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.

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The Green Cloth Collective: immodest beginnings

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And so, my biggest passion at the moment, the meaning in my craft: the Green Cloth Collective.

Born from disillusionment with our leaders’ inability to instigate anything better than terminal-trajectorial neoliberalism, and a fragment of a vision that I need others to help grow, The Green Cloth Collective emerges as a little-but-already-hundred-and-something-strong guerilla professional network. It is the peer group I longed for, and leftish clothmakers, other craftspeople, businesspeople, activists and economists across continents informally but informedly and animatedly chew over the advantages and opportunities of makership; the problems of race-to-the-bottom economies; and sustainable, communitarian alternatives.

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It’s an amazing feeling when you throw an idea out and someone else instantly enacts it, as with the new group reading list (thanks Laurie), or when there’s friction and somebody else deals with it (thanks ladies), or when you’ve half an idea and someone else runs with it (thanks all active members).

Sensible and harebrained proposals so far include:

Green Cloth Allotments: the Green Cloth community could add its little elbow to help save threatened/encourage the creation of new allotments on which (otherwise landless) growers might plant dye gardens and baste fibre plants, perhaps to be sent to a co-operatively owned Green Cloth Mill for processing

The Green Cloth Book of Postcards: in which we all photograph our craft with a relevant political idea (I’ve just made a handful of my own which are for sale singly or in sets in my shop)

The Green Cloth Calendar: in which we all model the garments we’ve made from scratch for ourselves [Tallula’s idea]. Assuming we’d be scantily clad (since most of of us might only have made scarves or equivalent): as well as having a saucy selling point, it would make an incisive point about our current lack of self-sufficiency in being able to clothe ourselves

The Green Cloth Camp: an informal skillswap gathering, perhaps annual (for all aspects of clothmaking and other domestic/rural/survival skills and crafts)

The Green Cloth Certification: a stamp verifying a business model based on an anarcho-syndicalist (probably) producerist economics for the common good (which might just be a posey way of referring to a green co-operative that shouts its politics from the rooftop)

The Green Cloth Circus: a horsedrawn caravan of wagon-dwelling craftspeople [Sue’s idea] on a campaign trail setting up miniature Green Cloth Fairs (see below), including performance textiles, talks, demos and workshops, on common land, village greens, roundabouts, and at political rallies, festivals and such, highlighting the importance of making and the maker’s role in an economics for the common good

The Green Cloth Charter: a statement of values, vision and aims as they crystallise with the community’s development

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The Green Cloth Code: the Green Cross Code with a speech impediment or two

The Green Cloth Co-operative: a network of nettlers harvesting and processing wild fibre to be sent to the Green Cloth Mill for spinning, and then sent out to a community of (self-employed?) weavers, before being sold as cloth by the mill

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The Green Cloth Council: for if we need a formal steering group, although horizontalist values may not permit anything but an informal cluster of emergent, and possibly transient, ‘elders’

The Green Cloth Currency: on the basis that the current system of (debt based) money creation results in a distorted and extremely unfair market, could the Green Cloth community devise its own monetary or exchange system that would serve as the neutrally useful tool of the commons that currency should be (a Green Cloth Bank or banker(s)/accountant(s) would be paid service charges, not interest, credited with either goods or currency)

The Green Cloth Database: a spreadsheet of makers which would serve, among other things, to facilitate barter [Richard Toogood’s idea]

The Green Cloth Fair: like a gypsy woodfair (and definitely in a field, wilderness or woods) but for cloth people and other makers concerned about an economics for the common good, with trading, eco-conferencing, foodsharing and musicmaking

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The Green Cloth Guerillas: where I’ll go if I get frustrated with conservatism or naysaying in the bigger Green Cloth crowd and have to form an uncompromising splinter group  (no sign of that yet, I’m glad to say)

The Green Cloth Guild: a formalised version of the Green Cloth Collective, offering support, advice and opportunities to members. A union for the 21st century.

The Green Cloth school of thought: [Stretching it a bit here even for me. Though who knows where the fantasy could go and how the micro-movement might grow…] maker-resister- and artisan-activist-devised economics for the common good

The Green Cloth Stall: a PR and campaign stall touring fairs, festivals, rallies, markets and other events

The Kinetic Nettle Knicker Knitting Kolectif: apparently there are simple man-powered Victorian underwear knitting machines, and some form of these kinetic knitting machines can even be powered by a clock and left to work for you. [I think all of us at the recent skillswap camp can take credit/blame for the K5 idea]

 

Phew. One day. Perhaps. Some of it.

Join us.

The Green Cloth Collective

 

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