This is the lengthiest and most detailed section of the book. Although the writings in Vermont Commons reflect a general philosophical orientation and an overarching critique of imperialism as such, the publication has devoted many of its pages to concrete problems and practical solutions. These particulars not only help illustrate the substantive contrast between the agenda of centralized power and the vision of human-scale democracy, they are also the arenas where ideological programs are actually lived through and suffered. We can build a strong moral case against an earth-consuming empire, but the hard work of dismantling that empire will take place on farms, in banks, on Main Street, through innovative communications media and alternative learning environments, and other places of social and economic transaction.
This section contains seven topics: economics, money, energy, food, information, community, and resilience. Some of the categories are fairly conventional, while others require a bit of an imaginative leap to embrace the diverse issues they contain. This is not an attempt to create a fixed or arbitrary agenda; it is a panoramic sketch of the major themes and issues Vermont Commons writers have addressed.
One defining feature of the modern world is the dominance of economic values over all other moral and cultural considerations. The production and distribution of material goods, the amassing of personal, corporate, and national wealth, and the profitable utilization of the landscape and all the “resources” it contains, generally trump or completely displace other ways of defining a good and worthy way of living. Economists are the high priests of the nation-state, despite their contradictory and sometimes disastrously erroneous pronouncements. So we begin our analysis of empire by examining the economic values that shape it.
The triumph of economic values reflects several historical sources. One is a philosophical commitment to materialism—the assumption that solid physical entities are more real, more essential, than moral, psychological, or spiritual domains of human experience. Translated into popular culture, materialism becomes consumerism, an addiction to the ownership of objects. Our critique addresses this addiction and its philosophical sources. Thomas Naylor, before becoming an advocate for political secession from empire, rebelled against the assumptions of mainstream economics (his own academic field) and coauthored a pioneering study of the fruits of cultural materialism, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (2001).
Another source of economic hegemony is the agenda of colonialism and globalization. The field of economics is as much an ideology as a science. The founders of classical economics claimed to be describing universal “market forces,” but in important ways their ideas essentially rationalized the concentration of wealth in colonial powers such as Great Britain at the expense of colonized peoples. Economics is about power.
The following essays from Vermont Commons challenge the foundational assumptions underlying modern economic theory and practice. The three authors selected reflect somewhat different perspectives, yet they agree on at least one key point: Economic systems need to be turned away from their current single-minded focus on material wealth and become more responsive to other human longings and to the health of communities and the natural world. For this to happen, they must become radically more local, human scale, and democratic. These essays help us imagine how such an economy might function.
Reorienting the current economic system toward local enterprise, community needs, and sustainability will require a multifaceted effort, from changing consumer habits to making major policy changes in the face of entrenched economic interests. Several Vermont Commons authors have focused on one aspect of this transformation that they believe to be particularly essential—the need to rethink the role of money in the exchange of products and services.
The nature of money is usually taken for granted; it is generally accepted as a neutral, objective medium for marking the value of economic goods. Further, even when it is considered, money proves to be a complex and abstruse concept, involving moral, political, and historical dimensions that defy easy resolution. Any comprehensive analysis of the present crisis, and any viable model of a resilient social order, must wrestle with these issues and provide a thoughtful plan for financing and mediating economic transactions. The articles in this section suggest places to begin this task.