The Case For Community Wealth Building by Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill

The Blurb On The Back:

Our broken economic model drives inequality and disempowerment, lining the pockets of corporations while extracting wealth from local communities.

Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill argue for an approach that uses the power of democratic participation to drive equitable development and ensure that wealth is widely shared.  They show how this model – Community Wealth Building – can transform our economic system by creating a web of collaborative institutions, from worker cooperatives to community land trusts and public banks, that empower and enrich the many, not the few.

This book is essential reading for everyone interested in building more equal, inclusive, and democratic societies.

You can order The Case For Community Wealth Building by Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Joe Guinan is Vice President at The Democracy Collaborative and Executive Director of the Next System Project.  Martin O’Neill is Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy at York University.  This disappointing book chooses to sloganise against the evils of neo-liberalism and make sweeping assertions about the potential for Community Wealth Building rather than offer any detail to back those assertions up and thus fails to make the case for it.

I picked this up because I’d read a newspaper article about the Community Wealth Building model of investment being used in Preston, Lancashire and how it was bucking the trend of deserted high streets in the UK and I had also read a piece about how the same model was playing into Jeremy Corbyn’s policies ahead of the 2019 election, so I wanted to learn more about it.  I’d read a couple of other books in Polity’s ‘Case For’ series and been impressed with the way the authors set out their subjects and made their respective cases.  This book, unfortunately, fails to do that.

I came away from the book without any real idea of what Community Wealth Building involves.  There’s a lot of talk about how it strengthens local democracy and it involves anchoring institutions and using cooperatives to procure services but there is no real detail on what this actually involves, how it’s structured or how it achieves what it is supposed to achieve.  Instead the authors choose to spend a lot of time explaining why neo-liberalism is bad and destructive and while I didn’t disagree with any of the points they make about it, none of it explained why Community Wealth Building was a viable alternative.  Part of the problem is that the authors do not set out what’s been done in Preston or how it’s been achieved and that, to me, seemed like a pretty big omission.

I was unconvinced by the discussion of outsourcing.  The authors argue for the use of cooperatives to provide local services rather than large, corporate outsourcing companies and make some comments about how any increase in costs that this involves is better for the local economy.  I wanted to know why outsourcing to a cooperative was better than keeping services in-house and why keeping services in-house couldn’t achieve the same results as it seemed an obvious point but it just doesn’t come up.  This is especially the case when the authors talk about improving service performance and training because having worked in outsourcing, I know that this cannot be legislated for in a contract and that keeping services in-house can give more control if this is important.  

I was also left unsure by what the authors meant by anchor institutions and how that would work in the UK where institutions like universities and hospitals are not under the economic or political control of local authorities.  I also wanted to know how local control worked under the national system and how national politics could empower it and make it successful.

Part of the issue as well is that the authors tie Community Wealth Building so closely with Corbyn and that has unfortunately not aged well in the circumstances.  This isn’t the fault of the authors – it’s just the way the publication schedule ran against the fast-moving political events of 2019 – but it does give the book a dated feel to it, which is a real shame because we’re in a world now where we do need credible alternatives to the current system because it demonstrably isn’t working.  Unfortunately, this book failed to do that.  

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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