John Pearce – a Life for the Local Social Economy

John Pearce – a Life for the Local Social Economy
by Karl Birkhoelzer
May 2012

As I was putting this series of articles*) together, I received the news that our longstanding Scottish  friend and partner, John Pearce had died from cancer in December 2011. I am not the only one who has been deeply touched by news of his death; many former friends and partners have written to us to say that the Social Solidarity Economy  community has lost one its most prominent advocates. That gave me the idea to recount their significance (of the Local Social Economy) in the context of his own personal life story.

John Pearce, born in 1942 in Cornwall, was, in the 1960’s and like many of his generation, looking for social and political alternatives within a former British Empire which had only just started to free itself of  its colonial past. The "winds of change" (as this period of De-colonisation was also known) took him firstly to Nepal as a voluntary worker, to help build  a village for Tibetan refugees. It was here that he collected his first  experiences in Community Work, but above all the understanding that social  work must be carried not "for", but "with" the target group and must be borne  out the community itself. This principle underscored the entirety of his later work. These early experiences also had a formative effect on his thinking in a global context. Community development as ‘development from  below’ was, for him, always a project with world-wide dimensions, not only  theoretically, but also practically, with the concrete help and support for a  large number of grass-roots initiatives in Australia, India, Malaysia, New Zealand  and South Africa. ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’ wasn’t just an empty slogan for him, it was
everyday practice.

Back in Great Britain, he began as a community worker in remote rural regions, firstly in Cumbria, in the north of England, in one of the first  British Community Development Programmes (from 1972 – 1977) – and after this  was closed (a more than familiar fate, even for us, which awaits short term  programmes) he moved on to the partly rural, partly industrial West Lothian  region near Glasgow.

By the middle of the 1970’s the economic divide in the world between  wealth and poverty zones had become a problem not only in the  ‘underdeveloped’, but also in the so-called ‘developed’ world, in the  peripheral rural areas as well as the industrial centres of Great Britain,  such as London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. The process of dramatic  de-industrialization in the Clyde river valley, the traditional heart of the  British ship-building industry, threatened not only the material existence of  many shipyard and industrial workers, but also increasingly, whole  neighbourhoods, districts and communities. Economic self-help and  co-operative solidarity were suddenly needed called for again, having never  been quite forgotten – Robert Owen’s New Lanark was very close by.

John, who himself was being threatened with redundancy, became one of the  driving forces behind the reanimation of the Scottish Industrial Common  Ownership Movement / ICOM (an umbrella organisation within the Co-operative  movement), and was also involved in the foundation of both the Scottish  Co-operative Development Committee / SCDC as a political lobby group, and of  the Scottish Industrial Common Ownership Finance / ICOF, a co-operative funding  agency. He was particularly interested in the development of new cooperative forms of business, especially ‘Community Co-operatives’ ( i.e. Neighbourhood, District, Village or Island Co-operatives), with their  threefold motto: ‘Common Ownership – Community Control – Community Benefit’ which can be studied in his, still very readable, books: ‘Running Your Own  Co-Operative’ in 1984. The rapid spread and development of this movement, its successes and failures, theory and practice are the subject of
another  revolutionary publication ‘At The Heart of the Community Economy’, 1993.

As the title suggests, John understood the newly founded community  businesses, enterprises and development trusts to be a stem cell for a new  community-orientated economy, or as Herman E. Daly, a former colleague and later critic of the World Bank called it: ‘Economy, as if community matters!’  The changed terminology elucidates two things, on the one hand the demands of  the new "enterprises for the common good" to be taken seriously as a valued and equal part  of the economy – and on the other, that principles of solidarity could be  realized in other ways than the traditional legal co-operative statutes.

Ten years later (2003) this led to the establishment of the first  t British ‘Social  Enterpriise Programme’, whose characteristics are to this day exemplary: ‘A  social enterprise is a business with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or in the community,  rather than being driven by the need to  maximise profit for shareholders and owners.’ The way  forward was reflected in is third pioneering publication ‘Social Enterprise in  Anytown’ (2003), the final part of a trilogy spanning three decades of  development in the Local Social Economy.

In other respects, too, John  was way ahead of his time: When the EU considered it necessary to introduce a specific community programme to combat poverty (the so-called ‘Poverty I’) as  a response to the proliferation of economic crisis regions in the early  1980’s, John developed, in cooperation with the Polytechnic of  Paisley the Local Enterprise Advisory Project / LEAP for the Glasgow region;  one of the first pilot projects for local economic development which worked  according to the principle of ‘local work – for local people – using local  resources). In
concrete terms:
– Conversion of empty buildings and  industrial estates to local development centres.
– Investment in the unexploited skills and knowledge of the unemployed.
– Focussing on unmet needs (for which no provision existed) or unresolved  conflicts in the community.
– Financing work instead of unemployment.
– Revitalising  local economic cycles.
– Collective foundations of enterprises by and with those  affected.

The ‘workspace’ concept aimed at activating the unemployed  and other stakeholders made this project so exemplary: It began with he  creation of workspaces in the truest sense of the word, i.e. the building of  work rooms, equipped with the relevant tools, and backed up with the provision  of advisory and support services for the establishment of autonomous work  practices, and their conversion into enterprise foundations in the context of  a ‘managed workspace’, a industrial space or corporation which is administered  collectively. The Govan
Workspace, in the heart of the former ship-building industry in Glasgow was the first ‘community business’ to be established along  these lines, and it still exists to this day. Unlike many other regeneration projects, LEAP could be sustained and turned into the first  Scottish regional development agency:  Strathclyde Community Business/SCB, with follow-up projects in almost all the  Scottish regions under the umbrella organisation ‘Community Business  Scotland/CBS’.

The reputation of this concept resonated in our Unemployed Self Help Initiative’ PAULA in Berlin, and it became the guiding principle for the foundation of the Interdisciplinary Research Group ‘Local Economy, and for a longstanding  partnership in both the ‘European Network of Economic Self-help and Local  Development  / EURONETZ" (since 1992), as well, further afield as the  Commonwealth Association for Local Action and Economic Development /  COMMACT.

We have a lot to thank this partnership for. It had enabled us to develop a unique position, based on a series of shared research procedures,  development projects and publications. It is concerned with the further development of an economic theory of the Third Sector, or the Third System,  the development also of alternative economic instruments for social  enterprise, from the primary process of investing social capital through to  social accounting and auditing, and the development of a European Curriculum  for the Local Social Economy (<> ).

John was(has?) never took a paid or managerial position within any of the enterprises he  helped to found, but lived mainly on the proceeds of his consultancy, research  and educational work. He enjoyed the support of his family and lived in a small cottage with a market garden. Despite being much travelled, John was deeply bound to his local community and used to run an ‘open house’, in which you could debate and celebrate in equal measure. We are connected therefore, not simply through our work, but also through our shared celebrations, travels and excursions, on which John knew how to combine pleasure and hard  work.

In spite of his intellect and pedagogical impetus, John never belonged to any academic institution. It did not seem important to him. So perhaps there is a sense of late honouring, that his considerable archive has  been donated to the Glasgow Caledonian University, where it will serve to  establish a special library entitles the ‘Social Enterprise  Collection’.

We have lost not only a partner, but a friend!