Why the Language of the Commons Matters

The text below is the second half of the Introduction to the recently published anthology of essays, The Wealth of the Commons:  A World Beyond Market and State (Levellers Press).  The first half was posted yesterday.  More about the book can be found at www.wealthofthecommons.org.

As the corruption of the market/state duopoly has deepened, our very language for identifying problems and imagining solutions has been compromised. The snares and deceptions embedded in our prevailing political language go very deep. Such dualisms as “public” and “private,” and “state” and “market,” and “nature and culture,” for example, are taken as self-evident. As heirs of Descartes, we are accustomed to differentiating “subjective” from “objective,” and “individual” from “collective” as polar opposites. But such polarities are lexical inheritances that are increasingly inapt as the two poles in reality blur into each other. And yet they continue to profoundly structure how we think about contemporary problems and what spectrum of solutions we regard as plausible.

Words have performative force. They make the world. In the very moment that we stop talking about business models, efficiency and profitability as top priorities, we stop seeing ourselves as homo economicus and as objects to be manipulated by computer spreadsheets. We start seeing ourselves as commoners in relationship to others, with a shared history and shared future. We start creating a culture of stewardship and co-responsibility for our commons resources while at the same time defending our livelihoods. This new language situates us as interactive agents of larger collectivities. Our participation in these larger wholes (local communities, online affinity groups, inter-generational traditions) does not eradicate our individuality, but it certainly shapes our preferences, outlooks, values and behaviors: who we are. A key revelation of the commons way of thinking is that we humans are not in fact isolated, atomistic individuals. We are not amoebas with no human agency except hedonistic “utilitarian preferences” that are expressed in the marketplace.

No: We are commoners – creative, distinctive individuals inscribed within larger wholes. We may have many unattractive human traits fueled by individual fears and ego, but we are also creatures entirely capable of self-organization, cooperation, a concern for fairness and social justice, and sacrifice for the larger good and future generations.

The commons helps us recognize, elicit and strengthen these propensities. It challenges us to transcend the obsolete dualisms of market culture and its mechanistic mindset. It asks us to think about the world in more organic, holistic and long-term ways. We can then begin to see that the way one person behaves affects others, and even the entire collective. We see that my personal unfolding depends upon the unfolding of others, and theirs upon mine. We see that we mutually affect and help each other as part of a larger, holistic social organism. Complexity theory has identified simple principles that govern the coevolution of species in complex ecosystems. The commons takes such lessons to heart and asserts that we humans co-evolve with and co-produce each other. We do not exist in grand isolation from our fellow human beings and nature. The myth of the “self-made man” that market culture celebrates is absurd – a self-congratulatory delusion that denies the critical role of family, community, networks, institutions and nature in making our world.

Many of the pathologies of the contemporary economy are built upon this deep substrate of erroneous language. Or more precisely, the elite guardians of the market/state find it useful to employ such misleading categories. The corporation in the U.S. and many other nations, for example, likes to cast itself as a “private” entity that hovers above much of the real-world and its problems. Its purpose is simply to minimize its costs, maximize its sales, and so earn profits for its investors. This is its institutional DNA. It is designed to ignore countless social and environmental harms (primly described by economists as “externalities”) and relentlessly pursue infinite growth.

And so it is that language of capitalism validates a certain set of purposes and power relationships, and projects them into the theaters of our minds. The delusions of endless growth and consumption are encoded into the very epistemology of our language and internalized by people. It is only in recent years that large masses of people have understood the alarming real-world consequences of this cultural model and way of thinking: an globally integrated economy dedicated to the proposition that humans must indefinitely exploit, monetize and financially abstract a finite set of natural resources (oil, minerals, forests, fisheries, water). The rise of Peak Oil and global warming (not to mention other ecosystem declines) suggest that this vision is a time-limited fantasy. Nature has real limits. The drama of the next decade will revolve around whether capitalism can begin to recognize and respect these inherent limits.

The epistemological premises of “democratic capitalism” extend to information and culture as well. But here, in order to wring maximum profit from intangibles (words, music, images), the logic is inverted. Instead of treating a finite resource, nature, as infinite and without price, here, the corporation demands that an essentially infinite resource, culture and information, be made finite and scarce. That is the chief purpose of extending the scope and terms of copyright and patent law – to make information and culture artificially scarce so that they can then be treated as private property and sold. This imperative has become all the more acute now that digital technologies have made the reproduction of information and creative works easy and essentially free, and in doing so undermined the customary business models that made books, film and music artificially scarce.

The commons – a vehicle for meeting everyone's basic needs in a roughly equitable way – is being annexed and disassembled to serve a global a market machine. Nature becomes commodified. Commoners become isolated individuals. Communities of commoners are splintered and reconstituted as armies of consumers and employees. The “unowned” resources of the commons are converted into the raw fodder for market production and sale – and after every last drop of it has been monetized, the inevitable wastes of the market are dumped back into the commons. Government is dispatched to “mop up” the “externalities,” a task that is only irregularly fulfilled because it is so ancillary to neoliberal priorities.

The normal workings of The Economy require constant if not expanding appropriations of resources that morally or legally belong to everyone. They must all be transmuted into tradeable commodities. Enclosure is a sublimely insidious process. Somehow an act of dispossession and plunder must be reframed as a lawful, common-sense initiative to advance human progress. For example, the World Trade Organization, which purports to advance human development through free trade, is essentially a system for seizing non-market resources from communities, dispossessing people and exploiting fragile ecosystems with the full sanction of international and domestic law. This achievement requires an exceedingly complicated legal and technical apparatus, along with intellectual justifications and political support. Enclosure must be mystified through all sorts of propaganda, public relations and the co-optation of dissent. This process has been critical in the drive to privatize lifeforms, supplant biodiverse lands with crop monocultures, censor and control Internet content, seize groundwater supplies to create proprietary bottled water, appropriate indigenous knowledge and culture, and convert self-reproducing agricultural crops into sterile, proprietary seeds that must be bought again and again.

Through such processes, the very idea of “The Economy” has been constructed, complete with dualisms about what matters  (things that bear prices or affect prices) and what doesn't (things that have intrinsic, qualitative, moral or subjective value).  Over time, The Economy comes to be seen as a universal, ahistorical, entirely natural phenomenon, a fearsome Moloch that somehow preexists humanity and exists beyond anyone's control.  This image begins to express the nightmare of enclosure that afflicts so much of the world – a world where natural ecological processes, communities and vernacular culture have no legal protection or cultural respect.    

The commons as generative

A major point of the commons (discourse), then, is to help us “get outside” of the dominant discourse of the market economy and help us represent different, more wholesome ways of being. It allows us to more clearly identify the value of inalienability – protection against the marketization of everything.  Relationships with nature are not required to be economic, extractive and exploitative; they can be constructive and harmonious.  For people of the global South, for whom the commons tends to be more of a lived, everyday reality than a metaphor, the language of the commons is the basis for a new vision of “development.” 

The commons can play this role because it describes a powerful value proposition that market economics ignores.  Historically, the commons has often been regarded as a wasteland, a res nullius, a place having no owner and no value.  Notwithstanding the long-standing smear of the commons as a “tragedy,” the commons, properly understood, is in fact highly generative.  It creates enormous stores of value.  The “problem” is that this value cannot simply be collapsed into a single scale of commensurable, tradeable value – i.e., price – and it occurs through processes that are too subtle, qualitative and long-term for the market's mandarins to measure.  The commons tends to express its bounty through living flows of social and ecological activity, not fixed, countble stocks of capital and inventory. 

The generativity of commons stewardship, therefore, is not focused on building things or earning returns on investment, but rather on ensuring our livelihoods, the integrity of the community, the ongoing flows of value-creation, and their equitable distribution and responsible use.  Commoners are diverse among themselves, and do not necessarily know in advance how to agree upon or achieve a shared goals  The only practical answer, therefore, is to open up a space for robust dialogue and experimentation.  There must be room for commoning – the social practices and traditions that enable a people to discover, innovate and negotiate new ways of doing things for themselves.  In order for the generativity of the commons to manifest itself, it needs the “open space” for a bottom-up initiatives to occur in interaction with the resources at hand.  In this way, citizenship and governance are blended and reconstituted.         

Creating an architecture of law and policy to support the commons

The viability of bottom-up commons, however, often depends upon supportive institutions, policy regimes and law.  As we see in the essays of Part V, this is the new frontier for the commons sector:  developing new bodies of law and policy to facilitate the practices of commoning on the ground.  For this, the state must play a more active role in sanctioning and facilitating the functioning of commons, much as it currently sanctions and facilitates the functioning of corporations.  And commoners must assert their interests in politics and public policy to make the commons the focus of innovations in law. 

There is a simple, practical reason for developing this theater of action.  As the dysfunctionalities of the state become more evident – as seen in its inability to solve the financial crisis or curb ecological destruction -- the state has an affirmative interest in helping commons perform tasks that it cannot.  It is important that the state begin to recognize the varieties of collective property regimes (an indigenous landscape, a local agricultural system, an online community) and empower people to be co-proprietarians and co-stewards of their commons as a matter of law.  

For too long commons have been marginalized or ignored in public policy, forcing commoners to develop their own private-law “work-arounds” or sui generis legal regimes in order to establish collective legal rights.  Examples include the General Public License for free software, which assures its access and use by anyone and land trusts, which establish tracts of land as commons to be enjoyed by all yet owned as private property (“property on the outside, commons on the inside”). Reference Rost essay?  The future of the commons would be much brighter if the state could begin to provide formal charters and legal doctrines to recognize the collective interests and rights of commoners. 

There is also a need to reinvent market structures so that the old, centralized corporate structures of capitalism do not dominate, and squeeze out, the more locally responsive, socially mindful business alternatives (a trend that the Solidarity Economy movement has been stoutly resisting).  In recent years there has been a proliferation of commons-friendly businesses models in which enterprises subordinate their interests in profit maximization to the long-term interests of their communities, producers and consumers.  Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), the Slow Food movement, the Slow Money movement, the Mietshäuser Syndikat (apartment building trust) in Germany, and fair trade businesses are shining examples. 

There is an inherent tension in seeding new sorts of commons initiatives, however:  They often must work within the existing system of law and policy, which poses a danger of co-optation of the commons and the domestication of its innovations.  This is a real danger, yet commons initiatives need not lose their transformative, catalytic potential simply because they work “within the system.”  Among commoners, there will invariably be debates about the strategic “purity” of commons-based initiatives, especially those that interact with the marketplace in new ways.     Such scrutiny is important.  Yet it may also highlight deeper philosophical tensions within the commons movement – namely, that some commoners prefer to have little or no intercourse with markets while others believe that their communities can thrive because of their interactions with markets.    

This is a creative tension that will never go away, nor should it.  But the critical question for commoners to ask is, What is production for?  Unlike market capitalism, which requires constant economic growth, the point of the commons is to propagate and extend a commons-based culture.  The goal is to meet people's needs – and to reproduce and expand the commons sector.  Throughout history, civilizations have always had a dominant organizational form.  In tribal economies, gift exchange was dominant.  In pre-capitalist societies such as feudalism, hierarchies prevailed and rewards were allocated on the basis of one's social status.  In our era of capitalism, the market is the primary system fthat or allocating social status, wealth and opportunities for human development.  Now that the limitations and dysfunctions of the market system under capitalism are abundantly clear, the question we must confront is whether the commons can become the dominant social form.  We believe it is entirely possible to create commons-based innovations that work within existing government systems while helping bring about a new order.

We hope that the essays of this book encourage new explorations and initiatives in this direction.  This is a rare moment in history in which old, fixed categories of thought are giving way to new possibilities.  But any transition to a new paradigm will require that enough people “step into history” and make the new categories of the commons their own.   Hope for the future lies in people creating their own distinctive forms of commoning throughout the world, and the gradual emergence and confluence of new social/economic practices.   

Anthropologists, neurologists, geneticists and other scientists confirm that e critical role that cooperation has played in the evolution of the human species.  We are hard-wired to cooperate and participate in commons.  One might even say that it is our destiny.  While the commons may seem odd within the context of 21st Century market culture, it is precisely why the language of the commons is experiencing such a strong resurgence these days:  It speaks to something buried deep within us.  It prods us to deconstruct the oppressive political culture and consciousness that the market/state duopoly demands, and whispers of new possibilities that only we can actualize.