Let’s quit the race to the bottom

I’m sitting almost on top of the woodburner. It’s not cold today – though the week began in Narnia. I’m just enjoying the flames that used to be like the baby in my life – tended dawn till dusk, laboured for, loved, and with me 24/7.

 

This morning, Saturday, I walked into town for supplies: forty minutes each way entirely in mature woodland which disgorges mossily green into the town in what the French call a chaos: a dramatically boulderous little white river.

Rushing stream portrait      Murph on snowy boar pool bridge 1

Last night I talked for hours with a dedicated and inspired primitive living craftsman friend back in England. As usual the conversation ranged from our respective love stories and wishes, through weaving and making, low impact livelihood, sustainable economics and how communities organise themselves. Except that most of those are one and the same.

He’s living in – horror of horrors – a successful intentional community. The horror is all mine: he has been a periodic part of that community for some time, and is very happy there. He described the power that is distributed since ownership is shared in both financial and real terms; the rota of work that is full of choice and leaves more days’ free time than not; the minimal financial contributions made by each member; the separate dwellings with an unmarked curtilage of privacy field; the land that is full of ‘resources’ for all, and devoid of fences; the horse- and man-powered machines that minimise fossil fuel use; the separate projects that provide for the whole group; and the businesses that offer a little employment. In all, a smooth-running micro-economy – an open system linking into but softening the blows of the larger vampire economy that most of us feed with more sweat, blood and tears than we can afford.

And all of that makes so much sense that my horror of communal living is slightly reduced.

I’m temporarily in a borrowed cottage in Brittany, partly for the woodburner, but largely for the conservatory, which offers me a bigger working space in which to try out some new kit – a tiny upscale. I bartered a treadle with an Ashford dealer who (compliment of compliments) is also a weaver. My loom sits atop the treadle, which has pedals so that my hands don’t have to operate levers to change the shed, but are free to just handle the shuttle more quickly. The point is to see whether increased productivity increases sales, since sales are usually stimulated by new listings I post in my online shop. I have indeed been a little more productive so far, but financially have had the worst January – which is usually the best month of my year – out of four Januaries since I began trading. Shit.

Is it Brexit? Is it Trump? Is it neoliberalism tightening its grip of austerity? Is it me?

In creep those doubts that always hover: can I survive? Am I making the right product? What do my community want and need? More to the point, what can they afford, with the yokes of debt around their necks? Do I have to compromise by buying cheaper imported wool of unknown provenance and many air miles? Can my prices really get much lower anyway? Do I have to stretch myself and my combustion engine thin by running around after products placed in galleries on a high-hassle sale-or-return basis? Do I have to stress myself out in high-pressure teaching for a wage that is half of that I used to anxiously labour for as the lowliest band of teachers in Higher Education? Do I have to get into more debt to invest a chunk in something that might propel the business – upwards (financially)? Downwards (socio-environmentally)? Must I make more and more beautiful things that only the very richest can afford?

It might just be a blip – these worries are all pretty normal in the early years of business, and especially in the arts, and especially in a conscientious arts business – and especially in a conscientious arts business in a growth economy. Making labour-intensive goods out of ethically sourced materials that were also labour-intensive to produce in the avoidance of socially and environmentally unfriendly shortcuts results in a very expensive product. And in current global economics, these ‘luxury’ or ‘novelty’ goods are only really affordable to a richer community than one’s own. In growth model economics, my peers simply cannot afford my labour costs. And this is a problem.

Environmental and ethical shortcutting for costsaving is the race to the bottom that I am giving my life to resist. But here’s the locking mechanism of growth model economics that makes it so damn hard for any of us to resist its downwards spiral:

The almost-universal, debt-based system of money creation by corporates is described in the Bank of England’s 2014 Quarterly Bulletin. (I explained it in layman’s terms in a previous blog entry.) Regardless of whether the individual or single company is literally in debt, debt money accounts for over 97% of all money in existence. Yes, 97% of all money is debt, which means that 97% of all transactions must cover not just production costs (labour and embodied labour) but additionally, an interest component: all individuals and companies (and even most governments, though they could technically take money creation away from corporate interests and into their own hands) have also to spend extra money to service the borrowed money, i.e. to pay interest on loans.  To cover interest payments, prices will be necessarily higher than wages (in aggregate), with the result that not all goods and services produced can be afforded, because the wages (which pay the producer to consume) won’t stretch to it. This is thus a problem of built-in scarcity and compensatory infinite growth (which is in vain, even in purely financial terms, never mind the destructive social and environmental impacts).

Here’s how it plays out in practice for makers/producers:

In order for our own goods or services not to be the ones left on the shelf, we must engage in a constant battle of noveltising, undercutting, shortcutting and bargaining; we are more or less compelled to compete in ever more vicious ways. If we want or need ordinary folk in our own economies to afford our wares, we have to get things made or done more cheaply, which generally means outsourcing labour to places where working conditions, rights, pay and environmental practices are worse – which means that our local ordinary folk are further deprived of work, which means that they cannot afford our wares, which means that we have to get things made or done yet more cheaply… and so on.

This race to the bottom is a vortex: with all its spinoffs of more and more ridiculous novelty items and worsening production practices, our current monetary system is like an autopilot driving capitalism to its extreme and wrecking life and the planet.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Over in the Green Cloth Collective, where we believe in making things closer to home for greater sustainability, we are discussing alternative economics. As a group we’re still grappling with understanding the problems, and then articulating them, before we can really envisage solutions. But as far as I can see, part of the solution is likely to involve breaking our dependency on money and developing networks and communities in which collaborative credit and other barter-related schemes can grow.

Wouldn’t it be different if you all could afford my labour, and I yours. As attributed to philosopher Alan Watts, saying that trade is difficult because there’s not enough money is like saying that building is difficult because there aren’t enough inches. We all have needs and wants and we can all produce goods and services, even when the money has all been hoovered up. So how can we all get on with our business a long way away from the corporate moneymaker machine hellbent on its race to the bottom?

–:–

 

 

 

The impressive folk at lowimpact.org are addressing these issues too (along with alternative economists around the world). And, honouringly, they have asked me and the Collective to be their advisers on low impact clothing production. My shop is now in their directory too, and proudly sports their logo.

Wave small w lowimpact logo

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7 thoughts on “Let’s quit the race to the bottom

  1. J > What you make has beauty profoundly woven into it : indeed it is of the nature of beauty. The problem is most definitely not what you make, or at least the essential qualities of what you make. D and I have been running a clutch of micro-businesses, mostly growing and making (though nothing we do looks as beautiful as your weavings). The variations of ‘turnover’ from season to season, year to year, can be extreme : that’s a fact of life of very small businesses. True, a bear in one activity may coincide with a bull in another ; but sometimes … Sometimes, it’s all gloom. 2013 was our best year ever. 2015 possibly our worst. 2018 is looking to be better than 2013. Why? The smaller the business, and the less diverse, the more susceptibility to the randomness of reall life, in which statistical averages and planning count for nothing. So, put this January down to a blip. But don’t be complacent. Tastes change. Practicalities change. Sentiment and confidence are fickle. The people you need to talk to aren’t the lovely people who buy what you make, but those who don’t – especially those who say how lovely they are, but don’t buy. Like me. I LOVE the colours, the craftsmanship, and for that matter the courage of the maker. But with almost everything tied up in the buildings and equipment and materials needed to pursue our own micro-businesses, D and I live on little cash (at least, for us personally!) ; and, in particular, we can only afford to buy clothing which is practical. We’ll spend more on good quality – if it lasts. And, for some things (just what, well that’s not really clear), I’d spend more on something that is not only practical, but profoundly beautiful. Though not online. For something like that, in addition to the obvious desirability of seeing up close the quality of the work, the chance to try clothing on, the connection with the craftsman is as much a part of the purchase as the item itself. I guess that others must think similarly. Surely they do! In short, you need to be selling in person, wherever possible, and by changing location regularly, always finding new potential customers. Which means … ?

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    • Thank you Jonathan, as ever. And if you ever did want to buy a scarf or something (or some weaving credit so that I wove your wool into something for you – unless of course you are also weavers), then I’d be very open to bartering wool or possibly other produce of yours, geography permitting! Eloïse

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  2. Hi Eloise – love your writing style.

    Steve Keen says (https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevekeen/2015/03/30/the-principal-and-interest-on-debt-myth-2/#147cd2231c76) that interest doesn’t mean that the money supply has to grow indefinitely to repay it. He shows, mathematically, that banks can re-spend the interest received, so that the public can earn it and repay their mortage interest (etc.) without runaway inflation.

    Then I met Arthur Brock a couple of weeks ago, who said that Steve Keen is wrong. Now I wouldn’t argue with Steve Keen, but I wouldn’t argue with Arthur Brock either. He’s the brains behind the holochain project – that has the potential to really distribute and decentralise everything – ie. power, but crucially, money issuing power. Brock wants to use the holochain to make possible a global credit commons, and Matthew Slater, who’s behind the credit commons idea, is completely on board. Holo is similar to crypto / blockchain, but can’t be speculated with, doesn’t concentrate and doesn’t require huge amounts of energy to mine. I’m not telling you this to educate you about the tech, because I can’t – just to bring it to your attention, to get it onto your radar.

    I’m convinced that mutual credit is the answer – to remove the need for interest (OK, I think Keen is wrong, because interest makes a 200k house cost 400k – and they want the interest first, before the principal – and then the owner needs to work twice as much to pay for the house, which means twice the throughput, which means twice the damage to the biosphere); to take power from the banks; to prevent accumulation, speculation and concentration of wealth and power etc. And I’m equally convinced that people like you are pivotal in all this. Mutual credit will remove the sterling / dollar price tags, and give people more to spend, so that the work that goes into your cloth can be both appreciated and afforded – and likewise you’ll spend your earned credits on equally ‘expensive’ food from organic smallholdings, hand-thrown pottery, natural soaps, local beers etc. Price won’t come into it – quality and solidarity will.

    We’re (hopefully) going to be running a series of webinars on how to implement a global credit commons – it would be great if you could join in.

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    • Thanks very much Dave, that’s all great (apart from the bit about inflation as I don’t understand how that intersects with my argument – a gap in my knowledge, for sure). I’m very interested in the global credit commons idea, which sounds quite transformative. I’ll keep an eye out for your webinar alerts, but any specific links that can be posted by you or Sophie in the Green Cloth Collective would be just great. I didn’t know about holochain, so thanks for the heads up on that too. Speak soon. Eloïse

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  3. A cashless society still has to have a value for the Credit. Is this not just a name change game? How would one know how many handspun, naturally dyed, handwoven woollen scarves one would barter/exchange for a cow for example?

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    • Personally a cashless society is not my ideal, because currency is indeed a very useful tool. However these cashless systems are priceless (I’m not sure whether that pun is intended or not!) alternatives to a debt-based monetary system that concentrates wealth in the hands of a very few. However, a multi-pronged approach to the problem would involve a friendly, strong and enlightened government resisting such corporate moneymaker interests and taking money creation into their own hands. Lincoln did this with Greenbacks to great effect; JFK was apparently considering it; and I’ve heard that Hong Kong and possibly some of the countries we imperialist countries consider a threat to our security and go to war against also have sovereign money systems. More about the sovereign money proposal at http://www.positivemoney.org Meantime, rather than waiting around for our politicians – who are dealing with crises left, right and centre, and/or whose fingers are in big corporate pies that stand to lose out, and/or whose hands are tied by said corporate powers/sponsors etc. – let’s take credit back into our own hands. Collaborative/common credit schemes seem like very positive ways of doing this.

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  4. We build local trading blocs, around community-supported agriculture, community energy, worker and housing co-ops etc. – but also artisan sole traders, who commit to trade with each other. The kind of businesses here – https://www.noncorporate.org/ (soon to be launched). Plus we talk with the Phone Coop, Coop Energy, Suma Wholefoods etc, and see if they will offer some of their services via mutual credit (and maybe pay some wages). Just a tiny percentage to start with, to test the water.
    Nothing is bartered directly – if you sell, you get credit in an account. If you buy, you go into debit. See here for an introduction – https://www.lowimpact.org/lowimpact-topic/collaborative-credit/. It’s a free market, in that sellers offer a price, and buyers accept it or reject it (or negotiate). But as it’s a trading bloc, everyone (to begin with) is a ‘prosumer’ – both producer and consumer, and so incomes will rise as well as prices.
    The main reason it’s not a ‘name change’ is that if it can gain traction and spread, it starts to take power from the banks.

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