Tour for Economic
Corporate rule. Unaccountable control of
capital wealth. Poverty, unemployment and homelessness. Oppression.
Depression. Dictatorial regimes. Corruption. Chronic uncertainty.
Blackmail. Ecological destruction. War. These are just a few of the
more than frustrating yet largely accepted consequences of our
But not for very
forward-thinking regions around the globe like the Emilia Romagna in
northern Italy. And its economists are being
invited to BC to report on their activities and exchange ideas. From
June 23 to 27, two representatives of that region’s success will be
speaking in Vancouver as part of a tour sponsored by
the VanCity Capital Corporation and the BC Region of the Canadian
What’s so special about Emilia Romagna?
“Economic democracy,” says Professor Stefano Zamagni, a leading Italian
economist and Dean of Cooperative Studies at the University of Bologna,
the regional capitol of Emilia Romagna (also called the “reddest city
in Italy” for its strong labour and cooperative movements and its
unbroken electoral success of socialist representatives since free
elections were instituted in 1948). He, along with community economic
development and social service advocate John McKnight of Prince George, will be the featured speakers
of the tour.
The economy in the region of about four
million people consists mainly of cooperative, labour-sponsored and
employee-owned enterprises and self-employed artisans—or
“artigianati”—operating in decentralized yet democratically managed
cooperative networks. They account for
almost 40 per cent of the businesses in the region.
In addition, there are over 325,000 manufacturing
enterprises in the region, making it one of the densest industrial
zones in the world. Yet over 90 per cent of these firms have fewer than
50 workers. There are also over 8,000 worker cooperatives.
Furthermore, an estimated one in twelve
people are self-employed, one of the highest per capita rates in the
world. The entire local economy is focussed around long-term democratic
planning a community involvement in decision-making.
According to national government reports,
Emilia Romagna enjoys the highest Gross Domestic Product per capita,
and one of the highest living standards, in all of Europe, with
average wages doubling the national average and productivity and
unemployment rates that are among the best on the continent. The region
excels in exports of manufactured goods, especially machinery and high
according to Paul Ginsborg, Professor of Contemporary European History
at the University of Florence, outperforms the rest of the Italian
economy, which, in the last 20 years, itself has outperformed the rest
Italy is also known for its
well-established public services and crown corporations. But in the
1970s, Ginsborg says, a movement developed among socialists, labour and
community activists, many academics and citizens organizations that
expressed dissatisfaction with the country’s highly corporatized
structures—both private and public sectors—and set out to develop more
democratic and accountable ways of running local economies.
After an electoral sweep by a “left”
coalition in the 1974-75 elections, a huge restructuring project began
to transfer control of social services and economic development
projects to the country’s 20 administrative regions. This process
involved setting up community cooperative ventures to deliver health
and social services under the direction of locally elected councils.
National government funding, however, was not cut, and no services
regional governments are more familiar with regional realities and more
accessible to regional demands than the remote Roman ministries they
replaced,” says Princeton University Economics Researcher Robert
Putnam. “They provide multiple laboratories for policy innovation. They help to nurture or moderate a pragmatic,
tolerant style of policy making and conflict management.”
In Emilia Romagna, activists took the
regionalization process even further: to the private industrial sector.
Traditionally, local firms acted as suppliers to major corporations, a
situation that was not very prosperous for these businesses, the
workers in them and their community. This had to change.
Local governments began to organize
cooperative structures between all of the small firms, which were then
encouraged to pool their resources and expertise and develop new
marketing strategies to broaden their client base. A financial
cooperative, like a credit union, was set up to provide capital and
manage finances for these cooperative networks.
Within a matter of a few years, says Putnam,
the overall standard of living and community health had improved
drastically. That is economic democracy in action.
it be accomplished here in Canada, where economic democracy, the historic basis of
socialist economics, has been largely forgotten by the Left, hated and
feared by the Right, censored by the major media and dismissed as
idealistic by many business think tanks?
certainly is possible, according to VanCity Capital Corporation Chair
Bob Williams, who put together the tour.
“I have long been intrigued by the impact
that democratically based economic institutions can have on community,”
he said. The Capital Corporation is part of the VanCity Savings Credit
Union. As a former board member of VanCity, and veteran cooperative
movement activist, the former NDP cabinet minister in the Barrett
government sees a lot of potential for these types of business
activities in BC.