Reclaim the Commons?

Ztangi Press on capitalism and the idea of the Commons.

Submitted by Steven. on December 20, 2010

The idea of the old European commons has surfaced recently as a reaction to predatory capitalism’s quest to commodify everything. What previous generations understood as public goods, our water for instance, or the broadcast bandwidth, even the air, is today considered fair game for exploitation. Enron, we shouldn’t forget, wanted to trade futures on the weather.

The notion that the “market rules” has permeated our consciousness so that thinking critically—outside the box, or, better, outside the package—has been displaced from public discourse. (Critical thought, it seems, has sought refuge in the realm of fiction, where it puts up a rearguard fight.) It should come then as no surprise that those who would like to forge an alliance against this plague of consumerist assumptions fall short of achieving their goals. Packaging the message of resistance may take only a slogan and a graphic, but creating the connections between reality and its effective opposition requires analysis, which presumes insight. And insight comes from challenging appearances to reveal the substance of the domination that forms the core of our existence.

The call to “reclaim the commons” illustrates how “packaging” resistance to global capitalism falls short of expectations. Building a force to overcome universal commodification requires criticizing not its effects, the depletion of all natural resources from fish to forests, for instance, but exposing its central doctrine—the imperative to seize all of reality to create profit.

What is inherent in profit-making? Economically, constant growth. There is no true sustainable “free market” capitalism. Profits need to be invested to expand production to in turn secure more returns. If profits aren’t high enough, costs are slashed, no matter the social consequences. All forms of “green capitalism” will remain a marginal phenomenon. If a potential exists to make “real” money, the “ethical” capitalists will just be bought off, bought out or, if they resist, bankrupted by mega-corporations. We are witnessing this with organic agriculture. And who do you think will ride into town with the latest “alternative” energy device that they will sell us when they have no more oil to sell?

In the area of politics, capital accumulation knows only one form: dictatorship. Is it any wonder that corruption stalks the corridors of power? For capital its “my way or the doorway” on all issues related to making a buck. No obstacles are tolerated.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that capitalism and democracy are not compatible. They are in constant combat. Is it a surprise which one trumps? And which one is compromised, or worse? History records a repetitive tale—all efforts at local control of resources are vanquished by economic imperatives.

Facing this devastating reality courts political immobilization. How can we stop this machine? Rage is easy, sabotage appealing, but systematic opposition, methodical and effective— that’s another thing.

Let’s step back for a minute and take the long view. Piecemeal efforts at reforming capitalism are like sandbagging against a flood: necessary precautions to be sure, but hardly meant as a solution. A more proactive strategy entails systemic reforms that lead to an historic turn like the village market’s transmutation into industrial capitalism, but this time in the direction of democratic control not further consolidation. A reformist strategy like this requires both a thorough, critical, understanding of the workings of capitalism and a vision of a future society incorporating that analysis. Reference to problematic historic occurrences, like the commons, is no substitute for informed analysis. And possession of an analysis without the passion of vision won’t sustain us for the long haul.

Historically, in Europe the commons was not a major affair. The lands that the lords and abbots set aside for the use of their serfs amounted to not much more than a sop to encourage their continuing subservience. In some areas it played a bigger role than in others, but all over Europe, the peasants were in constant upheaval trying to get out from under the thumb of the landlords. As towns emerged and guilds of skilled craftspeople developed in the early Middle Ages, prospects of more autonomy enticed peasants to the towns.

It may be stretching the historic record to say the guilds offered another world of possibility for the peasants. What we can say is that the growing opposition of workers to the rise of industrial capitalism in the 19th Century looked back several centuries and saw it that way.
Today the movement against global capitalism invokes a vision—“another world is possible”—where grassroots movements have wrested control of their situation from global capitalism. At the center of this control is a radical democratic strategy not confined to the deadend of electoral politics but extending to the sphere of the economy.

In Argentina, international financial capital in the form of the International Monetary Fund, decided to pull the plug on the economy. The workers found themselves arriving in the morning at factories abandoned by the owners who absconded with all the cash and left the gates locked. Confronted with this situation, the workers didn’t petition the regime, corrupted by years of accepting IMF demands, for compensation, they broke the locks and entered their factories and began running them again, by themselves. That’s taking democracy literally.
This development was so successful that all across Argentina communities came to the aid of the workers of re-opened factories. Over 200 of them have survived for more than two years with democratic management and are so successful that the former owners want them back. Fat chance of that happening.

On the other hand 200 enterprises can’t withstand an assault from global capital if one is launched. Argentina has one beachhead for a new economy. It needs international support and replication. An international movement for grassroots rebellion, for workers’ self-management and local autonomy needs to spread quickly. The bosses in Argentina made a mess of things, but nothing like the grand disasters that await us due to the rampage for profits on the part of international capitalists—global warming, gmo-manipulation of all our foodstuffs, devastation of the world’s forests, oceans and soil.

The outlines of a culture of resistance are emerging. The Argentine workers have seized one aspect of this culture in a dynamic way: for them social property trumps private property.

The indigenous people of the Chiapas show how cooperation produces results where individualism leads to waste.

The conspicuous consumption of our society illustrates how abundance is obvious, but for purposes of political control, scarcity rules.
And lastly, we all seek ways of subverting the dominant sub-ethic of sacrifice, through creative endeavors of all sorts: play and the “gift economy,” are not foreign to us.

The prison house that is the market society, with its constraints demanding subservience to profit and hierarchy, is intent on locking us all down. We don’t want no stinking garden in the exercise yard, we want the walls torn down! We don’t want to breathe the air of restraint, but the fresh breezes of freedom. We don’t want the sun filtered through bars, but shining bright on a new world to be built. By us.