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Can New Economic Model Save Detroit From Financial Collapse?

Advocates of the "New Work New Culture" economic model think so.

Most Americans could never conceive a United States without capitalism. But a group of labor activists students and academics have convened in Detroit to discuss whether a new economic model is inevitable—regardless of whether we’re ready for it or not.

Frank Joyce, one of the organizers of the New Work New Culture Conference, where several hundred were in attendance last weekend, believes the current work culture is neither sustainable nor effective to rebuild a bankrupt city like Detroit. Referring to the current work culture as the “JOB System,” Joyce explained that our current labor system offers too much work to some and not enough to others. It also tends to employ people in jobs that pay the bills, but does little to enhance the quality of life for the worker.

“If it’s such a great system, why do we think the best parts of it are holidays, weekends, vacations and retirement,” Joyce, a lifetime Detroiter, told AlterNet. “If working is so great, how come we attach so much value to not working? Think about that.”

As defined in the New Work New Culture Reader, the “JOB System” discriminates against the unemployed, “politically empowers some to the unnecessary disadvantage of others,” “promotes conflict rather than cooperation,” and “is hostile to the creation of community.”

Conference organizers believe Detroit is a prime example of the traditional economy gone wrong because all of the aforementioned negatives.

The New Work New Culture economic model, which conference organizers have been discussing over the past few days, is one many believe is most viable to revitalize Detroit’s economy. Under this model, people would be focused on work they actually enjoy as opposed to what they must endure. It empowers people to pursue work that prioritizes themselves as the primary economic drivers as opposed to using their labor for the maximum benefit of someone else.

Most critically, the New Work New Culture model helps create jobs in local communities. A dollar made in that community would rotate multiple times because products would be made locally, significantly reducing the need of importing goods that would send dollars out to entities that may not have the community’s interests in mind.

No business is actualizing this model better than Incite Focus, a production and training lab that focuses on the relationships between digital fabrication, permaculture, experiential learning and appropriate technology, as described on the company website.

In five months, a resident can earn a diploma that will teach them the essentials of 3D molding and casting, computer-controlled machining, computer-controlled cutting and other skills. People who finish the program can create a wide range of products, like the furniture pictured here.

While this training will make people competitive in the job market, it’s really designed to make them self-sustaining business people who will use their skills for the economic and social benefit of their communities. This is the hallmark of New Work New Culture.

Blair Evans, executive director of Incite Focus, told AlterNet that New Work New Culture may look like entrepreneurship, but its aim is completely different.

“The idea of New Work New Culture definitely involves some disconnection from the large corporate structures and taking more responsibility for producing things that are of immediate value and getting more involved in the components that impact your quality of life and that makes things smaller, which means you have more initiative and innovation in that area,” Evans said. “So that is entrepreneurial, but it’s also moving towards a direction of not entrepreneurship for the purpose of maximizing the amount of dollars you produce, which is perpetuating some of that same cycle of dynamics that keep us trapped in some of the old economy; it’s entrepreneurship for the purpose of developing solutions and opportunities for your family and your community to more fully live life to the maximum.” 

Incite Focus also owns a charter school, Blanche Kelso Bruce Academy, which teaches “at-risk” students in grades K-12 the values of New Work New Culture. During a group tour of his facility, Evans, a native of Detroit and graduate of MIT, explained that his charter school has been successful in helping young people see the practical stake in their educations.

In a city where vacant lots and dilapidated homes dominate the landscape, young people are more likely to improve the outside appearance of their homes if the quality of life inside the home improves. If a 14-year-old student can build her own furniture, for example, that student will likely take a personal stake in rebuilding her community. By time that student graduates from Evan’s charter school, she will be empowered to create things that can be sold within her community. In addition, the student will actually enjoy what she does while providing for herself, her family and the community in which she lives.

Frithjof Bergmann, a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Michigan, is considered by many to be a founding father of the New Work New Culture model. He says America’s education system must be overhauled if students are to learn skills that will help them become economically self-sustaining and prepared for a future that will see a new economic model shift.

“The schools keep telling us that they’re preparing us for the future. That’s bullshit,” Bergmann said during a conference panel. “They are not preparing anyone for any future. They don’t have any idea what the future will be like. They stick to the past. Schools need to be changed from the ground up.”

New Work New Culture activists believe Detroit is a great place to implement such a model. While the national unemployment rate dropped from 6.1 percent to 5.9 percent, hourly pay has increased just two percent over the last year. No major city has felt the dearth of economic growth more than Detroit. With an unemployment rate that’s more than twice the national average, Detroit is carrying a poverty rate of nearly 40 percent with no end in sight of a significant decrease.

However, Joyce, Evans and others believe Detroit’s downturn has the potential to experience a long-lasting resurgence with the New Work New Culture model.

Joyce says that Detroit is a prime epicenter for the New Work New Culture model because it represents the most dramatic collapse of the old economy—namely capitalism. He is aware that the New Work New Culture model is a small one, but in a city like Detroit, any new model of economics is better than what people are experiencing now. He says, “The dominant economy, whether you call it the JOB System or capitalism or whatever you want to call it, is running out of gas.” 

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.

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