How We Can Transition to a “Bottom Up” Economy

Three ways to rewire the economy for equality and ecological sustainability.
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In the face of renewed calls for trickle-down economic policy we urgently need a clearly articulated theory and practice of sustainable economics that works for local communities. Enter a blessing of a book, Anthony Flaccavento’s Building a Healthy Economy from the Bottom Up: Harnessing Real-World Experience for Transformative Change.

YES! Illustration by Jennifer Luxton.

Resistance to the Trump administration’s attacks on immigrants, climate change policy, and economic fairness has been fierce. But alongside these efforts—from flooding representatives’ phone lines to packing town hall meetings to marching in protest—it’s also important to begin the work of building alternatives to the systems that underlie the exploitation of people and planet.

The understandable focus on Trump—with his cronyism, bombast, and militarism—can divert us from the fact that several decades of extractive capitalism have fueled extreme wealth and racial inequality, democratic demise, and brought us to the brink of ecological ruin. Wall Street’s debt-based financing system has created a phantom wealth economy delinked from the real economy of goods and services. Trumpism is only the latest appalling chapter in a dominant narrative that holds our unsustainable economy in place, including the myths that a rising tide lifts all boats and that growth is the answer.

In the face of renewed calls for trickle-down economic policy—such as proposed tax cuts for the rich and transnational corporations—we urgently need a clearly articulated theory and practice of sustainable economics that works for local communities. Enter a blessing of a book, Anthony Flaccavento’s Building a Healthy Economy from the Bottom Up: Harnessing Real-World Experience for Transformative Change.

Bottom Up is a comprehensive primer on the transition to a new economy—the place-based movement to rewire the economy for equity and ecological sustainability. It is rich in stories and detail for the curious or discouraged and those seeking a strategy to move toward a sustainable and equitable future. Flaccavento excels as a storyteller, reporting on successful “bottom-up” ventures and experiments in building new systems around food, energy, health services, worker ownership, community finance, and place-based arts and culture.

Flaccavento’s perspective is grounded in his work as a farmer, entrepreneur, and candidate for Congress, with decades of experience building a regional food system and relocalized economy in southern Virginia. While he lifts up inspiring examples of urban local economy projects, he also deeply understands the challenges facing rural communities that have been bypassed by the lopsided economic gains of the past four decades. In regions like southern Virginia, where the median income is below $30,000 a year and the poverty rate is over 25 percent in some communities, new economy solutions have the potential to transcend political differences by creating and fixing infrastructure, generating jobs, increasing food security, and reducing energy costs.

We cannot coast on a “small is beautiful” community garden project or worker-owned café—not while federal policies push down wages.

One challenge in the Trump era is how to leverage place-based movements to impact national policy. I have witnessed local economy activities in New England that appear to operate in a parallel universe, one delinked from national debates over health care, taxation, energy, and farm policy. What would it take to leverage the millions of people who have become engaged in new economy enterprises to be a political force that reshapes the rules governing our national economy? What would a “bottom-up” policy program look like at the state and federal levels?

Flaccavento urges us to move beyond what he calls a “false choice” between local and national issues to recognize “that almost every positive change we make in our own communities is ultimately either undermined or supported by broader economic and political choices.” We cannot coast on a “small is beautiful” community garden project or worker-owned café—not while federal policies push down wages, shift billions to the military, and subsidize corporations that destroy Main Street commerce.

The tools for change that Flaccavento offers in Bottom Up resonate with the social change frameworks of deep-ecology thinker Joanna Macy and Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.

Step One: Stop Threats to People and the Earth

Macy writes that to achieve social change, we must first engage in “holding actions” to stop the destruction of the Earth and its beings. In the current context, this includes defending immigrants, protecting civil liberties, and blocking policies that will worsen economic injustices. Activities range from political advocacy and community education to public witness protests and blockadia direct action campaigns against new fossil fuel infrastructure. Similarly, in the context of the movement for Indian independence, Gandhi used what’s been called an “obstructive program” of nonviolent direct action to achieve social change.

Flaccavento too believes an important step toward social change is obstruction of harmful systems, policies, and organizations. For example, Flaccavento tells a story about the town of Bristol, Virginia, which awarded a $5,000 local entrepreneurship prize to celebrate a local business while 5 miles away the county provided $50 million in government subsidies to construct a big box store for a national chain. As he points out, the big box store will harm the local economy, yet it received a subsidy 10,000 times larger than any local business. So when a Walmart was proposed in Flaccavento’s hometown of Abingdon, Virginia, he threw himself into a coalition working to obstruct the store’s construction.

Step Two: Build Local, Alternative Systems and State and Federal Policies That Support Them

The second part of Macy’s framework for change is to build structural alternatives to the dominant systems that harm—alternatives largely rooted in local communities. This is what Gandhi called the “constructive program,” building the new society in the shell of the existing.

These local alternatives should serve as a foundation for broader policy change. Like Gandhi, Flaccavento is skeptical of centralized solutions but knows that if we walk away from national politics, the vacuum will be filled by absentee corporate power. To create change, he says, we need a public policy program that removes barriers and speeds the transition. For example, Flaccavento proposes business regulations that are “scale appropriate” and reduce the regulatory burdens on start-up, local, and home-based businesses. Instead of subsidizing absentee-owned national conglomerates, local government should direct procurement and subsidies to locally rooted enterprises.

A key ingredient in Flaccavento’s program to strengthen local alternatives is to build community-based politics of engagement to overcome the power of corporate lobbyists. I was attracted to Flaccavento’s vision of a movement of “food citizens,” which would engage the 5 million to 10 million people who shop at farmers markets or are members of one of the 4,000 CSAs. Imagine using this people power to change the national farm bill, which allocates most subsidies to the biggest 10 percent of agribusiness. These food citizens, along with community banking activists and local business owners, could be a powerful constituency for transformation—and a countervailing force to what Flaccavento calls WTF (Wealth Trumps Fairness) politics.

Step Three: Nurture a Shift in Social Consciousness

The third step in Macy’s framework for change is to nurture a shift in social consciousness—one that centers on community economics and interconnectedness.

For Flaccavento, creating space for meaningful public debate is critical to shifting social consciousness. He quotes Mimi Pickering, one of the founders of Appalshop, a cultural change resource center in Kentucky: “In order for people to turn away from the politics of denial that have overtaken the electorate … there needs to be a visible counter narrative about what else is possible here.”

Flaccavento lifts up the importance of place-based public forums as a way to build community knowledge, capacity, and shared storytelling. In my urban neighborhood of Boston, the Jamaica Plain Forum has been a key ingredient in getting people together to engage in important community conversations around speakers, films, and workshops. There is power in building institutions such as local radio stations, community media, storytelling venues, and theater groups that enable a community to lift up its own stories. These face-to-face “open spaces” are building blocks for authentic democracy—and their decline has impoverished our public life.

Alone, locally focused action will not overcome the systemic forces that are fueling the concentration of wealth and power and supercharging racial and economic disparities, climate change, and mass incarceration. Our best chance is a mass movement that works to stop threats to people and planet while building local alternatives at the same time. A place-based new economy will grow grassroots people power to fuel broad change while offering a new story of how we must live together.