What can an institution do? Towards Public-Common partnerships and a new common-sense.

AuthorRussell, Bertie

Neoliberals wanted to transform the institutions of economic and social life so that they demand individuals behave as individualistic self-maximisers. The left now needs to commit to the commoning of our institutions so that they engender collective and solidaristic behaviour.

On 3 May 1981, the Sunday Times published an interview with Margaret Thatcher reflecting on the first two years of her Conservative government. Although the most aggressive elements of the privatisation programme occurred later in her premiership, these first years had already seen the Conservatives sell both British Aerospace and Cable & Wireless, and reducing the government's shareholding in British Petroleum. (1) As Guinan and O'Neill noted in their summer editorial for Renewal, this was a sign of things to come: between 1980 and 1996 Britain accounted for 'forty per cent of the total value of all assets privatised across the OECD'. (2) Given the speed and scale of the British experience of privatisation, it is understandable that it has come to be a central aspect of popular characterisations of neoliberalism: an ideological commitment to rolling back public ownership, the emergence and increasing primacy of the financial markets and mass deregulation.

The Sunday Times interview largely reflected this characterisation, as Thatcher proudly reflected on the government's effort to confront 'the monopoly nationalised industry inheritance of socialism', and its ongoing commitment to 'sell the whole of it off and get rid of it', as well as her pride in overseeing 70,000 redundancies in the British steel sector. This all formed part of an emerging blueprint for neoliberalism's 'institutional turn'. Yet, as Thatcher made clear in the final words of the interview, whilst 'economics are the method', 'the object is to change the heart and soul'. (3) Whilst neoliberalism unquestionably means a commitment to privatisation, it has never been an end in itself, but rather a means to effect a more fundamental change not only to our societies, but to what it means to be human.

Ten years on from an economic crisis that decisively broke the neoliberal settlement, we can safely call neoliberalism a 'dead but dominant' ideology that continues to 'lurch haphazardly onward (if not forward)', incapable of managing the contradictions it helped create. (4) Faced with such a zombie, it is incumbent on the left to step forward and undertake a project of transformation even more ambitious than that taken on by Thatcher. Guinan and O'Neill are right to pose our own institutional turn as an essential component of a contemporary socialist strategy. What is less clear is precisely how the establishment of municipal energy companies (as we've seen in Bristol or Nottingham, and is under consideration by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority), or the redirection of procurement spend (which is a key part of the emerging community wealth-building model for local government emanating from Preston, Greater Manchester, Birmingham and elsewhere), could fit as part of a transformative socialist strategy. What would characterise this institutional turn as going beyond a traditional social-democratic commitment to redistributive publicly-owned services and infrastructure, and would position it as part of a 'programme of fundamental change' capable of producing the 'transformational shift' in our societies called for by Guinan and O'Neill?

We argue that a strong clue to the answer can be found in Thatcher's positioning of economics not as an end but a means--a method--for producing seismic societal changes. First and foremost, neoliberalism has always been a political-philosophical and ideological project concerned with promoting and fulfilling a certain vision of what constitutes 'freedom'. Furnished with a rigid belief system of how humans should interact with others and the world around them, neoliberal economic reforms have been the 'toolkit' for turning belief into reality. Rather than just rolling back public ownership and regulations (as popular understandings would have it), the neoliberal project has been fundamentally concerned with rolling out a new way of thinking and being in the world. (5) Neoliberalism--as a variegated ensemble of policies and institutional designs that have been applied and reapplied over the past forty years--should thus be understood as 'a "restoration" not only of class power, of capitalism as the only possible economic system, [but] a restoration of capitalism as synonymous with rationality'. (6)

Just as the proponents of neoliberalism looked to utilise institutional reforms to produce a certain type of human behaviour, the raison d'etre of contemporary socialist models of ownership must be to contribute to the production of our own version of what it means to be human--based on a conception of freedom more expansive than the impoverished version of the political right. The 'bold transformation of the British economy organised around ownership, control, democracy, and participation' discussed in Guinan and O'Neill's 'Institutional Turn' is a central part of this agenda. (7) However--just as was the case with the neoliberal project--a change in ownership is a necessary yet not sufficient condition for the development of a truly transformative project.

In what could be best thought of as a 'training in democracy'--or perhaps a training in living in common--we must focus on designing institutions that place democracy and decentralisation not as an end in itself, but as part of a strategy that changes the parameters of what feels both possible and rational in everyday life. (8)

The roll-back and roll-out of neoliberalism

Neoliberal political-philosophical and economic thought had been actively incubated for decades before the accumulation of economic, political and social crises in the 1970s provided the opportunity for its application. When the Keynesian orthodoxy itself entered a terminal spin, the neoliberal 'alternative' did not amount to a full-service blueprint for a new political-economic order'. (9) Nonetheless, both domestically and abroad, neoliberal policies were devised and adopted in response to what Harvey would call the 'spatio-temporal' limits of capital accumulation, and an attempt to restore profitability...

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