Manifesto for our Time
Mary Tasker celebrates a new model of sustainable society. Common Wealth: For a Free, Equal, Mutual and Sustainable Society by Martin Large. Hawthorn Press, 2010. ISBN: 9781903458983
“Without vision the people perish.” Martin Large has used this old biblical saying at the start of this revolutionary book. His vision is of a free and democratic society that works for everyone and guarantees the chance of a good life for all and he also quotes John Ruskin, who, along with John Stuart Mill, Gandhi, Rudolf Steiner and Karl Polanyi, has shaped his thinking.
“There is no wealth but life,” says Ruskin in Unto This Last (1862), and one of the themes of this book is that for many people life has been stripped of meaning as ‘wealth’ is no longer seen in terms of wellbeing and the common good but in terms of the acquisition of material wealth. To restore the old notion of the ‘common weal’ both locally and globally, Large proposes a remaking of society and argues that the values of freedom, equality, mutuality and sustainability should underpin this remaking.
How have we come to the point where the values and language of the market have encroached on every area of our social lives? How can we talk about children in schools and patients in hospitals as customers and consumers? Large describes how ‘capitalism unleashed’ has captured the state and appears to hold out the message that there is no alternative. The brilliant coup executed by neo-liberalism – the doctrine of the free market as expressed by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman at the founding of the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947 – was to conflate cultural freedoms such as freedom of conscience and of speech with the values of the free market such as competition and self-interest. In this way the very concept of freedom was hijacked for capitalism.
As the dominance of global corporations grew in the 1980s, so the boundaries between government, business and civil society blurred. The encroachment of corporate capitalism into fields hitherto associated with civil society – education, health, scientific research, childhood and the media – has led to what Large describes as “the enclosure of our intellectual and genetic commons”. This process was made possible in 1995 by the GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services), an instrument of the World Trade Organization formed as part of the new world order of corporate globalisation. By signing up to this agreement, Britain opened up its social welfare services – its common weal – to privatisation and to the commodification of cultural life.
We are now seeing the collapse of this system, but, in order to avoid going down the same road again, it is important to know how the free market worked. Large spells this out, but what does he offer to replace it?
A major part of the book is concerned with separating out the boundaries between business, government and civil society to ensure a healthy balance between the three. Large calls this the move from the neo-liberal to the tripolar society. He defines four transformative entry points needed to rebuild society; these are to do with capital, land, labour and education.
He proposes a Commons Capital Trust, which would receive, acquire, hold and invest capital for “enduring economic, cultural and social benefit”, a Citizen’s Income as an unconditional basic income (Citizen’s Incomes are currently being considered in South Africa, New Zealand, Canada and Germany), and Community Land Trusts, which passed into law in the 2008 Housing and Regeneration Act. These are now being set up in villages and towns across Britain as a means of providing affordable homes.
Education is the fourth transformative point. Quoting Einstein’s maxim that we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking used to create them, Large sees the reforming of education as an essential part of changing the way we view the world and ourselves. The effect of market thinking on schools and children has been crippling, and schools need to be freed up so that well-researched good practice can emerge.
This is a fascinating book combining deep theoretical understanding with the evidence gained from personal involvement in community projects across the country and abroad. It is truly a manifesto for our time.