If we are to move towards low-carbon, democratic and inclusive futures, we need, among other things, thriving local-community economies.
What does a community economy look like? It has a great number of people working, whether paid or unpaid, close to where they live. There are small independent businesses, including farms, shops, workshops and art-cultural enterprises. A good percentage of these businesses are pioneering a value-driven business-model. They run as cooperatives or subscribe to cooperative ideals in their organisational structures, while also aiming to do work of direct benefit to society and to minimise waste and ecological harm. Affordability for buyers and customers is also a key principle for them. Many of them will at the same time make a modest income for their workers.
A lot of enterprises in community economies are concerned with growing, preparing and selling food. Trades like baking, cheesemaking, brewing, butchering, preserving, seed-saving are experiencing a resurgence. The community-supported model is gaining ground, where people come together and pay upfront an annual fee, which then entitles them to a certain amount of vegetables, bread, beer, meat, or other food produce. This community-supported business model works a bit like a club, where the members and the farmers or producers share the financial risks with each other and supply employment for some of the people involved. Derrybeg Farm, where I am a member, is an example.
Other enterprises are focussed on repairing, recycling or upcycling. Yet others are concerned with producing beautiful and useful craft goods from scratch. Community TV and radio play an important role in the community economy. Co-housing cooperatives can also be an important element and are becoming more widespread. Digital fabrication or 3D printing of customised items is also a growing feature.
Self-help activities are an essential part of a community economy. They include tidy towns groups, transition town groups, street theatre, freecycling, seed-swapping, skills-sharing, tool libraries, discussion forums, guided walks, community gardens, men’s sheds, playgroups, retirement groups, repair workshops and many other activities we may not have yet dreamed about. When these activities are thriving, they bring footfall to the streets and customers to the small businesses.
Where a community economy is thriving, there are spaces to meet, public and private, some free, and all affordable, and a place becomes interesting, friendly, safe and lively. Footfall on the streets of towns and villages brings customers and participants. Money circulates within the locality instead of leaking out to shareholders of big corporations. There may even be a thriving local currency.
Each community economy will have a different flavour, depending on its locality. But all will have certain common characteristics: able to respond to challenges, self-organising to a large extent, inclusive and participative. Most residents will be part of some kind of local network, and the different networks will liaise with each other. This means that there are thick social connections among the people of a locality, which leads to increased personal and household resilience.
People all over Ireland are pioneering community economies and communicating with and learning from each other and from people worldwide who have similar aims. In Ireland, one can see much of this activity concentrated in the village of Cloughjordan in Co Tipperary, pioneered by members of the eco-village there. Elsewhere, community economies are more dispersed and therefore not so visible. Everywhere, community economies are extremely fragile because many of the pioneers who spearhead them are in very precarious financial situations, living on low and uncertain incomes and often struggling to make ends meet.
Our social welfare system with its poverty traps and means-testing does not help these pioneers, nor does a state-finance scheme for entrepreneurs, which is aimed at ‘high-value’ projects with export potential. The pioneers are social entrepreneurs focussed on their locality and bio-region, not on export. Most often, in order to get off the ground, they need micro-finance. That’s not to say that the pioneers are not very globally aware and networked. They draw on knowledge generated in community-economy enterprises all over the world and share what they know freely with each other and among projects.
A diversity of work – paid and unpaid – in the local and community economies is essential in the cultivation of higher degrees of personal, community and national resilience today. A key aim of political economy should be the enabling of community economies, which in turn support high levels of human wellbeing, low energy and resource use, healthy ecosystems and greater levels of democratic participation.
Communities can do a great deal for themselves, given time and organisational skills. Importantly, however, the state, which represents the community at large, needs to enable, support and protect them. There are some wider policies that only a state or union of states (such as the EU) can put into effect. The most immediately doable and beneficial to community economies would be a universal basic income and land-value site taxes. I will write about these in blog posts to follow.