Sunday, February 15, 2015

Needed: A REAL Sharing Economy

Consider these two statements: The economy is working just fine. The economy is not working at all. Which of these statements rings more true to you probably depends a lot on your socio-economic position in our society. If you are in the privileged class that has been raking in enormous piles of money from tech-company expansions, stock investments or high-level financial maneuverings like mergers and acquisitions, you probably feel we are living in a wonderful time, as you are practically swimming in wealth. However, if you are a member of this privileged class, you are not at all representative of the vast majority of people in our society who are finding it increasingly difficult to get ahead, or even feel comfortable, not only financially,but generally, because the stress of financial insecurity is chipping away at their general well-being, making it hard for them either to plan ahead for a better tomorrow or to enjoy the here and now.

Perhaps you dream that by some lucky stroke of fortune, you will find a way to join the techno-financial elite, and live a life of privileged splendor like a feudal baron of old, comfortable in your castle, well-fed, well-positioned, expensively equipped, and surrounded by fawning subordinates, separate from the suffering masses, who you will now feel free to scorn as lazy losers, even though your own business ventures very likely depend both on the labor of such people and your capacity to deny them a decent paycheck and any measure of security. However, you probably realize on some level that you are highly unlikely to ever attain such a privileged position. For you and most Americans, and an increasing number of people in other places as well, in places like Greece and Spain, for example, the economy is not working very well at all.

Furthermore, you may feel quite powerless to do anything about this situation other than moan and grumble, work harder and harder at your current job to make sure you do not lose it, and seek to pick up extra money at a second or third job, because that is, quote, "the way it is." However, this "way that it is" is not some sort of basic structure of reality that has been in place on earth forever like the periodic table of basic elements or the law of gravity. The aggregate of buying, selling, banking, working, living and legal and financial arrangements that structure our lives, as well as the underlying understandings, expectations and beliefs that together constitute what we term "The Economy" is a totally man-made thing that is entirely subject to fluctuation and transformation due to pressure from any number of factors... including human will and collective pressure.

There are, after all, many more of "us" poor and working people than there are of "them" in the techno-financial elite. One of the main hurdles that prevents our current economy from changing for the better for the majority is the sad truth that too many people have accepted that the current kind of economy that we have is in fact "the way it is," something natural and immutable, as far beyond human analysis,control, question or challenge as an asteroid, an earthquake or a hurricane. If ordinary people do not conceive of the possibility of change to the current economy and undertake to pressure the current arrangement to become more conducive to a more secure and happy life for ALL people, not just the fortunate elite, then there really is no hope for the future. The majority of people will increasingly live their lives as hard-laboring serfs with little hope of security or advancement, while the fortunate, greedy few will live lives of privilege and splendor--a brave new world of techno-financial feudalism.

One of the key differences between those in the techno-financial elite and the rest of us is one of attitude toward the current reality. Those in the elite, with the most obvious example being the carbon-based, anti-environmentalist, ultra- conservative life forms known as the Koch Bros., expect to be allowed to control and shape the future of economic arrangements in ways that will continually improve their level of wealth, degree of personal and political power, and quality of life, like the right to own multiple expensive residences while many others go homeless or live in constant fear of losing their homes, and make every effort to maintain or even increase their influence and control over future economic structures and conditions. The suffering masses do not expect to have any influence on the shape of things to come, and make no efforts to achieve any control or influence. And so one group ends up with all the power, influence and control, and the other does not.

This "way that it is" is not democratic at all. It is economic oligarchy. It is not a "free" market. It is a market shaped and controlled for the elite, for the few, not the many. For the many, the main "freedoms" in our supposedly "free" society and "free" market economy are the freedoms to toil increasingly long hours at increasingly less secure employment, to worry with good reason about the future, to fall into debt for basic needs like housing, education and health care, and to experience unending stress and anxiety, which many are only able to imperfectly escape from through activities and products, from Hollywood films, sports competitions, Reality TV programs and ultra-violent video games to pharmaceutical concoctions, that are largely owned and operated by the techno-financial elite, who encourage dependence on such escapism and mind-dulling pursuits and discourage any challenge to the existing order, which works so very well.... FOR THEM.

We who are the majority of humanity need a NEW economy, one that better distributes the proceeds of economic activity for the benefit of all. The response of those in the elite and of conservatives, libertarians and free-market fundamentalists is to scream, "Impossible!" "Heresy!" "Communism!" and of course, "That's not the way it is!" However, we can look around the world and into societies of the past and discover that there are indeed other models for how to structure the economy, how much power to allow to corporations and wealthy elites, how much power to give workers and citizens to make decisions about pay, benefits, location of business facilities, like whether a factory should be in Buffalo or Beijing, how much executives should be paid compared to what workers are paid, and many other such factors. If we raised the pay of workers in huge companies and lowered the pay of executives, the executives would bitch and moan, and the businesses might have to reorganize, but guess what: businesses are constantly having to adapt to new conditions and reorganize. Having to adapt and reorganize to treat their workers better might be a real "challenge" and might cause some serious "disruption" in the way things now work, but I believe it is quite common in techno-financial circles to talk about adapting to changing conditions and "challenges" and "disrupting" the status quo.

OK, business geniuses, you supermen and superwomen, darlings of the stock market, deity-like entrepreneurs and CEOs and CFOs. You are so smart, so wise, so techno-savvy. Here is a "challenge" to you, an invitation to "disrupt" current conditions. Let's see if you can find ways to employ MORE people, not fewer, provide better pay and MORE security, not less, to the greatest number of people, not the fewest, not just you and your techno-elite friends. Are you up to the challenge? Or do we have to hire someone else?

To be continued, with reflections on how the attitudes and values of ancient Pagan traditions can be applied to this situation, to clarify the kind of economy that would be better for the human race and better for the natural environment as well. It's funny how taking care of the one often involves taking care of the other too. Perhaps they are related... :)

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