Ugo Mattei on the Commons, Market and State

One of the most penetrating essays on the commons that I have encountered in the last few years was published this year by Italian comparative law professor Ugo Mattei, who teaches at the International University College of Turin (Italy) and the University of California, Hastings College of Law.  Professor Mattei deals with a topic that gets very little attention – how the commons relates to the State and Market – and does so in the broadest philosophical scope imaginable and with great sophistication.

So far as I can tell, Mattei’s essay, “The State, the Market, and Some Preliminary Question about the Commons,” (in English and French) written this year, has not been published in any scholarly journal.  This is not entirely surprising:  the short essay is too cutting-edge for in its theorizing, and the commons itself elicits limited interest in mainstream academic disciplines beyond the ritualistic flogging of Hardin’s “tragedy” essay.

Professor Mattei starts by pointing out how the categories of “public” and “private” impoverish the possibilities of modern political life.  The former is seen as the realm of the State and citizens, and the latter is the realm of the market and private property.  All of politics is framed by this axis, casting us as “for” or “against” the Market or the State, respectively.  But the very idea of “public vs. private” is, as Mattei puts it, “a distinction without a difference,” one that furthermore shuts down other ways of being, knowing and seeking change.  Mattei writes: 

The state is no longer the democratic representative of the aggregate of individuals, but instead a market actor among many.  The collusion or merger of state and private interests, with the same actors (corporations) on both sides of the equation, leaves little room for a ‘commons’ framework, no matter how convincing the evidence about the benefits may be.

One need only reflect on President Obama’s tenure in the White House to see how meaningless the liberal/conservative dialogue has become.  The Market calls the tune, and the State may or may not struggle to strike better bargains, but in any case its leverage is limited.  Even progressive upswells of the sort that propelled an African-American into the White House are neutered, settling into a bogus "centrism." 

The real problem is that the State and Market are locked in a symbiotic alliance to the detriment of the commons.  This unholy alliance so tenacious because it is embedded in our very phenomenological understanding of life, writes Mattei.  We perceive the world as a mechanistic system in which subject and object are separate and distinct, and we supposedly have individual autonomy to do what we wish to act upon the world.  As subjects, we tend to pracel out and commodify the world into units that are isolated from the larger whole; thus we see humanity as separate from Nature and the various elements of it (wetlands, atmosphere, genes) as isolated objects. 

As a result of such reductionisms embedded in daily perception, we fail to see the organic interconnections and holism of ecosystems.  We presume that we can simply superimpose private property rights on the human genome, bioengineered crops and nano-scale synthetic matter, without any negative consequences for ourselves or Nature.  The very discourse of the commons challenges this political/phenomenological understanding of the world and issues some highly provocative challenges, Mattei writes:

The commons are radically incompatible with the idea of individual autonomy as developed in the rights-based capitalistic tradition.  In this respect, commons are an ecological-qualitative category based on inclusion and access, whereas property and State sovereignty are rather economical-quantitative categories based on exclusion (produced scarcity) and violent concentration of power into a few hands.

…..Commons, unlike private goods and public goods, are not commodities and cannot be reduced to the language of ownership.  They express a qualitative relation.  It would be reductive to say that we have a common good:  we should rather see to what extent we are the commons, in as much as we are part of an environment, an urban or rural ecosystem.  Here, the subject is part of the object.  For this reason commons are inseparably related and link individuals, communities and the ecosystem itself.

Mattei goes on to say:  “The shift that we need now to accomplish politically, not only theoretically, is to change the dominant wisdom from the absolute domination of the subject (as owner or State) over the object (territory or more generally the environment) to a focus on the relationships of the two (subject-nature).  We need a new common sense recognizing, outside of the Western liberal hubris, that each individual’s survival depends on its relationship with others, with the community, with the environment.”

Read the entire essay.  It’s a terrific read.