What makes the commons movement different? (A: it’s much more difficult to co-opt.)

This article is exploratory – we’re having ongoing discussions about commons models in Stroud and elsewhere. If you have any knowledge of the topics covered below, we’d love to hear from you.

The kinds of questions we’re often asked are, for example, ‘What’s different about the commons movement? What are you bringing to the party that we don’t have already? Why should I give it my time when there are so many other things I could be doing? How will the commons help build a powerful movement? If you’re successful, won’t the state just close you down? How can we work together?’

When the (new) commons movement is providing secure tenancies in community-owned housing; affordable, sustainable utilities; reliable and secure ways for people to invest in their local community, with a reasonable return; ways for small businesses to save money; and jobs, then we shouldn’t have to expend very much energy on persuading people to join. We already have a waiting list for potential housing commons tenants.

Calling activists / volunteers

But right now, we need to attract activists / volunteers in Stroud and other towns, to build commons institutions, promote, network, research, develop websites, start groups in their towns, and brainstorm. So this article is for potential activists, who see that the global economy is run by corporate entities that are literally inhuman, with policies that are therefore inhuman – concerned with profit, making money and stock prices above human and environmental well-being.

Over the years, I’ve attracted people into the commons movement with articles like this, who are now involved full-time in very exciting projects, in the UK and elsewhere (like this, this and this, as well as people involved in Stroud Commons). I know it works – so this is my latest attempt. Why should potential activists focus on the commons, when there’s such a huge range of other things they could be doing to help build a new, sustainable, democratic, humane system? What makes the commons different?

The commons is a movement to create a different world, not just the same system with a few tweaks to make it more bearable. If successful, obviously there will be entities out there that will try to undermine it, buy it and ultimately, to crush it. But there are aspects to the commons model that will, I think, make it more resistant to this than existing models.

Existing co-operative models aren’t challenging the status quo

Co-ops and mutuals are great. When the pioneers were building the first co-operatives and building societies in the 19th century, they must have believed that they were planting the seeds of a new system. The world had never seen anything like it. And they were successful – very successful! There are now over 3 million co-ops in the world, with 1.2 billion members and 280 million employees. Beyond the wildest dreams of the pioneers, I imagine.

But can we honestly say that they’re challenging the status quo? Not really – and they’re now being slowly absorbed into capitalism. The Co-op Bank is no longer a co-op. It’s owned by various hedge funds and asset management companies. Although Co-op Energy is still owned by Midcounties Co-op, its energy supply and billing is run by Octopus Energy. And more than half of (mutual) building societies have been bought by the banking sector. The situation is similar with (mutual) savings & loans companies in the US.

Why is this the case? Clearly, asset locks aren’t strong enough, if they’re not able to prevent corporate buyouts. But also:

  • They have to go into debt to bring infrastructure into co-operative ownership; for example, to buy housing stock, housing co-ops have to obtain mortgages from, go into debt with and pay compound interest to corporate financial institutions – the kinds of institutions that co-ops were designed to replace.
  • They use the bank-issued money system, for sales, rents, wages and purchasing; but money is the thing that’s constantly sucked out of communities and concentrated in the corporate sector.
  • Community shares aren’t attractive enough to investors. I own community shares in a community energy scheme that pays a fixed return of 3% p.a. – i.e. less than inflation. I’m happy with that, and consider it a donation, but it won’t attract enough serious investors, and therefore won’t allow us to buy enough infrastructure / land / housing etc.
  • We have a world of isolated projects, that don’t effectively federate with different geographical areas and different sectors, to form the basis of a new economy – relatively small co-operative islands in an ocean of corporate capitalism. Principle 6 (of the international co-operative principles) is co-operation between co-operatives, which has happened, but (apart from in places like the Basque Country and Emilia Romagna) not to the extent of federation to present a realistic alternative.

Other issues with other co-operative / community-facing models etc. that hold them back and potentially make them vulnerable:

  • The infrastructure / assets aren’t owned by the community, but by a business (albeit a co-operative one).
  • Charities and CLTs, for example, don’t allow for paid directors or trustees, but if we can’t pay people to manage schemes, then only well-off people can be in charge.
  • Trustees are often liable for any debts – so if the membership wanted to do something risky or radical, they could stop it. They could decide to bring in accountants or lawyers to provide advice, and as accountants and lawyers are not famous for being particularly radical, they might advise against it, and the trustees might well agree. Ultimately, directors and trustees are in charge, and if they decide to go against commons / co-operative principles, the courts would allow it.
  • Co-ops have often been seen as a challenge to established economic interests, and this has been the case under capitalist, socialist and fascist regimes. Governments can make things difficult for co-ops, and can ultimately close them down. Legal recognition didn’t come easily at first, and still today in some countries it’s much more difficult to form co-ops than in others.
  • The laws around co-operative models are constantly changing. CLTs were brought into existence with an act of parliament, and it would be really simple to get rid of them by changing the law – but of course there’s no incentive to get rid of them, as they’re too tiny to challenge the status quo.

Why commons models are more difficult to co-opt or cancel

The state also managed to snuff out the friendly societies, that were huge at the beginning of the 20th century, and as the friendly societies were more like commons institutions I guess, that seems to go against my main argument here. But that happened at a time when Western governments were very afraid of communist revolution, and were eager to provide health and social care that was free at the point of use, to dampen any revolutionary enthusiasm. We’re in a very different place now – states don’t see any challenge from the left, and consequently, the NHS and social care provision is crumbling.

Here are the main ways that the commons economy will be much more difficult to co-opt:

  • If commons groups can buy land / houses etc. not by borrowing or selling shares, but by selling future-use vouchers (use-credit obligations), they can be debt-free, which can reduce risk and increase rewards for investors.
  • Ultimately, they won’t need to use bank-issued money either. Credit clearing schemes can reduce the need for money enormously, and then mutual credit networks can remove it altogether. Apps are being developed that will enable vouchers to be bought, wages to be paid and local goods to be purchased within a mutual credit environment, rather than with bank-issued, debt-based money that can be extracted from communities and concentrated.
  • Very strong asset locks via a custodian member class with a veto vote, to make sure that groups do nothing that makes them vulnerable or that violates commons principles, like taking on debt, or selling assets out of the commons.
  • The Credit Commons Protocol (and potentially, sociocratic decision-making) will allow local commons groups to federate with different sectors and different towns, to present a united front and the basis of a new economy.
  • Stewards / managers of schemes can be paid for their work, which means that the role will be available to anyone, not just the better-off, who don’t need to be paid.
  • Basic legal forms can be used that would be difficult for governments to cancel without disrupting millions of ordinary businesses.

We’ll blog more about all of the above as things progress. When it starts to roll, the new commons models can prevent capitalists from ever buying our assets again, it can avoid debt and compound interest with the banking system, it can start to avoid money, interest and payment card fees altogether, it can connect together sectors and towns into a federation, and it can provide savings and pensions for people within their communities, without having anything to do with the financial sector. Plus it’s a model in which the community owns and controls everything. People who are customers of the commons, who are employed by the commons and who have their pensions and savings with the commons are all members / commoners, with equal control. This could end up being the majority of people within a community.

But we need to build in a solid way that can’t be undermined / bought / crushed (we can never guarantee that this won’t happen, but we can start in ways that make it more difficult). The problem is setting something up that’s democratic, but not democratic enough to allow assets to be sold out of the commons, or for groups to demutualise, like the building societies.

Credit clearing works – banks do it among themselves. Mutual credit works – there’s an international commercial mutual credit trade association that oversees global trade in mutual credit worth $14 billion annually. The Credit Commons Protocol works – it’s been tested by linking lots of LETS schemes and timebanks in various countries. The future-use voucher idea is being trialled by Island Power in the Pacific, but we’ll be pioneers in the UK with this.

A new movement is long overdue

If we’re looking for a movement that can challenge the status quo, then nothing that currently exists is going to do it. Capitalists can sleep easily, knowing that all current challenges can be safely ignored, and if needs be, co-opted, bought or crushed. Something’s missing.

I believe that the core of this new movement will be the commons, based on Elinor Ostrom’s 8 commons principles. But I think we can simplify them by boiling them down to three:

  1. Resources / assets are not owned privately, but it’s not a free-for-all either. There are boundaries and agreements so that all users (commoners) know exactly what’s expected of them, and what they can expect to get from the commons, whether it’s housing, energy, food, water, social care, or anything else.
  2. Commoners make and monitor the agreements themselves – they’re not imposed from above.
  3. The commons is a movement – each local commons fits into a larger commons, and so on, up to the global scale.

The first negates Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. The second shows that this is separate from the state. The third makes the ambition clear. The rest is detail.

We’re now bringing new tools for:

  • obtaining infrastructure without debt
  • trade without money
  • robust, multi-layered asset locks
  • resilience against sale, co-option or cancellation
  • community ownership
  • democratic decision-making
  • federation

The whole range of existing co-operative institutions will also be part of it. We’re not looking to abandon co-ops. I’d choose a co-op or a mutual over a corporation every time (and I do), but the co-op movement can’t be considered revolutionary any more – at least not on its own. It’s a palliative (which isn’t a bad thing) – as is state ownership. And seizing power by force is a fading pipe-dream (as well as a bad thing).

But we absolutely have to work together. There aren’t enough of us not to. It’s not about trying to get a bigger slice of the pie for one section of society. It’s about baking a new pie.

We’re going to offer everything we learn to other towns. We’re pioneers, but almost everyone responds well to the concept of the commons. Good things are happening, with good people involved. You should join us – become a member. Right now, members can be:

  1. investors
  2. volunteers / activists

and soon:

  1. customers / tenants – there are waiting lists
  2. employees / stewards – ditto

Contact us, and let’s talk.

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