I spent a few days in Black Mountain, North Carlina a few years ago, and things may have changed since then, but it was a singular experience at the time. We had been driving interstate highways for the better part of two weeks, passing sign after sign, billboard after billboard, all advertizing for big capitalism’s all-stars, places where you could buy everything from hamburgers to televisions to cars at prices that ensured their employees couldn’t make a proper wage. We had driven from Guelph, Ontario to Waycross, Georgia and halfway back, stopping in dozens of towns, without finding a single place where I could buy a used book or a cup of truly fairtrade coffee.
Then, we turned into Black Mountain, and there, within touching distance of each other, were a used bookstore and an independent cafe. There were also independent stores selling kitchenware, hardware, flowers, and everything else. The reason, I was told, had to do with a law passed decades earlier when a bunch of hippy artists essentially took over the town, a law something to the effect that all business operated within town limits had to be owned by someone who also lived within the town limits.
Now, I may not have all the details right here, and I’ll leave it to someone from Black Mountain to correct me in the comments, but I will never forget the difference in the economic culture of that town compared to all the others I saw on that trip, and that difference struck me again the other day when a friend and I were talking about how on earth to rescue a democratic tradition that is increasingly dominated by corporate interests that have the money to lobby politicians, that own the media through which most people receive their news, that employ large portions of the electorate, and that often have influence internationally as well. Even when simply acting legally in their own interests, these corporate entities can’t help but undermine many of the elements – freely elected officials, an informed electorate, a separation between public and private interests – on which democracy depends. In other words, in order to rescue democracy, we need to rescue capitalism.
I have no real answers to this conundrum except to suggest that my experience in Black Mountain might be instructive. What might happen, I wonder, if we were to permit the market to operate freely in most respects, but to insist that all businesses must be owned by people who live in the town where they are located?
I’m married to an economist, so I’m well aware that transitioning to this kind of model at this stage in our economic development would be essentially impossible. I’m also aware of the whole set of legal and practical difficulties that might be created in this sort of system. However, the more I think about it, the more I feel like the benefits would far outweigh the problems if people were forced to see their employees and their customers and their communities and their local environments in person every day. I think that they might make different decisions in everything from employee benefits to environmental regulations. I also think that our political arena would be more open, better informed, and less influenced by the interests of a very few.
I think we should give it a try after our current system collapses under its own corrupt weight. It can’t be too long now.