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 Alternative economies: a letter from Brazil

author: Camilo Ramada - 05.09.2002 10:26

Camilo, memeber of the Ducth organization Stichting Strohalm, is working in Brazil to create alternative Monetary Methods in cooperation with oa. the MST, the movement of landless peasants. A eyewitness account.

Dear friends at the PGA-conference,

Here a letter from Brazil, all the way from the deep-South, Porto Alegre that is, that's getting even warmer now. Yeah, the winter is fading out and the temperature is rising. In contrast to the situation in Leiden, I assume, where "and I really want to rub it in with a smile" the summer must have come to an end and the winter is tapping on your door.

Perhaps this is a metaphor for the economic developments we are seeing today. While in Europe chilly capitalism is corroding at a fundamental level, here, in Porto Alegre, a lot of very exciting NEW developments can be witnessed. People and organizations, but also local governments, are exploring new ways to build up society, the economy and their political foundations.

The local council here in the big city, as in other cities and small villages – and even the government of this district itself as well – are being run for approximately 10 years by the “Partido dos Trabalhadores”, The Brazilian Labor Party. This party, a collusion of about eight different political movements, varying from radical left to social-religious people, has given opportunities for communities to organize themselves at a social-political level. They even have contributed to this grass-roots uprising by sustaining communication, by helping to get into contact with the appropriate government agencies and by subsidizing as well…
It looks a bit like Europe in the sixties and seventies, I guess, when at a lot of places alternative movements and initiatives rose and discussions and political innovations took place everywhere. But now: This is the year 2002, and the current developments are thriving in the middle of world-capitalism that’s getting even more cynical by the day.

One of the most peculiar and interesting initiatives is probably the “Economy of Solidarity”, I think. This comprises all kinds of enterprises, co-operations, networks of small self-sustaining businesses, communal agencies to purchase products, people who are producing biologically, local unions and all kinds of initiatives in the neighborhoods in which people are producing in a human-friendly fashion.
In all different ways you can imagine people are investigating new ways to achieve socially and environmentally sustainable economies. They are supported by a very dedicated part of the “intelligentsia”, who are issuing really very interesting publications nowadays; For instance about theories in which the Materialism from Gramsci has been merged with the ideological energy from the more or less more feminine Gaia-Mother-Earth theories on sustainability. Okay, I know, this is really something which I favor personally, but nevertheless …

I first encountered the fervid enthusiasm of these – in the beginning still rather incoherent – initiatives, when Stichting Strohalm, the Dutch organization I work for, sent me to a meeting of the “Trueque”-movement in Buenos Aires Argentina, November ‘99. In ’95 this movement, which we accompanied as advisors for several years at the time, started issuing their own banknotes, so that people could use them for exchange in their communities. Swiftly, other neighborhoods joined in and started trading with each other, and after a serious Press-attendance, a large “Chaordic” network of these initiatives emerged at different levels. Some neighborhoods united their “Clubes del Trueque” until a vast network emerged, others preferred to operate rather autonomously; some trusted one another, others didn’t; But, most important, suddenly there was a lot of trade going on, an uprising from the grassroots of society in the middle of a national crisis!!

In the meantime several years have passed; Argentina is completely bankrupt while the Trueque has over 7 million participants, according to BBC-World News. Some criticists may think that these people aren’t at all politically or socially mature, that this is a petty-bourgeois initiative or that the Trueque only works because there is a national crisis. And perhaps they are right. But what is happening in Argentina and what isn’t happening elsewhere is that the people have grasped the “Mystery of Issuing Money” and claimed it for themselves. And that is really a very important revolutionary development, I think.

Everybody knows that nowadays the most exploiting body is the ) foretold us?monetary system, exactly like Marx (for those who are interested about 150 years ago. The “Financial Capital” has, after a power struggle in the seventies and the beginning of the eighties, taken over command from the “Productive Capital”. At first, plane human force was sufficient, then the appropriation of land and machines were needed to create the foundations for exploitation of fellow man and nature, but nowadays…: Money is the key to absolute control.
Where in the days of colonialism brute force had to be present to enforce the colonized countries to hand over their raw materials, nowadays it suffices to sustain a perfectly anonymous and apparently non-violent structure, or…: “The International Monetary System”. That system, with its endless interest-payments, compels countries to choose “voluntarily” to hand over not only their raw materials, but the soil, the people that are living on it, the factories that are standing on it and even the belonging animals and plants as well. They have to sell it all to the big companies of the North just to get their hands on money that is needed to redeem the debts they have to the same North.

Where in the early days the “Proletariat” by their miserable conditions of life was forced to be merely extensions of the machines they had to work with, nowadays the same trick is being used in a more sophisticated fashion by enchaining them to mortgage-payments and so on… Who dares to defy the notion that man doesn’t know progress then???
Unfortunately, this very efficient and apparently painless mechanism of exploitation entails all kinds of nasty side-effects. The energy of the majority of the people is sucked into the center of accumulation and so cannot be employed to develop themselves. People have to fight each other for the poor leftovers the rich cannot use, a corrosion festers in the moral foundations of society, and we are witnessing the decay of Mother Earth, who’s laying in the gutter, bleeding stench …

One of the most paradoxical features of this money-system may be the people who are cast aside, being unemployed, but staying inert instead of being glad not to have to join the Machine again and so being able to employ their energy for their own benefit. I guess that this emanates from the fact that in a complex society like ours, we need abstract tender for exchange and mediation of our relationships. For example, barter isn’t possible, because it would mean that you have to clean the stage first before being permitted to get on the train.

So, we have to conclude two things then with respect to the current money-system. In one way it is exploiting us at a vast scale, on the other hand we don’t know how to live without it anymore. I think there’s only one solution: We have to explore new kinds of money, money that is able to unchain us from exploitation and at the same time offers us a new, decentralized, democratic and non-accumulating structure for exchange.

And that’s precisely what my organization is doing, first by deploying the Local Exchange Trading Systems and Local Capital Circuits in the Netherlands, and now in other countries as well, like in Poland, The US, Eastern Timor, Uruguay, Argentina and, of course, Brazil.
At the conference in Argentina in ’95 I came into contact with a local government official from the district Porto Alegre. He invited us for a conference which would be held here, in this district, a year later. This was the first time the people from Strohalm had been invited by a government. Until then we stood at the other side, we thought …

At this conference in Porto Alegre we got to know a lot of very interesting movements, like the MST, the movements of landless peasants, who are – ironically – not at all landless, because they are squatting land that after long judicial battles has eventually been permitted for use.
Also we got acquainted with people from the North East of Brazil, who are living on their own “micro-credit system”. In the poor village of Fortaleza, for example, they have created their own bank, BancoPalmas, and a local creditcard as well, to stimulate consumption in their neighborhood.

So it became clear to us that an enormous need, caused by the dramatic economic, political and social developments, had led to a very highly-motivated and well-organized social movement. We knew then that we could contribute something very substantial to these movements: our self-developed Monetary Methods, that were quite unknown in those places at the time.

To spare you the details of the little and less little worries of Stichting Strohalm, I will disclose straightforward the topics we are working on right now. At this moment we are co-operating with the BancoPalmas to sustain a very solid local currency, of which approximately 50.000 units of account will be supplied at the end of the year, with an estimate total value of about 20.000 euro.
With the MST we are working on plans to supply them with a currency that is to be used as a medium for exchange in their own movement. This project will start locally but, when it turns out to be a big success, it will be deployed in the whole country!

Just imagine they will succeed to replace the “ordinary” money - money that now is circulating for exchange between their individual co-operative farming initiatives - with an internal “clearing-facility” for clearance of mutual payments and debts! Then they will be able to put together all the “ordinary” money to purchase capital goods at the capitalist market and so probably it would be possible then to integrate these markets within the movement as well. At a later date they can sustain their money with their own productive capabilities and then issue as much of their own money as they need, to maximize the efficiency of their production. Without any interest-payments, I must add!

Also we are working on several other payment-clearing-networks for independent small business firms, so that those firms can use the same financial structures as the multinational companies deploy internally nowadays.

To be short, as well as in Holland as in other countries we are working quite severely to convert money for the people’s own use and appropriate the System of Money Supply. And we really think that our own system works much more effectively than capitalism, because we don’t have to pay off interest or other usury, so in that way ALL value can be employed by the people themselves! At the same time this will mean an end to the dogma of economic growth, and that’s a major improvement with respect to the sustainability of the economic system.

So, good news from a very sunny Porto Alegre, and not only because of the weather!

Yours sincerely,

Camilo Ramada

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