Monday, 21 December 2009

How to seize the mutualism moment

Does mutualism provide an animating idea for a 'next left'? Continuing the debate in this guest post, Anthony Painter argues that radical traditions of democratic decentralisation can help to deepen a modern mutualism. Anthony blogs at and writes the weekly labour movement column for LabourList.

It is easy to caricature Fabianism and many commentators do. But like all enduring schools of thought, Fabianism too has many strands - some dominant, some hidden or forgotten. As the left confronts a future where the market is questioned once more and the efficacy and legitimacy of the modern state is similarly challenged, where will the ideas for a difficult radical path be discovered?

And there is a thread within Fabian thought - the ideas associated with guildism that, in spirit at least, suggest a way out of today's gnarled circumstances. G.D.H. Cole, writing in 1920, a few paragraphs into his first chapter on Guild Socialism - a chapter titled The Demand for Freedom - exhorts:

"The essential social values are human values, and Society is to be regarded as a complex of associations held together by the wills of their members, whose well-being is its purpose".


"Society will be in health only if it is in the full sense democratic and self-governing".

He continues,

"[The] conception of democracy involves an active and not merely a passive citizenship on the part of the members".

In ethos and in philosophy, surely these sentiments are entirely adapted to the modern predicament.

Cole's complex solutions to the short-comings of both Leviathan and Mammon are quaint in a post-communist world. He proposed a series of professional guilds covering each industry which would represent the producer interest balanced by collectives or cooperatives which would pool the interests of consumers.

Yet the exact form is not the issue. The notion that power and ownership can be pooled collectively with the well-being of all paramount, is relevant now as it was then. There are rich seams of what could be termed republican in the left's fairly recent history. They were just swallowed by the course followed by the historical tide. Now is the moment to drill for this republican oil.

These ideas and concepts never quite went away: the Co-operative party and movement, the Common Wealth Party in the middle of the last century, and the new Mutualism of the late 1990s all kept them alive. The growth of the co-operative trust schools model has seen many of these ideas put into action. If there was an moment to consider the role that involved, commonly owned, democratic organisations have then it is now. So it was very encouraging that Tessa Jowell joined the debate with a well-received speech to Progress last week.

Jowell sees the co-operative opportunity very much in terms of public services. Housing, education, childcare, social care, and health services all got a mention. The state is critical to this and the logical place to start is where the state actually delivers services. Jowell's speech was clear about the role of the state in this regard:

"So by tradition, and by its very nature, mutualism is driven by and relies upon the commitment and active participation of the people involved. It is not something government can, or should, impose".

Governments can, however, create the conditions in which new social
movements can thrive."

Unsurprisingly, this position is closer to pragmatic reality than Cole's idealism. However, when the leader of the Conservative opposition is willing to say that he would seek to use the "state to remake society", there is perhaps a greater imaginative distance that could be travelled.

There are two immediate ways in which Tessa Jowell's message could be further developed in this regard.

Firstly, the scope of potential areas where co-operatism can be allied can be widened. Essentially, anything that the state is involved in regulating, intervening in, as well as delivering is susceptible to a co-operative approach. That could include energy generation, utilities, strategic investment, financial services, skills and further education, amenities as well as housing, education etc. The objective is to use the power of the state to spread wealth, ownership and power.

Secondly, rather than sticking to setting the context and providing support, the government could act as promoter. For example, take climate change. There is no reason why residents of local communities could not become members of co-operatives, independent of local authorities designed to reduce the climate impact of their neighbourhood. This approach has been pioneered in Asthon Hayes, a village in Cheshire, as described at Last month, I co-authored an article for LabourList looking at how this might be achieved with government support.

Yet mutualism is designed to unpick the centralised and remote state and so an overly statist determinism is out of step with that. Here Tessa Jowell's slight caution is sensible. Rather the approach must be experimental and incremental but with a conviction that there is much, from the perspective of achieving an active, democratic, and fair society, that these experiments can achieve. Atul Gawande sets out how incrementalism rapidly expanded US food production in the early twentieth century, drawing lessons for US healthcare reform.

So it must be with new forms of ownership in both the public and private
economy. Matthew Taylor analyses how in the next decade public services, catalysed by personal budgets, have the potential to be reassembled around the interests of users. Pooling that resource and organising how services respond will provide one opportunity for the extension of co-operatism.

There are dangers and pitfalls. An active minority - with reservoirs of social capital already at their disposal - may be able to skew resources towards their own interest. For example, Conservative proposal for schools, which allow parents to establish new schools funded effectively by an education voucher with a poor area premium, have much merit. However, there is a risk that through the location of these schools in more prosperous area that the interests of the well-organised few will prevail.

What will need to happen to counteract that is that social enterprises, with an
involvement ethos, will have to do the same in less prosperous areas. Green Dot, empowered by local teachers and rules governing the establishment of charter schools in California, was able to take over some of the poorest schools in Los Angeles. Results have been excellent. We need such organisations to operate in the UK and they could well be founded on co-operative principles.

Mutualism is just one aspect of the broader conversation that has become simultaneously both possible and necessary. The credit crunch widened the intellectual vista. Assumptions came crashing down as quickly as the banks did.

The 1910s were a time of intellectual excitement and energy. A century later, it seems likely that we are entering a similar period. Everything must be challenged and a new political economy of the left must be developed. Our notions of the state, community, ownership, market, power, citizenship, identity, organisation and democracy must be stress testing and re-designed.

To what end? A fair, equal, and free Britain. GDH Cole would have understood both the end and the intellectual process that was needed in order to reach it. His ideas have lessons for our times too.

Guest post from Anthony Painter; more at


Michael said...

'Everything must be challenged and a new political economy of the left must be developed. Our notions of the state, community, ownership, market, power, citizenship, identity, organisation and democracy must be stress testing and re-designed.'

That really is rather radical, and quite an admission.

Will it come to pass? I hope so. Though I do still suspect that all too many on the intellectual left prefer the power of the state to deliver their social agenda (often with a concomitant mistrust that the electorate will 'do the right thing'), and so I don't suppose any transition, if there ever is one, will be a breeze.

That the Fabians would be part of such a movement really is extraordinary - for the time being at least I'll remain sceptical, and see what comes to pass.

Derek Wall said...

You should have a look at the work of Elinor Ostrom who won the Nobel Prize for what sounds like your idea of mutualism.