The society we want: next steps for Rethinking Poverty
by Caroline Hartnell and Barry Knight
What is the society we want? There is widespread agreement across the political spectrum that capitalism is in crisis and we need a new way of doing things. ‘Read the Economist and the Financial Times,’ wrote Michael Jacobs in the Guardian on 8 November, ‘or listen to business leaders in the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses, and it is apparent that even capitalists think the current model of capitalism is in trouble. Their anxiety is not just that it has lost public support. It is that the core engine of private sector growth is no longer working. In almost every field of economic policy it is becoming clear that tinkering at the edges of the current economic system is not going to be enough. A much more fundamental transformation is required.’
‘For 40 years, western democracies have been gripped by the doctrine that unalloyed capitalism works,’ wrote Will Hutton in the Observer on 3 November. ‘In 2019, the debate has moved on. Capitalism may rule the planet, but it plainly needs fixing. Disaffection is obvious and rising, variously behind the story of riots in Chile or Hong Kong or Britain’s Brexit vote and France’s gilets jaunes.’
But what would a good society look like and how can we achieve it? In July 2018, a small group of people got together in Letchworth Garden City to attempt to find answers to these questions. They identified three key elements in any vision for a good society. At that time we labelled these: radical civil society, a good state and value-based markets. We now think of them more simply as:
The place we want
Radical civil society was pictured as a space for reimagining, with the emphasis on the local. Throughout the world a great deal of energy is going into seeking a new future. Much of what’s happening is collaborative and participatory. People are creating alternative, sustainable, local economies – hence our relabelling as ‘the place we want’, though this involves local government and local business as well as civil society.
We have begun to develop this theme through the ‘The place we want’ section of our website and our focus on 45 Degree Change. ‘The place we want’ initially showcased #thehullwewant and Tyne and Wear Citizens, two places where an upsurge of people had come together to work out what sort of society they want and how to achieve it. Since then we have featured Oxford, whose Oxford2050 expresses a vision for the future of the city, and Blackpool, whose March 2019 conference was titled ‘The Blackpool we want for our children’. 45 Degree Change, developed by Compass and Rethinking Poverty, focuses on the intersection between bottom-up and top-down, where change happens. This can be seen in action in CLES’s community wealth building projects, and in numerous other places, including those featured by Aditya Chakrabortty in his The Alternatives series for the Guardian.
Over the next year we’d like to take this further, looking at new places and continuing to track progress in Hull, Tyne & Wear, Blackpool and Oxford. We’d like to feature new powerful movements like Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for the Future and Extinction Rebellion, and the global #ShiftThePower movement spearheaded by the Global Fund for Community Foundations.
The state we want
What is the role of the state in relation to everything that is bubbling up from below? At Letchworth we outlined two key roles for a good state: enabling and supporting change to happen; and guaranteeing a level below which no one/nowhere should sink.
Much of this needs to be done at local level. The trouble is that increasing centralization has occurred under successive governments, while a decade of austerity has catastrophically reduced funding to local government, sucking the energy from it. What we need is confident local actors ready to pull power away from the centre. Andy Burnham in Manchester, for example, is tackling housing without waiting for permission.
Other examples of councils doing things differently include Frome in Somerset, where Independents for Frome have run the town council since 2015; Barking & Dagenham, where the local authority is regenerating the borough through companies created and wholly owned by the council; and Preston, where the local authority has made a decision to build the local economy by using local companies to deliver services for the council rather than outsourcing to bigger companies that take the money out of the area.
We have already featured some of these local initiatives under ‘The place we want’, but we need to do more work on the role of national government. As Polly Toynbee points out in relation to addressing the climate emergency, the state ‘needs to do the heavy lifting’. We’ve looked at alternative economic models and at the idea of wellbeing, which all three of the UK’s devolved administrations have taken as their central focus. We’d particularly like to learn more about The Wales We Want national conversation, which has been carried out by the Welsh government as part of their focus on wellbeing. We’d like to find out what a government that is serious about implementing the Green New Deal would look like, and how this would affect society as a whole.
The business we want
The third pillar of a good society envisaged at Letchworth was ‘values-based markets’ – or ‘the business we want’. By this we mean markets that do not aim solely for profit but intentionally aim to create significant good.
We haven’t really begun to look at this in its own right, though the role of local businesses and social/community enterprise features in many contexts. But even big business is beginning to shift – albeit at a glacial pace. In August the bosses of 181 of the US’s biggest companies, members of the influential lobby group Business Roundtable, changed the official definition of ‘the purpose of a corporation’ from making the most money possible for shareholders to ‘improving our society’. In September the Financial Times launched ‘Capitalism. Time for a Reset’, a new campaign calling for a better form of capitalism. In October, the Guardian Media Group announced it is to be the first international news organisation to become a B Corporation, committing itself to become a more purposeful business across all its operations and pledging to reach net zero emissions by 2030.
Numerous local examples show that markets do have the potential to change and to create significant good. At present we have some big companies reforming at the margins, but there is no alternative at scale. Where there is more scale, as in Germany and Ireland, the state has played a very instrumental role, eg in terms of facilitating regional banking. Campaigns can also have an influence, as with 350.org’s influential campaign to persuade institutions to divest themselves of fossil fuel assets. Over the next months, we plan to look more systematically at the potential of business to help create a good society.
Aims for Rethinking Poverty and the society we want
Several questions emerge from this analysis:
- How do these elements of civil society, market and government come together in specific places?
- How does the local relate to the national? Clearly not everything can be solved at local level. Climate change, for example, is going to demand a big-state – indeed, a global – answer.
- How can the emerging local initiatives be joined up and scaled up to create a new society?
Over the next year we plan to:
- Feature all three planks of a good society that we identified at Letchworth on our website under the headings ‘The place we want’, ‘The state we want’ and ‘The business we want’
- Develop answers to the questions outlined above
- Develop a separate thread on climate change – though this clearly overlaps at every level with other elements of a good society, for example in the Green New Deal
- Convene a meeting to bring all these people and initiatives together
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