Can state services ever be transformed into commons?

I missed this report of a meeting at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation by activists from the European left.

Excerpted from Hilary Wainwright:

“Among those taking part were a group of around thirty activist intellectuals from Europe, Latin America and North America who met Berlin in the spacious rooms of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation near some well-graffiti’d stumps of the Wall. It was the fourth seminar of the ‘Networked Politics’ series, an international inquiry into ‘rethinking political organisation in an era of movements and networks’.
We had come together and formulated our common search mainly through the European and World Social Forums. A distinctive focus has been the influences of developments in information technology on different levels of transformative politics, practical and conceptual. In some ways these developments deepen the pre-web ways in which many of us were both rethinking political organisation (inspired by the non-hierarchical, networked practices of the women’s movement) and reformulating common ownership (inspired by the creative trade unionism of groups like the shop stewards at Lucas Aerospace with their ‘alternative plan for socially useful production’). At the same time, the impact of information technology is stimulating entirely new trains of thought.

The discussions in Berlin included an exploration of the implications of internet technology for the three major issues of our inquiry: the commons and the public; labour and social movements; political representation and democracy.

The commons and the public

Arturo di Corinto, a sharp and ebullient Italian media activist, writer and film-maker, set out a bold vision of free software as a common resource: ‘Thanks to its characteristics, the free software is a distributed property that is capable of evolving into a common good’, he declared.

The characteristics of free software, he went on to argue, give it the character of a virtual commons: freely accessible, non-exclusive, something which everyone can make use of, even if they have not participated directly in its creation; bringing together producers and users; its quality is enhanced by its use; the community of open soft developers is based on certain rules of self-organisation, leading to the emergence of a complex system.

He was interrogated by Glenn Jenkins, a puckish character whose insights have been honed by prolonged struggle on a neglected estate on the periphery of Luton to turn disused land and buildings into commons, and in turn use them as a base from which to reassert common control over local services. Glenn’s arguments and experiences raise questions of how the commons relates to the state, notably state services and resources. The Exodus Collective squatted empty buildings and eventually won their demands for public money – unemployment and housing benefits – to go towards sustaining their co-operatively managed housing rather than into the pockets of private landlords. They went on to work with an alliance of community groups in setting up the Marsh Farm Community Trust to invest £50 million New Deal for Community money over ten years to regenerate an estate all but abandoned by government and local authority alike.

As he told his story, the question became: can state services ever be transformed into a commons? The idea of the commons refers to how shared resources are managed, implying open access, collaborate self-management by those who use a resource and those who provide it. A state service can be very inaccessible and its forms of management exceedingly distant and alienated from both users and providers. Many of those who first thought up the idea of the welfare state imagined they were creating common goods. But the framework of representative democracy has been too far removed from those who used and provided the services day to day. As Glenn and other residents of Marsh Farm found fifty years after their public estate was built, a state resource was not in reality a common resource; its ‘public’ facilities managed by the public officials in the name of the people but several steps removed from the actual community whose interests state resources should have served.

Can ideas, both inspirational metaphors and actual experiences, from the free software movement provide any guide for turning public services into commons? A teasing repartee developed between Arturo and Glenn. But behind it was a serious issue of what the points of convergence and connection there might be between the virtual commons and the material commons.

One connecting theme concerns the social and individual use and development of knowledge. And this is important for the question of state services becoming commons because the organisation of knowledge is fundamental to the possibilities of genuine democratic control. The virtual commons is based on the open, shared and collaborative – as well as individually creative – development of knowledge, valuing the knowledge of producer and user and working with processes by which they can interact. This could provide a basis for remaking the ‘public’ as a commons that promises a more sustainable alternative to the encroachments of the private than does any defence of the public in its original form.

Historically, the organisation of knowledge in ‘public’ spheres – public services, public administration, public industry – has been based on a hierarchical, bureaucratic and individualistic approach to knowledge, separating the producer or provider from the user, protecting rigid boundaries between different kinds of knowledge, working with a strongly proprietorial approach in terms of institutional ownership. (The predominant approach to knowledge of the private corporations which are increasingly taking over the public has loosened up internally, with more interactive, informal forms of management, more horizontal flows within the company but the imperatives of commerce and profit make them have secretive and exclusive about access to, the development of, knowledge). The notion of a public good that isn’t in some sense a common good is becoming less and less sustainable.

Remaking public services

In the Northern hemisphere today there are not now many live sources of inspiration for a vision of the commons, for creative collaboration between users and producers underpinning a genuinely common ownership of the service or natural or built resource. (In the South, of course there is, in the indigenous approach to land and natural resources, and the deep and widespread legacy of those traditions evident in strong social movements like the landless workers’ Movimento Sem Terra in Brazil which not only struggle for land reform but through occupations and co-operative agriculture create new economic commons.) In the North the virtual commons provides a powerful for rethinking the public (or conceptualising the rethinking that is in practice taking place) as the commons.

The idea of development through mutual use is especially suggestive. To apply this to public services like education, health and so on highlights the way that the effectiveness and innovative capacity of these knowledge-based services depends on a collaboration between users and producers/providers, thereby treating users and public sector workers (not just the managers or experts) as knowledgeable collaborators in a developmental process.

This points therefore to the need for new more directly participative and power-sharing forms of organisation through which such collaboration can be achieved. This assumes that the service user potentially has the creative capacity to recognise a problem and help in the process of identifying a solution through a collaborative process. (This is in stark contrast to the traditional idea of ‘the delivery’ of public services to a more or less passive public). Here, free and open software is not just an inspirational metaphor but also a material tool for facilitating this kind of collaboration between individual users and public sector workers, shifting the balance of power from centralised public service management towards the user and the skilled service provider. It is also a tool for shifting co-ordination between different parts of a public service, moving us from a hierarchical to a co-operative model. This in turn will allow for greater autonomy in the local provision of local services under active local control while at the same time collaborating and co-ordinating across a wider territory.

Both these new possibilities opened up by free software can only be realised here in the UK, if two elementary moves are 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.”

1 Comment Can state services ever be transformed into commons?

  1. AvatarJoe Rinehart

    A useful example here might be the social cooperatives of the Emilia Romanga region of Italy (not to trot out an overused example, but). While taxes collected by the State are used to pay for social safety net services the actual programs are administered by a series of worker owned cooperatives who by law employee a set percentage of individuals from the groups they serve. These systems both scale down the level at which social services are administered and create mechanisms for feedback between the served communities and those administering the funds.

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