The Viable Economy serialised – About Space, Democracy and Ownership

We continue the serialisation of our intervention, The Viable Economy with the sections on Space and on Democracy and Ownership.  But you can download the whole pamphlet as a pdf file, here.
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Chorlton Water Park - a Manchester 'rurban' space
Chorlton Water Park – a Manchester ‘rurban’ space © Mark H Burton

5) About space

The problem

The unviable economy is organised globally. Weaker economies suffer as the stronger ones raid their assets and concentrate wealth, while encouraging a race to the bottom. Resources are wasted in transporting goods across the globe in the endless search for cheaper labour, materials and new markets. Our local economy is unbalanced, producing little but chasing the chimeras of competition in the global market or obtaining a portion of China’s boom. This means an economy that has to keep expanding, the simultaneous increase of extremes of wealth and poverty, locally and globally, and the wrecking of the ecosystems we rely on. Meanwhile, local space is controlled and owned by powerful sectional interests, with less and less of it available for use by the public.

The viable alternative

The viable economy uses the concept of strategic localism1 which means that things that can be sourced locally should be. An example: there are over 3,000 varieties of English apple, that with appropriate storage, can provide fruit for some nine months of the year. Yet most apples are imported, from as far away as Chile and New Zealand. Or take clothes. It seems bizarre that in the former textile capital of the world, our clothes are imported at great environmental cost, from low wage economies, while our economy has no place for thousands of semi-skilled workers. This means not just playing to the strengths of local economies but actively building those strengths. It does not mean turning our back on the world, but playing a responsible part in the world while becoming locally more sufficient. Finally it means living in greater knowledge of our own bio-region, its strengths, its delights and its vulnerabilities2.

Some viable policy ideas

  • Develop a plan to transform Greater Manchester into a new kind of garden city3 where everyone is within easy reach of productive, recreational and living spaces, while improving the eco-efficiency of this large settlement, integrating land use under a comprehensive spatial strategy.

  • Support calls for greater devolution of powers to the City Region, but at the same time campaign for a redefinition of the city region in bio-regional terms. This would include the countryside around the more built up areas and should link to a planning system which supports conservation and local supply chains.

  • Improve transport infrastructure within the city region while reducing or stopping investment in those elements that act as resource drains and big emissions generators.

  • Focus on the relatively resilient ‘foundational economy4: essential goods and services such as infrastructure, utilities, food processing, retailing and distribution, and health, education and welfare, reducing emphasis on those development projects that bring little benefit to the economy or society while incurring significant ecological costs.

  • Develop locally and regionally based financial institutions that support saving, credit and investment locally, with clear ethical priorities for strengthening the green and social economy.

  • Support community-led renewable energy production along the lines of the Danish and German models5.

  • Assert the value of public space and the commons by increasing the area that is open for non-commercial use by the public and reforming land-ownership with a view to redistribution to small owners and not-for profit enterprises and where possible bringing assets into community ownership and stewardship where possible. Make available unused public space for use by small businesses and cooperatives on a ‘usufruct6‘ basis.

6) About democracy and ownership

The problem

The dominance of current economic thinking has succeeded in de-politicising economic policy so it became not a political choice, facilitated and administered by legislatures and international governance arrangements, but an unshakeable ‘market reality’. This situation has increased the gap between the architects of social policy and those in ‘poor’ communities who are the object of those policies.

The Great Financial Crash of 2008 exposed the contradictory patterns of ownership and the lack of democratic control; the bank bailouts involved huge privatization of profits but the socialization of losses. Despite the State holding a majority share in the Royal Bank of Scotland, it has missed the opportunity to turn it into an institution that can invigorate local sustainable economies7.

Just as economics and social policy become the preserve of “experts”, so politics becomes the preserve of a professionalised class, a political elite, with revolving doors to the media, the financial sector, and the (mostly neo-liberally inclined) think tanks.

However, the problem is not solely one of neoliberalism: the post-war economic model of managed capitalism, although more benign, is also unviable as a model for social, economic and ecological well-being in a world of global super-exploitation and ecological collapse.

The viable alternative

In the viable economy, economic and political levers are in the hands of the people, not the elite. So economics and national economic policy are re-politicised and democratised, with technical experts supporting meaningful processes of public participation rather than short-circuiting them. Some idea of what this might look like can be seen in experiments in Brazil and elsewhere on participatory budgeting8, but the change needs to go further than that. Hand in hand with this is the need for political and economic education, breaking the monopoly of knowledge, and facilitating critical thinking.

The viable economy is democratic, ending the private control of the strategic sectors of the economy, including the utilities and banks. Democracy extends not just to the public sector, but also to the private economic realm.

Underpinning all this is a re-affirmation of the “public good”, not as some abstract idea, used to legitimate domination9, but as a common sense basis for democratically arrived policy, close to notions of “common weal(th)” or “right livelihood”. And closely linked to this is the reaffirmation of the “Public Realm”, rather than the market or the (paternalist) State, as central to a good society.

Some viable policy ideas

  • Democratise corporations, with reforms to legislation on governance so that there is a required community and worker bloc. 10

  • Re-define (fiduciary) duty to shareholders to include environmental and social governance issues.

  • Establish programmes of economic and financial education and training, for example with proven models like Large Group Capacitation11 and the Organisational Workshop12.

  • Develop and support co-operatives and other forms of mutual and common ownership and not-for-profit enterprise.

  • Invest in public (social) housing, ending the risky wager on excessive borrowing and asset price inflation as the route to prosperity and life satisfaction.

5See and and for an analysis of the UK’s dysfunctional energy market this IPPR report

6Right to continue using the land while certain conditions – e.g. ecological stewardship and productivity, are met. See

8Souza, C. (2001). Participatory budgeting in Brazilian cities: limits and possibilities in building democratic institutions. Environment and Urbanization, 13(1), 159–184.

9Roy, A (1999) The Greater Common Good.

10See Massey, D and Rustin, M (2014) Whose Economy? Reframing the Debate. Kilburn Manifesto, Chapter 8.

12See note that this is distinct from individualistic, victim-blaming ‘financial literacy’ as a response to the increase in personal and household debt, created by a malevolent finance industry.

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1 Response to The Viable Economy serialised – About Space, Democracy and Ownership

  1. Pingback: Manchester’s Housing Crisis | Steady State Manchester

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