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Community Wealth Building

Beyond the Ivory Tower interview with Martin O’Neill

Not only are there more democratic and egalitarian alternatives theoretically, but also policies being pursued successfully at the city and the regional level, in many places, that do give people a sense of control in the economic sphere. It’s not just wishful and abstract thinking; there is abundant proof of concept. We have to remain hopeful; we have to shine a light on those examples and talk about why they represent elements of a different kind of settlement, a more justifiable and more human political and economic system, that we ought to strive to see realized more widely and more deeply.  

(This interview took place at Alma Café, a beautiful family-owned café in York, England) 

Sanat: Thank you so much Martin for agreeing to an interview for Justice Everywhere. You did a PhD in Philosophy under the supervision of T.M. Scanlon and Derek Parfit. From what I can understand, you have been a very socially engaged philosopher almost since the beginning of your professional career. You used to write regularly for the New Statesman on a wide range of topics from funding for scientific research to the regulation of financial markets. You comment actively and publicly on British politics, especially on the working of the Labour Party. More recently you have been writing about community wealth building projects. You have also conducted many interviews yourself with people who are trying to experiment with alternative economic models. When you were entering academia, were you already sure that you want your philosophy to inform and be informed by the politics around you? If so, what led you to this decision? 

Martin: First of all, thank you very much for the invitation to be interviewed for Justice Everywhere. Having done lots of interviews over the years, it’s very strange to be on this side of the interaction! Well, to answer your question, I think it can be a bit hard to reconstruct how I thought about things in the past and how I started out. My interest in political philosophy had very much come from an interest in practical political questions, especially issues related to social justice, and from an interest in thinking about the range of political possibilities that went beyond the familiar world that we currently live in. If I go very far back and think about coming to political awareness as a young person in Britain in the 1980s, it was a time when this country was undergoing a convulsive set of political and economic changes, and that was something quite obvious even to us as kids at school. 

One of the first things I was probably made aware of politically was the Miner’s Strike of 1984-85. And as a child of Irish economic migrants living in London, of course there was also the backdrop of the troubles in North Ireland. So, there was a sense in which the stakes of politics were high, with political questions being completely unavoidable. From early on I was very interested in a range of quite practical political issues. It was a bit surprising to me that I turned more towards Philosophy when I went to university to study PPE, because I had initially been much more interested in Politics than in Philosophy. But I got intellectually captivated by philosophical ideas.  

So I’ve always been interested in political questions, and in thinking about the possibilities for how politics and the economy can be organised. Growing up in the 1980s in the Thatcher period and witnessing the shift from post-war consensus to neo-liberalism, one thing that became really clear to me, and to every one of my generation, was that political and economic change is possible. Within a very short amount of time, places can undergo quite substantial changes from one way of doing things to quite a different model. Although it was a period of change that was in many ways very discouraging, because it was about a shift into a model that was worse in terms of social protections and inequality, it made evident the transformative possibilities of politics.  

Sanat: So, it was not the kind of change you wanted, but it was change nevertheless, which you drew encouragement from. Based on what you said just now and some of your writings, you have taken a very strong stance against the neoliberal order. Were there times when you felt a tension between these beliefs and what your job demanded? I mean it could be something as simple as you knowing that education is not just an instrument to get a job, but you nevertheless having to prepare your own students to be ready for the job market.  

Martin: There’s a lot of problems with higher education today, whether in the US or in the UK, the two places I know the most about directly. It’s been very sad to see some of the changes in British higher education since the time that I started out as a Lecturer. For example, tuition fees were much lower; when I was a student, university was free, with a £1,000 fee coming in 1998, which was then trebled to £3,000 in 2004, and trebled again to £9,000 in 2012. One result of that is that students have inevitably become more hard-headed about employability, and about how they can function in the world, to be able to pay back education-related debts.  

Having said that, I think those of us who teach political philosophy are very fortunate, because we are often able to help people step back and be a bit more reflective; in our modules, our students get permission to think about values, about institutions, and about the connection between values and institutions. When I think about my current teaching, I really feel quite privileged. In our classrooms we are able to create a space where students can think in a non-instrumental way about some normative issues that deserve attention for their own sake. So, I think in some ways those of us who work in higher education are fortunate that we are still able, despite the problems mentioned above, to do a very old-fashioned and valuable thing – which is reading difficult and challenging ideas and discussing them together with our students. I don’t think there are an awful lot of places within a neoliberal economy where that kind of activity can happen. I don’t want to idealise things too much, but I think university can be a space where, if it functions well, people can approach things with a genuine sense of the value of what they are doing: the value of reflection on difficult questions, and the value of intellectual work that is not judged only in instrumental terms. Now I don’t want to sound too naive. Of course, I know that people often take courses for grades and credentials. But I think there is a pretty robust and resilient value in what goes on in higher education, and that keeps shining through despite all the surface annoyances of the profession and of the broader system in which it exists. 

Sanat: That’s good to hear. And that sounds right. Philosophy does seem to be one of the few avenues left where, despite all its imperfections, we can imagine people relating to each other in a non-instrumental way. 

Martin: You would certainly hope so. Of course, it’s important to note that people who get these teaching opportunities in higher education are often not representative of the broader society of which they are part. There is a lack of ethnic diversity in academic Philosophy, and often a lack of geographical and class diversity. I take it that it’s uncontroversial that diversifying the access to those sorts of opportunities is important.  

In terms of space for reflection on political values, I’d hope that the school system would also create more of those spaces. One thing I get disheartened by, as a parent of teenage kids, is the degree to which secondary schools often seem to have an instrumentalizing rhetoric of employability, professionalism and so on. The kids are given the impression that much of what they are doing in school is a preparation primarily for their role in contributing to the economy, rather than their role as democratic citizens. It’s very important to push back against that, especially in schools.  

Sanat: Okay, let’s now zoom in on economic justice– which has been your area of specialisation. In 2018, you along with Joe Guinan did an interview with Zitto Kabwe and it was titled “Realizing Economic Justice in Tanzania”. Would it be appropriate to title this interview with something like ‘realizing economic justice in the UK or globally or locally’. What would you say is the right scope of your work? 

Martin: Well, both my sometime co-author Joe Guinan and I are UK/Irish dual citizens, so of course we both have a special interest in those two countries. And one important realisation I have had from working at the local and city level, in terms of writing about community wealth building and in terms of looking at what is being done in different places, is that there actually exists a lot of scope for local / sub-national governments to intervene within local economies to create more democratic way of doing things. And it’s fantastic to see wherever that’s done well. Notwithstanding the fact that I have particular interests relative to my own background, I’m interested in the pursuit of social and economic justice wherever people can do that.  

You mentioned our interview with Zitto Kabwe, who was at that time the leader of ACT-Wazalendo, a leftist Tanzanian political party. We met Zitto Kabwe, who is from a Tanzanian socialist tradition that goes back to Julius Nyerere and ideas of ‘Ujamaa’, and so on, at the Labour Party conference in the UK in 2018. Zitto was very interested in the kind of things that were going on in Preston, with the ‘Preston Model’ of community wealth building, and was thinking about how that kind model could be adapted and used in a very different political and economic context. So we organised for Zitto to visit Preston, and arranged a meeting with Matthew Brown, the Leader of the Preston City Council. They exchanged ideas, views and approaches and my sense was that both of them found that exchange very constructive and useful.  

Related to that work on community wealth building and economic democracy, I’ve been quite involved with a think tank – The Democracy Collaborative (TDC) – over the past few years. TDC started with very much a US focus, but as some ideas, such as community wealth building, developed further, they have taken root in all sorts of different places. For example, at the moment, one of the founders of The Democracy Collaborative, Ted Howard, is living in Amsterdam, working with the City of Amsterdam on community wealth building Amsterdam Nieuw-West, one of the most disadvantaged districts of the city. Ideas related to community wealth building have also taken root in other parts of England, in Scotland and Ireland. Or to take another example, TDC is now engaged in an advisory capacity with community wealth building work that is being developed in post-industrial areas of Poland, in Silesia. Poland’s economic transition is fascinating; it is a very quickly transforming place. The economy in a region like Silesia was very much focused on coal-mining and heavy industry. A lot of local bodies in the Polish economy, given the rates of growth and transformation, are having to think about how to manage rapid changes so that they do not just end up reproducing some of the disasters of deindustrialisation that have been seen elsewhere. When people are facing similar problems at similar scales in different places, there is a lot of mutual learning that can be done. Through involvement with the Democracy Collaborative, I have been quite fortunate to see some of that in action. 

Sanat: Could you say a bit more about what is community wealth building and why the Preston Model has become so popular recently? 

Martin: Community Wealth Building is a strategy for trying to create more egalitarian and democratic local economies. That could involve a variety of different kinds of approaches. While there can be quite a lot of power at the local government level, community wealth building also involves thinking about the local place-based anchor institutions such as universities, museums, and hospitals. These anchor institutions have a long-term commitment to a particular place. They are not like a firm that might move after a few years. 

Let’s take the example of a university – an approach grounded in ideas of community wealth building would demand that it thinks of itself not just as a service provider of education but also to think of itself as having a strategic role as an important long-run institutional feature of a particular area. That might mean, for example. that it does not just go with the lowest cost supplier when purchasing goods and services, but that it also thinks about its capacity to help develop local social enterprises, local cooperatives, or even local small businesses. Institutions like universities need to take seriously the working conditions not just of people who work for it directly but also those who work for its suppliers. It might be cheaper, for example, to sub-contract cleaning or maintenance, but if you take a different view of an institution as a long-run participant in the economy of a local area, then the advantages of insourcing become clearer. Employing people directly, rather than through external agencies, often makes it easier for the institution to have high standards of employment and have constructive relationships with labour unions. Community wealth building requires thinking that anchor institutions are not just there as private participants within a market, but that they also have a shaping function in terms of what the prevailing norms and expectations are within the local economy. In short, community wealth building involves think strategically about the full panoply of different ways in which local governments, and other kind of significant local institutions, can influence the development of the economy, with the intention of using that influence to move things towards more egalitarian and more democratic outcomes. 

Sanat: Am I right in understanding that as an economic model, there are three demands that community wealth building places on local institutions? First, that the institution be public, second that it is worker-centered, and third, that it is localised. 

Martin: Well, yes to the first two. Whether we’re thinking about a government body or a local authority, or a public or quasi-public anchor institution, the idea is that they should take their public function seriously, across all of their economic interactions, and not just see themselves as private players in the market. Put simply, the public good is important if you are a public institution. But I think the emphasis on locality is more complicated – it can be important, but it can also be misunderstood. As an institution, if you are going to intervene in the local economy to create an environment that is more conducive to cooperatives and social enterprises, then it is more likely to that you are going to interact with local businesses rather than with large multinationals, who are very good at shifting profits around, and at avoiding taxes, and often not so good in terms of how they treat their workers. But the focus on locality per se is not exactly what one need always be interested in, it seems to me. The focus on the local is more often a consequence of trying to encourage a plurality of different kinds of ownership forms within the economy, that are going to foreground the interests of workers, create good quality jobs, and aren’t going to be hostile to worker organisation. There is no reason to deal with an unscrupulous cost-cutting, union-busting local firm, simply because it is local.   

We are having this conversation in York, which is home to Persimmon Homes, who are one of the biggest housing developers in the country. While Persimmon has long-term local roots, I don’t think that alone gives a reason for public institutions in York to want especially to engage with what is a very profit-focused company, and one which has attracted a lot of negative attention for its behaviour, such as the very high pay taken by its leading executives. So, localism for the sake of localism would be an error; rather, localism is often a proxy for other things that you are interested in. 

Sanat: What you just said about localism also seems to suggest that there is a lot of scope here for normative and conceptual confusion and thus clarifications. I guess that’s where your role as a philosopher comes in.  

Can you also talk a little bit about Preston? 

Martin: The Preston model is significantly inspired by the work that The Democracy Collaborative had done in Cleveland, Ohio. In Cleveland, it was interesting that the approach to community wealth building actually wasn’t driven by local government but by the anchor institutions themselves. A couple of the local large hospitals and local universities, working in an area that was very badly impacted by deindustrialisation, started to think about what they could do to create a more equal and democratic community in the long run. For example, they started working with local cooperatives for procuring their laundry services, food supplies etc, to help build an infrastructure for local cooperative firms and to help create good jobs in the local economy. That fed into Preston’s community wealth building project, which has been led since its inception by Matthew Brown, who is now the leader of Preston City Council, and who was previously Preston’s cabinet member for Social Justice, Inclusion, and Policy.  

Inspired by the work that TDC had been pursuing in Cleveland, the development of the Preston Model came from a disillusionment with the pre-existing model of local economic development. The city government then had planned for a big new shopping centre where the chain high street brands were going to be the main tenants, and this was going to bring new value into the economy. After the financial crash of 2007-08, the funding dried up and the development didn’t happen. So, there was a push to think about what the alternatives were, and inspired by Cleveland and their anchor institution strategy, Preston city council started talking to the University of Central Lancashire and other local institutions about whether they could start developing an economic model wherein more of money could be re-circulated in a virtuous way within the local economy. That’s been a successful economic development strategy, and now Preston has developed, for example, a new city-owned leisure centre which will have a cinema, bowling alley etc, as well as having redeveloped community assets such as the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, and the Preston Markets. Something that is owned by the local council is then a resource for that area and a source of revenue that’s then put back into local economic development. That presents quite an attractive economic model rather than just waiting for the profit-maximising private firms to be the motors of economic development.  

The Democracy Collective, in developing the practical side of some of these ideas of community wealth building, which were initially developed as part of ‘the Cleveland Model’, were very important in building the groundwork for these later developments in Preston. I’ve been fortunate to have got to know Matthew Brown, since first interviewing him for Renewal: a Journal of Social Democracy, back in 2016, and it’s been wonderful to see the progress that he and his colleagues have made over the years.  

With regard to our writing on Community Wealth Building, my co-author Joe Guinan and I realised that these ideas clearly seem to work in practice, and there was an interesting question about whether they could be made to work in theory as well! 

Sanat: That’s a surprise. I thought the problem would be the other way around. 

Martin: Well, no! It’s actually a place where political philosophy can make a contribution by systematising the elements of different strategies that have developed in different places and institutional contexts, but I think it very much starts with practice rather than with theory. In our short book on community wealth building, we are saying that what fundamentally justifies this approach is an interlocking pair of normative commitments – one about equality and the other about democracy. The argument is that having more democratic intervention within the organization of the local economy is valuable not just in itself but also because it allows collective agency and decision-making that would not be available if you are just relying on the market to do things. This can also then be a means to create more egalitarian relationships within the local economy, especially in the sphere of employment. Such interventions can also create a better environment for cooperatives, and trade unions, and facilitate an improvement in the quality of jobs in terms of training and development. These sorts of interventions can than in turn contribute towards a more robust and confident democratic culture within an area. Moreover, as argued by J.S. Mill, Joshua Cohen, and Carol Pateman amongst others, and as I’ve myself explored in work on Rawlsian arguments for economic democracy, a more democratic economic settlement can be seen as a contribution towards a more democratic culture as a whole. We argue in the book is that there is a virtuous relationship between these twin goals of a more egalitarian and more democratic way of organising the economy.  

One thing that is hopefully a contribution of a book is to explain why that focus on the local might make sense. It is not the chauvinistic thought that city X just wants to ensure local protectionism to advance their own interests at the expense of their neighbouring city Y. That’s often how opponents of CWB want to caricature it, treating it as a form of ‘municipal protectionism’ (something that Joe and I were very much concerned to refute in our book). It’s rather that often the development of these local cooperatives and social enterprises contributes to broader democratic and egalitarian goals. So, I hope our book can support the reflective self-understanding of people who are engaged in these kinds of initiatives, to be of some help to them in thinking about what values are at stake, and the underlying normative justifications of those policies. I should mention that Joe Guinan and I have signed a contract with Polity to write a somewhat more comprehensive book on the theory and practice of Community Wealth Building, taking a broader and more detailed survey of the history and future of this kind of approach than we were able to do in our short 2019 book, and which will be coming to a good bookshop near you in due course.  

Sanat: That’s great to hear! What you said in a way changes how I was initially thinking about the whole idea of community wealth building, to be honest. One of the questions that I had written for myself was – well all of these ideas sound great but how do you implement them at scale? But what you seem to be suggesting is that it is already working in some places. The problem in fact is in convincing other people why they are important and that’s the sort of philosophical work you are hoping to do in this book.  

Martin: Well, of course implementation is a big issue as well. But before that, there’s often also been an artificial limiting of the imagination with regard to what the range of accessible political and economic possibilities really are, and often it takes quite courageous local leaders – like Matthew Brown in Preston – to push these kinds of things through. Obviously in a lot of places, you just see a continuation of business as usual, which in the recent decades has increasingly involved outsourcing, contracting out, a very narrow focus on economic value, rather than thinking more strategically about values such as equality or democracy. As I’ve argued in recent work, there are a range of strong normative reasons to reject many forms of ‘privatization’ in service provision.  

But I don’t at all want to suggest that there are no problems with implementation. In the British context, there has been a horrifying reduction in the powers and funding of local governments. Britain is an incredibly centralised country and local governments aren’t remotely as well funded as they should be, and neither do they have the scope for action that they ought to have on democratic grounds.  

Having said that, there is an interesting mutual development of theory and practice in this area, and many local councils and other local authorities that are doing remarkable things with the powers available to them; there are community wealth building strategies in place, for example, in Islington and Newham in London, and at the national level in Scotland. And other visionary leaders such as Jamie Driscoll, the North of Tyne regional mayor, have been implementing CWB in imaginative ways. And it is striking that a large number of people involved in the practice of community wealth building are also very reflective, very interested in ideas and principles, and keen to think further about what they are doing in normative terms. In my experience, people involved with these projects are eager to talk in a somewhat philosophical idiom, to talk about principles and values, as well as talking about policies. I think it’s certainly an area where there is a contribution to be made from political philosophy. 

Sanat:  You co-authored (again with Joe Guinan) a statement in 2018 on the idea of an ‘Institutional Turn’ in progressive thinking on economic policy, which seemed hopeful about a radical shift in economic thinking in the UK and perhaps even in the US. How hopeful are you still about this radical shift? Do you think community wealth building is going to be a top priority on the labour party’s agenda anytime soon?  

Martin: For a couple of years, I was a member of the Labour Party’s Community Wealth Building Unit which brought together people from local government, labour unions, and think tanks, engaging with the policy team of the party leadership. There would be quarterly meetings at Westminster to reflect on what the party could do nationally to develop the approach of community wealth building in different places. When the leadership changed in 2020, those meetings just stopped being organised, without any announcement or explanation to those who had previously been involved.  

It’s outrageous and sickening that one of the most ambitious and interesting Labour party politicians in local government, Jamie Driscoll who had been a mayor of the North of Tyne region and was successfully pursuing community wealth building there, was prevented from standing for the elections to the larger North East combined authority. Driscoll was removed as the Labour candidate, despite effectively being the sitting mayor. They brought in another candidate who had a much more conventional approach, but was obviously seen as more biddable by the Westminster leadership, and Jamie Driscoll is now having to stand as an independent there (the election is taking place on 2 May 2024).  

So currently, the Labour Party seems to be in fact showing hostility towards approaches such as community wealth building, for reasons that are not completely clear to me. In some cases, the opposition to these approaches seems just to be generated by petty factionalism, and a wish for the current leadership to impose their will on others in the party.  

But the ideas embedded in CWB are good ideas, and they are working in lots of different places. Community wealth building has been taken up enthusiastically, as I’ve mentioned, by the Scottish government, by the Northern Irish government, and by localities in many different places, across different parts of Europe, in Ireland, in the US, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. So, I think there is every reason to be optimistic, given the power of the stronger ideas and the fact that there is absolutely no reason to keep going with an economic model that doesn’t function for people. But I am not very optimistic about a national UK government under Keir Starmer pursuing policies like community wealth building, because they seem at best to be indifferent or uninterested in them, and at worse to be hostile to them because of a concern to reduce local autonomy for cities or regional governments. Labour’s national manifesto for the 2024 local elections does include some promising ideas on devolution of power, and endorses policies such as community asset transfers that are very much part of the toolkit of Community Wealth Building, so there are at least some positive signs. 

Sanat: Clearly the adverse effects of neoliberalism, particularly in the Thatcher years, have been quite evident in the UK. And there has been some pushback against it. However, as you know, some political economists have argued that this grievance seems to be coming out in the form of a rise of nationalistic politics. Neoliberalism doesn’t seem to be going away and people seem to be channelling their grievances elsewhere. In this context, how radical do you think the potential of something like community wealth building really is? Also, taking into account such high background wealth inequalities and the fact that such projects have to compete against the Amazons and the Walmarts of the world.  

Martin: Well, Community Wealth Building can’t be the whole answer. There are very good reasons why we need to think comprehensively about alternative economic models. You are absolutely right that the alienation, loss of control and various other dissatisfactions with the current ways of organising political and economic life are increasingly coming out in terms of support for the far right and are taking some very dark and worrying forms. But the answer can’t be to double down on the system that has led to all these sorts of dissatisfactions. The incredibly influential Brexit slogan of ‘taking back control’ really spoke to the sense that people did indeed feel a lack of control; they felt like playthings of alien forces, to borrow a phrase from Marx. Some of that feeling comes from people’s experiences in the economic domain, their experience from work; the world of zero-hour contracts, diminished workers’ rights, weak unions and so on. Obviously, it’s a very dangerous time for democratic societies; we are living with unprecedented levels of inequality and with an economic system that seems powerfully to undermine the basis for a stable, democratic politics where people feel like they have got a genuine stake in the system and that they are being listened to and being treated with respect.  

However, we, especially those of us who care about democracy and social justice, have to keep making arguments that the only alternative to the status quo is not this hostile nationalistic vision. Not only are there more democratic and egalitarian alternatives theoretically, but also policies being pursued successfully at the city and the regional level, in many places, that do give people a sense of control in the economic sphere. It’s not just wishful and abstract thinking; there is abundant proof of concept. We have to remain hopeful, we have to shine a light on those examples, and talk about why they represent elements of a different kind of settlement, a more justifiable and more human political and economic system, that we ought to strive to see realised more widely and more deeply.  

Sanat: That’s very clear, helpful advice for philosophers who are attracted to projects like community wealth building – our job, as you have been doing, is to keep on arguing why they matter and hope that similar initiatives are taken up elsewhere.  

To me, adopting these strategies at scale sometimes seems like a chicken and egg problem. One of the effects of neoliberalism has been to destroy a sense of community in many places by encouraging cut-throat competition and fracturing mutual trust. For something like community wealth building to work, you need a well-functioning community already. Is that right? 

Martin: I think of the CWB approach as always being about just building from where you are. Although harsh, capitalist competition is a feature of the world we inhabit, I think we tend to underestimate the resources that are there in cities and localities to take such community-based initiatives. People are members of a range of institutions that have a connection to the places where they live. Think of faith-based organisations, for example – churches, mosques, temples and so on – which tend to have a connection with a particular place; they bring people together outside of the market interactions. Community wealth building is a general orientation towards policies that’s going to look different in different places.  

One of the things Preston has done in trying to regenerate the local economy in this inclusive, participatory way is also to think about public space and institutions – things that bring people together.  They have refurbished a wonderful Victorian art gallery and there’s the leisure centre I mentioned earlier. They have also set-up a new Preston market. While this market serves its traditional role as a place where people come to buy, sell and bargain, it also is a big public space that serves as a centrepiece for the life of the community. So, there is a lot that one can do in terms of bootstrapping from where one is.  

The point you raise is a fundamental, perennial problem of politics. Think about Rawls’s arguments about the sense of justice – justice depends on the sense of allegiance to just institutions that you get if your life has developed under those institutions. However, when one is starting from very unjust conditions, where we feel a lack of agency and control, simply one can’t assume the sorts of attitudes that you hope would flourish under better conditions. Yet, at the same time, there are always things that can be done. Strategies of community wealth building have often taken very seriously the task of creating the public political culture that you need to then take that approach further. The hope is that there is a kind of snowball effect. You have to start from where you are, and with the particular institutions that you have in whatever locality you are in.  While this may be a long and difficult process, things are never completely bleak. Nearly everywhere, there are going to be some institutional preconditions for getting that kind of strategy off the ground.  

Sanat: I hadn’t considered that even religious institutions could contribute to community wealth building. One thing I have noticed throughout our conversation is that you have barely framed the community wealth building project in terms of distribution. You have rather talked about how community wealth building contributes to a democratic and egalitarian ethos. Would you say this vision aligns better with a relational egalitarian framework, than with a distributive paradigm? 

Martin: Certainly, when I think about community wealth building, the relational egalitarian idea of a society of equals is very important. Ideas such as relational egalitarianism may seem quite abstract when discussing in the seminar room. But it’s striking how much they underpin the motivations of political actors working on these issues, even if they do not explicitly talk about their projects in those terms. Having said that, I absolutely do not want to downplay the significance of distribution. Instead, I believe that the relational view of equality gives us a convincing underlying explanation of the significance of distribution. Community wealth building, through its focus on worker rights, trade unions etc., can in part be thought of as a project to create better relationships between employers and employees. An economy with a plurality of institutions and ownership types, in straightforwardly distributive terms, is going to be a more egalitarian economy. So, I don’t think there is an opposition here between distributive and relational egalitarian concerns.  

Sanat: Before we end, do you want to tell us if you have any ideas about where you’d like to dedicate most of your labour time over the next few years – Academia? Politics? Activism? Or perhaps supporting initiatives like Mondragon, Preston, local banks etc i.e. “Laboratories of Democracy” as you and Joe Guinan refer to them? 

Martin: I just hope to continue writing. The contribution we can make as philosophers is to try to think in a systematic way about values and principles, and to think about the range of institutional possibilities that are not getting enough public attention. Recently, I have done some work with my co-author in Sweden, Markus Furendal on the history of Swedish social democracy and the Meidner Plan [YouTube talk here]. I think of it as a fascinating ‘road not taken’ in the history of social democracy. It’s a great example of an institutional possibility that did not really get developed. I am glad that I’ve got an involvement with the Democracy Collaborative, an organisation with a more practical focus on policy and institutional development. I have been on their board for 3 years now and I have just signed up for another three. However, in terms of my particular contribution, I am hoping that can be in part through writing about neglected possibilities, in terms of what can be done in policy terms and about ideas that have fallen out of fashion.  

To end on perhaps something that’s a bit controversial – progressives and people on the left tend to coalesce around quite a narrow range of political possibilities. There are lots of interesting arguments for and against Basic Income. But it’s striking the amount of attention that one idea has got relative to the plethora of possible institutional innovations and economic policies that there might be. Consider some of the work I have done with Stuart White on wage earner funds, democratic wealth funds, or other forms of collective capital, or the possibilities of other kinds of democratic economic planning. One valuable contribution that we as academics can make is to keep in the background the broad array of different possibilities that remain open. 

Sanat: Thank you so much, Martin. This has been very enlightening!  

Martin: Thank you! It’s been a pleasure chatting with you. 

(Martin O’Neill is currently a Professor in Political Philosophy at the University of York)

Sanat Sogani

I am a doctoral candidate in Political Theory at the Central European University. My dissertation focuses on the normative relationship between jobs, social status and self-respect.



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