We are pleased to launch our book debates series with this blog by Simon Parker. Simon sets out the argument of his recent book ‘Taking Power Back’, where he makes the case for ‘commonism’ – a radical form of democratic decentralisation. Following this post, CURA members Professor Jonathan Davies and Dr Adrian Bua will share their thoughts on Simon’s work, after which Simon will publish a reply to our team’s commentary.
The British state stands poised at a moment of profound change. Caught between the demands of an ageing population and a limited public willingness to pay more tax, public services are under pressure as never before. Institutions from local government to the NHS are finding that their existing models of provision cannot cope with the strain. Something has to give.
Despite our self-image as swashbuckling Anglo-Saxon capitalists, the British are actually fairly statist. Until recently we had a large, highly centralised government machine which we expected to deliver the same outcomes to everyone across the country. We tend to see the world in terms of the market and state, without very much in between. The fact that both of these leviathans have let us down very badly in the recent past explains our national distrust of institutions.
And yet there is something in between state and market – a space for social activity that many people call ‘the commons’. Over the past decade or so we have seen this space being steadily filled by a remarkable flourishing of cooperatives and social enterprises. In my book, Taking Power Back, I argue that this vibrant realm of do-it-yourself social justice is vital to the way we should understand the future of government. We can already see examples of it in action. In my book I describe how initiatives in the UK and beyond such as Occupy Sandy, the extraordinary people-powered disaster relief operation in post-hurricane New York, are building on, and organising, people power to meet their needs and improve lives – without relying on the market or state action
The trends which the World Economic Forum bundles together in its concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will turbo-charge the commons over the next decade or two. This is partly because new technology is making it easier than ever to start to up small social organisations. The overhead costs of creating a company are falling, while the potential to create innovative networked business models is rising. The increasing automation of our jobs may create a world in which we spend less time working creating increased opportunities to transfer effort out of the realm of paid work and into the creative sphere of the commons.
It seems entirely credible that the space vacated by a retreating state could be filled at least partially by a surge in the creative commons. I the book I make the case for two very big changes that can facilitate this transition. First, we will need to support the commons by introducing a universal basic income, compensating people for the automation of work and giving them the time to contribute. Second, we need to radically devolve political power so it is closer citizens, giving individuals the opportunities and capacity they need to help build the civic commons in the places where they live.
It is a huge challenge, but the prize is a radical renewal of government and democracy, in Britain and beyond.
Simon Parker is director of the New Local Government Network and a leading expert in public policy, public services and government.