Commons Institutional Gap

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Cadell Last:

"The specific identification of a lack of ‘global institution’ formation capable of managing the common sphere I will introduce the notion of the ‘Commons Gap’(i.e. the gap from ‘here to there’). In the other words, the deepest presence in our contemporary world is the absence of a universal common space: it is the lack that is present and the dominant phenomena structuring global antagonisms (Table 1).

Thus, the ‘Commons Gap’ is a notion meant to identify that, in terms of geopolitics, we currently have no coherent common approach for navigating/guiding the emerging socio-technological revolution. First, what is the commons? The commons, in its most general formulation, can be defined as the natural (land, forests, air, water, minerals, etc.) and cultural (ideas, languages, labour, creativity) resources and spaces that all humankind shares as a result of being human and existing on planet earth (Hardt, 2010). Consequently, the commons has multiple dimensions: ecology, economy, social, political, technological, and even biological. Second, what is the gap? The gap is in the lack of common action and coordination (lack of a coherent universal common space) related to confronting problems of commons and developing common solutions.


Thus, to develop ‘commons institutions’(in direct contrast with our contemporary reality of neoliberal institutions), is not to ‘cross the gap’/ ‘fill the lack’via hoping free market mechanisms are sufficient, nor developing a ‘global state’(arguably: ‘Keynesian institutions’), but rather to attempt to ‘cross the gap’/‘fill the lack’ by developing mechanisms of common action and coordination beyond both state and market forces (introduction of a ‘radical third’) founded in opening a commons/building a commonwealth via GB-like organizational forms, i.e. automated smart systems and distributed social networks (Table 2).7

Here, following social theorist Michael Hardt I would posit that the foundation of ‘opening a commons’/‘building a commonwealth’ is most fundamentally about our relation to property, i.e. “what private property is to capitalism, and what state property is to socialism, the common is to commonism”(2010, p. 144).

To posit a ‘Commons Gap’ is simultaneously to posit that the structure of our contemporary international environment is the direct cause of a ‘tragedy of the commons’ that will only grow worse given the inherent dynamics of the emerging technological revolution. Ecologist Garrett Hardin first proposed the idea of the ‘tragedy of the commons’(1968) to refer to the paradoxical problem that when a collective of individuals follow their own rational self-interest, this collective rational self-interested activity can destroy the common whole. Is this not the only way to understand the contemporary state of the common whole in the age of global neoliberalism? After all, neoliberalism is foundationally structured on a belief that everyone following their own self-interest on a ‘free market’ will lead to harmonious and stable planetary whole and that any form of state intervention will lead to totalitarianism (Springer, 2015). However, this fantasy of inclusive capitalist utopia is now encountering the reality of common whole dissolution (Table 1), and thus, at the very least, some new form of socialist state management will be necessary, as explored by Piketty (2014) among others. Can we not say that neoliberalism is now facing the ultimate consequences of the ‘tragedy of the commons’?

Consequently, in order to confront and solve ‘commons problems’ (‘jumping ’the ‘commons gap’ and averting an actual ‘tragedy of the commons’) we need to once again figure out a way to discuss common development in direct confrontation with neoliberal globalization

(1) without falling into the traps of planetary state intervention (which presents us with hierarchical and closed large-scale political forms) (2) and anarchist local self-organization (which does not offer any coherent formula for solving problems of the common sphere) (4) (Table 2).

Historically the political language of (authentic) common development was expressed in the (now ineffective) language of Marxism and Communism ( Badiou, 2010a,b).8 Consequently, after the 2008inancial collapse (an obviously crucial event in the failure of neoliberal international structure) there was a conference and edited works specifically focused on reassessing ‘The Idea of Communism’ in the ‘post-Communist’ ‘post-Cold War’ ‘post-ideological’ neoliberal age.

There were several general conclusions and shared premises that united the social theorists at the conference as a whole (Douzinas and Žižek, 2010, p. ix):

A) Recent politics (1990-present) has attempted to ban/foreclose conflict by de-politicizing the idea of communism and common development

B) ‘Communism’ is the idea of radical philosophy and politics, but must distance itself from statism and economism, and become informed by political experiences of the twenty-first century

C) Neoliberal capitalist exploitation and domination forms new en- closures of the commons (communication, intellectual property, natural resources, forms of governance), thus necessitating a re- turn to the concept of the ‘common’

D) Communism aims at both freedom and equality, as freedom can- not flourish without equality, and equality does not exist without freedom


However, to properly explain the shift from communism to commonism as concept we must first confront and engage the monstrous super-organism of capitalism directly. In the theory of capitalism the foundational (spiritual) belief is that there is an ‘invisible hand’ moving through the world as the higher vital agent of self-organization that in-and-for-itself regulates individual self-interest related to the buying and selling of commodities in the free market. Thus, individual humans need only pursue their own material self-interest in economic exchange with others and the whole will take care of itself, i.e. market competition will solve all problems of the total sphere. And it is indeed this higher vital agent of self-organization that Kurzweil envisions as leading towards an immanent utopian Singularity as post-human transcendence (2005). But Kurzweil is not the first to have such visions of capitalist utopia. The theoretical founder of modern economics –Adam Smith – was the first to envision the ‘invisible hand’as a force capable of con- structing an inclusive utopian world (although he, of course, did not en- vision technologically-mediated transcendence).

What these capitalist utopian visions miss (post-human or not) is the obvious fact that although capitalism is indeed a universal sphere (constantly attempting to totalize the field of human relations irrespective of local cultures with the universal equivalence of money) it is not an inclusive humanist universal sphere (and it never can be) (i.e. it is not on ‘our’ side). In other words, the capitalist field is inherently structured on the exclusion of a certain exploited class of peoples (as Karl Marx first identified, class is an inherent structural antagonism of capitalist production), i.e. the ‘others’ in the ‘invisible dystopian world’ that, in their state of exploitation, stabilize the utopian and transcendent future visions. Here we can generally imagine the person who finds capitalist production's ability to produce iPhones (for example) as ‘amaz- ing’without realizing and/or conveniently ignoring that the materials for the phone were produced by slave labourers in Congo and then assembled by slave labourers in China (i.e. the ‘others’ in the ‘invisible dystopian world’).

Nonetheless, as real (existentially) as the ‘invisible dystopian world’ is, it is anyway invisible to most economists (who are comfortably nested in the arms of a nation-state controlled by market forces).

Thus, the idea of the invisible hand of the market coordinating individual human behaviour to holistic inclusive utopia (somehow overcoming the inherent structural class antagonisms necessary for capitalism to function) has proven to be the foundation for capitalist theory (to this very day). This logic is theoretically justified with the microeconomic modeling paradigm of ‘Homo economicus’(i.e. the rational human being pursuing individual material self-interest) (Helbing, 2013). Here directly from Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations (2005, p. 286): “Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command. It is his own advantage, indeed, and not that of the society, which he has in view. But the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather necessarily leads him to prefer that employment which is most advantageous to the society.”

However, even a moments reflection on your own behaviour and drives (especially a reflection on your behaviour and drives before adulthood) will lead you to the conclusion that such a microeconomic foundation is a pretty pathetic foundation for a universal explanation of ‘natural’ human social life. It is only in an environment of ‘elite experts ’presenting ‘sophisticated’ ‘mathematical models’ of ‘socio-economic reality’ where anyone could be convinced otherwise. At best the foundation of self-interested commodity exchange is a weak approximation/mapping of human activity in certain very specific and historically contextual socioeconomic conditions. From the purely theoretical perspective in modern economics, the idea that Homo economicus represents a ‘universal explanation’ of human behaviour is more a distorted projection of the subjective desires of economics professionals who would ‘enjoy’ the respect of ‘hard scientists’ like physicists and chemists, both of whom can formulate their subjects ‘object of study’ around controlled experiments that (appear to) produce ‘accurate predictions’ and ‘general laws’.

The truth is that economics can never be formulated in the same way as physics and chemistry for the simple fact that human history is a process of subject-object (+virtual excess) becoming, and socioeconomic context changes (quantitatively and qualitatively) over time and space, especially in relation to processes of technological evolution. Indeed, it is a fact of history that subjective valuation and technological evolution affects the foundational dynamics of socioeconomic activity, which of course includes capitalism and capitalist modes of production. This is merely pointing out the obvious fact that human beings and human society cannot be understood in the same way as atoms and molecules, i.e. unconscious elements that have formed predictable con- figurations for millions and billions of years"


Table: Identifying the Commons Gap

Cadell Last:

"Ecology Global warming (ocean acidification, disappearance of glaciers/ice sheets, sea-level rise, extreme weather events), mass extinctions (flora, fauna, diverse ecologies), resource exploitation/depletion

Economy Income and wealth inequality, privatization of public/social goods, monopoly control of production, youth unemployment, unsustainable energy production Social New apartheids/State divisions, refugee crises, human rights, health and education infrastructure/access, food and water infrastructure/access, demographic divide

Political Centralization of power, disintegration of representative democracy, State war, lone-wolf terrorism, rise of multi-local radicalism, State-corporate relations (i.e. corporate ownership of State activity)

Technological Automation of labour from general purpose robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and big data applications, disproportionate access to advanced technology, socioeconomic unpredictability due to emergent technology

Biological Novel and quickly spreading epidemics/pandemics, active exploration of transhumanism (genetics, nanotechnology, robotics)."


Typology of Global Commons-Lacking or Commons-Centric Institutions

Cadell Last:

"Potential political forms of global institutions.

Global institutions Definitions/examples

(1) Neoliberal institutions: Contemporary globalization is guided via neoliberal institutions that were originally created under patronage of United States of America, and include structures like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization which have formed/are forming a global bureaucratic structure that is essentially anti-democratic,

  • A) enabling monopoly control of an international finance system designed to protect


  • B) sublimating all human activity into market activity,
  • C) creating barriers to access of basic necessities and
  • D) failing to address issues of economy-ecology sustainability.

(2) Keynesian institutions: One potential solution to the dominance of neoliberal institutions (1) would include a ‘Keynesian’ institutional construction project where a global state, presumably with top-down mechanisms characteristic of nation-states at the planetary level, would form enabling the democratic election of state officials, the regulation of global market activity, creation of a common monetary union, redistribution of income and wealth, and the organization of international state projects related to social and ecological welfare.

(3) Commons institutions: Another alternative potential solution to the dominance of neoliberal institutions (1) would be the creation of ‘commons institutions’, which, instead of forming a ‘top-down’ global state bureaucracy (2), would include the creation of ‘bottom-up’ distributed multi-level organizational forms that operated on A) various common property regimes (essentially striving for post-property regimes), B) functioned on principles of universal access (post-monetary), and C) multiple context-specific egalitarian-democratic management organizations related to resources and services that are inherently rival (i.e. scarce), and thus need management due to ‘tragedy of the commons’ problems. (Further exploration of the potential nature of ‘commons institutions’, see: Table 3)

(4) Anarchism (no global institutional forms)

Yet another potential solution to the dominance of neoliberal institutions (1) would simply be to negate the entire notion of the need for qualitatively novel large-scale political collectives (‘global institutions’in either a Keynesian or Commons form) (2, 3) and instead direct focus towards the creation and management of locally self-organized egalitarian communities. However, such an approach leaves massive questions of how to approach the real existence of neoliberal institutions, as well as how to approach planetary problems of the common sphere."