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Next Steps

Clearly, enormous challenges remain. Building institutions of community and worker ownership is critical to create a stable economic base that allows for a sustainable economy to emerge. But to be effective, this economic institution building must be linked to a political strategy—so that growing economic power translates into effective political power.

There are four key factors at work. First, unless new ways to generate public revenues are found, transition funding—both nationally and locally— will continue to be limited. Second, a serious strategy must put forward a positive, coherent, integrated community-building plan to develop the local economy, create jobs, and build a tax base that can finance existing services and generate new revenues without unduly burdening workingclass taxpayers. On the other hand, as we have just seen, practical precedents for the elements needed are now available. And politically, a positive plan can help unite key constituencies, such as community activists and unions, around a common agenda.

The specifics, of course, will differ by community. But what is needed is a longer-range strategic understanding. One cornerstone would be to build upon existing precedents in the ownership of land and worker-owned enterprises to promote locally anchored jobs and investment. Many tools can be employed to support this strategy, such as leveraging local government procurement (and encouraging university and hospital participation) to buy more goods and services locally, especially by supporting the development of worker/community-owned and anchored businesses.

The fact that these initiatives are based in local, everyday experience offers possibilities for long-term changes in the foundations of political and democratic cultural development over time. The economic security of individuals is essential to building political support for a sustained green transition. If low-income and minority constituencies fail to embrace the green economy, politicians will continue to place other priorities higher.

Related to this is that local economic stability is a prerequisite for a sense of community and—critically—for durable democratic decision making. Without such stability, the local population is tossed hither and yon by uncontrolled economic forces that undermine any serious interest in the long-term health of the community. And to the extent that local budgets are thereby heavily stressed, local community decision making is so financially constrained as to make a mockery of democratic processes.

The ultimate goal of these strategies is to undermine and eventually replace the destructive “grow or die” imperative inherent in the current market-driven system. To do so, it is necessary to confront the systemic dynamics that promote a continued focus on growth. Former presidential adviser James Gustave Speth has bluntly observed that “for the most part, we have worked within this current system of political economy, but working within the system will not succeed in the end when what is needed is transformative change in the system itself.”

The local, foundational development of new, democratized ownership forms is critical because, in many ways, these are the beginning points for larger ongoing strategies. Ultimately, however, a longer-term systemic approach would have to apply similar principles to municipal, state, regional, and national level institutions. In the United States, many of the most important innovations of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal were merely scaled-up applications of principles that had been developed in projects undertaken in the state and local “laboratories of democracy” during the prior decades. As the current economic and ecological crisis deepens, a similar process may project local learning into ever-larger spheres of impact.

The most likely next stage areas for larger-scale democratization in the United States are banking (where future crises are predicted by many experts, and interest in public banking such as that of North Dakota has been building at the state level) and health care (where the current private system consumes almost twice the share of GDP as in many advanced systems elsewhere—with far worse outcome results). There are also likely to be challenges in systemically critical industries. The United States nationalized the General Motors Company during the last crisis, only to sell it back to private investors once the taxpayer had accepted the burden of change. In future crises, different outcomes may well become possible if a prior buildup of ideas of democratization has occurred at the local level.

Taken together, the various emerging strategies suggest a long, slow developmental arc that is gradually gaining momentum in the wake of the failure of conventional politics and economics. The path to building a truly democratic economy may be long, but the growing base of community wealth building institutions provides many building blocks that, over time, suggest the quiet, foundation-laying development of the basis for a sustainable, and community-sustaining, economy.

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