There are a variety of critiques that practical applications of Community-Led Universal Basic Services will have to consider.
Most American households carry a significant amount of debt—home mortgages and student debt, in particular. Such debts were exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Given the sizable debts owed by so many households in the United States, why would anyone want to work less? Many people understandably want to work longer hours or shifts to pay off these debts. Why would anyone want to work for their communities to provide basic services, without necessarily drawing any significant income from that labor?
These are valid questions. For many households, these levels of debt are indeed unjust. Many Americans have to take out debt to participate in society, whether they take out student loans for higher education or a mortgage to buy a residence. In the United States, buying a house is idolized as the means for a family to build long-term wealth. Getting a college degree is the path (though still an uncertain one) towards a higher income. But these debts effectively leave Americans with only one option—to take on wage employment to pay off those debts over time.
Our society is like a treadmill of taking on debt to increase income and wealth to pay off those debts, purchase goods, and save for retirement. As inequality and societal expectations of what the “good life” requires, there is increased pressure on households to earn more, borrow more, and consume more—pressure that is not good for our natural environment. But it is in the interest of big businesses to ensure that we keep buying their products.
For those who are heavily indebted, it may not be beneficial to reduce one’s working time or income at this point. Improving community motive and providing community-led universal basic services could start with those who are less indebted, those who are temporarily underemployed, as well as those who are burned out from their careers and seeking a change. Volunteering in one’s community could be an option for those considering lying flat or thinking about more meaningful options following the Great Resignation.
Community motive can start with those who can afford to take the time to volunteer but still benefit more than just the volunteers. After all, most people can plant and harvest more crops than they could eat in a reasonable timeframe. Many people who already own a residence can still help to build another one. Your volunteer work can provide for so many more people than just yourself, in particular those who cannot yet afford to join in community efforts.
If communities focus on food or housing first, they can build up their efforts over time to provide other basic services. As more people benefit from these early services, more people’s time could be freed up to volunteer.
There are several valid feminist critiques to a system that proposes decommodification of the economy and increased community participation.
On decommodification, monetary exchanges do depersonalize transactions—this can be beneficial for people who are part of historically marginalized groups, including women, LGBTQ, and minorities. Monetary exchanges can facilitate transactions that might otherwise be hampered by discrimination. (To be clear, I do not advocate a total elimination of monetary exchanges—just a reduction or elimination of those transactions for basic services.)
On community participation, there is the possibility of ‘too much’ community involvement in one’s life. Historically communities have been judgmental and have created restrictions on the lives of women, minorities, and those who did not conform to majority norms. Even in supposedly functioning communities (e.g., church groups, service organizations, etc.) women typically played disproportionately large roles in providing care, food, and other services that typically made men’s lives easier.
By themselves, decommodifying basic services and encouraging the provision of those services through convivial, community-centered methods will not eliminate risks for discrimination. Though there is much work to be done, there has been significant societal progress towards acknowledging and eliminating discrimination, racism, and intolerance. It is up to societies and communities to ensure that that progress is not lost.
It is not clear that such progress on eliminating discrimination is dependent on our current economic system, either. Indeed, our current economic system likely exacerbates discrimination, inequality, and polarization, which hinders progress towards improving norms.
People can change their perceptions and opinions over time with more education, experience, and exchanges with others. Given the progress that has already been made, I hope that community motive can facilitate such experiences and exchanges—particularly between people who differ—to ultimately improve social relations.
How valid is improving community motive for the Global South? There have been critiques of reducing economic growth as it applies to the Global South. While I am primarily targeting this website and my book to a US-based audience, I do think that there are relevant perspectives for the Global South.
Excessive profit motive and a growth imperative in countries like the United States can affect political and economic structures in the Global South. Many Global North investments and projects have sought to shape economies in the South that resemble and feed Northern economies. Ivan Illich criticized this philosophy as declaring a “war on subsistence” in the Global South.
Community-led universal basic services in the United States and similar countries may help to reduce such impacts on the Global South. If we can provide more of our food locally, we may be less inclined to demand year-round produce from the Global South, which can lock their farmers into selling cash crops that are dependent on volatile global prices.
If community-led universal basic services lower the pressure for people to work as many hours and consume significantly, there may be significant environmental gains in terms of reduced trash, which typically affects the Global South more than the North.
With less economic and political pressure from the Global North, it is possible that the Global South will have the chance to shape their political and economic structures on their own terms. Perhaps at that point true cooperation between North and South could be feasible. There is much the Global North could learn from the Global South.
There are many critiques of degrowth as being radical and leftist—and many of those critiques would be valid. However, community motive does not fall neatly along a political spectrum. It borrows ideas from what Americans would consider the left, center, and right; some ideas are also borrowed from what might be called responsive communitarianism, which lies between left and right.
Community motive can be seen as coming from the left since it hopes that better community relations will lead to more tolerance. Additionally, improved community motive could lower our communities’ dependence on markets and big corporations.
However, community motive can also be seen as coming from the right, in its advocacy for local self-reliance and less dependence on government for goods and services.
Regardless of the left-right spectrum, both major parties in the US receive money from big businesses–often the same businesses–who seek access to politicians. Both major parties are interested in maintaining economic growth as key policy objectives.
Community motive should just be seen for what it is: a theory and practice of community-led, convivial provision of basic services to all members, with less reliance on markets and governments.
Some say that degrowth or community motive or similar ideas are Luddite, that is anti-technology. The conventional economic view of technology is that technology lowers the amount of labor input required to make particular goods and services, thereby lowering the prices of those goods and services, making them more attainable for households.
Such a view assumes that more of those goods and services are actually ‘better’ for society and that those who lost their jobs will be able to find some way to provide for themselves, but it is not clear they will attain equivalent jobs.
This critique also rests on the assumption that it is money that creates innovation. That is not true. Money can facilitate innovation because it helps to feed people, house people, and ensure a good quality of life for people who are creating.
But the money itself does not create. It is people who are creative and innovative. If we meet their needs, we may in fact have a society that is more creative and innovative. We can diversify the pool of people who are able to spend their time exercising their creative energies. Technologies can still be created without reliance on financial institutions and elite connections. Maker-spaces create a lot of innovative things with little financial input.
Money itself is not a good judge of what technologies a society needs; it is only a good judge of which technologies will themselves earn more money for those in power. Community motive is not against technologies per se. Airplanes and smartphones can still exist and be improved in such a society. But they would be innovated and improved because communities and societies deemed that such things were needed, not because profit motives and continued consumption needed to be satisfied.
What I object to, is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such. The craze is for what they call labour-saving machinery. Men go on ‘saving labour’, until thousands are without work and thrown on the open streets to die of starvation. I want to save time and labour, not for a fraction of mankind, but for all; I want the concentration of wealth, not in the hands of a few, but in the hands of all. Today machinery merely helps a few to ride on the back of millions. The impetus behind it all is not the philanthropy to save labour, but greed. It is against this constitution of things that I am fighting with all my might.” (Mahatma Gandhi)
Decommodifying basic services and supporting local production of goods and services could affect stock-market investments by reducing levels of market consumption. If more people participate in and receive community-led universal basic services, they may spend less in market transactions.
If people consume fewer goods and services on the market, this behavior may lower stock-market returns, thus negatively impacting those with retirement savings in those markets. This is, of course, not the fault of people who have significant retirement savings in the markets: saving in the stock market is a rational and encouraged behavior in our society.
However, we do need to re-examine the nature and justice of such a system. Does it make sense to have a retirement and welfare system that ultimately depends on continuous consumption levels in society? Does that not place an unfair burden on future generations who will deal with the waste that such consumption produces?
Community-Led Universal Basic Services should be made particularly available for the elderly members of our society. Free or low-cost healthcare, access to locally produced food, and access to shelter can help to offset losses in retirement accounts. It is not clear that a welfare system that depends on continued societal consumption should persist, but those wealth losses must be replaced by necessary services.