A New Economy Needed for True Interculturalism

On November 2, 2012, I had the honor of speaking at the symposium “Political Space – Intercultural Intersections in Politics and the Economy,” sponsored by the Tufts Intercultural Practice Group. My opening remarks (see below) helped to make the connection between interculturalism and the economy, challenged participants to think differently about economy, and introduced the basic ideas of solidarity economy. The basic takeaway from this talk is that a genuine interculturalism requires a new economy based on principles of solidarity.

****Notes to Penn Loh opening remarks*****

Thanks to the ICP group for choosing such a challenging topic for today.

First, let’s get our heads around interculturalism. Interculturalism is about valuing diversity, as opposed to just managing or tolerating it. The intercultural city enables “people from different cultural backgrounds to mix, exchange, and interact for mutual benefit.”[1] This is a statement that’s easy to get behind in the policy and planning field. But it’s much easier say than to do.

So, let’s see if we can recognize interculturalism when we see it. Is this Interculturalism?

Corporate Diversity

Multiculturalism

Street Interculturalism

Not all difference is the same. With corporate diversity and multiculturalism, difference is only skin deep. What are your reactions to these depictions of diversity? Street interculturalism gets us closer – people are mixing, but how are they exchanging and interacting? This picture is also incomplete. What else would we want to see? Kids together in schools, people going to each other’s shops, playing soccer, celebrating at public festivals. But more to the point: working side by side, participating in community visioning and planning, occupying Wall Street or Dewey Square?

I argue that what it takes to support and create an intercultural city requires understanding the political-economic processes that both create and are shaped by cultural difference. Culture is more than just “steel drums, saris and samosas” (as Julian Agyeman likes to say). It is a system of beliefs that informs how we view the world and our place in it. Political and economic power have a profound impact on shaping belief and cultures. Think of the “consumer culture” that has accompanied the globalization. The economy is a social structure that is both informed by and shapes culture and identity (as much as ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.). Our relationship to and role in the economy has a profound influence on our identities. Some call this aspect class.

Here’s my provocative contention for today: global capitalism is producing a homogenous (as well as vacuous and alienating) consumer culture exemplified by hyper-individualism, competition, unbounded growth, and a throw-away mentality. This economy is destroying indigenous cultures while marginalizing those of less wealth, people of color, and women. At the same time it has created a dual crisis of economic inequality and ecological unsustainability. We have unconscionable wealth inequality – richest 1% getting richer at expense of the rest of us. Richest 400 Americans own more than bottom 150 million (that’s 1/2 of US population).[2] This accumulation is based on endless growth and unsustainable natural resource consumption, which is cooking the planet. Yet those who’ve profited the most from the unsustainability are the most buffered from its consequences. (Who is suffering the most in the aftermath of Katrina and Sandy?)

But let’s not forget that it’s not just the 1% vs. the 99%. There has been a bottom 30-40% here (and higher abroad) for whom this economy has never worked very well, who’ve never been middle class even if we thought we were. These crises aren’t new for lower income people, people of color. We’ve been stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder. The subprime mortgage and foreclosure crisis has caused the largest loss of wealth for people of color in US history.[3] We’ve been dumped on by all the pollution. Even in Massachusetts — not the Jim Crow South — studies show that 24 of the 30 most environmentally overburdened communities in MA are communities of color (there are only 34 communities of color in MA).[4]

What kind of interculturalism can we imagine with these economic divides between people? What kind of interculturalism is possible as we undermine the ecological and climate systems that we depend on? We aren’t going to get to any meaningful interculturalism without confronting and transforming the economy – global capitalism. And we won’t get to any deep reform or transformation of the economy without simultaneously creating more intercultural spaces.

Rethinking Economy

So then why do we often separate culture from economy – think about them as separate realms? Why is it so difficult to think about confronting global capitalism? Part of the ideology of capitalism is that the market is a “natural” force guided by iron laws. It feels out of our conscious control, or it is so complex that only economists can make policy about how to guide it. Part of the reason the market has come to rule is because we have come to accept the idea that people are individual utility maximizers. Whether or not we act that way, we believe that enough others do.

Are we trapped? Or is another (intercultural) world possible? Well, to start, we have to rethink and reclaim economy. Lots of folks are starting to think the same way. How many of you have heard these new buzzwords to describe a different economy: green, solidarity, democratic, cooperative, generative, local, living, new, (new and improved). But I’d like to not say “alternative”. To me, it implies that there is a freedom of individual choice (like a lifestyle) — suggests that we can just opt out. It also is self marginalizing.

Let’s try a quick exercise: when you think about “the economy”, what comes to mind? Market, wages, stocks, … If we define economy as all the diverse activities that meet our material needs, then we see that the visible/dominant economy is just the tip of the iceberg.

Take a moment to think about and write down some of the non-market activities that you are engaged in that are part of the diverse economy. Even in this room, we see that there is much that we do in the economy that we don’t even see as economic activity. These represent economic activity based on different values (not individual utility maximization), that draws on cooperation, democracy, sustainability, equity, and solidarity. Are any of these also cultural or intercultural activities (that subvert the dominant or support marginalized cultures)? Babysitting, volunteering, gardening, trading skills/time, …

The critical questions are:

  • How do we more consciously and strategically cultivate these other economies?
  • Can these other ways be surfaced and scaled up?
  • At what point might they challenge or be coopted by the dominant economy?
  • How can the diverse economy support interculturalism and vice versa?

The Local Challenge of New Economy

There are good reasons why it’s not easy to imagine a new economy. But nonetheless there are opportunities and challenges that we are confronted with every day at the local level. So, let’s ground this discussion with a real-life example.

One case in point that we have been dealing with in the Boston area is Walmart. Two summers ago, they proposed stores for Somerville and Roxbury. Though the initial plans are now shelved, we know that our cities are their next market, and they won’t be going away any time soon. Some of you may have been in involved in anti-Walmart activism. They’re easy to hate because they symbolize much of what is wrong with capitalism – from exploitation of workers and the environment to destroying main streets and exercise of corporate power over governments. But all of us know people who want the jobs (even if they suck) and want access to affordable produce and goods.

For lower income communities and communities of color, it isn’t so simple to just say NO to Walmart. Let’s say we fight for 3 years (or more) and are successful in keeping Walmart out of a particular site. What are waiting for next? Would Target or Costco be better? What if Walmart finally comes and we get a slightly better deal for workers and some community benefits? Will our economy be on a better path?

Did you know that Walmart is now positioning themselves as the solution to food deserts, pledging to open up to 300 stores hiring 40,000 associates in areas defined as food deserts by the USDA?[5] And for those of you into food justice, did you know that Will Allen, founder of the pioneering urban farm Growing Power in Milwaukee, defended his acceptance of a $1 million grant from Walmart in Fall 2011 by saying “Wal-mart is the world’s largest distributor of food—there is no one better positioned to bring high-quality, locally grown food into urban food deserts and fast-food swamps.”[6]

What then are we left to do? We don’t like the Walmartization of our economy and culture. But as long as they are around, Walmart ought to do better for workers, community, and environment. Is there an opportunity here to start envisioning a different future: an intercultural solidarity economy?

Visions for a New Economy

Building a new dream is happening. I’m talking Martin Luther King’s version of “I have a dream”, not a pipedream or utopian fantasy. We can point to real projects and places, where they are moving in a transformative direction – towards a solidarity economy.

How many of you have heard of Mondragon? Since 1950s, built a network of >100 worker cooperatives, with almost 100,000 worker-owners, building car parts and appliances to running their own business school, bank, and one of largest grocery chains in EU. Have you heard about the South American countries that have ministries of the solidarity economy to help support and grow a new economy (most notably Brazil)? Who’s heard of Cleveland’s Evergreen Coops? Started just 4 years ago and modeled on Mondragon style coops, they are building a network of worker owned businesses that can serve the area’s universities and hospitals. They now have a green laundry, solar/weatherization company, and lettuce greenhouse.

In the Practical Visionaries Workshop at Tufts, I work with Boston area groups and graduate students to explore the vision. We challenged ourselves last spring to try to envision what would a local economy look like without Walmart. First, we looked at the implications of Walmart bringing in their global supply chain and sucking resources out of our communities. Then, we tried to imagine a more localized economy with more local production and more collective ownership, that together as a network can start to get to scale.

Boston with Walmart

Boston no walmart

These are all examples of trying to envision and build a new Solidarity Economy.

  • Economy rests on nature and the creation that we are gifted with.
  • Includes the work of reproduction (often seen as women’s work).
  • Multiple forms of exchange, including market.
  • Emphasis on cooperation and community.
  • More democratic governance at both political and economic levels.
  • Surplus is redistributed and reinvested democratically.
  • This is an economy that looks at our world as sharing the plentiful, not competing over the scarce.

Solidarity Economy

This is a different political-economy that values and is built on a foundation of biological and cultural diversity. Perhaps it’s an economy that is not just much more suited for, but necessary for building truly intercultural cities.

As policy and planning professionals, there is much work to do: creating spaces, fostering democratic participation, supporting community building, and building an economy that works for all people and the planet.


[1] THE INTERCULTURAL CITY: What it is and how to make it work. Introductory document for cities participating in the Pilot Phase of the Intercultural Cities Programme, Joint action of the Council of Europe and the European Commission. January 2008.

[3] Rivera, A. Foreclosed: State of the dream 2008. Boston: United for a Fair Economy, 2008. Available at http://www.faireconomy.org/files/StateOfDream_01_16_08_Web.pdf.

[4] Faber, Daniel and Eric Krieg. October 2005. “Unequal Exposure to Ecological Hazards 2005: Environmental Injustices in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Executive Summary.” Philanthropy and Environmental Justice Research Project of Northeastern University, pp. iii-vi, 1-11. Available at: http://nuweb9.neu.edu/nejrc/wp-content/uploads/executive_summary_2005.pdf

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