Community energy, mutual credit and the mutualist economy
This is the third part of an interview with Jon Halle of Sharenergy, about the prospects for keeping energy production local and mutualised. Here we talk about community energy, mutual credit and mutualisation of the economy. Here’s Part one and Part 2.
I’m interviewing so many great people doing brilliant things in their communities, from social care co-ops and cycle courier co-ops, housing co-ops and IT co-ops, and I’m slightly obsessed with how to knit this new economy together. Plus what exactly is this new economy? For me, it’s mutually-owned and decentralised. I’m interested in how we can become each other’s customers, and grow the sector.
And you want to talk about mutual credit – because it’s the thing on your mind most of the time.
Most of the time, yes. But I think you should have much more influence in the energy sector. And it’s the same with the people I know in the food sector, housing sector, finance sector and every other sector. I know the people who are doing the good work. They’re building institutions that are mutually-owned and/or decentralised. So yes, how do we get them trading together – and from my point of view, trading in mutual credit. For me, mutual credit is to Barclays Bank what community energy is to E-on. I think we can get more and more of what we need from community-based businesses and organisations, including energy, plus transport, food, clothes – everything.
I saw in the Guardian the other day, a columnist was getting off Amazon Prime. One of the commenters said that for a columnist whose output could be charitably described as sanctimonious, how did it take you so long? I think the public is just drifting into using not just old-school corporates, but some ultra-rapacious. Amazon is an example – bad behaviour towards workers and sustainability, doesn’t pay its taxes – and yet good people say ‘what alternative is there?’ Well unless you support the alternative, there won’t be one.
Also it means that in working-class communities, where most people live, the only employment opportunities will be Amazon warehouses or Über drivers, and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.
Yes, often people I speak with who I consider ethically-minded, who think nothing of taking an Über. I might take one by mistake one day, but it’s not something that I would do. It’s not something I want to support. There are still alternatives that we can support.
I hear sometimes that no-one wants to get their hands dirty any more – to be a smallholder or a natural builder or a renewables installer or a craftsperson, and I think that’s absolutely wrong. I talk to so many people, from bankers to builders, who wish they could have a smallholding to grow food and to build their own home, or have a craft job. So many people would like to do these things, but there are so many barriers in their way.
Sometimes it’s easy to feel that somebody else is holding you back, but often, people construct their own barriers. You and I have talked about this a lot – can we set up a palette of things, where you can get everything you need from co-ops? We talked about established providers like the Phone Co-op or CSA organic box schemes. These are easy wins, because you get good quality service, and it’s easy to use them, and why wouldn’t you? But for a lot of other things, there aren’t the suppliers, or they’re difficult to use.
I’m talking with a potter soon. He makes mugs, plates and bowls. It’s difficult to find a potter who makes those sorts of things in this country – it’s usually expensive artistic stuff. He’s making useful household goods. But his plates are going to be a lot more expensive than the plates in the local pound shop, made by slave labour in China, then transported half-way across the world. Almost everything people would like to do in their communities is undercut by corporates who avoid tax and employ virtual slave labour. So I think this is where mutual credit comes in, because if people can become each other’s customers, we can trade with each other using mutual credit, without the need for money, interest or banks. Everybody gets good-quality, locally-produced products, and everyone’s boat starts to be raised by that tide.
I think for community energy, the use-cases are not so clear for mutual credit. Our relationship with the normal money economy is actually reasonably good. That’s the least of our worries in a way. We know that we can raise money to build good schemes. If we put out a share offer at 4%, we often do very well at selling those shares, and we’ve sold around 30 million shares in total to fund these things over the last 10 years. The money economy and cashflow isn’t really a problem for an organisation that owns assets like solar arrays and wind turbines that generate cash. Cash isn’t a problem – although there are other problems, like finding someone to fix a turbine if it breaks down. But the cashflow problems that bedevil a lot of small businesses are not such a problem in community energy. Which is why I get the mutual credit idea, but can’t see it being transformative for us.
I guess the bigger picture, stepping back – we have a situation where the corporate sector is gaining market share, especially after lockdowns have killed so many small businesses. And the corporate business model involves sucking wealth from communities all over the world, and concentrating it. I read a recent guesstimate of $36 trillion – a third of global GDP. It’s massive. So independent coffee shops can’t compete with Starbucks because Starbucks don’t pay their tax. And the government clamps down on small businesses, but not the big boys. We see mutual credit as an antidote to that, because it’s not the kind of medium that can be sucked out of communities and dumped in tax havens.
Yeah, if it’s something that enables small businesses to function more easily, it will help them stay in business, then that’s good. I worry a bit about why capitalism is so successful, and one of the things it’s good at is decentralisation, strangely. You can go and get your services anywhere you want, and it’s easy for businesses to set up and get going, and trust doesn’t come into the equation. That’s a good system for good ideas to get money quickly, and for crap ideas to go to the wall quickly.
I guess the big problem is that everybody wants a return – they want more than they put in. It has a growth imperative that eats the biosphere. And that’s probably the least sensible thing that we can possibly do – so I’m always looking for alternatives to that.
Yeah, although it’s never clear how you move to the steady-state economy. I guess a more relevant question is: ‘are we totally sure that we can’t fix the immediate problems in front of our face, using modified capitalism?’
That’s a very big question.
And if we get the answer wrong, history will judge us badly – in fact it won’t judge us at all, because there won’t be any history.
The problem is the growth imperative though, isn’t it? How do you have capitalism without perpetual growth? Do you know the comparison of the C-M-C economy vs the M-C-M’ economy? In the C-M-C economy, you do something useful (produce a commodity, C), exchange it for money or some sort of exchange medium (M), then use it to buy something someone else has produced (C). Everyone’s happy, but there’s no growth imperative. In capitalism, it’s all about money. You start with money (M), invest it in the production of commodities (C), in order to make more money that you started with (M’). That more money means greater spending power, that will be spent, which means more clothes, more cars, more flights etc. So that desire to get more money out than you put in – that attitude, for me, guarantees that it’s going to eat the biosphere. And that’s exactly what’s happening.
It’s interesting, because as someone involved in the environmental movement for my whole life, it took me a long time to end up in this place, where I deal with quite a bit of money, and have to get people to invest in things. I used to be involved in protest etc, and now I try to get people to give me chunks of cash. Most people aren’t trying to get rich – certainly not with us.
It only takes a few though, doesn’t it? And some become extremely wealthy. Then some of that money will obviously overflow into the political system via lobbyists, money for political parties, jobs for politicians, plus ownership of the media – and then suddenly, the agenda is set, and it’s not set by us.
In some ways, it’s remarkable that that doesn’t dominate in all respects. The guys with a lot of money don’t always get their own way.
True, but I think it’s moving more and more in their direction.
I mentioned offshore wind earlier. That’s a massive success story – huge decarbonisation of our Grid. That’s been pushed by a combination of rapacious venture capital with a side deal from royalty, in that the Queen owns the sea bed, and makes an awful lot of money from it. So that’s almost a feudal set-up, nonetheless delivering something the mutual sector couldn’t.
This is the way I see it going – trundling towards a new feudalism. When you have a few barons whose net worth is more than a hundred billion dollars, it’s a different kind of world then. It’s not that they’re very rich, and can buy a lot of stuff – with that much wealth you can control the world. By the way, I’d like to get you together with Chris Cook, who is part of the Mutual Credit Services gang. He built the Iran Oil Bourse, that nearly caused WW3, until they stepped back. He’s got lots of ideas on non-monetary investments – things like use-credit obligations, including in things like energy. I’d love to get you and him talking. On that note, we did get quite a few people together in Kings Cross a couple of years ago. People from community energy, community-supported agriculture, land co-ops, tech co-ops, worker co-ops, housing co-ops, transport co-ops the CEO of the Permaculture Association was there, someone from Preston council (the Preston Model), Pat Conaty was there, and of course, people from the mutual credit world. The initial idea was to talk about what I was saying earlier – how do we become each other’s customers and grow the sector, and how do we trade in mutual credit. Unfortunately the emphasis was drawn away from mutual credit. But I’d like to give that another go, now that things have moved on a bit – with a proper focus on mutual credit.
From my perspective, I was at that meeting, and it was very interesting in terms of who you brought together. But I went away feeling that the mutual sector was in worse shape than I thought it was. I feel that we’re little energy co-ops, struggling on the edge. But the community energy sector employs hundreds of people in the UK; I talked with someone from community-supported agriculture and the national body employs someone 2 days a week, and that was it. It’s tiny. I didn’t feel that mutual credit was the thing that would bring things together at that point. I felt that each sector could grow by working within a capitalist system but with a different bottom line. I didn’t feel that we needed a new money system, but that we need to build, to scale up. And that might mean taking ourselves a bit more seriously. With a lot of co-ops, it’s a bit of a leisure thing – they’re not necessarily providing the best service, in the best way. We need to take a look at ourselves and ask why consumers aren’t rushing to us. Why did the Co-op Bank implode? It was being run by someone who shouldn’t have been let anywhere near a bank. How did we let that happen? Looking around for other people to blame, or a new money system, seemed beside the point. We need to scale. Something you were really big on earlier, that mutual credit sort of eclipsed for you, was the idea that: how do we get that message out, that there are alternatives to provide what people need, and make it tangible for them. I still don’t think that work is being done.
Yeah. I guess we’ll have to see what happens to the economy, especially for small businesses and sole traders. I don’t think the effects of the lockdowns have really kicked in yet, so we’ll see how much money there is around, and if there’s not much, and there’s a moneyless way for people to keep trading, that’s going to have a lot of value for people. And I think that’s a really important part of the mutually-owned, decentralised economy – sole traders. You can think of them as a co-op of one person. I think there are millions of sole traders and potential sole traders for whom mutual credit could be really useful. And when we’ve got a few projects up and running, and they’re federated so that they can trade with each other, then we can start bringing the bigger co-ops in.
I think the Big Solar Co-op is part of a set of different experiments actually – trying to find a scale where we can do things better. For example our local veg box provider. But he doesn’t have online ordering, so he can’t scale. We’d order a lot more if he had this. But he’s too busy.
The Open Food Network are providing a shop platform for small food producers.
Yes, and the wholesalers like Suma and Essential have been around for a long time, and retained their radical structure. I’m interested in finding the right scales, and start working at those scales. We recently looked for someone to install external insulation on our house – but they’re hard to find. Where’s the go-to body for that? I want to go to a website, and really understand that different types of insulation, with a directory of registered businesses that I know I can trust.
So just finally, if you’d like to get involved with the kind of work that Jon is doing, and you’d like to see more solar panels on buildings around your town, please go to BigSolar.coop and have a word with Jon and his colleagues.
Yes, we’re in a position to get things done that didn’t seem possible when the feed-in tariffs went. It’s an exciting time, and a lot of the people we’re working with are feeling very motivated. It’s fun.
Thank you Jon.
Thank you Dave.
- Often people I speak with, who I consider ethically-minded, think nothing of taking an Über. It’s not something I want to support. There are still alternatives that we can support.
- With a lot of co-ops, it’s a bit of a leisure thing – they’re not necessarily providing the best service, in the best way. We need to take a look at ourselves and ask why consumers aren’t rushing to us.
- How do we get that message out, that there are alternatives to provide what people need, and make it tangible for them? I still don’t think that work is being done.
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