Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Pan-Am Games are coming! Help us build the social economy

Another world is more than possible. It's actual. 
[thanks  to TorontotheBetter's Marc Young for this submission] 

            International sporting events, like the July 2015 Pan-American Games in the GTA and Hamilton, are exciting for hosts and visitors alike. Not just opportunities to watch races and games, they offer everyone something of a cultural rush.
            This coming summer, thousands from the New World's South will head north, not to elude oppressive regimes or find a job in Canada's service sector but to have an innocent adventure – and enjoy a taste of a society not entirely foreign to them in this globalizing world but one that still offers contrasts and novelties. Panamanians, Brazilians, Paraguayans and others will come to see who we are... and take their impressions home.
                       So what impression do we want to give? At the Alliance for Toronto’s Social Economy, we don't reject the usual answer given by Ontario's city halls and tourism offices: that here visitors find a microcosm of the world, a place where citizens who trace their origins to all the globe's corners work in friendship and relative harmony. That is true and a fine feature of our communities. But we want to say something else too.
            It would be dishonest, even in times of celebration, to deny that all is not well. Citizens and workers throughout the Americas, from Toronto to Buenos Aires, still struggle with the effects of the global economic crisis that rocked us seven years ago and gave birth to movements like Occupy, an initiative by citizens acutely aware of how current practice tends to generate great wealth for some and hard times – even misery – for many. Unemployment remains high, especially among youth and other vulnerable sections of the population. Governments mortgaged to the hilt are reducing services while continuing to hand out corporate welfare. People are uneasy.
            Certainly, protest against injustice is honourable and necessary. But at the Alliance for a Social Economy, we don't just think that an alternative is possible, that one might emerge if citizens get  sufficiently angry about crony capitalism and policies designed in the boardrooms of TD Bank. We think that a better world is emerging right now. And we want to put that world, as it is taking shape in the Greater Toronto Area, on display for our friends flying up to see the Pan-Am Games in 2015.
Sketching the alternative
            What is this emergent world? We think it resides in that large and growing network of solidarity and opportunity offered by social enterprise. Worker cooperatives, credit unions, organic dairy farms, small businesses conscious of their ecological responsibility, non-profit companies ready to give their workers a meaningful say in how their businesses are run, churches and other faith communities that offer shelter and human warmth to those left behind and on the street – all these and more constitute social enterprise. Those building a new world in the shell of the old.
            We want to tell our friends from the South, when they visit, that Wal Mart and McDonald's aren't the only places to shop and eat. That they can buy clothing, enjoy fantastic meals, read, watch and be entertained in places and by businesses where the common good is taken into account. Where a dollar has to be made, to be sure, since there is no free lunch, but where the needs of employees, the neighbourhood and the Earth are all key.
            The Alliance also wants to stress our desire to make this “alternative” sector anything but unusual and exotic. Social enterprises cannot be a sector merely for the trendy affluent who can afford to indulge their progressive tastes. We understand that workers and poor people shop at big box stores because they live on budgets and need affordable things. Who would begrudge them that choice? But this reality leads to several thoughts. When we shop, do we become consumers only, or are we not still whole human beings who have to take into account the experience and needs of those who produce the goods and services we buy? Is the price of the thing we purchase the only consideration at work in our heads? Wal-Mart, a massive buyer of organic produce, knows for instance that this is not the case. That chain's owners are aware that while shoppers want decent prices, they pursue other ends too as they wheel a shopping cart through the aisles. Indeed, a Wal-Mart not only full of organic goods but also a place where workers were empowered would belong to the social economy, as we understand it!
            We see an expanding social economy, enterprises big and small, as a “new normal,” as part of a “lifestyle” for working families throughout the GTA and beyond. And one that we invite visitors to explore and experience.

            But the reader might still ask, “So what is a social enterprise?”  You have given a few examples but a definition is far from clear. What is the common characteristic of these businesses you consider social enterprises, and what excludes others from the group? And the truth is that there is no neat suit to fit all. We don't prepare a list of criteria all of which have to be met in order to place a firm in the category. What we begin with is a recognition that our economic system has developed in a certain direction, one in which large corporations have used a huge and active state to benefit their own shareholders and their own top managers to the detriment of the great majority of citizens. Meanwhile, that same state has become more corrupt than ever, with governing political parties handing lucrative jobs to their frequently under-talented friends. Think of the Ornge scandal, and the provincial lottery corporation, and the fashion in which top hospital executives are remunerated...even as personal care workers who look after the elderly and infirm earn wages not much in excess of the provincial minimum. What is the salary of the head of charitable, state-funded organizations like the YWCA? Remember the bailout of the big auto companies. What do their top executives take home, even as the province of Ontario retains shares in that sector?
            The Alliance sketches an alternative economy. Not a utopian one in which no one has to struggle or work, but one in which private gain, never eliminated as a factor in human activity, is less at odds with the common good. An economy of enterprises that address the environmental costs of their own activities, that don't dine at the public trough because their founder is the brother-in-law of a cabinet minister, that understand the importance of their own workers' voices. An economy that includes more employee-owned businesses as well as socially-funded agencies whose reason-for-being is the general good and not, even in part, big salaries for their managing directors. Cultural organizations run by volunteers. Sports clubs that don't charge the viewing public an arm and a leg to watch them and, while we're on the subject of sports, municipal agencies that ensure the maintenance of a decent network of parks and courts and pools so that all may continue to play and stay healthy. Sole proprietorships whose dynamism continues to hatch ideas and furnish jobs. Credit Unions where democratic pools of capital are gathered and invested.
A genuine populism

Our agenda is, in short, a democratic agenda that can steal the thunder from the so-called populists on the right who have taken advantage of people's frustration with the system in order to grab office. Torontonians, as well as anyone, know what can happen when political candidates come along merely saying that they're against the system, that they've arrived to clean out the fat cats – and turn out to be members of precisely that species. The Alliance is about promoting an approach that really offers a different direction, one already sketched by numerous enterprises functioning today. Architects of that other world that is not only possible, but actual.

Be part of the economic struggle: 

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