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Is It Possible To Build An Economy Without Jobs?

Humans will always work. But that whole employee-employer thing is optional. It's time to start looking for another model.

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Since a Reimagining Work conference held in Detroit last fall, new economy energy and enthusiasm have intensified. There are growing efforts in food production and distribution, education, media, supporting the formerly incarcerated, transportation, community policing and manufacturing. 

Longtime new work and new culture advocate and philosopher Frithjof Bergman is bringing new manufacturing and new construction technologies developed in Europe, India and Africa to the attention of Detroit’s new economy pioneers. Julia Putnam, an alumnus of the pioneering Bogg’s Center Detroit Summer Project, which started in 1992, is leading a Boggs Center school in a former Detroit public school building. The Urban Network founded by Yusef Shakur, a former felon, does groundbreaking work reintegrating former prisoners into the community and to supporting the children of those still incarcerated. A growing network of meetings,  conferences and Web sites allows Detroit’s many projects and initiatives to cross-fertilize. 

Detroit however is but one place where reimagining work is underway. As Gar Alperovitz, a speaker at the Reimagining Work conference said in a widely discussed New York Times op-ed last December,  “…something different has been quietly brewing in recent decades: more and more Americans are involved in co-ops, worker-owned companies and other alternatives to the traditional capitalist model. We may, in fact, be moving toward a hybrid system, something different from both traditional capitalism and socialism, without anyone even noticing."

In Cleveland, Alperovitz has been involved in launching the Evergreen Laundry, a worker-owned commercial laundry. Evergreen Laundry was developed in part with the Mondragon Co-operatives, a 50-year-old business based in Spain that now has more than 125,000 worker members around the world. Mondragon is now also working with the United Steel Workers (USW) to foster ventures in the US. 

Emmanuel Pratt, another presenter at the Reimagining Work conference, is now expanding his Milwaukee-founded Sweetwater Foundation urban agriculture and aquaculture model to Chicago. This May in Grand Rapids, Michigan the Business Alliance for Local Living (BALLE), will convene its 10th annual conference of new economy businesses. More than 1,000 delegates are expected to attend. 

Vandana Shiva, who addressed the Reimagining Work conference via video, is a another activist/thinker bringing new work ideas to her largely women-initiated projects in India. 

There is no one template that is guiding these rapidly growing worldwide efforts. The writings and videos of the people named above, plus Matthew Fox, David and Fran Korten, Ahrundati Roy, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Paul Gildering and others are resources for many new economy innovators. 

What all have in common is the realization that the old system is breaking down. Within the distinction made by Grace Boggs between protest organizing and visionary organizing, they fall on the visionary side. Many believe that small and local are best, especially at this stage. All tend to be non-dogmatic and inclusive rather than exclusive and rigidly ideological. All are committed to fair treatment of all stakeholders involved. Cooperation and community are valued over competition and individualism. Genuine leadership is valued and respected. Hierarchy for its own sake is not. 

All share a sense of urgency driven by the growing waste of human potential, and the race to avoid ecosystem catastrophe. 

What stands out most of all? A sense of optimism and hope. Job system not working? That’s OK. We’ll make music anyway. 


Frank Joyce is president of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights and board president of the Working Group. Listen to him Sundays, 4-5pm EST, on "Live from the Land of Hopes and Dreams," on Sirius 146 and XM 167.

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