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Commonfare: Inclusion and the Commons

Author: Thomas Allan

Ideas like inclusion offer an attractive moral ideal, but as Thomas Allan argues here, current welfare systems struggle to build stronger and more welcoming communities. At their worst, infested with ideals of consumerism or regulatory power, they seem to erode the potential for inclusion and increase social isolation. However there is hope; new thinking and new social movements are increasingly focused on how we can take care of the Commons - the things we share and share responsibility for nurturing together.  

Inclusion and consumerism

Inclusion, in essence, is the idea that demands we recognise the value of all people, regardless of difference. Yet in the absence of a governance paradigm and social institutions that recognise the intrinsic value of the engaged citizen and their diverse living, learning and caring environments, it becomes sidetracked by the "the political vocabulary of consumerism" (Patel 2009) and we defer social challenges to market forces.

When markets fail or deliver unfair and inequitable outcomes, as they invariably do, we pursue social justice by demanding a reluctant, clumsy state or the courts enforce action – often at a cost. Despite the important presence of consumer and community support, it is an inherently disempowering institutional model. Plausible rhetoric of ‘participation’, ‘empowerment’ and ‘change’ from our leaders abounds, yet it must be said: we are not the co-producers of social change, merely beings subject to a higher order.

Instead, despite claims of ‘taking back control’ our lives are today spinning around what’s been called the ‘gig economy’ at an unheard-of pace, in increasingly incoherent and insecure ways. Neither consumption, employment nor current models of welfare – highly inflexible, punitive and carrying a costly social stigma – are producing ‘inclusion’ or filling the gaps.

Ongoing engagement with the contradiction and dysfunctional outcomes of market culture in personal life and in social care has convinced me that we are structurally alienated from our core, inclusive sensibilities, such as civil discourse, empathy and cooperation. We now need to build an alternative, more humane vision for change, beyond the current limitations of economic thinking and managerial practice.

Rethinking inclusion

Not everything is a commodity intended for exchange in the marketplace; and when we treat some things like that we diminish it's value, viability and sustainable use.

The Commons is a new, holistic governance paradigm that reflects the value and the intrinsic worth of all human beings, as well as nature, community, livelihood and interdependence. Commons are resources that are produced and managed collectively, by a distinct community of users, according to their rules, and functioning independently of state control or privatisation.

The Nobel Prize winning work of Elinor Ostrom (1990), and many contributors since, have demonstrated that, in contrast to the Tragedy of the Commons hypothesis (Hardin 1968), certain resources under certain conditions are best managed by voluntary association. Ostrom considered mainly natural resources, such as meadows, forests or irrigation systems. But these have also been extended to cover digital commons such as free, open-source platforms such as Wikipedia; and social, cultural and civic commons, such as community support schemes, social care coops, playgrounds, public spaces, knowledge and ideas, public schools, libraries and parks amongst many others.

From the perspective of the Commons, the initial challenge for welfare reform is to re-orientate welfare systems and practice beyond the damaging myths of homo economicus and the ‘growth’ economy, and instead towards enabling the collaborative, productive potential of civil society and it’s living, caring and learning environments (Bauwens et al. 2017).

The intention is not to return to some pre-industrial utopia, nor to return to the post war era of publicly controlled goods and services. Neither is it to suggest that we should live life without markets as part of social and community life. But it is to transform our current, extractive models and strategies of economic development, where a relentless focus on material expansion and the bottom line is rendering qualitative, non-market values, such as human relations and community engagement, as effectively ‘value-less’ (Bollier & Weston 2013).

Markets must be subordinated to democratic control

Thankfully, as well as the Transition, Slow Food and Solidarity Economy movements (to name but three), new forms of Commonfare are pointing the way forward.

Commonfare, or 'welfare of the commons', is a participatory form of welfare provision based on collaboration which enfranchises all of society, even those not tied to the labour market. Commonfare addresses the exclusionary, hierarchic and bureaucratic shortcomings of the welfare model by creating open-source, democratic, and multi-constituent social provision networks and practices. Labour Mutuals, freelancer coops and prefigurative solidarity networks are in the vanguard, but Commonfare mechanisms would ideally be financed by a “Partner State” (P2P Foundation):

Supporting such initiatives as the unconditional basic income, Commonfare is part of a wider Commons Transition plan that seeks to establish “more humane and environmentally grounded forms of societal organisation”. The specific role of Commonfare is part of a proposal for radical changes to welfare to confront the harmful dismantling of the solidarity mechanisms around which much of daily community life revolves. 

The concept of the Partner State, meanwhile, is one that maintains its funding responsibilities, and proposes that democratically restructured “public authorities play a sustaining role in the direct creation of value by civil society” to protect and enhance sources of value and wealth common to all of us. 

Inclusion is a broad topic that will mean different things to different people. There will inevitably be areas still to be considered and still to be discussed. However it is hoped that this short essay might provide a useful starting point to think about it from a different, perhaps unfamiliar and even uncomfortable perspective.


Bauwens M et al (2017) Commons Transition and P2P: a primer. Transnational Institute.
Bauwens M (2005) Peer to Peer and Human Evolution: on 'the P2P relational dynamic' as the premise for the next civilizational stage. Integral Visioning.
Collier D & Weston B (2013) Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Hardin G (1968) The Tragedy of the Commons. Science (December 13, 1968):1243-1248.
Ostrom E (1990) Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Patel R (2009) The Value of Nothing. London: Portobello Books.

The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Commonfare: Inclusion and the Commons © Thomas Allan 2018.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.