This post is the latest in the series debating Simon Parker’s recent book ‘Taking Power Back‘. The debate began with an outline by Simon of the main argument of his book, followed by a response by Jonathan Davies and Adrian Bua from CURA. In this post Simon highlights areas where our thoughts overlap and diverge. If you are interested in contributing to the debate further please email email@example.com.
The striking thing about Jonathan and Adrian’s article is how much we agree on the fundamentals. We are clear that Britain’s mix of the big central state and free market economics has not delivered on its promises. And I think we broadly agree that a politics of commonism – the creation of a vastly expanded realm of self-help, mutual aid and social enterprise – represents a credible and desirable way to secure social progress in new times.
The challenge I have been posed is less about the ‘what’ and more about the ‘how’. Jonathan and Adrian are right to ask how we get from a world where power and assets are overwhelmingly enclosed by the state and market, to one in which commoning becomes, well, commonplace. They argue that far from encouraging mutual aid, the British state is more often engaged in expanding the reach of profitable activity while simultaneously choking off the social sector through austerity. Is my vision of the creative commons not pure idealism without some sort of struggle against the power of capital?
One of the challenges I face in answering this is that I am deeply suspicious of top down, structural change. I do not have some kind of Marxian revolution in my back pocket. They tend to end badly. Instead, I think commonism will emerge from decentralised trial and error in the real world. But I accept the charge that my bottom-up approach runs slap bang into some very big and ugly vested interests in both the state and the business world. The commons is not the strongest force in society, but where I differ from Jonathan and Adrian is that I think this might already be starting to change.
My first reason for hope is that commoning is already starting to grow in the midst of the very neoliberalism Jonathan and Adrian decry. Take, for instance, the 25% boom in the number of co-ops over the three years from 2010, or the 10% growth in community businesses over 2015. These organisations are generally not old-school charities funded by grants, but organisations which use their community roots and freedom from shareholder demands to develop innovative business models in response to local needs and demands.
My second reason for optimism is the fact that the economy is starting to change in ways which might favour commoning. I am hardly the first person to point to the rise of automation, which has the potential to destroy a vast number of jobs without replacing all of them. This reduction in paid labour is a horror for the old Labour movement, but when you think about it a world with fewer of what David Graeber calls ‘bullshit jobs’ is hardly a bad thing. Imagine more people, with more free time and vastly cheaper goods and services, searching for more meaning in their lives.
My third reason for hope is that I can already see some of the institutional changes that might help to unlock a world of commonism. The first plank in my agenda is a universal basic income, both to manage the economic consequences of automation and to liberate people to pursue more meaning free from the demands of paid labour. This is the key policy change which would turn a dystopian world of mass unemployment into a world where work became more like play (and the commons is the perfect space to play in).
I think we need a new public service architecture which actively encourages commoning. This means city-level social investment funds which can support the early stages of commons-based organisations, governed by the public, private and commons sectors to ensure that the money flows towards their shared priorities. Local authorities and others need to direct their commissioning to spotting and scaling up the parts of the commons that work best.
My response to the question of how we grow the strength of the commons is to transform the role of government into growing and protecting the realm of mutual aid. This will help to grow a strong and independent domain of community ownership. My answer to austerity is that a smaller state might be a good thing as long as we also have a smaller private sector and much more social activity in-between them. Commonism is not a utopian project, but a practical route through which ordinary people can adapt their lives to a changing economic context.
Simon Parker is director of the New Local Government Network and a leading expert in public policy, public services and government.