Nine Key Political Propositions About How To Build the Common

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Source: A review of the book, Common: An Essay on Revolution in the 21st Century, by Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, from which Martin O’Shaughnessy summarizes their nine political propositions. The French book is not translated and published yet, see also for the original title: Commun: essai sur la revolution au XXIème siècle. Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval.

Martin O’Shaughnessy:

"What I want to do now is focus on the nine key political propositions about how to build the common to which their thought leads them. I have inevitably had to condense their writings and leave out many of their key references but have done my best to convey the spirit of what they propose faithfully.

Proposition 1: it is necessary to construct a politics of the common:

Although the politics of the common builds on the tradition of 19th century socialist associationism and 20th century workers’ councils, it can no longer simply be thought in an artisanal context or in that of the industrial workplace. Nor will it emerge from some sort of encirclement of capitalism from the outside, nor from some mass desertion. There can be no politics of the common without a rethinking of property rights concerning the land, capital and intellectual ownership. Rights of use rather than rights of property must be the juridical axis for the transformation of society. It is necessary to find the correct form for the common production of society by creating institutions of self-government (whose role will be the production of the common) in all its sectors. It must not be thought, however, that the existence of a common principle will simply abolish the distinction between different socio-economic, public or private, or political spheres. To prevent public deliberation being captured by the interests of any one socio-professional category, the sphere of production and exchange must be completely reorganized around the self-government of the commons. Each commons must also take account of all the ‘externalities’ of its activity so that the its governance includes the users and citizens concerned by the activity. The socio-economic arena thus becomes schooled in co-decision taking.

Proposition 2: we must mobilise rights of use to challenge property rights.

Historically, the articulation between the socio-economic and the public has been constituted by the double principle, coming from Roman law, of dominium (exclusive private property) and imperium (the overarching power of the sovereign). The politics of the common must challenge this double absolutism. Traditional ownership rights grant owners completely free use of their property and therefore imply no accountability before others. In contrast, the user of what is in common is tied to the other users by the co-production of the rules that govern the common use.

It might seem that capitalism itself is moving away from traditional models of property attached to physical things as it moves increasingly towards the provision of services, rather than the selling of goods. Instead of buying property, service users increasingly buy access, something that might seem to announce new models of co-use, and a multiplication of types of rights (rights of use, rights to rental revenue, rights to buy and sell different rights). But we are in reality moving to new forms of enclosure that concern time rather than space: the user has to pay as long as (s)he continues to use something. At the same time, corporations retain ownership and control of the networks through which individuals interact. In this situation, the right of co-use is a hollow one entirely dependent on the will of a higher body that is alone empowered to take decisions. To be truly common, use must be decided by collective deliberation. This is very different from the idea that the common is the equivalent of the universal so that a piece of land, say, is available to be used by everybody. For there to be common and not simply shared things, there must be co-activity. Rather than seeking to develop a form of property right that broadens ownership to include everyone, there must be a right of use that can be mobilized against property rights. The care of a common can only be entrusted to those who co-use it and not to states.

Proposition 3: the common is the route to the emancipation of labour:

We always work with others. We also work for others. To work is always to engage oneself in shared action with moral, cultural and often aesthetic dimensions. Work is a way of affirming ones belonging to a community or a peer group. If workers are still attached to their labour, it is not simply due to alienation, voluntary servitude or economic constraint. It is also because work remains the activity through which individuals collectively socialize themselves and maintain ties to others. But we should not think that, by assembling workers, capitalism somehow allows for the spontaneous emergence of a truly co-operative workplace. The neo-liberal enterprise practices forced co-operation. The enterprise demands the active mobilization of the workers while reducing them to simple operatives. The long neglected struggle for workplace democracy must therefore be replaced at the heart of our efforts. It is not enough to ‘enrich’ workers’ tasks or to ‘consult’ them from time to time on their workplace conditions. They must take part in the elaboration of the rules and decisions that affect them. In order for the enterprise to become a truly co-operative space, it must become a democratic institution freed from the domination of capital.

Proposition 4: we must institute the common enterprise:

The liberation of work from capitalist control will only be possible if the enterprise becomes an institution of a democratic society and ceases to be an islet of management and shareholder autocracy. As Marc Sagnier famously said, ‘we cannot have the republic in society as long as we have monarchy in the enterprise.’ Any workplace democracy is incompatible with capitalism’s control of what it considers to be its exclusive property. Yet state control is not the way forward. This is the obstacle on which socialism has historically stumbled: so-called social or collective property has been reduced to state property unable to practice anything other than a centralized, bureaucratic and inefficient form of management. In this context, the traditional workers’ co-operative offers an interesting alternative model whereby workers choose their managers, vote on the direction taken by their company and subordinate the company’s capital to their decisions rather than the other way round. But, although an important testing ground for alternative models, this has traditionally been a minor alternative caught between capitalist competition on the one hand and state enterprises on the other. In any case, it is not enough to institute the common in the workplace, as an islet of autonomy. It is necessary to think about how we would reintegrate the economy within the social and introduce a plurality of points of view (worker, consumer) within democratic workplace governance. In the process, the notion of the market itself would need to be rethought to re-inscribe the freedom of individual consumer decisions within frameworks decided collectively, especially at a local level, so that the consumer would no longer be played off against the worker as is the case today.

Proposition 5: association within the economic sphere must pave the way for the society of the common:

The third sector or non-lucrative economy is sometimes presented as an alternative economy or even an alternative to capitalism. But the third sector varies from country to country both in definitional terms and in practice and typically involves institutions with different logics: it can be associative, on the one hand, providing mutual support among members of a profession or social group; it can be charitable, on the other, building on a religious tradition. It is therefore difficult to present this diverse assemblage as an alternative to capitalism especially given that its activities are exposed to considerable pressure from both capitalist enterprise and state bodies. Far from promoting an alternative economy, the associative sector currently tends to play a low cost sub-contracting role for the welfare state with the number of its poorly protected and low paid workers rising even as state employers have seen their numbers stagnate or fall. Under certain circumstances nonetheless, the social economy can place in question the monopoly of the definition of the general interest by the state and of value by the market. The kind of locally anchored conviviality preached by André Gorz and Ivan Illich, involving new solidarities at the level of the village, the town and neighbourhood, is undoubtedly something whose potential we should not underestimate. On its own, however, it is not sufficient to create a politics of the common.

Proposition 6: the common must establish social democracy:

For some people, the objective of a progressive politics should essentially be the rebuilding of the welfare state. We should never forget, however, that the common was perverted by the state and that the latter now seeks above all to reduce the scope of welfare and to adapt it to the constraints of competitiveness. The social (welfare) state negates the common as the co-activity of the members of society. Its social protection and economic redistribution is granted in return for the abandonment of any real economic citizenship within the enterprise and submission to the most pitiless norms of new forms of organization of work. Therefore, any politics of the common should first aim to return the control of the institutions of reciprocity and solidarity to society.

Proposition 7: public services must become institutions of the common:

Nineteenth century associative socialism and twentieth century workers’ councils sought to separate the institutional form that socialism should take from the bureaucratic management of the economy by the state. But these movements generally failed to foresee the future scale that public services would take. Because the latter are sites of conflict and struggle, they should be seen neither as ‘state apparatuses’ working for bourgeois domination nor as institutions fully serving society. The question that therefore arises is how to make them into institutions of the common organized around common rights of use and governed democratically. To this end, the state should no longer be seen as a gigantic, centralized administrative system but as the ultimate guarantor of the satisfaction of needs collectively judged to be essential. The administration of services should be entrusted to bodies including representatives of the state, workers and citizen-users. While services should be administered locally, the state, through the constitution or some other fundamental juridical document, should make access to the common a right. A solution of this sort is needed to guard against the danger of state centralism but also to prevent the reactionary exploitation of localism and regionalism.

Proposition 8: it is necessary to institute the global commons:

How can we make the common the political principle for the reorganization of the whole of society under conditions which preserve an irreducible plurality of ‘commons’ of very variable shapes and sizes, going from local commons to global ones? How can we ensure a coordination of the commons without undermining the self-government of each common without which there can be no meaningful co-obligation and therefore no true common?

Various types of solution have been proposed. Some have sought a way forward in the affirmation of the rights of humanity as the basis of new world legal order, with the recognition of ‘crimes against humanity,’ or ‘world heritage sites’ pointing towards the progressive emergence of ‘humanity’ as a rights bearing subject. We know, however, that by retaining the monopoly of the use of force, states can paralyse the development of such a system of rights. We also know how neo-liberalism structures the world according to norms of competition, predatory strategies and warlike logics rather than principles of co-operation or social justice. We note too how neo-liberal practices have led to ‘law shopping’ (shopping around for the most advantageous conditions) in the domains of taxation and commercial and employment laws. These practices make law itself an area of capitalist competition and an object of commerce. In questions of health, culture, access to water, and pollution, the logic which is imposed is that of free-exchange and absolute respect of (private) property rights. A whole globalized and globalizing juridical apparatus made by and for capital is working to produce the institutions of ‘cosmocapital.’ We are witnessing an authentic privatization of international law.

Another discourse seeks to use the tools of classic economic science to plead in favour of ‘global public goods.’ At the start of the 1990s, seeming to diverge from the dominant neo-liberal path, and influenced by figures such as Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen, the United Nations widened the definition of development to include criteria such as life expectancy and literacy. It is in this context that the notion of global good governance emerged and was linked to the production of ‘global public goods.’ Economists of the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) have put forward a tripartite categorization of global public goods: (overused) globally indivisible goods (the ozone layer, the climate); (underused) man-made global public goods (scientific knowledge, the internet); goods that result from integrated global policy (peace, health, stability). One problem with the definition of these goods is its negative, residual nature –it applies to those things that the market cannot ‘spontaneously’ produce. Another issue is who or what will ensure their production: a global state? One answer given by the UNPD is that private actors should be incentivized to take responsibility for them, if necessary through market mechanisms and the reinforcement of property rights, as in the case of global trading in CO2 emissions. The effective outcome is to appear to deal with major questions while actually neutralizing any real challenge to the existing global order. While capitalism takes on the progressive colours of corporate social responsibility, it needs in fact to profit from all the ‘externalities’ put at its disposition by governments, benevolent associations and NGOs. Corporations need political stability, urban infrastructures, ‘high performing’ university systems and even charitable support for low paid workers and prisons for criminals in order to enjoy the environment most favourable to them.

It is clear that dominant neo-liberal logics need to ensure that demands for defense of the global public good be channeled towards the economic terrain of reified common goods in order to restrict their grasp. Progressive political struggle, on the other hand, seeks to extend the reach of common goods by attaching them to fundamental rights so that they are not simply goods but also involve access to services and institutions. In a context where neo-liberal states have become active agents of de-democratisation, it is understandable that political progressives such as counter-globalisers should seek to transform what used to be citizen based welfare rights into universal human rights thus welding the universalist reach of the old welfare state to the problematic of the global commons. But apart from being quite artificial, this move is also an attempt to transfer the old western social model to a radically changed context. It is hard to see how existing states, dominated as they are by capitalist logics, will provide support for the global commons or dispense the common good. Citizen rights, on the other hand, are worth struggling over. They form a core component of modern political subjecthood. But for them to be meaningful, citizens must not simply be social citizens, consumers of services who evoke their rights to welfare. They must be politically and civically active citizens who are able to invent institutions that will allow them to be conscious co-producers of the common.

Without some major shift, the future is unlikely to be one of ordered pluralism. It is more likely to be the kind of re-feudalization evoked by Alain Supiot whereby the social function of states shrinks and the repressive function grows, nation-states may fragment into region-states and there is a multiplication of local and supranational powers following a logic of multi-facetted fragmentation. In the face of this, can the old Westphalian system of nation-states still be patched together without us being swept up in the vast reactionary, nationalist and xenophobic movement which everywhere threatens to grow? We should perhaps ask if we have not come to the end of centralist mode of organization of the state and the forms of subjectivation linked to it. We should then ask ourselves what form of political organization would be capable of giving institutional form to the co-production of the global commons.

Proposition 9: It is necessary to institute a federation of commons:

The only political principle that respects the autonomy of local governments is the federal principle. A federation is a contract, treaty or convention whereby one or several communes, or groups of communes, enter into a relationship of mutual obligation for one or several ends. Its essential feature is the reciprocal obligation which excludes all subordination of one party to another in a way which contrasts directly with the kind of sovereignty exercised by the state.

Given the existence of different models of federalism, our task is to identify which particular model lends itself to the practice of shared use at all the levels of social life. Here the thought of Proudhon rather than the Marxist tradition offers the best way forward. While Marx focused on the need for the proletariat to conquer state power, Proudhon preached a dual federal model: a federation of units of production, on the one hand, and of communal units, on the other. This model shows how the political democracy of communes could be combined with the industrial democracy of the workplace. In Proudhon’s eyes, the shared principle that could co-ordinate these two types of common was mutuality and the mutual obligation enshrined in laws of contract. Yet, while in line with Proudhon’s project to replace laws with contracts, this extension of mutuality implied the application of an essentially economic concept to the political sphere. A more suitable unifying principle is clearly the common which is a political principle equally suited to the governance of the socio-economic sphere and the public, political sphere. In terms of the co-ordination of these different commons, there would be no pyramidal hierarchy whereby each higher instance would enjoy greater powers than lower ones. In particular, the state, or any supra-state body, would simply be one level amongst other, with no special privileges or prerogatives. The lower levels could interact among themselves, in a horizontal manner, and on the basis of shared activity, without needing to work through the higher levels. Socio-economic commons (of production, of consumption, of seed banks or whatever) would be constituted independently of any territorial logic and in accord only with the necessity to assume responsibility for the activity for which they have been formed. Thus, for example, a river common might traverse several regional or even state boundaries. Political commons, in contrast, would be constituted according to a rising logic connecting together territories of increasing scale up to an including the global level.

What kind of citizenship could correspond to this proposition for a global federation of commons? It could certainly not be some ‘global citizenship’ thought along the lines of the nation-state model. It would have to be plural and decentred. The problem is that, the more citizenship is extended in territorial scope, the more it tends to lose political density, so that it eventually coincides simply with the quality of being human, a sort of empty cosmopolitanism. We need to develop a citizenship that is neither statist nor national without falling back on something simply ‘moral, ‘commercial’, or ‘cultural.’ A non-statist, transnational citizenship can take very diverse forms: dissociated from any relationship of belonging, and from the rights attached to belonging, it must be thought of in relation to practices and shared activity rather than the granting of formal rights." (