Written by Andreas Bieler.
‘What we are for is equally important as what we are against’, declared Dexter Whitfield in his presentation ‘Capitalist dynamics reconfiguring the state: alternatives to privatising public services’ to a packed audience at Nottingham University on Wednesday, 16 September. Hence, when contesting privatisation of public services, it is not enough simply to resist these processes. It is also necessary to put forward concrete alternatives of how to organise and deliver these services differently from within the public sector. In this post, I will summarise some of the key points of the presentation, which was jointly organised by the Bertrand Russel Peace Foundation, the local University and College Union association and the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice.
Privatising public services and the capitalist crisis of overproduction
The privatisation of public services, Dexter Whitfield made clear, is part of the wider neo-liberal agenda around free trade, competition, the market, deregulation, reconfiguring the state and, importantly, reducing the cost and power of labour. The current attack on trade union rights in the UK through the government’s trade union bill (BBC, 15 September 2015) is a clear example of the latter.
Equally important, while austerity policies suggest that there is a lack of money and hence the need to make cuts, $1.73 trillion dollar hoarded by private investors are currently in the system in desperate search for new profitable investment opportunities. Against the background of the continuing crisis and a drastic increase in inequality, the public sector is opened up to this money as investment opportunity.
Unsurprisingly, the public sector is being transformed in the process of privatisation through the use of Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs), Social Impact Bonds (see Whitfield 2015) and the general opening up of public services for private investment with a guaranteed market rate return. Individual choice mechanisms and new regulatory regimes transform users into customers. Services such as Higher Education become increasingly marketised, transformed into a commodity, which those people can buy, who can afford to pay. Importantly, Dexter Whitfield made clear that re-organising the public sector is not about who finds the best technical solution to service delivery. It is part of class struggle over society’s wealth with people being dispossessed, depoliticised and disempowered. Contesting privatisation is part and parcel of this struggle.
Contesting privatisation: moving towards alternatives of service delivery.
Any resistance to privatisation has to start with rejecting neoliberalism and a general opposition to free trade agreements. The current negotiations of a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, for example, constitute a direct threat to the public provision of services. Instead of privatisation, an emphasis on a clean energy economy, industrial innovation, public investment and a revived progressive taxation system have to be all part of an alternative system. Key principles are social justice with a focus on eliminating discrimination and inequalities across society as well as the re-assertion of universal free health care and education.
Instead of privatisation and the commissioning of services, we need public ownership and re-municipalisation, which has already occurred in relation to water services in cities around the world (Lobina, Kishimoto and Petitjean 2014). Instead of fragmentation of the education and health systems with schools and hospitals becoming individual companies, we need to re-establish public networks in both sectors, able to provide comprehensive services to the community.
And yet, as Dexter Whitfield made clear, just to bring private providers ‘back in house’, just to re-nationalise or re-municipalise services is not enough on its own. It is important to organise and mobilise the workforce, but also community and wider civil society as part of these struggles. The organisation and delivery of services within the public sector needs to be democratised with a strong emphasis on possibilities of participation in decision-making. When developing alternatives to privatisation, for example, it is essential to draw on the expertise of the workforce. Both users and workers should have the opportunity to participate in the running of services. Finally, national trade unions have to play a crucial role in supporting local struggles for alternatives, as do transnational links with similar struggles being waged in other countries. Considering the powerful corporate interests involved, providing alternatives is difficult. Nevertheless, it is not only possible, but ultimately also absolutely necessary to ensure social justice.
Andreas Bieler is a Professor of Political Economy at the School of Politics and International Relations. Dexter Whitfield is Director of the European Services Strategy Unit and author of Unmasking Austerity (2014) (Spokesman Books). This article forms part of a lecture given at the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) on September 16th 2015.