The dystopic evolution of the capitalist mode-of-production in the age of financial globalization, manifests the inexpediency and inadequacy of Representative Democracy, as discussed in my previous article on this site (BY THE COMMUNITY: The evolution of capitalism in times of financial globalization).
Parliamentary Government is both too distant and politically oblique to arbitrate individuals’ life experience and address persons’ particular social potentials; and too parochial and insular to significantly contribute to the management of the complex global interdependencies characteristic of social existence in the 21st century.
Such local political ineptitude and global diplomatic irrelevance is regularly brought to our attention: the sophism of over two years of specious Brexit negotiations, the opportunistic improbity of the Trump administration in the USA, racial and religious prejudices exacerbated by intolerant populist political regimes, the insensitive treatment of migrants and asylum seekers fleeing war and repression, the plight of the homeless, the scandal of the privatization of the NHS and the dearth of mental health facilities and the like.
The frustration and injustice of the continuing erosion of basic living standards and increasing social inequality, justified by myths – that there is ‘no alternative’ to market organization of human existence, and economic austerity in times of financial crisis is a rational response to realizing individuals’ potentials in the 21st century – evokes both social indignation and political imagination.
It is becoming apparent that the issues which immediately ensure family well-being – secure employment, children’s education, community policing, cultural stimulation, health and fitness, social services, care for the elderly, etc – demand, not just that voters are politically represented, but that citizens politically participate in the processes and structures which shape people’s social life experience.
Labour’s radical agenda of ‘For The Many, Not The Few’, can only be realized By the Community.
Of course, as activists within social movements, delegates in local, regional and metropolitan councils, and members of political parties, negotiate and debate the contradictions and compromises between meeting individuals’ needs and managing social existence within municipal institutions, there will be frustrations, mistakes and misgivings. From perceived ignorance, unintended misunderstanding and supposed belligerence and pig-headedness, slowly, a politics of municipal socialism is being distilled, as disagreements and differences come to be addressed within a shared aspiration that social existence can evolve towards a just and prosperous society.
A society in which, ultimately, individuals’ particular, changing, social potentials, will be respected and realized.
Without a shared, ambitious purpose – a purpose shaped by citizens’ participation in the management and direction of social existence – progressive, political, evolution is ultimately unobtainable. The process of socialism is synonymous with the process of democracy. And democracy evolves with the circumstances of human existence, and, people’s consciousness of human nature.
That is we are all social individuals.
Social consciousness cannot be taught, although individuals learn as persons evaluate alternative social responses to individual frustrations. And the impossible becomes a potential.
The proposal and suggestion of collective responses to particular problems is the domain of political activism.
In this regard, personal frustration, individuals’ disappointment and thwarted social ambition, can be the catalyst to building a community polity, challenging unrequited promises and political negligence. Thoughtful municipal socialist initiatives can herald innovative political connections between: the private and the public, the institution and the community, the national and the local, bottom-up and top-down, representative and participative.
There would seem to be three fundamental elements for activists to consider: (i) being aware of and learning from various initiatives in municipal socialism; (ii) the principles and possibility of community wealth building; (iii) approaches to public ownership and the social control of economic resources.
(i) Initiatives in municipal socialism
There is a wealth of writing on local, national and international attempts to extend public control and community participation, in the utilization and the direction of resources and asset management. Lessons and potential strategies can be learnt by comparing and contrasting (within the UK) experience in Preston, Oldham, Manchester, Glasgow, Belfast, Nottingham, Birmingham, Bristol, Hartlepool, Hastings, North Tyne Metro, and the Government of Wales. And internationally, the biggest cooperative in the World – Mondragón – which began in the 1950s in the Basque country in north-eastern Spain, now comprising over 250 enterprises employing almost 80,000 workers. They are the bosses, with no-one earning more the six times anyone else. There is also extensive cooperative activity in north-eastern Italy, and important initiatives to study in Cleveland Ohio and North Dakota (USA).
(ii) Community Wealth Building
The aim is a systematic re-evaluation of the organization of local and community economic activity. Through community initiatives in methods of organizing people, private and public enterprises, and local authorities, approaches can be devised which address local social needs and address citizens’ rights
Typically since the 1970s, in western economies straightened by the vice-like grip of ‘austerity economics’, the supposed benefits of productive investment are still assumed to ‘trickle down’ through the filters of free markets to reward those who ‘choose’ to work for a living. To this end it is important that welfare payments to the sick and disabled, and the old and young, can only be accessed by the ‘deserving poor’ – hence the introduction of Universal Credit in the UK (of course it is inconceivable that the concept of an ‘undeserving rich’ can have any authenticity).
Ownership can be locally broadened through cooperatives, employee ownership, and credit unions. Democratizing the local economy also requires stemming the leeching of local profits and dividends into the national and global financial services sector, through initiatives in public banking. And processes of production, where possible should source components and supplies from, and transfer value to, local markets by leveraging the economic power of local public institutions such as colleges and universities, hospitals and care homes, local transport, etc.
The aim is to create an approach to business development and job creation based upon the local control of local assets, employment opportunities for local people which are inclusive and equitable, and an economic development strategy which impacts the whole community (e.g. enterprises allocate a portion of their profits into a community fund to revitalize the community as a whole).
“The local wealth building movement seeks to provide resilience where there is risk, local economic security where there is precarity, and to ensure to opportunity, dignity and well-being for all” (Centre for Local Economic Strategies).
(iii) Alternative Approaches to Public Ownership and the Social Control of Economic Resources
In a private enterprise, market led economy, inevitably the emphasis has to be on the return to shareholders and short term profitability. The well-being pf the community is not a priority and whole regions are effectively economically and socially ignored. Alternative forms of ownership can fundamentally address these problems.
Indeed, automation and the threat of unemployment, and the domination of capital over labour engineered by information technology practices can only be overcome by innovative collective ownership to ensure that the benefits of new work practices are widely shared and democratically governed.
As already noted, forms of cooperative organization need access to finance, and the practice of public banking in Spain and Italy is a valuable case study of good practice. There is also a need for support in national legislation with more powers handed to local authorities, tax and subsidy regimes, public procurement policy, and the relocation of major institutions outside London (in particular placing newly nationalized, democratically accountable industries, in the provinces).
A recent Labour Party report to the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Alternative Models of Ownership, noted the need for an “examination of sectors of the economy which may require national government intervention; the drawing up of a list of policies to develop and to have an open consultation with stakeholders on the biggest proposals; the establishment of a network of activists/experts to discuss governance issues in collectively/publicly owned organisations.”