Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Detroit Reimagining Work Conference -- Guest Speakers

Frithjof Bergmann

Frithjof Bergmann, founder of the Center for New Work and professor emeritus of the University of Michigan, identified the three forces that have led to the demise of the job system:  automation, globalization and the loss of the farming population, which amounted to 80 percent of the world’s population worked in farming

“This was an enormous loss of jobs,” he said in a video message to conference attendees.  “We must make up for the kinds of work that have been eradicated.” 

The current job system is only 200 years old and came in its own through the Industrial Revolution. 

“[It] is based on the idea that jobs redistribute wealth:  capitalists made profits, the profit was distributed when workers got paid, and the workers again helped the capitalists to amass wealth,” he said.  “It is very possible now for people to make very large sums of money without employing anybody.”

“One of the really frightful aspects of this situation,” he continued, “is that we have something like a third of the population working at an utterly insane pace, and on the other side, close to half of the population is obviously underemployed.  It’s crazy.”

The job system has also called into question workers’ purpose, which research shows to be the decisive criterion that enthuses people about their work whether they are working in highly creative fields or lugging sandbags all night to keep their community from flooding.  What makes work a pointless drudgery is when workers believe that what they are producing is neither first-rate nor a contribution to the society or community in which they live. 

More and more people all over the world are paying attention to what is happening in Detroit, particularly through its urban gardens and rehabilitation of houses, said Bergmann.  People feel a sense of self-reliance or what he calls “self-providing” where what they get out of their work is ownership. 

Another aspect of “self-providing” is shopping in a high-tech, intelligent way with the computer.  Instead of being hypnotized into buying stuff out of frustration or mere wanting, people would stop and think more about what they needed and where they could get a good price for it. 

Electric cars play a role, too.  Instead of owning a vehicle, when someone needs one, s/he would schedule it through e-mail.  These cars could also be used to generate electricity. 

“Technology, properly used, could make people extraordinarily independent,” said Bergmann.  “It makes all the difference in the world to feel that one is not chained to the money economy.  Many people get ulcers, even if they have a reasonably good income, because they feel perpetually threatened.  The only way not to feel threatened is to feel that, if need be, you can make it on your own.”

Working with other people in these endeavors and not just restructuring institutions is also liberating.

“We now have very expensive programs that try to address the extremes of human misery:  from welfare programs to job training programs,” said Bergmann.  “We could do much better simply by making it possible for people who urgently and often quite desperately want to do something for their own communities, to do it!”

Gar Alperovitz

“People know something is wrong but they have difficulty identifying what that is,” said Gar Alperovitz, author of America Beyond Capitalism.  “We have to begin a careful and slow reconstitution of our communities.”

To do that the historian and political economist suggested we go beyond capitalism and state socialism to rebuild “the most powerful system in the world” that is failing before our very eyes through “deadlock and decay and stagnation.”

He identified the problem as a concentration of wealth where 400 people own the equivalent of what the bottom 150 million Americans own.  Such an inequality of capital not only makes for the lopsided democracy where the rich control government and policy, but it is the destroyer of communities.  This concern served as the impetus for establishing the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland in 2000, which aims to promote new strategies and innovations in community development that enhance democratic life.

“People are right to oppose the corporate state,” said Alperovitz.  “The way the state is organized is a rip-off and the way the corporations are operating is ripping the country apart.  We have to come up with real answers.”

To do this, he helped establish the Community Wealth Building Initiative at the University of Maryland, which produces a wide range of projects involving research, training, policy development, and community-focused work designed to promote an asset-based paradigm and increase support for the field across-the-board.

One of the success stories Alperovitz cited was the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative in Cleveland that shows how a community is able to create wealth and share it among its citizens rather than to just create jobs.  Evergreen is an employee-owned operation where for-profit companies are based locally and hire locally.  Workers earn a living wage at meaningful green jobs where they can build equity as owners of the business and financial resources are kept within the community. Residents of six of the city’s neighborhoods have partnered with some of Cleveland’s most important “anchor institutions” including the Cleveland Foundation, the City of Cleveland, Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals to provide The institutions in Cleveland employ 40,000 people with a median income of $18,000.  They bought $3 billion worth of goods and services and none of it had been purchased in the area.  Through the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative, partnerships among some of these institutions and the residents of six of the city’s neighborhoods partnered to direct some of this purchasing to the local community.  So far, Evergreen provides laundry services, a 3.5-acre greenhouse that produces hydroponic vegetables with a solar installation company that is just getting started.  Workers earn a living wage at meaningful green jobs where they can build equity as owners of the business and financial resources are kept within the community.  See the video.

The United States has a lot of room for such experiments, said Gar, who encouraged participants to think in terms of ways their local institutions could restructure themselves and reinvest their wealth so that organizations were less likely to leave the area, local citizens could be employed and the community as a whole could grow economically and democratically because all people had a stake in making that happen. 

“This is a demanding educational task,” said Gar, “because you’re confronting very hard questions” like dealing with outside corporate competition that undercuts the prices of local companies and then threatens their existence. 

Another challenge is to talk to people we’re not used to talking to in ways that make sense to them in order to transform the entire community so that democracy and fairness can actually take place.  A lot of this will require reflection on who we are and what principles we value and people typically avoid such questions, he said. 

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