Are Common Wealth Trusts the way forward for a sustainable and equitable future?

STEPS co-director Andy Stirling responds to a recent article on the Great Transition Initiative website by Peter Barnes, which makes the case for Common Wealth Trusts as a way of reducing the inequality and destruction of nature that result from contemporary capitalism, while keeping the benefits that markets provide.

Peter Barnes is absolutely right to be concerned about how easily existing entrenched interests and power concentrations can lead to what he calls “plutocracy” to subvert the political institutions of “democracy”.

But no matter how sincerely proposed, it is precarious to invoke “future generations” who cannot speak for themselves. This is all the more so because such interests are surely both plural and representable in diverse ways. They hold no single self-evident homogenous implication for current politics.

No contemporary cause holds a monopoly in its ability to play this card. The more powerful the current interest and the greater the unquestioned discursive authority, the more easily it can shape this kind of “future generations” discourse. Unless seriously augmented in some way, the idea therefore threatens to concede exactly the kind of rhetorical trump card used repeatedly by incumbents to perform the regressive legitimations Barnes mentions.

What is worrying for me in Barnes’s current formulation, then, is that there is no mention at all of any substantive provisions for directly resisting these many kinds of power dynamics. The question is, how can traction be reinforced around contemporary political representations, accountabilities and capabilities—especially involving the marginalized people whose interests are being appropriated in justifying Common Wealth Trusts?

Without serious attention to these current democratic values and qualities, I fear the progressive potential of this kind of initiative may be even more easily undermined than is already occurring in other areas of politics. Grassroots collective action is not something to be co-ordinated downwards in orderly ways from lofty global heights. Rather than building major new vertical institutional structures, genuinely progressive energies are better channeled into prizing open space for unruly horizontal mobilization, strong upward representation and explicit contemporary accountabilities – renewing (rather than threatening to substitute) continuing democratic struggle.

The only way an initiative of this kind could be truly progressive in the fashion so inspirationally envisaged, then, is if the power relations that give it birth and sustain it are as equal as the resource distributions it professes to oversee. Otherwise, the creative potential for doublespeak could turn Common Wealth Trusts from being part of a possible solution into a massively deeper further problem – all the more pernicious for the superficially enlightened rhetoric.

Here as elsewhere in this field, I think there needs to be whole lot more attention on how to strengthen progressive democratic struggle, rather than seeking shortcuts to “hack capitalism”— no matter how sincerely, eloquently or cleverly conceived.

This article first appeared on the Great Transition Initiative website and is reproduced under a Creative Commons (attribution) licence.

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