Over time my social change interests have shifted from environmentalism to economic democracy as a pathway towards a new economy. This is because I believe we need clear theories that can help us to reorganise the failing structures and processes that control power and wealth. We do not know what the new economy will look like because it will forever be changing. But it is guaranteed to require a lot of hard work organising it though. If we want things like commons-based ownership, local currencies and cooperatives to replace crony capitalism from the ground up it will not happen overnight.
My interest in how we will get to a new economy took me to Ecuador on University exchange to learn about what a more democratic economic system looks like. There the culture is much more communal. Accordingly, the majority of banks are cooperatives, there are many cooperative businesses and the government’s supports coops with industry trade protection, interest-free loans and other incentives.
On the way home I went to conferences and did an internship with a cooperative development organisation in the US. Since the financial crisis class agitation has stirred up the old ideas of economic democracy to become core to the broader new economy movement that has exploded out of the grassroots momentum built by the Occupy movement. In the US the new economy movement has laid out a wonderful example for us here to synergise efforts towards structural and political change, bridge cultural divides, develop collaborative internal bonds and maintain a radically democratic and community focus.
These experiences got me thinking about how we can democratise economic decision-making back here in Australia. From a government policy perspective, we have the opportunity to create public banks to better direct investment and use participatory budgeting to decentralise decision-making just as Brisbane City Greens Cr Jonathon Sri is with his $400,000 participatory budgeting project that is giving rate payers a say on what spending decisions are made in the Woolloongabba Ward.
However, my key interest is not in government policy about government processes. It is in the huge opportunity to grow the cooperative sector as a core strategy of democratising wealth and how it is controlled in Australia. Although Governments tried to set cooperatives up in the 1980s this top-down model failed. Since the 2000s 50% of cooperatives have closed and many assets have been lost through de-mutualisation. However, there are still 2,000 co-operatives and mutual enterprises in Australia with 29 million members and very good signs change is coming. Recently, Treasurer Scott Morrison made a historic announcement and indicated he would soon clarify the position of co-operatives in the companies act and set out clear rules that will make it much easier for them to raise equity and loan capital from members and non-members.
These changes will create more opportunities for workers, buyer and consumer cooperatives in renewable energy, agricultural, housing, health and many other sectors to get a foothold. Surprisingly, the remnants of the old National party have convinced the government to go further in their support. The $13.8 million Farming Together program from the is bringing consultants and farming groups together, to help them with strategic planning, feasibility studies, group negotiation, collaboration and governance cooperatively. The old Nationals know cooperatives have stronger share price growth, greater operational efficiency, lower turnover and that they serve rural communities better.
However, for those of us who are acutely aware of the failings of the political system to solve big problems we need to build the cooperative movement as the basis of a democracy movement. Removing power from the haves to the have-nots will take time and it will need to take time if it is going to be a durable transition that embeds democracy more deeply into our culture.
One of the most urgent areas where the cooperative form can protect our economy and increase equality is by using the platform and peer-to-peer open cooperative models to mutualise rapidly growing online companies like Uber and Airbnb as has been done in Barcelona and Austin, Texas. Rural communities are also in desperate need of cooperative organising. Now that the baby boomer generation is retiring there are many businesses facing succession challenges. Helping workers get organised to buy businesses from their bosses is one great way to keep profits and decision making locally rooted in already struggling rural communities.
So how do we start to build this movement for economic democracy so that we can all work with a greater say and control over our financial fortunes? Like with all social movements we are going to need an army of organisers to develop cooperatives and mutualise existing businesses. We are going to need to build an appreciation of economic democracy ideology so that we have a culture ready to persevere with the structural change to the system. As we build the momentum we will need to help one another through solidarity relationships between cooperatives and regions. But we will also need to demand the government shift regulations, tax incentives and investment funding to favour democratic business over individually owned or shareholder controlled business.
This is not about a socialist revolution or banning individual ownership. An economic democracy movement is about recognising the current ownership imbalance and embracing a shift towards more decentralised and participatory decision-making that develop the constructive skills and habits of mind that democratic societies require.
It is about rooting ownership and the equal distribution of profits in the hands of workers and local communities to ensure accountability and resilience are built throughout the entire economic system.
And most urgently for the sake of all of life on earth, it is about creating an economy that can be transitioned to a steady state system because it is removing the inherent need for growth and competition to accumulate more profit by designing a system around cooperation and sufficiency.