By Robert Wolf
Decorah, IA, USA
Lewis Mumford, a writer and generalist and one of the last of our public intellectuals, coined the word "megamachine," which means "big machine." This was Mumford's word for America's industrial-military complex.
Like a giant machine our system is composed of interlocking subsystems, including transportation, banking and finance, education, government, housing and more. Each is and has been for some time in crisis.
The immediate cause of the crisis lies in centralization, the control of power and wealth in one, or in our case, relatively few centers of command. As Brook Adams pointed out in The Law of Civilization and Decay, centralization occurs late in the life of a civilization. In our case, it is complicated by a Byzantine bureaucracy.
The American economy is centralized by virtue of market concentration, which means that small clusters of corporations (oligopolies) dominate each market sector. Thus in 2014 four mega-banks—Wells-Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup—dominated banking and finance. They were the largest of the "too-big-to-fail banks." With their financial meltdown, the world's economic system was pushed to the brink.
In agriculture, concentration has meant that a handful of corporations control various facets of food production and distribution. Over 80 percent of seed production, for example, is controlled by Monsanto and DuPont. Another four corporations—Tyson, Cargill, JBS USA, and National Beef Packing—control over 80 percent of the beef packing market. The same situation occurs in all other areas of food production.
Media is controlled by a handful of global conglomerates. In 2012, GE, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, Disney, Viacom, Time-Warner, and CBS controlled 90 percent of the media in America. After GE sold NBC to Comcast in 2013, Comcast became the largest media conglomerate.
And so it goes in each sector of the economy, in which many of the giants have interlocking boards of directors.
So what is the problem with market concentration? Economists laud the efficiency and lower production costs gained through market concentration, which in turn enables giant corporations to pass lower retail prices to consumers.
The problem is, the system is failing too many Americans. Corporate downsizing and outsourcing, along with mechanization, has left many without work. Others can only find part-time employment. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2013 that 45.3 million people lived below the Federal poverty level.
Let us think of the megamachine with all of its subsystems as a kind of game that can be played only so long as enough players agree to the rules. If enough players opt out, the game collapses. Disgruntled players, finding that the rules are rigged in favor of the dealer, may decide to play a different game. For example, tired of not getting a fair shake from the game that agribusiness plays, the people of the sustainable agriculture movement have opted to play their own game.
If the people in a region have not devised their own economic game, they must play by the rules that the culture at large sets for them and remain subject to the whims of a game they cannot control.
A sustainable, self-reliant economy developed on a grassroots level for the benefit of locals need not wait for the collapse of the present system. Indeed, as American well-being depends ultimately upon a financial system whose speculation is poorly regulated, the sooner we get a move on the better.
Only a region is large enough to play its own game with its own rules—successfully. Its birth will depend upon many smaller births, the creation of smaller games being played across a region. Each of the smaller games, such as local and regional energy production with wind turbines and small hydroelectric plants, is an adventure in self-reliance. Local barter, local currencies and micro-lending circles enable players to develop their own small businesses or expand them. Community development banks investing within the region and not locked into the mega-banking system will provide capital for the creation of larger businesses, light industry and affordable housing.
As more games are played successfully, they attract more players. The local foods systems movement is the best example of an alternative economic game that comes to mind. It is rapidly growing and will continue growing as more people become aware of the health risks created by industrial agriculture.
Several years ago a planning consultant submitted a report to my present city of residence, Decorah, Iowa. The report was titled, "Sustainable Decorah." "Sustainable Decorah" or "Sustainable Any City" is a concept that can only have meaning within a context embracing more than the confines of a city's limits. No city or town can sustain itself. Every city's health depends in large measure on the health of the cities and towns surrounding it. Just as no man is an island, so too no city is an island.
To be truly sustainable we must look across county and state lines to work on cooperative development with the producers of arts and commerce in our regions.
As early as 1994 I wrote a six-part essay for Iowa Public Radio on the need for rural America to become more self-reliant and self-sufficient to avoid the trauma of another national Depression. Then and now I believe that it is imperative that we in rural America build self-reliant regional economies, and that this can only be done on a grassroots level.
Too many of our national and state politicians, our county supervisors, and our courts function at the behest of money, and see no reason to overhaul or dismantle the megamachine. Further, by its very nature the megamachine cannot be humanized. It is too big, too impersonal. It is an automaton.
Ultimately we have only ourselves to rely on.