The Making of a Democratic Economy: Building Prosperity for the Many, Not Just the Few

By Marjorie Kelly and Ted Howard. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2019. 192 pages. $26.95/hardcover or eBook.

Many people would rather read just about anything than a book with the word “economy” in its title. I understand the hesitation—economics treatises can be deadly—but I urge you to do yourself a favor and give this slim volume a try. I found it to be a delight from beginning to end, a real breath of fresh air.

The authors start with the premise that the core functioning of the economy can be designed to serve the common good. The principles they see as central are: community, inclusion, place, good work, democratic ownership, sustainability, and ethical finance. They hold that a democratic economy is a maturation of both progressive and conservative ways of understanding the world, and that economic rights and economic democracy are natural partners to political rights and political democracy. A step beyond state socialism and corporate capitalism, the deep moral structure at the core of this new economy can provide a compass in difficult times.

They frame their argument briefly and cogently, then spend most of their time leading a far-ranging and invigorating tour through seven real-life communities that are reimagining some aspect of their economic life. We get to visit a Lakota community wealth building project on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and learn how an economic development initiative in Portland, Ore., is incubating equality. We are introduced to the Cooperative Home Care Associates of New York City, a worker co-op that employs over 2,000 people. We get a tour of a pathbreaking project in the Rust Belt city of Cleveland, where anchor institutions like universities and hospitals are sourcing supplies and services locally through new worker-owned businesses. We learn how a for-profit business can transition to an employee-owned benefit corporation, and how the Federal Reserve’s power can be harnessed to finance ecological transition. Finally, we cross the ocean to Preston, England, where a dogged council person, inspired by the Cleveland model, has transformed how his hollowed-out city manages its assets, in a way that is building local wealth and creating ripples across England and beyond.

These examples highlight the core problem the authors see in the design of our current extractive economy, its “bias toward capital,” which lies behind today’s multiplying crises and works against the well-being of most people. With conditions that favor finance and wealth-holders, work and workers are degraded. Human beings and the earth became commodities—labor and land—with a focus on extraction of value with no obligation to protect.

Kelly and Howard see the economic disenfranchisement of workers as parallel to the political disenfranchisement of women and Black people. While people with tenuous and transient shares become owners, those who produce the wealth are dispossessed. They envision what it would take for owners to become moral agents again. By bringing them back to stand inside a company, doing the daily work and committed to a common social or environmental mission, the nature of the firm can be transformed from object to community. I hear the echoes of old Quaker business practice here.

I love the authors’ insistence on the importance of imagination. They talk about the critical need, when old institutions and old ways are creating crises, for “imaginative excellence” and a sweeping, new vision. While sharply critical of our current economic design, they see the core problem as lying in our shared social agreement about the nature of reality. To escape from the grip of the long arm of finance and extraction, they quote Donella Meadows in saying, we have to start with our minds: “There’s nothing physical or expensive or even slow about paradigm change. In a single individual it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the mind, a new way of seeing.”

This book—hopeful, invigorating, and based in reality—can bring about such a paradigm shift. Read it to be reminded of what is right and what is already happening. Share it with friends to invite them into wider circles of possibility. Bring it to your favorite alternative economic institution for its bracing perspective and wide cast of players. Share it with your local elected officials who are hungry for new ideas of what can work for the people they are trying to serve. Just don’t let this wonderful resource go to waste.

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