Sunday, 1 August 2010

Community and Mutual Ownership in History and Today

'Nurturing community and mutual ownership requires a coherent and systematic approach, based on a clear set of values, if it is to realise its full potential.'

This is one of the key conclusions of Community and mutual ownership: a historical review published this month by Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Researched and written by Tom Woodin, David Crook and Vincent Carpentier at the Institute of Education, it surveys the history of ‘community and mutual ownership’ and considers the implications for policy and practice in this area.

As a member of a research team that unsuccessfully bid to undertake this review, I strongly believe that pushing the pace of municipal and state owned public services to community and mutual ownership could seriously damage both the services and the credibility of these forms of ownership. This report underlines that view and therefore I have no hesitation in arguing that the report is essential reading for those involved in Cameron's Big Society debate, including the members of the Lambeth Council Co-operative Council Commission initiative (see

The authors conclude that there is 'a contemporary opportunity for community and mutual ownership to help meet needs relating to the economy, welfare provision, society in general and the environment.' BUT 'new forms of democracy, membership and belonging cannot be created overnight. In the past community and mutual ownership was built up over a long time and depended on the growth of popular participation and associated feelings of ownership.'

Models of Ownership

Five non-private ownership models are identified: customary and common, community, co-operative and mutual, charitable, municipal/state forms of ownership.

They point out that 'Modern ideas and practices of ownership took a long time to develop, and were based on the enclosure of common land, the emergence of concentrated private ownership and the enlargement of state activity, both through regulation and the direct ownership of resources and services. These long-term historical transformations were not inevitable processes with a fixed income.'

Key Historical Points

Significant points in their historical analysis include:

'The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, precipitated by a punitive poll tax, was indicative of the broader ways in which peasants viewed feudal ownership as unjust and exploitative.'

From the 16th to the 18thCs individual 'freedom and liberty were increasingly connected to the ownership of private property. The onset of enclosures was bitterly contested by those, such as the Diggers and True Levellers, who argued for the value of common and communal forms of ownership.'

'The rapid increase in land enclosure fuelled the development of capitalism.'

During the 19thC 'industrial and urban development exerted great changes and stripped away older responsibilities inherent in ownership of the land.'

Responses included the formation of mutual and co-operative organisations and the growth of charitable organisations 'grew considerably in response to the harsh conditions faced by the poor.'

'However, as inequality and social problems extended into the twentieth century, municipal and state ownership became increasingly prominent.'

'Post-1945, state ownership was viewed as a means of meeting common needs through universal welfare services and controlling the economy. It was to be undermined, especially during the 1980s, when many forms of public ownership were privatised, such as housing and nationalised industries.'

Both a summary and the full report can be downloaded from

Mutuality and Radical Politics

Combining my experience of working at the British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres on neighbourhood renewal and social inclusion issues, and my involvement in researching aspects of the history of mutuality in Battersea and through the Friendly Societies Research Group, and stimulated by involvement in discussion at an Independent Labour Publications weekend school, between 2002 and 2004 I argued that the Labour Government's regeneration, neighbourhood renewal and social inclusion agendas provided a wide-range of potential opportunities for mutuals respond, and for mutualism to become a key vehicle for developing radical politics.

Radical politics remains the same as it always has, expressed in the modern words: social justice, social inclusion, anti-racism, equalities, community development, community engagement, human rights, environmental protection, sustainable development, internationalism, extending participatory democracy, and social enterprise.

A New Associationism?

Mutuality or to use the alternative word 'associationism' seemed to open up opportunities for a new phase of radical politics. The scope for radical political activity around practical organisation of a new associationism, involves reviving and strengthening existing mutual and cooperative organisations and developing new ones. Back in the period 2002 to 2004 there seemed to be considerable scope for this within local communities linked to then government agendas. And while that has been the case since it has not been without considerable difficulties, and Cameron's Big Society initiative poses even greater challenges.

The neglect of the historical power and legacy of mutual association contributes to a distorted picture of the way British society developed, keeping hidden from each new generation, the major contribution of ordinary people to the development of civil society, as well as the contributions of particular groups like women or ethnic and faith minorities.

This lack of popular understanding, coupled with widespread apathy and disillusion with the political process and politicians was a fundamental stumbling block to achieving regeneration under Labour. Ordinary people reacted to the opportunities with cynicism, a belief that they are being conned, and that government and local politicians do not really mean it. And often the way local and central government treated local communities confirmed this.

So radical politics must continue to do what it has always done: to challenge the power structures that operate against the interests of the majority of ordinary people and to campaign for greater democratic control and participation.

Opportunities and cracks in the system have to be continually identified, and campaigning undertaken in order to at minimum try and ensure that the next lot of measures that government introduces do not make things worse than they are.


We continue to be faced with choices. Back in 2004 the following questions seemed to me to be important.
• Do we continue to demand renationalisation of privatised services and industries, or do we look for a wide range of forms of mutual or common ownership?
• Do we continue to defend the managerial way in which local authority and other public services are delivered or do we build new delivery mechanisms?
• Do we continue to politically campaign as if the working class was still largely skilled, semi- and unskilled blue colour workers in large scale enterprises, or do we find new ways to campaign relevant to the new style work forces?
• What are the opportunities for radical political activity, working in the cracks in the system, and utilising divisions within it?
• Can we be sure that ‘new mutualisation’ is not a form of privatisation that will end the universal features of public services?
• How can we roll back the democratic deficit in mutual organisations?
Are these questions still relevant as part of the Big Society debate?

Developing Practical Activity

I suggested that answering these questions should help develop practical activity that will stimulate further development of mutual self-help organisations. The fact that there have been problems in the past should not deter action. The most important thing is to try and devise solutions which overcome the dangers of replicating past problems, which minimise the potential set of new problems that will arise, and which will in their turn require new solutions. Keeping co-operative principles in the forefront of thinking will be helpful in this process: voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member, economic participation, education, training and information, autonomy and independence, concern for community and co-operation among cooperatives.

Previous writings:
Collective action and the sustainable renewal of Britain. Democratic Socialist. Autumn 2001
Mutuality and radical politics. Democratic Socialist. Summer 2002
Mutuality and Radical Politics. History & Social Action Publications Discussion Paper. September 2002
Mutual Associations and the Sustainable Renewal of Britain. History & Social Action. October 2002
We need to grapple with reality. Democratic Socialist. Summer 2003
Co-operation, Mutuality and Radical Politics in Co-operatives and Mutuals: The New Challenge. Independent Labour Publications 2005

No comments:

Post a Comment