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James Quilligan: beyond Marx towards a developmental theory of the commons

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
13th August 2010


In the comments section of James Quilligan’s important formulation of a commons-based social change program, and how it challenges the market state and neoliberal assumptions, you can find a challenge by Derek Wall, who refers to the connection between Marx and the commons.

In his response, Quilligan specifies why he lumps Marx together with classical economists, and why it is necessary to go beyond the insights of 19th century critical philosophy, which was still entranced by the abundance of a fossil fuel economy.

James Quilligan:

“Despite sharp differences in concept and ideology, economic thinkers from Smith, Ricardo, and Marx to Keynes, Hayek, Mises and Schumpeter largely based their assumptions on the world’s seemingly unlimited resources and fossil fuels — their infinite potential for creating economic growth, adequate supplies of labor for developing them, and the evolving monoculture of state capitalism responsible for their provision and allocation.

I didn’t lump Marx in with these other economists simply for shock value — I actually do see them all locked into a similar paradigm. You’ll note that I didn’t say that Marx was explicitly endorsing these positions about resource management in the emerging Market State. I had something else in mind: which is that in critiquing the basic elements of industrial capitalism, Marx had to engage them on their own terms. My implication is that because Marx ‘largely based his assumptions’ on the capitalist practices and principles of his day in order to refute them through his chosen leverage point of the commons (i.e, material and social labor), this effectively minimized or sidetracked what he clearly understood about the essential importance of the commons in earlier societies.

I deeply appreciate Marx’s insights about the pre-capitalist commons and his desire to link modern society back with those modes of production. But I’m sure you’ll agree that the metaphor of the commons only appears in selected places in Marx’s writings and that the commons is not a consistent thread that unifies his theory. If the commons were truly integrated into Marx’s philosophy — rather than just his labor theory of value, which is certainly a part of the material and social commons but largely excludes a range of other commons (natural, genetic, intellectual, cultural and solar) — Marxism may have been able to lead modern societies into a stage of political economy beyond state capitalism, in which case I would have no business in labeling Marx as a classical economist along with Smith and Ricardo. Instead, as history has shown, Marxism was not a transformational principle of the biophysical commons, even though it identified one very important dynamic of the commons which was eventually co-opted by the Market State. (No fault of Marx, who was way ahead of his time. A century-and-a-half ago, who could have anticipated the extent of today’s global technology, communications, Freudian-inspired marketing techniques, mass consumerism, global political and economic integration, and pollution and climate change as intervening factors in the extraction and production of material resources and the suppression of social production?)

By putting Marx in the same box as the other economists, what I was implying is this. Marx offered no specific critique of the fossil fuel economy — nor did he seem to have deep sensibilities around planetary sustainability and the carrying capacity of the global commons, as did Malthus and Mill, neither of whom I included in the list. Although he sometimes spoke about the worker literally wresting his life-force from the natural commons of Earth, Marx’s sense of the environment was limited to its value in the labor process. Marx was acutely aware of the economic growth imperative, but mainly as a social justice issue in the labor-capital problématique rather than as an issue of the ecological limits to growth — the result of which is that the labor movement, untethered from the broader biospheric commons of which it is a part, has now become a direct part of the apparatus of resource expropriation and capital accumulation in modern society.

By criticizing state capitalism primarily in terms of the ownership of production, Marx did not really transcend the operating premises of state capitalism — which of course led his followers to attempt to implement forms of Marxism through a centralized state with a capitalist mode of production (i.e., the Soviet Union’s command economy or Communist China’s ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’). Hence, Marx’s work was riddled with this contradiction: on one hand, he was capable of calling for non-ownership of the Earth and its commons, but on the other hand he firmly insisted that workers first have ownership of the means of production (whether in a financial or non-financial context). This ambiguity around ownership undermined his larger theory. Marx’s idea of transcending the ownership of production was not simply a difference in the historical stages of commons resource management — that workers would first have to own the means of production before they could liberate society into the non-ownership stage of a future commons society. Because his theory did not encompass all aspects of the commons, particularly the biophysical relevance of resources in the production process, he could not formulate how ownership would lead to non-ownership. Since Marx’s commentary on the commons was mainly preanalytic and pre-capitalist, he never demonstrated how his theory of labor would actually provide the means of liberating the contemporary or future commons. In Marx’s writings, the commons is always in the background but never in the foreground. His elaboration of the commons was simply not comprehensive enough to underpin his labor theory of value, which ultimately weakened the utility of his brilliant observations as operational constructs.

So, by including Marx in this list of major Western economists who ‘dropped the ball’, what I’m suggesting is that Marx was unable to articulate a theory of the commons sufficient to underpin his critique of state capitalism, and this, in turn, led to the reification of the very assumptions about resource management in capitalist society that he was criticizing. While Marx’s great insight was that labor is embedded in the commons, his awareness of the biosphere was limited to material and social resources. In deriving his major ideas on the production process directly from the capitalist system instead of from the broader commons, Marx’s focus was primarily on the ownership of production, rather than the trusteeship of co-production and co-governance in a commons-based society. Today, we are recognizing that the commons is much broader than just labor, which is why the co-production of the commons has been emerging as such a vibrant phenomenon beyond the clutches of the Market State. And that’s really my basic point in mentioning Marx in this passage.

Anyway, Derek, thanks for bringing this up. Marx’s understanding of the commons is still essential, but needs to be updated in terms of the present state of the world, its political economy, global social disparities, the climate crisis, multilateralism, and the emerging governance of the global commons. But I’m afraid that progress in developing a transformative economic model has been painfully slow and misleading. Most of the contemporary attempts at ‘ecological economics’, ‘natural capitalism’, ‘conscious capitalism’ and ‘climate prosperity’ that I’ve seen are simply variations of libertarian capitalism. What this suggests, I think, is the need for a comprehensive theory of the developmental stages of the commons.”

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