Democratic by Design

Sarah McKinley explains how local Green New Deals and bold experiments like the Lucas Plan can help us to build a democratic economy from the ground up

This present moment of crisis could well be our last best opportunity to change course and move away from the extractive, neoliberal model that has been dominant over the last several decades, to build a more local, generative, social and democratic economic system. While Covid-19 undoubtedly is the most immediate challenge, the single biggest threat facing our future remains the climate emergency, with time running out to prevent accelerating breakdown and to fairly deal with its consequences.

A green recovery from the pandemic is critical. We simply cannot return to the status quo of fossil fuel-based capitalism that is leading us to destruction. Moreover, as local economies brace for a deep recession, mass unemployment, and crippling austerity, the need to build back better must be central to any recovery plan. That requires tackling the inequalities and injustices exposed by Covid-19 and the climate crisis head on. To do so we must fundamentally rethink our economic system and build community wealth. This includes everything from reimagining local public health strategies and green spaces to the distribution of care work and local poverty alleviation approaches.

Over the last few years, the Green New Deal has emerged as an idea to rapidly decarbonise while tackling the economic dynamics driving the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few. However, with the failure of national governments to make the necessary large-scale changes, local government and city mayors are increasingly looking to act decisively on the climate emergency. With varying powers over policy areas ranging from transport to housing, they are poised to take bold and material action. 

We must support these leaders by providing localities with the tools and control necessary to implement a green recovery as part of a resilient industrial strategy. We should ensure that this is extended to every aspect of local economies, from decentralised and democratised energy markets, to new systems of low carbon local transport, to retrofitted affordable homes, and beyond.  The opportunity is in delivering a wave of local Green New Deals that combine economic and environmental justice in our response to Covid-19. The challenge is in securing the powers needed to implement such plans and then ensuring that they are used in transparent and democratically accountable ways that give communities – and those that live and work in them – control of their economic futures.

The ultimate goal is both ambitious and transformative: a deep and purposeful reorganisation of our economy so that it is democratic, sustainable, and equal by design. Supported by a step-change in public policy and investment, and informed by the needs and experience of the residents and workers who will be most impacted, a local green recovery can rescue our collective futures from climate catastrophe and create the conditions for universal human flourishing. The good news is that we already have models for how to do that and what that could look like. 

Community wealth building approaches that broaden ownership and control of productive assets in place can unlock the transformative potential of local Green New Deals across the country as part of the UK’s response to Covid-19. From using capital investment to invest in low carbon projects that create good, unionised, local green jobs, to reorienting pension funds and municipal bonds to finance a just transition, to the environmental benefits of localising supply chains and developing worker-owned cooperatives to meet local demand, many of the tools of community wealth building can be used to conjoin economic and environmental justice.

These local community wealth building efforts, at play in places across the UK from Preston to North Ayrshire, offer the opportunity to prefigure a larger-scale green industrial strategy that delivers high quality and well paid work while reimagining the ownership and governance of most sectors of our economy.  The Lucas Plan’s experiment in industrial democracy during the 1970s is one powerful example of how this could and should be done – through bottom-up participatory planning processes that engage workers and communities directly in shaping and delivering local green transformation plans. The Lucas Plan stands as a model for not only democratic design driven by workers to save jobs, but also for fully rethinking and valuing what is socially useful production.  This is precisely the kind of radical thinking that our current moment calls us to.

We sit at an historic crossroads where the Covid-19 crisis has laid bare the failures of our current system and positioned us on the precipice of much needed change.  We cannot return to business as usual and we must resist at all costs a doubling down on neoliberalism that has pushed us beyond ecological limits and led us down a path of wealth extraction, inequality, poverty and precariousness. The on-the-ground solutions and experiments around bold alternatives for economic democracy exist. Now is the time to step fully into the transformative potential of local Green New Deals, grounded in community wealth building as the main means of rebuilding our local economies and modeled on principles of economic democracy. We can, and we must, build a new political economic system from the ground up that serves all people and the planet.

Sarah McKinley is Director of European Programmes for The Democracy Collaborative, an R&D lab for the democratic economy.

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