European Politics Need the Commons, but the Commons Need Politics
= a brilliant analysis from David Hammerstein:
Received by email on May 10, 2019
Don´t mourn, commonify! A call for imagining a different European political future
"We are living a virtual divorce between the principle of reality and the principle of imagination. Our societies are in the midst of such an intense, obsessive individualized determinism and fatalism oriented toward the market and economic growth that we are incapable of even imagining any alternatives to our major social and environmental problems. Almost all of our present utopias and even our ideas of good and bad are enclosed within the illusion of autonomous rational individuals making individual choices in which the usual indicator of success is mainly found in dull digital “likes”, shiny marketplace charisma and stark numbing consumerism.
As Byung-Chul Han has observed our massive obsession with digital screens has closed us off more and more within ourselves: “The digitalization of the world, which amounts to total humanization and subjectivation, makes the earth disappear completely. We cover the earth with our own retina, and in doing so we become blind to what is different.”1
Our liberal democratic ideas of human rights have become intimately entwined with this fixation of “free” individual election of what to buy or, in other words, how to live. Our identities are often moulded by shopping and psychological self-realization in a world full of price-tags with the absence of any intrinsic value. This exhibitionist narcissism that feeds our egos has been put on steroids by digital social media to which we have surrendered our personal, even intimate, biographies to such a point that often we can´t even imagine a collective/political “we”. We even consider our individualized, emotional use of twitter, Facebook and Instagram as “freedom” when we are more controlled, marketed and herded than ever.
Here there are no possible politics of the common collective good; only the sum of individual, autonomous, self-serving human subjects in a frenetic hunt of fleeting, unstable emotional satisfaction and unlimited material gain. We are continuously sermonized that “all the problems are in your head and the solutions are there too”. Nothing else seems to have value nor voice nor worth. Our accelerated mental and physical pace tends to leave little time for community, reflection and contemplation which are prerequisites for collective political action in defence of the social and natural common good. Time is atomized by the eternal present of many short-lived, superficial experiences, often digital, that usually exclude patient ponderation of the present or reflective dialogue about the future. This individualized caging of choices that encloses our imaginations and separates us from “otherness” also tends to marginalize collective political action, community involvement or what can be considered “moral multiplication”.
Shockingly we are approaching probable ecological and social catastrophes without any clear collective alternatives on our political agendas and our moral imaginations are usually blank. We are running toward the cliff as if we were oblivious to the impending fall. What is offered by our liberal elites, the media and our institutions is just more of the same “growth, global competition and buying power” with some minor techno-fix “green” tweaks and loud, usually incoherent rhetoric about enlarging individual rights for women, without any significant structural changes to our profit dominated, extractive economies and growth-oriented political priorities. The consideration of underlying causes of major problems has become taboo in our dominant political culture.
Only worse. In the context of this “there is no alternative” mantra we are losing the capacity to apply a morally inclusive perspective to others and to nature. This adiaphoria or moral indifference can be seen in the callous, fearful response by a large segment of Europeans to the waves of immigrants who are seeking refuge, a rise in nationalist populism and in the suicidal consumerism that expresses a lack of practical sensibility toward other living species, and to nature in general. This highly selective moral sensitivity toward otherness, be it people or nature, responds to the same perceived goals of short-term self-interest, personal security and the dominant narrative of personal financial gain at any cost. In general, empathy seems to be losing ground.
Contrary to the tragically impossible “the sky is the limit” frenetic spin of commercial globalization, the imagination of the commons, is about a realistic “landing” in concrete territories/communities with rules, relationships and more solid connections compatible with visions of universal health, global ecological well-being and equality. Unfortunately, these inclusive futures have practically been pushed off our political and personal agendas.
We tend to be immersed in varying degrees of cognitive dissonance or contradictory “double-binds” in which our daily life and institutional priorities have little to do with our declared moral values. Due to the atrophy of our social imaginations a wave of pessimism concerning the future has engulfed us. Beyond the false panaceas of techno-fixes and scientific miracles or the obsession with individualized media reality-show case-studies, there is little social debate about how we should organize and live differently in the future. There is also a worrisome and unsubstantiated over-confidence that the relative institutional, social and economic stability we have experienced in Europe over the past 60 or 70 years thanks to cheap and easily accessible fossil fuels and other raw materials extracted from the Global South will continue indefinitely into the future. Amidst today´s volatile, insecure economies many “progressive” and left Europeans look back with nostalgia at the baby-boom generation of life-long job stability, social safety nets, sustained economic growth and upward mobility but at the same time they sense that there is no going back. In this context there are two dominant options in our political landscape that seem to be starkly different. On one hand we have various degrees of reactionary populism led by Trump, Orban, Bolsanaro, Brexit and on other hand we have “progressive” globalized liberalism represented by most of our liberal and traditional “left” politicians. Reactionary populism plays the card of a delusive return to national sovereignty in face of the loss of national control caused by globalization along with a toxic cocktail of privatization, xenophobia and a glorification of “traditional values”. On the other hand, “progressive” neoliberalism combines a defence of globalized free trade, economic growth and further extraction of our natural world with a defence of formal human rights(including women, LGTB, immigrants, ethnic minorities and civil liberties in general), often in a narrow exercise of “identity politics” based on equal opportunities in the market, meritocracy and non-discrimination that garner significant support from the political left , But this exclusively individual rights approach to feminism, gay rights, ethnic/national minority rights in the context of our cut-throat global market economy is perceived by a some Europeans that support right-wing populism as threatening campaigns to gain a bigger piece of the economic pie for small minorities of certain groups. The liberal approach to individual rights does not commit to any structural changes in favour of social equity nor any greater democratic community self-defence to control the excesses of the globalized economy. Both dominant camps depend on an unwavering commitment to continuous unlimited growth with greater material and immaterial extraction to carry out their programmes. The globalization camp does propose some weak technological adjustments or misleading “decoupling” (more material growth with relatively less impact) proposals to deal with climate change while the right populist camp just tends to ignore or deny evidence of ecological collapse.
Both of our majority political narratives accept a value system based on the amount of money and material resources extracted and spent by the private sector and the labor market. Both are of the opinion that the principal debatable questions are how much the state should tax private profits and how the state can afterwards redistribute more or less this income. They are both focussed on increasing the size of the economic pie, not on the ingredients nor the relational mix, nor even how the ownership of the pie is cut up and pieces are distributed. Most importantly, both proposals are not viable on a finite deteriorated planet with the less and less margin for economic growth based on cheap resources, cheap credit and cheap labour power. Populist right-wing movements also cynically exploit and criticize the tremendous power of global industry and finance that has grown far above and beyond the autonomy of both our national governments as well as weakening the capacity of organized citizen control and accountability. This has fueled a sense of powerlessness, frustration and disaffection from democratic institutions that will not be solved by their chauvinistic calls for a return to national sovereignty but instead by supporting translocal policies on a European level that help strengthen community-based peer-to-peer economies, cultures and social organization. Despite the terrible scientific warnings about climate breakdown and the coming collapse of our social, food and energy systems we remain paralyzed by the inability to even consider that our collective near future could be very different from the model of relative prosperity and social improvements we have experienced in the last 60 years that has also paradoxically driven us into our present systemic predicaments. Our narrow minded political and cultural elites cling firmly to the status quo of our exploitative growth model as the only means of maintaining a fragile social peace. But from increasingly worrisome environmental indicators and recent social unrest around the world we can already realize see that our current extractive, growth model is soon approaching its expiry date.
The problem is not finding a new spin to try to sell the same policies with a shiny wrapping. . Instead, we are referring to a substantive shift in politics and morality from almost uncritical support our present top-down state-market collusion to a determined incremental support and defence of the social, cultural and natural commons based on community control, horizontal democratic processes and a decentralization of a large part of our economies. This means a major social-ecological revolution where material growth is progressively substituted by equality, sharing and caring. How can an alternative be built outside of today´s two dominant options that often moves many people to choose the lesser evil? How can we promote imaginative pro-commons politics that dares to desire what does not yet exist by thinking and building alternatives outside the box?
The commons approach attempts to confront what is basically a two pronged challenge: de-constructing the false sense of abundance that is driving our extractive destruction and overcoming the absurd artificial scarcity of abundant cultural/scientific/technological knowledge, enclosed by patent and copyright monopolies, that could be shared globally with great social and environmental benefits. One solution as proposed by George Monbiot is to shift resources from the state and the market into the commons or, in the words of Kate Raworth, “pre-distribution” of material/immaterial resources to go beyond traditional “end of the pipe” redistribution of wealth by means of taxes for public services. The crucial previous questions usually sidelined by our elites are “who will supply my electricity, my food or who will make my soup or take care my elderly family members”. The commons is about progressively liberating territories from the state-market growth obsessed duopoly into a caring, common good economy centred on households, cooperatives, small businesses, neighbourhoods and civil society. Here the role of the state should be diminished but instead progressively transformed.
While the commons is far from a panacea nor a utopian all encompassing paradigm, commoning based on sharing, reciprocity and exchange in local communities is one way of strengthening collective identities without resorting to nationalism. At the same time commoning on the ground builds alternatives to the dominant egotistical mental infrastructures that are crippling our ability to build a different future. The commons movement can offer some important responses to the illnesses of narcissistic consumerism, moral indifference, growth obsession and the shrinking of our moral imaginations. Despite their small-scale often marginal nature, commons initiatives in the spheres of local democracy, land-trusts, open internet governance, renewable energy, food cooperatives, nature stewardship, collaborative science, co-housing and open culture, among many others, can be both a showcase and a vanguard of alternative community values. It is one positive way of being the change we want.
The commons recognizes a very different value that is both well-suited for responding to the loss of control of local communities by the economic globalization and to organize the material de-growth imperiously needed in the face of our ecological/climate emergency. Though it may not be monetised the commons constitutes a significant part of societal well-being represented by collaborative co-creation and peer-to-peer governance in academic research, energy production, nature protection, health, creative sectors, drug development, and digital innovation. Unfortunately, the value of the commons is largely ignored by most policymakers and institutions, resulting in the atrophy of such social and environmental value-creation or, even worse, its appropriation by large investors and corporations.
Across Europe and the world, more and more people are co-governing and co-creating resources. Whether in small local initiatives or in larger networks, new civic and economic structures are moving beyond the rigid dichotomies of producer and consumer, commercial and non-commercial, state and market, public and private, to construct successful new hybrid projects. The commons use voluntary social collaboration in open networks to generate social-environmental value, in ways that large markets and exclusive private property rights do not and cannot. Sometimes local commons initiatives are sparked by the hardship created by economic crisis, or in response to political powerlessness, or just fuelled by the need for social-ecological connectedness.
Michel Bauwens calls for pro-commons policies because the “market has to be transformed to serve the commons, from the extractive to the generative model, from an entre-preneurial model ('taking in between') to a entre-donneurial model ('giving in between': how can we create livelihoods that sustain commons and their contributors); and a 'partner state' which creates the right frameworks so that every citizen have the same potential to contribute and use the commons.” i Commoning is about departing from extractive, high-accumulation capitalism and prioritizing the common good goals of global solidarity, environmental responsibility and inclusive local cultures. Fortunately, the seeds of commons oriented bottom-up change are alr eady being sowed in projects in energy, food, science, transport, education and internet, among others. But small localised examples are, of course, not enough, and they are usually unable to compete with giant extractive business models that are nurtured by laws, protected by massive lobbies and subsidized directly or indirectly by the state. This means the commons has to become a factor in changing institutions, and that a “new politics” needs to emerge to take into account new transformative demands. This is an urgent but daunting task.
Today´s politics is about the globalization of extraction and production; the commons is usually about the localization of our physical economies. Politics sees value in GDP, patent driven “innovation” enclosure, stock-market shares and global trade figures while the Commons sees value in community and social cohesion, sustainable ecosystem governance, peer to peer cooperation and open access. Whlie the commons stresses horizontal democratic processes for the sustainable governance and stewardship of resources, communities and social value, most politics is about legitimizing highly hierarchical institutions, commodified extraction of all kinds of material and immaterial value and increasing competitiveness in a globalized economy. The commons is about sharing what is light (knowledge and design) globally and producing what is heavy locally while our dominant political sphere is about enclosing cultural and scientific know-how for profit at home while outsourcing/externalizing the exploitation of people and nature to every corner of the world.
According to a 2015 report published by the European Committee of the Regions, a “commons-based approach means that the actors do not just share a resource but are collaborating to create, produce or regenerate a common resource for a wider public, the community. They are cooperating, they are pooling for the commons”.ii This means helping people and communities to generate and regenerate urban, cultural, and natural commons as active citizens, producers, designers, creators, care-takers, local organic farmers, and renewable energy promoters. It also means embracing an open knowledge economy while promoting the Internet as a digital commons based on open standards, universal access, flexible copyright rules, decentralised internet infrastructures, and democratic governance. This also means changing existing EU public procurement, services and competition rules in order to support regional-municipal public-civic initiatives for decentralized energy, local organic food production, community knowledge governance, open culture programmes and cooperative housing. To defend the commons we also need EU laws to radically limit the power of giant digital and financial platforms that gentrify and over-extract value from our cities.
We are speaking of turning things upside down. Today in the EU and its member states an enormous labyrinth of laws, budgets and cultural narratives tend to reinforce a socially polarized centralized, globalized and financialized approach to how we organize our societies. In contrast, commons oriented political proposals aim at radically limiting the activity of globalized extractive and polluting businesses and shifting support for decentralized regional, municipal and community governed social economic activities. These would be policies of decentralized community resilience globally, including turning around EU development and trade programmes, in face of future immigration, climate and financial instabilities.
Within the EU this means a major shift in priorities toward facilitating, financing and legislating for small-scale often municipal-driven commons initiatives, public-civic partnerships and peer-to-peer cooperatives for supplying food, energy, culture and all kinds of services. New bottom-up policies would strengthen community identities on the ground as a practical counter-weight to widespread feelings of powerlessness in face of neoliberal globalization. A myriad of small projects rooted, owned and regenerated in neighbourhoods across Europe could be inspirations for reinvigorating a European project that is usually identified with distant elites, giant industries and globalized players. For our democratic processes it means complementing representative democracy with novel forms participatory democracy such as sortition, citizens conventions, digital legislative participation and greater transparency. iii
But are the commons and politics contradiction in terms?
Many commons initiatives often just want to be left alone. Often commoners correctly see the political sphere as much more a part of the problem than as a part of the solution, as a promoter of barriers as opposed to a partner. The EU is considered as a far away, complicated bureaucracy that is almost impossible to negotiate through. Sometimes in local commons projects we see a mixture of just plain disinterest and a feeling of moral superiority that one´s localized, on the ground project is the embodiment “of the real change I want”. On the contrary, we desperately need to overcome this “stop the world I want to get off” attitude in order to radically upscale local food production, community controlled energy, localized internet services, peer-to-peer social services, co-housing and open cultural and scientific knowledge.
But in some commons initiatives there is genuine concern beyond “not in my backyard” priorities about the state of the world´s pressing social-environmental problems. There is a need to network and politicize local initiatives with a common good discourse. The commons need to come “out of the local closet” and demand that state institutions support and prioritize in laws and budgets commons based solutions for health, energy, food, culture and transport. While millions of citizens have inspired a multiple of community and municipal based regenerative responses, strong effective transnational and translocal networking for new citizens based politics has yet to be formed.
Looking beyond the total dominance of market and the state, the commons can offer some important political responses to moral indifference, the lack of meaning and the death of our social imaginations. Don´t mourn commonify."