How Do We Build a Global Social Contract

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Excerpted from:

Essay: The Commons and World Governance. TOWARD A GLOBAL SOCIAL CONTRACT. Arnaud Blin and Gustavo Marín. Forum for a New World Governance. April 2012 (draft version)



Arnaud Blin and Gustavo Marín:

it is only by moving from the first idea, the protection of the one, to the latter, the protection of all, that one can start to envisage the possibility of a global social contract. In other words, it is our global freedom, that is, our freedom to enjoy, and thus protect, what is common to all of us as a global community that will entice us to, and determine our will to extract ourselves from what is essentially becoming a global war on our planet, on our “commons,” and on ourselves.

But what does this “all” entail? For all the talk of a universal or pluri-versal culture or civilization, of a common destiny, of global ethical principles that might bind humankind together, these noteworthy concepts have not, at least not yet, withstood the test against the dark forces of nationalism, greed, and resentment that seem to rule the day despite grandiloquent discourses to the contrary. To fight these forces resolutely, relentlessly and effectively, one needs something more tangible and more palpable than what are often perceived as soft principles with few means of being altogether enforced. The concept of common goods, or simply “commons,” on the other hand, is something tangible which may have the potential of serving as this bind for humankind.

The concept of “commons” does not just entail a physical (or, in some cases “digital”) matter but rather a new manner of envisioning ourselves and others, our environment, and our relationship to this environment. Through the concepts of “commons” and “commoning,” one radically transforms the traditional equation of freedom and property by reasserting freedom in a global—and not just individual—fashion while also extracting from this concept its traditional tie to private property. Such a reversal has potential and profound long term consequences in that it alters our social commitment and allegiance from what was exclusively a national “contract” that most of us—with the exclusion of those changing nationalities—inherited, to what would amount to a global and voluntary contract. As such, to our traditional bi-dimensional identity as individuals and national citizens (in strictly juridical terms, as all of us identify also with communities other than national) is added a third dimension, a global citizenry of sorts. “


“The development of a global society is thus conceivable inasmuch as it can monitor itself on the variety of experiences that surround the bottom-up management of the commons and grow as these experiences gradually form a loose system of governance that in turn feeds on these practical experiences. It is through these experiences and by following a set of simple and binding universal principles that underpin the elaboration of such a global system of governance that we will be able to achieve a global social contract.

The elaboration of a global system of governance around the commons thus rests on the capitalization of these experiences and on the manner through which these universal principles can be upheld. What these principles may be is fairly simple to determine since they will revolve essentially around freedom and justice: the freedom of all to share the commons in a fair manner. These fundamental principles might imply others or make them come into play, such as responsibility, dignity, or solidarity but they constitute first principles of sorts, without which no global system of fair governance can be conceived. Which types of institutions, processes, and mechanisms they will require is more complicated but they essentially will have two functions: ensuring that these principles are upheld and protected, and preventing the state and the market from enclosing the commons.

Growing interest in the commons, not only in innovative international and political circles but also in the ever-growing sectors of the so-called new social movements and networks, is the expression of a deep trend in seeking new civilization paradigms. Every time humankind has had to confront crucial challenges raised by crises that have seriously fractured the foundations on which it had thus far been built, new ideas and movements have sought groundbreaking ways out. Not all of them have managed to prosper and on many dramatic occasions, ideas and movements that had been postulated as bearing deep changes have led peoples into dead ends, or worse, over the cliffs of history. The immediate future of the commons is not guaranteed. Their extension is necessarily a complex struggle, ridden with obstacles, not only because of the weight of states and the capacity of the capitalist market to overcome crises, but above all because of the atavistic resentment keeping peoples apart and the inertia of representations and ideas preventing us from seeing the roads to another future.

Notwithstanding, the various ongoing initiatives being developed by the new social movements and networks carry this other future, indispensable at this stage of the history of humankind. Many of these movements and networks are developed underground or are not reflected in the conventional media. The architects and builders of the Internet, for instance, have allowed millions of users, the majority of them young ones, to weave cooperative networks for many different types of sharing, and in critical situations, as in the recent social mobilizations that debunked the dictatorships of Tunisia and Egypt, to play new political roles, discarding the political parties and institutions that have been unable to channel these claims for freedom and justice.

Likewise, in vast rural areas and in big city districts, numerous solidarity-economy efforts have been undertaken and been growing for the past twenty years, covering a variety of fields: agro-ecology, sustainable technology, ecological districts, bioclimatic construction, and many more.

The new regional and transcontinental migratory flows are also the expression of this quest for new common territories. Though this statement may seem paradoxical, given that migrants suffer many forms of persecution and vexation, migrants are the promoters of a new form citizenry not contained by borders, and despite the daily discrimination to which they are subjected, they are gradually opening new multicultural spaces, often silently unveiling the concepts and practices of enclosure in which the dominant model has entrenched the different social classes and strata.

The commons are thus appearing from below, as new perspectives based on plurality and making sure they are free of the ideological views and sectarian practices that, mainly in the twentieth century, entrapped the energy of the poorer sections of society striving for solidarity-based and fair societies.

A small but resolute movement has now taken root over the last few years, which has launched various interesting and innovative initiatives, notably to educate the public, to advance our understanding of the commons, and more generally to bring the commons and commoning to the forefront of our current concerns.

The proposals are largely based on this approach and strategy while seeking to expand our realm to a greater, more diverse and global population. It seems imperative, for historical and ethical reasons, that a global commons movement take root in those regions of the world that until now have largely been the victims of the plundering of the commons. By the same token, the various ideas that can contribute to the intellectual underpinning of the commoning movement must come from various traditions and cultures because we need to look at these issues with fresh ideas.

The commoning movement has thus far largely, and logically, been carried by activists, mostly Western, many of whom are openly left-leaning in their political outlook. This is sometimes a bit baffling and can lead to misunderstandings, especially in increasingly polarized political contexts. The commons belong to all, and individuals with different backgrounds and perspectives have to be invited to actively join in the process. The commons cut through cultural, social, and political divides, which means that it is important that the language used around the debate on the commons be comprehensible to people from different backgrounds and reflect their diversity.

Finally, when one thinks of proposals and initiatives, it is important to remember that realistic goals are more likely to yield some results than idealistic ones. From an intellectual point of view, idealism is indeed important to break the status quo but it should not blind us to the fact that powerful interests will systematically undermine any attempts to change the rules of the game. That being said, in today’s global political environment, the power of global public opinion has never been greater than it is now and a strategy that seeks to touch global public opinion is probably the most likely to yield results, all the more reason to focus principally on this particular domain.

One of the essential features of the extension of the commons may be its diversity, and there should be no attempt to pool all efforts into a single container. Articulating all these initiatives, however, which would overcome the current fragmentation, then becomes an indispensable historical task, all the more that the dominant sectors and the capitalist market have definitely built global networks and are continuing to secure their hold at the global scale. Building articulation mechanisms among actors promoting the commons and ensuring the diversity of the whole requires inventing and putting into practice answers to the challenges of the present that are rooted in the context of each individual, of each people. It implies acknowledging the knowledge of every continent and people without claiming that one should be the indisputable benchmark. The foundations of the new architecture of world governance based on the development of the commons must be built with a critical spirit and a democratic ethos. This is of the essence because the changes in the political systems that will be capable of underlying a new architecture of power from the local to the global must necessarily be lasting and sustainable. These tasks may seem Utopian, but they are already appearing in the daily struggles of those who are building the commons, from territories to the world. “