Our Search For Meaning

In a world that some mornings seems to have gone mad, it is all too easy to give up hope.  I once gave a talk at Oxford University and a man in the front row asked, after I was finished talking about co-operatives, “But Mr Webb I liked much of what you said but surely you must realize that capitalist corporations have already won.  They dominate the world.  Why do you not just give up and go home?”  I responded that,  “I had five children and that when I went home I might have had to explain to them why I did nothing while inequality exploded, their environment was destroyed and democracy and freedom were undermined.  That would be much harder than speaking truth to power.”

My thinking on this was shaped by Viktor Frankl in his wonderful book “Man’s Search for Meaning.”  Frankl was a psychiatrist from Vienna who lost his whole family when he and they were sent to the Nazi death camps.  He lost his life’s work when his manuscript and notes for a book he was writing was taken from him and destroyed.  He endured years of torture and humiliation but emerged a loving, compassionate human being while some others  emerged filled with hatred and revenge.  He grew as a human being because he never lost sight of the knowledge that while others may take away your freedom and do horrible things to you they can never take away your freedom to respond in a way consistent with your values and beliefs –  to think as your values shape your thoughts. Only you can choose to love or hate.

It is a book about the capacity of the human spirit for decency, compassion and love.  A book to keep by your bedside.

Co-operation More Powerful Than Competition

An excerpt from: From Corporate Globalization to Global Co-operation, Page 90

“Neoclassical economics and right wing philosophy would tell us that the most powerful driver in human nature IS individual self-interest in the rational pursuit of maximum wealth for minimal effort. Wouldn’t that mean that co-operatives were just utopian dreams
out of touch with what drives “economic man” and destined to remain on the fringe
of the economy? Are people social and co-operative by nature, or competitive and
self centred? These are questions that need to be responded to by both heart and
head because they go to the very core of what it means to be human.
In considering scientific answers to these questions we begin with a reflection
on the emergence of life on our planet. In his 2012 book The Super Cooperators,
Martin Nowak, one of the world’s leading theorists on evolution, points out that
for life to move beyond single-cell organisms cells needed to co-operate. As life
became more and more complex, it was an explosion of co-operation that made it
possible. If the cells in your eyes did not co-operate you would not see this line of
words. If the cells in your brain did not work together you would not understand
anything. All complex life is based on cell co-operation, without which there is no
intelligence and no emotion.5 When cells cease to co-operate and begin to multiply,
simply reproducing themselves, it is called cancer. The absence of co-operation in
cells leads to death.”

This is the foundation of co-operation in life.  As life advanced so did co-operation.  As the book argues the success of humanity owes more to cooperation than to competition.  Humanity has now reached the stage where it must choose between the positive constructive forces of humanity – caring, sharing, compassion, empathy and love – and the dark forces of human nature – competition, greed, hyper individualism and selfishness.  Will our future be win-win-win or win-lose-lose- lose?  Will we choose life or destruction?  Climate change or sustainable, ecological co-operation?  Me first or us together?

Let us choose life.

 

Searching for Meaning

In our own lives, what is more important, what we consumed today or what we contributed to our families, our communities and our world?  What would leave us more dissatisfied, knowing that we acquired a less than perfect automobile, didn’t have the latest electronic gadget or that an idea we had failed to make the world a better place for our children because we did not have the authority or legitimacy or power to accomplish it?  Is our reality as consumers the most important part of our beings or is it the part that is most likely to destroy the world around us through the consumption of wants rather than needs?  Let me suggest that unleashing the creative, caring and loving parts of our humanity is the most powerful source of meaning for human beings.

Imagine a world where we owned and controlled our work spaces, co-operating with colleagues to help each other be the best we can be.  Where we focused on using our talents and gifts to improve the lives of our families, communities and world.  We can build that world bit by bit, workplace by workplace.  We can replace capitalism and a world focused on money with economic democracy and meeting human need.

Growing Inequality or Economic Freedom

CBC’s Fifth Estate’s headline read:  “Wealthy Canadians exposed in KPMG offshore tax ‘sham’  $5-million ‘minimum’ entry fee to get into offshore scheme.”

 

Seniors who have worked hard all their lives but who are living below the poverty line want a better economy, a different economy for their children and grandchildren.  Students graduating with no hope of a career, a steady job, benefits, owning a home or a pension want a better, different economy for themselves and their children.

Our current capital based economy offers little hope.  They are surrounded by an economy in which capital based corporations, owned by the very rich, design new ways every day for the super rich to get richer and pay less taxes.  Now a billionaire who pays no taxes runs the richest country in the world.  The poor who were tricked into voting for him can now get to watch him serve the very richest.

There is an alternative.  Co-operatives are people based as opposed to capital based.  Their purpose is to meet member and community need as opposed to making the already super rich richer.  They are not perfect.  They are only as good as their members – workers, consumers, farmers and fishers – make them.  They are governed by one person one vote rather than one dollar one vote.  you will not find a co-operative CEO making a ‘bonus’ of $72 million.  Photo courtesy of Inequality.org

There is no legitimate business in the world that cannot be created as a co-operative.  If grand parents and today’s youth want a better world they can make it happen.

Why are so many people angry?

When the economic elite takes and takes and sets the rules for how the economy works and how trade will benefit them, it destroys hope and produces despair.  Despair is where anger grows.  When those who practice the politics of fear, lies, hatred, violence and revenge find despair and anger they cloth themselves in righteousness and win elections.

The average worker at Google makes a pretty penny, as one would expect of a massive, super profitable tech company: about $89,000. Meanwhile, Google CEO Sundar Pichai pockets a staggering $100,632,102, over 1,000 times more than the typical Googler.  In fact 1,130.69 times $89,000.”

Text and graph courtesy of http://inequality.org/

Making the Vision visible

 

“For example, despite being surrounded by farmland, Marks (Louisiana)  residents had to drive 20 miles to the nearest Wal-Mart just to get fresh vegetables. But Shreveport Federal Credit Union changed all that by organizing local farmers into a worker-owned cooperative, renovating a building, and creating what became the Delta Muletrain Farmers Market.”  James Trimarco posted Mar 17, 2017 in YES Magazine (www.yesmagazine.org/ )

Investor-Owned Banks vs The People

Are you puzzled or upset or angry by the CBC’s recent Go Public revelations about banks serving their investors at your expense?  You need to ask, ‘What is the purpose of a bank?’  It is not to provide you with financial services or good advice.  The purpose of a bank, the reason it was incorporated, was to maximize the return to shareholders. Anything it does is done to achieve that purpose. In this particular instance the reason we know about what lengths banks will go to is that many people who work in them are good decent people.  You need to understand the banks will pay them as little as possible and pressure them.  They will replace them with cheap off shore labour if possible.

How do big investor-owned companies maximize their profits?  They cut the cost of supplies by getting them at the cheapest possible prices regardless of how the supplier treats his workers. They pay workers as little as possible.  They maximize their income from your bank fees.  They sell products that are best for profits – not for customers.  When a bank does any of these things, it is simply doing what its investors created it for.  This is why you see so much destructive behaviour from banks and other investor owned firms.  Remember as well that millions of Canadians have pension funds regulated by government.  The regulator, and pensioners, demand that those funds seek the highest possible return.  They are seriously discouraged from ‘ethical’ or ‘socially responsible’ investments.

But don’t banks do ‘good things|’?  Clearly they do but they will do ‘good’ only if it is profit neutral or adds to profits, or, if a person with enough decision making authority decides to do the right thing.  The banks have many, many good people in them as the CBC has discovered with Go Public.  It is the structure that creates the pressure to do whatever is necessary to maximize returns – that, and the desire of CEOs and senior managers to be able to say ‘their’s is bigger than the next guy’s’.  As KPMG, the Dryden Power and Timber, Loblaw’s Joe Fresh, oil companies, rail companies, countless junk food companies and thousands of other examples recent and past show, the investor owned company is a flawed idea.  It does not serve the best interests of society because it is very prone to anti-social behaviour.

There is a difference between a family doctor’s business and a huge investor owned corporation like a bank or Shell oil.  Doctors and family businesses are not driven to serve investors.  They have multiple bottom lines.  They want to feed their families, treat workers well, contribute to the community, etc.  Not all of them are angels but as a group they generally share these multiple objectives and want to treat people fairly and expect their colleagues to do the same.  Large investor driven companies expect the worst of their competitors and, as the calls to CBC from all the big bank’s workers show, they match their behaviour so they will not fall behind in the profits race.  Don’t confuse all business with big investor driven business.  Small family businesses, social enterprise and co-operatives are very, very different.

We are told over and over that Canada does such a good job regulating banks.  But let us revisit 2008.  Clearly the regulator has been looking the other way lately.  The shameful treatment of workers and customers went unnoticed.  Worse, when the story exploded the regulator’s spokesperson said, “In very serious violations we could even name the company.”  Now that statement surely did not make bank CEO’s shake in their shoes.  The problem with big and increasingly bigger companies is that they undermine democracy.  Regulators increasingly act on behalf of the companies rather than citizens.  The regulator talks to the companies, senior bureaucrats meet with them, prime ministers meet with them, their lobbyists crawl all over government.  More important they have economic power.  If governments do not do their bidding companies can cause rising unemployment.  No government wants that.  Banks can stop lending as they did post 2008 slowing the recovery.

Remember the 2008 collapse in the US which led to a global collapse and arguably millions of deaths globally?  What caused it?  It was US banks selling bad loans to people who could not meet the payments, and then packaging the worthless mortgages as clever investments.  Our regulator should have been all over the current mess which includes bad loans, and risky credit cards and lines of credit.  What happens when the bad loans cannot be paid?  When the bad lines of credit cannot be paid?  When the ill-advised credit card debts cannot be paid?  How big is the bubble?

But people ask, including the CBC, ”What alternative do we have”?  The real questions should be: “What if people in each community and region owned the bank they used?”  “Would it ‘up sell’ to them?”  “Fiddle them on fees?” “Talk them into loans they could not afford?”  “Would it loan their hard earned savings out at high risk?”  Clearly it would not do so.  Such behaviour would not be in the interests of its owners.

We do have an alternative!  We have financial institutions called credit unions and ‘caisse populaires’ in Canada and some other countries and co-operative banks elsewhere.  They provide a wide range of financial services but seldom make loans people cannot pay.   I do not have a single cent in a bank.  I left banks when I was in graduate school and the Bank of Nova Scotia bounced a cheque that was a few dollars short even though a savings sub account had thousands of dollars in it.  They charged a ‘bounce fee’ and so did the university.  Said the bank manager, “This is a good learning experience for you son.”  It was.  I never dealt with his bank again.  I moved to a credit union.

So are credit unions the perfect solution?  Nothing in this world is perfect.  But I am confident in saying they are better than investor-owned banks.  The investor-owned structure is one that, in the words of Arthur Anderson accountant, Ralph Estes, ‘makes good people do bad things’.  The credit union/co-operative bank structure is one that pressures people to do the right thing.  Its purpose is not to maximize the return to some absentee investors but to provide members with financial services.  The people who use it, own it.  If it miscalculates and charges them too much the members get it back at the end of the year.  There is a set of values and principles that come with being a credit union.  It is this different purpose combined with the values and principles that exerts a pressure on the board, elected by the members (on the basis of one person one vote) and on management to do the right thing.

Do they always get it right?  No.  Alas, they are human.  Running a co-operative requires a different ‘business culture.’   When you are surrounded by a dominant capitalist business culture, that is a challenge. The goal is to ensure a financially sound business that is capable of meeting member needs as opposed to figuring out how to skim a buck off everyone who comes in contact with the organization so you can enrich an absentee investor.

So there is an alternative.  Credit unions would welcome new members and especially welcome former bank workers who are sick of being bullied, harassed and fired for not taking advantage of their customers.

It is About Humanity and Planet Earth

From the preface of From Corporate Globalization to Global Co-operation

“This book is not about economics or politics or society. It is about where they
all meet. It is not value free. The vision that drives it is the search for a better
world. The motivation for writing it is grounded in a growing apprehension about
the capitalism-driven trends of the last fifty years, a profound belief in the general
goodness of humanity and a sense of realistic optimism. It is a set of reflections
about the human condition and how we might better organize our thinking,
structures and processes to enhance human dignity. Intuitively and rationally, I
have come to the conclusion that the ideas, principles and values of co-operation
offer the best opportunity to enhance human dignity. My bias is that co-operation
is more important and healthier than competition; that forgiveness is better than
revenge; that giving and sharing produce a greater sense of personal well being
than getting and hoarding; and that love produces a better world. If these things
are true, we should base our actions and organizations and our economic, social
and political systems on co-operation, forgiveness, giving, sharing and nurturing
love. We have not done so.”

“To work against creation, or to subdue it, will ultimately lead to our own destruction, for we are enmeshed in it. The dignity of people and the dignity of creation are sides of the same coin.”

We should not feel fear about abandoning the ideas of capitalism.  What we should fear is clinging to them until they destroy human society and the natural world that supports our life.  We need to shift to business models that have as their purpose providing for human need.  Meeting that need means looking after each other rather than exploiting each other.  It means developing a healthy relationship with nature that will support all forms of life on the planet rather than mining nature to grow the wealth of the already very, very wealthy.  It means that meeting human need is not done as a means to hoarding more wealth, but because we need a better world.

Every day we should try and find some way, large or small, to disconnect from capitalism and build a co-operative economy.

Harnessing Discontent to Build Rather than Destroy

There are powerful forces in our world unleashed by growing inequality.   They are a significant part of where Donald J Trump found the people who were so angry they stopped thinking and voted for him.  They fueled Brexit.  They are being used to whip up anti-immigrant and religious hatred across Europe.  A key source of inequality has been the series of trade deals designed by huge corporations for their benefit and the benefit of those who own them at the expense of workers whose jobs are disappearing, wages and benefits shrinking.  Youth are looking at futures significantly worse off than their parents.  Huge debts, unstable work opportunities with no hope of the home ownership their parents enjoyed.  They will not have the homes they grew up in.  Some inequality facts:

http://inequality.org/income-inequality/

http://inequality.org/wealth-inequality/

This is a global phenomena

http://inequality.org/global-inequality/

Books

http://inequality.org/books-inequality/

There are positive visions that we can adopt to build a better world and there are negative ones that can be used to destroy and sew chaos.   Stirring hate between groups for political purposes – the politics of lies, fear, hatred, violence and revenge – has often been a tactic of political extremists from the right and left.  The outcomes legitimize the worst fringe extremists.   A warped nationalism is often part of the tactics.   “Just as love for one individual that excludes love for others is not love, love for one’s country that is not part of one’s love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.”  Eric Fromm, The Sane Society.  The America first rhetoric is idolatrous worship.  We need to turn to the positive visions.

A vision of Global Co-operation as explored in my book or Rutger Bregman’s proposal for a ‘universal basic incomes’ to eliminate poverty in his book Utopia for Realists are both visions of a better world.  They seek not to pit people against each other but to link hands and spirits in a common constructive endeavour.  Both ideas would eliminate poverty.  Both would provide space for people to make the contribution to society they wish to make.

But is it realistic to think bold new visions are more than idle dreams?  Says Bregman:  “I’ve heard for three years that many of my ideas are unrealistic and unreasonable and that we can’t afford them,” he says, by way of preamble to a more comprehensive reply. “And the simple answer is ‘Oh, you want to stick to the status quo? How’s that been working out?’” (Andrew Anthony in the Guardian 26 Oct 2017 (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/26/rutger-bregman-utopia-for-realists-interview-universal-basic-income?CMP=fb_gu)  Growing inequality into the foreseeable future may be someone’s vision but it is surely even less realistic.  It is insane.

People who see themselves and their children being sacrificed to feed growing inequality should be angry.  And they can and should do something.  They will get more satisfaction out of building a better world than being betrayed by the false promises of billionaires who unlike them do not pay taxes.