very possible in the United States, unfortunately because of the history of the country and also because of this love affair with guns, and so on, and also due to the lack of infrastructure. I think that something like that would be less likely in Canada or in Scandinavia where there is a better collective economy, and a sense that the government is not such an evil empire and so on. How to avoid that? I think again, we need more education. Sarkar said that the more intellectual a country is, the more aware and the more educated we are, the less violence there will be in a crisis situation, when there is a collapse. So again, I think that what you guys are doing, raising people’s awareness, educating people, doing advocacy is a part of that solution. I think it is important to educate people and to do outreach in the community. For example, here where we are, we are kind of strange people, yogis, meditators who moved into the mountains, and so we do as much outreach as we can, mixing with the local population, going to concerts and activities, farmers markets and so on, so that we can make friends with the local people here. That kind of outreach is very, very important.

Catlin: Now, John has a quick question. It’s kind of the central issue of capitalism. How do you bring capital into a co-op? For example, I want to build an inn and it’s going to cost $1 million. Now, how do I bring capital in and still create a co-op?

Bjonnes: Capital is important. There needs to be a banking system. We can also have a cooperative bank. For example, in the Mondragon system, they have a cooperative banking system. So yes, we need banks, we need capital in order to create businesses. Cooperatives also needs capital. So in that sense, it is not that different from a simple capitalist system in which you’d borrow money from the bank to develop your business, so that will also be part of a cooperative economy. You borrow the money, but the percentages can be lowered because the need for profit is less, so there may be better terms for the loans and so on. Also, the profit again will not be used for speculation as in the capitalist economy, but in many ways, the system of loans to raise capital for a business would not be that different.

Catlin: But most banks require some equity, so if I did a project for $1 million, it would require $300,000 of equity, which I have to get from some investor. How does that investor get pulled in in a cooperative venture?

Bjonnes: Well, the investor will have to see if this is a viable business? Is this cooperative going to turn a profit? Because an investor will not invest in something that is not going to be profitable and successful, so again, you have the basic — the same rules will apply for an investor as well.

Catlin: I think the problem, Roar, here is one that really has to do with the nature of the hotel industry, which is that what we hope for are worker-owned cooperatives obviously, and most of the people who work in hotels are people who are changing beds and aren’t going to have any money to actually invest in terms of becoming owners of the hotel itself. I actually have heard of some businesses that allow their workers to gradually, gradually earn shares in the business, which seems like a good model to me. Is that something Sarkar addressed at all?

Bjonnes: That’s another model where, as you say, the workers in the business, as they stay in the business let’s say after five years, they can have a certain share in the business. Yeah, that’s one model, but if you’re starting a business from scratch, the money will have to come from somewhere. John was creating one specific scenario, but another scenario could be that ten people have $10,000 each and they put that into a pot and they start a cooperative with $100,000 as capital, so that’s another way of doing it where the workers bring in the capital, so that can be the starting capital. And then because the business plan makes sense, then they could loan the rest from a bank, for example, so there are many ways that this could happen.

It is probably the model most of us hold and pretty unconsciously take for granted: Someone who has all the money is going to own this thing and then there are a bunch of other people who are actually going to do the work to make it happen… There’s nothing fair or just about it.

Catlin: Right. It’s such a great example, John, and thank you for raising it because it so points to the inherent psychology of American business because I am willing to bet there’s not a single hotel owner of a hotel of any size who actually works in their hotel in any practical, normal way, certainly not changing the beds and probably not even staffing the front desk. It is probably the model most of us hold and pretty unconsciously take for granted: Someone who has all the money is going to own this thing and then there are a bunch of other people who are actually going to do the work to make it happen. And we see those as two completely different sets of people with two completely different roles in life. That’s just what capitalism has given us. There’s nothing fair or just about it.

Bjonnes: Right.

Catlin: And that leads to a question I’d really like to get you to address regarding the very first principle of the PROUT economy that Sarkar advocates, which is this idea of putting limits on individual wealth, or at least the idea that no one would be allowed to accumulate a lot of wealth without the consent of the collective. Can you address that a little bit? Why is that the first principle, and could or would that ever happen?

Bjonnes: Well, I think it’s already happening in different ways. Earlier, we talked about taxes. Taxation is one way of limiting wealth. And so a progressive tax system, which we had in the United States in the ’50s, ’60s and then it started to go away in the late ’70s, when Friedman became the main economist or inspiration for modern, American neo-liberal capitalism. Then Reagan introduced the trickle-down philosophy, reducing taxes for the rich. But progressive taxation is not a foreign concept, even to capitalism. The idea behind it is that when the purchasing capacity of the middle class is strong, then you have a more balanced and a more thriving economy. This we have seen. This we know is what is happening when we tax the rich. So, one of the reasons why we have a weak and unstable economy now is because the purchasing capacity of the middle class is falling, and that’s why we have all these speculation bubbles.

Photo by Clark Young

It forces everybody wants to get in on the race at the stockmarket, and then we have a crash, and then we never learn and then we start over again. But to limit wealth creation, and thus to minimize speculation, I don’t think is a foreign concept. For example, if we look at the example I made earlier, that the average fast food worker makes about $19,000 a year while the average fast food CEO makes $23 million a year in salary, that’s about 1200 times difference in income. Let’s say we don’t create a complete economic revolution, but we make a moderate change and reduce that difference in income to 500 times. I’m just using that as an example. But if we compare Norway to the United States, for example, I’m not sure of the exact numbers, but as far as I remember, the difference between the average middle class person in Norway and the top CEO in Norway is not more than 15-20 times. It’s much, much less than in the United States.

The average CEO in Norway makes maybe a couple of million dollars and then the worker in that business may make $70,000 to $80,000 or whatever it is. I’m not sure about the math. In other words, who decided that? Well, the Norwegian society decided that, the collective decided that. And similarly, Sarkar is saying that that’s a fundamental principle that needs to be part of the economy.

We need to talk openly about what the richest person should have and what the poorest person should have. That needs to be on the table because both are eating from the same table. We’re all sitting around the same table. We are a society. We are not a group of individuals trying to compete with each other. And because there are limited resources on this planet, in every society, there’s a limited amount of land, there’s a limited amount of water and so on, that’s why we need to share it all. That is, I think, one of the genius aspects of the PROUT economic system, to acknowledge the scarcity of resources and the fact that we need to share them all. That we need to have a discussion about how to share the pie.

We need to talk openly about what the richest person should have and what the poorest person should have. That needs to be on the table because both are eating from the same table. We’re all sitting around the same table.

Catlin: Right. It makes good sense. When I try to think about why is it that in the United States we’ve allowed our CEOs to get paid $20 million to $30 million and then in Norway, they’re around $2 million, I think it gets back to the American notion of freedom. I believe this country has a very specific notion of freedom, which is “I’m free to do anything I want and no one is going to interfere with me.” It comes from the frontier mentality. I actually have a friend who is a fellow therapist here in California who wants to move to New Hampshire, and I asked him, “Why New Hampshire?” It comes down to the fact that he basically likes their license plates, which says, “Live free or die!” And New Hampshire backs that up a little bit with their taxation system. But my point is that Americans, at a deep, deep level, really want to be left alone to do whatever they want whereas Europeans seem to be more willing to regulate their sense of freedom to incorporate the common good. Do you have any insight into what to do about that? How are we going to get Americans to be more willing to embrace a different notion of freedom?

Bjonnes: Yeah, you nailed it. Well, the historical difference is that Europe had a long-term socialist evolution. The workers were fighting for their rights in Europe at a much higher rate than in the United States, so socialism has been balancing capitalism to a much larger extent in Europe than in America, and that is the main difference historically. For this to change in the United States, we need to have a similar evolution, or maybe even a revolution, for that to change. And that’s why again, talking about these issues, educating and advocating for these issues is so important. The United States needs to have a similar evolutionary development.

And in that sense, Lakoff is right on. That is something that the conservatives need to be educated about, need to learn. But that is, as we know, not so easy. But when we think about the fact that Bernie Sanders became so popular, and other candidates are now coming onboard with similar values, then there is hope. Bernie Sanders talked about Scandinavia as being the model that he was aspiring to, so I see changes happening in the United States. Most of the people living here in the mountains where I am, they’re mostly democrats. And so, I don’t see that it is impossible to change them.

I think that part of the problem in America is the value system, the Christian values and the lack of the Democrats to speak to those values and support those values, and at the same time, speaking about an economic value system that is really to the benefit of the people. Many Christians have turned their backs on Democrats simply because they’re not seeing any cultural value in their programs. They feel the Democrats don’t really support them anymore. That they don’t stand for their needs.

Also there is the perception that Democrats and liberals don’t believe in God, and so I think that that’s been a huge problem in the United States. We need a party or a group of politicians that can really stand up for the middle class and the poor and to speak their needs and to support their needs. That has been missing in the United States, but it existed in Europe for a long, long time. It is fading and that’s why we see the backlash with Brexit, or extreme nationalism and the return to conservative, even neo-fascist, anti-immigrant values and so on. That is a backlash, and it’s an unfortunate backlash and the reason is because of neoliberalism in the EU taking over the economy and the value system.

Catlin: It’s a pivotal moment. It seems so clear to everyone now that the world is imbalanced. Obviously, we need to do everything we can to shift the balance in the direction of a system that works for everybody. That’s my final thought. It looks like we’re close to a wrap-up point. Do you have anything you want to say, Roar? Is there any last point you’d like to make about your book or about EDA or anything else that’s on your mind?

…intellectuals and activists, positive warriors and active workers need to come together and create a better, healthier and a more balanced society, and I see it happening inspite of all the negative things going on. I see great hope.

Bjonnes: Well, I’m very thankful that you invited me into this conversation. I really enjoyed it and I feel very honored to be part of your work. I wanted to mention that and at the same time, I want to emphasize that I’m very hopeful, very inspired by the fact that thinkers like Sarkar has presented ideas like the PROUt economy, for example, which I think represent the basic outlines of the next economy. I’m inspired by all the activists throughout the world that are standing up for change. They may never have heard of a system like PROUT, which I think is going to rise up from the ashes, so to speak, because it makes sense, and because I think it is the direction that humanity is moving in.

But those people that are working on the ground, these activists are truly inspirational and an important part of the change that we need to see. And so, intellectuals and activists, positive warriors and active workers need to come together and create a better, healthier and a more balanced society, and I see it happening inspite of all the negative things going on. I see great hope. And as I mentioned just a few minutes ago with the Bernie Sanders movement, I see great hope for America as well. In many ways, my heart is more Norwegian than American, but I am in many ways inspired by America. I’m inspired by people like you guys. I’m inspired by all the alternative people here in Asheville that are into organic farming and community living and so on and so forth. There’s a lot of positive energy in America, and so I have great hopes for the future. I think that the good will overcome the bad, and I think we will do well in the end.

Catlin: Thank you so much for that, Roar, and thank you for writing the book. It’s become kind of our textbook for EDA. As you may know, we’re actually going to run a second book study on it for people who want to do it again and there’s a fair number of people in that category. We’re hoping to attract a whole new group to join with them, so the second time through, we’ll get into it a little bit deeper.

Bjonnes: That’s great.

Catlin: Yeah, it really is great, and it really has helped us as an organization tremendously, I think. So, thank you again for this evening and for writing the book.

Bjonnes: Thank you so much. That’s really nice to hear.

George Caitlin is the former president of Economic Democracy Advocates.

Read Parts III and III of the interview

Top Photo by AbsolutVision

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  • Roar Bjonnes is the co-founder of Systems Change Alliance, a long-time environmental activist and a writer on ecology and alternative economics, which he terms eco-economics.

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