Anna Coote – Claiming and controlling the commons

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It is one of the oldest concepts of civilisation, but has disappeared from our vocabulary amd political concepts, which says a lot: The Commons

Anna Coote is Principal Fellow at NEF – the New Economics Foundation.

In many parts of Europe and around the world, people are organising to take control of the ‘commons’ – resources we rely upon to survive and flourish.

It’s a new kind of politics around an old proposition. Access to life’s necessities should be a matter of right, not a privilege or concession.  Whether it is land, water, energy or transport, schools, hospitals or caring services, these essential resources should not be enclosed or monopolised by corporations, but controlled by the people who need them.  And we all share responsibility for making sure that everyone has equal rights of access.

What does it mean in practice? Managing land through local trusts for the benefit of local people.  Building affordable homes that are controlled by the people who live in them.  Taking water supplies, local energy generation, telecommunications and bus services into shared ownership.  Creating ‘social wealth funds’ from surpluses produced by local enterprises, with dividends invested for the common good.   Creating parent-led childcare co-operatives, and community-led social care systems and time banks.  These are all examples of an approach called ‘commoning’ – sharing control of essential resources for the benefit of all.

The idea has begun to take shape across Europe, in a multitude of ambitious local initiatives.  In northern Spain, is building what it calls ‘a free, open and neutral telecommunications network based on a commons model’.  In England and Wales, a growing number of Community Land Trusts have been set up by local people to develop and manage affordable housing as well as local enterprises and workspaces for the benefit of the community.  Finland is the birthplace of the Robin Hood Co-operative, an investment fund that uses an algorithm called ‘Parasite’ to trade on Wall Street, returning profits to its members and to fund projects that, in its own words, ‘expand the commons’.  In rural France, Terre de Liens helps to keep abandoned agricultural land productive and ecological under the control of independent, small-scale farmers.  In London and Bologna you will find childcare centres run by parents; in Bristol and Barcelona, green energy suppliers run by and for local residents.

Most (though not all) projects like these are relatively new. Some are struggling to make a go of it.  What they have in common is a determination to buck the trend of modern capitalism, to spread and share power and resources, rather than accumulate and monopolise them.

The idea is gaining ground now because orthodox economics is manifestly failing.  Most people feel they have little or no control over their economic destiny.  The gap between rich and poor is obscenely wide and growing.  Far too many people lack the bare necessities of life, even in the ‘rich world’.  Far too many parts of Europe have become economic wasteland, bordering on destitution.  The finite resources of the planet are being squandered at an alarming rate. In short, the financialised global economy is unfair, unstable and unsustainable.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, adopted by the United Nations in December 1987.  It provided the first and most enduring definition of ‘sustainable development’, an indigestible phrase that carries a vital message:  our aim as a human civilisation should be to meet ‘the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

As the Report makes clear, this calls for social equity, both within and between generations.  Needs cannot be met without access to essential resources.  Modern capitalism is failing to provide anything like equal access.  The case for sustainable development is more urgent than ever.  Claiming and controlling the ‘commons’ for the benefit of all is therefore a key feature of that strategy.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) is a radical London-based think-tank committed to building a sustainable economy and shifting power to ordinary people. It wants to open up debate about the commons – to explore how far this approach can help us reimagine a political economy that is fair and ecologically viable for current and future generations.  How can a good idea expressed through countless small-scale endeavours become a big idea that reshapes mainstream systems and structures across Europe?

One long-standing critique is that resources that are freely available to all will soon be exhausted because everyone will take what they want regardless of the needs of others.  This has been called the ‘tragedy of the commons’, an argument used for many years to justify private ownership of land and other essential resources. But the Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom has famously shown that this is far from inevitable, setting set out specific design principles for effective management of common pool resources.

As Ostrom demonstrates, there are certain conditions that will make stable, local management possible. One is that people who use resources must be able to participate in decisions about how to manage them.  Another is that higher-level authorities should recognise and support local control of the commons.

Addressing the first point, NEF argues for a three-way dialogue, combining lay people with experts and elected representatives. The dialogue would be informed by the best available evidence, but not enslaved by it: this is a bold innovation that requires imagination and even risk-taking.  Some “experts” will say that it can’t be done, or it won’t amount to much, or that there are insufficient data to support the case, but in the end it is a political process to be undertaken by and for people whose lives and futures will be affected by it.  And because it eventually requires buy-in from those who control public budgets, it cannot float above real politics, but needs to be knitted into formal systems of decision-making, by involving elected representatives.  NEF’s suggestions for bringing these three constituents together in the UK are based on learning from experience in Scotland, and in other countries, including Ireland, Iceland, Canada and the Netherlands.

On the second point of integrating top-down and bottom-up politics, we can draw inspiration from some city governments in Europe.   In Barcelona, for example, the radical party Barcelona En Comú has a majority in the city government, and promotes what it calls a collaborative economy, including many hundreds of co-operatives and other community-led and public interest organisations.  These include, mentioned earlier, and Som Energia Coop, a green energy co-operative, promotes ‘locally-generated, clean, sustainable electricity’ for ordinary homeowners.

In Bologna, the city government has introduced a pioneering regulation for ‘the care and regeneration of urban commons’.  According to David Bollier, leading expert on the commoning movement, this envisages the city as ‘a collaborative social ecosystem’ where the local state hosts a large number of self-organized, shared ventures that aim to serve the common interest. ‘The city and citizens’ says Bollier, ‘have entered into more than 90 different contracts or ‘pacts of collaboration’ between citizen groups and the Bolognese government, which specify the scope of each projects and respective responsibilities.’ These fall into three general categories – living together (collaborative services), growing together (co-ventures) and working together (co-production).’

Both cities show a willingness to support local residents in claiming, building and controlling local resources.  This is not enough, of course, to supplant or even threaten neoliberal politics.  But it chips away at conventional wisdom about how political and economic systems should operate.

If local ‘commoning’ initiatives continue to flourish and multiply, and if they can demonstrate that they are democratic, manageable and fair, they should begin to influence a wider range of thought leaders and policy-makers – and help to point the way towards a more sustainable political economy.


For further reading concerning the commons, please see the current link on BRAVE NEW EUROPE from George Monbiot: Don’t let the rich get even richer on the assets we all share


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