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
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.
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
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 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 above)