Q&A: Public-Common Partnerships
Public-Common Partnerships (PCPs) are a proposed approach to the common ownership and governance of assets and resources. Imagined as a reverse engineering of the Public-Private Partnerships that dominated the past 40 years, PCPs propose a role for public institutions in both de-risking and enabling processes of commoning. At its core, a PCP is a joint enterprise that incorporates ‘common associations’, public bodies, and wider stakeholders in the ownership and governance of assets, ranging from coastal aquaculture and country farms to urban high streets. Through creating different opportunities for democratic engagement, and through bringing profits under popular democratic control, PCPs are conceptualised as a vehicle for the expansive definancialisation and democratisation of the economy.
Frances Northrop interviews Bertie Russell, Keir Milburn & Kai Heron to understand more about their development and how they fit into the wider movement for the democratic economy.
Frances: So how did the idea of PCPs come about?
Bert: We first started working on the idea of Public Common Partnerships in 2017. One thing that characterised this period was a sort of ‘left hope’, not least due to the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party, which had not existed for quite a long time. One of the key things to have come from that period was an acceleration in new economic thinking, where one of the most emblematic interventions was the 2017 Alternative Models of Ownership report. Rather than looking backwards to the 1940s and 50s, with a focus on top-down state ownership and centralised approaches to governance, this new economic thinking was starting to explore what alternative approaches to public ownership could actually look like. What does it mean, in terms of popular participation? What does that mean in terms of who actually owns something? How do these different forms of ownership contribute to a wider ecosocialist transition?
Keir: A key impetus for us was an article written by Martin O’Neill and Joe Guinan in Renewal Journal called The Institutional Turn: Labour’s new political economy, to which we authored a response titled What Can an Institution Do? Towards public-common partnerships and a new common sense. Firstly, we argued that we had to take seriously the wider effects of the way assets and resources are governed, to consider the positive and negative spillover effects of particular institutional designs. Secondly, reform of public institutions was a central part of the neoliberal revolution precisely because of these spillover effects, changing the way people thought about themselves by inculcating an individualistic mode of thinking [resulting in wider detrimental effects for the prospects for the development of socialist/anti-capitalist movements].
So the question for us became, how would you change that? How could processes of democratic governance linked to democratic ownership reverse the social-political effects of neoliberal institutional governance? What sort of institutions could help develop democratic subjects who are able to participate in a flourishing democracy that sees problems as social problems that can be addressed through collective action and cooperation?
Bert: Thinking about the wider socio-political effects of institutional forms certainly isn’t just the preserve of the left. If we take Margaret Thatcher at her word when she said that “economics are the method, the object is to change the heart and soul”, then we need to consider the past 40 years of economic interventions – from the Right to Buy policy to the marketisation of the NHS – as concerted attempts to fundamentally shift the psychological composition of societies. These reforms weren’t just about making the rich richer, but changing the ‘common sense’ of what it means to be a citizen, and what appears politically and socially possible. Institutional design is part of a political strategy.
Keir: We presented some of these initial ideas at a conference in early 2019 called Equality and Democracy in Local and City Government, which was significant in bringing together a lot of people associated with this new heterodox economic practice and thinking. It was there that we met Matthew Lawrence, who was in the process of establishing a new think tank called Common Wealth. Mat invited us to expand on the idea of PCPs in more depth and set out how we hoped they would contribute to a wider project of socialist transformation, which resulted in Common Wealth’s first publication: Public Common Partnerships – Building New Circuits of Collective Ownership.