The Commons as an Antidote to Relentless Growth

My commons colleague in Germany, Silke Helfrich, has pulled together a succinct, persuasive account of how the commons helps us get beyond the relentless growth imperatives of the contemporary economy.  She presented her ideas two weeks ago at the Attac Congress, “Beyond Growth,” in Berlin.  (A German version of her talk, “Commons Beyond Growth,” is available here.) 

Below is Silke’s penetrating analysis about how the commons can help cultivate practical new models of provisioning without the pathologies of compulsive, unsustainable growth:

Summary

  • Commons reduce money-induced growth because they make us more independent of money. The more we produce commons, the less we or the state has to pay for goods.
  • Commons reduce population-induced growth because they are associated with a multiplicity of sufficiency strategies which create prosperity by sharing.
  • Commons escape the growth compulsion, because all those things that are produced as commons, do not have to be made artificially scarce. And there is no incentive for artificial scarcity because commons are not produced as goods to be exchanged but they foster and maintain social relationships, satisfy needs and solve problems. Directly.

Thus far the vision of the future – but we have not got there yet. In the here and now a lot more must be thought through, discussed and fought for. Therefore, in what follows I will briefly give my reasoning.

The truth is that there is as yet no credible, socially-just, ecologically sustainable scenario of continually growing incomes for a world of nine billion people,” according to economist Tim Jackson (Jackson 2011: 98) who recently created stir with his book Prosperity without Growth.   Jackson works through calculations which demonstrate why the idea that we can continue to grow as we have before is an impossibility.

What does the immediate problem consist of?

The capitalist market economy has achieved some things but failed in important respects. I just want to mention three of these:

1. It cannot succeed in satisfying the basic material needs of many people, nor can it meet the immaterial needs of all people.

2. It is inefficient and ineffective in preserving natural resources.

3. It systematically destroys jobs.

There is a connection between these problems. In general, paid employment is the single means people have to access money. Money is, in turn, to an increasing extent the only means to get what we need in order to acquire the basic provisions of life. Or, to put it more precisely, in the current economic system it is the only valued means. That’s the reason it is customary to regard ourselves as needing above all paid employment even though what we actually want is to be alive, active, creative. We want simply to satisfy our needs. Many describe what we seek for as contentedness. Others go at it more strongly and call it “happiness”.

For decades political thinking of every kind has thus been fixated on job creation. This has narrowed viewpoints, blunted analysis and truncated the argument. In fact the job creation argument has pretty much destroyed meaningful thinking and practical, creative steps towards a “good life.”  This does not lack a certain irony, but it lacks logic, because if the economy grows so too do real wages and salaries (at least they should), which in turn encourages companies to invest in technologies that make workers redundant. Work productivity therefore rises faster than resource use productivity. [1] In short, to remain competitive companies must save: jobs! Do you remember and we return to mentioning problem number 3? The capitalist market economy systematically destroys jobs.

This way of running the economy can only fail to solve the above-mentioned long term and structural problems. However, in the short term it can grow, grow, grow.

That short term "solution" is welcome – at least as far as the state is concerned. For in the current economic architecture the amount of money that goes into the public budget, and therefore the quality of public services, depends upon economic growth. As a result the state is only in a position to balance out these failures – assuming that there is the political will to do so – if the economy is growing. The state is caught in the famous growth trap. So if the economy grows and the state actually steps in to address the so called “market externalities” (pollution, social exhaustion etc.), the problems can be patched up but they don’t change substantially in nature. They cannot change substantially. By stepping in the state ameliorates the symptoms — provisionally – as is usual the case when solutions are merely symptomatically focused. Still, our three problems remain. They now appear as follows

The Growing Economy

1. The capitalist market economy is still not able to satisfy the material or immaterial needs of many people — or only through their access to money or public social services.

2. The absolute decoupling of the consumption of resources from production becomes the most ignored subsidiary issue in the world.

3. Jobs are still systematically destroyed – but are also built up again somewhere else. They call it “creative destruction”. It may well be creative, but it is still destructive in disturbing dimensions.

And everything is pulled into a spiral around the drive to get money as the only way to satisfy needs. Everything must be turned into commodities – even things that are in plentiful supply. Even behavioral patterns and social relationships.

What is to be done: Deal with the problem itself and not its symptoms

Current strategies generally only tackle the above-mentioned problems singly. Growth, for instance, should create jobs. It does this, in fact – but in so doing it sacrifices existing jobs and neglects the other issues. Those who would like to reconstruct industrial society with a Green New Deal also campaign for jobs, but they strategically concentrate on resource efficiency above all by trying to ensure economic valuation (i.e. “pricing”) for natural resources. However, whoever wants chiefly to ‘deal green’, must then explain how their measures will, in principle, eliminate the driving forces by which money, debt and population growth destroy resources.

That will be difficult. In the end, an economy driven to grow is not up to the necessary absolute decoupling from resource consumption. In fact, since 1990 the increase in the efficiency with which resources are used per unit of output was not even fast enough to offset the increase in resource use brought about by population increase. (see Jackson, 2011: 92). Further, there is the question of whether a Green New Deal would even make social gap bigger, because producing eco-friendly “goods” makes them more expensive. What would that mean for people without much money? And how would this reality be explained to them?

Interim conclusions

We are wasting too much energy with too little problem solving. We need more than complementary solutions – we need something fundamentally different. Only if we think ‘out of the box’ we will be able to widen our view and sharpen our arguments. We need other criteria in order to decide what we produce and how. We need another “inner order”, as Werner Rätz, a fellow platform speaker expressed it in his excellent contribution. Another operating system.

And that brings me to the Commons and thus “Beyond the market and state”

The commons must be understood as being what they are first and foremost – diverse, self determined and self designed, largely robust, (re-) productive social systems. They embody another operational mode.

Whoever thinks and lives in a commons way consistently asks

  • What do I/we need? Not what can I sell?
  • What can I share?
  • What can I make available for general use?
  • Where and how can I co-operate?

There are a lot of preconditions for commoning! But it is well worth pushing for that vision anyway. Whoever promotes commons creates possibilities to take many areas of life out of the market. For in the commons things are produced in a collective way, in order to solve problems and satisfy needs. Not to sell products in a market. For that reason Commons are “growth-pacifying” (“wachstumsbefriedend”), to quote Wolfgang Sachs.

And that is the key difference! For when a problem is solved, one doesn’t have to solve it again. One can turn to new tasks and devote oneself to other needs.

By contrast if one sells a market product, one must sell the next one. And the next, and the next. If the process runs too slowly, or if the people, reduced to being only customers, become tired of purchasing, then multiple ways must be found to accelerate the whole process again: for example by planned obsolescence or the practice of manufacturing things so that they fail quickly. Artificial scarcity is another strategy to fuel consumption. Think of the contrived extensions of copyright protection or of terminator seeds. And of course the permanent expansion of individual property rights. If the market becomes finally saturated, new needs have to be produced. Then, sheer marketing drives demand, debt and the desired growth process. Actual problem solving is playing only a minor, secondary role. How does Jackson put it?

“At its outer frontier, consumer capitalism is a complex beast, generating whole new species of financial derivatives, just to keep afloat. At it heart it is strikingly simple” (Jackson, 2011:103)

But how does it come about that this mechanism has worked for so long in societies where needs are saturated? The answer is that consumer culture holds together because it is so successful in failing to meet many needs. Which means – and we return to mentioning Problem number 1, consumer culture is not able to make us happy – we have to keep consuming as the only credible strategy to solving problems.

The more Commons, the less market is needed, and thus the less growth

Now, is the commons idea good enough to change the productions system and the social infrastructure? I would answer this question with “Yes”. What does one have to do to make that possible?



An example:

Two principles are important for effective commons: limited resources (water, forests, land) require access regulations to ensure that they remain available for their users, i.e. commoners. By contrast, unlimited copyable resources spread and unfold only as a commons, if they are accessible to all. Ultimately the active use by any person multiplies the possibilities for the use by others. That relates, for example, to ideas, software codes, knowledge and design. And these are, after all, the most important productive resources at the present time.

The principle of a commons-oriented production mode is therefore: design to share and to further develop jointly with others. Put in another way: Copying wanted! This brings the best outcomes for everyone.

The most interesting growth in the commons is uninteresting for economic growth

In commons, the most interesting types of growth are the growth of knowledge and abilities, the richness of social relationships, the logic of time spent together rather than the logic of time saving – where it is not necessary to press ever more consumption out of ever less time. A commons instead evolves toward variety, autonomy and self-organisation instead of monopolies.

The growth question, as posed in the capitalist market economy, plays no role in the commons.It is far more the case that the commons demonstrates a way out of the growth dilemma. To get around the dilemma we need:

  • An interweaving of technological and social innovation – which also means innovation in property relations
  • free knowledge sharing
  • an – or better multiple – alternative(s) to the situation where money is the sole means of access to basic provisions. The need for money is not a good motive, nor a good reason to permanently keep [the] people busy, even when they are already busy in a variety of ways.

Adelheid Biesecker, who was a co-speaker in the discussion, had this to say about the last point:

“We don’t have much time for employed labour any more. We have better things to do.”

We can find these better things in the commons. And the good news is: this is not pure theory. There is already a form of production which points beyond the usual institutions of market and state – chained together in the growth trap. This form of production is known as commons based peer production, a concept about which Yochai Benkler has been influential.

What needs to be discussed is how this growth-independent form of innovation and production can be spread to more areas of production. And indeed important beginnings have been made on this front.

Translation:  Brian Davey (hi Brian – I send you a hug!)

Many thanks for your helpful comments, David! And thanks to Michel for inspiring conversations in Florence.

NOTES:

1. For more on this point see Tim Jackson, 2011, Chapter 4. (Page numbers here refer to the German version of this book.)

2. For the sake of brevity I leave aside the tendency to the falling rate of growth as well as the problem of debt.

3. As it does in Germany or central Europe to a large extent. In most countries of the world the situation appears differently.

4. How else can it be explained that even the Green Party now wants apply consumer incentives. What a structurally conservative idea! Renate Künast calls for 5,000 Euros for the purchase of cars. Although she knows that absolute decoupling is the current necessary agenda and that this cannot be achieved with the exchange of engines for individual transport.

5. Cf. Elinor Ostrom Governing the Commons CUP 1990

Comments

Wonderful.. and sad.

David,

I came across Silke Helfrich's summary earlier today and agree that it is a penetrating and compelling analysis. I look forward to discussing it further with you in the future. Right now I am in shock having just read your post from March about Jonathan Rowe. We served together (remotely) on the board of Take Back Your Time and met during a TBYT conference in Seattle. Then, last October, I had a residency at Mesa Refuge and Jonathan and Peter Barnes joined us for dinner. But it was during an impromptu borrowing of the refuge's truck for an errand that Jonathan and I eased into one of those conversations that you wish would never end.

We talked about the kinds of things that Silke writes about in her summary, so in a very real sense our conversation continues...