Grassroots Economic Meltdown Survival Strategies

, after my Spanish/English tutoring swap, I stopped by counterPULSE for a discussion / workshop about “Surviving the Economic Meltdown One Neighborhood at a Time.”

Among the participants were some of the organizers and founders of organizations like the Institute for Urban Homesteading, San Francisco Food Not Bombs, the Really Really Free Market, JASE economy, Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives, the Transition Initiative, and Nowtopian/Shaping San Francisco.

Participants saw the current economic woes as an opportunity for bottom-up innovation of new styles of economic organization. They compared the present calamity to past economic crises that had given birth to inspiring radical social movements and experiments, and saw the potential for more of this today.

There was a mix of nostalgia for radical movements of the past (and modern attempts to revive them) and some frustratingly vague and superficial discussion of possible new innovations. Because nobody wanted to dominate the discussion, nobody was really able to go into much depth in their area of specialty. So the conversation sort of hopped from idea to idea without settling down much, but this drew the outlines of the gestalt anyway.

There was lots of talk about grand and dramatic and bold and unlikely aggressive actions against the current set of haves on behalf of the current set of have-nots: Seize the produce from the supermarket shelves and give it to the poor, seize the foreclosed houses and give them to the homeless, seize the undeveloped vacant lots and asphalt streets and golf courses and turn them into vegetable gardens, declare a Jubilee and declare all debts null and void.

All of this struck me as the sort of daydreaming that should be done with your mouth closed. I’ve developed a reflex that allows me to tune out any sentence that begins with “We need to…” which helps at times like this.

Some things that interested me from this gathering:

  • Though it was a very leftist group, in which having a Marxist or socialist orientation was a point of pride, a surprising amount of the discussion involved people and local communities taking a proprietary interest in what is currently considered “public” or government property. For instance: the idea that neighbors should get together to seize streets and redevelop them as community gardens was applauded.
  • The assumption that the economy has finally and totally hit the wall and that everything is gonna crumble hard into something that’ll make the Great Depression seem not so great was widely accepted, in fact uncontroverted.
  • The meme in which the wicked Federal Reserve has despoiled our money and sneakily replaced it with debt — something I’m used to encountering in libertarian circles — was also to be heard here, and was met with nods and affirmations.

Over all, however, I didn’t come away with much of interest. If I’d heard about the event earlier, I might have prepared and brought something of my own to present. But as it is, I had nothing that I thought was sufficiently developed to share, and what I heard from other people didn’t sound very practical — mostly just nice-sounding wish lists, and hopes for grand gestures that the folks in power won’t tolerate and that the folks agitating for them don’t yet have the wherewithal to carry off.

I think, though, that some of this was due to the necessarily quick and superficial presentation of some ideas and projects that might be a lot more inspiring if presented in a more in-depth and thorough way. There does seem to be a lot of innovation going on in this group, and I was encouraged to find people seeing the current economic situation as an opportunity rather than a tragedy.

Folks interested in agorist economic organization will definitely be interested in exploring hawala.

This ancient and time-honed banking system has many advantages over traditional banking, and seems much more compatible with agorism and less compatible with government. Contemporary agorists who are hoping for some sort of technological advance that would make an agorist economy able to thrive may be better served by trying to recover and translate a system that currently thrives and has a history older than the current dominant economy.