It’s not about reforming systems; it’s about reclaiming the Commons.


After we’ve figured out our institutional systems, we may discover there are limits to what institutions can do for us in our pursuit of the ‘Good Life’. In my opinion, understanding what happens beyond those limits is the new frontier in social sciences; one, in my view, that we’ve yet to acknowledge. Yet as Ivan Illich noted, all progress is contingent on understanding the limits of the tools we are using.

We are using institutional tools for near everything these days, from addressing addiction to ending loneliness. Yet we are seeing little credible change. I think many of the current crises in our human services are symptoms that one could reasonably expect to encounter when a system is reaching the limits of its capacity. We’re living in a time when a vast number of our systems are publicly illustrating the point past which they become incompetent or iatrogenic (they create the opposite of what’s intended). The reason we find this hard to acknowledge, is because services and institutions have become the sea in which we swim. It literally is a case of wilful blindness at a vast social scale.

The irony is that if we don’t learn to see what’s beyond institutional – because we’re so busy trying to fix the institutional limits, rather than accept them – we won’t be able to get the best from them, and worse still, we won’t see what a life abundant looks like. Ultimately we’ll drown in our own ‘serviced’ versions of ‘goodness’.

In areas of childcare, healthcare, mental health, environmental and ecological sustainability, local prosperity and public safety, we desperately need to start a new conversation that takes a view from the bank of the river, a view that does not dismiss the river, but takes it in, alongside the rest of the ecosystems (our non-institutional capacities).

The challenge is not the reformation of institutions, it’s the reseeding of associational life. When our associations strengthen, they will not only put manners on our institutions but will also stop outsourcing citizen and community work onto those systems. Then we will begin to discover that the Good Life is ours for the creating.


Cormac Russell


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  • david derauf

    “It literally is a case of wilful blindness at a vast social scale”. Surely some of it is willful. Much of it likely is not willful however. Many of us have rather lost the ability to see what we have lost or are losing in our efforts to have institutions fulfill our duties as humans. And as Illich said :”corruption of the best is the worst!”

    September 16, 2016 at 8:31 pm
    • Shaun Burnett

      Thanks David,

      I hope you are right.

      Best wishes,


      September 26, 2016 at 7:56 am

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