On the Convergence Between the P2P Commons Movement and the Cooperative Tradition

One of the activists and thinkers I admire most is Pat Conaty, who is part of a network of mostly British cooperative thinkers. With them, I have been having discussions on the potential of a convergence between the p2p/commons movements and priorities, and those of the cooperative tradition, which is being revived after the meltdown of 2008. The result should be an open cooperative model in which a new type of coops actually co-produce commons, create livelihoods for commoners as multi-stakeholder solidarity coops, and have the common good integrated as strategic priority in their statutes. Though taken out of the context of a group conversation, Pat’s answer to these proposals show rich potentiality for such future cooperation.

By Pat Conaty:

“I mentioned the wonderful lecture by Michel in Quito in March on the Commons and Open Co-op models. Michel has written this speech up in summary form as a blog. See the below. It is short and outstandingly insightful. Check it out today and his theme of new forms of co-operative Capital for the Commons and new forms of co-operative licensing.

Robin Murray you will be pleased to see how Michel has cleverly incorporated your ideas about co-operative accumulation.

Michel I love the way you have returned to Labour theories of surplus value and linked these to the rebuilding of co-operative commonwealth. I love your proposal that takes Kleiner’s PPL innovation and how you then describe these wonderfully as socialist licenses. The reciprocity aspects links so well to the review article attached below and by Ed of the Marjorie Kelly book on ownership solutions. See the Onwership concept once again in the context of Michel’s argument. By the way do you know that Marjorie is now working for Gar Alperovitz and Ted Howard at the Democracy Collaborative in Maryland as head of consultancy? So a small world that bodes well for Synergia as Mike Lewis has forged a partnership between BALTA and the Democracy Collaborative.

Coming back to your ingenious blog Michel though and Henry’s plea for Co-operative leadership. This my friends is the missing yeast to get catalytic action operating. Here evolutionary economic understanding is key. My sense is that the growing precariat is key to changing thinking among politicos – they are already creating one in three new jobs in the UK post 2008 and the precariat will be larger than the public sector workforce in the UK on current trends by 2008. The trouble is where currently is the co-operative and trade union leadership to nurture transformative change. As you argue Michel, the starting point is seeing the world differently and through Open Co-operativism as both you and Robin make the powerful case for.

There is a rather undeveloped literature about the concept of co-operative trusteeship. Gandhi and his political economist Kumarrapa worked on these ideas in the 1930s. The guild socialist thinkers like GDH Cole and Tawneys books from 1919 indeed both inspired Gandhian thinking but also that of Schumacher and Quakers like George Goyder’s book the Just Enterprise in the late 1980s.

Michel I like the bond suggestion made by Kleiner, though I hate the concept of bonds and debt generally. But yes this has very interesting potential to turn economic rental income outwards to build commonwealth and provide forms of citizens income if we can co-create the trusteeship system to do this.

Another set of fresh ideas to consider are those of Jeremy Rifkin in his latest book on the emergence of zero-marginal costs in the shareable economy. I have only read reviews of his book but I have ordered a copy. Robin and I were talking about this yesterday. He ha has just finished reading it and feels that Rifkin sets the context superbly and points clearly to where Open Co-operativism as Michel describes the ways forward can really take off given the right enabling environment.

At present the environment is disabling as you evidence so well Michel. The first respondent to Michel’s blob from Guatemala talks about the commons going it alone. He makes a degrowth, no money, no markets case against Michel’s thesis. But as Michel explained well in his longer lecture in Quito, there are so many small groups arguing these degrowth solutions but they cannot get any purchase on a transformative and more broadly and universal democratic future. They are defeated by the limits of conventional bonding social capital. 19th century co-ops also hit these buffers but at least did manage to scale up members powerfully but did this through confederation and interdependence. They certainly did not reject markets and money.

As you argue so well Michel, it is the contradictory liberal-communism conundrum that is impeding autonomy. But indeed autonomy is a myth for small communities seeking the same. People forget that in the middle ages historically enclosure methods took two forms. Most recall the Polanyi enclosure of the land and means of production to create wage labour and wage slavery but prior to this, cities in a number of places of Europe were built frequently by artisans and guilds to protect their trades and livelihoods from war lord marauders seeking to re-enslave them. As Kropotkin points out, they had to build city walls for a defensible space and did so in a number of free cities in parts of Europe.

So as you show Michel, what could be feasible is confederated economic democracy interdependence if we can co-design and co-develop the commonwealth platforms.

Here is where the I and We (the commons trusteeship) aspects come into play. The trick is to find a yin-yang between both. Community Land Trusts are a good example of land trusteeship but there are many others as the commons movement has evidenced. But where on scale has what you argue for Michel worked and indeed nationally?

You can see this sometimes in history and typically by hard struggles that leads on to a wonderful balanced outcome and sometimes a New Dawn. The National Heath Service (NHS) set up in 1948 in the UK is a case in point. This created a social public partnership that would not have been easily predicted. A crucial set of precedents for the huge paradigm shift were the over 20,000 friendly societies operating as a patchwork quilt to provide health services by the late 1930s. These had been set up by a collaboration of trade unions and the co-operative sector and evolved to this large number and spread locally over at least a hundred years.

Basically from 1945 the trade union backed friendly societies, a number of progressive doctors and public health leaders and a group of guild socialists persuaded the Labour Party when it got elected after the War to create a public trust essentially. Plans for this were taking shape during the war and by guild socialist thinkers going back to the 1920s.

But what is interesting in this evolutionary economic transformation is that this public trust that was nationally established as the NHS retained small business partners as delivery bodies. These were the local doctor businesses and also the private surgeons in the hospitals who separately were made stakeholder partners in 1948 but continued to operate their small businesses. The key difference was that before 1948 their income was coming from better off private payers (most also with insurance) and from working class trade unionists through some aspects of insurance that was not comprehensive but included the friendly societies. The innovation of National Insurance had earlier precedents with state pensions from 1909 but extended to health it worked like magic. Unfortunately the guild socialist plan of RH Tawney and William Beveridge to incorporate the 20,000 plus friendly society mutuals into the NHS was never implemented by the Labour government and thus a commons-co-operative model did not happen as they had hoped. But what did happen was a huge success in any case and indeed a key model for other European countries.

However as you can see from this example, what did happen was the leaders of the state were being informed by mutualist thinking and what Henry puts his finger on as co-operative leadership. This coming together created a social innovation epiphany and evolved practices and new ways of seeing the strategic opportunity to take this to real scale by creating universal health service access free for all citizens.

Of course the context was also crucial historically. The devastation of World War 2, the bombed out cities by the Luftwaffe like areas of London, Coventry, Portsmouth, Plymouth and parts of Birmingham meant that the citizens were fed up and desirous of root and branch change and fair and universal services that the thousands and thousands of people had died for. It should not take the defeat of a possible future Hitler to set up an enabling environment this time wrong. But somehow we do need to get the public sector engaged in the paradigm shift. My suspicions are that local government partnerships may offer good experimental prospects to prove how commons-co-op and social public partnerships can work. Co-operative literacy, co-operative education and co-operative literacy within an Open and inclusive environment but defended against predators by Ownership concepts of legal governance and co-ownership are crucial.”

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