Globalisation is nothing new. The earliest theorising about capitalism clearly demonstrated its global intentions. Globalisation brings few opportunities and has very many harmful ramifications. It brutalises social environments; it is neither sustainable nor gender-neutral. If the aim of a world-wide sustainable economy were to be actively pursued, and not only paid lip-service to (as it is in the 'Agenda 21' process), a proper examination would reveal that a kind of world-embracing 'eco-Keynesianism' is really the only possible model; one that is beyond the realms of deregulation and 'shareholder values'. Since the big companies - the main players in globalisation - can't be expected to take any further responsibility, sustainability (which totally goes against the grain for profit-orientated business) is not going to happen very soon.
However, the 'alternative economy' represents a logical antidote to the globalisation trend. We should not get hung-up on the term's precise meaning: the general concept has been described using a variety of terms, such as 'independent economy', 'self-help organisations', social economy', 'sustainable economy', 'co-operative economy', and 'regional economic development', and even more recently, the old term 'the Third Sector'.1 It's not the names which are important, however, but the things they describe.
An 'alternative economy' is, first and foremost, an economy which serves as a foil to the dominant economy in a particular region. An alternative economy attends to the survival of the individual, as well as institutions. It is orientated towards the practical value of things, and organises the division of labour in an alternative way. Valuing things according to their practical use has always been a subversion of the dominant paradigm whereby money is only put into something if it will make a profit.
Historical attempts to abolish the division of labour within the alternative economy have been paralleled by attempts at its gradual resurrection. Oppenheimer's 'theory of transformation'2 addressed the 'division of labour' issue early on; then came Roth's 'discussion on the management of businesses'3 in the late seventies, asserting that the principle of 'everyone taking their turn to do each task' should be replaced by 'everyone doing what he/she is best at'. The latter is nowadays exemplified in the sub-contracting of cleaning jobs, and the gradual privatisation occurring within companies of their accountancy departments (thus giving these departments a position of quasi-monopoly). Indeed, the reinforcement of hierarchies in all spheres, and the rampant practice of cut-throat hiring and firing, have both come to the fore, whilst business management, differentiation, and even the new 'management collectives' are neglected. Hence it is a particularly pleasant surprise that many conventional companies still incorporate a level of participation and, like alternative companies, maintain a forum for workers' involvement in decision-making, and accept that temporary suspension of the division of labour can sometimes be helpful.4
The breadth and
variety of the network
Motivations for founding and maintaining alternative economic units can be contradictory. They can be anything from the desire for change, to the need to survive. As early as 1977 there was a debate about whether support should be given to profit-orientated companies with co-operative management, or to ideologically-motivated institutions in which all necessary work is carried out by unpaid volunteers (the so-called 'secondary economy', or 'small network'). Ideologically-motivated institutions would have become a historical phenomenon if its workers could have gained sufficient income from the primary sector (whether in the business or state sector), to enable them to donate their spare time to unpaid work for the establishment and necessary maintenance of 'alternative' organisations. However, the reality of increasing unemployment led to the definite prioritisation, within these 'alternative' institutions, of securing (through payment) the survival of their co-workers.
Ultimately, the alternative economy has three financial sources: the market, the government (re-distribution of local authority and national taxes), and the other usual income sources (membership fees, donations, fundraising, sponsoring, charitable foundations and benefit events, inheritances, and unpaid work). The accessibility of these sources differs widely according to groups, sectors and regions.
Market orientation and
the alternative economy
By the end of the millennium, the state in Germany has managed to excel itself by honouring multi-nationals with lucrative packages to help them 'streamline' (further assisted in this by the introduction of the Euro). The state has always been the Great Hope for a large part of the alternative economy, from the time of Lasalle through to the inauguration of ABM programmes (comparable to the UK's 'New Deal' programme for the unemployed) - and yet 'alternative' institutions have taken over parts of the public sector and are now not being adequately paid. Any further income from either fundraising or bequeathed inheritances is unlikely, considering the increasing poverty of the population.
Ideally, the alternative economy presents itself as an antidote to globalisation. It is a demonstration of an economy to which morality and social norms have been reintroduced on which a successful, sustainable global economy could be based. What might this package of norms, introduced by consensus, look like?
They would include the limiting of hierarchies; opposition to profit; example-setting specialist concerns (to demonstrate alternatives to the traditional economy), and the establishment of civil organisations beyond governmental control, and there would probably be some contradictory details. Key concepts such as 'fair trade' and 'non-governmental organisations' would be included somewhere in among the norms.
In the meantime, through
demands such as, for example, the separation of income and work, society as a whole is
even now moving closer to the paradigm of an alternative economy.
As such, the alternative economy can't be seen as a static phenomenon. It includes the smallest self-help group and the largest co-operative concern; it includes cultural initiatives that are barely more than circles of friends, and highly organised foundations.
When economies become 'global'
(defined according to the dominant economic paradigm), the differences between alternative
economic units and small and medium-sized conventional businesses begin to blur: see, as
examples, the Dutch umbrella-organisation MEMO,10 and the German organisations
Arbeitsgemeinschaft Partnerschaft in der Wirtschaft,11 and Unternehmen Gruen.12 My earlier
reference to 'social economy' reminds us that the alternative economy is moving towards
structures left over from the traditional social market economy.
Institutions within the alternative economy exist all over the world, by whatever name, whether subsistence groups, mutual self-help groups, initiatives, or co-operatives. Some names have become famous: the Ulamaa villages in Tanzania; the Ejidos in Mexico, and a number of Indian co-operatives and ashrams. To my knowledge, there is no organisation or institution with an overview of all institutions worldwide. Rather, one has the impression that the many sponsors ( from Caritas to the nationwide 'Congress of Political Groups for Development' (Bundeskongress entwicklungspolitischer Gruppen), have their own favourites, and between these groups there is no networking (there may even be local competition between them). Such information gets passed along on the grapevine.
Hence to re-establish a common theoretical (or ideological) basis for 'alternative economy' worldwide is practically impossible. Besides the traditional theorising of the co-operative movement, other theories that can be drawn on are those of the subsistence economy,14 the Kibbutzim,15 and the self-help movement (of which many studies have been made)16. The alternative economy is rooted in a diversity of ideological paradigms inspired by Christianity, anarchism, Buddhism, Marxism, feminism, anthroposophy, personal existentialism, Islam, Zionism, etc (the list doesn't claim to be complete), without showing any difference in the type and quality of the work.
This universal variety made possible the necessary co-operation for the fight against globalisation. At the same time, the difficulties facing such co-operation are demonstrably immense. The sparse opportunities for globalising the alternative network lie in the new communications technologies which have transformed abstract internationalism into an active co-operative network over the last one hundred and fifty years. Huge efforts are made on all levels. The task in hand is to set in motion, and finance, a new level of co-operation using the new technologies. This is dependent on people working voluntarily, access to very expensive equipment, and a comprehensive knowledge of foreign languages. It needs to happen in the context of constantly varying exchange rates, and with some form of guarantee, across thousands of kilometres, that the money collected in fundraising events is being used for what it was meant to be used. All this needs to be achieved without Europe becoming the dominant continent.
This opportunity for international expansion is one of the few things coming out of globalisation which is to the alternative economy's advantage. A tried and tested recipe for a (very precarious, non-authoritarian) realisation of an alternative economy - the antidote to traditional economics - does not, of course, exist. And probably no-one is even expecting it.
Part of Rolf Schwendter's
contribution to the 1998 summer school run by the Theoretical Working Group on Alternative
Economy (Theoriearbeitskreis Alternative Ökonomie: TAK-AÖ).
First published in: DGB Bundesjugendschule (ed), Kapitalismus ohne Alternativen? (AG SPAK
Bücher, Neu-Ulm, 1999).
Rolf Schwendter is Professor für Devianzforschung at the Gesamthochschule Kassel. He has many publications to his name and is co-editor of Gemeinsam mehr erreichen. Ko-operation und Vernetzung alternative-ökonomischer Betriebe und Projekte ( Munich, 1995).
Netz für Selbstverwaltung www.netz-bund.de
Contraste, Zeitung für Selbstverwaltung www.contraste.org
AG SPAK Bücher www.leibi.de/spak-buecher
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