Redefining the Commonwealth

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #8 in May 2009]

Politics on the American left has recently consolidated somewhat, split off primarily into realpolitik Democrats and a cultural-left coalition of issue or identity-based activists. Sweeping ideological positions have been decimated by principled and pragmatist critique. But in the dawn of what may become a period of unprecedented deprivation and instability, I propose a macroscopic response: isolationism in politics, pacifism in philosophy, protectionism in trade. Borders should exist not to deny people opportunity, but to preserve shared wealth.

Most common associations with isolationism are justifiably negative. Isolationism kept Americans, including Chicago Tribune editor Robert R. McCormick, willfully ignorant of the Holocaust up until Pearl Harbor. However, strictly humanitarian military interventions in recent genocides have been both infrequent and infrequently effective, whereas humanitarian fig-leaves for economically speculative invasions have proliferated alarmingly. Isolationism is associated with the fringe xenophobic paranoia of the John Birch Society and the Minutemen, although the First World agenda of ongoing regime change is clearly a mainstream neoconservative one. The momentum of modernity is toward the bottomless brutality of capitalism, and the nation-state can either follow that momentum or resist it.

As much as the plight of displaced people is used to consolidate global resources in international institutions, commercial and otherwise, the lack of economic protection offered by a stable and sovereign state is, more often than not, what throws lives into desperate straits. But recovery from crisis cannot depend on institutions. Our civic participation on every scale, as in the American Great Depression, can do a great deal to mitigate suffering. And charitable giving in the U.S. continues to dwarf that of every other industrialized nation. While neoliberals champion “micro-loans” as a means of exporting democracy, Americans have a cultural impulse toward giving without hope of financial return. A solution to the credit issue may lie not in venture capital, but in pooling resources.

Chicago has many organizations working to assist local people further impoverished by borderless deregulated capital. [Note: See the economic justice directory in this issue of AREA for a selection of organizations that help Chicagoans get by every day]. To name one, The Center for Working Families initiative of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association offers financial counseling for new citizens, who are unaccustomed to the complexities of credit and saving in the U.S. system, and are often considered easy targets by all kinds of financial predators. The Center also makes referrals for aid in legal, tax, and housing matters. The Center for Economic Progress has a program to offer free financial services to entry-level workers, and specialized generally in offering tax assistance to struggling, low-income individuals and families. The North Side Federal Community Credit Union offers counseling and credit to people without bank accounts, and offering counseling in regard to debt management and bankruptcy. Area churches have taken on a great deal of the relief effort for Chicagoans in unfortunate circumstances, such as the Ezra Community Homes Project, supported by Episcopal Charities and Community Services, in which affordable homes were built for 95 families in the low-income North Lawndale neighborhood.

Federal policies have supported this philanthropic environment, but those policies (and the palpable absence thereof) have encouraged a process of trickle-down bankruptcy. The devastated manufacturing economy in Chicago is one result of free trade. But the trade deficit, now about 5% of GDP, is only part of the picture. The unprecedented financial bailouts are bypassing groups that are increasingly viewed as a menacing population surplus rather than a productive labor pool, and this is a reflection of a government more beholden to its creditors (its “shareholders”) than its constituents (its “customers”). As customers, it is worth considering where our money comes from when we earn it and where it goes when we spend it—and thus whom it is that we, as citizens of the U.S., are currently working for.

Linking the ownership of capital to the ownership of indentured servants is not much more of a leap than linking U.S. post-war militarism to explicit imperialism. Americans are of course in greater personal debt than any generation in history. Financial and health-care corporations nominally based in the U.S. (if they even still are), to whom we owe most of our money, increasingly locate their capital assets abroad, and shares in those companies are owned in large part by foreign corporations, governments and individuals—as is, of course, the federal debt, 45 percent of which is owned by foreigners. We do not own our own wealth. With no communal utopia resulting, most of us, in terms of net worth, may soon own nothing. Local prosperity is shipped away, and local resources must come to the rescue.

The folks over at Local First ( are taking this problem head on by promoting local small buisinesses. One of their reasons for this is based on research about neighborhood economics and dollar cycles. Local First claims “a recent study in Chicago showed that [local businesses expend] 70% more money back into the community than chain stores, per square foot occupied. A space filled with a local business rather than a chain puts more dollars back in your neighborhood.” Civic Economics is the group that first produced this research in their Andersonville Study in 2004 (

And of course, many progressives recognize the virtues of local produce and shop at local farmers’ markets. But, regardless of good intentions, it’s pretty hard to know where your money is flowing off to. When a community’s resources dry up, it’s harder to find out where they are than where they aren’t. Increasingly, wealth is fleeing from large and small communities the U.S., and this is manifestly clear in the mountains of debt being amassed by individuals and governments that cannot, like our increasingly subsidized corporations, shift assets around the globe with impunity.

Debt is a problem regardless of national boundaries. But they are linked. Debt is an expression of a desire to increase the living standards of an individual or a group, with the cost deferred in some way—to another point in space or time in which no stakeholder is, in the medium- to long-term, or possibly in any term, is going to demand her money back plus interest—a new economic landfill, as it were. In a very direct sense, the fluctuations of interest rates reflect the costs of holding money rather than letting someone use it—which is why banks have stopped lending out their money. We are nearly out of landfills, global capital flows are frozen, and collection calls are affecting everyone.

In a condition of worldwide credit breakdown, depleted resources, and unclear geopolitical dominance, communitarians across the political spectrum need to create a diverse group sovereignty in the name of greater independence—in credit and trade, just as in energy. Our industry and our military will contract soon, regardless of how we arrange deck chairs on the Titanic. But if what little we produce is going to benefit the producers for some time to come, we must face down the abyss of desire represented by credit, and work out a new vision of shared austerity. ◊


Grateful acknowledgements to Kristen Cox for info on Chicago debt and credit relief organizations.


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