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Questions for the commons movement

Guest content
13 September 2016

There are many questions still to be answered in the growing literature on the commons, central to which is the role of the state in respecting and fulfilling our basic socioeconomic rights. The ‘commons’ can become a very strong discourse and practice to re-order today’s progressive political forces, but does it mean we have to abandon universal claims of equality and human rights? An enquiry by Francine Mestrum.

This article will not bring the much needed clarity, but it will very pragmatically question some of the many implicit assumptions in the debate. When I read something like ‘building an information-commons ecosystem … for the growing P2P/commons movement’ I wonder what the link is between information, commons and ecosystem and why that link is there? Does P2P production automatically imply commons? Are we really witnessing a shift ‘towards post-capitalist practices’? Is value now more than ever ‘co-created in the civic and social sphere’? If we need ‘ethical entrepreneurial coalitions’ how do they come about and are we then not already, per definition, outside capitalism? If we are to get rid of ‘commodified labour’, what are people going to live from? Is there not a contradiction between re-creating communities and generating community value while also counting on a basic income that makes people directly dependent on the state?

In much of the literature I have gone through, many assumptions are not explicited, many links are not explained and many developments are automatically considered positive.

My questions are therefore linked to a double concern. First, I think it can help the movement to clarify its theoretical principles, because it will make the literature more accessible and will contribute to the much needed convergence and the making of coalitions. Secondly, I think it can also help us to clearly define our rules and conditions in order to avoid the appropriation of our concepts by political and economic forces that do not share our desire to shape our future world in a progressive, democratic and emancipatory way.

My questions are mainly inspired by my own research on social justice, a topic that is rarely addressed in the commons literature, again, as if it were a spontaneous and unavoidable consequence of a commons approach, which it is certainly not. I do think however that our social and economic rights can be considered as a topic for commoning.

So these are my questions.

Why only talk about ‘community’?

Many of the initiatives developed in the context of ‘social innovation’ – kindergartens, help for the elderly of for disabled people – take place at the local level, obviously. Repair shops, fablabs, urban agriculture as well. While these initiatives can indeed be very positive, one wonders what their link is – or should be – with the larger society? Especially in the area of social policy, the desire to self-organize and self-manage care can certainly have negative consequences. Not all people have the necessary networks or families to receive the much needed help, the risk of exclusion of some people is real. Moreover, we all do have social rights and the state has a duty to respect and fulfil these rights. An institutional approach, if democratically organized, can give much better care than the non-professional help of neighbours. These rights are also universal, so no one can ever be excluded and the care given from one village or city to another should be comparable.

Similar questions can be put about urban agriculture. We are not all endowed for agricultural activities. Not only is it questionable that the locally produced vegetables have any added-value compared with the vegetables from other cities or countries, food sovereignty at the local level is at any rate impossible. Many countries have no coffee, tea, rice or bananas.

Also, is there any added value in locally produced kitchen-ware? What about the leather or the paper products we use? The books we read? The cars we will continue to use? Yes, we can produce local beer, but what if we prefer the taste of the globally produced brands?

The point is that the limitation to local communities also define the boundaries of what we can do. We cannot become self-sufficient at the local level and will continue to be dependent on others, and most probably to a capitalist system.

Another often forgotten element is that local communities certainly are not necessarily peaceful or non-hierarchical. History and feminism teach us that the constraints of local communities can be suffocating, and I for one, having grown up in a ‘community’, do certainly not want to go back to it. Small and local communities can exist in larger cities, certainly, but if a commons approach needs clear boundaries the problem remains.

The shift from communities to societies has accompanied a division of labour, and I do not see why we should reject this. Many authors seem to dislike the idea and seem to promote a local community, ‘outside market and capitalism’ which then means a barter system, or exchange systems with local money? It sometimes sounds like a self-provisioning polpotisation of our societies. The reference other authors make to ‘transnational tribes’, especially for the design and knowledge production and exchange do not reassure me.

If the commons approach cannot get beyond this ‘community’ level, I am afraid it will not have a bright future, since most people will never be convinced this is the best level to organize and live, however interesting many of the new initiatives are. Even productive commons cannot remain small-scale if we also want to weaken or eliminate the Monsanto’s of this world.

A new economy born within the old?

This question is linked to the previous one. Most of us probably dream of a world without capitalism, the question is, how to get there? Today, we are not progressing towards post-capitalism, in spite of what some authors try to tell us, the system is more powerful than ever, even if the financial system remains vulnerable.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways we can try to abandon capitalism:

The first method is the one that seems to adopt the commons movement: organizing an economy without commodities and without markets, at least that is what I read in several books and articles. It is a group withdrawal from the system. One may wonder whether that is possible and even desirable?

The second method is to try and change power relations within society and work at progressive reforms in order to hollow out the capitalist system and arrive at something different. This does not mean abandoning markets, commodities and money, but to withdraw some goods and services from the commodity market, as well as democratizing societies so as to give more power to people.

The arguments in favour of the first method are weak, since there are no successful and sustained examples to find in history. The self-managed factories that existed as well as the collective domestic work initiatives have all been abandoned after some time, for several reasons, whether it be international competition or the desire of women to limit work within their own families. This is what makes me reluctant to bet on the future of the many wonderful activities in Greece at this moment. In the Latin America of ‘structural adjustment’ in the 1980s, the same happened, but only for the short time of the real crisis.

Also, the commons-produced ‘things’, whether it be knowledge or material products, will still have to find ‘customers’ to use them. Only in the local community? Transnationally? How to value and price them? How to compete with the existing capitalist corporations?

What about private property? Can it exist in a world ruled by commoners? Can public property be an alternative, knowing the sad experiences of the socialist past? Is it enough to limit and democratize the rights linked to private property? Or should we think of a totally different ownership regime?

Many advocates of a commons approach definitely want to make an end to commodified labour, which is understandable. But does it mean an end to wage labour? To what extent the fordist model implied already a way to decommodification of labour? How to guarantee respect of labour rights and avoid exploitation and self-exploitation?

What kind of state do we want?

In some articles and books on commons it seems as if we did not need a state anymore. I would like to ask these authors to explain how our world of seven billion people is going to function without public authorities. I think it cannot.

But yes, we need another kind of state, one that can be considered a public service for all the people. Today, too many governments are at the service of corporations and economic interests and this certainly has to change.

But it is beyond any doubt that we do need a state, not only for internal and external conflict resolution, for defining the framework within which commons can function but also for taxes and redistribution, for public health and public transport, for guaranteeing our universal human rights and for promoting freedom and equality.

I honestly cannot see what the world would look like without states, whatever questions and criticism one may have concerning their current status and practice. I do like the concept of ‘partner state’, one that works alongside with citizens, one that can subsidize valuable initiatives of citizens and their organisations.

States are very much needed for organizing a decent social protection, even if citizens will have to be closely involved in the design and practice of the system. This is also a strong demand of all social justice movements I know in the South. They want public authorities to set the general rules and provide the funding.

Building commons-based ecosystems?

We probably all want this, since the care for nature is as important as the care for people. Moreover, this becomes very urgent because of the threatening climate change. But how can it happen? Many authors seem to think it will be a spontaneous development, and all commons initiatives naturally are eco-friendly? But why would they be? What about P2P networks ignoring extractivism? What about networks of people travelling all over the world?

Do we all agree with the statement that ‘the methodology of nature itself favours the commons as a stable self-sustaining paradigm’? Is society built in the same way and with the same characteristics as nature? This certainly needs a serious debate.

Local food chains will probably be more eco-friendly than imported food from Africa and sharing tools in a local community can be more economic than buying everything separately, but does it mean that all commons are necessarily rooted in sustainable ecosystems? I have doubts.

What about rightwing commons?

All previous questions boil down to this difficult one: why do most of us assume all commons will be progressive and emancipatory? Apart from the obvious risk of appropriation of some very good initiatives by the capitalist system, there is the very direct risk of conservative people and communities taking action and adopting a commons approach. Just imagine the kindergartens for white children, or the faith-based school programmes that limit children’s learning capacities? What about commons in the extractivist sector, think of mining cooperatives? What is the difference between the commons-based – libertarian – communities and the chartered cities emerging in the South?

Once again, I have the impression that many of these questions have not been seriously reflected on. Certainly, the self-determination, self-management and autonomy of people are very valuable objectives, but there is no reason to think that they necessarily lead to eco-friendly or emancipatory practices.

Concluding remarks

Some of the questions and problems I have mentioned are directly linked to the explicit or hidden philosophy of the authors promoting a commons approach, others are probably just naïve and based on wishful thinking.

Much is linked to an overall rejection of modernity giving rise to post-modernity, post-development and post-colonialism. It would take us too far to analyse its causes and consequences here. It seems clear to me that indeed we have to abandon a belief in endless growth and progress and that we have to be aware of the interdependence of humankind and nature. But does it also mean we have to abandon universal claims of equality and human rights? Modernity clearly has to be re-visited, though I would hesitate to fully reject it. Kant’s sapere aude can remain a valuable guideline for trying to understand the world we are living in.

A second characteristic I notice in many writings on commons is a holistic approach that assumes there can be harmony in nature and in societies. Sometimes it seems as if it were enough to look into our inner selves to make a better world. This, I believe, we have to reject. We will never avoid conflicts but have to look for ways and rules to peacefully live together. Also, we cannot forget the major oppositions in all our societies, whatever the words to name them: class, gender, race, rich and poor, diversity, culture, humankind and nature. Many authors focus on soft values such as empathy and affectivity, even spirituality, though we should never forget that equality does not come spontaneously and that structural, obligatory solidarity may be needed to promote justice.

I fully agree with the authors who claim that the commons can not only be a very emancipatory practice, it also can become an enabling discourse to fight neoliberal capitalism. However, the power relations of the current economic system will not disappear if we do not build power ourselves, if we continue to allow capitalism to appropriate our ideas and initiatives.

To me, the commons are extremely interesting in order to democratize societies and economies, to give power to the people not just to take care of themselves, but to take care of societies and economies, to take care of politics. Care can be in the centre of such an approach, but always in a political sense, with the awareness of the conflicts we are faced with. Commons are indeed about the creation of shared value, not only thanks to individual contributions but also thanks to a common, collective contribution in past and present.

I am aware of the fact that all these questions need to be debated. Maybe I overlooked some of the problems, maybe I am focusing too much on others.  If we want to make progress and look for convergence, I think it can help to organize such a debate, not to ignore our inevitable differences but to know what we want and how we can get there together. The current world, I am afraid, is not and will never be as soft as some would like it to be. But ‘commons’ can become a very strong discourse and practice to re-order today’s progressive political forces.

Original source: Social Commons

Photo credit: Olli Henze, Flickr creative commons