Published: 4th Jul 2016
The Govanhill economy as an iceberg

Revealing the ‘iceberg economy’

One attempt to join up and show the power of the alternative comes from the People’s Bank of Govanhill, set up by Ailie Rutherford during her time as artist-in-residence at the Govanhill Baths. Unlike local currencies such as the Bristol Pound, which Rutherford says are less relevant to communities with high levels of poverty, the People’s Bank taps into and reveals the ‘iceberg economy’, the much bigger set of exchanges that sit underneath the financial economy. Those exchanging Govanhill Notes do so according to their affordability; they can be exchanged in local shops and cafes and the Govanhill Theatre; are used to pay volunteers; and are a way of mapping the multitude of non-financial exchanges that make the area rich.

‘When people talk about an economy they generally mean profit-making businesses and paid work, those visible, financial aspects’, says Rutherford. ‘But underneath the visible part of the economy – the tip of the iceberg – is a much bigger set of exchanges that are not generally quantified but which make places work and people interconnect, from volunteering and sharing to self-sufficiency, mutual support and foraging.’

If the alternative approach to local economics is to challenge the dominant narrative, it needs to make visible and relevant that which is often hidden and seen as irrelevant – empathy, connection, mutual support and understanding. It needs to ‘name and nurture’ powerful local projects that often go under the radar and get lost amid media stigmatisation. It needs to demonstrate the importance of community and individual agency and challenge the mainstream system to do more than play lip service to organisations that build power and autonomy. It needs to show that the old ways of doing things – paternalistic, centralised, focused on the physical and financial – are no longer working for places like Glasgow.

Joining the dots of the alternative

The story of the alternative is in many ways still hidden in Glasgow – as it is in many cities – but put the pieces of the jigsaw together and you start to get a picture of something bigger than its individual parts. The plan for Glasgow to become Britain’s ‘biggest power station’ by creating a network of solar energy projects set up on derelict land. The community councils that could be the places that re-build local democracy. The work of Can Do Places and Test Towns, which help re-invent high streets and local areas through enterprise activity. The glimpse of how the city’s fragmented parts could become connected and vibrant, seen during the Commonwealth Games in 2014. Even the ‘empowerment pants’ of the city’s female empowerment network, MsMissMrs.

Can all these disparate parts somehow join together and lead this busted-up community to a better future? Can the council or a broader forum join the dots and create new structures and bases for the energy of the city’s people to coalesce and create?

As in each of the cities this project has visited, and with the current backdrop of political, economic and environmental crises, the words of Antonio Gramsci ring true: ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’.

The pieces of the alternative economy are there, waiting to be joined together and brought to life.

We finish this article and this series of editions on alternative economic approaches from the ten core cities of the UK with the words of Jimmie Reid, the Glaswegian trade union activist who delivered this inaugural speech on alienation as rector of Glasgow university in 1972 and whose words still resonate today:

‘To measure social progress purely by material advance is not enough. Our aim must be the enrichment of the whole quality of life. It requires a social and cultural, or if you wish, a spiritual transformation of our country. A necessary part of this must be the restructuring of the institutions of government and, where necessary, the evolution of additional structures so as to involve the people in the decision-making processes of our society. The so-called experts will tell you that this would be cumbersome or marginally inefficient. I am prepared to sacrifice a margin of efficiency for the value of the people’s participation.’