Ethical and practical steps to community economies


Liisa Horelli, Aalto University. Liisa is working with the commoning of gendered urban planning within a network of female planners in Europe.

Reframing the economy as a space for ethical action and decision-making is the compelling argument that J.K. Gibson-Graham and her team make at the beginning of their book Taking Back the Economy, an ethical guide for transforming our communities. Their aim is to direct people´s activities toward a more sustainable, equitable and just economy.

Economy is not seen in the traditional way as a machine to be obeyed, but as a set of diverse day-to-day processes and practices, which can be modified and consequently changed. Economy is described, like Hazel Henderson´s layered cake in the 1980´s, as an iceberg. It comprises, above the waterline, mainstream economic accounts that are visible, such as wage labour producing for a market in a capitalist firm. Below the waterline are a variety of activities that are indispensable for our daily life and well-being, such as participating in unpaid community activities or taking care of children and the household. The iceberg, besides being the symbol of diverse economies and its varying characteristics, can be used as a tool for making an inventory of the diverse economic activities that exist in the community or region.

The ethics of community economy is tied to the core questions: How do we survive well? How do we distribute surplus? How do we encounter others as we seek to survive well? What do we consume? How do we care for our commons? And, how do we invest for the future? The answer is that it is urgent to take back work, business, markets, property and finance. Each theme has been dealt with in a specific chapter with a systematic methodology, by first defining and describing the problem in context, after which tools for solutions are provided with examples from different parts of the world.

Taking back the work, surviving well

Work is what we do for a living. Thus, the key concern for community economy is to survive well individually, collectively and in terms of the planet. The authors argue that a mix of Paid work, Alternatively paid (self-employed, cooperative, in-kind) and Unpaid work can enhance the attainment of balanced well-being. The different types of well-being – material, occupational, social, community and physical – can be monitored and analyzed by a variety of tools. For example, the 24-hour clock, the well-being score-card or the balance scale indicate the proportion of time that is spent on different activities (paid work, recreation, volunteering, care etc.), with varying degrees of satisfaction. Decisions can then be made, whether to increase or decrease work or to downshift it. In addition, individual and national ecological footprints enable the monitoring of the impact of work on the planet.

Take back the business, distributing surplus

Business is about problem-solving at a profit. Businesses are organizations in which goods and services are produced and exchanged. Because many businesses cause global inequity and the new wealth is not geared towards planetary well-being, the community economy has an eye on who makes decisions about the production and distribution of the wealth. The key concern is the survival – surplus (left over, etra) nexus. How is surplus produced, who owns it and who decides how it can be used for the benefit of people and the planet? These questions can be analyzed by special tools. A prime example is the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation (MCC), which is a network of worker–owned coops in Spain, with an annual increase in job creation and educational programs.

The tools for taking back the business involve the encouragement of a wide range of enterprise types, especially those that enhance the collective and environmental well-being. In addition to the Capitalist firm, there are Alternative capitalist (socially responsible and green firms, state-run enterprises) and Noncapitalist ones (cooperatives, social enterprises, self-employed business). The surplus can be claimed as private, collective or social wealth. For example, the Homebody Industries in Los Angeles, whose core business is “gang rehab”, is producing social wealth which is composed of surplus value (keeping the youngsters out of misfit, even jail) and social surplus (services for young people). The authors list several collective actions how to distribute surplus, such as participatory forms of enterprize, worker-owned coops, ethical negotiations within capitalism, collective support for the self-employed etc.

Take back the market, encountering others

Markets are seen as the ideal system for coordinating complex transactions between producers and consumers. However, the price does not tell us about the working conditions of, for example, the children or adolescents involved in the production. The markets are just one way to connect with others to obtain things that we cannot produce ourselves. Therefore, it is a key concern for community economy to encounter (distant) others in the process of surviving well together on this earth. This means that ethics cannot be erased from the market.

The authors provide many tools, such as the Ethical shopper´s checklist, for the analysis of the transactions, which disclose the cost, utility, sensory response and connections with people and the planet. There are a variety of ways to transact goods and services, such as the Capitalist market, Alternative markets (fair and direct trade, reciprocal exchange, alternative currency, local trading systems etc.) and Nonmarkets (household flows, gift giving, gleaning etc.). Markets in which the well-being of others have been built in the encounter, can be supported by fair-trade networks, local campaigns, ethical consumer guides, coops and by bringing gleaning to the 21st century.

Take back property, commoning

Property refers to all the things we own and use in order to survive well. Private property is seen as the founding stone of democracies, as well as that of economy. Although private property provides a sense of security, it also means exclusion, by keeping people out. Thus, the authors describe diverse types of properties that comprise Private, Alternative private (state-owned, tenanted, customary, community-managed) and Open access property (atmosphere, water, ocean, ecosystem services).

The key concern of community economy deals with the commons, which cut across the different types of properties. A commons is a property, a practice or a knowledge that is shared by a community. Our survival depends on different kinds of commons: biophysical (sun light, air, rocks), cultural (language, religion, art), social (health, education, administration) and knowledge (indigenous, scientific, technological). Consequently, without a commons, there is no community and vice versa. This means that a loss of commons is a loss of community and consequent well-being, like the shutting of a village school.

The management of the commons requires that access to property must be widely shared, its use negotiated by a community, its benefits distributed to the community and beyond, and the care and responsibility for the property performed by the community members. The tools comprise identity kits that help to analyze the characteristics of different kinds of commons which enhance the individual and collective management and the practice of commoning (producing and reproducing resources) with an ethic of care. Commoning can take place with any type of property. The tragedy of the commons (Hardin,1968), such as the declining atmosphere, is an example of a globally unmanaged commons. The Commons yardstick helps to imagine and connect with seven generations forward, for example in the case of the Creative commons, open-source software Linux. Other tools for commoning comprise protecting open and accessible spaces in urban areas, human genes, new frontiers in space, commoning abandoned private land, collective private housing, as ell as natural and intellectual resources.

Take back finance. Investing in futures.

The term finance variously refers to money, savings, investment, taxation, risk management and financial instruments. The sector operates more like a giant casino than the society´s guardian of wealth. Therefore, the finance has to be reclaimed as an enabler of futures, not as an end in itself. Investing in futures means taking action now so that the descendants can survive as well or better than we. There are many forms of investments, not just money, in community economy. The diverse finances comprise, in addition to Mainstream market finance, Alternative market finance (state banks, credit unions, microfinance, friendly societies, community-based financial institutions, crowdfunding) and Nonmarket finance (sweat equity, community-supported business, rotating credit funds, family lending, donations, interest-free loans).

In community economy, the monetary and nonmonetary investments are both transparent and directed toward a better and more sustainable future. Investment stocktaking is a key concern. The pertinent question are: how is the wealth pooled, safeguarded and dispersed to worthwhile ends, and what is the social return that can be shared in a transparent and ethical manner. The tools comprise a method to tap the social return on investment (SROI) and even a CEROI, Community economy return on investment. Thus, the “growth” can be targeted at vital commons and ethical exchange relations that ensure quality of life. The CEROI can be seen as increased well-being, smaller ecological footprints, augmented ethical trade and as an expansion of the commons. Additional tools are Do-it-yourself finance, supporting community finance institutions, promoting ethical investments and redirecting government revenues toward life-sustaining activities.


The authors have painted an interesting picture with concrete examples of what is ment by the economy as a space of negotiated interdependence around everyday life practices. Although the authors do not define diverse economies as part of the broad class of sharing economy, their examples, such as the Mondragon coop, which emerge as spaces of opportunities and hope, represent participatory, peer-to-peer, civic and solidarity economies. Nevertheless, the book lacks a final chapter that would tie the different themes together from the perspective of the local community. There is no account of how the chosen themes together contribute to the transforming of our communities (cf. the subtitle of the book). In addition to economic activities, community development requires dealing with other structural issues that are the substance of expanded urban planning. This does not mean that planners, developers, activists and gender researchers would not benefit from the book, on the contrary, its message about diverse economies as a source of possibilities and hope is seminal. It is urgent that the themes of ´Taking back the economy` will be studied from a holistic perspective in different local communities, all over the world. This will hopefully lead to a new book.

Gibson-Graham, J.K. , Cameron, J. & Healy, S. (2013)Take back the economy. An ethical guide for transforming our communities. London: University of Minneapolis Press.



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