Labor rights are human rights.
We know this because labor is the basic way we human beings contribute our capacity to create wealth to the societies in which we live and which keep us alive. Labor is our “product,” the “good” we bring to the marketplace, and our right to determine what we are paid for it (by collective action or otherwise) is as inalienable as the right to determine the cost of any physical good we might produce and bring to market.
But we should think about this one step more fundamentally.
Since labor is the source of all value -- and money is the device we create to unitize and store value – workers (who perform all of the labor which creates value) have the fundamental right to issue money and define how it is unitized. People are actually better positioned to create money than either private banks or governments. What's more, this is perfectly legal in the United States so long as such currencies are not used for interstate commerce.
Issuing money is every bit as powerful as it sounds. Scrips were essential to the survival of the communities that employed them during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and were pressed to service again by workers in Argentina during the fiscal crisis of the early 2000s. Strike scrips can provide the crucial liquidity to get workers and their communities through negotiations with employers, freeing up federal dollars for other necessary costs. Wherever they are issued, local currencies demonstrate people's capacity and willingness to supply life's necessities to one another. At the same time, local currencies disempower large corporations which rely upon pooling profits across state and national boundaries to advantage themselves over local businesses.
Perhaps the first and most salutary employment of local currency would be in the agricultural sector where it could once again revitalize and make competitive local, sustainable foods. “Vertical integration” of food production in the last 40 years by corporations has put unbearable profit-pressures on family farmers, inducing them – often against their better instincts -- to push soils beyond their productive capacities with chemical fertilizers, herbicides and genetically modified crops.
A look at the much different world of sustainable farming helps us become aware of the various ways that modern capitalism subsidizes certain production methods and “externalizes” (i.e., abandons responsibility for) certain costs.
Getting food from seed to mouth -- whether sustainably or otherwise -- is extremely energy-intensive, and doing it for the end-prices we currently witness on grocery store shelves is not possible without mass-production and the cheap oil that enables it. Petroleum, for its part, is both vastly undervalued and largely “uncosted” in terms of its environmental impacts; if its price were to begin to reflect its actual value to us along with its remediation costs (or were oil to disappear altogether, as will happen of necessity in time) we would soon find ourselves forced to employ millions of extra hands in order to bring the harvest home each season. That would have a tremendous impact food prices, and it reminds us that mass production has made food artificially cheap over the past several decades by all but eliminating its labor costs. Indeed, Americans pay a far smaller percentage of their incomes for food than the citizens of almost any other nation.
If food-production is, generally-speaking, energy-intensive, sustainable food-production is specifically labor-intensive, since diversified, small-scale growing techniques (rather than monocropping) are required, as is avoidance of heavy machinery which -- in addition to gulping down non-renewable resources -- can be damaging to the land.
Because sustainable food production is inherently labor-intensive, we will never find a way to make its end-product cheap, at least if food producers are to be given a living wage (part of what makes sustainable food “sustainable”). At the same time, because household budgets have adjusted over the decades to cheap, oil-subsidized food, few of us could withstand the sort of increase in price that would be necessary to give sustainable food producers a truly living wage. As it is, organic food is out of the reach of many consumers, and most small-scale organic farms can barely survive financially, even with a punishing work-load during the growing season.
What is to be Done
Various community supported agriculture (CSA) programs around the nation have addressed the expensiveness of sustainable food by subsidizing a certain number of their shares, to effectively match the subsidy that conventional farmers take by way of burning up the planet’s fossil fuel, poisoning the land with pesticides and herbicides, destroying soil structure, etc. These subsidies have the salutary effect of lowering the end-price of sustainable food toward that of conventional produce for a limited number of shares, and getting it into the hands of lower-income eaters. This is clearly a practical, workable solution for introducing a degree of immediate, on-the-ground justice into an otherwise unequal food system.
In the longer view though, the merit of this strategy, or any which seeks to make food available as a form of “charity,” needs to be scrutinized. Subsidizing by donation inevitably requires surplus money from somewhere, a fact which should, in itself, raise alarm bells. Surplus private wealth, under the current economic system, is structurally tied to impoverishment and the exploitation of labor, the very problems which necessitate the subsidizing of sustainable food in the first place. At a theoretical level we need to examine the efficacy of a strategy which, in order to work, requires the existence of the very problem for which we are seeking a solution.
On a more practical level, philanthropic donations are exceptionally prone to economic volatility, rising and falling with the capitalist business cycle. During more substantive crises in global capitalism (worldwide recession or prolonged devaluation of the dollar, eg.), charitable donations often wane precipitously.
Seeking donations also requires a certain amount of labor time devoted simply to the task of enticing money out of deeper pockets; if historical precedent is the guide, this often comes in the form of volunteer hours, which is to say, unpaid labor. So -- in relying simply on a strategy of subsidizing under the status quo -- not only do we remain dependent upon ongoing capitalist economic health and the good graces of those with extra wealth for donations, but upon a free ride from unpaid labor (willing though it may be) in order to tap that wealth, all in an effort to correct the injustice in one specific part of the capitalist marketplace. If sustainability in our food-systems is what we’re after, this ongoing set of evasions and back-flips will never do.
It’s clear that sustainable growers can never match the price that corporate mass-agriculture brings to the shelves, nor should we aim to. While we need to employ every (sustainable) efficiency possible, the strategy for making sustainably-grown food available to all must be wider in scope. We need to look more broadly at how capitalism functions in order to engineer a genuinely sustainable and free-standing solution.
Parsing capitalist money-systems -- and charting a way round them -- are essential to this, since money mediates the flow of real wealth in the economy. Central Bank currencies like the dollar are loaned into circulation for private profit and are deliberately kept scarce for a number of macroeconomic reasons; most commonly cited is the maintenance of a marginal unemployment rate (“preventing inflation” as it’s disingenuously referred to by economists and the press) so that workers are unable to effectively organize and demand a larger share of the profits from production. Even more basic is the importance of simply maintaining a demand for loans and other forms of finance, so that the financial services sector (where the vast bulk of the world’s daily economic transactions take place) can continue to operate. A positive base interest rate along with an under-supplied exchange medium are essential to this; together, they insure that it will always be possible to make money from money, the fundamental premise underlying the financial services industry and the primary mechanism by which wealth concentrates.
So, along with basic central-bank monetary policy comes the inevitability of poverty and wealth, despite whatever other economic conditions might prevail or policies be undertaken. What’s needed for real, systemic, sustainable change is a permanent, structural alteration to entire local economies so that money is not so “scarce,” and wealth not so concentrated. Local, supplemental, citizen-issued currencies can play an essential role in enabling this.
Such democratically-controlled money circulates only locally to prevent wealth generated by a community from draining away to distant corporate coffers or stockholder’s pockets. It can’t be lent at interest, one of the primary mechanisms by which wealth concentrates and credit (“new” money) becomes scarce. And it’s typically denominated in hours-of-labor to encourage equalization of rates-of-pay, a stepping stone toward redistributing wealth in such a way that all of us might be able to enjoy sustainably-grown food -- and growers be given a living wage for it.
Critical to note here is that this is supplemental exchange-media -- it actually constitutes a permanent addition to the local money supply, and one which cannot become concentrated in the hands of a few (which is what happens when the supply of interest-bearing money is increased). Because you can’t make money from money with local currency, the increase in the money supply enriches all equally and represents a permanent increase in purchasing-power, mostly directed into the hands of those who will be purchasing basic goods and services with it rather than luxuries.
As an economic tool, the simplicity of community currency represents both its greatest potential and its greatest challenge. Local currency does the difficult work of re-distributing wealth more equitably simply by being issued and used. The problem is that it has to be used; as with the dollar, local currency derives its value from nothing more than the shear number of participants engaged in trading with it. Neither currency-type is “backed” by something of independent value for which it can be redeemed (gold, for example); in both cases, “backing,” or essential value, comes from the panoply of goods and services purchasable. In the case of the dollar, this includes essentially everything. So, it’s critical for social-justice oriented local currencies to broaden their number of users as far as possible so that they can become strong enough to actually re-shape local economies against the powerful molding effects of the dollar.
While that is potentially a large task, it is not insurmountable as Ithaca, N.Y.-- where hundreds of goods and services are purchasable with local currency-- readily demonstrates. The food economy is also a good sector in which to begin; indeed, it’s an ideal engine for inspiring local currency expansion for several reasons:
All consumers need food, and fairly constantly, so a maximal number of people are exposed to local currency, ideally spreading its use and diversifying the local currency economy as quickly as possible;
Workers in food production are notoriously underpaid, both in the farm-field and in the kitchen, so boosting their wages through the use of supplemental currency would function not only to stimulate demand for other basic goods and services, but to insure that the farms and other establishments that employ them have reason to want to get paid themselves with local currency;
Most localities can provide some percentage of their food locally (often a significant amount), and because this is typically in the form of fresh consumables, rapid shelf-turnover insures rapid cycling of local currency through the production chain;
Retail food purveying is a fairly large employer in every locality, and since labor is always a local cost (in food-purveying at least), even establishments which don’t source their food locally can always use local currency to pay their labor expenses.
On a more symbolic level:
Since one of the things money does is to track (in reverse direction) energy flows in the economy, it would be appropriate that the “Round River” (to borrow Aldo Leopold’s phrase) -- the river of energy that flows out of the soil, into plants, animals and people, and then back into the soil -- be mimicked by monetary flows that also originate and remain local.
Even if you’re not a member of a CSA or other local food program, it’s important to remember that -- as a consumer -- you play an inevitable role in shaping the global economy, both in terms of what’s produced and how the profits from that production are distributed. The currency you use is not irrelevant or incidental to this; exchange media do not just flow according to supply and demand but also according to a logic which derives from how they are issued. For dollars -- which are loaned into circulation for profit, and therefore kept relatively scarce by central banks -- accumulation, concentration and further profit-making are the inevitable behavioral outcomes attached to use. When you spend dollars, you further this system and its values whether you like it or not. We need to build a world where money cannot be made from money but only from real work.
Shaping a just world economy from the consumption-end can therefore never be a matter simply of purchasing conscientiously, though that is obviously an essential starting point. But even if you avoid, say, buying all corporate food products, you still have no control over where your dollars go after they leave your pocket. You may use a dollar to buy a local head of lettuce, but dollars are drawn at every point to where they will return the highest profit. A local farmer will, of course, get a cut. But the dollar itself will travel from the cashier's till to the grocery store’s depository institution, where it will be instantaneously thrust into the wider financial services sector to seek its best return; that may ultimately be in your neighbor’s mortgage, or it may be with Cargill or Monsanto or Archer-Daniels-Midland. The single dollar may not seem like much, but added together with trillions of others it provides the basic fuel that allows the great financial and corporate powers to continue operating without regard to human or planetary welfare.
If we want to choke off the supply of dollars to corporate mega-giants and end concentration of wealth, we need to be doing more than just making conscientious purchasing choices -- we need to be employing local currencies. Only through such grassroots, democratic mechanisms -- along with supporting fair-trade and other sustainability practices -- can we insure that our small role in the marketplace is one which helps distribute the benefits of global commerce equitably amongst the world’s people.