The Network Project: BACKGROUND

This project really grew out of two important observations by some Labour Party activists. The first was that the received wisdom about economic activity and (thanks to the neo-liberals and their "Washington Consensus", most of social activity as well) was failing hopelessly to sort out our problems. This was true of our immensely wasteful production/ consumption system, and our total inability to do anything serious about environmental degradation, resource abuse or pollution, let alone climate change.

The second was that there were an incredible number of good ideas around, many of them already happening. If you read the Guardianís Society section on a Wednesday you will be presented with an enormous range of interesting projects and developments. There were the grass-roots initiatives in neglected areas, such as food co-ops, or alley-gating. There were strong movements fighting for change, such as the pensioner campaigns or anti-roads protest at home, and the larger social forum movement or the debt relief and anti-poverty campaigns on the international stage. And these were just the ones we'd heard about.

The logical conclusion seemed to be to goand find out how we could help bring the good ideas to bear on the problems. For, while these movements were making some real headway (this was around 2000-01), they seemed unco-ordinated and lacked a coherent body of ideas. For example, the development Non-Governmental Organisations had pulled off a herculean task in getting debt relief on the agenda, and the Jubilee 2000 campaign saw NGOs working together, mobilising supporters and deliberately seeking to raise awareness and influence public opinion. These are political actions. The campaigns saw the first significant debt relief in the Highly Indebted Poor Countries initiative. But they had also come into conflict with many in the Green movement (Colin Hines book on localisation sets it out well) because they did not question whether there was any need for international trade; Greens, among others, were pointing out that we need to cut not just food miles, but the long distance trading of components and part manufactured products*..

In addition, while the debt relief was definitely on the agenda, the real progress was small, certainly in relation to the scale of the problem, and often aid was tied to liberalisation and privatisation policies. For example, the debt relief granted at the G8 meeting in the summer of 2005 came with liberalisation policies attached. While the NGO sector criticises these as bad for poor people, some see the World Trade Organisation as good in principle, because it is a rules based system and not just based on power, it just has the wrong type of rules*. People on the left, and many critical of the financial system would argue that the WTO enshrines a neo-liberal monetarist ideology which is always going to be bad because of how it works - promoting the flow of capital and financial markets above production for use, elevating money itself to a primary goal. The emphasis on production for export means that countries with few resources spend them on producing for western markets instead of what their own people need. And both World Bank and IMF assume that such mechanisms are the only way to produce wealth.

They may be a very good way of producing wealth for a few people, but they are damn near useless in solving problems of mal-distribution of wealth. From the hollowing out of our towns and cities, to the shrinking role of the public sector, these ideas are at best being inappropriately applied, at worst they are intrinsically incapable of solving our problems. And they are incapable because these mechanisms, and this set of ideas, simply don't see any of those things as problems. If you cannot see the problem, you can't solve it.

What was also apparent was that it was the role of a specific set of economic ideas in this inability to see or solve problems: if you believe that markets and competition ipso facto produce efficient, and therefore good, outcomes then none of the outcomes of markets and competition can be bad. Therefore there is no problem.

The failings of the "market ideology" don't stop there: because it sees social life as the aggregate of individual decisions, organised social groups come to be seen as an aberration and a brake upon "market forces". It deliberately ignores people coming together to work for their locality, the good of others, or what they believe in. But getting together in groups is how human beings do things.

Worse still, it prevents you from ever looking at (because it does not recognise) outcomes which can't be seen at the individual level:

Just before Christmas 2005 this writer went down with a nasty infection. Because I have good selection of complicated medical conditions I am very vulnerable. But this particular bug turned out to be resistant to every antibiotic that my GP had available. As a result, and much to my annoyance, the day before Christmas eve I found myself being admitted to my local hospital (a badly rated one that is unlikely to do well in any market in healthcare) for intravenous antibiotics. Fortunately it responded well and I was allowed to go home for Christmas. What if the bug had been resistant to all hospital based antibiotics as well?

I'd be dead. And it wouldn't be a particularly nice way to go. I have never insisted on being given antibiotics for a cold, I have never introduced antibiotics to the food chain by feeding them to animals to ensure my profit margins. Yet I am the one who will pay the price for these actions.

Leaving everything up to the market. is a bit like throwing a pack of cards up in the air and hoping it will come down in the right order – it doesn’t!

The emphasis on neo-classical economics and its colonisation of almost every area of existence is preventing us from adapting to the challenges of a much more complex world than was ever envisaged by Adam Smith and his descendents. In the 18th century Brtain was a small scale, technologically unsophisticated, agrarian society. We cannot run a large-scale, technologically advanced society using ideas that are out of date by two hundred years! There is clearly a need for new thinking.

Finding some Answers

In response to these challenges we started a research and development project. As you can see, we already knew there were lots of interesting projects going on, whether it was the campaigns on global poverty, anti-globalisation movements, grassroots regeneration or the resurgence of co-ops. But then there were new things happening, such as LETS (local exchange trading schemes), Timebanks, Social Enterprise, Credit Unions. And there were new people making political contributions such as the development NGOs, the New Economics Foundation, ABCUL, LETSLINK UK, and London Citizens. So we decided to go out and find out about all these new ideas and see if we could think about them from a more political and broadly left perspective.

The Workshop Series

It really started with a workshop on Intelligent Democracy. This took place at a conference. We talked to anyone who had an interesting idea. We went to any events that looked interesting and we started building up a database of these developments and innovations. It was noticeable that people were so busy building the things that were already in progress that there had been little time for political ideas. And many of these ideas and activities overlapped, localisation and anti-globalisation, volunteering and re-employment,

We have been running our workshops on a regular basis for three years now and some of the topics we have discussed are: Binary economics • Ownership and corporate responsibility • Credit Unions • Grassroots-led activism • Water privatisation (including the participative democracy of The mutual state

A core group of people, each of us with a bee in his or her bonnet, has come together and become committed to drawing together these ideas and the thinking behind them to try to find common threads. We are also beginning to publish some of our work which will feature on our main website and on the ownership conference website.

A Toolkit for a new kind of Community

We don't aim to invent a new ideology (which would easily become dogma) but to put together a set of tools which people can use in their own creative fashion to think and plan about the problems or challenges they face, including the ones we all face such as environmental degradation or inequality or destabilising competition.

We took some of these things, and our knowledge of the work of other people such as the New Economics Foundation, LETS, Credit Unions and Fair Traders to a workshop at the European Social Forum. We suggested that there were 10 steps already happening which, if we could scale up, would amount to a profound system change. These included localisation (NEF), co-operatives and credit unions, LETS and timebanks, citizen's ownership (Albert Rowland) and new rethinking business values (Robert Corfe).

Because it was clear that, far from being some kind of airy-fairy word game, basic ideas are important. If your ideas don't include the concept of emergent social properties phenomena, you will not be looking out for the possible overall consequences of individual action. If you have no idea about how a process can act over time, then the introduction of private suppliers to the NHS in a small way, does not seem to great a problem.

Interdependence and Emergence

In the warm summer weather, I like to have my breakfast in the garden on Sundays as the nearby road is quiet. This summer, the first morning I did this, someone was using a noisy strimmer on the allotments behind my back fence. I had breakfast indoors. The next week there was the same problem. I decided to come out later in the morning, but no there was someone using noisy machinery again. I tried at lunchtime but by then silence had gone. The next week was wet, but the following weekend the same thing happened. In fury, I went round to the allotments (someone had unwisely left the gate unlocked) and accosted the person using said strimmer. "But I haven't done this for months"î he objected. He wasn't the person using it on the previous occasion, nor was he still using it during elevenses -someone else was. None of these people had intentionally spoilt my Sunday breakfast. They had no idea they were annoying me (they have now!) nor any idea that their individual activities had added up to some unacceptable noise pollution for the surrounding residents, although I did manage to persuaded the man with the strimmer that 8.30 am was a bit thick. The same offender, later in the summer, dumped a load of manure just behind my neighbours' back fence and it stank to high heavens for five days. He had simply not considered the question. The problem is that in a culture where we are encouraged to think of ourselves first "Pamper yourself" the fashion catalogue suggests, "Treat yourself, you deserve it" etc), and in which discussions, models, debates and teaching tends to be in terms of individuals, effects on individuals, or individual units, we become less likely to think in terms of our effects on others. It is not that we are incapable of thinking of others, it is that most of the time we don't.

Markets in Healthcare

The problem with introducing some kind of market into the health service is that what one hospital does can affect what other hospitals can do. Health service managers raised doubts right from the beginning that a market in healthcare would create an unstable system, i.e. one where outcomes could vary wildly across the system and the system itself could be subject to rapid, unpredictable variations. Because if my one-star rated local hospital loses patients to the three-star rated independent trust, which has a deservedly good reputation even as my local hospital has an undeservedly bad one, it will have to cut services. How long before we find we do not have a proper paediatrics unit because they simply don't have the patient numbers to keep it going? The better known hospitals are 45 minutes journey - in fact it is easier to get to central London by public transport than to them - and that creates no end of difficulties for patients, for rehabilitation, for follow-up. Not to mention increasing congestion and pollution on the roads.

I tried some modelling based upon a the simple rule that the probability that someone goes to a particular hospital depends on the number of people already going. The process spiralled off into infinity so fast that my computer ran out of space. Even with tiny feedback factors (the degree to which the probability increases with each round or each extra person already attending) the outcomes diverged very rapidly - and stayed divergent! The poorer performing hospital never recovered its position. (Just look at the mess with schools.)

These kind of outcomes are predictable with some basic maths. In which case, one can only conclude that either ministers are so thick they do not understand this, or they are happy to let these outcomes come out.

But there is another problem which demonstrates emergence: people respond to the environment in which they find themselves. If they are in a situation where outcomes are clearly unequal, they will tend to become competitive or merely individualistic. They will think of themselves. It is not a case of "they will think of themselves first" - they will only think of themselves (like the man with the manure!). A flier for BUPA in my Saturday paper has the heading "Because you deserve to get better".

The problem is not that you don't deserve to get better, but do you deserve to get better before I do when yours is the less serious, life-threatening and disabling condition? The effect of the distribution of resources is emergent and cannot be seen by looking at outcomes for particular people, or particular groups. And once we have created an unequal distribution of resources, that will lead to competitive relationships, but competitive relationships also make unequal distributions seem fair. When people are in competitive situations they rate an unequal distribution of rewards as more fair, other people as less like themselves, and less deserving.

This is where the emergent effect of relationships in groups comes into play: we react to the kind of distribution of resources we find ourselves in. We don't have to agree with it ñ it can override our own personal attitudes. How many people do you know who have said something along the lines of: "I mean I don't agree with it at all, but you have to do your best for the children, we really had no choice". How long before similar remarks are made about healthcare?

Next Steps

Our workshop series is about to start up for the new academic year, we held a one day conference on the theme of “From Ownership into Stewardship” on November 19th 2005, and we are planning a seminar on Fair Trade as our second major event in Autumn 2006. We are continiing to hold one-day workshops, and beginning to publish some of our work which will feature on this website. Do use the contact form to let us know how you would like to be involved.

Rosamund Stock
January 2006