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Q&A: Public-Common Partnerships

Illustration by
Alice Nutley

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.

Failure is an option

Kelly Bewers and Dan Woolley

The Hubble Telescope, one of the most incredible inventions in our recent times, was designed with failure in mind. Kathryn Sullivan, one of the astronauts onboard Hubble, explains in her brilliant book Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut’s Story of Invention (2019), how the engineers and inventors accepted that many of its components would be defunct and ultimately replaced by more effective solutions. The NASA team were humble in their belief (and hope) that future generations would improve on their efforts. This acceptance of ‘failure’ as an intrinsic and inevitable evolution of growth, development, and learning enabled the team to create an incredible machine that could be maintained long into the future. 

It’s hard to imagine a more complex feat of human engineering, collaboration, and systems design than sending a telescope like Hubble into orbit. If institutions like NASA can accept and, more importantly, design for and learn from failure, then surely we could apply the same thinking to our social, environmental, and economic issues.

Unfortunately, anyone casting an eye over the third sector – both its constituent charities and social enterprises, and the institutions (primarily funders) that prop up the ecosystem – will struggle in vain to find any evidence of failure, let alone associated learnings. This is not the fault of any individual organisation; rather it’s a cultural problem, whose roots are long and deep. 

Instigating a culture that foregrounds failure isn’t radical, it’s logical. If those working in social change organisations can feel released from the burdens and constraints of unhelpful performance indicators and have permission to innovate – grounded in the insight, evidence, and learning from the communities and lived experience of those who use services and need care – then change might emerge more quickly and more effectively.

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Imperialism and the Diggers

Rowan Powell

On 1st April 1649, two months after the execution of Charles I, the Diggers, a group of poor radical agrarian protesters, arrived to farm unused land at St George’s Hill in Surrey, England. Prominent Digger Gerrard Winstanley wrote, “England is not a Free People, till the poor that have no Land, have a free allowance to dig and labour the Commons, and so live as Comfortably as the Landlords that live in their Inclosures.” Charles I’s death, interpreted by many as the end of the divine right of kings, opened the floodgates for previously inconceivable claims to land access. Diggers took the former Crown Land and surrounding wastes to collect wood, grow beets, carrots and corn, and to house and clothe those in need. Their acts of care were met with ongoing violent assaults. 

Winstanley rallied adamantly against the ‘buying and selling of the Earth’ calling for the abolition of money, private property, imperialism, and enclosure. He declared, “Those that Buy and Sell Land, and are landlords, have got it either by Oppression, or Murther, or Theft”. The backlash from local landlords was systematic. The Diggers faced beatings and arson, forcing them to move from St George’s Hill to a second site in Cobham, until they were finally driven off the land entirely. 

For 200 years after the Diggers were forced from St George’s Hill, the land continued to be the site of various disputes over gathering wood and other commoning practices. St George’s Hill went from a prominent site for resistance against enclosures and imperialism to some of the most expensive acreage in the world. All the while, anti-enclosure protestors in England were routinely deported to Barbados, as vast amounts of plantation wealth from the Caribbean flowed into landed estates in Surrey.

Looking beyond the security gates and patrolled perimeters, as well as national borders they mimic, provides an illuminating lens in the global processes of colonial land dispossession, through which the Diggers’ insurgency can be read within a broader international anti-imperial struggle in the seventeenth century. 

Today 37 of the luxury homes are registered offshore in the Caribbean British Virgin Islands to avoid taxation, a trend in which vast amounts of global wealth are made both untaxable and untraceable. However, St George’s Hill’s links to the Caribbean, and a broader colonial history, far precede the contemporary absentee owners and global investors frequenting the golf course. 

Imperialism through St George’s Hill 

If you were to visit St George’s Hill today you would be confronted with a near-thousand-acre private gated community, with some of the most expensive acreage in the world where properties sell for between £15-30m. Houses in the 11/2 acre plots have been second or third homes to celebrities such as John Lennon, Elton John, and Cliff Richard. Needless to say, the site is guarded by 24-hour security patrols, whose disdain for visitors is second only to the stronghold of the residents’ own curtain-twitching neighbourhood watch. 

However, the accumulation of wealth at St George’s runs much deeper than world famous pop stars and oligarchs. As part of the violent centuries-long transference of common access to exclusive private property, in the 1640s, manorial lords sought to raise cash at St George’s Hill, selling off felled wood and cutting trees, an encroachment onto common rights that ignited the Diggers and their supporters. Many more conflicts over access and use of these manorial wastes raged on, with the land passing through various aristocratic hands.In 1804 a portion of the land passed to Prince Frederick, the Duke of York. It was rapidly sold to Jeremiah Hodges, who inherited estates in England as well as plantations in the Caribbean, one of many Englishmen to amass vast sums of wealth through imperial ventures.

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Interview: Linsey McGoey

Your book There’s No Such Thing as a Free Gift traces the historical origins of philanthropy to the more recent rise of philanthrocapitalism. You argue that the current result-oriented focus on “investor-based excellence” is part of the same impulse of the “efficiency movements” that informed the early philanthropists. What are the continuities and changes in relation to today’s world of philanthropy? 

The Gates Foundation claims that what’s new about their giving is their hands-on approach, with the founders like Bill Gates being closely involved in decision making and trying to invest for impact. But that type of approach to philanthropy, to be results-oriented, actually has a very long heritage. If you look back to the robber barons at the start of the twentieth century, like John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie, who really started to expand their giving in the later years of the end of the nineteenth century into the early twentieth century, they were also very hands-on. They were also ‘efficient’ and used the rhetoric of efficiency to defend their philanthropy, influenced by people like Frederick Winslow Taylor, who was a major management theorist who tried to apply principles of efficiency to industrial organisation. Taylor’s writing influenced the policy experts who were advising Rockefeller and Carnegie, whose own brand of philanthropy was upheld by them and others as being more modern in approach than earlier, church-led practices of giving. Many faith groups preach that charity is morally beneficial regardless of the impact on the recipient, because it is good for a donor to sacrifice something. Carnegie and Rockefeller agreed to some extent. Both were religious men. But they also insisted on something growing in importance ever since the utilitarian turn in the nineteenth century, the idea that you really should measure your results. That donors should be more efficient, just like Carnegie and Rockefeller claimed to be in their industrial practices. So in short, there’s actually more continuity between the late robber barons like Carnegie and Rockefeller and today’s tech moguls like Elon Musk and Gates than the new tech moguls will sometimes acknowledge, because the new robber barons like Gates want to uphold themselves as being more distinctive than they really are.

The rise of the foundations and NGOs has been part of the wider crisis of democracy over recent decades, where we’ve experienced “government’s disavowal of its capacity to meet social needs”, the public’s declining trust in government to work in the interest of all, and the popularisation of pre-existing claims that self-taxing is the most efficient way to dispose of “wealth in the frame of public policy through non-democratic processes.” Do you think this historical context is largely missing from the mission-driven NGOs of today?

It’s a very important question because we need to theorise what the absence of historical knowledge does, what kind of effects it brings about, and they can be very nefarious effects. The short answer is yes, that historical knowledge is often missing or limited. People are busy; day-to-day policy officers don’t have a lot of time to be re-reading something like Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth, for example. So they rely on how philanthropy is understood and reported by academics, particularly in the United States, who really push this idea that there’s something novel to the purportedly ‘new’ scientific philanthropy of the last 30 or 40 years. Those pushing this line are management scholars based at Harvard and other Ivy League universities. It’s important to stress how influential some of these management theorists are, to the benefit of corporate and wealthy beneficiaries. As one rare insider put it in a recent book title, management scholars are the ‘hired hands’ of big business. Two of the most influential management scholars taking big consultancy cheques from various industries are Michael Porter and Mark Kramer, both at Harvard. One of their major claims, put forward in a series of articles they co-published in academic business journals in the 1990s, is that earlier philanthropic foundations did not pay attention to effectiveness or impact. It’s actually a wrong claim, in my view, but they cherry-picked different evidence to support their claims, and put forward an argument that did convince many other groups and that is extremely well-cited today. My own counter-argument is that it ignores approaches like the Taylorist movement in the early twentieth century. But what really interests me is what Porter and Kramer’s historical amnesia or deliberate forgetting does. What it does is this: it lets today’s new donors set up a false premise about their own giving practices in ways that help them to perpetuate the idea that their corporate practices are not the problem that they are. Because if you claim that earlier philanthropic practices failed because they weren’t trying to be scientific or efficient, you can also then claim that the main problems lie within the structure of the giving, and not to the underlying problem of huge wage depreciation for workers or exploitation surrounding benefits and protections for workers. You can sort of efface all of those structural realities that are the real reason for why philanthropy is not effective. The real reason philanthropy is not effective is because the business practices of rich donors depend on fueling the very problems of hunger and wage theft that the philanthropists then purport to correct. The problem isn’t that Rockefeller or Carnegie weren’t ‘efficient’ enough, but that any sort of giving is only ever a voluntary, piecemeal, unguaranteed income flow. It’s a Band-Aid. It’s a small-scale, corrective impulse, which does not do enough to rectify underlying problems of industrial, systematic disadvantage for workers. 

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The Future of Worker Co-operation in the UK

Siôn Whellens

A new and independent organisation of worker co-operatives, cooperators, and supporters of industrial democracy will be launched in 2023.

Based in the UK, it will take on the role of a sectoral federation to unite, defend, and advance the shared interest of worker-controlled and worker-owned enterprises. Beyond this, it will strengthen worker co-operative culture by mobilising co-operators and allies through industrial networks, knowledge sharing, social movement alliances, and active internationalism. Most importantly, we want to make the system of worker control and collective ownership accessible and relevant for new groups and generations of workers, refining our propositions and organising models in the process.

Why now? The reasons are partly internal to the movement. The long drift since the 1990s intensified after the demise of the last independent national federation, the Industrial Common Ownership Movement (ICOM) in 2001. Without our own specialist federation, we’ve been unable to articulate clear and authentic messages about democracy at work, adequately respond to changes in the broader political and policy realm, or participate strategically in the wider autonomous workers’ and social justice movements. Let alone build on earlier hard-won gains. The fortunes of organised worker co-operatives have always more or less risen and fallen with those of the wider workers’ movement, so some historical and political perspective is useful to understand the present sense of urgency. 

The history of worker co-operation goes back 250 years in Europe, represented primarily through workers’ unions and worker co-operatives. The earliest worker co-operatives in the eighteenth century were a critical reaction to capitalism and the industrial revolution, particularly the violent transition from agricultural and artisanal production to the factory system.

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