Do we need a ‘new economy’ movement?

The short version of this post is a question: with so many different movements – co-op, transition, the sharing economy, the commons, etc – aiming for something similar, should we drop our particular concerns and unite as a broad-based movement for a new economy?

Here’s the longer version.

I recently saw a conference in the US for ‘A national gathering for the new economy movement.’

It clarified something in my mind that I’ve been thinking for a while.

In the UK (and in the US too, no doubt) there are lots of separate ‘movements’. All of them seem to be aiming for something similar. Yet they are all operating independently; sometimes even competing with one another.

  • The co-operative movement is one of the largest and most established. It is a broad church, with large businesses, sometimes very democratic, sometimes not easily distinguished from the shareholder model, and radical worker and housing co-ops agitating for change. There is, though, a core set of ideas, held by many in this sector, around creating a more democratic, equitable economy.
  • There is a relatively new movement around the sharing economy and collaborative consumption. Based around developments in technology, it makes use of digital tools to give people control of their lives and free themselves from corporations and bureaucratic institutions. As Evgeny Morozov has argued, there is a strong individualistic – perhaps even neo-liberal – strand to this; but there is also a move towards ‘we’ not ‘me’ and sharing not owning.
  • A more egalitarian version of this movement can be found in the movement for the commons. This is a broad collection of people arguing that certain assets and goods are best kept out of public or private ownership – indeed out of the money economy – and instead should be managed by the people themselves: community buildings, Wikipedia, land, software and so on. It’s informed by the ideas of Elinor Ostrom on managing the commons, but is a practical movement.
  • The transition movement builds on this, but with a distinct environmental edge. It proposes local communities take matters into their own hands and create resilient economies and communities as a way to address impending changes caused climate change and other pressing ecological shifts. Though occasionally associated with certain a smug middle classness in the UK, it is a growing and increasingly global movement.
  • Social enterprise also feels like an increasingly important and relatively distinct movement that wants to use business for social purpose. Until recently it appears to have developed independently of co-operatives – despite the overlaps and similarities – whilst co-operatives have taken a similarly anti-social enterprise stance. The emergence of the Social Economy Alliance, discussed later, is a welcome change to this.
  • And finally there’s the Occupy movement – what felt in 2011 like the start of a new non-hierarchical movement for social and economic change, and lives on in ideas of worker ownership, mutual aid and a growing politicisation amongst students and young people. Whilst there may not be one unifying vision for this movement, as David Graeber’s 2013 book, The Democracy Project: a History, a Crisis, a Movement, argues the value of Occupy was its focus on a radical democratic process and a demand for meaningful democratic control over the world of work.

None of these different movements are monolithic. They often have different strands within them. As Joshua Brustein says of the sharing economy movement in Business Week, for example, “the so-called sharing economy, depending on who you talk to, is either a lightweight form of socialism or an artisanal flavor of capitalism spawned by the Internet.”

But I think you can identify a common vision nestled in many (though not all) of the ideas that inspire movements for co-operatives, the commons, transition, Occupy and social enterprise.

GDH Cole, 50 years ago, puts it like this when talking about the British founders of the co-operative movement in the nineteenth century:

“For Howarth and his fellow pioneers store-keeping was but a means – one among a number of means – of forwarding the Co-operative ideal; and that ideal was the foundation of Co-operative Communities, or ‘Villages of Co-operation,’ in which the members could live together on their own land, work together in their own factories and workshops, and escape from the ills of competitive industrialism in a world – a ‘New Moral World’ – of mutual help and social equality and brotherhood.”

And, 150 years later, you get a sense of this in the ideals of the transition movement. As the Transition Network explains on its website: “Transition is a quiet revolution unfolding around the world. People like you and I are seeing crisis as the opportunity for doing something different, something extraordinary. It’s an idea about the future, an optimistic, practical idea. Transition is one manifestation of the idea that local action can change the world; one attempt to create a supportive, nurturing, healthy context in which the practical solutions the world needs can flourish.”

There is, I think, a common vision here: of a new economy where people take things into their own hands, creating an economy run for the people by the people.

It might not apply to every organisation, every activist or every writer in every movement. But I’d argue that it cuts across a significant chunk of each movement and provides a relatively common vision for them.

If this is the case, then I think we can see a few important tasks ahead.

First, articulate the vision. We need to find a way of articulating a meaningful and compelling vision of an alternative economy that all these different movements could sign up to.

Second, make the connections.
Whilst there are some connections between the various movements they tend to be small scale, practical alliances built on specific crossovers.

The best example is  the Social Economy Alliance – an excellent example of primarily social enterprise, but also co-op, bodies coming together to campaign in the run up to the 2015 general election.

This campaign is specifically around raising awareness of business for social purpose; but it has the seeds of a broader alliance if it can include other movements and articulate a vision of a better world.

So the task here is to build on this, to connect at a strategic level around a shared vision through which we can downplay the differences between the movements, identify the similarities and work together as a broad based movement for social change.

Third, find a name. A good, relevant, meaningful name is important for unifying people behind a common cause.

In the US the term ‘new economy’ is catching on to capture this movement. In the UK we already have the pioneering New Economics Foundation, and the ‘new economy’ seems to be a way to incorporate the aspirations and innovations of the various movements.

So, perhaps we need to connect the leaders and activists of the diverse movements, create a shared vision, and kick start a movement for a new economy.

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