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Introducing the Oppositional Economy

What will it take to transition to local economies that are truly just, resilient, and regenerative?
 
Recently PCI had the opportunity to explore this question with Mateo Nube, a co-founder of the Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area and part of the national Climate Justice Alliance, Movement Generation provides analysis and information about the global ecological crisis and facilitates strategic planning for action among leading organizers from urban-based organizations, working for economic and racial justice in communities of color. In the interview transcript below, Mateo shares Movement Generation’s framework for building a visionary, oppositional economy that can shift significant resources out of the dominant, exploitative economy into creating livelihoods and enterprises that sustain and nourish our planet’s ecosystems and the people who inhabit them.
 

Interview with Mateo Nube (Edited Transcript)

Tell us a short story of a time when you were most inspired, effective and engaged in your work.
 
I have the luxury of working in a context that grants me a tremendous amount of inspiration and engagement all the time, because we're engaging with such amazing practitioners and freedom fighters on the ground all the time. But what comes to mind as a moment of tremendous inspiration was when we first started deeply engaging with our friends and family and comrades at Urban Tilth in Richmond and started learning about their approach identifying as much idle land within city limits as possible, whether it be school grounds, vacant lots, etc. and converting them into generative, regenerative pieces of land that would feed their neighborhoods. And the story that really struck me and sticks with me five years later is as they were taking their initial steps to grow food on what were old railroad tracks that span through a good chunk of the city and is now the Greenway.  These first started just as vacant lots, seen as very blighted parts of the community some sections were even considered territorial lines between different gangs.  And Urban Tilth start taking that land and growing food.
 
Doria Robinson of Urban Tilth tells the story of when they first started doing this people would come and say - "Hey where are the fences? Folks are going to come in and mess with what you're growing, they're going to pick the food!" And Doria said "Well, that's actually the whole point. We're growing food to feed our community.  If someone needs a tomato because they're hungry, they should come in and take the tomato. All we really need are signs to explain how to harvest properly so they don't rip out the whole plant. Putting up fences around these new productive lots of agricultural land would defeat the purpose of the vision we're trying to build for our city.
 
In terms of the specific words of inspiration - I actually forget who said it, but I remember somebody referring to the work of Urban Tilth in Richmond and saying: "We’re taking down the fences in our hoods and in our minds." 
 
I feel that is a very beautiful way of describing some of the most transformative and generative work that is happening and needs to happen. It's a very conducive expression for what is being built and what we need to build as it relates to new economy/next economy. The concept of taking down the fences in our hoods and in our minds and really working towards what we know is necessary and is actually doable. And that in many ways the constraints of the culture of the dominant economy tries to blind us to the possibilities. I try to ground myself in beautiful folks like our friends at Urban Tilth, because being on site at places like that is some of what provides deep inspiration.
 
Urban Tilth has been tremendously successful at really inserting the concept of a local food system and a regional food system, engaging young and old in the productive nature of urban agriculture. They have over five acres of land in full production, have access to over 20 acres at this point (I may be off slightly). The concept which they started with of having something like 5-10% of the produce consumed in Richmond grown in Richmond is something they are well on their way towards.
 
What is most alive in your work right now?
 
What's very, very alive and has us all very excited and commands a lot of our programmatic and conceptual attention is precisely the creation of a visionary and oppositional economy that can serve as the new way forth given this tremendous moment of transition we're in. I want to share what we mean by that and our thinking as it relates to this.
 
When I use the phrase "Oppositional economy" I don't mean just naming something we're against, but by oppositional we mean creating a set of economies that are contesting actively for access to capital, labor, water, land so that it can create a new center of gravity. So we're very excited about shifting, supporting the shift from expressions of the new economy being seen as mere alternatives, to becoming new actual centers of gravity that are actively contesting the current dominant economy, that are creating new forms of governance and redefining governance in the process, and returning democratic control to communities engaging in those economies. That's incredibly alive for us, and we're very invested in many aspects of that work, from the nuts and bolts of what does it look like to really give expression to the "invest" side of the divestment campaign as it relates to fossil fuels specifically. And conceptually we're very engaged and committed to deep political education in many sectors of civil society that relate to creating a common sense of vision and strategic alignment around this visionary and oppositional economy. What I want to focus on is how we talk about economies specifically that builds what I hope is a sense of shared vision of where we're headed and what needs to be created.
 
We work at the intersection of justice and ecology. We often start any conversation by rooting ourselves in appreciation that ecology literally means "knowledge of home, " and part of our political task is to ground ourselves in a true understanding of home: the watersheds and foodsheds that exist around us and truly feed us, that we need to re-prioritize and re-connect to. In that context "Economy" is literally management of home. "Eco" comes from "oikos" which means home in Greek. So ecology is "logic of home/home knowledge" and economy is "management of home."
 
 
The reason I use this as a preface is because as we start talking about what the new or oppositional economy looks like, it's really important to ground in the pillars of what the new economy are, to then appreciate what it is that we're building and moving towards. We're currently in the "banks and tanks" economy - rooted in "bosses, bulldozers, and buying."
 
We like to talk about five pillars that all economies require:
1.       Resources
2.       Labor
3.       Purpose & Limits
4.       Culture
5.       Governance
 
In appreciating that way of talking about economy, when we look at the "banks and tanks" economy, what becomes evident is that the economy acquires resources through extraction, and labor is also acquired through extraction and force. The interesting thing around the third pillar, purpose and limits, is that the purpose of this economy is the accumulation of wealth and power. What's interesting around limits is that we say there are some limits, but it's an illusion - for example we say there are some nominal concepts of what is allowed or not allowed - like child labor and child soldiers- yet in this country we all run around with electronic gadgets that are a direct result of child labor and child soldiers in places like the Congo, for example. The point being that we are operating on an economy that is choosing to have no limits, so it is rooted in a culture and cosmology based on consumerism and growth, which is how we got to the alliteration of "bosses, bulldozers, and buying."
 
The fifth pillar and arguably one of the most important things to name as it relates to this economy is that, at the core, the governance model that makes this economy function is militarism and violence. Rooted in the simple reality that if you have an economy based on extraction of resources and extraction of labor from other people's land and other people's communities, there always comes a point where folks in that place say "Enough is enough, we're not going to let this happen anymore." For example in Iraq - "this oil doesn't belong to you." This economy then requires a military structure that uses force to enforce the way it functions.
 
So that's all by way of saying that what's really alive for us is to anchor ourselves in the the pillars of the economy we're trying build out, and in thinking of those five pillars, to root ourselves in an understanding that:
 
  1. Resources we are going to utilize in this economy need to be created through regeneration.
  2. Labor needs to be applied though cooperation.
  3. The purpose should be collective well-being, and the limits should be truly defined by ecological systems, which starts alluding to the reshaping of governance, which should be defined by boundaries instead of borders - embracing ecological concepts of boundaries like watersheds, foodsheds, energysheds, etc. and rejecting the arbitrary nature of borders. 
  4. The culture of this economy should be one of sacredness.
  5. The pillar of governance should be rooted in deep democracy, from the workplace to statehouse.
 
This is all very conceptual, but brings me to the nuts-and-bolts aspects of how we are intervening as an organization as it relates to work around new economy. Because one of the things we observe in what is defined as the new economy sector in the US today is that the first two things that are more often thrown out or lost in the creation of new economy projects in the US - within, for example, within the worker coop movement in the US - are the concepts of ecological restoration and racial justice. And racial justice is one of the central tenets that needs to be upheld when we talk about democracy and deep democracy. When we look at the worker coop movement in the US, what we observe is that a large majority of the coop projects are concentrated around white workers. I believe it's a very sincere and true desire and intent and political belief to talk about democracy as central to the creation of worker cooperatives in the US, yet we are in a context where the application is not playing out in that fashion.
 
And similarly the context of ecological restoration gets thrown out very quickly. To give you a very specific example, one of the most emblematic worker-owned coops in the country - and we have deep admiration and appreciation for the struggle that led to the creation of this coop, so this is not a critique of the coop itself - is New Era Windows and Doors in Illinois, which is an amazing example of workers flipping the script, in many ways, on the dominant economy and seizing control of production, and nevertheless what is being produced is vinyl windows.  We're not talking about the implications of this production because we're caught up in the dominant logic of the extractive economy which doesn't give us a lot of breathing room to talk about ecological boundaries.
 
So there's kind of that necessity to really centralize racial justice and ecological restoration as two tenets that really need to be held as foundational priorities as we build out, in a coordinated fashion, strategically aligned across the country, this new visionary and oppositional economy that can serve as a center of gravity and can really contest for power with the dominant economy.
 
You’ve used the terms "new economy" and also "new economies."  Is there more to say about that?
 
What I was getting at is the appreciation that there isn't one economy - the healthy way moving forward is based on many economies, the multiplicity of local living economies. The nuances of how things are done are very much defined by the contexts and conditions of the bioregions in which people live. So economies are going to look different in different in places. So plural versus singular really matters: there's not one economy - that's a cultural construct that's been forced upon us.  Really what we need is many economies.
 
The only place where the singular holds is as it relates to how we define the pillars of these economies - resources created through regeneration, labor applied through cooperation, etc. -  that those be the central tenets which inform the way local living economies are created. The other part implied that is worth naming in greater detail is that when I talk about a new "center of gravity," what we're talking about here really is moving forth in a tremendously coordinated fashion via a trans-local movement that is really, amongst other things, for example succeeding in moving hundreds of millions of dollars of capital out of the dominant economy into these local living economies so that we are simultaneously generating hundreds of thousands of new forms of productive work that are creating healthy livelihoods for folks in hundreds of communities around the world and in this country. So that it's truly contesting for power, taking the capital out of this economy - the capital that is serving as the life support system for the current dominant economy - while simultaneously creating the new formation that will try take care of us.
 
If we're not truly contesting for power and control of resources-- if we stay mired in the idea that we're building alternatives on fringes-- then we're not addressing the dilemma at hand.
 
Imagine it is five years from now and your work has succeeded wildly. Frame your next responses as if you are speaking from that future point in time. 
 
a) What has been catalyzed in the world?
I was in some ways already starting to allude to this. We have firmly created this new center of gravity as it relates to economic production. In those 5 years, there has been a flourishing of a new way of organizing - resilience-based organizing - where folks across the county start applying their own labor to meet their own needs, and start achieving new forms of governance around resources that feed and nurture communities like land, water, shelter. We are moving away from a market-based logic and moving toward a system of life that honors all life.
 
We're linking political muscle with economic muscle to achieve this. One of the cultural constructs the dominant economy has in place to justify itself is scale--trillions of dollars--and anything that puts this at risk is "dangerous." But we appreciated that much of this was not productive capital, it was fictitious, speculative.
 
We didn't need to identify and move trillions to create a new center of gravity, just billions into new regenerative forms of production and creation. We have created many more jobs and many more opportunities for healthy livelihoods than the old dominant economy. One of the primary indicators of success was to identify the pathways that enabled capital to start moving into these news forms of infrastructure and production.
 
The second indicator of success is that across place, these new forms of economy are rooted in diverse forms of leadership. For example, immigrant communities across the U.S. and the African-American community in the South - both have been literally under the heel of the boot of the dominant economy, but are now located at the center of these new forms of democratic governance.  There is a truly multi-racial expression, a cross-class expression of leadership and creation and vision and application being manifested everywhere that gives life to what deep democracy means from the workplace up to the statehouse.
 
Communities feel and stand for and appreciate the importance of governing their own watersheds.  Communities at the headwaters and communities at the end of that waterway have a keen appreciation for each other and have co-created forms of governance that care for the health of the waterway and distribute the water wealth created by that waterway equitably across boundaries. And they have achieved a level of literacy and deep democracy that respects the needs of all forms of life in an equitable fashion.
 
b) Imagine that the emergence of the New Economy Coalition in 2014 was a key to the success of your work over those next five years. Tell us how that happened.
 
The decisions that were made that led to success, were:
 
  1. The organizations and people present at the conference committed deeply to the concept of embedding deep democracy, and specifically racial justice, and ecological restoration as central tenets that were foundational in the infrastructure and projects that were then launched in a coordinated fashion.
  2. We identified the vehicles/formations that we needed to build out more and/or create to help us continue building out this shared coherent vision and shared set of strategic moves into the future, and the creation and identification of logical formations that anchored the campaigns that we built together over time that moved forward the new center of gravity.
 
Those two pieces happened at the conference itself. Then, over the next five years, that level of coordinated muscle was applied in these very strategic arenas [and] in several areas across the country people took bold, audacious steps toward the implementation of these new forms of visionary and opposition economy. [And] the larger body acted in coordination to support it and made [those] bold moves succeed. For example (thinking about some things that have happened recently) when the city of Richmond, CA municipal government applied a new corporate tax specifically targeting Chevron as an extractive player and declared eminent domain on foreclosed homes and seized those deeds from banks and returned them to homeowners, we had a level of political coordination on a national level with many forces coming out in active support and creating copycat expressions across the country, which created true crises of jurisdiction, where folks in many localities saw these actions as common sense - that of course this is what our elected officials should be doing to take good care of place and people. This created a shift in consciousness, a shift in resource creation, capital creation, and infrastructure. The first example--with Chevron-- was about getting the infusion of capital for programs the City of Richmond had been contemplating - for example funding and financing worker owned coops. Richmond is a beautiful expression of a multi-class, multi-racial city, emblematic of what should be highlighted as new models of transition and new economies.
 
One more thought - I named Richmond specifically because the examples I gave were political maneuvers of the city government, but these actions are happening in the context of the existence of vibrant grassroots actors like Urban Tilth who were thinking and acting on the construction/production of the new economy. All of these pieces needed to be in play - not just policy moves to get the jobs done. Wild success manifested when we had a coordinated set of rolling action across the country continually of both/and manifestations across the country, directly challenging and dismantling the old economy while building the new economy. In Richmond our transition plan was to have Chevron out of here in the next 20-30 years and everyone understood that we had healthy, regenerative forms of work so we had no fear of losing Chevron because there was already something better on the horizon.
 
This is me giving word and voice to the collective process of everyone at Movement Generation.
 
This interview is part of Post Carbon Institute’s “Weaving the Movement” project, an appreciative inquiry process to identify patterns and synergies in the new economy and community resilience movements and support the efforts of the recent New Economy Coalition CommonBound Conference . Interviewers are Ken White and Marissa Mommaerts of Post Carbon Institute, and Ben Roberts of Conversation Collaborative.  To read additional transcripts of “Weaving the Movement” interviews with new economy and community resilience leaders, visit the project hackpad. “Weaving the Movement” has been made possible through financial support from the Threshold Foundation.
 

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