Commons, Market, Capital and State (1): The commons as system-confirming paradigm

Article: The „Great Transformation“ to „Great Cooperation“. Commons, Market, Capital and the State. By Andreas Exner | 9. April 2010

A translation from a important German-language blog contribution to the debate on the commons, from a more radical ‘anti-market’ point of view. The title refers to the classic ‘Great Transformation’, from Karl Polanyi, in which he describes the great transformation towards capitalism. In the first part of his contribution, Andreas focuses on the system-confirming aspects of commons-oriented thinking, leading to ‘distorted commons’, while in the second part, published here tomorrow, he stresses the disruptive aspects.

Andreas Exner: Potentials of the commons-debate…

“Concerning the direction a transformation of the capitalist mode of production must take, the commons-debate offers the most promising approach, besides the discourse on solidarity economy. The reason for this is twofold: Firstly, the commons-debate is centered around social practices apart from capital, market relations and the state. This is a recurrent topic in publications on the subject, for instance in Helfrich/Haas (2009, 251), who state that commons are „the invisible third party: beyond market and state”, specifying: „they replace, as the economist Yochai Benkler notes, the central institutions of the market economy (contract, property and hierarchies) with a system, where nobody is restrained to produce by property relations” (2009, 254).

Within the framework of this debate, one frequently finds critical references to Garret Hardins article „The tragedy of the commons“ published in 1968, who argued that a resource that is not defined as private property would inevitably be overused. Hardin thus was in favor of private property as opposed to common property.

In this way, Hardin prepared theoretically the dominant ideology of our days, saying that natural resources should be parcelled and rights to use be tradable. Practically, this approach can be studied in emissions trading as well as in the construction of tradable fishing rights. Generally speaking, Hardins argument fits very well into the neoliberal discourse, arguing for privatization of resources of any kind, including global knowledge, which is seen as the precondition for enhancing welfare.

The mistake Hardin made is easy to recognize: In fact, in his much cited article, Hardin did not treat commons, but open access-resources, whose use is not regulated at all. In doing this, he ignored – which is often referred to in the debate – that commons can never be treated in isolation from a specific community which is related to them. The use of commons is always regulated, members of corresponding communities never act according to the utility maximizing homo oeconomicus of neoclassical economic theory.

It is not only for the elements of a view being critical both towards markets and the state that the debate on the commons has the potential to strengthen emancipative transformations and to give them a new orientation. Furthermore, this debate organically relates to a broad variety of movements in resistance. Thus, the possibility of a new paradigme for a „movement of movements” is disclosed therein. In contrast to any market- and state-affirmative approach with its message of „one size fits for all”, resulting from the abstract quality of economic value and state law, the commons focus on the concrete qualitative diversity of material reality, including the various qualitative challenges concerning its management.

Water, land, crops, global knowledge and so forth – all these resources share specific qualities requiring specific processes of commoning. Considering this, one must of course equally be aware of the fact, that the material quality of a certain resource does in no way determine in advance a certain way of regulating its use and development. To give an example: the mode of regulation a community in the Peruan Andes considers appropriate for a water resource will not be the same as the one chosen by a water cooperative in Middle Europe.

…and its problematic

These remarks point out the potentials of the commons-debate. Their problematic though is to be seen in two respects which I would like to call the tendency to naturalize and, secondly, the inadquate understanding of the relation between commons, capital, market and the state.

Usually, commons include natural resources as well as digital goods. Furthermore, so called cultural values are also often seen as an example of the commons – a view that is grounded on the insight that commons do not exist without a community being structured according to certain cultural norms. This implies two positions: Firstly, commons are being naturalized as one would think of certain goods being commons „by nature“ (including digital resources) and others not. Secondly, commons are recognized in those spheres most easily, where they have also the potential to be functionalized for capital – which must not be a conscious political position but follows from the structure of the debate.

Accordingly, Helfrich/Haas (2009, 256) state, just as many other authors do: „Commons designate a specific quality of relation between a good or a resource and a group of people. They are inherited or collectively developed and passed on from generation to generation. Commons exist already, but must be cared for, nourished, protected and increased.”

Though looking at the concrete examples they give in order to illustrate the commons, we only find natural resources, digital and cultural goods listed. However, the understanding of the commons as outlined by Helfrich/Haas does not imply a restriction to natural or digital resources. Quite to the contrary, any resource used by human beings must be included, most importantly machinery of industrial production and infrastructures. Those are the result of efforts of former generations extending over centuries, thus we inherited them, they have been passed on to us. They also are developed collecticely, even their use already requires broad-scale cooperation, let alone their maintenance.

Thus, a central contradiction in the dominant view of the commons becomes apparent. While stressing their collective character, the real social character of production and its foundations, the same debate ignores – in contrast to its own claim – a broad sphere of human praxis. Framed in such a way, the commons-debate indeed has a liberal bias, being oriented towards the preservation of market, capital and the state. Sometimes, this is even openly admitted: It is necessary to reinvent the commons in order to guarantee the capitalist mode of production, „if we don’t, capitalism itself will collapse“ (Thompson 1998, 226). So it is not exaggerated to see the danger that commons are suggested as a mere emergency program for a capitalism in crisis, in such a way, „that commons are only a ‘second-rate solution’, namely in case of market failures, and that the state should supply and care for them” (Brand 2009, 242).

In fact, commons are in a contradictory relation to capital. While on the one hand, the enclosure of the commons, primarily of open fields, is a historical precondition of the capital relation, i.e. wage labor (Marx, „Capital“, Vol. 1), capital on the other hand equally depends on the reproduction of the resources on which its production is based in the form of commons and forms of commoning that do not function according to the logic of capital and its valorisation.

Considering the commons necessary for capital, first of all cultural values must be mentioned. It is cultural values that guide individuals that respect private property and authoritarian hierarchies, they make possible the development of social capacities in the course of education. Only commons-based values and practices allow cooperation to be developed and preserved in a magnitude and scale that is unique and specific for the capitalist mode of production.

But we must also not forget all those commons which are established in the household sphere. They are micro-commons, one might say, commons that reproduce wage labor and constitute outlets for capitalistically produced commodities. It goes without saying, that the broad range of unpaid and self-organized work in civil society, which produce social stability countering and smoothing the contradictions of capital, also belongs to such capitalistically functional modes of commoning. Last but not least it is precisely the social space of commons-based practices, especially the househould attributed to biologically defined women, which enable human beings to endure market competition physically and psychologically.”

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