Tragedy of the Private and Potential of the Public

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  • Report: The Tragedy of The PrivaTe. The PoTenTial of The Public. by Hilary Wainwright. Published by Public Services International and the Transnational Institute, 2014



"This booklet is about how public service workers, with their fellow community members, are not only defending public services but also struggling to make them democratic and responsive to people’s needs and desires. It is also about how these alliances are working at different levels – local, national and international.

We are publishing this booklet at a time when the privatisation of public services and utilities has been tried and failed. There is widespread criticism of privatisation. It is now leading to an increasing number of decisions, mainly at a local level, to bring services back under public control."


Anna Bergren Miller:

"Hilary Wainwright argues that now is the time to turn back the tide of public services privatization. As local authorities around the world begin to reincorporate public services outsourced during the Reagan and Thatcher years, anti-privatization activists have an opportunity not just to accelerate the trend toward public recapture, but also to democratize public services providers from within. Written primarily for union activists, the booklet asks how public services unions can accomplish these goals in the face of opposition from powerful local, national, and international actors. The answer—drawn from real-world examples of anti-privatization campaigns in South Africa, Brazil, Greece, and elsewhere—is at once straightforward and profound: Public services unions are most likely to be successful in fighting privatization when they form meaningful, lasting alliances with the communities in which they operate.

The booklet's title inverts the phrase, "the tragedy of the commons," the economic theory predicting the failure of group resources management due to conflict between individual self-interest and the common good. The theory, observes Wainwright, only holds meaning when "individual self-interest" is defined in terms of raw profit-seeking. Such logic is "fundamentally inappropriate" to the public sector, she writes, where the measure of efficiency should be the satisfaction of social needs rather than the generation of profits. Union-community alliances are crucial to anti-privatization efforts in part because they point up this distinction. Rather than treating workers and users as producers and consumers of an abstract commodity, successful alliances assume both groups hold knowledge that can be deployed to improve the distribution and operation of public utilities.

As to how to form effective coalitions between public services workers and users, Wainwright offers two possible approaches. The more formalized option involves opening union membership to the community. Britain's Unite union took this tack, forming "community branches" for people without jobs. Non-working union members reap practical rewards, including legal and financial advice, and have an identifiable venue for their grievances as well as a vehicle for collective action. The second approach involves union support of grassroots community campaigns. Wainwright cites Newcastle UNISON, which established the position of "community campaigner," an individual responsible for networking with community organizations and supporting direct action by non-union groups.

Wainwright also offers insight into the characteristics of effective union-community alliances. In the cases she studied, she found that the best results followed when unions did not automatically assume control over the coalition. Rather, they serve as resources for campaign participants and—by taking a back seat to the action—acknowledge the validity of other organizational approaches. Second, the most successful alliances focused on collective self-education through workshops, seminars, and international collaboration. Third, these coalitions abandoned any formal separation between "work" and "community" in favor of a holistic approach to economic and social challenges. Finally, writes Wainwright, the best worker-user alliances remain independent from electoral politics despite any traditional associations between union members and one or another political party.

Wainwright's contribution is timely, and not just because it documents cases of successful public service reform. It also comes at a moment of renewed vigor within pro-privatization forces, as multiple European governments have attempted to privatize or re-privatize public services in the name of austerity. The danger is real, but so is the likelihood that public services workers and users will succeed in redirecting the conversation from profits and losses to the common good." (


Anne Karpf:

“It might sound like an oxymoron, but this is a positive article about public services. So effectively has the coalition rebranded an economic crisis caused by private greed as the consequence of public ownership, that nationalisation has come to be seen as a universally discredited hangover from bad old Labour. So while current Labour is considering taking back parts of the rail network into public ownership the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, last weekend was intoning the neoliberal catechism: “I don’t want to go back to the nationalisation of the 1970s.”

But bringing outsourced services into public ownership isn’t about looking back: it’s about moving forward, and is a popular idea (66% of respondents in a poll last year supported the nationalisation of energy and rail companies, including 52% of Tories). For today, in the face of the combined bungles of G4S, Serco and Atos, not even the slickest PR-turned-politician can sustain the myth that private equals efficient.

Yet privatisation is touted as a panacea and cliches are trotted out about the evils of the “nanny state”. We need to develop a new language to talk about public ownership, one that detoxifies it and taps into the wide recognition that natural resources and essential public services should not be treated as commodities.

Instead of talking about the state, Hilary Wainwright, in a powerful new booklet – The Tragedy of the Private, the Potential of the Public – describes water, health and education as “the commons” – an excellent term. What’s remarkable, and hitherto fairly undocumented, is how all over the world a quiet process of remunicipalisation is taking place. Wainwright gives examples from Newcastle to Norway. In the UK, she found over half of 140 local councils bringing services back from the private sector. In Germany, by 2011 the majority of energy distribution networks had returned to public ownership. Even in the US, a fifth of all previously outsourced services have been brought back in-house.

The case of water is a particularly powerful one: to most people the idea of privatising it is alarmingly similar to the privatisation of air. Wainwright tracks struggles to resist the privatisation of water and defend it as a public good in Brazil, Uruguay and Italy.

What makes all this heartening is that new social forms of ownership are emerging in which public utilities are run by coalitions of workers and service users. Theirs isn’t just a defence of public services but an attempt to democratise them so they are not the top-down bureaucracies of old or simply job-saving strategies (important though these may be). They become what Wainwright calls “new forms of collectivity” – unions and public managing common resources together for shared benefit.

There is a palpable momentum to these ideas. Last summer saw the formation of the We Own It campaign, which is lobbying for a public service users’ bill. This would promote public ownership as the default option for public services and give the public a say in whether services are privatised. This week, a New Economics Foundation working paper also set out alternatives to the marketisation of public services.

These constitute a challenge to the fatalistic there-is-no-alternative narrative that has dominated political discussion. In his recent book, Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us All?, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues that the alleged “musts” of political discourse “are nothing other than various aspects of the status quo – of things as they do, but in no way must, stand at the moment”." (