Autonomous communities: a radical vision

How long will it last?

Across America, starving families are struggling to feed their children within walking distance of fallow farms. We have underemployed people and widespread food insecurity near agricultural capacity that could easily support themselves. Communities strengthened by a local medium of exchange could end hunger and improve the care economy. They can become the legendary “village” that families need to raise their children.

Why “radical?” A fundamental belief shared by all political perspectives is challenged

There are starving children and considerable food insecurity within walking distance of farms that could feed them. Ninety-five percent of the 1,600 farms in Pierce County, Washington, earn less than $50,000 a year. Farmers mention other occupations as their main source of income. Large dairy and poultry farms have disappeared. If local farms cannot compete in national markets, they are not allowed to feed their neighbors.

The capacity to eliminate food insecurity is clearly available. How can we get the money to pay it? This is the wrong question. We need a medium of exchange so that people can exchange their work for food. Humanity has been inventing and reinventing money for 10,000 years. Why stop now? The digital economy makes it possible to imagine an effective mode of local exchange.

Imagine a community-based mutual credit union, CMCU, with Digital Bucks (DB) accounts. DB is a local medium of exchange transferred between members via debit cards. People can both earn DB and spend it. The condition of membership is the willingness to accept DB in payment. DB cannot leave the cash register or be exchanged for dollars. Dollars exchanged for DB become community capital. No one is forced to use DB. Exchanges via DB are completely voluntary. It’s a free market. Obviously, this will be a challenge for big-box stores whose primary function is to extract dollars from the community.

Members would start with token balances. People earn DB by working or trading products. It’s more effective than barter. An additional database may be created by the CMCU when a member organization, business, cooperative or group identifies an unmet need and the resources available to meet that need. Farmers could request that DB credit be paid as wages and replenish their credit through sales of DB food products while selling excess produce in the dollar market. Habitat for Humanity could use DB to pay people to build houses, as long as it accepts DB payments. As DB circulates among members, a community market will develop accordingly.

We should tie DB value to the commons as the basis for pricing and trading. About two hours of agricultural labor in the United States produces enough food to feed a family of four for a week. A person working four hours for a DB wage could afford to feed his family for a week. Local medium-scale agriculture could produce food for the community by paying DB wages. The goal is to eliminate food insecurity.

Would local production be efficient? We measure economic efficiency by comparing costs and dollar value created. Why? Because dollars are our most expensive and scarce resource. There is never enough money to meet our needs. Local DB-based production would be “efficient” simply because it uses land, equipment, facilities and labor that have no monetary value.

The limit would be the availability of underemployed resources and people. However, if people discovered that ten or fifteen hours of work a week brought significant benefits, many retirees, teenagers and others could participate in the market. Cultural, religious and non-profit organizations would thrive in a local DB economy. People could form local businesses and cooperatives strengthened by a local medium of exchange.

It is not socialism. From the communal point of view, we already have “socialism”. Almost every aspect of our local economy is controlled and directed by remote authorities, be it banks, large corporations or the federal government. A DB mutual credit system would be a purely voluntary local free market.

The most essential function of communities is to bring up children. People cannot afford to have children. Families are in temporary bankruptcy and two incomes are needed to survive. DB Markets could make communities great places for families and kids.

Why not pay DB for the work of the parents? Each child represents extra work. This work is necessary and crucial for the proper functioning of a society. Yet we are not willing to pay for this work. For the most part, our children are underserved.

Once parenthood becomes valued work, a market can emerge, driving efficiencies. Door-to-door laundries and diaper services would replace environmentally harmful household laundries. Unique and innovative services could develop in short residential radii. Communities would become hotbeds of innovation in the care economy, reducing costs and less dependence on distant authorities.

A self-sufficient and prosperous community would have a lower cost of living. Dollar wages would rise in real terms, attracting employers. The two monetary systems could work in tandem as a self-regulating market emerges between local and import supply chains.

The notion of autonomous communities is not new. Jane Jacobs argued that cities were the basis for economic development. Cities thrived on import substitution and a well-developed hinterland. Empowering communities to have their own digital credit systems would expand their capabilities across all sectors of the local care economy. Self-governing communities could eliminate hunger in many parts of America. Greater local control of the care economy through a free market would benefit everyone.

We all take for granted a monetary system that is becoming increasingly obsolete. I will present evidence for this argument in a future article.

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