Money makes the world go round. The early bird gets the worm. Lover Boy’s “Working for the Weekend.” Thank goodness it’s Friday.
All of us have, at some point or another, either heard from or told a friend, “I get anxious if I’m not doing something,” or, “I feel like I should be working.” The American forty-hour work grind is as much a part of our spirit as apple pie – after all, the unions and workers at the turn of the century fought hard and endured much to ensure that future generations of children would not end up in the coal mines; forty hours sounds like heaven compared to the reality of an early 20th century factory job. But, as we move further into the twenty-teens and celebrate the growing implementation of automation and technological production, much remains unchanged from those battles nearly a century ago. Is this the best we can do?
This week, the Tackling T.I.N.A group approached the question of capitalist remuneration and recompense for labor: are there alternatives to traditional currency? Do we need a forty-hour workweek? How do you quantify risk and effort in an alternative economic system? Big questions all, but we grounded our efforts in both theoretical and already-functioning models. Michael Albert, in his chapter “The Parecon Proposal” from Beyond Capitalism, explores the idea of participatory economics, or “Parecon,” as a means of moving society into a postcapitalist economy. As he explains it, “Parecon seeks to fulfill four key values… solidarity, diversity, equity, and self-management” (Albert 27). With these four values in mind, Albert envisions an economy wherein economic advancement and wealth are predicated upon social responsibility and consideration for fellow workers:
“I can get higher income if I work harder or longer with my workmates’ consent, or if the average income throughout society increases. I not only advance in solidarity wither other economic actors, but I influence all economic decisions, including those in my workplace and even those through the rest of the economy, at a level proportionate to the impact those decisions have on me.”(43)
The Parecon model hopes to eliminate the Darwinian nature of capitalist growth, wherein success for one necessitates the crushing of another. Rather than subjecting an entire nation to the laws and regulatory models that benefit a few at the expense of many, Parecon’s formulations attempt to regain a model reminiscent of a community, wherein individual worth is relative and integral to a collection of workers, and the needs and capacities of one region are respected and treated differently than those in another.
Albert’s formulation, however, raises serious concerns regarding the capacity of individuals to maintain such a system of equity and self-management. As the group was quick to point out, casting off the familiarity of capitalist systems of remuneration and worth are not as easy as Parecon suggests – that tree is strong and its roots run deep. American’s are taught at an early age to think in capitalist terms, hell, the American dream is founded upon the notion of private property; people dream of ascending the corporate ladder. Our society still lives in the shadow of the Red Scares, and many are resistant to ideas of public ownership and non-capital forms of remuneration. Yet, if the values of Americans are born from the ethics of our economy, a change in that economy would necessitate, if not bring about, a change in values.
To assuage some of those concerns, Bernard Lietaer and Jacqui Dunne discuss alternative forms of exchange in a chapter of their book, Rethinking Money, entitled “The Future Has Arrived But Isn’t Distributed Evenly…Yet!” By examining various examples of contemporary cooperative currencies, Lietar and Dunne provide functioning alternatives to what many American’s perceive as the worship of the almighty dollar. Examples include LETS (“Local Exchange Trading System”), which constitutes “the most frequent cooperative currency system in the world today” (Lietaer and Dunne 75). LETS was created as a means of addressing an unemployment issue in Courtney, British Columbia during the 1980’s, where there were “plenty of things to be done and a large, skilled labor force willing and needing to work” (76). The LETS system allowed for trade without the need of currency gained through employment –working as a mutual credit system and circumventing money scarcity, individuals are able to conduct business with each other through the transparent exchange of goods and services without the intermediary of currency.
The Chiemgauer is another excellent example – based in Bavaria, it is a regional network that encourages business with local shops and neighborhood stores rather than larger corporations. It is a money system that converts Euros into Chiemgauers, a currency that can be converted back into Euros at a minor penalty, which possess a timestamp that discourages hoarding. Citizens that use the Chiemgauer are not limited by this currency: “…customers can buy nearly everything with the Chiemgauer: food, clothes, medicine, furniture, and a wide variety of local services” (88). This type of regio currency helps bridge the gap of Albert’s construction by providing alternative currencies that support diversity and solidarity within a community while preventing the acquisition and retention of wealth inherent in capitalist constructions. But for systems like the Chiemgauer and LETS to grow and allow for the possibilities such as Parecon, American’s must loosen their grip on their presumptions regarding work and money – certain jobs are not “more valuable” than other jobs, and high production at low cost does not necessarily equate to more than just someone’s profit.
The neoliberal specter hangs low in America these days, choking the imagination and frightening people through capital coercion into fields and jobs that it deems “productive.” Perhaps it’s greatest trick has been the myopic transformation of the American citizenry, who are kept such a slave to money that we become happy keeping our heads down and just paying our taxes. As we are given fewer choices, forced to work more hours, and only able to achieve at the cost of others, these two thinkers provide potential alternatives – and while they may not be perfect, they are both excellent attempts imagine paths forward and away from the estrangement of the working week.