Thursday, February 06, 2020

Review: The Case for Community Wealth Building

I'm cross-posting a review that I originally wrote on Amazon:

The Enlightenment philosopher David Hume famously remarked that his Treatise on Human Nature “fell dead-born from the [printing] press”. I’m afraid that, given recent political developments, this short book may suffer the similar fate of being dead on arrival.

The back cover carries endorsements from Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Hardly surprising, given that much of the book is devoted to outlining and defending Corbyn’s economic model. However, whatever one thinks of this vision, it seems that its time has already passed.

The book carries a copyright date of 2020, but I could see no clear indication of when the text was actually written. Nonetheless, when the authors write (on p. 107) of the opportunity “in the unknown amount of time between now and the next UK general election” I assume this must have been before the 2019 election was called. Thus, the election referred to has already happened. With Labour losing that election (heavily), and Corbyn soon to be replaced as leader, it is hard to avoid concluding that whatever opportunity there was for this radical new economic model – at least on a national level – has gone.

Much, if not all, of this book is written as a call from those on the left of the political spectrum to others on the left, encouraging them to seize the opportunity created by recent crises to implement a new economic settlement. Pitched in such a manner, it’s probably unlikely to find much favour outside of Corbynistic circles. That’s probably a shame though, since – at least if the authors are right – the idea of community wealth building has much to recommend it across the political spectrum. However, the chances of anyone taking up these ideas now seem slim.

The book consists of three main chapters, which in turn address the history, justification, and potential of community wealth building. I have to say that it assumes a certain familiarity with politics and economics, for instance what is meant by Keynesianism or the neoliberal economic paradigm. Even though I consider myself more than averagely informed, I was still a little unclear on what exactly community wealth building means after the first chapter. There’s a list of principles, on p. 84, that might have been more useful in the first chapter. (Incidentally, the text introduces “eight principles” of the Democracy Collaborative, but the list that follows includes only seven.)

The second chapter was probably the most interesting, at least in my view. Here, the authors seek to defend community wealth building arguing that, even if it is less economically efficient than unregulated markets (a point that they dispute), it is a means for ordinary citizens to ‘take back control’ over their lives. Existing democratic structures seem relatively powerless in the face of global economic forces. Democratising the economy, however, offers ordinary workers the chance to have a say over decisions that affect their lives. Again, I would expect much of this to appeal not only to the radical left but also to at least some in the centre and even on the right, at least to the extent that a remodelled economy of the sort proposed here should then involve less state interference.

Unfortunately, as I remarked at the outset, the chapter on the prospects for community wealth building seems to hang its hopes on the opportunity for a Corbyn-led Labour government. While it does note that some progress can be made at local levels, without a change of national government (p. 112), even this seems to assume that Labour will be the party of change. Thus, while this book was intended as an optimistic manifesto for radical change, it now reads like an account of what might have been. An opportunity missed, perhaps – we may never know.

While this review is not entirely positive, if you still want to buy the book then you can do so from Amazon (affiliate link).

Disclaimer: I do know one of the authors.