John Pearce – a Life for the Local Social Economy
by Karl Birkhoelzer
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
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
– 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 (<http://www.cest-transfer.de/> ).
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!