Pat Conaty discusses the commons with Dave Darby

How do we grow the ‘co-operative commonwealth’? Interview with Pat Conaty

This is the second part of an interview with Pat Conaty, senior research fellow at NEF and Co-operatives UK and author of the Resilience Imperative, with Michael Lewis. We’re talking about building a co-operative commonwealth. Part 1 is here.

 So coming back to the commons, and defining terms, what is, for example, commons-based peer-production, and how does it fit in to the wider picture? And why is it different from just peer production?

There’s a group of people called the Commons Strategies Group. It’s a very small group. David Bollier is one of them, and Michel Bauwens at the P2P Foundation is another. They’ve been writing about commons peer production and the commons movement for over a decade now, and the P2P Foundation site documents lots of articles about different examples of commoning and peer production. There are also lots of people working on open source information about all sorts of things – like Wikihouse, for example – that can enable regions to become more resilient, decentralised and self-reliant, not depending so much on world trade and global corporations to provide for them. Bauwens documents these peer-to-peer developments on the P2P Foundation site and a very interesting blog called Commons Transition.

So there’s a growing commons movement. If you look to Barcelona for example, where Ada Colau became mayor. She led to grassroots movement to stop the evictions by the banks of people with mortgage debt after the 2008 crisis. And she got elected a few years ago with the commons party, in Barcelona. She holds a coalition government together. With her as mayor, they’ve been developing a commons model for Barcelona. They’re thinking about commons / co-operative systems for energy, housing and other shared resources. There are other cities looking at going in the same direction. In Bologna, for example, in Italy, Christian Iaione and others are developing the Bologna Regulation, where citizens contract with the city government to run a park, library etc. that the local authority can no longer afford to run. It’s a way of developing the commons in a city at a neighbourhood level.

Still on definitions Pat – the Commons is going to be a new topic on Lowimpact.org, and I’m wondering whether Peer-to-peer production and the Gift economy need to be new topics too, or whether they come under the Commons.

They’re very closely related. Peer-to-peer production is trying to develop something that’s about making commons. It’s the stakeholders, who are in the process of common wealth building, because they’re philosophically committed to the commons. Wikipedia is an example, or creative commons licensing – instead of copyright, Michel Bauwens is arguing for copyleft. So you’re creating commons property rights. Just for example – in 1215 there was Magna Carta, but two years after that, King John had to agree to the Charter of the Forest, which created commons rights that still exist in some places – for taking turf, wood, fishing, pasture land etc. It was the beginning of the medieval commons. That was peer-to-peer production.

What about things like the Maker movement?

There are a lot of Makerspaces that are privately owned and controlled. If the space is being developed by a co-operative, it seems to me that it should have an asset lock, and it should be owned and controlled by the members. That’s where I think co-operative ownership and commons ownership can come together in a creative hybrid.

And Fab Labs?

Yeah, there are articles about Fab Labs and Makerspaces on the P2P Foundation site. There are thousands of articles out there about these manifestations of commons peer production.

What about MOOCs (the free, massive open online courses)?

Well, most of those are run by universities, and they use a proprietary system, like Canvas, for example. So yes, you could have a common MOOC, but then you’d have to work on developing the platform for it. It’s not just about the fact that it’s free. Lots of things are free – think of Google – but they’re not commons. The whole ‘sharing economy’ is deceptive – we’ve seen that with Facebook, and the selling of private data. But there are some good examples. In Switzerland, the health co-operatives are data co-ops. So there are some data co-ops that are the opposite of the Silicon Valley behemoths that we know. And the entire gig economy – think Uber, Airbnb etc. – you just have to think about who owns the platform, then you’ll understand that they’re not about sharing at all.

Yes, the Sharing Economy is a misnomer, isn’t it?

It’s been corrupted as a term. It’s got to be democratically owned and controlled to be a sharing economy.

Going back to what you were saying about intellectual property rights, it occurred to me that in Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, which is a real favourite of the libertarian right, her hero was an industrialist who invented a machine to produce limitless clean energy. The government wanted the patent, for the good of everyone, but he refused, because he didn’t trust the government. He and some other industrialists left society to set up a new libertarian system, without government. But if they didn’t have intellectual property rights, which are enforced by the government, then others will reverse-engineer his machine and it will then belong to everyone. You can’t have it both ways. Rand’s story was inconsistent, for me.

Interesting. And of course he’d want the courts to enforce those property rights, and he’d want the police to arrest the ‘thieves’ and put them in jails, and so on.

I was wondering what your positions is on intellectual property rights per se.

It’s an interesting question – in that, how could musicians etc. make a living. It’s a question of how do you limit those property rights so that they don’t become extractive. How do we build a system of property rights that recognise an individual’s personal need for autonomy / agency – and that would apply to small groups too. But only for meeting the needs of those people. Beyond that, you begin to create monopolies, where there’s no other provider.

If you look at a community land trust, it says that you can’t own the land, but you can own your own home. Or you can set up a housing co-op to lease from the land trust. So people owning their own property is fine – a house for example, that they own, decorate, maintain etc, because it’s theirs. That’s OK. They have enough for themselves and their family. Owning two or three houses – then you’re into the landlord game, so it’s about how you create the right balance between sufficient private property, which is non-extractive, and common wealth, which is beyond that. Or for that matter, state ownership of certain resources, that could be managed like a commons.

For example, the NHS couldn’t have come into existence after WW2 if for the century before that, trade unionists had not developed, with others, 23,000 Friendly Societies that were providing health care. The NHS couldn’t have happened without the struggles of working people to provide their own co-operative health care societies, because they couldn’t afford the prices in the open market. They developed a mutual aid solution.

What would you describe as the main benefits of the commons?

There are so many things that we take for granted, but that we’re losing, that grew out of commons struggles to create something that was a universal good, like education. Now privatisation is creeping in everywhere. We’re losing the health service by stealthy privatisation. Look at public services. Look at Carillion. Look at the state of the social care system. So there is an important contract – and this is where the Bologna Regulation is interesting – between citizens and the state.

So, why couldn’t those health co-operatives have continued after the war? Why did they have to be wiped away to produce the NHS? That would have helped decentralise and democratise the health sector, and provide a safety net that the state can’t or won’t provide. That’s a different argument from public / private partnerships. We know where the libertarian right has been going with that one for the last 30+ years. But where is the economic democracy alternative? It’s not articulated well enough. When it comes to social welfare, there are alliances that could be made between the commons sector, co-operatives, trades unions, local authorities and the public for a much more democratic economy.

I had a conversation with four city traders recently, who described themselves as libertarians (in the US sense – i.e. libertarian right). I said that they don’t want to be told what to do by state bureaucrats, but are happy to be told what to do by capitalist bosses, which is inconsistent – why not take it a step further, and rebel against both kinds of authority? They sort of agreed, but said that that was straying close to anarchism. I said that they could use that word if they liked, but why not just talk about a democratic, non-extractive economy. They were quite open to the idea. I don’t think it’s necessarily something to scare the right, but as soon as you use the word socialism, you will scare the right, because they associate it with state control, and from there, totalitarianism. If we’re careful about the words we use, we may be able to bring along a lot of people we haven’t traditionally been able to reach, because they haven’t even looked into it, because they don’t feel attracted to the way it’s framed.

There is a narrative to be forged – a common narrative that brings people in to support an alternative. Plan B, or C. That’s missing I think. The co-operative movement seems to discover co-operative common wealth when times get hard. So in the 1890s, there was a lot of talk of co-operative common wealth (or commonwealth). You could see it on trade union banners. William Morris talked about it. It lasted until WW2, but after that it disappeared until the late 60s and 70s, when the co-op movement exploded all over the world. Now it’s being picked up again.

But if we ask the three cardinal questions – how do we take land, money and people out of the market – we can establish economic democracy on solid foundations. But if we only focus on building co-operatives and ignore the land, money and people questions, the co-operative movement will fire on one cylinder. It will have forgotten its history.

How do we knit these things together? For example, you have organisations like the Ecological Land Co-op, who, although they’re small, their idea is brilliant. The Scottish Farm Land Trust is going to be doing the same thing in Scotland. There are also people working on mutual credit, which I think is the best attempt to democratise the exchange system. I’d like to add sole traders into the mix too – they’re one-person democratic businesses. That’s where the real growth is in employment nowadays – in small businesses, including co-ops, and in self-employment. How do we knit all this together to create a non-extractive movement?

There are people working on it. That’s what the New Economy Coalition in the States is working on. The Democracy Collaborative, also in the States, is doing work on building common wealth. We don’t have anything exactly like this in the UK yet, although CTRLshift is a step in that direction. Open Democracy has a dialogue going on about what would a good future look like for the UK. There are lots of articles about democratising energy, housing and other sectors. So there are lots of elements in the UK, that are at the moment, fragmented. They need to find common ground.

So solidarity economy ideas, and the work that the Commons Strategies group are advancing. Those can help us form glue to bind together fellow travellers who are walking the talk – but at the moment they’re doing it in isolation. But setting up worker co-ops, housing co-ops, land co-ops, community land trusts etc. is challenging in its own right – and you don’t have time to think about much else. But we have to.

I think co-operative commons education is a key thing too. The movement to create the welfare state was actually advanced through the Workers Education Association (WEA), promoting further education for working people. Local authorities were supporting the WEA to advance new economy solutions. And the Co-operative College has been working on the idea of a Co-operative University, because of the high fees of the universities.

There’s fantastic work going on. I talk to people working to build the new economy all the time. I guess I’m looking for the catalyst that will help us really start to take market share. I thought that mutual credit might be a key component.

You’re absolutely right, I think it’s an important part of the jigsaw. But I don’t think it’s sufficient, in the sense that it tries to provide liquidity for businesses, in an interest-free way – that’s really a key missing link, but it doesn’t provide all of the financial services that you need to build a democratic financial system. We need to find a way of connecting the work of credit unions, community development finance, mutual credit, the new regional co-op banks. They’re all part of the answer, but brought together, they could provide a much more powerful set of tools than just mutual credit.

So people who are listening to this, and who are reading about the commons, and they’re interested – what can they do to get involved and help grow the commons?

Well, we don’t have a commons movement in the UK. In other countries, for example in Greece, in Catalonia, there is an emergence of a commons movement. It’s quite closely aligned in many countries with the solidarity movement. For example in the Greek crisis they would have commons festivals every year. They started in Crete. I went to the one in Athens. They’re big festivals that brought people together, to play music, to listen to talks, to have teach-ins, to share food etc. It still happens in Greece – they’ve established a grassroots movement for the solidarity economy and the commons. It’s emerging in Portugal too. In southern European countries where unemployment has been higher than here, the jobs crisis drove people to come together. We haven’t established that kind of solidarity here yet. We still have the sharp elbows mentality.

When you say there’s a solidarity movement and a commons movement in Greece – what’s the difference on the ground between the two?

They do overlap. They’re part of the new economy mentality. And that’s fine. If the solidarity economy is developing social co-operatives for example, for care, for green energy, and the commons movement is working on Makerspaces and peer-to-peer production and copyleft ideas and free software, they can come together and have conversations, compare notes and learn from each other.

I still like the idea of the ‘new economy’, and then when people ask what’s new about it, you can say that it’s democratic and non-extractive. And that’s it – it’s really simple. It seems to be a good umbrella term. And people understand that it’s a new economy.

Well, I’ve been a fellow of the New Economics Foundation since it was set up in the late 80s. I’ve always been a bit perplexed by the term new economy – because it doesn’t tell me anything. In fact, new economy was used by Tony Blair to promote his Third Way. So it’s quite loaded. That’s why I prefer reclaiming the co-operative commonwealth tradition. I think it’s coming round again. Why is the co-op movement now only 2% of GDP in the UK, when it’s 10% in Italy? Why have we only got 500 worker co-ops when Italy has 23,000 worker co-ops and multistakeholder social co-ops? Almost a million jobs in those co-ops in Italy. They’ve been developing the solidarity economy in Italy since the late 1970s. They’ve put in place laws, financing systems, education. They’ve done a lot more to make the economic democracy movement much more evident.

You say the co-op movement is coming back – then how can we stop it going again? How can we keep it growing, so that it takes over?

That’s what I find interesting about the US work – the New Economy Coalition – they’ve been focusing on how to develop economic democracy solutions. So for example, working to take back the electricity grid from private ownership and to bring it into at least public ownership again, if not some sort of commons ownership. In at least 10 cities, including New York, the authorities are looking at how they can support the development of worker co-ops. Public-social partnerships are emerging in various cities. New York is a good example, where mayor de Blasio is under pressure from an organised co-operative economics alliance, and has set up a multi-million dollar worker co-op development fund.

We’ve been here before. This did happen in the 70s and 80s in this country, but we’ve forgotten about that. We need to put together an ecosystem, including public policy, to support these economic democracy solutions. So Preston is interesting – the leader of the council there, Matthew Brown is trying to promote the local economy through procurement.

It’s really working, isn’t it?

Yes. It’s making a difference. And now trades union / co-op ideas are being considered now in Preston. But we need more local authorities looking at what Preston’s doing, and pursuing similar solutions. We can’t ignore the state. We do need to get policies and political buy-in.

Highlights

  1. If we ask the three cardinal questions – how do we take land, money and people out of the market – we can establish economic democracy on solid foundations. But if we only focus on building co-operatives and ignore the land, money and people questions, the co-operative movement will fire on one cylinder. It will have forgotten its history.
  2. The whole ‘sharing economy’ is deceptive – think Uber, Airbnb etc. – you just have to think about who owns the platform, then you’ll understand that they’re not about sharing at all.

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