Getting Beyond the Logic of the Market

My colleague at the Commons Strategy Group, Silke Helfrich recently spoke at the World Social Forum in Dakar, Senegal, about how we might shift from the logic of the market to the logic of the commons.  An account of her talk can be read on her blog, CommonsBlog, here.  Below, an excerpt from her talk followed by a useful chart that contrasts how the logic of the market and commons differ. 

Helfrich's talk:

The process of privatizing gains and socializing losses is very alive (the recent bail-out of banks by taxpayers money is just one of its examples). This process does confirm an historic experience:  Within the current logic, both Market AND State tend to smash the commons. And common people have to pay for it. This is not only dramatic for being essentially unfair. It is especially dramatic because – over the long run – this kind of enclosure of the social commons undermines and even destroys the capacity of communities to govern and protect their commons.

There is a built-in flaw in the way capitalist democracies work: as Vermont Law Professor Gus Speth brilliantly puts it:

“[I]n a capitalist democracy, the state is a dispenser of many valuable prizes. Whoever amasses the most political power wins the most valuable prizes.

The rewards include property rights, friendly regulators, subsidies, tax breaks, and free or cheap use of the commons…

There is a desperate need for a paradigm shift, a shift in the underlying core beliefs of how to organize society and of how to design policy based on those alternative core-beliefs. And we need to find a name for that alternative paradigm. I strongly believe, that if we want  to get out of the mess, the most important thing is to stop focusing on solutions to specific problems. We have to realize what it really means, that we cannot (yet?) rely on the State as a defender or enabler of the commons.

It is more than important to say NO and to resist the silent enclosures, but it is even more important to work on this urgently needed and relatively “simple” shift in the way we look at this world.  Once we’ve done this we will be more sensitive to the millions of on the ground-solutions people create “at the edges” of the dominating model.

As the late Raymond Williams puts it“To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.”

For me, the commons represent hope.

At the World Social Forum in Dakar the commons were not yet discussed as a new paradigm  – instead they were present as „the Water commons“, as "natural commons“ and as "Knowledge Commons“ in different places -- each of the communities addressing the specific issue it feels comfortable with. This is a limit we’ll try to overcome next time, I was happy to find a lot of new allies in Dakar – from Mali, France, Bolivia, India or Brazil!

So, the proposal for the next World Social Forum in Porto Alegre is to propose the commons as a framing for the alternative paradigm (everybody talks about but only a few people try to describe), and to put this discussion at the very heart of the Forum. The idea is to design the commons debate in such a way that the whole power of the convergence of movements can really unfold.

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Helfrich’s chart:











Bollier]:  I have my quarrels with charts because they can imply that things are neater and more precise than they really are.  That said, Silke’s chart is very helpful.  It provides a useful way to get your head around most of the key differences between our existing market order and the emerging commons paradigm.  Great to hear that there was so much receptivity to the commons at the WSF, Silke!

Helfrich delivered a longer, more formal talk along these lines recently at the "Burning Ice UnEconomic Summit," in late January.  It is entitled, "The Commons:  Marginalized, but Rediscovered:  Year One of the Commons Movement."  The comments at the end, many reacting to the chart posted here, make for great reading.