Together, citizens get a lot done

(This article was published, in Dutch, in de Volkskrant of 11 June 2023 and can be found here)

Citizen collectives or “commons” solve problems that neoliberal government fails to address. The Netherlands now has thousands of them. Professor Tine De Moor explains why it is time to finally take them seriously.

By Margriet Oostveen

Bright spot in times of political wrangling and online threats: people are always going to cooperate again. Just ask Flemish professor Tine De Moor.

Her specialty is the economic and social history of citizen cooperatives and social enterprises. The Dutch buy windmills or solar panels together, they insure themselves and each other against illness in a bread fund, they support an organic farm in order to be able to eat more sustainably, they start their own neighborhood bus when it has been cut back, or their own fiber-optic network when the large providers ignore the village. And everywhere they often set up excellent care organizations themselves, from daycare centers to complete home care for the elderly.

These forms of cooperation are called “commons” in the professional literature, after the English word for the common patch of grazing land that villagers used to share (in Dutch, “de meent”). De Moor also uses the more modern term “institutions of collective action” or “citizen collectives”.

Citizen collectives have existed, intermittently, for a thousand years. In the last twenty years, people have again been seeking this collectivity with striking commitment. One-third of the estimated more than four thousand collectives the Netherlands now has were founded in the past seven years, often to solve problems that the neoliberal government ignored.

Tine De Moor, professor of Social Enterprises and Institutions for Collective Action at Erasmus University’s Rotterdam School of Management, was awarded 1.5 million euros for her research project UNICA. With that grant from the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), she aims to develop a theory on what makes citizen collectives resilient organizations. The accompanying platform is itself a collective of citizen collectives and scientists. Citizen collectives who sign up as research subjects can, in return, access a knowledge base with relevant scientific facts about, for example, funding or collaboration. De Moor is “deeply concerned” about the increased distrust of science. “The only remedy is to make science accessible.

De Moor wants the government to understand why citizen collectives are necessary and deserve broad support. The latter still too often dismisses citizen collectives as a non-committal form of citizen participation, she says. The hardest part for collectives is finding serious investors. De Moor: “Problems such as climate change and healthcare capacity are too urgent to keep reinventing the wheel. Moreover, collectives encourage a sense of community, and in times of polarization and declining trust, that is no luxury either.’

What do we need to know about citizen collectives? Six lessons.

Collectives more often abolished than failed

The first civic collectives were the merchant guilds of the 11th century. De Moor: “There is no strong state yet and the market is still embryonic, so people find their own ways to arrange the distribution of goods, products and services. Citizens together manage a meent (common) where they can graze some livestock, or a water board to protect against floods.

It worked like this until the end of the 18th century. One of the first official Dutch agricultural cooperatives was founded in 1817, and it was not for nothing that it was named Welbegrepen Eigenbelang (Well-understood self-interest): ‘People unite when they can’t manage on their own,” says De Moor. “That is the common thread of all collectives throughout time. It also distinguishes them from the government.’

Meanwhile, others are beginning to think about more efficient ways of organizing the state. See the Enlightenment, but also physiocratism is important, the French economic movement that measured the wealth of a nation by the value of the land available for agriculture. De Moor: “In the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, therefore, governments gradually wanted to get rid of that fiddling in separate little collectives.”

Throughout Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, many guilds, market societies and commons were abolished. ‘A strong belief in the market emerges. And governments rise up against cartels, so to speak; they are convinced that individual initiative must be given more room if they want to develop citizenship.’

With the introduction of the Civil Code (completed in the Netherlands in 1838), most civic collectives disappeared. De Moor: ‘Collective property was given no place in it. Recognizing that property was in common possession was thus actually made impossible.’

Yet the guilds, for example, stood for more than economic self-interest. ‘They also tried in the late Middle Ages to regulate a bit the commercialization and proliferation of power. They were responsible for measuring and weighing goods and were also social,” De Moor says. ‘Apart from the quality mark, fire insurance was invented in the guilds, plus insurance for widows and orphans. And the interesting thing is: when the guilds were abolished, you saw that precisely this social component started to develop in new collectives. For example, in mutual insurance.’

What De Moor is trying to say: golden ideas emerged from many abolished citizen collectives, which were later institutionalized.

From the end of the 19th century there is a second wave, when, along with industrialization, new cooperatives emerge, that merge and grow rapidly. In 1871, nine farmers took over a milk factory in Wieringerwaard; a hundred years later, the international dairy cooperative FrieslandCampina emerged from this.

The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ is a famous but shaky theory

In 1968, microbiologist Garrett Hardin published an influential, not to say deadly, essay in Science on citizen collectives: The Tragedy of the Commons. Tine De Moor summarizes it this way: “Imagine: you have a communal piece of pastureland and everyone is allowed to put cows on it. In the beginning this goes well, but then people think: I’ll put another cow there, because I can make cheese from that milk and sell it. So you get commercialization and eventually overgrazing. Hardin argued: if you want to do it right, there are only two options: you, as a government, take over the management of that pasture or you let the market take care of it.’

The Tragedy of the Commons had a major impact on economists and the choice between government regulation or market thinking – citizen collectives were more or less crossed out between them as a useless alternative. Fifty years later, American political scientist Elinor Ostrom became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 with her research on citizen collectives in developing countries. Ostrom showed that people can indeed go for collective rather than personal gain. ‘As long as there is no interference from above and people think carefully about arranging cooperation.’

Tine De Moor added her own research to this: she investigated a common grazing ground that appeared in The Tragedy of the Commons over a longer period in the early modern era (‘I did not quite know the names of the cows on the spot, but I knew the names of their owners’). And she found that the disappearance of common grazing land toward the end of the 18th century was more likely due to the impoverishment of the time, ‘which meant that farmers had fewer cows and therefore less interest in standing up for that pasture.’ So the problem was in the circumstances that were changing, not in the citizen collectives themselves.

“What emerged from Ostrom’s and my own research was that such a common does not function at all as Garrett Hardin described: a kind of open-access situation that anyone could just throw themselves into. In practice, you see that there is indeed a lot of mutual communication, consultation and agreements are made. Out of well-understood self-interest.’

In short, there are important arguments against Hardin’s image of collectives, says De Moor. ‘The problem is only that it stuck and became a reason for privatization. Otherwise there will be chaos, people reasoned.’

Sanctions don’t work, meetings do

So how do citizen collectives prevent that chaos? Fascinating by-catch in De Moor’s research: “The degree of sanctioning proved to be inversely proportional to longevity. In other words, the less participants punished each other for behavior that went against the common good, the longer a collective remained alive. ‘While sanctioning in today’s society is often our reflex: we have built a system that works reasonably well, but is also incredibly expensive: we have courts, police, you have to monitor, follow up on fines.’

Perhaps you can partly solve that in a different way, says De Moor: ‘That’s what those successful commons did: they started talking to each other.’ She discovered that citizen collectives from the past at most imposed sanctions to people who did not want to reach an agreement. If there was a sanction, it was, for example, the obligation to be present at a meeting’.

Indeed, sanctions can also be destructive, warns De Moor: “You think you are doing something good, but you are also destroying social fabric.”

Civic collectives are neither communist nor romantic

Under communism, haven’t we seen often enough how collectives can go wrong? On this, Tine De Moor is very decided: citizen collectives have nothing to do with communism. ‘Communism is a government-run system, while citizen collectives organize themselves from the bottom up. That’s why I have a hard time with scholars who talk about ‘commonism’: we really won’t get anywhere with that. The main reason De Moor herself uses the word “commons” as little as possible is also because it “sounds too much like ideology.”

Which brings us to the romance of citizen collectives: ‘I don’t want to be too romantic about the human need to cooperate all the time: citizen collectives emerge because of very material, basic needs, like energy and healthcare. I’ve never seen a citizen cooperative for toothpaste emerge. But at the same time, a collective can act as a lever for social renewal, and therein lies its power.’

Energy collectives, such as people buying a windmill or solar panels together, for example, can advance the idea of sustainability. The Herenboeren farming cooperative helps people think about the future of agriculture by letting them experience for themselves where food comes from.

Citizen collectives are indispensable in times of privatization

‘Look at the privatization of healthcare,’ says Tine De Moor. ‘If you privatize it, you get an infinite chain of subcontractors, because with commercialization things can always be done cheaper. That leads to enormous extra costs while the quality of care decreases: an elderly person still living at home now gets three care workers at the door every day. If you reorganize that locally and from the bottom up, close to the people who need care, then you can also approach that care much more efficiently. Many cooperatives have already shown that they work cheaper and better than the current system.’

Not that citizen collectives are the ideal solution in all circumstances. “A bread fund can insure self-employed entrepreneurs against illness for a maximum of two years, so with disability insurance you might wonder if it would not be better to do that through the government.

A citizen collective can give back a sense of well-being and sense of community, and there is evidence that citizen collectives can lead to prosocial behavior (behavior intended to help others), says De Moor: “Researchers tentatively conclude that participating in a small-scale democratic process such as a citizen collective might lead to what they call a ‘spillover effect.’ In other words, when many people still have very little faith in government and institutions, citizen collectives actually seem to be resistant to crises (such as the corona pandemic) and good for the functioning of a democracy.

How does that work? A government provides indirect solidarity, explains De Moor. “If I pay taxes to the government so that someone in Flevoland can receive benefits, that is indirect solidarity. But if I participate in a citizens’ collective, a group that is going to organize solidarity, then it is clearer for whom I am doing it.’

Why is that important in a country where indirect solidarity has always been fairly stable? ‘I don’t think it still is,’ says De Moor. ‘Many provisions no longer always reach the people for whom they were intended.’ See the new pension system. Or again healthcare, where a lot of money is now spent on organizing. ‘Direct solidarity is then often more efficient and effective. Also because it contributes to community building. People reconnect with each other and feel less lonely.’

Citizen collectives are long gone from the experimental phase

When Tine De Moor asks citizen collectives about obstacles, they usually have to do with funding and an opposing government. Three-quarters need external financiers and knock on the door of a municipality, for example. Officials often balk at liability, such as who is financially responsible when a housing cooperative’s construction project goes awry. While citizen collectives usually have been arranging their insurance for a long time. Liability also seems to be a bit of an excuse for not having to think along with collectives.’

Year after year, Tine De Moor receives visits from interested politicians and civil servants to whom she has to explain over and over again what citizen collectives really are. Most recently the Wiardi Beckman Foundation, the scientific bureau of the Dutch Labour Party. ‘The funny thing was that fifteen years ago I already gave that explanation to GroenLinks [which is about to merge with the Labour Party]. And last year the Scientific Institute for the [Christen Democratic] CDA was on my doorstep. Every time I have to start from scratch. And then they say: we might be able to experiment with that.’

Stop it, says Tine De Moor then. ‘Take citizen collectives seriously at last. Because most of them started solving long ago what you yourselves leave behind.’ CollectieveKracht is organizing a day on June 16 where citizen collectives and governments will engage in conversation. You can register via

Citizen collectives in the Netherlands

Housing cooperatives: an estimated 1,400, some still in formation. Rent or buy, develop or manage property jointly. Example: De Warren in Amsterdam, 36 sustainable homes for 5 housing groups.

Agricultural cooperatives: the total is untraceable. Through the agricultural cooperative Herenboeren, for example, there were 14 sustainable professional gentlemen farms in operation last year, and more than 29 are still in the process of being established. Affiliated farms are run by a professional farmer in exchange for a monthly salary paid by participating (citizen) members.

Energy cooperatives: 705 cooperatives with over 112 thousand members in 2022. They jointly buy windmills or solar panels, save energy by, for example, iso learning together. Or they collectively store energy, as six dairy farmers in NoordDeurningen do with their biogas from cow manure.

Bread funds: some 30 thousand self-employed entrepreneurs insure each other in case of illness in 646 bread funds. Often grouped around their place of residence, such as Broodfonds Oosterwold. Bread funds usually have 20 to a maximum of 50 members. Many have waiting lists.

Care: according to the latest estimate, there are nearly 1,500 small and large citizen collectives in the Netherlands that arrange care. This may be a parent-run child care center, such as De Villa in Utrecht. Or a complete care system, such as Austerlitz Zorgt, which arranges all care and support for the oldest inhabitants of the village of Austerlitz itself through one counter. From parents’ clubs and evening meals to renting care apartments and hiring care workers.

Sources: Knowledge Network Residential Cooperatives, Herenboeren, Hier Opgewekt, the BroodfondsMakers, Movisie