September’s ‘New Economies’ gathering, hosted by Partners for a New Economy in Rotterdam, was a welcome opportunity to catch up on latest developments across a movement focused on shifting our “economic priorities beyond expansions of profit and wealth towards human wellbeing and ecological protection.” As ever, it is difficult to summarise the full range of topics and subjects that came up across the day, but as suggested by the event’s official theme, many explored how we can move the ideas and approaches of this movement ‘from the margins to the mainstream’.

In particular, the most significant challenge identified across the event was reaching a wider audience for our work, and engaging them more deeply. Katherine Trebeck’s opening keynote stressed the importance of these efforts, and the following panel discussion centred on exploring how to build a ‘bigger tent’. Many useful approaches and innovations were suggested across these and other sessions, and undoubtedly pursuing the ambition of securing broad support from a social majority should be an urgent priority.

However, not unusual in deliberations on this challenge, the historical context that makes efforts like these so difficult was unfortunately missing from the conversation. What does this suggest about how we can genuinely build greater power and influence for our ideas for the long term?

A key pillar that unites the sometimes diffuse new economy movement is a recognition of the damaging effects of neoliberalism, and a resulting desire to develop new models and projects with very different principles. In doing so however, we must recognise that among the many consequences of this ideological domination, a particularly important outcome is the hollowing out democratic institutions throughout our society – including the arena of social change.

This trend has been most obviously apparent in our party political systems, where platforms that once represented distinct class interests and ideological positions, have increasingly converged into a vacuous and destructive battle over a narrowly defined centre ground. In part, this can be seen as the result of the changing nature of demographics and social class over recent decades, but it can also be rightly located within a wider decline of intermediary political and civil institutions at every level.

For more than a generation, and across economies and societies, membership associations with deep roots across our communities, and clear lines of democratic accountability to their publics, have been systematically replaced with professionalised staff driven NGOs and consultancy bodies, performing advocacy on behalf of passive beneficiaries. This ‘advocacy explosion’ has not only left civic life reliant on hired experts, but has also undercut the foundations of any attempts to build power around alternative propositions outside the political mainstream.

Instead of engaging people in collective efforts to build democratic power and act in their own interests, many large organisations in the ‘Third Sector’ now only ask citizens to participate in social change as occasional donors or signatories to single issue, reactive campaigns, reinforcing the idea that politics is only legitimate when electoral, and contributing to widespread political alienation, reflected in increased anger, disillusionment, and distrust.

Alongside this, numerous Think Tanks and research bodies offer technocratic techniques drawn from modern politics via corporate marketing, in which the public are segmented via behavioural and demographic characteristics, before being targeted for polling and ‘public attitudes testing’, their democratic participation reduced to a competitive market of consumer choices.

Taken together, these connected trends play a major part in the dissatisfaction with modern politics that has driven the rise of populism in recent decades. But more proximately, they also create a situation where it is increasingly difficult to build the lasting coalitions of political power outside of the mainstream that are necessary to achieve ‘new economies’, as the stable and legitimate bedrock of democratic institutions is instead an ever-shifting flux of ‘public opinion’ and the ‘will of the people’.

Efforts exist, of course, that attempt to push back against this, and create new forms of democratic participation and deliberation. But too often, as in case of Citizens Assemblies, they are episodic and ephemeral, rather than building lasting institutions and coalitions of collective power, or as in the case of many technological solutions, only reinforce the individualist and consumerist assumptions behind the political alienation from which they stem.

If the ‘new economy’ movement is to become a political force capable of achieving its ambitions, and not only addressing but transforming the polycrises in climate, technology, and the economy, it needs to take on this question of rebuilding these democratic institutions across society.

Undoubtedly, this is no easy task, and it will require significant contributions from different actors and entities, including those that do not currently identify with ‘new economies’. More deliberation, discussion, and debate is needed on what approaches and investments will be most effective in moving forward. By continuing to invest in convening the movement of new economic change, and consulting it on the best direction to take, Partners for a New Economy are playing their own part in showing the way.

For our own part, in the work we do at Stir to Action, our concern with the trend described here is a key driver for our focus on the role of democratic ownership and governance as crucial to developing lasting solutions to major social challenges such as inequality and climate change. This is reflected, for instance, in our soon to be launched Centre for Democratic Business, and our range of other work with institutions, including membership bodies, NGOs, and associations, to (re)democratise their structures and processes.

We are though only one organisation, and it’s an area of work that will need broad collaboration at many levels, from the wider sector of funders, organisations and individuals, to reinstate the most effective basis of collective action and social change. Fortunately, in the movement for new economies, there exists the basis for a coalition that has the capability to take on this challenge and succeed.

Jonathan Gordon-Farleigh, Stir to Action

Jonathan Gordon-Farleigh, Director, Stir to Action attended P4NE’s 2023 Gathering in Rotterdam. Stir to Action is a national co-operative infrastructure body that focuses on strategic economic development projects, bridging the gap between policy and practice, and ensuring the future new economy is more diverse and representative.

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