Robert Owen Had It Right 200 Years Ago
By Paul Smart
I’m falling in love with the Welsh textile entrepreneur and social utopian Robert Owen. I believe we all should, given the ways he embodies the spirit of social entrepreneurship and mindful economics being touted these days.
Owen is one of those names that keeps popping up once one starts to research deeply innovative economic ideas such as time-based and localized currencies. After getting into textiles in the late 18th century, when that line of business initiated what’s become known as the Industrial Revolution, he started pushing for better work conditions and finding they made for greater productivity. That led him to slope towards many ideas that progressive thinkers are just starting to get around to today.
Time-based currencies, you ask? We’re speaking about an exchange system where the unit of account/value is the person-hour or some other time unit, allowing for everyone’s contributions to be valued equally and the ideal of community work to be filled with dignity, and not just the pride of volunteerism. We’re also speaking about those who see such exchanges moving beyond services into the world of products to a place where one can make one’s “living” a matter of process as well as a hoardable achievement. Talk about working against the ancient sins of greed, gluttony, and usury!
Owen made his fortune in a time when employers tended to for work with tokens that had no value outside company stores. He started his life of good deeds by ensuring that his stores had decent product, then he began passing on his profits, and savings, in a cooperative manner. At a time when children went to work at age six, Owen drew notoriety by setting up schools for his employees and their kids. He pushed health reform, including limits on alcohol. He became an advocate for workers’ rights, child labor laws, free education for all children, and the 8-hour workday. His co-owners bought him out; he took the opportunity to start writing and lecturing, moving away from classic early-Capitalist utilitarian thought, which suggested workers would better themselves by choosing between employees, into what would soon become known as socialism (and derogatorily named “Utopian Socialism” by Frederic Engels and Karl Marx).
Owen came to believe that human character is formed by circumstances. Society can be bettered through philanthropy or government, or through education and social reform. He started meeting with British legislative leaders, then the monarchs of Europe, promoting everything from his idea for “nursery schools” to new laws overseeing employment, the principle that productivity went up with incentives, and that better lives for all made for better societies, overall. In 1817, Owen took several steps further and proposed ideal working communities of about 1,200 people each, on ample land where all would live in family apartments while sharing one kitchen, dining rooms, and children’s education from the age of three on. He called his vision the “New Moral World” and by the 1820s was journeying to the United States to set up an experimental community—New Harmony, Indiana— to demonstrate his Utopia. Other such communities followed his path, including the Forestville Commonwealth in Greene County, outside Coxsackie. Owen delivered two addresses to the U.S. Congress, with five past, present, and future presidents in attendance (Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and John Quincy Adams), where the passionate Welshman espoused socialism as our collective future. And all seemed to agree, for a moment.
But then those Utopian “Owenite” communities failed and Robert Owen shifted gears to create something he called the National Equitable Labour Exchange system, a currency comprised of Labor Notes based on hours worked designed to eschew banks and middlemen. He formed the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, an early attempt at a united workers’ federation, followed by the Association of all Classes of all Nations. The first idea was later championed by Marx as a means of raising the lot of all workers, while the latter became an early model for what would become the late 19th century’s First and Second International organizations of the Proletariat across the globe.
In recent years, Owen’s time-based currency ideas were resuscitated by Paul Glover and his Ithaca Hours currency system, and by Edgar S. Cahn and his “time dollars.” Glover’s idea was a huge success that became a model for similar currency ideas around the nation before it was eventually superseded by a more product-oriented culture, while Cahn’s creation of a community development tool that works by facilitating the exchange of skills and experience within a community—built on mid-20th century Japanese experiments as much as Owen’s ideas—has become a model for moving economics into an age when money for social programs has started to dry up.
Criticisms of time-based economics, and Owen’s idealism, have largely come from traditional economic circles made up of bankers and other “middlemen.” Yet both entities have gained a hold on those drawn to the greater meaningfulness advertised as social entrepreneurship, or what some are beginning to describe as “mindful economics.” People point to the elegant principals Cahn once described as being: everyone is an asset; some work is beyond a monetary price; reciprocity in helping is key; social networks are necessary; and all humans need and deserve respect. Even more important has been the idea and ideal that economics must build community (and not the reverse).
Time based economics has spread to three dozen countries. In 2013, an effort to create a global time bank began; now the Community Exchange System (to which the Hudson Valley Current belongs) recognizes people’s time as a currency alongside all others.
As for Owen and his reputation—eventually, Owenite experiments bred the idea of intentional communities, from kibbutzim and co-housing experiments to what the Bruderhof is doing in our own Hudson Valley and elsewhere. And Owen’s gentle brand of socialism spawned ethical socialism and the idea of teaching culture and business to do good as well as make product or profits.
“There is but one mode by which man can possess in perpetuity all the happiness which his nature is capable of enjoying—that is by the union and co-operation of all for the benefit of each,” the man wrote almost 200 years ago in The Social System — Constitution, Laws, and Regulations of a Community. “To train and educate the rising generation will at all times be the first object of society, to which every other will be subordinate.”
Talk about time well spent, and ageless. As well as truly valuable.