Beyond extraction: The political power of community wealth building.

Author:Howard, Ted

Martin O'Neill (MO'N): I'm delighted to meet you here in Preston, and thanks for finding the time to talk to Renewal. We've been taking an interest in the development of ideas of community wealth building, and the success of the Preston Model developed by Councillor Matthew Brown and his colleagues. (1) So it's great to be able to talk with one of the progenitors of this kind of local economic policy. I know that you've been talking to people at the Cabinet Office about the potential of community wealth building, and that it's an interesting feature of these ideas that they have an appeal across the ideological spectrum. That naturally leads to an interesting question about how one should think about the justification for these kinds of community wealth building policies. Matthew Brown here in Preston, as you know, takes a very radical approach. He sees this as part of a strategy to create a very different economic model, moving well beyond neoliberal capitalism. But as you've said, on the other hand, one interesting feature of these sorts of policies is they can be represented as being simple common sense, and endorsed by some people who don't have any systemic critique of capitalism, simply as a pragmatic form of local economic development. And I wonder whether you think there's a tension between the 'broad church' case for community wealth building, and the more radical potential of these policies.

Ted Howard (TH): I don't think there's a tension, at least at this point in time, for the development of this strategy and model. In the United States, our organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, is working at any one time in roughly ten different cities and communities, brought in by mayors or large institutions--universities, hospitals or local philanthropy. And while it tends to be that the people we work with are Democrats, we also work very productively with very risk-averse large institutions like hospitals, and with, on occasion, Republican mayors in cities. And at this stage of development when you're talking about localising procurement, keeping money in your community, bringing more people into the economy so they can participate, supplementing wages with asset accumulation strategies through mechanisms like employee ownership, I think this has a great deal of appeal.

In the United States, of course, you have the Red-Blue divide. And at the federal level everything's polarised and nothing can get done. But in individual communities, there's often a much more pragmatic kind of discussion. And so at this stage of development, where things are being modelled and prototyped and piloted, I don't think there's a tension. Down the road, one can imagine that arising. You know, if you look at some of the consequences of this, you start to see very large order changes in the big national political economy. But right now we're working at the level of communities, and those tensions don't really arise.

MO'N: Could you say a little bit about what you think those larger order, systemic changes would look like, that would happen if the community wealth building model was developed further? Could you give our readers a sense of what some of those deeper developments would be like?

TH: Well, this is very much what our Next System Project is engaged with, with questions like what is the design and the architecture of a system beyond corporate capitalism as we know it?2 And no one's got the monopoly on having figured out what that system looks like. But I think we know there are certain design elements that would inform a larger order system. And one certainly is broadening ownership and democratic control over capital, over business, over wealth.

And so you imagine in communities, rather than their economies being governed by large corporations with absentee owners or investors who don't live in the community and don't care about the community, you have an economy that's going to be much more dominated by the locally owned businesses that are broadly owned in some way, not just an...

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