For many years now the Naro has shown environmental documentaries with a shared cautionary message – a warning that we are living in a new geological era brought upon ourselves by human activity. Climate disruption and global heating have changed the planet irrevocably and we’re just now seeing the initial effects. Global carbon emissions keep increasing each year and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to climb. Those of us who have taken on the task in some small way of education and political activism have confided in one another about our personal bouts with grieving and anxiety over the years as a result of our ineffectiveness in being able to make any real changes.
Earth Day celebrations on April 22 give us an opportunity each year to reconnect and voice our private hopes and fears for the earth and humanity. I think it’s best to be truthful and open in asking our activist friends for their emotional support when we need it. Especially since society is just not capable of dealing with modern man’s existential predicament – including those therapists who prescribe anti-anxiety drugs to numb our sadness and pain. And of course much of our media culture is designed to distract us from the reality of our crisis. Corporate America says everything is fine as long as we all remain passive, don’t get up off the couch, and keep on consuming. Cynicism, denial, and ironic humor rule the media.
Naomi Klein, author of ‘The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism’ and ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate’ has stated that it’s easier for people to envision the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. We’ve resigned ourselves to living our lives under a government that’s primarily responsive to the wealthy and to corporations. Both political parties are controlled by Wall Street and big business. Although the majority of Americans are supportive of environmental regulation, gun control, universal health care, and global peace – our politicians legislate against our own best interests.
We’re desperately in need of a new paradigm that will make the old ways obsolete. A sustainable future requires localizing agriculture and the production of food and services. As we know only too well, the current food system is centralized and operated by big business. Wall Street now has control of all the industrial sectors that Americans depend upon and interact with. We are more dependent than any other peoples who have ever lived on the planet.
But thankfully, we now have the digital tools in place for a radical transformation – and it has already started to happen. At least that’s the premise set forth in Douglas Rushkoff’s newest book ‘Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity’. Rushkoff is a technologist, a journalist, and a teacher. His book title stems from the protests a few years back in San Francisco organized against the privatized bus service that shuttles workers between their homes in high-rent districts to the Google headquarters in the suburbs. Bay area citizens have suffered a housing shortage, sky-high housing costs, and income inequality as the direct result of corporate decisions made in Silicon Valley. Decisions that have placed corporate profits above people.
I find the title of the book to be a bit misleading. It does not reflect the enormity of Rushkoff’s vision; he’s provided us a modern day socialist manifesto. He advocates for the return to local artisanal economies as well as worker-owned cooperatives enabled by networks accessed though the web. On a small scale, these new models are already in place. Farm markets and bazaars proliferate and offer an alternative to the corporate food model. Shared peer-to-peer networks provide a virtual community for exchanging goods and services among their members.
Rushkoff doesn’t seek a solution through a dysfunctional government that’s mired in hopeless gridlock. That’s why his treatise is refreshingly original; there’s already been more than enough written about the entrenched two party political system and the rigged election process. Progressives have been lamenting our inability to take back the Democratic party from big business and Wall Street ever since Bernie Sanders was blocked by the party’s leadership in his bid for the presidential nomination.
And so where do we go from here? Rushkoff describes a strategy to reach a sustainable future starting from where we are now. His prescriptions are not political in approach. Nor does he put any hope in dismantling Wall Street and global finance capitalism.
We all need insight into the system we’re living in now. Rushkoff proceeds to explain how corporations and the debt-based central monetary system have become entrenched over the centuries. He traces the origins of corporate charters back to the 16th century and the consolidation of European colonial power. In order to maintain power and to contain a growing direct exchange market economy from bringing riches to the middle class, the European aristocracy enacted royal chartered monopolies on industries that required the king’s permission to engage in a business. In doing so, competitive independent businesses and markets were in effect made illegal. Over the centuries, the corporate exploitation of natural resources discovered in the western hemisphere, Africa, and Asia would bring untold wealth to the owners of these monopolies.
The other reform by the monarchy in their efforts to stifle wealth creation by the merchant class was to impose a centralized debt-backed state currency. For decades, market bazaars had circulated local currencies for trading goods and services in a barter economy. Villagers used the high-velocity local currencies to keep exchanges within the community to benefit everyone. This was all but wiped out by the issuance of a federal currency. In this scheme, the treasury or central bank lends money into existence. These moneys must be paid back with interest. A constant need for economic growth, and momentum toward wealth inequality, is thus programmed into the central currency of the economy.
Rushkoff sees corporate industrialism as an obsolete ‘operating system’. Now that it is updated by the new ‘software’ – the web – the system is more powerful and destructive than ever. This is clearly demonstrated by the platform monopoly model of digital business. By going public, the big tech company’s original mission and commitment to their customers has been captured and used to create value solely for investors and owners who can then cash out. But it’s all at the expense of employees, consumers, and a competitive market.
The Wall Street blueprint for winner-take-all domination has created the platform monopolies of Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon. Within just twenty years they have become the biggest companies in the world. They have buried or simply bought up any real competitors – and ultimately they will bury democracy itself.
Things would be different if the operating system actually distributed value to all parties involved. Rushkoff asks us to contemplate … “Imagine an Amazon owned by the sellers, an Uber owned by the drivers, or a Facebook owned by the people whose data and attention is being bought and sold. Distributed digital technology makes this not only possible but preferable to the locked-down, overprogrammed, and extractive platform monopolies of today.”
Rushkoff’s solutions tend to be local, decentralized, sustainable, and communal –whether that community is real or virtual. Some solutions, such as parallel local currencies, emphasize local transactions and increased money velocity. Others, including crowdfunding solutions like Kickstarter generate funding from customers rather than from venture capitalists or Wall Street investors.
Currencies should promote velocity over growth, to keep money circulating and doing good in the economy rather than chasing risky investments in financial derivatives. PayPal, eBay, and Square have all helped to foster peer-to-peer transactions. However, these companies have become platform monopolies relying on the same monetary system of credit and debt. Rushkoff argues for a vehicle of trade to match the distributed network characteristics of the internet itself – alternatives to the federal debt-based currency.
He gives examples of modern-day local currencies for exchanging value among local producers and businesses. And he also explains the innovativeness of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. The exchange of Bitcoins utilizes a public ledger distributed between member computers that record every transaction that is ever made. Called a “blockchain”, Bitcoin users can exchange the coins safely and reliably without the need of a centralized banking system to provide security. This is a game-changer.
And yet the Bitcoin prospectus mandates a finite number of Bitcoins to be minted into existence. Since the digital Bitcoin model is based on scarcity and hoarding, the fluctuating bid and ask price is a function of speculation on Wall Street. In this way it’s still influenced by federal issued currency. Nevertheless the introduction of other cryptocurrencies holds much promise as alternatives to federal currency and the exploitive banking establishment.
Rushkoff proposes alternatives to the destructive Wall Street growth model of business. The new operating system of digital distributism places value on human concerns rather than investor mandated growth. The objective of business has always been to remove humans from the equation – whether it’s been to replace human labor with machines, or to prevent workers from reaping the rewards of the value they have created for the company.
There are numerous companies operating successfully today as worker-owned businesses, coops, and various profit-sharing models. Other well-researched approaches include reducing the 40-hour work week, providing for a universal guaranteed minimum income, and redefining the workplace to address real human needs.
The seeds of the new distributed economy have already been sown. Local organic farming and food coops have flourished as an alternative to corporate agriculture and the food industry. In advance of Earth Day we will bring the uplifting new documentary ’Evolution of Organic’ that provides a visual history of the local farm to market movement from its renaissance in the sixties. The organic revolution has prospered and has renewed our connection with food, our land, and ourselves. It shows on Wednesday, April 18 with speakers and discussion.
It’s all too obvious that we have reached the final limits of the centuries-old exploitive system of debt-backed currency and endless growth. In the past, growth occurred from the expansion of land and resources captured by colonial powers from indigenous peoples. More recently, the digital revolution created virtual lands to monopolize, and human attention to capture and privatize. But finance capitalism has now run out of domains to conquer. Meanwhile, the growth economy has ignored the plight of the permanent underclass while it has all but sucked dry the nascent prosperity of the middle class.
We can hasten the emergence of the new sustainable economy. We can shop with local businesses, not retail chains. In so doing, our money stays in the community and is circulated throughout, doing the most good for the most people. When you eat in locally-owned restaurants, purchase from farmers in farm markets, support local artists and craftsmen, visit our independent bookstore Prince Books in downtown Norfolk, and attend your local indy movie theater – you are cultivating the new economy.
Upcoming Film Events at Naro Cinema
BPM (Beats Per Minute) In Paris in the early 1990s, a group of activists goes to battle for those stricken with HIV/AIDS, taking on unresponsive government agencies and major pharmaceutical companies in bold, invasive actions. The organization is ACT UP, and its members, many of them gay and HIV-positive, embrace their mission with a literal life-or-death urgency. Winner of numerous Best Foreign Language Film awards. In French with subtitles. Presented by LGBT Center of Norfolk. Shows Tues, March 20
A FANTASTIC WOMAN Oscar Winner for Best Foreign-Language Film submitted by Chile. Marina is a transwoman who works as a waitress and nightclub singer. Her life is turned upside-down when her older boyfriend Orlando dies suddenly. Marina must confront the prejudices of his family members when they arrive for the funeral. In Spanish with subtitles. Opens Wed, March 21.
CEZANNE: PORTRAITS OF A LIFE One can’t appreciate 20th century impressionistic art without understanding the significance and genius of Paul Cézanne. “Exhibition On Screen’ follows one of the most talked about exhibitions of the year – the portrait work of Paul Cézanne – as it travels from its opening in Paris and then on to London and Washington. The film takes audiences beyond the exhibition to the locations where Cézanne lived and worked. Presented with Chrysler Museum. Shows Tuesday, March 27.
YOUNG KARL MARX 1844. Karl Marx is 26 years old and living with his wife Jenny in exile in Paris. He is habitually in debt and plagued by existential anxieties. When he first meets the slightly younger factory owner’s son Friedrich Engels, he dismisses him as a dandy. But Engels has just published a study on the miserable impoverishment of the English proletariat. The two like-minded young men become friends and soon inspire each other to write texts in which they seek to provide a theoretical foundation for the revolution to come. Directed by Raoul Peck (James Baldwin: I Am Not Your Negro). In English, German, and French with subtitles. Shows Wed, March 28 with introduction by Al Markowitz.
THE CHINA HUSTLE From Alex Gibney, the director of Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room, comes a new Wall Street heist story about a still-unfolding financial crime so big that it will soon reverberate through the economy. Nine years after the 2008 meltdown caused by shell games based on bankrupt mortgages, the stock market is sky high again. A ragtag band of short sellers who are sick of all the lies and corruption, begin their own investigation into corruption on Wall Street and in China. Shows Wed, April 4.
EVOLUTION OF ORGANIC It all started with a motley crew of back-to-the-earth hippies who rejected the poisons of industrial farming. The organic movement went on to spawn a renewed connection with our food, our land, and ourselves. Filmmaker Mark Kitchell (Berkeley in the Sixties, A Fierce Green Fire) presents a celebration of American organic farming told by the people that started it all – and the passing down of their knowledge to a new generation who continue to reinvent the food system. Narrated by Frances McDormand. Shows Wed, April 18 with speakers and discussion.