A commons policy for public authorities

Red Pepper has an excellent article on how the left should let itself be influenced by the new commons-based practices. We publish excerpts in two parts, but please read the whole article. The author is Hilary Wainwright.

Part One: The Role of the Left: Beyond Representational Democracy

“Our discussions on political representation have been searching for a new model of engagement with the state. Our starting point has been the nature of the autonomy of social movements from political parties and institutions. Given the history of the ideal of the commons in the hands of the state, the question of autonomy, and then of what kind of relationship to build on the basis of autonomy, is central.

I want to suggest that the distinctive contribution of left political parties, or their representatives in political institutions, should be to open up the institutions, to redistribute power outside them so that it can be shared and support new institutions and new relationships of control over state power. Their distinctive position is thus one of straddling the political institutions on the one hand and the conflicts and emergent sources of power in society on the other. The aim must be to both open up and democratise the institutions and, as a necessary part of this process, to encourage and support emerging institutions based on deeper forms of democracy and the principles and practices of the commons. A classic example would be the power-sharing of participatory budgeting in municipalities in Brazil and now in parts of Europe, and its relation to the growing social economy in both continents. But there are many other examples.

What are the conditions and presuppositions of such an understanding of political representation? I will just mention one here: it concerns the emergence of non-state sources of democratic power. It’s a concept that needs further debate on another occasion but the point is this: while radical mass movements have not been sustained 1970s-style or Seattle-style or anti-war-February-15th-style, but what is striking is a need to create lasting sources of sources of democratic power autonomous from the state: democratic institutions that go beyond, but are often an outcome of, movements.

I’m thinking here in the UK of developments like London Citizens; or union branches like those fighting for alternatives to privatisation taking on a responsibility for the public interest that has been vacated by elected politicians; community organisations which similarly take on a public responsibility to propose solutions for estates and neighbourhoods abandoned by the political class; asylum seeker and refugee organisations that go well beyond campaigning to provide an infrastructure of support and defence; the global networks like ‘Our World is Not for Sale’ that provide a force for accountability on global institutions and corporation that have escaped the conventional mechanisms of parliamentary accountability. It’s probably a world-wide phenomenon taking many different forms; certainly I’ve observed it in parts of Latin America and Europe and even in the UK. And this is what convinces me of its distinctive, emergent character – if something innovative happens across so many places, there must be something going on.

We are not talking here about relying only on direct democracy and popular power – these struggles need and want support from within the institutions, hence an opening and democratisation of existing political institutions. But we are talking about phenomena that are more than movements and ephemeral campaigns. They are trying to create different kinds of relationships here and now, based on principles of the commons, and at the same time building democratic power to challenge and transform institutions driven by private profit or bureaucratic self-interest. Any rethinking of public administrations, political economy or political organisation must make these actual experiments in co-operation and democratic power one of its starting points.”

Part Two: Turning Public Services into a Commons

“Two elementary moves should be made towards renewing public services as material commons. A first condition is that public service workers have the dignity, time, the training and the rights of co-management to be able to collaborate meaningfully with service users; the second is a remaking of local government, so that, having become little more than a plethora of partnerships dependent on national funding streams and on complying with nationally imposed targets, it is transformed into a democratically elected body with strategic powers and a budget of its own that can be the subject of participatory power-sharing with local citizens. The first condition involves a rethinking and reasserting of labour as social, co-operative process and itself potentially a commons. (In the present capitalist economy, including the state sector, it could be called a ‘hidden commons’ whereby the co-operative nature of labour is distorted by pressures to maximise profit – or in the state sector by the legacy of hierarchical, military forms of administration). The second requires reflection on the kind of political institutions and forms of democracy that create the conditions for democratic self-management and common access to public resources to flourish.”

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.