After a quarter-century as an Oregonian, I finally experienced one of the state’s iconic events. My daughter and I attended the Oregon Country Fair. This countercultural extravaganza on six acres of oaks along the Long Tom River west of Eugene has been encouraging thousands to let their freak flag fly since 1969.
There are multitudes of angles to take on all the hurly-burly. You can read one over at FrontierPartisans.com. And I’m thinking next year an RIR On the Road Podcast is certainly in order. But let me turn here for a moment to the Political Economy Of The Oregon Country Fair. Cuz it has one.
There are hundreds of vendors at the fair, and each is juried in on a pretty strict criteria. All the work must be crafted directly by the proprietor. There are hats, jewelry, clothing, pottery, musical instruments, leatherwork, oils and salves and tinctures, woodwork… all of impressive quality. It’s a truly astounding display of entrepreneurship.
Attending OCF reminded me that I’ve always been countercultural. My bent was always toward the Cosmic Cowboy/Dripping Springs version of all of that — ridin’ the range and actin’ strange — but countercultural for sure. I’m always on the side of the wild and free and the ardent-hearted.
And there’s something deeply appealing to me about the creator-owned-and-operated approach to making a countercultural livelihood.
I’ve always been suspicious of the way we have wrapped our flag around capitalism, intertwining our concept of political liberty with an economic system that can be liberating, but is also environmentally destructive and — when the plutocrats get the upper hand as they inevitably must — oppressive.
I roll with Edward Abbey:
“Nothing so mean could be right. Greed is the ugliest of the capital sins.”
In the binary world we live in in 2018, an automatic assumption kicks into gear right about here: If you’re not a “capitalist,” well then, you must be some kind of socialist or maybe even a Commie.
Nope. False choice — but one we have been conditioned for decades to believe is the only one.
At the urging of RIR commentator Kevin Kay, I spent some time exploring the writing of John Michael Greer, and found this matter nicely explicated in his essay Systems That Suck Less.
Since 1945 the conventional wisdom across most of the world has insisted that there are two and only two possible systems of political economy: socialism on the one hand, capitalism on the other. That’s very convenient for socialists and capitalists, since it allows both sides to contrast an idealized and highly sentimental picture of the system they favor with the real and disastrous failings of the one they don’t, and insist that since the two systems are the only available options, you’d better choose theirs. This allows both sides to ignore the fact that the system they prefer is just as bad as the one they hate.
Let us please be real. In theory, socialism is a wonderful system in which the workers own the means of production, and people contribute what they can and receive what they need. In practice, as seen in actual socialist societies? It sucks. Get past the rhetoric, and what happens is that the workers’ ownership of the means of production becomes a convenient fiction; an inner circle of politicians controls the means of production, and uses it to advance its own interests rather than that of the workers. Centralized bureaucracy becomes the order of the day, fossilization follows, and you end up with the familiar sclerosis of the mature socialist economy, guided by hopelessly inefficient policies mandated by clueless central planners, and carried out grudgingly by workers who know that they have nothing to gain by doing more than the minimum. Eventually this leads to the collapse of the system and its replacement by some other system of political economy.
In theory, equally, capitalism is a wonderful system in which anyone willing to work hard can get ahead, and the invisible hand of the market inevitably generates the best possible state of affairs for everyone. In practice, as seen in actual capitalist societies? It sucks. Get past the rhetoric, and what happens is that social mobility becomes a convenient fiction; an inner circle of plutocrats controls the means of production, and uses economic power backed by political corruption to choke the free market and stomp potential competitors. Monopoly and oligopoly become the order of the day, wealth concentrates at the top of the pyramid, and you end up with the familiar sclerosis of the mature capitalist society, in which the workers who actually make the goods and provide the services can’t afford to buy them, resulting in catastrophic booms and busts, soaring unemployment, and the rise of a violent and impoverished underclass. Eventually this leads to the collapse of the system and its replacement by some other system of political economy.
So, what sucks less? In Greer’s view, Syndicalism: “the form of political economy in which each business enterprise is owned and run by its own employees.”
I believe I have always been more-or-less a syndicalist, long before I knew there was a term for such a concept. Although I’m not a Catholic, Distributism as articulated by G.K. Chesterton was always appealing to me. I am particularly ardent in my belief in the principle of subsidiarity: That the rights of small communities — families, neighborhood, towns, should not be violated by the intervention of larger communities, the state, corporations, centralized bureaucracies. In other words, decisions that impact or lives should be made on the smallest and most local level possible.
Fundamentally, I fall right into line with Greer’s preference:
“The version I tend to favor… is democratic syndicalism: the system of political economy that combines a syndicalist economy with a politics based on constitutional representative democracy.”
That jibes pretty damn well with my ideal frontier Jeffersonian community. And when I run that form of political economy through the idiosyncratic-but-on-point test of “what is best for the wild, the free, the ardent-hearted?” it does, in fact, seem that such a system “sucks less.”
And therefore, it’s worth busting out of the box of false binaries and exploring.