The Connexions Annual:
Introduction to Economy, Poverty, Work

North American Native peoples were astonished by the strange ideas of the newly arrived Europeans. One of the strangest of these was the idea that land — the Earth itself — could be owned, bought, and sold. To the aboriginal people, who saw themselves, the Earth, and the things living on it, as part of a natural harmony, the thought of buying and selling land was incomprehensible, absurd.

Absurd though it was, it was no joke, as the Indians of the Americas, and the blacks of Africa, were soon to find out. The whites not only bought and sold land, they also bought and sold human beings to work on the land they appropriated.

The ideas that seemed so strange to the Native peoples still underpin our economic system. Unlike ‘primitive’ people, who engaged in economic activity in order to satisfy their collective needs, we have made the buying, selling and individual ownership of things the basis of our economy.

One of the ‘things’ that we still buy and sell is human labour. In a few countries, incredibly, slavery and serfdom still exist. In the rest of the world, more civilized, most of us are divided between two main groups: the vast majority of us, who for most of our lives sell ourselves to employers by the hour or the week in order to live, and the minority whose wealth enables them to hire, and profit from, the labour of others.

Economic decisions — what is to be produced, where, by whom, and under what conditions, are made by those with economic power — predominantly corporate executives and government officials. The rest of us have little or no say.

The nature of the system ensures that the basis of economic decisions will be ‘the bottom line’. Enterprises that are profitable (usually ones that create ‘growth’) become bigger and stronger; the others are squeezed out. Whether the actual product or activity is rational or irrational, beneficial or useless, environmentally benign or destructive, whether the product is food or weapons, doesn’t enter into the equation unless it affects “the bottom line”.

Of course, this isn’t the way it is supposed to work. The market is supposed to make sure everything turns out for the best. The market, so the theory goes, responds to demand, which reflects the needs of all of us as consumers, making it the most efficient way of allocating resources to where they are needed.

In practice, it doesn’t quite work that way. If people in Africa are hungry because they have no money to buy food, they don’t create a “demand” in the world market for food, and the market doesn’t produce or allocate food for them. According to market theory, they have no need for food. For the same reason, the market continues to produce Mercedes and condos for the rich rather than housing for the homeless: the market allocates resources to where the greatest profits are to be made, not to where the need is greatest.

Nor is the market well suited to meeting needs that can’t be produced as commodities. The market doesn’t offer you the opportunity to buy streets which are safe to walk on, or water which is clean enough to drink and swim in, or a community in which those too young or too old to drive can get around easily.

The results are obvious everywhere: extremes of wealth and poverty, environmentally disastrous resource extraction and farming practices, planned product obsolescence, urban designs that force dependence on the automobile and destroy communities, working people forced to work for subsistence wages under unsafe working conditions, lack of affordable housing, deteriorating towns and cities, extremes of overwork and unemployment.

These things have not happened without opposition. Labour unions have long brought working people together to assert their interests against those of the owners, and they continue to play a leading role in fighting for better wages, pensions, working conditions, health protection, and social legislation. Anti‐poverty and unemployment rights groups seek to improve the lot of the poor, whose ranks are filled disproportionately with women, children, the aged, and racial minorities. Housing co‐ops and tenants’ groups are responses to the pressures of the housing market. Worker co‐ops and community economic development projects cultivate enterprises which try to combine socially useful production with concern for workers’ needs and working conditions.

Many of these responses raise fundamental questions about what — and who — our economy is for, and about how we make economic decisions. Why shouldn’t economic activities have to justify themselves on grounds of social usefulness if they are to consume our resources? Why does the taxation system place most of the burden on the middle classes and the poor, rather than on the corporations and the wealthy? Why should anyone be allowed to ‘own’ the natural resources that are found in, or grow on, the earth? Why shouldn’t all enterprises have to clean up after themselves, so that they have no negative impact on the environment? Why shouldn’t we require them to safeguard the health of their workers and of the communities in which they are situated? Why can’t we insist that they make economic sense, rather than simply make someone a profit? Why should there be a class of owners entitled to make decisions which profoundly affect thousands of people and entire communities, while those whose livelihoods and futures are at stake have no say? Why, indeed, shouldn’t economic decisions be made democratically, by those who actually do the work and need the goods and services?

If these questions suggest the need for fundamental change, they also raise a further question: How is such change to come about?

Some groups listed here are focusing their energies on building alternatives to the present system: sharing, barter networks, co‐operatives, non‐profit community‐controlled or worker‐controlled enterprises, land trusts, credit unions, ‘ethical’ and alternative investment funds.

Others concentrate on at least ameliorating the worst effects of the present economy as it affects the unemployed, injured workers, and the poor, or on winning a better deal within the system for women or minorities.

Important as these initiatives are, their potential is inevitably limited by the fact that the economic system as it stands has a virtual monopoly on society’s resources, including capital, machinery, land, natural resources, and human energy.

The issue becomes one of power. To effect desired change, it is necessary to have the power to set a different agenda, and therefore to challenge the current concentration of economic and political power.

In Canada, the question has been posed more sharply by the (so‐called) Free Trade Agreement with the United States, implemented even though a majority of Canadians voted against it, and by NAFTA, negotiated behind closed doors and passed into law with total contempt for even nominal democratic principles.

Free trade, which in fact has little to do with trade and much to do with re–shaping institutions to meet the demands of multi‐national corporations, is part of a broader corporate agenda aimed at establishing an ‘unfettered capitalism’ and at eliminating or crippling anything that stands in the way. Social, environmental, and cultural programs are being attacked in the name of reducing government spending and staying competitive, and working people’s wages, working conditions, and unions are being hit through ‘privatization’, plant closures, demands for concessions, and other pressures.

It will take a strong and determined grassroots movement to prevail against this. A crucial role in such a movement will have to be played by the unions, who have the numbers, the organization, and the tradition of militancy to fight back successfully, but if there is to be hope of success, the movement must also include farmers, environmentalists, women’s groups, Native people, immigrants and minorities, and many others. One of the keys to building such a movement is mutual acts of solidarity, inspired by the principle that ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’. Developing such solidarity is a challenge that we must meet if our individual groups are to transform themselves into a wider movement.

Ulli Diemer

Aussi disponible en français: L'Annuel Connexions: Introduction à l'Économie, la Pauvreté et le Travail
También disponible en español: El Anuario de Conexiones: Introducción a Economía, Pobreza, Trabajo

Other Overview Articles from the Connexions Annual:
Introduction to the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Arts, Media, Culture section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Community, Urban, Housing section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Development, International section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Economy, Poverty, Work section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Education, Children section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Environment, Land Use, Rural section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Health section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Human Rights, Civil Liberties section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Lesbians, Gays section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Native Peoples section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Peace section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Women section of the Connexions Annual
Resource and Reading List from the Connexions Annual

Other Resources and Links:
Connexions Online: Economy, Poverty, Work Links
What Do We Do Now? Building a Social Movement in the Aftermath of Free Trade