What are some of the fundamental flaws of capitalism? How might we instantiate a market-based economy that is growth agnostic?
This conversation investigates the fundamental challenges of a capitalism and outlines a vision for a post-growth economy that better achieves a just, sustainable society. Our guest, Donnie MacLurcan, is the founder and Executive Director of the Post Growth Institute. He's one of the most brilliant thinkers we've met on new economics.
In this episode Jenny and Donnie discuss:
“Donnie MacLurcan (DM): Everyone's talking about how do we get out of deficit problems here with our government budget? Or how do we change monetary policy with the central banks? Or how do we fight for a fair minimum wage, etc., etc. What I'm here to say is that those are important conversations, but they're not the root conversation. The root conversation is how do we get beyond a system where inequality is baked in? We could talk about modern monetary theory and other things if people want. But in reality, nothing in a capitalist system gets around the dilemma of capitalist accumulation, which is why it's so central. In addition to talking about the very problematic history on which capitalism emerged – the inequity, the racism that's built in – it's just a system that fundamentally doesn't hold any answers in terms of the mathematics, and that's what a lot of people miss.”
[00:01:00] Jenny Stefanotti (JS): That's Donnie Maclurcan, Founder and Executive Director of the Post Growth Institute and one of if not the single most brilliant individual I've encountered when it comes to the future of the economy. This is the Denizen Podcast. I'm your host and curator, Jenny Stefanotti.
In this episode, we're talking about post growth economics. It's a great complement to the conversations we've had in the last two episodes, first looking at co-ops and then looking at steward ownership. That was really investigating at the micro level, how you instantiate an economy that works for life on Earth in terms of the incentives of the business. So this is a complement where we're going to up level and look at it from a macro perspective, talk about some of the fatal flaws of capitalism, what a not-for-profit economy would look like, some examples of where that exists around the world, Donnie’s perspective on how we might transition from where we are today to there, and what gives him hope.
This episode has a complimentary post on our website summarizing our research. You can find it at www.becomingdenizen.com. There, you can also subscribe to our newsletter. We bring our weekly content to your inbox, as well as announcements from our partners. Subscribers are invited to join the Denizen community in our online community home and participate in our online and in-person events. Again, that's www.becomingdenizen.com. With that, I hope you enjoy this conversation. It's one of the most important topics we'll cover with one of the most brilliant people I know.
[00:02:23] JS: This conversation is going to center on a post growth view of the economy. There's a lot of things to talk about in terms of the fundamental challenges of capitalism, as we know it. Donnie, remind me. There's this great quote on your website, where you describe what post growth is.
[00:02:43] DM: Post growth, essentially, is about exploring a system that's not tied to or not dependent on growth in the economy and particularly in growth in the money supply. So it's about how do we thrive within ecological limits, and how do we do so in a system that's not dependent on a constant growth in the amount of money, the amount of debt, and the amount of economic growth that is baked into our current system functioning.
[00:03:10] JS: Debt was one of the central fatal flaws of capitalism. This is one of the most critical points that you make, and so I want to make sure that we make it today. Let's talk about debt, why we're dependent on it and why that's fundamentally problematic.
[00:03:25] DM: Yeah, absolutely. So at first, I'll just tell a little story, and it's about an experiment that some of you have done with me because it gets to the heart of something I think is really important here. For the last maybe eight years in circumstances around the world, I’ve been conducting a drawing experiment. In that experiment, I will ask people to draw a line down the center of their page. Then in the top right write the word future. In the top left, write the word present. I'll ask people then to feel into what a future that's working for everyone, people and planet, non-human species, what does that feel like? What does an economy that's working for everyone feel like? Then I'll get people to draw something for the left hand side about what the present economy feels like.
For both of those exercises, I'll ask people to draw a symbol or a shape without lifting their pen. What's interesting is that no matter the demographic, no matter who I'm doing this with, whether it's fortune 500 CEOs or people who are railing against the system, people across the gender spectrum, age, wealth, etc., people will consistently draw one of four things for the future and one of four things for the present or a close variation. For the future, they'll typically draw something circular, a circle, a spiral, an infinity symbol, or a heart. For the present, people will typically draw a jagged line, a triangle, a downward arrow, or a mess of lines. This very deep piece that we can see there, if you would have those two, it would be starkly easy to notice that one side is nonlinear and the other side has a linearity built into it.
So on some deep level, all of us understand and feel that the future we're seeking to get to has circularity built in. Just as in all living systems, you have a circulation, whether it's the circulation of nitrogen, and that allows for the healthy flows in our ecosystems or the circulation of blood or oxygen in our bodies. Otherwise, we have gangrene. So this principle that's inherent in both our understandings of what works and also inherent in natural living things that do work is pretty interesting. Because when you look then at the other side and you say what is it that people are drawing for the present, no one's drawing anything circular.
Now, hold on a second. There are lots of people who would argue that the present capitalist market economy delivers goods, and arguably in certain people's perspectives, in very efficient ways. Why then is it that no one's drawing anything circular for the present? This gets to the heart of what I think is an underexplored area, even in progressive economics. That is that the key things that aren't circulating in our global economy are money and debt. In fact, the more you look into those two things, and you can also look at aspects of how power concentrates when capital accumulates and also resources accumulate. But what you realize is that when you look at capitalism, it's actually been misdescribed for a lot of people.
Capitalism is often equated as something synonymous with the market. But a market economy has been around way before capitalism existed. We had lots of forms of trade, where people would be exchanging with each other, often for forms of value that were in monetary forms. But capitalism presently, as I would describe it, is primarily a for-profit system, driven by the underlying operating principle of monetary accumulation into private individual hands. In other words, the focus, the underlying focus, whether it's conscious capitalism, whether it's B Corp-filled capitalism, whether it's ethical or values-driven or green capitalism, etc., you still have as an underlying principle that money is going to accumulate on the basis of investment being in part, if not solely, to get a return on your investment of greater money than you invested.
This gets us to a very central piece about what happens in a capitalist system, in any capitalist system. We'll probably delve into this in a little bit about how money and debt are central to this, but the headline is the following. In any capitalist system, money – by money I'm talking about liquid money, money that is in people's bank accounts, or it might be in your back pocket right now, or money that you have in an account that could be relatively quickly accessed. What happens in any capitalist system is that money accumulates into the accounts of either wealthy individuals, occasionally, very occasionally, governments, and most commonly, certain corporations, wealthy corporations.
Because of the way that our economy operates, and we can unpack this a little later, when money accumulates in our economy, the equivalent debt has to accumulate elsewhere. This is centrally the piece that you're asking about, Jenny. It's what happens and what we feel in our bodies when we draw the jagged line, for example, about the presence, and we don't see the circulation in the present system, but we know it's needed for the future. It's fundamentally because our system, as it stands as a primarily capitalist system, has baked into it the increased accumulation of money that then requires debt. All that can happen in that system is that the debt can get pushed around from individuals, to governments, to corporations, etc.
This is fundamentally why we have such an unequal and increasingly unequal economy. We can, again, delve into why that happens. But the inequality is baked in. Then from the inequality, we get the consumptive pressures that are associated with that, whether it's emulative consumption, people wanting to keep up with others. But more importantly, you have a small group of individuals in particular and companies that get to basically design how a system in terms of production and consumption is going to work. They get to create all sorts of unsatisfied needs that they will present as things that we need in our lives.
This is why our system is struggling up against the edges and moving over the edges of what's sustainable because we have a system where that control and power is linked to the monetary accumulation, and underneath this is ever growing amounts of debt that put us, many of us, into extreme pressure in terms of just daily survival.
[00:10:04] JS: Debt is tied to money creation. I want to speak a little bit more to that part of it too.
[00:10:10] DM: Absolutely. This is an unglamorous area of economics, perhaps, but it's probably, in my opinion, the most fundamental piece to understand. We have to go back to the question of how money is created. If I was to ask myself that question fifteen years ago, I think I would have answered in the way that I hear most people answer these days, and that is that governments create money. The reality is that the majority of the world's money is created when people take out loans or companies take out loans from banks. Banks, whether they be commercial banks or central banks, it's banks that have the power to create money, and it's banks that do create money in our global system. Interestingly, that's agreed across every jurisdiction that I'm aware of globally. You could be in Togo. You could be in Fiji. You could be in Australia. In all of these places, there is an agreement that the only entities that can create money are banks.
Now, most people then, if they've read some of the literature here, get swept up into this idea that banks can create money out of thin air. While that's, in some ways, true, as in with the stroke of a click of a button, certain money can get created, there's also another side of the equation, and that is equivalent debt has to be created. It's not like banks have the power to just say, “Right, we're going to add more money into our system.” They have to do double entry. They have to say, “We're going to add something in, and we're going to add a liability for the asset,” for example.
What does this mean in practical terms? Well, if you were to take out a loan, for example, apply for a loan for a vehicle, and let's say the moment before you got that loan approved and the money transferred, that there was a million US dollars in the global money supply, right? So there's money in people's bank accounts. There's money in people's pockets, in terms of actual coins and notes. Let's say that the total amount of those coins and notes and the amount in people's bank accounts and their short-term and medium-term deposits totaled US one million dollars. You're taking out a loan for, let's say, $20,000 for a vehicle.
The moment that you take out that loan and it's approved, the bank is going to put, let's say, $20,000 into your bank account, although often they'll just pay straight to the auto sales company. But let's just say they put the $20,000 into your account. Now, there is $1,020,000 in the global money supply. New money just got created. However, let's say that before this transaction, there was also one million dollars in the global debt stocks. The bank, when they lend you the $20,000, are also going to say you need to pay back the $20,000, right? So you have that loan. Now, there is $1,020,000 in global debt in the system.
So what this is, and this is a really important piece to take in in terms of understanding the monetary and debt relationship, what that means is that anytime new money enters our economy, anytime new money is created, there has to be an equivalent amount of debt that is created, at least. What that means is that if you were to reach into your pocket right now, and you had in your wallet, let's say, a five-dollar US note, if you're in the US, there would have to be somewhere in the system, an equivalent of five US dollars of debt. But the reality is that there's a lot more debt than there is money in the system. In fact, there's around $305 trillion in global debt at the moment held by individuals, corporations, and governments. There's about $150 trillion in the money supply.
You might say “How is there so much more debt than there is money in the system?” Because the only way that a debt can actually be wiped out is if you use money to pay it off. So we have this interesting situation because the moment that I take out a loan from the bank, there's also going to be interest on that loan. So there has to be somewhere in the system that I can get that extra bit of money to pay off my loan. But we have a dilemma because the amount of money that was created is the same as the original debt that was created. So now, we have extra debt in the system. That's the interest on top of things.
To compound things, we also have other ways that debt can be created without new money being created. So for example, if I buy a government bond, right? If I'm in Argentina here and I buy a government bond with pesos that I might have, I'm using existing money. I buy my bond. Now, the government has a debt to me in terms of needing to pay a coupon on that bond. So new debt got created, but no new money was added into the system. It's the same when we have corporate bonds as well. It's also the same as if I, for example, lent you money, Jenny. Then all of a sudden, there'd be a new debt that you might owe me, especially if it was on the books. But there's no new money because I'm not a bank, and I can't create new money.
The point here is new money gets created when loans are made by banks. The equivalent amount of debt is created at the same time. Then there are other ways that debt gets added in. The money that's getting created is accumulating faster than it is circulating. Primarily, it's the rents on land and essentially on labor that accumulate the main points of capital.
Now, how does money go back into the system? Well, by paying employees’ wages, through taxation. In any capitalist system, the accumulation is always stronger than the circulation. Let's say that I earned a whole lot of money investing in a company, and I just gave all of that back as philanthropy or wages, etc., and that that was the norm. Then it wouldn't be capitalism, right? It would be some other system that would be a market economy that's post capitalist because, again, the primary objective in a capitalist system is monetary accumulation in private hands.
[00:16:30] JS: So in your view, and I'm not disagreeing, I just want to make sure this is clear. In a system where you still have large amounts of inequality, if that is then cycled into the system through philanthropy, you wouldn't consider that capitalism.
[00:16:44] DM: Just to make sure I'm understanding you correctly, Jenny, you're saying if there was a system in which you had like philanthrocapitalism, you had basically all of the accumulators putting more money back into the system like significantly so, would that be problematic? Is that what you're asking?
[00:16:59] JS: Yeah. If I heard you correctly, what you're indicating is that if that philanthropic component was a continual cycle, so there wasn't accumulation, then it wouldn't be – you wouldn't consider that capitalism.
[00:17:12] DM: If the amount I accumulated was equal to the amount that I put back in, then there would be no incentive for investment in a capitalist narrative. Why would anyone invest into a company if the expectation or the outcome is that all of that money was just going to go back to philanthropy? It doesn't make any sense. In other words, you can have a whole lot of benevolent individuals in a capitalist system, but you're always going to have people who are in it for private gain because that's the narrative that’s set up. That's why you invest. Why else would you risk bootstrapping a company for maybe two or three years, if you weren't expecting a return on the investment at that time?
[00:17:49] JS: Let's bookmark that question.
[00:17:51] DM: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, absolutely. So the last piece here is that when money accumulates in a system, the problem is then that you have individuals particularly working around the world who in certain circumstances experienced this in much more extreme forms. Of course, we have to factor into all of this the history of colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism. You've got a situation where labor around the world, individuals who are essentially subservient to the capitalist system and working for corporations in often extreme conditions where they're just struggling to survive. The situation when money accumulates is that the debt has to accumulate elsewhere.
So what happens when you have individuals, millions and billions of individuals around the world who are in debt? What is it that they need in order to reduce that debt? They need money. How do they get money? Primarily through increases in their wages. What happens in a capitalist system where money keeps accumulating? You get downward pressure on wages, which we'll talk about in just a second. The point is this. If I don't have money, if I'm in debt and I don't have money because there's not enough money coming into common circulation in the economy, what do I do in order to survive, if I'm part of the market economy? I have to go into more debt.
What you've seen over the last 100 years is households, governments, and small businesses, in particular, and some zombie big businesses going into more and more debt. They have to go into debt mathematically because if money accumulates somewhere in the system, it's got to be matched up with debt elsewhere. So you've got this baked in dilemma. Everyone's talking about how do we get out of deficit problems here with our government budget, or how do we change monetary policy here with the central banks, or how do we fight for a fair minimum wage, etc., etc. What I'm here to say is that those are important conversations, but they're not the root conversation.
The root conversation is how do we get beyond a system where that Inequality is baked in, and we could talk about modern monetary theory and other things if people want. But in reality, nothing in a capitalist system gets around the dilemma of capitalist accumulation, which is why it's so central. In addition to talking about the very problematic history on which capitalism emerged, the inequity, the racism that's built in, it’s just a system that fundamentally doesn't hold any answers in terms of the mathematics, and that's what a lot of people miss.
[00:20:31] JS: Let's move to your quote. I found it. I appreciate it. This is from the Post Growth Institute's website. “Post growth is a worldview that sees society operating better without the demand of constant economic growth. It proposes that widespread economic justice, social wellbeing, and ecological regeneration, are only possible when money inherently circulates through our economy.” So let's get back. But I appreciate that you're calling this a worldview, not necessarily simply a characteristic of the economy.
I mean, I know a lot of the conversation so far has talked about the fundamental challenges around debt and the instability that fosters the second point that you make on the website, which I think is less debatable, and we need to get into it, just talks about the fact that the ecological footprint is always expanding in a modern capitalist system, which obviously sets us up for environmental collapse.
I want to turn to some of the things that you are seeing as you're working on this. But maybe first, we should quickly talk about the starting positions that you articulate on the website. So I'm just going to say them quickly. First one is that all people can live one planet lifestyles in ways that bring increased peace and posterity from the personal to the global scale. What does a one planet lifestyle mean?
[00:21:47] DM: Well, simply, that's a lifestyle that fits with our ecological boundaries. So essentially, it's one that has wellbeing at its heart that actually has people's needs met, but exists in a way that is sustainable. A lot of people push back on this word sustainable because it's been co opted. But at the end of the day, that's, to me, what we're talking about is what's sustainable and what's not. What can we sustain, and what can't we sustain? So, yeah, one planet is a lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle that can be sustained. Also, we would add in the piece on justice, right? Because there's a historical injustice here that needs to be addressed in that regard as well.
[00:22:23] JS: So you add that one planet lifestyle acknowledges the physical limits to economic growth on a planet with finite resources. One planet lifestyle acknowledges the pressures of growing human population with highly inequitable patterns of production and consumption placed on a planet with finite physical resources. Finally, one planet lifestyles also acknowledge that advances in technology do not mean we can keep growing indefinitely.
The technological piece is really interesting. Some of you may be familiar with Jevons Paradox, which looks at the ways in which technological advances that bring efficiency just lead to more consumption, not less in the end. I'm sure you talked to that too, Donnie.
[00:23:02] DM: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the classic examples in the modern day that people think about are buying the hybrid electric vehicle, which often the data that I've seen suggests that people end up driving a little more, knowing that they're not contributing in the same kind of way to gasoline production and consumption, etc. So same with how you get the efficiency measure on your showerhead, and people stay in the shower longer. These sorts of rebound effects are very real.
But at the end of the day, the technology piece, the questions around population, around justice and the like, ultimately, what I found in looking into this with my colleague, Jen Hinton, and others over the last decade was that everything points back. The trail comes back to the money. It comes back to where the money is accumulating or circulating. It's certainly just a part of post-growth work. Most of our work these days is not about that. It's about exploring what it looks and feels like to live in a thriving way, in a way that's more connected, more relational, more connected to the earth around us, and how do we run corporations in ways that actually live with those values that so many of us hold?
But at the end of the day, the underpinning, so those are the same things. It's about circulation. How do we circulate money, power, and natural resources in ways that are fair, smart, and sustainable?
[00:24:24] JS: I mean, there's a lot of ambiguity, and I'm just curious. Are you honing in on some sort of consensus on what a one planet lifestyle looks like? Are you seeing that looking different in different countries that you operate in? What are some of the central questions that inform what that looks like? So one of the ones that I talk about a lot in our conversations is the question of how much is enough, right? Particularly when we live in a culture that glorifies wealth and overconsumption and more, I'm curious what you're seeing as you're exploring what one planet lifestyle looks like in your work.
[00:24:57] DM: Yeah. I would say that I would draw most in this regard on the work of Manfred Max-Neef and others who did some incredible, incredible work that sort of looked at Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and many of you will be familiar with Maslow's triangle. That really drove so much of the answer to your question, Jenny, about what do people need. Maslow was suggesting, although he didn't quite say this specifically, but somewhat suggesting that there was a hierarchy of needs, right? You get your basic needs met physically and that you move through all the way to self-actualization.
Well, what many people don't know is that Maslow's work was built on reading the biographies and autobiographies of largely white men and about eighteen or nineteen of them from memory. Manfred Max-Neef comes along, a Chilean barefoot economist, as he was referred to, and says, “That just doesn't make sense. I think it's more complex,” and questioning this notion of the hierarchy because I know people that I've seen who might not have their physical needs met but are able to self-actualize, for example, or be very dedicated to aspects of their spirituality.
So he and a team does this research all around the world. Sure enough, they discover there are actually universal needs; subsistence, protection, affection, identity, and freedom. One of the ones that he discovered that was most interesting to me is that every human being across cultures needs an aspect of creation. So Max-Neef’s universal basic needs are about as close as I've seen to there being universal principles. Beyond that, it's very culturally sensitive, and we could speak to that a little more if helpful.
[00:26:40] JS: There's a lot to cover, so I want to keep moving. I hadn't seen this term before, and I saw this on your website. What do you mean by full circle economy?
[00:26:47] DM: Well, yeah, that's a great question. It harks back to this notion that so many of the things that are presented these days around circular economy are maybe missing a few pieces. So you've got terms like circular economy that usually focus on how resources circulate through a system, particularly in terms of material throughput. So companies are saying “How do we recycle? How do we reuse?” etc. Then you have other aspects like the doughnut economics work, which is trying to say how do we thrive within ecological limits, while meeting human needs.
For us, full circle economics brings those things together and says there are three components that we've encountered. That is the circulation of resources - natural resources - the circulation of power, which is a little under done, I would say, in a lot of economic thinking. Not how we move to a just and sustainable future. Clearly, that's where my particular interests lie. How do we actually bake in? How do we find or where do we find examples where money and its circulation are already built in?
Many indigenous cultures throughout the world have shown that there are ways that you can inherently build into your culture, ways to incentivize the circulation of money from Polynesian cultures where, for example, the individual who would show up into a space and actually gift the most would be considered the most revered through to the Potlatch and Pacific Northwest that would give people specific markings on their body to acknowledge when they gave away all of their wealth by throwing a feast for the community.
So these sorts of ways where cultures have understood that wealth inequality or monetary inequality, etc. is fundamentally problematic for cohesion. It disconnects us from each other. It disconnects us from ourselves. It disconnects us from our communities and from our environments. But when you flip that, when you find ways for money to circulate, whether it's through legal forms of business structures, and we could talk about Patagonia and what's just happened recently there that's so inspiring, when you find ways in communities for money to circulate in the informal economy, when you find ways for money to circulate pre-taxations, before a redistributive approach that governments on the left typically favor. Those kinds of approaches then are tapping into the kind of wisdom that's been with us for millennia.
[00:29:20] JS: Yeah. We've talked about that in some of our conversations. We’ll continue to explore various indigenous cultures and, hopefully, help propagate those mindsets into a broader conversation. I want to turn to talking a little bit about organizations themselves and not necessarily how they are structured or potentially structured, but how they're run. Because we talked about post growth, but you talk a lot about not-for-profit, not to be confused with nonprofits. So I'd love for you to articulate the distinction, and let's talk about not-for-profit, which is really the model forward which utilizes all the good things that are good about the market economy, without getting into these fundamental flaws that we've talked about with respect to capitalism.
[00:30:04] DM: Absolutely. A brief story. Back in 2009, I was at a conference in Brisbane in Australia, and the keynote speaker got up and spoke about his engineering company. It was a community development conference he ran, an engineering company that was fifty employees, $13 million turnover in Australia. So not a massive engineering company but not small. They worked in the civil construction side of things, particularly with a focus on building bridges and surveying roads and the like.
Colin Saltney was his name, and he said the words that ultimately changed the trajectory of my life. He said, “And our company is not-for-profit.” I was a little shocked because I had not ever heard of a not-for-profit engineering company. So I went up to him afterwards, and Colin’s an indigenous man. So when I asked him, “What do you mean not-for-profit,” he said, “When we got together and felt like there was something we needed to do, we pooled our money. We lent some money into the company. And, of course, none of us – “It’s not in my culture,” he would say, “To ever take money out to extract. So we just lent some money in, got it started. And, of course, we were going to set it up as a not-for-profit. That's the closest you get in a settler colonial system to what my indigenous practice would do.”
That set off, for me, an investigation and exploration of sensing into what was happening around the world already that utilized different forms of structure that didn't involve private individual accumulation at their heart or private individual ownership. What I discovered, Jenny, blew my mind because what I found was that almost 20% of global GDP comes from forms of business that don't have private accumulation or private individual ownership as their model. The four different areas that that shows up in: government enterprises, industrial foundations or foundation-owned businesses, consumer cooperatives, and we can go into examples for each of these in a minute, if helpful, and nonprofits that have business models.
What I also found with my colleague, Jen Hinton, is that there wasn't an area that wasn't an example. If you took any industry, for any industry in the world, for any sector, there was an example of a thriving competitive not-for-profit business. That kind of setup was really interesting to me because the more I looked then, the more I realized I'd been part of organizations that had been using that model.
I worked for ten years with the Fred Hollows Foundation, an international eye health organization. Their model for revenue generation was they had developed an intraocular lens to replace the cataract filter lens that people have through when they develop cataracts. They had undercut the market at the time by developing a very high quality lens that took the cost of an intraocular lens from $350 per lens to $7.50, right? A hugely disruptive business. Then as a not-for-profit, they set up the lens factories in Eritrea, amidst the war happening. I've been working with them for ten years, and I'd never realized that that not-for-profit, in that case, it was a nonprofit organization in Australia, was actually engaging in business in that way.
Fast forward, you look at Lester Salamon’s work with Johns Hopkins University, who's probably the person who in the world with a team of people has documented nonprofit business activities, and you discover a story that has been totally untold. Around the world, the majority, and this is across US, Canada, Australia, UK, a lot of major economies, all the way through to Afghanistan and Azerbaijan, you have a situation that is very interesting. Most nonprofit organizations in the world are in business, and the majority of their income comes from business activities, where there are goods and services that they sell.
So whether it's the YMCA with all of their programs, through to a lot of churches that have cafes that they run, through to other forms of business, where it's already baked in like credit unions, etc., you have a circumstance where if I was to stop pretty much anyone in the street in most parts of the world that I've been to and ask them, “How is a nonprofit operating,” chances are they're going to say it's a philanthropic-supported entity. Well, less than 20% of global nonprofit funding comes from philanthropy, and nonprofit organizers and managers went into business because they were tired over the last thirty years of being at the whims of philanthropy and of government policies changing.
You take one of the world's biggest NGOs that exist, BRAC, right? They work in healthcare. They have about 10 million people that they're servicing annually. They have 120,000 staff, so a very, very big nonprofit organization. How does BRAC get funded, one of the world's biggest nonprofits? Over 80% of BRAC’s funding comes from its business activities that run craft stores. It runs artificial insemination services. It runs a bank. It runs a printing press, a cheese company, right? There's a whole lot of activity out there that exists that you wouldn't even notice. You'd say, “Oh, that's just a for-profit business.” Then you discover it's got a parent company that's a not-for-profit.
What's the point of all this? The point is that we've got use case scenarios. We've got examples of businesses showing us that you can run a successful business in a market economy that's competitive, that's circulating money. There's no shareholders taking profit out and accumulating capital, and so you have this circulation that happens. For example, the most important thing associated with the Patagonia announcement of a shifting over to a not-for-profit structure, a steward ownership structure, it's great that they're going to be able to put the profits towards climate change activities. But even more importantly for me is they've now closed the loop on what happens with money. There's not an accumulation of that $100 million profit every year going into someone's bank account.
[00:36:34] JS: The Patagonia example was really big. I want to dig in a little bit more into the industrial foundations. I also want to talk about co-ops, but let's talk about industrial foundations because I think this is a particularly interesting, quite pervasive corporate structure. That is an example of what post growth looks like, often household names that one would be surprised to hear follow these structures. So can you say a little bit more about them?
[00:36:57] DM: There are a lot of businesses out there that you just would not even realize they don't have shareholders.
[00:37:02] JS: And they look like a foundation is sitting above wholly owning a for-profit structured entity, correct?
[00:37:09] DM: Correct. Yeah. I mean, in all reality, and having spent more hours than I could hope to want to spend looking into things, there are very complex structures in organizations like IKEA, for example. But at the end of the day, there's no private individual owners of IKEA, and that's something that people find very shocking and hard to believe. We could talk about the impact in terms of IKEA leading sustainability conversations, all the way through to some of their problematic practices, in terms of some of the things they do in Eastern Europe.
But at the end of the day, these organizations, when they have a foundation owner, what it means is that they will typically have an arrangement where the separate for-profit company, the subsidiary, or sometimes it's not considered a subsidiary, will just pay the profits over to the foundation. Then the foundation has its own focus. Like with IKEA, the foundation focuses on, I think, maternal health is its primary focus. Not many people would know that IKEA is in the business of funding maternal health. That's some of the pieces that get missed with our understanding of business and usually associating that with a for-profit form of business.
[00:38:18] JS: Now, in the co-op example, Donnie, I was surprised that you only mentioned consumer-owned coops. We had a conversation about coops. Coops are often multi-stakeholder coops, which include the suppliers, consumers, investors. If it's some 50% are often called coops, of course, employees. Why would you mention just consumer-owned coops as an example of those types of structures?
[00:38:45] DM: That's a great question. Look, the post-growth world that I'm hoping we'll see in the next thirty to forty years in terms of a planned post growth world would certainly, I imagine, have forms of entities such as worker cooperatives that continue to be competitive in a market economy, especially it's outside of cooperativism. But employee stock-owned corporations are sort of often a stepping stone towards cooperativism in the worker coop space.
But at the end of the day, it comes back to the accumulation question. If you have a system where, for example, you had more producer cooperatives or worker coops, you still have the capacity in that system then for accumulation. Then you're going to be back into the same loop, so to speak, with regards to the debt expansion imperative. So what you'll often see in Australia, for example, some of Australia's biggest companies are producer cooperatives, especially when it comes to wheat and other agricultural products. When you go and check what the end result of that cooperative ownership structure is, you'll discover that there's a huge amount of private accumulation that's happening because there's not that many cooperatives. There's people who own massive swathes of land, and they go in on the cooperative alongside ten, twenty, thirty other big producers.
So there's nothing built into for-profit cooperativism that actually addresses the challenges that we're raising. So looking at things through the lens of money accumulating as the end result of this business structure becomes super, super important if we're interested in how do we thrive on a planet with finite resources.
[00:40:28] JS: Then we have this conversation about how this is actually happening all over the world already, and we've talked about a lot of examples and a lot of different countries. What's your perspective on the path to get to a post growth economy? Obviously, there's a lot of opting in that we're seeing happening across the globe. But I'm curious. Are you kind of seeing this happen first in the higher income countries? Do you see a period of growth to get to a certain aggregate consumption level in lower income countries, and then it transitioned into a post growth state?
[00:41:01] DM: I love this question, and it's certainly one that's still information for all of us in our team. The first thing I'll say is this. I come from a background of training in asset-based community development. Asset-based community development says look at the glass half full. What's already there? What exists? What are the existing strengths? It draws on things like appreciative inquiry that many people would be familiar with. Looking through that lens – which is not the lens that gets approached to questions around the economy, it's not the lens that gets approached when we come to development —you realize that there is a narrative that is still held in lots of communities where challenges persist that is incredibly powerful.
That's a narrative that says what have we got, how do we connect up with those resources, how do we actually work with what's here in spite of the challenges that exist. So the questions of what happens in terms of the economy, how do we actually do a transition, other questions of justice, does the global north need to degrow so the global south can grow, I start from a different perspective. We run a fellowship through the Post Growth Institute. Many of our fellows are in the global south, and they're writing about interest in post growth trajectories for countries in the global south. There's a dominant perspective that comes through that's growth-driven in many parts of the world because that's the white supremacist, capitalistic neocolonialist narrative that has been essentially forced on people into educational institutions, etc., etc., etc.
It makes sense to me that a lot of academics in the global north, perhaps also from a space of some forms of guilt, feel that the global north degrowing in order for the global south to grow is an appropriate next step, in part because we do have real basic needs that are being met. Extreme poverty is real. But the relationship between global economic growth and exploitation is then what gets missed. How do you grow a capitalist system, if you degrow in certain countries, and then you seek for growth to emerge elsewhere? You're missing the point that the growth in any system, wherever it is in the world, if it's done in a capitalist system, means that you're going to have accumulation of money and accumulation of debt elsewhere.
In other words, it's that kind of approach misses the point, which is that global capitalism emerged on the backs of exploitation, and you can't then use an approach around capitalist growth to address the very thing that it created in the first place. When you use a strengths-based approach, and you say, “What have we got here? How do we seek to create alternative paths,” and we found this in the offers and needs markets that we organize and support, others organizing around the world, that there's a very different trajectory that emerges.
For example, Sri Lanka is currently going through immense challenges in terms of economic collapse. What happened amidst all of this? We got an email from someone who had seen something up on our website about our offers and needs market, which is a two-hour process with people connecting with what they have to offer and what they need with each other, and sent us photos of them running offers and needs markets with women in community centers in the midst of what was unfolding in Sri Lanka.
In reality, all of our work with the offers and needs market draws on the immense experience that exists in often communities of color, places in the global south, places that have been under challenge of erasure, etc., and have persevered despite those challenges that show us there are informal ways, things like rotating and savings and credit loans, mutual aid that are grounded in those communities as a survival mechanism, as well as an inherent cultural understanding that predates capitalism.
These sorts of parts highlight that there are ways to have people's needs being met, without necessarily growing GDP, without necessarily increasing the amount of trade that happens. The point is there are groups like Global Tapestry of Alternatives, the post-development movement, that are south situated from members living in, working in countries in the global south, that are also looking at post capitalist futures. I'm not interested in exploring growth trajectories but interested in, “How do you actually meet wellbeing without being dependent on economic growth?” I think there's a lot of validity to seek from there.
[00:45:43] JS: One of the points – I love this last chapter, I think, or second to last chapter of Doughnut Economics, where Kate gets into this growth question. I think she presents a lot of really interesting points and one of them – this is where I just sort of get wrapped around the axle and how actually this transition can work. Maybe you could argue that more advanced economies are already starting to naturally slow, and growth is getting propped up by these artificial mechanisms that create more instability.
But one of the questions I have just around degrowth is the implications for geopolitical power, when the size of the economy creates a tax base from which the government is resourced. It has a very strong political disincentive to support degrowth when it has implications for geopolitical power. I'm curious what your thoughts are on that.
[00:46:27] DM: Yeah. There's something that I should – maybe a name that might be a piece that if you've been listening, you're sort of wondering like, “Is this person an idealist? Is he just having a theoretical conversation with Jenny? Or is he actually interested in real politic?” All of the things that I'm describing are things that we have noticed based on an asset-based assessment, where we looked at “Where are the trends and trajectories going in society? What actually is heading in that direction?”
So if we were to take, for example, not-for-profit forms of business, what we discovered was that they were increasingly out competing for-profit forms of business, such that my take is that the market economy is heading in a post-capitalist direction. Of course, it's also got questions of whether it's heading into a degrowth direction with respect to like a forced degrowth of a recession, etc. But in terms of which business models become more competitive over time, I think there's an interesting trajectory there that's only going to continue in one direction, is my sense.
If you then sort of say “How does that relate to countries?”, and there's not going to be any first mover on degrowth, right? Even though in Spain, they now have a Minister for Consumption that is actively supporting degrowth publicly, it's very unlikely. Just as we saw in action on climate change in this regard, no country is going to give up their market advantage in a growth economy by saying, “Yep, we'll put our hands up and start to degrow,” in terms of that being understood of us reducing GDP because, A, that's a PR nightmare. B, in a capitalist system, it's hugely problematic. That is recession.
The angle that I and others at the institute and I think others around the world are looking at is how do we actually build the system, the post-capitalist system, by building on things that exist, either in the formal capitalist system right now or the edges of the capitalist system that are working, right? How do we actually take the proof of concepts that exist and then expand those, focusing on that, rather than the typical critique of a system, which usually then falls back into a very problematic left, right? Let's have a free market versus let's have a more regulated market.
That there is cold war conversation, right? That's an old debate, left, right. It doesn't leave the spaciousness for what's actually been emerging, these things that have been hiding in plain sight, which is that the aspects of a post-capitalist system are already showing themselves, when you discover that over 133 million people are members of credit unions in the US, 133 million.
[00:49:13] JS: That's a huge number.
[00:49:15] DM: Let me just state this for the record. That means there are 133 million people in the US who bank with a not-for-profit bank. They might not do all the banking there, but they have an account with that bank. That's well over 50% of the active financial population in the capitalist part of the world.
[00:49:32] JS: I was going to ask you what gives you hope. That’s clearly one of them. What else gives you hope?
[00:49:38] DM: Oh, Jenny. The whole other side of the conversation we didn't have tonight, which is that I think human beings are incredible, and I think that that's across the board. I sense that we all know what doesn't feel right about this world. That actually is a huge, huge strength because it means then, when you feel something that actually resonates and you feel that's not bullshit, that's actually something that is good for the world, etc., does feel right in my body, these sorts of things. Then the momentum that can get behind that kind of what's the world craving, the world is craving for paths that actually answer the question how do we get out of this mess.
There was – Andrew White at Oxford University with the Saïd Business School did some very interesting research many years back. He was with Fortune 500 CEOs, and he would have these two-hour-long interviews with these CEOs and C-suite executives. He would keep probing and saying to them, “Look, that just doesn't seem sustainable, what you're describing about your business model.” They'd say, “Yes, yes, yes.” Then they tried to explain their way around it. Then he'd say, “But that doesn't seem sustainable.”
At the end, he said that around the two-hour mark, consistently, people would just break down in tears. They'd say, “You're right. It's not sustainable, but what's the alternative?” I see that through a very positive lens in the sense that the moment we can have some creative alternatives, and I think of groups like Purpose that you're very familiar with, and Camille and others work there, that just are highlighting different paths forward that are deeply, deeply in alignment with the kind of work that feels right, that the focus on relationship in terms of how our organizations connect because people are tired. They're tired of the struggle.
The flip side of that is that the moment you bring along something a little different is the moment that you have the ability to inspire a whole lot of people. In our organization, our small, little organization, for example, the common reflection on Zoom meetings, which we have a lot of Zoom meetings, is that people come away feeling regenerated, despite the Zoom fatigue. In other words, we found ways to deepen intimacy and strengthen people's sense of feeling regenerated through a visual medium online with a bunch of people from around the world. If we can do that on that sort of small level, and then the way then people respond, like how excited that makes them to see that there are alternative ways, to me, that's why I have so much hope. Amidst the collapse that I think is somewhat inevitable, the feedback loops that are baked in now, the hope you can give people and the acknowledgement.
My last story on this is going to be a little counterintuitive as to why I'm sharing this. I was giving a talk in Hungary a few months back. One of the students asked a question at the end. This was to a group of maybe thirty students. They asked the panel a question about what's the hope. Can we get out of this in terms of technology or otherwise? There were two of us. The first speaker said, “Look, I think that humans are incredible with their ingenuity, and I think that it's possible that we can find ways to essentially have green growth.”
What happened next surprised me because I felt the urge to just say what I was feeling, and I did. I said I really appreciate this question because I found something really powerful on the other side of what I'm about to say. Then I shared, I think, that the collapse is inevitable. I don't think we're going to get out of this in time. I think we're going to see mass collapse of all sorts. I think we've been in collapse. Many cultures have been in collapse for a long time and living through it. Yet, I'm hopeful that what emerges through the collapse is that we can be planting the seeds now.
The orientation of my institute's work is often to plant seeds for improving resilience within times of collapse. What happened was amazing. I was watching the body language and sensing where people were at. I noticed almost all of the bodies of these young students relax, and I can only put that down to them finally not having to deal with the cognitive dissonance of people telling them that everything's going to be okay, when they're feeling that it's not. Then actually the amount of people that stayed afterwards and wanted to talk, I watched them then turn into smiles, and laughter emerge. This is me having just said, basically, we're doomed, but not through the lens of we're doomed. Through the lens of we can do something through this collapse.
So I'm actually really inspired by what happens when we tend to the grief of what's going on right now, and we slow down, and we sit with the tragedies that are unfolding, that have been unfolding for thousands of years, actually, in many cultures and around the world and hundreds of years in others. Then we explore what's good that can be nurtured so that we can hospice this dying system and emerge in a way that really is genuinely in harmony with life itself.
[00:54:44] JS: Thank you so much. It's always a masterclass when we get into a conversation about any of this stuff. I really appreciate it.
[00:54:51] DM: Thanks, Jenny. Just a final few words. I'm inspired by the millions of people around the world who are yearning for and creating and building on the things that do work in our system. I truly, deeply believe that there is a more beautiful world that our hearts know as possible, as Charles Eisenstein speaks to. I do believe that as we slow down, and we connect in with the parts of ourselves that we have abandoned and internally set aside, these spaces, these opportunities, these moments for powerful creative reflection and action emerge even faster in ways that are even more magical than we can believe. I truly believe that therein lies so much hope for humanity and our entire species across this beautiful one planet that we live on.
[00:55:44] JS: Hear, hear. Donnie, I appreciate you so much, and the work that you're doing is so important.
[00:55:47] DM: Thanks, Jenny.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
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