Building a Local Democratic Economy – Skill share #1

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How can we keep wealth in our communities? Can we make a democratic economy that works for everyone, rather than everyone having to work for the economy? Can we create an economy that does not mean ecological and social exploitation? Commons Network and Nantes en Commun guided us into these and other questions, hosting the European Municipalist Network’s first skillshare session of the year in March 2023.

Nantes En Commun is a movement for local autonomy, commons, popular ecology and participative democracy: for residents to reclaim France’s sixth-largest city Nantes near the Atlantic coast. Commons Network is an Amsterdam-based collaborative think-and-do tank, focusing on transformative systemic change, including Community Wealth Building in their home city. Commons Network is also one of the caretaker organisations within the EMN network, and they coordinated the series of skillshares.

In September 2022, EMN – that’s us, municipalists from across the continent – converged in Berlin to deliberate on what topics should we organise four online skillsharing sessions about. We asked ourselves questions such as: What are the most common challenges we all face across Europe? What experiences do we have to share? What gaps are there in our knowledge? How can we create spaces for peer-to-peer exchange? The idea was to inspire each other and bond and strengthen the network. We also looked back at the EMN Summer School of 2021, resources still available here. The idea now was to both build on this series of co-learning events, and focus on topics not yet covered.

After the Berlin meeting, Commons Network narrowed down four transformative themes. These were: building a democratic local economy; the power of storytelling and political education; centralising care within the feministisation of politics; and creatively using the law, especially around rights and access to housing and buildings. All of the skillshare sessions would kick off with inspiring examples, opening up a space for participants to exchange their experiences, ask questions and delve deeper.

Community Wealth Building, Amsterdam

Community Wealth Building(CWB) is a mechanism to rebuild and re-centre the economy, as Thomas De Groot, co-director of Commons Network explained. The US city of Cleveland, Ohio, is a landmark space in Community Wealth Building’s history. In the 1990s the city faced decay and decline, as major industries shut down or relocated overseas. This led to the impoverishment of the population. Something needed to be done.

Social movements and civil society organisations devised a response dubbed the Cleveland Model. They realised that institutions – such as hospitals, schools and universities – still turned over a great deal of money. They asked themselves: How is it possible that the households and communities around those institutions were still living below the poverty line despite this capital entering and exiting their communities?

Was there a way to tap into these major institutions’ spending and stop it leaking from the city? Their analysis created the foundation for Community Wealth Building.

In a nutshell, the programme focuses on capital from these major institutions, aka anchor institutions. The money they spend is kept locally by keeping procurement local, benefitting the local community. It can mean that anchor institutions are encouraged or pressured to buy from local co-operatives rather than spending their money with big corporations, enabling the money to go offshore and overseas. Another pillar of this economic transformation is setting up co-operative incubators: local spaces that can help people set up co-ops. Thomas also explained how this model was reworked and applied to Preston, a post-industrial northern English town. But how was this to be useful for Amsterdam?

The crisis for the Dutch capital differs greatly from both Cleveland and Preston. Key problems include gentrification and disenfranchised marginalisation of old communities, which adds to the precarisation of work brought about by post-industrialisation. However, the experience from Amsterdam shows that community wealth building can be more than solely about economics. It offers a means to re-empower neighbourhoods, by reordering the economy so it brings benefits to local people. In Amsterdam, the work focused specifically on disenfranchised communities.

Commons Network did this by working with local groups and movements that were grounded in the neighbourhoods. Together with designers and the rest of the CWB team, these groups and movements created maps that not only identified where capital was leaking out of the neighbourhoods – but also showed where social improvements and innovation are possible.

“We really focused on working with local groups that had a lot of social mobilisation, and had a strong base in the neighbourhood”, Thomas explained.

“Based on these experiences, we made a small publication where we identified a few key steps for community wealth building in these communities. It’s important to build a local team with a combination of entrepreneurs, civil servants and social movement builders from the neighbourhood. It’s important to make a shared problem analysis.” 

He explained that in meetings with the local actors, it is important not to just state the problem for the neighbourhood, but try to identify how this problem can be resolved from the bottom up by the neighbours. This can be done through organising open neighbourhood assemblies. They in turn enable the mapping of capital outflows and where they can be tackled.

Nantes En Commun and Énergie de Nantes

Nantes En Commun was envisioned in 2018, with their first coming together the year after. This movement aims to reclaim and transform the city through five missions. These are: creating an economy based on mutual solidarity; a residents’ housing union; supporting local, national and international struggles; creating a platform to stand in local elections; and bringing joy back to politics and life. One way the latter happens is through the Café du Chapeau Rouge, a place for events and the solidarity economy to flourish. A crucial organisation for moving towards a solidarity-based economy is Énergie de Nantes, a 100% renewable local energy supply company.

Arthur d’Herbemont who participates in both Nantes en Commun and Énergie de Nantes spoke in the session, focusing on the story of the renewable company.

Arthur shared how one of the aims of Nantes en Commun is to build a “local ecological common economy”. They are an expropriation movement; language that is echoed in the Berlin housing movement (see skillshare #4 on housing) trying to expropriate for residents houses that were once owned by the state. Arthur suggests the same can be applied to energy: instead of thinking of this as something private, something for profit, we can and should treat it as commons. In practical terms, Énergie de Nantes is producing energy through hydro power and solar. It has reconditioned an old watermill to now generate electricity.     

It is important to think of a society of commons, with not only energy, but the democratisation of food, housing and other necessities built around the commons, Arthur said. This is why Nantes En Commun is also working on collectively growing food, it has a not-for-profit cafe, and is unionising housing members alongside its many other projects.

Key takeaways from the skillshare

After the presentations, everyone came together for a discussion. Participants emphasised how economic transformations need to be holistic: we need systemic change, not only completely altering one sector, say food, energy or transport. Another key takeaway was that despite differences between places – with their own political ecosystem challenges and economic differences – there is great scope for cross-fertilising ideas and strategies from different municipalist ecosystems. 

Want to know more about the skill shares? check out the municipalist skill share podcast series