May 7, 2024

Gathering the family of alternatives for post-neoliberal cities

Author: Matt Thompson

In the long wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, as ‘zombie neoliberalism’ loses its grip on political imaginations, proliferating progressive ‘post-neoliberal’ discourses are seizing the opportunity to reshape urban-economic imaginaries. We now have the pleasure of trying to make sense of a bewildering array of alternative economic models and policy brands, from the more mainstream to the more transformative, from nation-state-oriented agendas to city-shaped visions. These include inclusive growth, mission economywellbeing economy, caring economy, foundational economy, and community wealth building, alongside doughnut economics, circular economy and degrowth, as well as post-growth cities and the tentative rediscovery of democratic economic planning through municipalism. They join more established movements for the urban commons and commoning, community and diverse economies, and the social and solidarity economy.

Such approaches point towards a post-neoliberal, if not post-capitalist, economy that goes ‘beyond GDP’ and other abstract metrics of productivity, innovation, competitivity and growth. Instead, they value wellbeing, liveability, democracy, cooperation, sufficiency and adaptability. They seek to challenge neoliberal dogmas for competitive markets, outsourced public services, private ownership of the economy, shareholder value, and technocratic state managerialism. The more transformative discourses advocate for public and common ownership through remunicipalisation, democratisation and public-common partnerships – refocusing economic policy away from financial speculation, extractive rentierism and exploitative export industries and towards essential services and place-based infrastructures that underpin socio-ecological flourishing beyond capitalism’s exponential growth logics.

As such discourses circulate amongst policymakers between cities and regions, their recombination as more composite, holistic policy agendas is beginning to strengthen their potential to effect change. This requires of us, as scholars following these policies, to make sense of this transformative potential – an emerging agenda sketched out in what follows. Are these ‘post-neoliberal’, ‘post-capitalist’ or ‘post-growth’ approaches – or all three at once? Are these to be interpreted and implemented as stand-alone packages, with their own fully worked out theory of change, between which changemakers must choose? Or are each of these more like members of a school or family whose coordination as a team might, with the right political and institutional conditions, transform the art of the possible?

Change the world, start with the city!

Answers to such questions might be found in Amsterdam, where a left-green municipalist city government is experimenting with doughnut economics, the circular economy and community wealth building. Amsterdam committed in 2020 to becoming the world’s first ‘doughnut city’, pioneering the application of Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics, based on the prior adoption of circular economy thinking. Countless groups are experimenting with commons-based alternatives to capitalism, many organised as the Commons Network. Policy innovators are now co-producing ‘masterplans’ based on community wealth building principles in the city’s three most deprived districts, attempting to socialise the emergent circular economy by localising financial flows – for ‘circular money’ – and inviting community wealth building experts from the US to advise on programme designs.

In 2019, the City’s coalition government led by the GreenLeft launched a Fearless Cities programme, named after the international network representing the new municipalist movement. This aimed to empower urban social movements to drive transformative change across Amsterdam in the radically democratic spirit of municipalism. A dedicated Fearless Cities team was set up as a quasi-municipal department with public resources to catalyse and support this change. The team used some of its funding to write and publish, in May 2022, a ‘one-off municipalist magazine’ – entitled Change the World, Start with the City – designed to collate and showcase the latest post-neoliberal thinking in Amsterdam and beyond, and show how it might be more systematically developed by activist networks, the municipality, and its partners.

Described as “schools of thought of the social economy” – or, simply, “the family” – the Municipalist Magazine lists the following loosely-related approaches as close-knit members of this clan: the social and solidarity economy, caring economy or feminist economics, degrowth, commons and commoning, wellbeing economy, and doughnut economics. In the following pages, two dedicated sections introduce community wealth building and the foundational economy, in a section titled “the essential city”, as frameworks and policy agendas that progress the fortunes of ‘the family’. Municipalism is introduced up front as the overarching framing for the programme. The circular economy is mentioned towards the end. What’s extraordinary about all this – aside from the fact that it’s an implicitly anti-capitalist proposal produced by a local government department using public resources, in a global capitalist city – is that it presents all these diverse though related approaches as part of the same holistic agenda.

So how do all these different family members relate to one another? And what’s their ancestry and heredity? First, it’s interesting to note which discourses are promulgated as policy models by dedicated consultancies with their own material interests in branding and market-making and which, alternatively, are coordinated through a more distributed, networked, democratic and movement-driven form of organisation outside the market. In the former camp we have doughnut economics, promoted by Doughnut Economy Action Lab (DEAL); community wealth building, devised and developed by The Democracy Collaborative and Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES); and even the foundational economy, emerging out of academic networks led by the Foundational Economy Collective and now supported by the consultancy Foundational Economy Research Ltd (FERL). 

All these policy brands have emerged as alternative imaginaries in the wake of post-2008 austerity to unsettle of the neoliberal settlement. Doughnut economics was first formulated in its progenitor’s 2017 book; the foundational economy as a ‘manifesto’ in a 2013 working paper. The Democracy Collaborative claims to have first defined community wealth building as early as 2005; rising to prominence in the Cleveland model from 2008 and in the Preston model from 2011. By contrast, movements like the social and solidarity economy and the commons emerged out of the 1990s alter-globalisation resistances, from the 1994 Zapatista Uprising to the 1999 Battle of Seattle, building in strength through the 2000s, then gaining traction after 2008. Degrowth and municipalism are more recent movements similarly evolving out of globally distributed activist struggles, organising into transnational networks rather than cohering around specific organisations or thinkers.

Guerrilla economists united in hegemonic struggle?

For all their ideological interests in working together, such consultancies have skin in the game of competing to sell their brands as commodities in an emerging market of fast policy ideas. However, they can also be understood in a Gramscian sense, as a unified hegemonic project undertaken by ‘guerrilla economists’ and ‘activist state-workers’ waging a war of position. On this reading, the so-called ‘family’ of post-neoliberal policy alternatives emerging in Amsterdam and beyond – notably Barcelona – takes shape as a more-or-less coherent and concerted inter-urban strategy, aiming to shift the coordinates of the possible in policymaking and public common sense. This shape becomes clearer if we take a more methodological view of each approach as fulfilling a specific functional role, as successive stages, within an overall theory of change. Following a similar manoeuvre made for deconstructing JK Gibson-Graham’s community economies approach, we can break this down into three moments – ontological, ethical, political.

The first, ontological moment – of describing what the economy is actually made of, beyond its representation within capitalism – is fulfilled by the foundational economy approach. Much like Gibson-Graham’s iceberg image illustrating the diversity of economic practices that provide an anchoring weight but remain invisible under the waters of capitalism, the foundational economy highlights the fundamental, foundational role played by mundane, everyday, overlooked and essential goods, services and infrastructures in creating capitalist value and maintaining the functioning of societies and ecologies. Foundational economic thinking argues for greater attention in public policy and industrial strategy on overlooked activities that sustain livelihoods, enhance collective wellbeing and produce social and ecological value, over those that chase abstract, elusive, zero-sum, self-sabotaging and ecocidal gains in productivity, innovation and GDP or GVA growth. Ultimately, foundational thinking demystifies the fetishized abstractions of capitalocentric economics and reveals the underlying social ground of the economy – that is, liveability, to live well, or buen vivir.

The second, ethical moment is represented by doughnut economics. This asserts a powerful moral vision for how we should organise our economies so we don’t overshoot planetary boundaries or destroy the ecological conditions of our existence – as a matter of ecological justice – nor fall short of providing the bare necessities for human survival and flourishing. The doughnut sets out in stark visual terms the ethical coordinates of an equitable and just economic system; beyond the inner and outer rings of the doughnut lies moral hazard, harm, death and destruction. The appeal made by doughnut economics is not ontological or epistemological so much as normative and moral. It provides the roadmap for guiding policy decisions towards ethical ends. Such a role is clear in the way it’s rolled out by DEAL as a framework for various city administrations and neighbourhood groups, not least the Amsterdam Doughnut Coalition, with the use of ‘city portraits’. City portraits are a mapping methodology for measuring a place’s overshoot in relation to social floors and ecological ceilings – a public education tool, a provocation for politicians to commit to action, and a guide for policymakers in redirecting resources. This is a roadmap for guiding policy towards ethical decisions, not a toolkit for achieving those ends.

That toolkit comes in the form of community wealth building, which provides the practical tools for the third, political moment. It includes many of the very same institutional designs developed by the solidarity economy and commons movements, such as worker-owned co-ops, community land trusts, community banks and local currencies or time banks. Indeed, The Democracy Collaborative coined the term in a concerted strategic attempt to gather together under one rubric the countless experiments in community ownership of production, reproduction and exchange proliferating across the US in the 2000s. They sought to amplify their impact and accelerate their development through their integration with policy measures at the urban and regional scales, notably progressive procurement amongst anchor institutions channelling contracts into solidarity economy and cooperative organisations, as well as more traditional municipal reforms such as instituting minimum living wages.

In sum, then, if the foundational economy tells us what the economy really amounts to, and doughnut economics guides us towards realising that substantive economy, founded in ecology and society, then community wealth building gives us the tools for getting us there. Taken together, their value lies not in being mobilised in different places as competing policy brands or standalone models, but rather as complementary component parts of an overarching hegemonic project aimed at moving us beyond neoliberal capitalism. Whilst getting the family together around the same table might be easier said than done, it’s exciting to see how insurgent policy agents in cities such as Barcelona and Amsterdam are beginning to give it a go.