Pluralist Commonwealth

Pluralist Commonwealth
Resurgence Magazine, by Gar Alperovitz

September 2013

The knowledge that neither growth-dependent corporate capitalism nor the state socialist model will ever produce more sustainable social, economic and ecological outcomes has led many thinkers and activists to embrace a ‘small is beautiful’ agenda that draws its underlying inspiration from the insights of Leopold Kohr and E.F. Schumacher. It is an agenda that I share.

However, Schumacher did recognise that “large-scale organisation is here to stay”, making it “all the more necessary to think about it and to theorise about it”.

Here are two quite distinct issues.  The first has to do with technologies that may simply require larger scale. Not everything can be done in small communities, and anyone who has travelled by rail or air must acknowledge the need for someone to build large-scale locomotives and aircraft. The truth is we have very little good information as to which industries and technologies simply require large-scale, but some certainly do. The question then becomes what role they might play in an alternative economic system, and how they might be democratically organised.

The other major issue posed by the problem of scale has to do with geographic reach. The United States, for example, is a very large country. It now numbers more than 315 million people, and is indeed continental in scale – almost 3,000 miles from east to west. All of Germany could be tucked into the state of Montana. Countries like India and China will also have to grapple with the question of scale.

The appropriate principle in the case of technology and of geography is that of subsidiarity – which is to say, begin at the bottom and only increase scale when there is a powerful reason, technological or other, to move to a larger scale.

Two other important criteria must also be considered: how are we to nurture and sustain a culture of democracy and community from the ground up, and how are we to undercut the pressure to grow and to externalise costs, including those related to climate change?

One answer for large-scale industry, as Schumacher (who was an economic adviser to the UK National Coal Board) understood, was to maintain large firms as public utilities and run them on a not-for-profit, non-growth-driven basis. That other forms might be possible was also acknowledged. Schumacher really only began that exploration; it is our responsibility to continue the effort.

A central issue concerns culture and democratic practice – and this also requires rebuilding both from the bottom up.  Here ‘small’ is not only beautiful but also absolutely essential.  But so too is stability: in many American cities, corporate development has resulted in radical destabilisation, and sometimes in cities of 900,000 being reduced to 400,000 when corporations move to more profitable areas. Genuine democracy built from the bottom up is not possible in such circumstances – and often the answer requires dealing not only with small industry but also with larger-scale planning.

My own emphasis begins with the fundamental conviction that we must aim at every level to achieve a communitysustaining economy. I suggest four critical guidelines: democratisation of wealth, community as a central theme, decentralisation and democratic planning.

Democratisation of Wealth. Cooperatives, worker-owned firms, land trusts, municipal enterprise, publicly owned enterprise, small private businesses: all these challenge dominant ideologies that hold that large-scale (often global), profit-driven corporate enterprise offers the only possible way forward. They open up practical approaches to widespread democratisation. Such wealth-building forms can also contribute directly to building progressive political power through displacement of corporate institutions or by offering local officials alternative strategies. Critically, such locally anchored forms also help stabilise local community economies.

Although little reported by the press, there has been an explosion of such efforts in recent years.  Latin America has been the hub of much of this exploration, although Europe is no stranger to the institutions involved, many of which can be traced back to the struggles of the 19th-century labour movement. More surprising to some will be the magnitude of developments in the United States. 130 million Americans are members of cooperatives. There are more than 10,000 worker-owned firms of one kind or another, with 3 million more individuals involved than are members of trade unions in the private sector. There are some 5,000 neighbourhood corporations, several thousand social enterprises, numerousland trusts and a variety of other enterprises exploring various forms of full or partial democratisation.

Community. In economic terms, building community means introducing and emphasising more integrated communitysustaining ownership models that build on such forms to achieve a more coherent local systemic design, vision and theory. A practical example involves Cleveland, Ohio, where a linked group of worker-owned companies has been developed, supported in part by the purchasing power of large hospitals and universities, which in turn receive substantial public support. The central institution is a community-wide, neighbourhood-encompassing, non-profit corporation. The basic principle is that the effort should benefit the broader community, not simply workers in one or another co-op. The initiative is partly modelled on the 83,000-person Mondragón cooperative network in the Basque region of Spain, itself an example of a democratic institution.

Decentralisation. A continental-scale nation (such as the United States) is too large to deal with complex, large-scale economic arrangements and institutions. What remains is the intermediate-scale unit we call the region – a unit of organisation much discussed in serious theoretical work by radicals, conservatives and social democrats at various points in modern history. Going forward, the critical question being asked by many nations is almost certainly how to regionalise: what powers to maintain at the centre, what powers to delegate to new regional structures, and what powers to devolve even further. Some of the same issues are being explored in a European context, for example in Scotland and Catalonia.

Democratic Planning. This is an important principle, especially with regard to large firms and economic growth on the one hand, and ecological sustainability and community stability on the other. In these cases, planning can alter the relationship between firms and the community, as well as the market. Democratic planning promotes a design in which community is a central goal, but with worker-ownership as a subsidiary feature. Since there are much broader community benefits – including rebuilding the local tax base, and a better local economic environment for independent small businesses, co-ops and worker-owned firms – support for the larger community-building effort is both socially and economically important.

Recent government bailouts and takeovers usually resulted in an eventual return to private hands once the public had bailed the company out and turned its fortunes around. In the future such interventions might lead to the firms involved being structured as a joint publicworker-community effort with a new mandate to address longer-term green infrastructure needs such as public transport, thereby also helping reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. In this way we might also begin to come to terms with community economic stability, an absolutely essential requirement not only of sustaining a democratic and cooperative culture, but also of dealing with climate change. It is impossible to do serious local sustainability planning that reduces a community’s carbon footprint if such planning is disrupted and destabilised by economic turmoil.

Stability is also important in achieving high-density housing and in transportation planning. Unplanned corporate decision-making eliminates jobs in one community and leaves behind abandoned houses, half-empty schools, roads, hospitals and public buildings, only to require the rebuilding of the same in the new location to which the jobs have been moved.

Viewed in the broadest terms, the requirements of a community-sustaining model suggest a mix of differentscale institutions that democratise the ownership of capital in different ways: cooperative, neighbourhood, municipal, regional, national. Hence a plurality of forms of common ownership. Or a Pluralist Commonwealth.