I want Madison to be seen as a birthplace of the network that is connecting every person on the planet, indirectly, to every other person on the planet, in an explicit agreement to support each other’s right to their best possible life. Is that so much to ask???
Continuing our series on P2P women we present this interview with Stephanie Rearich. Interviewer was Michel Bauwens.
Stephanie Rearick and her friends and co-workers have been constructing a solidarity-based economic network in Madison, Wisconsin, and beyond:
* Can you tell us a bit about your background and what brought you to your current political and social engagement ?
I was fairly apolitical growing up, until I volunteered for Amnesty International on a US death penalty case at age 18, then decided to go for it and worked for Greenpeace for 6 of my most formative years (age 20-26). Then I became a co-owner of a small local business (Mother Fool’s Coffeehouse) and an independent musician. I stayed active in social justice issues, focusing on the over-incarceration and racial disparities thereof in my community. I worked a lot of drug policy, believing (still do) that the War on Drugs is the single biggest driver of selective enforcement of laws and, consequently, racial disparities.
In the course of all this work it became painfully apparent that our economy was an active enemy of everything I cared about. There would be no way to have a meaningful impact on any of the systems I was pushing on without a fundamental change in our economy.
I became very preoccupied with this ‘missing link’ feeling in 2004 and decided to read a book that had actually been on my shelf for many years – The Future of Money by Bernard Lietaer.
Lietaer’s analysis of the problem and possible solutions changed my worldview. I found timebanking to be the most compelling model – simple, elegant, egalitarian – and I knew I had to test it out to prove it could be as powerful as I thought it could. And I felt I had no choice but to get one going as quickly as possible, and to try out all the things it appeared to me it would be able to do. So I founded the Dane County TimeBank in 2005 and have been at it ever since.
I’ve come to see timebanking as a way we can decide what we’d like to do in our communities, then ‘hire’ our friends and neighbors to help us, all by freely exchanging our time and talents with one another.
But my desire has always been to work at a bigger picture level, to connect more sectors of economic, community, and creative life than timebanking can do on its own. And have now begun to move more into that realm, developing Mutual Aid Networks in an effort to create the legal, social, and financial framework to redesign how we approach work and compensation.
It’s reminding me of a powerful curiosity I developed when I was reading Das Kapital (Marx) for a class my first year of college – I really wanted to find out, if everyone did exactly what they wanted to do, would all the necessary work get done? And I guessed, yes it would, and lots of beautiful ‘unnecessary’ work too, and probably with much greater quality and care. And now I hope MANs help us test that out!
* What can you tell us about Madison itself and its contradictions ?
Madison is a beautiful small-ish (300,000ish) city on an Isthmus. It has a longstanding tradition of progressivism and human-scaled livability. Our city planners were very deliberate in choosing a route toward education and recreation instead of industry. We’re the State Capitol and the hub of the University of Wisconsin system. Madison regularly makes top 10 lists for best places to live in the US.
On the other hand, Wisconsin has the highest racial disparities in incarceration in the US, with Dane County (Madison’s home) taking the lead in the state. A recent “Race to Equity” report shows that Madison continues to have a dismal ‘achievement gap’ and horrendous wealth inequality along racial lines, and a new report by the Annie Casey Foundation finds Wisconsin dead last as the worst place in the nation to raise black children.
* What is the aim of the Mutual Aid Network, how did you go about creating this project, what is the situation today and what do you see as the next steps ?
The aim of Mutual Aid Networks is to redesign work. To apply what we know about economic and community building tools to creating a new vision for work – instead of getting jobs so we can afford to live, we decide how we want to live and create community supports for each other to do what we want to do. The aim is kinda to turn everyone into freelancers, entrepreneurs, homemakers, artists, any combination thereof, with some material security because we choose to provide that to each other. Many of the resources that we need to access through sharing or exchange are available from people in our local communities. So why not agree to exchange everything but money whenever we can, and save our money for the things we really can’t get from people we know? Why not pool our money so when big expenses arise, each of us can access as much as we need without having had to stockpile a huge amount individually? Why not connect all these various tools and processes that people have been using individually, often with significant success, for generations? We believe that simply connecting various processes and people into a functioning ecosystem will increase the power of these systems exponentially.
I, along with a large rotating cast of wonderful collaborators, went about creating MANs by embarking on a very deliberate learning journey, inviting people along to help out in any way possible. We started in 2010 at the behest of our most generous funder, who had been supporting the Dane County TimeBank and wanted to see it become self-sustaining.
The learning journey included participation in many conferences, producing and presenting papers with an academic partner, and then creating and delivering a monthly work-and-learn series called Builders Workshops. During the series (still ongoing) we identified strengths and limitations of various complementary currency and resource sharing models, including timebanking, gift economies, price-based mutual credit, cooperative savings pools, and cooperative ownership. We came to the conclusion that the limitations of each could be filled by the strengths of others. We decided to create a model and process to test this. And we realized that economies are at root social processes and constructs.. So we’re focusing on creating a community, a culture, that will embrace risk and innovation and sharing in service of building a real solidarity economy that works for the 100%.
* Are you connected with any broader social movements that is bigger than the local importance of the M.A.N. project ?
First, we have MAN pilot sites lined up in 16 locations, mostly around the US (including Detroit and St. Louis) but also in UK, Sweden, and France. With interest in Zambia and other farther-flung locations. We are connected to timebanks, transition towns, permaculture practitioners, restorative justice activists, health and wellness projects, and solidarity economy activists. I’m personally most excited by our collaborations with activists against police brutality and the prison industrial complex. All of these connections will begin to become very visible as pilot sites and our project sharing software come online, starting late in August.
* Do the concepts of p2p, the commons, the sharing economy mean anything specific in your work ?
P2P, the commons, and the sharing economy are all core in our work and have been explicit goals for us. But by “sharing economy” I mean genuine sharing, not selling things to each other through for-profit intermediaries. I see the economy we’re building as a real p2p economy, with people providing both the work and the security to one another. I see MANs filling an explicit need to build an economic engine that feeds the commons rather than eating it (the latter concept I gained from Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics). As for the sharing economy, we aren’t really using the phrase much since its cooptation but we really are working to build the real one.
* Where do you want Madison, and the wider world, to be in say 2025-2030 ?
I want Madison to be seen as a birthplace of the network that is connecting every person on the planet, indirectly, to every other person on the planet, in an explicit agreement to support each other’s right to their best possible life. Is that so much to ask???
But this is true, even if it seems a bit ambitious. I want 2015 to be remembered as the turning point, the ‘dark before the dawn’ time when we realize our current system is lashing out so viciously precisely because it is about to die.”
* Anything else you want to add ?
The only other information I want to convey is about MAN Up Summit August 20-28, and our web summit happening now. Information on all of it at http://mutualaidnetwork.org – (the August info coming soon).”
After a good overview of the faultlines within the so-called sharing economy, the authors outline emerging cooperative alternatives.
In short: if the sharing economy is the problem, then the cooperative economy is the solution!
Excerpted from Brian Van Slyke and David Morgan:
“Cooperatives are breaking into the domain of the sharing economy – in theory and in practice – and many of the people leading the charge are those dissatisfied with what both the traditional economy and the sharing economy had to offer them.
Here’s Hansen again, telling the story of Wolde Gebremariam in YES! Magazine:
After [Gebremariam] moved to Denver from Ethiopia in 2006, he worked minimum-wage jobs at the baggage claim in the Denver International Airport, and then at a nursing home. Though he enjoyed working with seniors, he wanted to go back to school and study pharmacy. The flexibility of driving a cab seemed like the right way to go. “I could work Friday, Saturday, and Sunday driving,” he says. “Then, I [could] go to school full time.”
That’s how he thought it would work, anyway. But the reality turned out to be more difficult. In 2012, he spent six months driving for a company called Metro Taxi, with a lease that required him to pay $800 per week for the use of the vehicle, dispatch, and other services. The need to earn that much every week, in addition to what he needed to live, pushed him to drive 10- or 12-hour days, seven days a week.
Gebremariam wasn’t finding the flexibility he was looking for, and turned to Uber instead. But, after driving for the company for a few months, Gebremariam says it was more of the same. “They are taking like 20 percent of our income,” he says. “We have to be on the road all the time.”
Gebremariam isn’t just complaining about it. Instead, he and 644 other drivers are on a mission to form a new taxi company that will be both worker-owned and unionized. The new co-op, Green Taxi, will have a fleet of hybrid or high-efficiency vehicles, and will offer a ride-hailing app.
As Jay Cassano makes clear in Co.Exist, this is part of a larger movement. Green Taxi was actually inspired by another cab co-op in Denver.
Rather than pay for expensive leases from traditional taxi companies or give up a portion of their earnings to startups like Uber and Lyft, many taxi drivers are banding together to form their own taxi cooperatives.
In these co-ops, each driver is an equal owner of the business, with a share of the profits and a voice in how the business is run. Denver, Colorado has one taxi co-op, Union Taxi, founded in 2009 with about 250 driver-owners. Now cab drivers in the city are already talking about setting up a second taxi co-op.
“We’re actually seeing a mini-explosion of interest in taxicab co-ops,” says Melissa Hoover, executive director of the Democracy at Work Institute. “These groups are responding to the same weaknesses in the industry that Uber is, but from a perspective centered around bettering workplace conditions, worker control, and compensation rather than ‘disrupting’ the model to benefit investors at the expense of workers.”
Drivers in a cooperative get to collaboratively establish their pay, the hours they work, and their working conditions—no small matters in an industry that employs many recent immigrants.
Of course, while the explosion of worker-owned cab companies are new, their existence is not. The Union Cab of Madison Cooperative, a worker-owned co-op of more than two-hundred members, has been around since 1979 – proving that these co-ops can be in it for the long haul while also revolutionizing traditionally exploitative industries. Union Cab was actually born out of a strike, when cabbies decided to fight for better pay and working conditions. But rather than negotiate with the aggrieved drivers, their employer chose to simply shut down the business. Shortly thereafter, several of the now out of work drivers decided that they could run the business better together – and also for the benefit of all the workers (dispatchers included!).
…if a cab driver has a bad day, they may not earn enough fare to pay back their lease and so they may end up owing the company money
The cab industry has actually regressed in some ways since 1979; drivers are often no longer considered employees but rather independent contractors (like with Uber). Generally speaking, at a normal cab agency, the company earns their income by renting the car out to the drivers. But what this means is that if a cab driver has a bad day, they may not earn enough fare to pay back their lease and so they may end up owing the company money.
For the worker-owners at Union Cab, the differences couldn’t be more significant. The co-op owns all of the assets and drivers earn a commission off their fares – so if they give a ride, they make money. Also, because the drivers own the company, they split a share of its profit at the end of every year. What’s more is that Union Cab provides health insurance to all of its drivers, which is virtually unheard of in the industry. Finally, no one worker is allowed to make more than 2.5 times the amount of any other worker. (You can read more about the Union Cab difference, here.) Why is this the case? Well, it’s because the workers, who are also the owners, voted to make it happen.
This is a complete contrast to the way typical cab companies and the executives of ride-sharing services run their businesses.
In addition, the argument has been made that Uber itself can and should be turned into a worker-owned cooperative. Again, Konczal and Covert in The Nation:
But… what exactly are the capitalists at Uber contributing to the company? Almost all of the actual capital is already owned by the workers, in the form of cars that they pay for and maintain themselves. And these workers labor individually, doing the same tasks, so there’s no need for a management class to control their daily operations. The capital owners maintain the phone app, but app technology isn’t the major cost, and it’s getting cheaper and easier by the day. […]
But a transition to workers’ owning their firms is necessary, economically smart, and one way for workers to gain power in the digital age. Because you know what worker-run firms do? Share.
The transition of an online company into a cooperative isn’t unfounded, either. As Janelle Orsi argues in Three Ways to Put Tech Platforms into the Commons, it’s happened before. Here she imagines how AirBnB could function as a cooperative while also explaining how another tech company already made the transition:
Co-bnb, as I’m calling it, could be an online marketplace owned and democratically controlled by the people who rent space to travelers. You can call it a “freelancer-owned cooperative,” a term possibly coined by Josh Danielson, founder of Loconomics.com. Loconomics just bought out its shareholders and became a cooperative corporation to be controlled by the freelancers who use the platform to offer services such as babysitting, home cleaning, and dog walking. The mission of Loconomics is to enhance the viability of freelance work, a task most reliably led by freelancers, themselves.
Soon, 40 percent of the US workforce will consist of freelancers, many of whom will cobble together income from multiple sources. We can’t allow companies like Airbnb, Uber, and TaskRabbit to take 5 percent to 20 percent of freelancer earnings. If those companies remain the gatekeepers of critical work opportunities, they’ll continually adjust search algorithms, fee structures, and terms of service to extract more out of workers.
So we don’t need to shut down platforms like Uber and AirBnB. We just need to either out-cooperate them, or, better yet, turn them into cooperatives. Because in the sharing economy, people rent out their labor and resources for the overall benefit of billionaires. But in the cooperative economy, people pool their labor and resources for the overall benefit of each other.
It’s time to forget the sharing economy. The cooperative economy is the one challenging the tech industry and changing people’s lives for the better.”
“In conclusion, I would like to repeat: the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change. I am with you. Let us together say from the heart: no family without lodging, no rural worker without land, no laborer without rights, no people without sovereignty, no individual without dignity, no child without childhood, no young person without a future, no elderly person without a venerable old age.”
Excerpted from the speech of Pope Francis to a meeting of social movements in Bolivia:
“Do we realize that something is wrong in a world where there are so many farmworkers without land, so many families without a home, so many laborers without rights, so many persons whose dignity is not respected?
Do we realize that something is wrong where so many senseless wars are being fought and acts of fratricidal violence are taking place on our very doorstep? Do we realize something is wrong when the soil, water, air and living creatures of our world are under constant threat?
So let’s not be afraid to say it: we need change; we want change.
In your letters and in our meetings, you have mentioned the many forms of exclusion and injustice which you experience in the workplace, in neighborhoods and throughout the land. They are many and diverse, just as many and diverse are the ways in which you confront them. Yet there is an invisible thread joining every one of those forms of exclusion: can we recognize it? These are not isolated issues. I wonder whether we can see that these destructive realities are part of a system which has become global. Do we realize that that system has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature?
If such is the case, I would insist, let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change. This system is by now intolerable: farmworkers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable … The earth itself – our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say – also finds it intolerable.
We want change in our lives, in our neighborhoods, in our everyday reality. We want a change which can affect the entire world, since global interdependence calls for global answers to local problems. The globalization of hope, a hope which springs up from peoples and takes root among the poor, must replace the globalization of exclusion and indifference!
Today I wish to reflect with you on the change we want and need. You know that recently I wrote about the problems of climate change. But now I would like to speak of change in another sense. Positive change, a change which is good for us, a change – we can say – which is redemptive. Because we need it. I know that you are looking for change, and not just you alone: in my different meetings, in my different travels, I have sensed an expectation, a longing, a yearning for change, in people throughout the world. Even within that ever smaller minority which believes that the present system is beneficial, there is a widespread sense of dissatisfaction and even despondency. Many people are hoping for a change capable of releasing them from the bondage of individualism and the despondency it spawns.
Time, my brothers and sisters, seems to be running out; we are not yet tearing one another apart, but we are tearing apart our common home. Today, the scientific community realizes what the poor have long told us: harm, perhaps irreversible harm, is being done to the ecosystem. The earth, entire peoples and individual persons are being brutally punished. And behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea called “the dung of the devil”. An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.
I do not need to go on describing the evil effects of this subtle dictatorship: you are well aware of them. Nor is it enough to point to the structural causes of today’s social and environmental crisis. We are suffering from an excess of diagnosis, which at times leads us to multiply words and to revel in pessimism and negativity. Looking at the daily news we think that there is nothing to be done, except to take care of ourselves and the little circle of our family and friends.
What can I do, as collector of paper, old clothes or used metal, a recycler, about all these problems if I barely make enough money to put food on the table? What can I do as a craftsman, a street vendor, a trucker, a downtrodden worker, if I don’t even enjoy workers’ rights? What can I do, a farmwife, a native woman, a fisher who can hardly fight the domination of the big corporations? What can I do from my little home, my shanty, my hamlet, my settlement, when I daily meet with discrimination and marginalization? What can be done by those students, those young people, those activists, those missionaries who come to my neighborhood with their hearts full of hopes and dreams, but without any real solution for my problems? A lot! They can do a lot. You, the lowly, the exploited, the poor and underprivileged, can do, and are doing, a lot. I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands, through your ability to organize and carry out creative alternatives, through your daily efforts to ensure the three “L’s” (labor, lodging, land) and through your proactive participation in the great processes of change on the national, regional and global levels.
Don’t lose heart!
You are sowers of change. Here in Bolivia I have heard a phrase which I like: “process of change”. Change seen not as something which will one day result from any one political decision or change in social structure. We know from painful experience that changes of structure which are not accompanied by a sincere conversion of mind and heart sooner or later end up in bureaucratization, corruption and failure. That is why I like the image of a “process”, where the drive to sow, to water seeds which others will see sprout, replaces the ambition to occupy every available position of power and to see immediate results. Each of us is just one part of a complex and differentiated whole, interacting in time: peoples who struggle to find meaning, a destiny, and to live with dignity, to “live well”.
As members of popular movements, you carry out your work inspired by fraternal love, which you show in opposing social injustice. When we look into the eyes of the suffering, when we see the faces of the endangered campesino, the poor laborer, the downtrodden native, the homeless family, the persecuted migrant, the unemployed young person, the exploited child, the mother who lost her child in a shootout because the barrio was occupied by drugdealers, the father who lost his daughter to enslavement…. when we think of all those names and faces, our hearts break because of so much sorrow and pain. And we are deeply moved…. We are moved because “we have seen and heard” not a cold statistic but the pain of a suffering humanity, our own pain, our own flesh. This is something quite different than abstract theorizing or eloquent indignation. It moves us; it makes us attentive to others in an effort to move forward together. That emotion which turns into community action is not something which can be understood by reason alone: it has a surplus of meaning which only peoples understand, and it gives a special feel to genuine popular movements.
Each day you are caught up in the storms of people’s lives. You have told me about their causes, you have shared your own struggles with me, and I thank you for that. You, dear brothers and sisters, often work on little things, in local situations, amid forms of injustice which you do not simply accept but actively resist, standing up to an idolatrous system which excludes, debases and kills. I have seen you work tirelessly for the soil and crops of campesinos, for their lands and communities, for a more dignified local economy, for the urbanization of their homes and settlements; you have helped them build their own homes and develop neighborhood infrastructures. You have also promoted any number of community activities aimed at reaffirming so elementary and undeniably necessary a right as that of the three “L’s”: land, lodging and labor.
This rootedness in the barrio, the land, the office, the labor union, this ability to see yourselves in the faces of others, this daily proximity to their share of troubles and their little acts of heroism: this is what enables you to practice the commandment of love, not on the basis of ideas or concepts, but rather on the basis of genuine interpersonal encounter. We do not love concepts or ideas; we love people… Commitment, true commitment, is born of the love of men and women, of children and the elderly, of peoples and communities… of names and faces which fill our hearts. From those seeds of hope patiently sown in the forgotten fringes of our planet, from those seedlings of a tenderness which struggles to grow amid the shadows of exclusion, great trees will spring up, great groves of hope to give oxygen to our world.
So I am pleased to see that you are working at close hand to care for those seedlings, but at the same time, with a broader perspective, to protect the entire forest. Your work is carried out against a horizon which, while concentrating on your own specific area, also aims to resolve at their root the more general problems of poverty, inequality and exclusion.
I congratulate you on this. It is essential that, along with the defense of their legitimate rights, peoples and their social organizations be able to construct a humane alternative to a globalization which excludes. You are sowers of change. May God grant you the courage, joy, perseverance and passion to continue sowing. Be assured that sooner or later we will see its fruits. Of the leadership I ask this: be creative and never stop being rooted in local realities, since the father of lies is able to usurp noble words, to promote intellectual fads and to adopt ideological stances. But if you build on solid foundations, on real needs and on the lived experience of your brothers and sisters, of campesinos and natives, of excluded workers and marginalized families, you will surely be on the right path.”