Taking Power Back: Review by CURA

Professor Jonathan Davies and Dr Adrian Bua from CURA respond to Simon Parker’s  previous  blog where he explained the argument of his recent book ‘Taking Power Back‘. This blog will be followed over the next few weeks with a reply by Simon.

Taking Power Back is written as a provocation – a manifesto for change – at a moment when the ruthlessly centralising tradition of British politics is under greater critical scrutiny than ever before. As Simon Parker explains in his blog post, current levels of centralisation in British politics are unsustainable and the call for radical decentralisation, driven by the social action of place-based individuals and communities is timely.  Moreover, Simon argues that with the end of austerity nowhere in sight, the halcyon days of the welfare state are in any case well and truly over. Something has to be done.

Simon’s alternative is encapsulated in the idea of ‘commonism’, a new kind of society based on self-help and mutual aid enabled by a more local, relational and supportive state, rather than the over-bearing centralised behemoth developed since the post war era. Simon thinks that we are moving into a conjuncture more favourable to commonism, as experiments proliferate and the state slowly and reluctantly begins to show awareness of its limitations. In his analysis, the push for devolution and localism is more than a mere straw in the wind.   The wave of city deals, with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority at the forefront (which Simon discusses at length) signals an opportunity to develop the ‘commonist’ agenda and forge a path to a more decentralised and democratic polity.  Taking Power Back is at once resolutely pragmatic and visionary.  Commonism is not communism, a system that envisions the entire system of production, distribution and exchange socialised and democratised.  Rather, the practices of commoning sit in a nebulous and uneasy relationship with state and market.  It rests tacitly on re-working the classic state-market-civil society triad.

However, preoccupation with the critique of statism means the triad is never adequately discussed.  For example, Simon is very reticent about markets, corporations and economic crises. Contemporary political economy tells us that states and markets are deeply inter-dependent. Much of what states do in the 21st century is about extending the reach of the profit economy.  Take austerity, a policy regime Simon tends to take for granted: it undermines the resources of localism in ways that seem destined to shrivel the commons.  First, we know that cuts in state funding drive local community organisations to the wall.  Second, government contracts are deeply biased towards corporate contractors and large extra-local civil society organisations (the so-called “primes”), and against local organisations.  Third, austerity welfare and its extraordinarily punitive sanctioning regime so envelops and bureaucratises the lives of millions of unemployed and working poor citizens, that it is hard to envisage them finding the time or cognitive space to do any volunteering or commoning.

These deeply reactionary trends arguably diminish the space for commoning, but perhaps more importantly they point to a huge oversight in Simon’s analysis.  Taking Power Back will not be accomplished by going with the flow, it can only be a deeply conflictual process oriented to reversing malign trends in our society – the expansion of markets and corporations, the boa-constrictor of state regulation and the predatory character of civil society “primes”, all of which conspire to corrode the local and the democratic. Simon’s call for a universal wage (or basic income) to unlock commoning capacity is an acceptance that sharpening inequalities need to be addressed.  Yet, it is hard to see how this can be accomplished without, at the very least, reversing austerity and in the process taking on recalcitrant interests throughout the state, market and corporatised civil society sectors.

Viewed through this lens, the current devolution and localism agendas are deeply problematic, accentuating anti-democratic developments antithetical to ‘commonism’.

Simon acknowledges the anti-democratic manner in which “Devo Manc” was accomplished – a deal struck between local and central state elites. Moreover, greater local responsibility for allocating a shrinking budget presided over by boosterist metro-mayors is no basis for a flourishing municipal commons, particularly under a grossly punitive benefits regime over which the centre exercises an iron grip. This is compounded by declining standards in what researchers at ‘Manchester Capitalism’ have called the ‘foundational economy’. This consists precisely of those businesses and services to meet the basic needs that are the bread and butter of ‘commonism’, yet, the foundational is increasingly beset by casualised work, and operates as a cash cow for big business.

As Simon recognises, under capitalism, technological innovation and productivity do not usher in a world of leisure. They rather concentrate power in the hands of techno-elites and shrink the labour market.  Nowhere is the dystopian character of the digital age clearer than in San Francisco, where the predatory elites of Silicon Valley make the city unliveable for working class people and complain at having to look at the human refuse left in their wake.

We live in a world of confected scarcity (austerity) and ever-rising inequality in a highly precarious global economic conjuncture. Simon is right that a flourishing commons depends on greater equality, in a world of plenty.  But there is a vast gap between our world and the world of the Morrisonian commons.  Taking Power Back offers a welcome stimulus to those thinking about how a better world might come into being. Simon’s wager is that examples of commoning in action can be pedagogic in the sense of showcasing the virtues of “commonism” to all, at a time when elites seem a little more aware of their limitations.  Our concern is that these are not the most powerful trends in our society. It is hard to see the pursuit of social justice as anything other than an elemental struggle in the 21st century, without which new political economies of solidarity will remain confined to the margins.

Professor Jonathan Davies is director and Dr Adrian Bua a core member of the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity

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