Last year was a banner year for divestment. In 2016, divestment went from a protest strategy primarily used by socially-conscious groups on a rather limited scale to the topic of political debate in major American cities and on university campuses across the country. For many, divestment was another step in the broader campaign against the Dakota Access Pipeline and fossil fuel infrastructure in general. Removing billions of dollars in deposits from Wells Fargo and other banks was not sufficient to stop DAPL construction, but activists have kept pushing supporters to vote with their deposits. Economists generally view divestment as an ineffective strategy to force change, but supporters see divestment as only step one in a broader plan to discard traditional “exploitative” capitalism in favor of a “regenerative economy.”
“We’re seeing this rising up as a force that can build and foster the kind of communities that we are wanting to see,” said Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan in a webinar aimed at helping divestment supporters reinvest in a responsible fashion. Swan is co-director of the Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project, where she works at “bridging the gap between our current social movement strategies and the scale of the unfolding ecological crisis.”
For Swan and others in the NoDAPL Solidarity movement, the construction of one pipeline does not signal the end of their movement. Instead, they are trying to capture the energy generated by the protest and to channel it into creating new businesses and forms of investment that more closely align with their goals.
“It is clear that we can’t stay within the extractive economy,” says Swan, a term she uses to mean both an economy driven by fossil fuels and one which she sees as exploitative of workers. “We must move towards a regenerative economy that emphasizes ecological and social well being. That requires that we organize the economy in whole new ways, working with the living world around us in a regenerative ways.”
The extractive economy is a world of “dig, burn, dump,” say the protesters. Instead, they want to foster a regenerative economy, which focuses on improving lives and strengthening communities, a goal which they acknowledge means shifting the economy as a whole.
“For too long, our movement has been focused on fighting and resisting,” said Swan. Now it needed to also take the time to build something new, visionary, what she deemed the “oppositional economy”
Despite the talk of reorganizing around natural, nonexploitative goals, in practice, the group’s focus is a community-based, individualized approach to investment. Somewhat surprisingly, the goal is a system with many commonalities to the free market.
Marnie Thompson, co-Managing Director of the Fund for Democratic Communities, who also works with the Financial Cooperative, a group comprised of more than a dozen place-based, democratically controlled loan funds, explained how cooperative and community-owned businesses explained how private groups could provide financing for businesses in this new economy. (The Financial Cooperative, comprised of more than a dozen regional loan funds, supports cooperative and community owned businesses.)
One core dilemma socially conscious and community focused businesses face is that, while their principles might not support corporate banks, they still require capital. To support them, the Financial Cooperative, and other groups, work to connect businesses with credit unions and other groups looking to invest responsibly.
She describes the approach as “playing by the peoples’ rules rather than Wall Street’s rules.” Even as she rejects the idea that businesses should turn to corporate banks and their “piles of capital built up from stealing peoples’ lives, lands, and labor” for investment, she agrees that the regenerative economy still needs to ensure that risk is spread over a diverse pool of projects.
For all the focus on making a decentralized infrastructure for non extractive finance, in the end, these groups still need to make a positive return. As a result, they need to lend to projects that will be financially self-sustaining (or profitable) and which address the needs of people (or the market.)
To accomplish this, many of these nontraditional financial service providers are taking what they consider to be an unorthodox approach to lending. Thompson describes how loan funds that are members of her organization evaluate each investment request on an individual basis, altering details of the loans, including interest rates and repayment periods, to fit the specific situation.
They may be building a fresh infrastructure, but the tools at hand look very similar to traditional banking.
Over the past several years, as many small businesses have found it difficult to secure loans from traditional banks, other companies and groups have sprung up to offer alternate sources of financing.
“Alternatives have emerged in recent years that allow some businesses to access capital through nontraditional means, such as new Internet-based platforms that match those seeking capital with those who want to invest,” writes Oren Litwin, of R Street Institute, a free-market think tank. “These sites begin to fill the gap left by diminished bank lending. Over time, they likely will become serious competitors to the traditional banking industry.”
Litwin’s work depicts these forms of lending as free market capitalism stepping in to fill a need that traditional banks had not addressed. Although he writes that these sites have limitations, on the whole he is enthusiastic about the role this type of lending can play in the American economy.
If both free market supporters and opponents have embraced private person to person lending, is regenerative capitalism really going to change our economy? In the end, changing the economy is more than just shifting dollars between digital accounts. It requires a shift in attitude and increased involvement by savers and borrowers alike. Credit unions have been gaining popularity in the last several years as a variety of groups have become frustrated with the rules and regulations governing traditional banking options.
Although some credit unions are community focused and driven to invest in their area, not all are created equal.
Deyanira del Rio, Board Chair of the Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union, explained that although credit unions are all community owned and not for profit, they are each governed by a board of directors. As result, policies can vary dramatically from institution to institution.
“They can be cooperative in name or they can be cooperative in mission,” she explained.
The difference is engagement and that, in the end, comes down to personal choice. She encouraged divestment supporters to pay attention to their credit union’s advocacy positions, since many institutions are “anti consumer, anti government regulation positions.”
She agreed that personal control was an important step for financial services in the new economy. Involvement in community owned and operated financial institutions like credit unions helps to foster an ownership society, she argued.
“There is a difference between ownership and possession,” she said. In essence it boils down to responsibility.
On a local level, credit unions and private financial groups are starting to step up to fill in this gap. However, even as members of the divestment campaign celebrate their successes, they acknowledge that this is only the start of a broader process. One of the biggest hurdles they currently face is how to offer alternative financial services to cities like Minneapolis and Seattle, which have voted to divest from Wells Fargo. While various figures have spoken about creating municipal banks, what this would look like, and how these banks would be managed so as to guarantee a respectable return on investment while maintaining socially acceptable investment portfolios, are questions that still require major research.
Correction: This piece was updated to clarify that the Financial Cooperative, not the Fund for Democratic Communities, provides non-extractive loans.