Role of the State in the Commons

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James Quilligan:

"In my view, many commons need a social contract negotiated between the commoners and the state. Each one should be negotiated on its own terms. There may be pure commons management on one hand, or perhaps state-commons hybrids on the other -- but that's up to the commoners to negotiate with the state. This is not a sell-out. It's to protect the commons and also to help evolve the future role of the state. Let's face it, governments are not going to somehow melt away. We wouldn't want that anyway, because government provides security and other public goods that we commoners cannot provide for ourselves. The libertarian and fundamentalist private sector folks are (hopefully) learning the hard lesson that the state is a precondition for civilization -- and the commoners mustn't allow the Right's ideologically conditioned condemnation of the state to carry over into our own thinking. This doesn't mean a regressive retreat to the likes of the social welfare state or Keynesianism. The next step for us to consider is creating social charters -- not state constitutions but charters that are negotiated and apply to specific commons -- to determine how our commons trusts are formed and the work that they will carry out, locally, regionally, and globally. It's not that the commoners have to reach after moral legitimacy (we have that), but we certainly do need legal legitimacy and authority on our own terms, on the basis of birthrights and customary claims to the sources of our livelihood and well-being, not on the basis of the old liberal social contract. Hence, the social charters. The sense of a revolutionary change in the nature of what government does -- as it faces the transformational power of the commons -- needs to be faced squarely by all of us. Frankly, without the help of the state, how are commoners ever going to stop these privatized enclosures? Yet commoners often focus on the legal aspects of property rights vis a vis corporations and ignore the potential legal benefits accruing from the state. The corporations wouldn't be enjoying their rights of 'corporate personhood' in the first place if the state had not granted them, and, as you know, commoners have grown to mistrust the state (rightly so!) because it has broken the social contract with us in order to empower and privilege businesses. But that flow of legal and political power can be neutralized, even reversed, if we recognize that the deadweight is not property, but private property. We need to turn legally recognized property rights to our favor, and that can only be done in cooperation with the state and the rule of law. The governance of a commons is not the same thing as the legal protections afforded by the state -- the two things must not be equated, but I'm afraid many commoners have indeed conflated them, somehow assuming that the co-governance of a commons is all that's needed. That's reductionist thinking.

Multilateralism 2.0

"Multilateralism gets a bad name because it's associated with governments and their limited abilities to provide people- and ecologically-centered goods and services through international cooperation. That's certainly the case at the present. Let's not forget that the multilateral institutions were initially created after WW II to provide global public goods. This experiment has been bungled for many reasons, mainly the one that you note, that Neo-Liberal ideology has taken over. That philosophy needs to be rooted out from the bottom-up, yes, but it cannot happen without sympathetic support from the top-down. Yet this is not simply a matter of tone, it's a matter of actual laws and institutions. The commons will never scale up to the global level (or, to put it another way, become scale-free) simply through associations of like-minded commoners. It also needs institutional support from governments and the private sector, of course, to the extent that they will endorse this tripartite arrangement; but it also requires institutional support at the transboundary level of global common goods. The sky, the Arctic, the seabeds all need to have specific watchdogs and managers -- who is capable of organizing that? Not commoners, not public sector or private sector. They have no authority to do so and never will under the current circumstances. That's why the commoners and multilateral institutions are (ultimately) natural allies -- which commoners have not yet realized. The break will come when government power evolves upwardly to empower new multilateral institutions in charge of managing specific global commons, and downwardly to the commoners who are vigilantly watching the commons across the world and who will work alongside the multilateral institutions for the protection of the commons -- now with actual authority for the global commons. The time will come when commoners will sit on the board of the (existing and new) multilateral institutions, along with government reps (let's keep the private sector out of this). I don't see anyone grappling with these matters in the conference document -- our commoners appear to be walking over a cliff without a global vision. This needn't happen. The commons offers us the ability to transform multilateralism, but there is not the slightest hint of that here. Redefining Neo-Liberal ideology is not the same as transforming our existing multilateralism -- these changes are not going to happen through ideology alone. That's where the pernicious dichotomy of the digital commons Vs. the physical commons creeps in -- the Neo-Liberal mistrust and penchant for enclosure and division is reified by underscoring the specious ideological rift between non-depletable and depletable goods and translating this into major North-South differences (we're seeing this at the WTO as well as the Copenhagen talks, and it will continue to develop without the global commons discourse). The split in our Solidarity is not inevitable, but first we are all going to have to embrace globalism rather than shun it. Someone must elaborate, in calm and definitive terms, the holarchical unity of the noosphere, the biosphere and the physiosphere (which can only be balanced through a new multilateralism) -- or we will not merely have conflicts over resources, we will have a global conflict between the ideological representatives of each of these spheres -- wars between the 'replenishables' and the 'non-replenishables'. Without a multilateralism of the commons, this rift will fester and be exploited -- not only by our own internal critics -- but also by the masters of Neo-Liberalism. Then the commons will become an 'ism', we will be positioned against ourselves globally, and all of us can probably expect the worst. That's what we'll get without Multilateralism 2.0 -- which only our commoners can spearhead (and co- create) by continuing to evolve the broadest possible concept of the commons."

(by email, August 2009)

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