Thank you, Beth, and thank you to all who helped make this auspicious gathering happen. I know that some of you here this evening have been meeting more than weekly to plan for this convergence – we are really grateful.
We are here today to promote the movement for a more just economic system; to nurture existing relationships and foster new ones. We are here to learn from each other, share our experiences and skills and bring back what we have gleaned here to our home communities. Each person brings something of value, and I hope that we can find the space over the next few days to discover the collective wisdom that exists right here in this room.
Beth said it succinctly: the current moment that we find ourselves in is one of a “crumbling façade of corporate capitalism run wild”. It has also been referred to as casino capitalism where economic forces are willing to gamble with our lives, our livelihoods, our health and well-being, our natural world. These forces may strike it rich, very rich but at an enormous social and environmental cost that we can no longer bear. It is not a rational model; it does not make sense.
Economic democracy implies that values are set within our community context creating an exchange of goods and services outside the clutches of corporations.
Economic democracy implies a rights-based framework that protects women, indigenous people and vulnerable populations from exploitation.
Economic democracy implies reversing the wave of commodification and monetarization, reducing the role of big banks and speculation and strengthening local control over our commons and shared resources.
Economic democracy implies that we all accept and respect the differences of our various communities – some of us are people of intellect, with academic, technical and scientific skills and a certain sense of aesthetics. Some of us are people of the heart, spirit and senses with a deep connection with the natural world and with highly developed intuitive skills. Together through cooperation we can transform this planet into a beautiful place for all to live.
Buckminster Fuller has a fabulous quote: “Everyone has the perfect gift to give the world – and if each of us is freed up to give the gift that is uniquely ours to give, the world will be in total harmony.”
We need economic democracy so that we can free ourselves and free the world so that we can develop our talents and gifts and offer them up for the collective welfare of all. We start to free ourselves by creating a society that guarantees the minimum necessities of life – food, clothing, healthcare, education, housing. We need to guarantee a minimum purchasing capacity and full employment to every person who seeks a job.
Food is such a basic necessity and yet for the richest country in the world there are a whole lot of hungry people or malnourished people. The city of Detroit is a food desert. With over 700,000 people living within the city limits, there is not a single major supermarket in the entire city. Folks buy their food at liquor stores and pharmacies and mom and pop stores and bodegas. But there is a whole grassroots movement now to grow food in the city, in abandoned lots, in community gardens, on roof tops.
Here in Madison, you have the Family Farm Defenders, a convener of this conference, who are working to empower farmers to speak for and respect themselves in the quest for economic justice. In New York, grassroots groups and unions have been working to raise awareness about the need to protect and respect our farm workers. All over this country we have failed to honor the dignity of our farm workers. They are denied rights and protections and are forced to work without health insurance. They do not have the right to overtime pay nor to the right to form a union and collectively bargain. Many of them do not have adequate sanitary housing and working conditions and do not enjoy the benefits of worker compensation. Workers may also be the victims of violence and human trafficking and are regularly exposed to dangerous pesticides.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is waging a campaign against this form of modern day slavery in our current food system where “Employers have been charged with beating workers who were unwilling to work, holding their workers in debt, and chaining and locking workers inside u-haul style trucks as punishment”. In the winter months, Immokalee produces around 90% of our domestic tomatoes here in the U.S. If we understood the full scope of the working conditions of the people who pick our food in the agri-business sector, would we still be willing to purchase the food from the local supermarket?
Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, the founder of the Progressive Utilization Theory (Prout), said that we must elevate the status of agriculture, that agriculture and agricultural work should have the same status as industry. Think about the car industry and how over time auto workers accrued decent compensation packages, worker protections and benefits. Imagine how our food system would be transformed if we applied the same standards to agricultural work. We need federal and state policies to promote the welfare of family farms and agricultural cooperatives which will enhance food security for all.
Our movement towards economic democracy also implies an energy policy that is sustainable, renewable and local. I am looking forward to learning about Transition Madison Area and bringing back the insights to our local Transition Chapter in Westchester. We also look forward to learning about the successes and challenges of the Dane County Time Bank under the leadership of Stephanie Rearick. Imagine if we could meet at least half of our daily needs through bartering and how that would make us less dependent on the monetary system.
Worker-owned cooperatives are a crucial component of our march towards economic democracy. There will be much conversation in the next couple of days about this approach to organizing consumer and producer businesses. We are grateful to the Willy Street Co-op for serving as a convener of this conference along with the Madison Institute and others. We are also grateful to the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice, the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice, Move to Amend and all the other groups that have endorsed and gotten behind this gathering.
I especially appreciate Freedom Inc. and M Adams’ participation. Freedom Inc. organizes against the root causes of violence in communities of color and creates new definitions and solutions of identity and resiliency in the face of economic and social oppression. We may feel uncomfortable talking about racial dynamics in our work. It is okay to feel uncomfortable. What is not okay is to ignore the reality of racial power and dynamics in our society and movements. Indigenous folk, people of African descent, Latin@ and Asian immigrants have not had the same opportunities collectively to accumulate wealth and pass on wealth over generations as white folk have had and continue to have. The institutions in our nation were not originally created to benefit people of color and the repercussions of that original intent are still very much existing today. We cannot have a meaningful discussion on economic democracy without addressing the role that racial constructs play in deciding who the system works for and who it does not work for.
It is well documented that law enforcement and the criminal justice system treats black and brown communities very differently from white communities. How does this factor into our discussion over the next few days? How does this impact a community’s ability to achieve economic liberation?
Finally, many of you may know that several of the organizers of this conference are students of the Progressive Utilization Theory or PROUT as propounded by Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar. We are a lively and eclectic bunch, at once idealistic and practical and very much wanting to see our planet transition to a post-capitalist, people-oriented benevolent economic system. Sarkar told us many things and what is relevant here is that he said:
1. Complete security should be guaranteed to all the plants and animals on the planet (habitat).
2. Each country must guarantee purchasing power to all its people as a constitutional right.
3. Constitutions should guarantee four basic rights: spiritual practice, cultural legacy, education and indigenous linguistic expression.
4. Cardinal human values must take precedence over all other rights.
So here we find ourselves today, traveling on both our individual and collective journeys as we move along the path of progressive social change, of coming together, of uniting our intentions, of becoming the powerful force that we already are in our effort to implement a system that works for all. The more we come together, share with each other, learn together, the more gentle will be our transition to this new era that we yearn for in our various ways. There is enough pain and suffering on this earth – let not our economic system be a source of suffering for any person or creature or being.
I will end with a quote from a Native American Innu elder, Elizabeth Penashue:
“If you are here because you feel sorry for me, you are wasting your time, but if you are here because your life and destiny are linked with mine, then we will make a difference.”