Grey Wool Knickers They breathe

February 4, 2009

Economic Sustainability

Filed under: Santa Cruz — Tags: , , , , , — admin @ 12:52 am

This post actually started as a comment on a friend’s blog, but it turned into a bit of a diatribe that seemed to deserve its own post.  My apologies to those of you for whom the references to day-old bagels, cement boats and opportunivores will make no sense.  And I apologize also for the corny, overblown metaphors.  I’ll hopefully be writing in Arabic soon, which I’m sure will sufficiently alienate what audience I had in the fist place, if that’s any consolation.  Here it goes anyway:

There’s something I’ve always found a bit off-putting about this notion of “economic sustainability”.  It was a phrase I first noticed as it crept into the lexicon of our favorite little worker-owned, worker self-managed collective, PedX, and it was mobilized in the service of all sorts of retrograde policy initiatives (often under the rubric of “day-old-bagel proposals”) introduced by two of my least favorite co-members.  This post has made it more clear to me why I dislike the term.  To be quite blunt, I think that it is a crude admixture of the already-vague enviro-lefty concept of “sustainability” with the just-so, common-sense concept of “viability”—that last refuge of unimaginative econo-wonks.  It is a mixture made all the more annoying by virtue of the fact that “the economy” is—for all intents and purposes—the virtual antithesis of “sustainability”.  The present economic woes of the nation should make this totally, bold-facedly, pension-disolvedly, home-foreclosedly, debt-riddenly obvious.  “Economic sustainability” is up there with “anarcho-capitalism” as one of the most regressive, oxymoronic notions ever conceived.

But, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, I’m not writing this to trash the original post.  It is just that it has reminded me how tragically easy it is for those of us who work in collectives like PedX to allow “the economy” to so limit our ideas and so warp our sensibilities about economics—it was for me anyway.  Many of us started out in collectives with idealistic notions about how the world could be changed for the better through the propagation of a different model of economic relationships.  But then the persistent, wearying need to put food in our mouths and roofs over our heads and well-tuned machines between our legs (in the case of PedX) ground us down and carved us out into cement boats that could miraculously float in the cold, uncaring sea of “the economy”.  And some of us even succumb to that soothing rhetoric about rising tides.  Such is the danger, I think, with incremental approaches to social and economic change.

Speaking now of my own experience, I attempted to combat this tendency by staying involved, to some extent, with union activism.  And I regularly attended and organized meetings of collectives and cooperatives with the goal of building a real alternative to “the economy”.  I was involved with an initiative to establish a Local Exchange Trading System (LETS) in an effort to transform the very fluid that lubricates relationships in “the economy”:  money.  I even went so far as to lobby for a position on the board of the Santa Cruz Community Credit Union, though I quickly realized that they had so richly decorated their cement boats that there was no hope of bringing them back to their original mission of radically altering the terms of “the economy” for the benefit of alternative economic models.  But I grew tired of treading water in a lukewarm jacuzzi filled with an amniotic fluid of “self-management”, “alternative currency”, squatting and an opportunivore diet—a jacuzzi floating in that cold sea of cut-throat capitalism.  So, I traded in my jacuzzi for a spartan cement boat, content for a while to play at being lower-middle-class, pretending—yet fooling no one, including myself—that this was somehow a more “authentic” life.

There was something worthwhile about that jacuzzi, though.  It was the community, the sense of shared lives, shared loves and shared destinies…or at least ones that could be imagined until the reality of living in a transient college town set in.  But, to dispense for the moment with the ridiculous extended metaphors and get to the point:

I think the current economic situation provides an opportunity for us to make use of all these quirky little skills we’ve picked up working in collectives, living in collective households, organizing craft parties, throwing alley-cat races, staffing infoshops, fixing bikes, gardening and canning the produce, making moonshine, climbing trees and keeping the books to fundamentally alter the economy of our everyday lives in a way that surpasses and renders irrelevant the traditional call to arms: “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”.  But, I think to make such a change in the long run, we have to develop strategies consciously antagonistic to “the economy”.  We have to make it evident, by word and by example, that value and wealth are created in and among communities, and at the same time combat the notion that value and wealth come from a set of abstract rules that govern balance sheets, not people.  Of course, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.  And this obviously isn’t an easy struggle to remain focused on, particularly not when you’re running a business, but I think that the heads of capital have done much of our work for us by making it clear how utterly bankrupt, irrational and—yes—unsustainable, the modern notion of “the economy” is.


  1. yawn.

    Comment by elaina — February 4, 2009 @ 1:59 am

  2. O.K. Seriously. You know I agree with you about all that. Flowery metaphors aside. I guess what we mean by “economic sustainability” is “surviving capitalism for the time being”. It’s a shitty situation to be in, as you know. Running a business is itself an admission of defeat. Right? We’re throwing up our arms and saying “Alright, Capitalism, we’ll follow the rules.” Or whatever.

    On the other hand, most of us aren’t ready to squat, forage, etc. Joining a cooperative or starting your own one-woman business is a small step towards autonomy. Still a worker, but one who makes decisions and doesn’t have to wear a stupid uniform and kiss the customer’s ass. Isn’t that how the PedX vision statement goes?

    Comment by elaina — February 4, 2009 @ 5:16 am

  3. Yeah, I knew we pretty much agreed on all this. I apologize for the antagonistic tone. The “economically sustainable” phrase does “get my goat”, as I like to say. I realized some time ago that squatting and foraging and otherwise living in the cracks of the system is not a viable long-term strategy—individually or collectively. But I also think the incremental approach of small steps toward autonomy needs to be evaluated with the same critical eye. Neither approach is a complete rupture from and of capitalist relations, but I don’t think this should necessarily be construed as an admission of defeat. Both are coping mechanisms for making do with the world we’re born into, in a struggle not so much against capitalism per se as against isolation and the austerity of poverty.

    I think the reason I object to the phrase “economic sustainability” is that I’d like to think there is something salvageable in the term “sustainability” that isn’t fundamentally conservative in outlook. And if we can’t immediately rescue ourselves and our friends and relations, we can at least rescue the terms “economy” and “economic” from the realm of mere coping mechanisms dictated by the strictures of capitalism. I tend to think these terms got mushed together in the first place because of a desire to cast our work—and, more importantly, our financial remuneration—in collectives as somehow different from your average work-a-day job. It is different, of course, but I think it is dangerous to consider our coping mechanisms as inherently anti-capitalist and to use the term sustainability to denote a survival strategy focused, as you note, on “the time being.” I’d like to think that we might be less distracted by these contradictions if we simply called a spade a spade. The issue your post addresses is financial viability.

    For those of us concerned with the destruction of capitalism, our focus lies (or should lie) elsewhere. To call it “economic sustainability” is to lull ourselves into the belief that we can have our organic, locally-produced, dolphin-free artisan cake and eat it too. It is important to address strategies for surviving under capitalism, but we will never be able to seize the initiative in the struggle against capitalism until we draw the distinction in clear terms between surviving under it and fighting to overcome it.

    But again, this is probably nothing you haven’t heard or thought yourself. And, really, who am I to talk, living in a gated community in the Sahara while you’re staffing at SubRosa (which isn’t to suggest that’s the pinnacle of resistance, necessarily).

    Comment by admin — February 4, 2009 @ 7:00 am

  4. I like you both. Just so you know.

    Comment by Blaize — February 4, 2009 @ 7:29 am

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