Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 (34)

Community & cooperation in the cost-of-living crisis

Countries around the world, including Australia and New Zealand, are experiencing a cost- of-living crisis that has been running for the past two to three years. High inflation, which is considered to be the primary cause, initially arose from a large boost in spending as the world emerged from COVID lockdowns. Supply-chain disruptions and the war in Ukraine are two additional factors.

Prices have been running ahead of wages, and homeowners with mortgages have received a double whammy, with their budgets also squeezed by interest rate rises designed to dampen the economy in the short term. Since most COVID measures were lifted a few years ago, Australia has seen its cash rate increase from 0.1 per cent to 4.35 per cent, and New Zealand’s has risen further, from 0.25 per cent to 5.5 per cent. However, in both countries, infl ation is now on the downturn.

For households whose finances are squeezed, an obvious step is to seek extra sources of income. Also common is minimising discretionary spending and, in some cases, cutting back on what would be considered essentials. Food insecurity — the lack of access to nutritious food — is becoming more prevalent in both Australia and New Zealand.

Individualism versus community

The United States is probably the world’s primary exponent of individualism, a quality that the country has embraced since the early 19th century. It is frequently treated as a virtue or an ideal to aspire to and is tied to the popular concept of the “American dream”. Since the start of the 1980s, American individualism has received a boost from neoliberalism, which seeks to benefit private enterprise, arguably at the expense of other aspects of society.

Modern America has seen a hollowing out of the middle class. A recent statistic shows that 37 per cent of Americans would be unable to afford a US$400 emergency. Often just managing to keep afloat financially, frequently working two or more jobs, the average American worker is at risk of being sunk by medical debt. Despite a system that could be described as social Darwinism, those who are caught up in this survival struggle are often reluctant to acknowledge collective solutions, with alternatives to individualism frequently and misleadingly characterised as Communist. Individualism is faced with a mounting list of challenges that it is unsuited to resolve. Recent online discussion on this subject has raised the prospect of “peak individualism” and a movement back in the other direction.

According to American thinker Charles Eisenstein, “a privileged person is somebody who in fact doesn’t have or doesn’t need community because they can meet all of their needs with money”. He sees this individualist freedom in more of a negative light than a positive one.

Charities and governments

In response to cost-of-living issues, increasing numbers of food pantries are springing up in many countries including Australia and New Zealand. The food is cheap or free, but inevitably there are bureaucratic qualifying criteria and quantity limits. Supplies are sometimes rescued from supermarkets, preventing them from being otherwise wasted.

Ideally, governments would address these issues in a straightforward way, applying rent-control policies to rein in runaway rent costs and off ering cost-of- living relief. Unfortunately, this type of government intervention in the marketplace goes against the values of neoliberalism and undermines a country’s reputation as a low-regulation jurisdiction with a high degree of free market “economic freedom”. As a result, such intervention is only reluctantly applied, if at all.

It is possible to avoid pursuing bottom-up community- led solutions, while holding governments responsible for not reinventing themselves in order to bring about a fundamentally fairer society from the top-down. On the flip-side, this kind of demand centralises power away from the community into the hands of government, while risking the leakage of social capital that aids in formulating knowledgeable local solutions. Genuinely grassroots initiatives are resistant to external shocks and cannot be shut down by a change in government or a withdrawal of government funding.

Mutual aid

In a well-known parable, a visitor to Hell witnesses a table where rows of people are seated in front of sumptuous meals but are starving. They all have long spoons, but because their arm movement is restricted by a splint, they are unable to reach their own mouths.

This visitor goes on to Heaven, where there are the same meals, spoons and splints; however, everybody is well-fed and happy. The visitor asks why and is told that they have learned to reach across the table to feed each other.

The term “mutual aid” was coined by the Russian thinker Peter Kropotkin in his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, published in 1902 while he was living in the UK. As an autonomous and decentralised strategy, mutual aid is frequently based on the notion of interdependence rather than independence. It belongs to the zone outside the world of Eisenstein’s “privileged person”, a place where the frictionless market economy has been complemented with some community glue.

The digital sharing economy

A decade or so ago, there was a buzz among websites such as Shareable about “collaborative consumption” in a sharing economy that had been made possible with the arrival of the Internet. Sometimes called the peer-to-peer economy, also known as P2P, it extends from the capitalistic (Airbnb etc.), to various types of gift economies. Today, some of the terminology has fallen into disuse, but the same types of cooperative initiatives are still going strong.

At a more high-tech level, a world-fi rst platform- cooperative sharing-economy project called bHive has been in development for the past few years in the Victorian city of Bendigo. This is intended to be a smartphone app and to hyper-localise the gifting of items and skills. Its Villages platform coop initiative is currently on-hold while the team tracks down the right software. Intended to operate in locations dotted around the country, as well as Bendigo, anyone in Australia can sign up, with a view to a Villages node being established in one’s local government area once a critical mass of participants has been reached. bHive is also working on a car-sharing cooperative.

Community-based solutions

One theme across solutions to reduce the cost-of- living crunch is the central role of networking and information exchange in spreading the word about such projects and attracting participants. Information availability is central to foraging apps: websites that identify fruit trees on public land and Facebook groups that share the locations of items being given away on the verges outside dwellings. Supplying useful and empowering information can be seen as an extension of the gift economy.

With a history of relative comparative affluence, Australia and New Zealand are home to many “privileged people” who have historically lived independently rather than interdependently. With cost-of-living pressures squeezing many on low, moderate and even high incomes, mainstream society is coming relatively late to community-based solutions, having been perhaps a little complacent and unimaginative in not pursuing them earlier, when finances were less strained.

Complementary currency challenges the far right Tough economic times have historically led to increased support for the political extremes, with the most signifi cant example of this being the key role of adversity caused by the Great Depression in elevating fascism to power in 1930s Germany. With Communism no longer seen by most as a viable option, a rejection of politics-as-usual often involves engaging with the far right. Governments of this stripe are running Argentina, Italy and Hungary, and are part of coalition governments in Israel and Finland. In many other countries, the far right is growing more powerful.

In his book The Future of Money, economist Bernard Lietaer made some powerful observations about how complementary currencies of the 1920s and 1930s had the potential to reverse the eff ects of economic turmoil and the Great Depression, but were regrettably squashed by fi nancial authorities. However, some 21st century examples are more encouraging. When Argentina was going through an economic crisis in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Redes de Trueque alternative currency network surged in popularity, growing exponentially to take in millions of members across thousands of local nodes. When Greece went through an economic upheaval in the early 2010s, a LETS-style currency called TEM took off in the town of Volos.

For those who are navigating economic crises and for people squeezed by the cost of living, pursuing creative community-led strategies can ease the pressure on their wallets, and the more of these in existence, the better.

Article featured in WellBeing 210

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver writes for several Australian holistic publications including WellBeing on a range of topics, including environmental issues. He believes that the world is going through a major transition and he is keen to help birth a peaceful, cooperative and sustainable reality.

You May Also Like

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 07 08t152907.585

Lovely leaves

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 (37)

On the menYOU

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 06 28t151529.388

CDD – cognitive decline in your dog

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 06 21t105706.459

Braised Pork Ribs with Preserved Beans