The commons and the state – reading and discussion 24th August


This month we will be investigating how those fighting for commons within the city can interact with the state – and the pros and cons of such attempts. Can we force the state to recognise our commons? Can we use the state to create commons? There are a few readings but they are all short:

On the Bologna experiment

And Barcelona in Common:

And on the idea of the Partner State:

The session will be at 7pm, on Monday August 24th, at The Field, 385 Queens Road, SE14 5HD

Thoughts after the session

The texts were chosen to create a discussion about how those struggling to create and maintain commons can interact with the state. The two main readings presented somewhat different ideas – working to commonise the state, and working with the existing state to create commons. The discussion was attended by several members of Commons Rising, which added a welcome new perspective to the discussion. I made no record of what we talked about so am instead going to report on what I’ve thought about since.

Any interaction with the state is difficult, for the state contains a lot of conservative and reactionary forces, is to some extent defined by being a channel for those forces. One must be aware of a fine balance: the need to compromise with the state, versus the need to challenge it.

There was some discussion of whether we need a strong culture of our own from which to challenge the state, and whether that exists at the moment. Do we feel ready to take on the state? Many organisations in Spain have clearly felt that they are ready, or at least that it is necessary to enter state insitutions right now. But this does seem to spring from a grassroots far more active than in the UK. Also, the Barcelona en Comu article imagines a beautiful image of intersectional struggles happening through a super democratic political infrastructre – but is a little short on details. It’s not clear how the party/network can enact many of their desires.

Yet at the same time the resources that the state can channel are so large that it is difficult to ignore. To me this is why many people don’t take radical politics seriously in the UK: our organising never becomes a channel for significant resources. So simply doing our own thing has its limitations – in particular it often does not appeal to people who feel that politics should be about controlling the significant resources they need for a good quality of life. We need to change the way we relate to each other, but this cannot ignore the necessities of life.

I mentioned a recent book called Flatpack Democracy, which is about taking power in town councils, against all the parties. There has been a recent phenomenon of coalitions of independents kicking out all the parties in a few towns. This is subversive in that it involves a deliberate abandoning of the party form – these groups have no whip. But at the same time there is little political content to these campaigns, except for making local councils more ‘responsive’.

This lack of confrontation with the status quo is echoed in the Bologna article. I think many of us felt suspicious of it, partly because of all the buzzwords but mostly because it assumes that everyone (businesses, citizens, developers) can work together. But most of us think there are conflicts of interest that are genuine, that cannot be argued away.

So the problem can be stated: how can we commonise some of the resources controlled by the state (changing ourselves in the process), while also confronting the state and the powers it represents? The Barcelona en Comu response is to try to get into power, then restructure the state. There must be other methods to balance the two approaches to the state, but the tensions involved mean we must always be careful: not to become a ‘Big Society’ stooge of the state on the one hand, and on the other, not to alienate people who right now need the state’s support.

The discussion finished with an imaginative exercise about how we would like the world to be. We broke into small groups and imagined some local body or place for co-ordinating infrastructure, common goods etc. What would we want such a body/institution to look like? This exercise got a good response from people, and raised the interesting point that many people in the room wanted a basic income as a pre-condition for organising themselves as they want. There was also much discussion about expertise, and how we might organise work and expertise. This generated much debate and raised as many questions as answers, which suggests it would be a good topic for a future discussion.

Notes written by Jacob, who facilitated the session and also blogs at


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