Tuesday 9 July 2013

How to shift economic power, without help from governments

One of the best of the Ealing Comedies, The Titfield Thunderbolt¸ has rather a wonderful scene at the  public inquiry where the trade union leader is flummoxed by the disparate group of volunteers who want to take over their local railway line to save it from closure.

They are non-union labour who are about to be exploited by the bosses, he says.

“But we are the bosses,” says the vicar/train-driver.

These were the days before amateurs taking over railways, at Tallylyn and then the Bluebell Line and many others. Mutualism has always been pretty incomprehensible to state socialists, and has been ever since Beatrice Webb torpedoed British mutualism on behalf of the Fabian Society.

The fate of the Co-op Bank was a bit of a blip for the politics of mutuals, but things do seem to be moving again – almost, but not quite, fast enough to make this issue absolutely centre stage for the future of the UK.

The evidence suggests now that, not only are mutuals generally speaking more successful than companies that have very hierarchical structures, but they give employees an economic stake which the rest of the economy increasingly denies them.

They are, in effect, a key part of the jigsaw that might bring about an economy that spreads the rewards equally enough to succeed – it is pretty clear now that economies which fail to do this tend to grind to a halt, because nobody but bankers can afford to operate in them.

In fact, mutual ownership of land as well as employee ownership of businesses seems to be one of the few potential solutions to the terrible mess our economic policy has landed us in, for all but the very rich.

But what is fascinating about this is that you could imagine change happening without government support, and with most governments hopelessly wedded to the old model, this might have to be the way forward.

So I was fascinated to read an op-ed article in the New York Times by the great campaigner Gar Alperovitz about how this might happen, appealing to baby-boomers who own businesses to sell them to their own employees.

If they do, it would create another 2-4m employee-owners over the next generation as the baby-boomers retire

The most interesting development in the USA is the way the steel union has now adopted mutualism, and in fact now has a partnership running with the Mondragon network of co-ops in the Basque area of Spain, which provides one model of how networks of co-ops can provide everyone with a proper economic stake.

Gar Alperovitz is something of the phenomenon, combining experience working in Congress with campaigning and academia. He is also part of the Democracy Collaborative which was behind the inspirational new co-ops built around public services in Cleveland, Ohio.

He is also a compelling speaker. I have watched him hold an audience in the palm of his hand, on a snowy Saturday evening in the town hall of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, speaking for over an hour without notes.

His basic message is that we are entering the most important period of peaceful revolution and economic reform since the American Revolution itself. I think he may be right.

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