Moment of the Commons is Now

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Excerpted from the Book: All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, by Jay Walljasper. New Press, 2010


Jay Walljasper:

“Social change is not something easily diagrammed on a chart. Sweeping transformations that rearrange the workings of an entire culture begin imperceptibly, quietly but steadily entering people’s thinking until one day it seems those ideas have been there all along. Even in our age of instantaneous information—when a scrap of information can zoom around the globe in mere seconds—people’s worldviews still evolve gradually.

This is exactly how the free market paradigm of corporate power came to rule the world. First articulated in large part by an obscure circle of Austrian economists, it surfaced in the United States during the 1950s as a curious political sideshow promoted by figures like novelist Ayn Rand and her protégé Alan Greenspan.

The notion of the market as the bedrock of all social policy entered mainstream debate during the Goldwater campaign in 1964, which appeared to mark both its debut and demise. Despite Republicans’ spectacular defeat in elections that fall—which extended from the White House all the way to local races in rock-ribbed conservative enclaves across the U.S.—small bands of pro-market partisans refused to accept the unpopularity of their theories. Instead, they boldly launched a new movement that would eventually turn American economic life upside down.

Bankrolled by wealthy partisans who understood that modern politics is a battle of ideas, market champions shed their image as fusty reactionaries swimming against the tide of progress and were gradually able to refashion themselves as visionaries showing us a bold, promising course for the future.

Their ranks swelled throughout the late 1970s as an unlikely combination of libertarian dreamers, big business opportunists and anxious defenders of traditional values signed up for the cause. The successive elections of Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Francois Mitterrand in France confirmed market fundamentalists’ global ascendancy. Thatcher and Reagan, each in their own distinct way, became effective advocates for the idea that the market should be the chief organizing principle of all human endeavor. Mitterrand, on the other hand, was a dedicated socialist but soon discovered that the consolidated influence of international capital rendered him powerless to carry out promises of his 1981 election campaign. That was a certain sign that we had entered a new age of corporate domination.

Ever since then our world has been shaped—perhaps the right word is “stunted”—by these forces. Alan Greenspan became the most influential economic policymaker in modern history during 18 years as chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve. And the free market paradigm has been seen by many —a lot of whom did not begin as right wingers—as an indisputable truth on the same level as the Ten Commandments or the laws of physics.

By the start of George W. Bush’s second term it felt like everything was up for sale to the highest bidder—from the names of sports stadiums where professional and even high school teams play to DNA sequences that make human life possible. Bush even made a push to privatize Social Security. Reform movements of the left and center successfully resisted certain extreme elements of the radical free market agenda but many citizens appeared convinced that the market blueprint for the future was inevitable. Progress, which was once widely viewed as the gradual expansion of social equity and opportunity, was now often seen as the continual expansion of economic privatization and unchecked corporate power.

There’s mounting evidence that market fundamentalism has passed its peak as the defining idea of our era. In the U.S., the first glimmer of hope was that the Bush administration’s plan to invest social security funds in the stock market gained little traction in Congress and public opinion. Rising concern about the fate of Earth, especially global warming, offered another sign of a shift. Painful financial upheavals around the globe revealed the glaring weaknesses of the current economic model for all to see, leaving even market-true believers scrambling to embrace new policies and positions.

A sudden switch in the mood of the U.S was seen most dramatically in the decisive victories of Barack Obama and Democrats everywhere in 2008. While Obama has not formally mentioned “the commons”, he came close in his Inaugural Address: “The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product,” he told the nation, “but on the reach of our prosperity – on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart, not out of charity but because it is the surest route to our common good.” That last phrase, “common good” articulates his approach to governance, which opens an opportunity to talk about the commons to a much wider audience.

Some of that outreach is already happening, led by a group of activists, thinkers and concerned citizens around the world who are rallying support for the idea of a commons-based society. At this point, they’re a scrappy bunch, many with backgrounds in various social movements, community causes and Internet initiatives—not so different from the dedicated market advocates of the 1950s, except in where they place their hopes. These commoners, as they call themselves, see the possibility of large numbers of people of diverse ideological stripes coming together to chart a new, more cooperative direction for our society.

The current crises of modern life—including climate change, global poverty and social alienation— can be blamed on an overreliance on the market as a tool to get things done. That inevitably leads to widespread devaluing and destruction of the commons, with negative effects that can be felt everywhere in our lives, from shabby conditions in local parks to the growing sense of powerlessness most people feel about their own futures.

The rise of a commons-based society would not mean wholly dismantling the market system but taming it. Ideally, the market and the commons work together to keep society in a kind of natural balance. There is a difference between using the market as an efficient technique for allocating resources in appropriate situations (market tools) and prescribing it as an all-purpose solution for every social and economic problem (the market paradigm). Rejecting the narrow “private sector vs. state sector” argument that has defined political discussion for so long, commoners envision a society drawing upon the strengths of the market along with those of civil society and government to provide for the common good.

This Unique Moment in History

People’s recognition of the concept of the commons is rising, best seen in this dramatic statistic from the source that best measures the zeitgeist of our times: Google. In June 2004, David Bollier, one of the leading thinkers on this topic today, did a Google search for “commons” and turned up 6.3 million results. That search repeated in 2009 yielded 253 million results— 40 times as many references in just over four years. Internet growth accounts for a part of this gain, but it’s clear that the phrase “commons” and the wealth of ideas behind it are entering popular consciousness.

But as powerful as this idea is, the commons is not yet widely understood. The phrase resonates in people’s ears, but is often understood to mean specific concerns such as public lands or civic spaces. The commons actually represents an interconnecting web of critical concerns that reach deep into the realms of culture, ecology, technology, economics, politics, human relationships and social systems. There is need for a public education campaign that excites people from all walks of life about the potential of a commons-based society to improve their own lives and reorder society’s priorities.

The steadily growing interest in creating a commons-based society is fueled in part by the auspicious historical moment that is dawning all around us. It’s reminiscent of the time thirty years ago when liberalism was losing its footing and conservative policymakers were refashioning their old political rhetoric, based on social exclusion and apologies for capitalism, into a shiny new philosophy known as “the market”. Previously the thrust of right-wing thought had been passionately focused on what they were against (civil rights, labor unions, social programs etc.), but claiming the market as their mission allowed them to showcase what they were for. The success of that “rebranding” has led to many of the problems we now grapple with today.

The commons offers a similar opportunity to bring positive change to political and economic policies. Yet unlike market fundamentalism, the commons is not just old wine in new bottles; it marks a substantive new dimension in political and social thinking.

The promise of a commons-based society offers considerable appeal for progressives after a long period in which the bulk of their political work has been in reaction to right-wing initiatives. Activists across many social movements, now aware that an expansive political agenda will succeed better than narrow identity politics and single-issue crusades, are starting to experiment with the language and ideas of the commons. This line of thinking also appeals to some traditional conservatives who regret the wanton destruction of social and environmental assets carried out in the name of a free market revolution. In the truest sense of the word, the commons is a conservative as well as progressive virtue because it aims to conserve and nurture all those things necessary for sustaining a healthy society.

At this point in history, growing numbers of citizens—including many who never before questioned the status quo—are willing to explore new ideas that once would have seemed radical. Millions of Americans are now making shifts in their personal lives such as buying organic foods, using alternative medicine, collaborating in creating software, and searching for something beyond consumerism that offers a sense of meaning in their lives. They may not yet be sprinkling their conversations with the word “commons”, but they are looking seriously for something different in their lives.

The time seems ripe today for a decisive shift in worldview. People everywhere are yearning for a world that seems safer, saner, more sustainable and satisfying. There’s a rising sense of possibility that even with our daunting economic and environmental problems there’s an opening to make some fundamental improvements. Everyone deserves decent health care. The health of the planet should take precedence over the profits of a few. Clean water, adequate food, education, access to information, economic opportunity and a sense of community ought to be available to all people. In other words, a commons-based community. Now is the time to transform that hope into constructive action.”