Transcending Old Alliances

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Dan Sullivan

Transcending Old Alliances

A Decentralist Perspective

By Dan Sullivan
Published in Green Revolution Volume 46, Number 3, Fall 1989

Truly new movements incorporate ideas and attract followers from across the entire political spectrum. Ours is not a new face on the old left; it exists because entrenched elements of the old left could not embrace radical departures any more than the old right could.

Growth of new movements is always slow in early stages. We have no established power base and no mass following ready to storm the Bastille. We do have a growing number of independent thinkers with common principles who are prepared to advance those principles - people for whom living true to their beliefs is far more important than being politically prominent.

Recently, however, the School of Living and the much larger Green Movement have become recognized as rising stars, and have attracted followers for whom prominence is important. Many have come from the old left, which has suffered a series of political setbacks. They are good people who genuinely support the Green agenda to the extent that they understand it, and who are looking for fresh approaches to combat monopolistic power structures.

However, they bring baggage from the old left with them, and this poses delicate problems. How can we help them wean themselves of certain old-left notions without showing disregard for their legitimate underlying values? How can we embrace them as allies without embracing things that drove us out of the old left in the first place? How can we show them that our growing prominence, to which they are attracted, comes from our ability to subordinate our desires for prominence?

The lead article in Green Revolution "Building a Social Movement: A Canadian Perspective", by Ulli Diemer, Vol. 46 No. 2) provides excellent examples of someone caught in this dilemma. While it contains what I would regard as enlightened passages, they are sandwiched between old-left rhetoric and old-left solutions which are hostile to fundamental principles of the School of Living and the Green Movement.

These old-left passages had to do with free trade, social spending, class struggle, unionism, and the concept of taking sides. It is on these issues that I feel compelled to offer what I see as "greener" alternatives. In doing this, I want to be clear that what we offer is very much in the interests of old-left constituencies, even when it departs from old-left agendas.

Protection vs. Free Trade

Diemer's article opens with an attack on the menacing ways of foreign corporations (i.e. U.S. corporations operating in Canada). Then, oblivious to the fact that the School of Living has advanced genuine solutions to this problem, it reaches into the old-left bag of tricks and pulls out protectionism. (Ralph Borsodi, the School's founder, was a staunch supporter of free trade, as was Henry George, whose economic principles are central to the School's role in the land trust movement.)

From a decentralist Green perspective, protection is an unacceptable non-solution. It is inherently centralist, nationalistic, monopolistic, authoritarian and bureaucratic. In essence, protection is central powers making people accept bad deals on domestic products by blocking better deals on foreign products. It keeps domestic monopolies fat and happy at the expense of both domestic consumers and foreign producers. Ironically, Canadian arguments about protection from U.S. competition are nearly identical to U.S. arguments about Japanese competition. Blaming foreigners is an easy way to avoid dealing with weaknesses in domestic systems. The notion of decentralized protection only serves to reveal the inherently destructive nature of protection. (Should Toronto be allowed to trade freely with Montreal? Should the city be allowed to trade freely with the suburbs? Should you be allowed to trade with your nextdoor neighbor for something you could have made yourself?) Nationalistic protection thrives only because distrust of foreigners masks its uncooperative nature. While the Green movement is focused on transcending national boundaries, protection makes it difficult to even cross those boundaries. As a professional furniture mover, I have dealt personally with customs officials at the U.S. - Canadian border. I once spent hours on end while Canadian customs agents plodded through a maze of forms, subtracting American import duties from Canadian import duties on a customer's Japanese camera, television and VCR. He ended up paying the Canadian government only $16.47, but he had to pay us $125 just to cover our time waiting. What a stupid way to welcome new residents!

Free trade is a natural process that would work quite well in the absence of manipulative central authority. Free trade presents problems only because other perversions of the marketplace have not been remedied.

Why are taxpayers forced to subsidize airports, seaports and overbuilt highway systems? Why do small, efficient producers with few resources pay more taxes than big inept producers who were allowed to monopolize the world's resources in the first place? The protectionist Band-Aid does not address these root causes. In fact, by protecting inept domestic producers from foreign competition, protectionism often makes matters worse.

Social Spending

"The state giveth, and the state taketh away." This captures the essence of current social spending systems. As monopoly squeezes more and more from productive people, increasing numbers find themselves unable to cope. Some become physically and emotionally ill; some turn to drugs as an escape; some turn to crime; some simply fail to find a niche in the system.

The old-left strategy has been to make these people wards of the central government so that the system can go on squeezing everyone else to near destruction without totally destroying those who have already collapsed. One result of this non-solution is that the system squeezes even harder to support growing numbers of idle poor without curtailing its support of the idle rich. In fact, social spending is often used as a means of indirectly supporting the idle rich.

I was once given a seat on the Pittsburgh board of Americans for Democratic Action. I couldn't help notice that most of these people, who exuded great concern for the urban poor, were themselves quite wealthy.

Years later, while doing research on land ownership patterns, I repeatedly came across names of various ADA members who owned multiple properties in poorer sections. Suddenly it dawned on me that there was more than altruism behind efforts to see that poor people were able to pay their rent!

I do believe that most support for social spending is based on genuine concern for the poor, even among rich liberals who exploit the poor. And making people perpetual wards of the state is still more palatable than the strategy of the old right, which is to let these people be destroyed. I am reminded, however, of a quote by Henry George: "There are people who are always trying to find some mean between right and wrong people who, if they were to see a man about to be unjustly beheaded, might insist that the proper thing to do would be to chop off his feet!"

Indeed, welfare is notorious for conveying the message that it will spare your life, but you will never work again. Only when the old-left gets serious about attacking root causes will they be able to win broad support for maintaining welfare as a transitional device.

Our main strategy is to build alternative communities where people are not routinely destroyed and where neighbors look after one another as a matter of course. Because these communities are not trapped into supporting a rich idle class, members are in far better positions to support one another.

Many people who had difficulty coping in mainstream systems are better able to cope as productive members of alternative communities. Although the land trust community movement is a small movement addressing a big problem, I believe our strategy is sound. I see no hope in the old-left strategy of fostering dependence on a system it opposes.

Another Green strategy is changing tax systems to take pressure off healthy productive enterprise and increase pressure on monopoly. When the old-left is ready to support the taxing of monopoly privileges to fund welfare, we will be their enthusiastic allies. After all, the power to tax is the power to destroy. By destroying monopoly privilege, we destroy the artificial job shortage and the need for much of our welfare system.

A Realistic Look at Class

Ours is a class society, but the old-left paradigm of business class vs. working class just doesn't fit reality. I have held union jobs and non-union jobs, have been self-employed and have employed others. At no time did I sense that I was moving from one social class to another. I was simply altering my strategy for survival.

Social class is based more on privileges and handicaps than on what one does with them. A more realistic view of class, based on land and resource monopoly, is as follows:

Tenants - they pay tribute for the right to merely exist on the earth.

Mortgaged homeowners - like indentured servants, they have negotiated for a degree of freedom in the future, but they still make payments for the right to exist.

Paid-off homeowners - they may now rest their heads in freedom, but their livelihoods depend on resources monopolized by others. They must either work for wages or rent business properties. (The few who work from their homes are usually dependent on monopolized resources such as telephone and mail systems.)

Self-sufficient property owners - they are able to find both shelter and livelihood from their own properties. However, they are taxed to support a system that exploits poor and middle classes to benefit richer classes.

Active landlords - they have accumulated natural resources that others need. They live by selling or renting these resources to others. (These resources include such goodies as coal, oil and timber, but the greatest and most often forgotten natural resource is the land value component of surface real estate.)

Resource monopolists - they have accumulated more resources than they are inclined to market. They have found that they can create artificial shortages by holding resources off the market. These shortages are parlayed into higher prices for their marketed resources.

While there are other monopolies, such as banking, patent and trade restriction monopolies, resource monopoly is clearly the most far-reaching.

The essence of class based on resource monopoly is that some own the earth and others must rent from them. In a classless community, resources are held by the community itself and made available for rent on equal terms. In such a community, everybody owns and everybody rents. The privilege of privately holding resources is matched with the burden of paying fair rent on those resources. (Royalties are paid on extraction of non-renewable resources.) Community members who hold no resources receive benefits from land rent, either as tax-free community services or of outright cash payments.

The Problem of Unions

Solidarity with labor unions presents problems for decentralists. Although unionization provides essential barricades to prevent human beings from being crushed in the mad race to monopolize resources, modern unions have failed to attack the underlying problems that made their existence necessary. In many cases they aggravate these problems by protecting the monopolies that employ their members. Real solidarity with unions requires fundamental changes within the union movement.

This is especially true in North America, where workers are organized on an industry by industry basis. For example, U.S. Steel always had support of United Steel Workers when it called for import barriers and relaxation of pollution controls; the United Auto Workers supported the Chrysler bailout and unions connected with oil consistently support off-shore drilling and other environmentally hazardous practices.

American unions have been the number-one force against free immigration, which is an essential element of personal freedom. They would rather see Mexicans starve on a few pennies a day than see them work in the United States at slightly below market rate. They harp on how immigration would drive down prevailing U.S. wages while trying to repress the fact that it would drive up prevailing Mexican wages. We cannot support the idea that Central American workers should remain slaves to United Fruit's captive labor market in the name of higher American wages any more than we could support it in the name of cheaper American bananas. [Note: Unions have improved on this question since the article was written.]

There has been a slow awakening among more progressive unions, and there are some natural coalition issues around substances that pose both occupational and environmental hazards. However, the environmental movement, the peace movement and even working people have been repeatedly betrayed by elements within the union power structure. Whole-hearted Green support for old union movement agendas simply will not exist as long as those elements prevail.

An old-left belief lingers that we should supplicate for union support while we continue to blindly support unions. This belief seems to be based on the idea that centralized business monopolies can be checked only by centralized labor monopolies. All this overlooks the great strength of decentralism

Live and Let Live

The Decentralist star has been rising despite a lack of public support because we have been building alternatives that transcend the old right-left struggle. The old-left and union stars have been falling despite their widespread public support because they are locked into a no-win struggle, trying to fight industrial monopoly while living off monopoly industries.

Decentralists are not so easily trapped into supporting monopoly institutions because we depend less on these institutions to support us. We instead find ways to directly support one another while avoiding involvement in structures which support tyranny. There is a great wholesome peace in this approach.

Dan Sullivan is the director of the Pennsylvania Fair Tax Coalition, which advocates shifting local taxes onto the value of land and natural resources. He is a past president of the School of Living and a vice president of the Henry George Foundation. [Update: As of 2014, Sullivan is director of Saving Communities and President of the Council of Georgist Organizations.]

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