Messages from the Immaterial Commons: 4

Stepping aside from neoliberal faith – The heresy of Commoning

20thAnniFLYERwebCropOne of the great things about the commons tradition is that every instance is local and idiosyncratic and requires that we make it up as we go along. But do we have to reinvent the commonweal? Yes – probably we do, but what might be generic? What might be learned by sharing the experience? This article tells of how a group of practitioners in the UK developed what subsequently turned out to be commoning, and have sustained it for over 20 years.


Commons have a long history, contested now as in the past. Around a thousand years ago in Europe, feudal and later seigeuries began to enclose land for arable and livestock exploitation that had previously been freely available for collective nourishment. Echoing this, today’s neo-feudal corporate seigneuries have enclosed the world’s materials and hearts and minds for exploitation, enclosures so comprehensive that there appears to be no outside – TINA, ‘there is no alternative’ has become an article of neoliberal faith. Just as for many centuries in Europe, there was no ‘outside’ to Christian faith, now, to envision an ‘outside’ to neoliberal economic hegemony amounts to heresy.

Neoliberal righteousness can take many forms, and recent decades in the UK saw psychology walling off its expertise in professional enclosures and attempting to have the credibility of these enclosure validated through state regulation. Practitioners seemed slow to see this as primarily a commercial initiative; there was little sense of the danger of putting psychological definitions of the human condition in the hands of the state; too few practitioners cared that, as with other forms of faith, there was to be no ‘outside’.

Evidence of actual harm or risk assessment was missing from the claims that the UK public needed to be protected from rogue psychologists. This was entrancing and difficult to contradict. Did ‘public protection’ constitute window dressing? Was state regulation primarily an instance of the psychological therapies seeking enhanced professional status? Was a ‘public good’, as with hindsight we would now call it, being compromised?

Yes answers to all these questions meant that resisting this social vandalism seemed inescapable, a life choice. Did we deny the stirrings of social conscience or did we act on them? The not-infrequent accusation that non-believers in state regulation (such as yours truly) were ‘charlatans’, and a growing list of ethical objections to it, fed resistance; two conferences were held; the creative juices of opposition began to flow and shortly afterwards came the birth of a network of psychological ‘heretics’.

In 1994, Em Edmondson, a practitioner in Leeds, came up with a single page proposal for a network of therapists, later ‘practitioners’, that would be based on their lived knowledge and experience as practitioners. We were about to step aside from the dominant professional psychological elite, in a heretical denial of the true faith that state regulation of the psychological therapies was both essential and inevitable. We were about to begin commoning. Prologue over.

Enter the Independent Practitioners Network (IPN).

The IPN founding proposal


IPN founding proposal 1994  – select the image for a readable version

Em Emondson’s proposal called for a network of small independent groups; each group, of at least five practitioners, would take whatever time with each other that was necessary to be able to ‘stand by’ each other’s work. How this was done was to be the business of the group. When the ‘standing by’ had been achieved, the group was required to establish links with two other groups whose task was to validate the ‘standing by’ process. In a further requirement, when this was in place, each group was to develop and agree an ethical statement and post it to the network.

Alongside the network of independent groups, the founding meeting kicked off a series of meetings that eventually became IPN National Gatherings which provide a forum for the overall governance of the network.

Civic accountability

Let’s step back for a moment – I was slow to see it but I eventually saw the social task of IPN as the peer production of ‘civic accountability’, (and not just a good enough alternative, but an exemplary one). I’ll come to it in more detail shortly. Why would a commons structure be better at providing and sustaining ‘civic accountability’ for ‘psychological practitioners’? Is the usual professional ‘qualification’/credentialisation route inevitable?

The ‘qualification’ route is typically a single gate-keeping operation ending with the assignment of a diploma, a degree, a masters, or PhD academic award. Sustaining the credibility of the qualification awarded is at the discretion of the practitioner. While there may be requirements for supervision and Continuing Professional Development (CPD), in both of these, engagement with the quality of life of the practitioner can be moderate or minimal. A deterioration of their life circumstances, or the often challenging impingement of the emotional work can be concealed or remain out of sight. How, under this system is practitioner malpractice discovered? The answer, regrettably, is via client complaints.

For IPN, ‘civic accountability’ means seeking to proactively eliminate or minimise malpractice – harm to clients – and in the twenty years of IPN, I know of only three formal complaints by clients. How did we achieve this?

At the root of the IPN purpose is the presumption that the tricky challenges of the human condition are likely to affect psychopractice practitioners as well as their clients. IPN practitioners handle this through supervision, sustained support and mutual scrutiny of each other’s work, including where we are in our lives. ‘Standing by’ is not a once and for all decision, it is a continuing process – so that a significant distortion of our lifework that might be harmful for clients will become apparent and can be attended to. Clients benefit but so also do practitioners, through participation in the mutuality, reciprocity and deep sharing of human unfoldings in an ongoing community,

IPN commoning – structure and culture

When introducing IPN to newcomers I often find it useful to say that it can be seen at least as much as a culture as an organisation.

  1. Participation in IPN is open to any counselling, psychotherapy or allied practitioner. Entry is through either joining an existing group or forming a new group. While this may seem unduly open, keep in mind that a practitioner has to convince several other practitioners face to face, that they are competent for the client population they work with and sufficiently stable in themselves to be able to sustain this work.
  2. Participant status, supported by attendance at gatherings and via newsletter information, represents a permeable boundary for entry into the IPN culture; Forming group and full member group boundaries are clearly delineated, entry and exit is through face to face affirmation and negotiation.
  3. IPN makes the presumption that practitioners as educated persons, are, with others, competent to assess and sustain their own credentials as practitioners. This requires a considerable level of developed self-direction and ethical acuity which, along with peer to peer culture, keeps IPN responsive to local needs and conditions. Practitioners used to conventional hierarchical organisations can be alarmed to find that in IPN, ‘no one is in charge’.
  4. IPN is intrinsically peer-to-peer. The network’s accumulated Principles and Procedures published on the IPN website, document and define the network. Within them anyone is free to take network-wide or other initiatives, which may or may not be supported. While no one is entitled to speak for IPN, it is OK to speak from IPN, this article being an example of the latter.
    All IPN participants are entitled to attend triennial national gatherings which are currently free and for which travel is re-imbursed. A recent revision to the Principles and Procedures recommends that one practitioner from each group attends all Gatherings and that each practitioner attends one Gathering a year.
  5. IPN participants’ prominent role in the debates about professionalisation and regulation ensured that state proxies for regulation and other professional bodies respected IPN’s ethical stance and independence.
  6. The ‘standing by’ process of IPN’s forming and full member groups involves continuing scrutiny of practitioner work and just as important, where they are in their lives. The validation of this process by two link groups is intended to interrupt any drift towards collusion.
  7. In the event that a group fails to be able to ‘stand by’ a practitioner’s competence or lifework situation, they will request/require that the practitioner takes action to resolve or correct this loss of support. Continuing failure to remedy the situation implies departure from the group.
  8. IPN decision-making is by pluralistic consensus. Major decisions are taken to subsequent national gatherings for ratification. While local hierarchies of experience and expertise are honoured, coercion and domination are comprehensively deprecated.
    Note: ‘Pluralistic consensus: an ongoing process which considers all options available, listens to all views and supports a variety of outcomes being pursued simultaneously.
    This approach implies an emphasis on issue identification, exploration and a ‘sense of the meeting’ rather than on adversarial proposals and counter-proposals. Unresolved issues are held open for further discussion and all decisions remain subject to subsequent modification’.
  9. Dispute resolution between IPN participants is a matter for their group and/or the triennial gatherings. There have been so few instances of disputes between practitioners and clients that IPN custom and practice in this area remains relatively informal. Typically a regional reference person is expected to initially field the complaint, they find a ‘process watcher’ to take on the role of scrutinising how the participant’s group handles the complaint against their member, and report to the network on it resolution/outcome.
  10. The IPN ‘commons resource’ is the peer production of civic accountability. Overall governance is vested in the triennial gatherings. No one ‘runs’ IPN, there is no administrative centre; and volunteers organise the three annual national gathering; maintain the IPN web-site; and publish a triennial newsletter, NetCom.

People familiar with Elinor Ostrom’s academic research into commoning will perhaps see that IPN’s naive, bottom up development of a commons and commoning detailed above, echoes the key elements of commons management that she identified. Do we need the endorsement? Well no, IPN has very little ownership of its evolution as a commons but our example suggests that there will be other instances of naive commoning that have been arrived at in similar empirical fashion.

The IPN commoning experience


The IPN ‘Leonard Piper’ group – May 2014

What may be missing from this account is the human richness of IPN commoning, the mix of warmth, humour, delight and confrontation of sustained long-term face-to-face contact with valued colleagues – conversations where there are no no-go areas. While there has been some turnover, in the group I belong to, more than twenty years of this mutuality, reciprocity and equipotency has provided a secure enough foundation for the belief that cooperative commons structures can work sustainably and provide a rich enhancement of the lifework balance and civic accountability.

We meet for half a day around every six weeks.

Colleagues arrive, three people have travelled for over two hours for the meeting, tea is made and served, food to share is parked in the kitchen; the meeting opens with a ‘check in’ in which current personal/practitioner preoccupations are shared. After the ‘check in’ an agenda is built: on-going topics, including IPN network decisions, reports on relevant events, people electing to take time in the group about practice issues, and travel costs. A richly varied potluck lunch follows. For the rest of the half day we work through the agenda: someone describes the dynamics of a complicated client/parent relationship for comment and feedback; we discuss a potential psychopolitics development; someone declares a potentially hazardous client situation; we explore how to recruit another member for the group.

More tea and cakes are eaten.

We arrange a date and venue for a future local gathering; we discuss objections to the previous meeting’s group process; we arrange dates of future meetings; we pay each other the shared travel costs for the meeting and leave to catch buses and trains.

Such meetings are intense infusions of rapport, chat and learning from experience, a continual baking afresh of belonging.

Conclusion – a few more shares

If you were just beginning or were already up to your neck on commoning what else might we share from the IPN experience that you could find useful?

  • Perhaps the most vital learning from IPN is the need for a clear initial statement of the territory of the commoning, the social need that is being met, and a good-enough outline of principles and procedures.
  • The peer-to-peer, non-hierarchical culture of commoning seems undoubtedly heretical. It challenges scarcity economics and psychologically it also challenges, as does feminism, the righteousness of the belief that dominance is natural and inevitable.
  • The label of ‘common goods’, as a European Parliament intergroup has shown, may be a handy way of staying under the radar of neoliberal scrutiny and rejection, a transitional compromise with corporate values, if you need one.
  • Is the IPN commoning process reproducible? For non-hierarchical social arrangements such as cooperative householding and particularly where there is an outward-facing public role demanding civic accountability, such as social activism, social work, health care and medicine, a version of the IPN commoning process may well provide a very rich form of infrastructure. The IPN ‘standing by’ process requires a considerable amount of personal disclosure, if someone in a proposed group has an employer role re other participants, such as promotion/salary/hiring/firing, this seems likely to provide a significant obstacle to the formation of viable and sustainable commoning.
  • IPN experience suggests that the sustainability of commoning past the initial flushes of enthusiasm requires a level of emotional competence that is up to the demands of ongoing group relations. Emotional competence includes being adequately aware of our patterns of conditioning and expectation, a capacity to be patient, sometimes very patient with disorder, dislocation and uncertainty, coupled with an acutely tuned awareness of power relations, so that coercion, threat, manipulation and bullying are held to be unacceptable.
  • Facilitation skills, being able to stir and still the non-hierarchical pot while remaining a participant are very important. It seems essential that a peer to peer culture should seek to find ways of including hierarchies of skill and experience.
  • Showing up: a commitment to being present may be more effective than a bouquet of concepts.
  • ‘Free-riding’: there are likely to be people who will want to belong without participation and contribution. To be expected and planned for.
  • Promote and give time for reflexivity – adequate awareness of our strengths and weaknesses; of the light we contribute and the shadow we cast. Plus the rhythms of in-breath and out-breath, of proliferation and convergence.
  • Commoning can be a form of living from love – love defined as seeking the flourishing of the ‘Other’, along with our own flourishing and that of the group. Taking responsibility for holding this path and returning to it when we stray, may be the essence of commoning.