Community Wealth Creation / Retention and the Path out of Southern Bondage

By Ed Whitfield

The South is the poorest part of the USA. This is due to historic patterns of oppression and exploitation that date back to the seizure of this land from its original inhabitants, the importation of Africans who were forced into chattel slavery, the immigration of indentured servants who worked out a variety of terms of servitude, the settling of Europeans fleeing various oppressions and seeking opportunities and more recently, the immigration of our neighbors from south of the border. The consolidation of systems of social control and governance placed the rule over the whole area in the hands of a relatively few who could make use of every contradiction and difference to extract ever increasing wealth from the area and appropriate it to their own individual use and benefit. The South was placed in bondage.

As long as we accept the current economic structures and approaches to development that flow from those origins, we can’t get out of bondage.

As long as we do not create opportunities for everyone to be productive, we can’t get out of bondage.

As long as our surplus is extracted and allowed to chase after the very highest rate of return, we can’t get out if bondage.

As long as we keep begging for small infusions of capital that allow the providers of that capital to extract even more of our wealth, then we can’t get out of bondage.

When we are productive, produce a surplus, retain that surplus to enhance and increase the productivity of our labor as well as create more productive opportunities, then our community is able to meet our human needs and continuously improve the quality of life for the community members.

For too long, the South has been a source for the extraction of raw materials and wealth. Early on, enslaved people themselves were produced and exported along with tobacco, timber, cotton, coal, and now, oil and natural gas. The wealth produced by this exploitation of the earth and our people did not mainly stay in the South. That wealth which did remain was not democratically controlled for the benefit of the people, but rather was privately held and became the basis for deeper entrenchment of the system of exploitation. The mechanization of agriculture changed the number of people without wealth who are needed to lubricate the mechanism of the wealth extraction process.

Every possible division between people was utilized to weaken our ability to resist this exploitation. While the most obvious and dramatic division has been race, the distinctions between hill people and valley people, woods people and swamp people have all been used to tighten the grips of exploitation. The struggles over wages, hours and working conditions were and still are struggles over the relative size of the surplus extracted. The mechanism of this economic system itself guarantees that the extraction of wealth takes place.

Although it will require us to learn how to work together and how to decide together, democratic ownership holds the key to new possibilities. Wealth creation is cumulative. Its value not only adds up, but it compounds. Community wealth should be stewarded by the community if is not to revert to private wealth. The community’s right to control its wealth flows from the social nature of its production. That is to say, the wealth was a product of people working together and producing a surplus together. A system where wealth is socially produced and then privately appropriated is inherently exploitative.

The creation and growth of cooperative enterprises – enterprises that are democratically owned and democratically controlled – gets us on the path toward job creation, wealth creation, wealth retention, democratic ownership, and democratic economic decision-making. This is what is needed to end Southern bondage.

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