Hinrich Garms

An alternative economy with 'subsistence payments'*
An opportunity for sustainable development

There is a saying that no one immerses himself in the same river twice. This is only partially true. Having watched the progress of discussions about an alternative economy ever since the 'seventies, when I took part in a workshop of the AG SPAK, I know that the problems are just the same as they were back then, though the suggested solutions have changed. The problematic issues are still: the discrepancy between theory and reality, the lack of financial resources, the turn-over of people involved, and the conflict between work and spare time. In addition, social circumstances have deteriorated (in relation to the state budget, revenue supply, employment conditions, and self-exploitation), so that society's need for an alternative and more sustainable system has increased - unless the Red-Greens' modernisations and privatisations plus tax reductions for big companies are the end of the story. Aside from this, we are seeing the exodus of traditional, capitalistic businesses from whole regions (for example East Germany) which might lead to new, macro-economic forms of economy.

Suggested solutions are now different, because accepting government hand-outs is less of a discussion-point than it used to be; also, this option hardly comes up any more due to the lack of government funds. Making profits from projects is less controversial too, since it was realised that non-profitable areas of projects could thus be financed.

What is an 'alternative economy'?
An 'alternative economy' doesn't just mean tax-relief on cleaner methods of production and the instalment of solar panels. It means a whole way of functioning economically and personally. An 'alternative economy' will be characterised by products having a social, ecological or other value extra to their practical value, or by a democratic means of production, or by direct relationships between producers and customers. An ideal 'alternative economy' will entail all of these. In addition, as few natural resources as possible should be used, and human relationships should be conducted in a different way, whether within a publishing co-op or in a café-bar full of lefties, an organic agricultural co-op run by people with mental health problems or a small non-hierarchical business producing bicycles, or in the Eco-bank. I have no wish to repeat here all that Rolf Schwendter and others have researched and written over the years.1 My intention is to outline, in brief, what 'alternative economy' means.

Even if enterprises such as those listed above don't define themselves in terms of 'alternative economics', they do play an important ideological role, whether in the political struggle against 'globalisation' or in the economic survival of the human race. Many people involved in 'alternative economies' don't want, or are unable, to take part in the traditional economy for various reasons: they see no meaning in the traditional economy, or quite simply have no chance of making a living within it. Alternative ecology, too, is often understood as 'living correctly in a bad world'. Mistakes are certainly made, but it is to be strongly defended against the accusation I heard at the second Grassroots Conference on Poverty, that 'it doesn't promote the revolution' (Berlin, 2000). Considering that all major social strategies of the twentieth century have failed, and that social change is already taking root within the old structures even before a totally new society has been brought in, then these new ways of functioning economically and personally provide important alternative, sustainable social models.

An 'alternative economy' is more than just manufacturing for a niche market (Nischenproduktion), as it is often called. It could potentially be the starting point for an alternative, ongoing means of production in society.

Principles of the B.A.G.S.H.I.'s 'subsistence payment' concept
The National Working Group on Social Security Initiatives, or BAGSHI (Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft der Sozialhilfe-Initiativen) agreed in principle that each person should have a right to a basic social security benefit of 1,500 DM per month (Erfurt, May 1998). This new payment would certainly earn its name as a 'basic security'. Children should also receive this payment, and it would, for a start, replace payments to asylum seekers, social and child benefits, unemployment benefits and BAFöG (student loans). In addition to this basic security payment there would be housing benefit available of up to 500DM per person per month, taking account of regional variations, rent differences, and the necessary size of accommodation. The right of each person in a household to claim the full amount of this basic security benefit or 'subsistence payment' would reduce inter-dependencies and have an emancipatory effect, reducing child poverty and guaranteeing the right to a form of security from birth. It would be a means of outlawing discrimination against, and the punishment and segregation of, lower income groups, and it would be inseparably interlinked with the right to a minimum wage. Subsistence payments would be financed by the tax which is currently spent on social spending and national insurance contributions, plus a 50% rate of income tax (a so-called 'Take half' policy) on all net incomes across the board.

To reiterate, then: the basic financing of this aptly-named 'subsistence payment'2 will be half of all incomes in Germany, plus half of all newly-acquired fortunes, according to a 'Take half' principle. The subsistence payment will not only be for people on the fringes of society but for society as a whole. If everyone in Germany and Europe were to receive subsistence payments, not only the poor, then poverty could be eliminated in the long term. Although the concept has been designed by people working on social security issues, it isn't aimed only at those on benefits but at the whole of society.

The 'subsistence payments' plan as a blueprint for integration - but what's the link?
'Where there's money, there are no people; where there are people, there's no money,' wrote Rolf Schwendter as early as 19773. This situation can be remedied: subsistence payments would allow people to get involved in the 'alternative economy' because they would have financial security. They would no longer depend on either the state or on private business sponsors for their finances. In the 'seventies and 'eighties especially, people involved in alternative projects had to rely on BAFöG (student loans), unemployment or other social benefits, or odd jobs (like Foreign Secretary Joschka Fischer, who had to drive a taxi), which became increasingly difficult because of governmental regulations. Hence we would not want subsistence payments to be means-tested by the government. We are not only addressing the State with our plans, but society as a whole, which should therefore be where discussion takes place. If subsistence payments become a reality, they will establish a stable 'alternative economy' and also answer the question: will anyone ever work again if a 'subsistence payment' comes into being?

'Yes,' is the answer to this. All those who currently work as volunteers would become free to concentrate more on the content of their work and on the promotion of the 'alternative economy.' Dependency on the market situation, which is unavoidable, even through alternative production, would be reduced: people's livings would no longer depend on it directly. Discussion in society about the division of labour would be possible, without the daily pressure to make money. The security of a subsistence payment would be especially significant, considering that the alternative economy has nearly always been chronically under-funded. A second point is that all the processes which go on within the alternative economy - all the whys and wherefores and decision-making concerning production; all those famous group dynamics - would finally be remunerated, even if only on a symbolic level.

Some examples of what subsistence payments could do

The alternative Café Rumpelstiel [The Rumpelstiltskin Café]
The Café Rumpelstiel, which is also a venue for exhibitions and live performances, only survives thanks to the overtime of the collective's four members. They can't afford to go on training courses or take part in any conferences in southern Germany where their venture is situated. Further, one of the members would like to participate in a socio-political group which has established itself in the café, but can't. If subsistence payments were in place, providing material security, members of the group would be free to take part in the above activities without making any losses.

The alternative cycle shop Fahrradladen Speichen und Schrauben [Spokes and Screws Cycle Shop]
This cycle shop is no longer able to sell as many bicycles as planned, which has led to the redundancy of one member of the collective and has meant that they have to stock bicycles from bigger corporations, cutting down on the number of cycles bought from the 'Unemployed Metal-workers' Co-operative'. The solidarity which was always a vital part of the project is now dwindling. Subsistence payments would be just what they needed: the co-op would be able to risk small losses and could once again get involved in projects which had to be dropped due to lack of money, such as the designing of a family-friendly tandem.

Die Stadtzeitung gegen den herrschenden Konsens (The Newspaper against Prevailing Opinion)
This opposition newspaper publishes major and minor political scandals and longer articles about political issues in its medium-sized hometown. It has only been able to survive because the two editors live on unemployment benefit. They have recently come under pressure from the employment office to get any old job. The local authority has turned down grant applications for their project due to the newspaper's contents, so that it is now in danger of being closed down. The project could survive long-term if subsistence payments were in place.

Subsistence payments - the discussion
The concept of subsistence payments was intended to stimulate, and must stimulate, discussion in society about poverty and wealth, the division of labour, the minimum wage, working hours, and society's resources. The discussion can only gain a foothold in society if it is taken up in spheres as diverse as unemployment initiatives, alternative projects, trade unions, church circles, etc. But some pose the question: since subsistence payments are not currently available, shouldn't one, rather, be campaigning for better funding of alternative projects and alternative means of production? However, we think that it is precisely those people involved in the alternative economy, surviving on Utopian idealism, who should be joining in with the subsistence payments discussion and helping to promote it. In this way, neither the struggle for short- and medium-term resources, nor the Utopian ideal, need suffer. After years - or better, decades - of declining social benefits and years of alternative economic activities with the potential to change society, it is time to campaign together for this ideal, which will transform society and may lead to a sustainable way out of the social and economic crisis. And there certainly is a crisis. It could be a great step forward for traditional as well as alternative businesses, and also a socio-political step towards social and economic change.

* Translators' note: we have translated 'Existenzgeld' as 'subsistence payments.' The UK Green Party has used the term 'basic income'.

1 See also: Rolf Schwendter, 'Notate zur Alternativen Oekonomie' and 'Zur neuesten Geschichte der alternativen Oekonomie' in Zur Alternativen Oekonomie I-III (Sozialpolitischen Verlag, Berlin, 1977-79); also Die Muehen der Berge, and Die Muehen der Ebene (AG SPAK Verlag, Neu Ulm).
2.For further reading: BAG-SHI (eds), Existenzgeld fuer alle, Antworten auf die Krise des Sozialen (AG SPAK Verlag, Neu Ulm, 2000)
3. Schwendter, Rolf, 'Notate zur Alternativen Oekonomie' and 'Zur neuesten Geschichte der Alternativen Oekonomie,' in Zur Alternativen Oekonomie I-III (as ab


Email: Hinrich Garms
Hinrich Garms Dip.Soz (Diploma in Sociology) was born in 1957 and lives in Tiergarten, Berlin. Over the last fifteen years he has been employed variously as a social worker, a project developer in an employment organisation, a project adviser and a researcher in social science. He is the co-author of Existenzgeld fuer alle (see note 2). Having been long-term unemployed, he is used to earning money through precarious jobs and surviving on benefits. He is currently working voluntarily for the National Working Group on Social Security Initiatives: Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft der Sozialhilfe-Initiativen (BAG-SHI); also for Quer magazine, and in the House for Democracy and Human Rights (Haus der Demokratie und Menschenrechte) in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. His special interests are: trade unions, social politics, unemployment, and the concept of subsistence payments.