Before the election in December, I had a ‘lively debate’ with a friend – an old-school Labour supporter and Corbynite – who was trying to convince me that the only way that we can have an effective social safety net is by voting in a genuinely redistributive party, taxing the rich properly and spreading wealth back into communities.
I asked him how well he thought that plan was working – a plan that most of the left have adhered to since, well, forever. Did he think that the lives of the poorest in society were becoming more secure? That the safety net is actually safe? That we’re electing leaders in Western countries that genuinely care about the plight of the least secure in society? That all this is happening in a context of a society that really understands what we need to do to live sustainably – which is required for our ultimate security?
I found the argument frustrating, because I knew that we shared the same values, based on asking ‘what would a better system look like?’, rather than ‘what’s in it for me?’.
Friendly Societies and community wealth building
We met again recently, more than a month after the election, and I had more information for him. The state is not the only way to deliver social security. There have always been ‘friendly societies’ or their equivalent – groups of people in communities (either geographical or professional) that pooled resources to look after each other. Members usually paid a small weekly subscription, and would receive assistance from the community if they couldn’t work – because of sickness, accident, old age, redundancy etc. This assistance didn’t only include money – local members would visit you to make sure that you had everything you needed. Building societies had a similar provenance – grassroots, rather than top-down organisation – as did other mutual aid societies and self-help groups.
At the end of the 19th century, the state began to require registration, and to provide oversight of friendly societies; and in the 20th century, the state began to nationalise their activities. Then, members were faced with a stark choice. Because taxation for the state to provide a safety net was compulsory, and subscription to a friendly society was not, most people gave up their friendly society subscription (rather than face jail for refusing the state’s offer). This difference – the fact that contribution to the state’s provision is compulsory and contribution to a friendly society is voluntary – is the reason that control of our safety net has been taken from communities and lodged centrally with the state. The fact that they will also use some of your taxes to wage wars is not something you can opt out of either, unless you fancy jail time.
I was surprised when he interrupted me, to let me know that he agreed. He’d been looking into friendly societies and their ilk, and had read specifically about ‘community wealth building’ and especially the ‘Preston Model’.
The idea is this: instead of having wealth sucked out of communities by corporate branches and online retailers, then attempting to claw it back via taxation, and re-distribute it to communities, let’s build infrastructure that doesn’t allow it to be sucked out in the first place.
He went on to say that if this kind of system was going to work, one thing was essential – an exchange medium that is not also a store of value, so that it is used for trading within communities, but can’t be extracted and dumped into tax havens. In other words, mutual credit rather than debt-based fiat money generated and controlled by banks, for their own advantage. As I’ve been working for the last 18 months with the Open Credit Network, needless to say, this was music to my ears.
The problem with relying on the state
I was very interested to know what made him change his mind (so that we can bottle it, maybe?). He said that even though he knew that the Brexit saga had skewed the result of the recent election in ways we won’t understand for many years, he was extremely disillusioned with the quality of ‘leaders’ that are being elected in the West. They tend to score badly in terms of intelligence, compassion and integrity – not a trend to be welcomed, considering the enormity of the problems that we face.
From WW2 until the 70s, the experience of the Baby Boomers was of wealth inequalities shrinking, and a solid social safety net. But since the 80s, wealth has become more concentrated again, leaving the majority in a more precarious position, and the young unable to acquire the security of a home of their own. The precarity and brutality of life in poor countries around the world is much worse of course, but they have no say at all in the choice of Western leaders whose policies are going to have a huge effect on the quality of their lives.
My friend had lost faith in the parliamentary route to a better society, because of corporate control of both the media and of most politicians. Occasionally a politician comes along who genuinely wants to stop the extraction of wealth from communities, but he’s ripped to shreds by the press. Corbyn and McDonnell are good examples of this. I can’t count the number of times people told me that they ‘didn’t trust’ Corbyn or McDonnell, but couldn’t give a single reason why (because you’re saturated with the corporate press, was the reason that sprang to my mind most often). This is not a left/right, or party political position by the way. Blair and Clinton are ostensibly ‘left’ politicians with a pro-corporate agenda.
It’s much harder for the corporate media to criticise community wealth building. Corporate branches destroy jobs, make remaining jobs more boring, damage community, concentrate wealth and help promote a growth-obsessed, return-maximising agenda that is at the heart of environmental destruction. How would they spin this? Price is one way, I guess – promoting quantity over quality and persuading people that the most important thing in life is cheap (and poor-quality) food, clothes and consumer goods provided by our corporate overlords. Branding is another – ‘corporations are cool’ – and as they’ve persuaded many (but by no means all) young people to be walking advertisements for them, we’d have to use ridicule against these corporate cheerleaders.
I’m very happy about my friend’s ‘conversion’. However, we are still outnumbered by those who think that regulation is going to be enough to counter the environmental and social damage that our corporate economy causes (even though we’re not electing governments that will introduce such regulation). So I think the situation is going to continue to get worse unless we build community-based infrastructure. Luckily it’s very easy to explain, and doesn’t involve any divisive ‘-isms’.
The key questions
There are two key questions for me:
- How do we get people to use this new infrastructure? Maybe the failure of the political system to deliver leaders of quality will draw more ‘early adopters’ in. My friend is not unique, and although the majority still look to governments to ‘do something’, I think that community wealth building is a growing movement.
- How do we link the growing body of community-based infrastructure together to create a truly new economy? It’s not going to work in pockets. The corporate sector can and will crush local alternatives by pushing loss-leaders, or offering services for free until the competition has been starved out of existence. Violence will be used to crush alternatives too, where they can get away with it, as the Rojavans are now discovering.
There is now a growing number of organisations promoting community wealth building, rather than asking the state to provide for us. For example:
- Community Energy England
- CSA Network
- CTRL Shift
- Democracy Collaborative
- Ecological Land Co-op
- Free Software Foundation
- New Economics Foundation
- Open Credit Network
- Open Food Network
- the REconomy project
- Solidarity Economy Association
- Stir to Action
And there are many more. You can help with your money, your voice and your work.
About the author
Dave Darby lived at Redfield community from 1996 to 2009. Working on development projects in Romania, he realised they saw Western countries as role models, so decided to try to bring about change in the UK instead. He founded Lowimpact.org in 2001, spent 3 years on the board of the Ecological Land Co-op and was a founder of NonCorporate.org. and the Open Credit Network.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Susan Hallah January 26th, 2020
Interesting and inspiring article, Dave, the older I get the further away I move from capitalist and corporate aims. Living in South Wales I have been encouraged by the continuing sense of community in the villages and small towns. It’s fragile; low wages and living standards force people to use the big discount stores, but there is still a remnant of what made the populations in these industrial areas care for each other (when no-one else was doing so). My small village has a vibrant shopping area, with many independent retailers, but most of the wages will be going to Lidl, Asda and Tescos. Even so there might be the possibility of introducing community wealth building. One advantage – news travels fast round here!
2Dave Darby January 26th, 2020
Hi Susan. Yes, you’re right, the spirit is still there, but it’s being eroded every day by corporate brands and the lifestyles that are forced on us by the removal or pricing out of any alternatives. Norms change. Interviewed on Radio 4 this week, an American woman explained how she’d put her mother in a care home in Thailand, and flew to see her twice a year. Uncaring, uncivilised and unsustainable, but hey, it’s convenient and cheap, and that’s just the way the world is these days. I think there will be a backlash. Humans need community.
3Malcolm Purvis January 26th, 2020
Hi Dave, very good article.
Although the following, which appeared in our local paper, does not exactly answer your questions it is mainly relevant and hopefully helpful in changing our public perception of what we need?
We will all have to live much more simply and reduce our demands on the Earth’s resources. This might mean working less hours as we use less resources.
The illusion that money and possessions make us happy will be blown away as we realise, when we think about it, that true happiness NEVER involves money or possessions.
With less work needed and more life satisfaction our flights abroad, large wardrobe of clothes, the multitude of gadgets and possessions in order to ‘treat ourselves’ would become unnecessary, as would shopping as a leisure activity.
We have been sleepwalking and it is time to wake up and take control of our existence on this planet. We are the only species that does not have free access to food and water and despite all our labour saving devices we are all working harder and getting less and less satisfaction. It is time for a huge change. We should however be aware that if we don’t change voluntarily disaster may do it for us, and if we wait it could be much worse!
So, here is a starter for 10 on our new journey.
1) We need to decouple from our economic growth model of economics/finance and move onto something like the ‘open credit network’ as espoused by Dave Darby of the ‘Low Impact’ website – https://www.lowimpact.org/open-credit-network-alpha-launch/
2) Instead of earning lots of money to consume more, people will work less hours and enjoy more leisure and/or community volunteering time.
3) A new political system will be laid out to increase democracy. Citizens Assemblies will be a central pillar of this new system. Citizens assemblies are very similar to juries where a randomly selected group of citizens are given the facts and information on a subject and they vote on its acceptance or not. This has been used very successfully in Ireland (on their abortion bill) and many other countries worldwide.
4) Food, farming and health will be re-imagined and integrated. Farms will become organic, smaller and local, employing more people and less machinery. Market gardens will become common and many food shops in cities will grow their food on their roofs.
5) Public transport will become normal, regular, on-time, clean and nationwide. Cycle lanes will become universal and pedestrian areas hugely increased so that people have more opportunity for interaction and social contact.
6) All energy will be renewable but reduced in total to take account of the reduction in consumption.
7) Communities will become friendlier, festivals will increase, street parties will be regular, acoustic music will abound.
8) Education will take place outside wherever and whenever possible. Testing in education (as it is currently carried out) will be a thing of the past. Life skills such as house building, growing food, cooking, making chairs and tables, conflict resolution, human health, caring and parenting would become mainstream topics in education.
9) Our health systems will become less necessary as people walk more, eat healthier and work less. Stress will decrease. Natural healing will become common place.
10) Natural buildings will take over from the steel, plastic, concrete and glass that we have now, thereby using less resources. Houses will be smaller and easier to heat and keep cool as consumer goods decrease, negating the need for large houses. More people will live in the countryside.
A starter for 10? All of these things are happening now somewhere in the world! ALL possible. A better world?
Thanks for reading
4Dave Darby January 26th, 2020
Malcolm – I’d vote for you. Oh no, hang on…..
5Steve Gwynne January 27th, 2020
Hi Dave. Sorry for cross posting but I thought you and others might find this interesting. Not only because it validates your approach but because it highlights the obstacles and challenges of an ‘alternative approach’.
In response to
I was doing some research yesterday which took me into the dizzying realm of social psychology. Predominately this was motivated by the desire to unpack what was a microcosmic experience of what you describe in this post in the form of an extraordinary general meeting that was called at my allotment association.
The basis of the meeting was to debate and then vote for the dissolution of the existing Committee and then activate the process to reform the Committee as per our Constitution. The reason why this meeting was called was because it was felt within both the Executive of the Committee and the Association generally that the current Committee is, for want of a better word, dysfunctional, mainly because it was felt that there was a small clique of belligerent free radicals within the Committee who contributed very little and when they did it was generally in an uncooperative and confrontational manner.
I saw both sides of the argument and so could feel the frustration felt by the free radicals that the ‘system’ needed a major overhaul in order that the ‘system’ would better facilitate their free radicalism cum anarchism, which included public displays of cannabis use, not cultivating their plots on demand of inspection teams and other generalist rule breaking behaviour. The ‘system’ on the other hand would not countenance this disruptive alternative direct democracy make the rules up as you go along approach and so rejected the free radicals by 52 to 3 (the 3 being the 3 free radicals) and so voted to dissolve the Committee on the premise/hope that dissolution will squeeze out the free radicals when the Committee is reformed.
My research revealed some interesting knowledge/information in the form of
System justification theory
which explains how people will justify a not so perfect system despite inbuilt injustices. The rationale being that people have a “need for order and stability, and thus resistance to change or alternatives, for example, can be a motivator for individuals to see the status quo as good, legitimate, and even desirable”.
This I thought was very interesting and when coupled with Realistic conflict theory
explains that if the majority of people (the ingroup) are having their needs relatively satisfied, then they will prefer the status quo rather than the uncertainty and unintended consequences of a major system overhaul perpetrated by an outgroup of free thinking radicals for example.
Of course, these two theories are the story of our lives whereby change is usually incremental rather than radical except under extraordinary circumstances, eg war.
So this is something to perhaps bear in mind vis a vis one’s frustrations with a bent system. In that people’s perceived security is more important than truth or justice.
This truth, in relation to perceived security, is obviously at odds with other truths that centre on social democratic justice or eco-logical rationality and as such we have at play a field of contesting truths with different truths supported by different sections of society.
According to the social psychology literature, a possible way of transcending this field of competing truths is to create Superordinate goals
so this is something that I will be experimenting with at the microcosmic Allotment Association level if my nomination to be a Committee member is approved by the Association.
Perhaps an alternative approach is to experiment with alternative systems at a grassroots community level which if prove to be sustainable and resilient can be scaled up incrementally. Eg experimenting with proportional representation at the Constituency level by having two ballot papers. One using PR and the other FPTP, to see if what would be likely to be different voting behaviour produces the same result. If the same result is not produced, then there is a debate to be had with some experimentation to test which system produces the best outcomes for the Constituency electorate.
Whether society-based experimentation is feasible is another matter, but perhaps this more scientific rational approach might be the way to overcome the barriers to change as highlighted by system justification theory and realistic conflict theory.
Now to clear some road drains.
Have a good day.
6Dave Darby January 30th, 2020
Yes, perceived security. I don’t think it will be too long before they start to realise that it’s not very secure after all. Let’s hope we have some community-based safety nets in place before that happens.
7Shaun Chamberlin February 11th, 2020
I’m reminded of Kirkpatrick Sale’s essential insight into state services:
“There is not a one of them, not one, that has not in the past been the province of the community or some agency within the community (family, church, guild) and has been taken on by the state only because it first destroyed that province.
There is not a one of them that could not be reabsorbed by a community in control of its own destiny and able to see what its natural humanitarian obligations, its humanitarian *opportunities*, would be.”
(emphasis in original)
8Dave Darby February 11th, 2020
Shaun – yes, that!