Why a Cooperative Economy for Rural Maine?

I see two big threats to the support of population in rural Maine. The first is more immediate: the changing nature of the U.S. economy and what it means for rural people. We know the story. It hardly takes any people/employment to do the resource extraction and agriculture that is the long-time mainstay of economic activity in rural places; this is the primary reason for the emptying out of rural places. Manufacturing jobs, some of which were located in rural Maine or its medium-sized river towns 30+ years ago, now require additional education beyond high school, and the 30-odd year gap between Maine’s manufacturing decline and the present means that, unlike places like the Carolinas (who had textile manufacturing until relatively recently; they took Maine’s jobs), Maine would have trouble attracting such high-tech manufacturing anyway. This latter trend ties in with increased clustering of manufacturing activity. Maine has a small base of high-tech service businesses, but even if this grows, it is not likely to provide sufficient jobs in the right places to keep rural Maine populated at its current (depressed) levels.

In a larger sense, many other economic trends, along with social and cultural trends, are making the U.S. an urban-centric society. (There are of course countering trends drawing some people to rural places, e.g. telecommuting, but these seem to be dominated by the urbanization trends.)

The second trend is more long-term, but I think it is short-sighed to ignore. This is the environmental/ecological impacts of our contemporary economy. There are several known dimensions of this threat, and probably ones we don’t yet know. I am not a climate alarmist, and the sea level going up a foot isn’t going to devastate Maine. But think about it: warm water in the Gulf of Maine is already affecting lobster populations and their health. (Not sure I recall the specifics exactly, but the center of the Maine lobster catch has moved from Casco Bay to Stonington); if the lobster goes in the next 10 – 30 years, it’s possible that coastal tourism could take a major hit. Additionally, the Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest-warming bodies of water in the world…and it is cold waters that give us cool summers relative to the rest of the Gulf Stream-ensnared east coast of the U.S.

Apart from climate, and in a larger and more general sense, the manufacturing trends outlined above means that, if it takes fewer people to operate machinery that is more and more productive (the only way, we are told, that U.S. manufacturing can compete with China), the only way to maintain our current level of manufacturing employment is to produce exponentially more stuff. Put another way, needing smarter and smarter people to operate manufacturing machines implies that those machines are increasingly sophisticated…which means they can replace more people…which means to stay employed, workers will have to be even smarter, which will permit them to work even more efficient machines, which will replace even more people….onward, onward. I can’t believe that the logic of this is lost on smart policy-makers; it just seems that the immediate situation is so desperate for workers that the immediate response is to jump into this maelstrom with more education for workers, thus continuing the process; no one wants to look ahead to the long-term (which probably isn’t more than 20 years off).   It seems we’re not going to run out of hydrocarbons anytime soon, but there may be other limitations to this growth process. I don’t see it continuing uninterrupted for another fifty years….we would be buried under 3D printed plastic crap. When it takes one person to run a huge factory, people are going to have to find something else to do (or work less, which doesn’t seem culturally permissible in the short- or medium-term). I have some sense that younger generations are awakening to the illogic of all of this, educating themselves and others about it, and trying to do something…but change is extremely difficult to make happen, because it requires a wide array of mutually-reinforcing changes to make anything stick; in many ways, significant institutional change is a massive coordination problem.

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The ideas above represent my concerns about the contemporary situation. I really think these are the most interesting of times, for rural places. Rural places in Maine are in a long, drawn out process of economic, social, and cultural collapse. They won’t empty out completely, but they will continue to become shells of their former selves. Ironically, the more that former resource extraction and manufacturing workers leave, the more the door is open for second homes, traditional tourism, ecotourism, (modest) creative economy activities, and similar stuff. And these activities produce service-based jobs that will need filling. Some highly specialized, idiosyncratic manufacturing will remain. Resource extraction will remain, but continue to lose jobs via technological innovation and capital intensification.

I’m not sure how much can be done about this. Augusta, the community development community, and grass-roots groups offer up exciting workshops about entrepreneurial efforts to build local economies…but that seems to be palliative lip-service, or at best a rearguard action whose gains haven’t yet outpaced the countervailing losses. One can outline a set of possible approaches:

-do next to nothing: not popular

-do palliative work that “eases the way down”; actions to make the transitions a little less rapid (humans don’t do well with rapid, so slowing the process down is worthwhile, even if the ultimate end result is the same)

rearguard: help people get ready to be “the survivors” in hollowed-out rural places.

adaptive: find breakthrough ways that make the current trends work in positive ways for the current and growing numbers of prosperous rural residents

reversal: reverse the long-term trends through some kind of economic miracle (e.g. fracking in North Dakota…though that hasn’t actually done that much for rural North Dakota…the farming towns continue to empty out while Bismark and Fargo grow) or some kind of massive government intervention (e.g. the agricultural policies of the EU).

If we are going to do something, one attribute of an ideal course of action is that it could be palliative if there is little chance of truly transforming rural economies toward a more vibrant outcome, or actually part of that positive outcome if that is possible. Actions need not be considered mutually exclusive in this regard.

From another perspective, we can consider the ways that economic change can be directed. A table I am developing:

Reform (from within) Revolution (from without)
Political Social democratic reforms to make capitalism less harsh (hard to do because the capitalists largely control the political process; economic crisis helps, but it will have to be much more severe than what we’ve seen lately, or require more education [see cell below]). Massive political change, usually involving actual revolution (e.g. Russian Revolution)
Direct Economic -Cooperatives and collectives, especially worker ownership;-Enlightened capitalism: traditional business forms, but run with worker’s councils, profit-sharing, commitment to place; etc. Currently not very prevalent, will require lots of education of select people who by their nature are resistant to such ideas-Withdrawal from the system (done by a very small segment of the population, but apparently not realistic for most people) Not possible; requires the political changes from the cell above
Cultural Continual education, including examples Not possible; Cultural Revolution didn’t work, people can’t do fast change

As noted in several places, but also in less obvious ways, these cells interact with each other.

Fostering worker owned businesses will be a long, uphill battle…but I think it’s worthwhile. It meets a lot of positive criteria: it’s feasible (according to the chart above). Referring to the list further above, it can be seen as palliative, reardguard, and potentially adaptive and reversal. The chances of positive change are sufficiently large to make this option better than doing nothing. It probably needs a large dose of continuing education, but also feeds into that. Focusing on expanding enlightened capitalism is too slow and has too much chance of being unsuccessful; encouraging withdrawal will be ineffective. Focusing only on continuing education is too slow and too isolated.

So, fostering worker owned businesses is the best option.

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