Commons, Market, Capital and State (7): water commons, community and state (part two)

The article by Massimo de Angelis, of which we published the first part, then discusses in detail the local situation in different communities after attending a water fair, and adds a number of important conclusions:

Part 2:

A “resource pool” is the first constituent element of a commons, the others being a community and commoning. Pooling resources address a specific need, the need of power to, that is to extend the scale of social production that a given community is able to mobilise for its own reproduction. Now, from the perspective of a community, and given its conditions of material and financial wealth, what are the sources of a resource pool or, which is the same thing, in what ways a community can increase its power to, or extend the social power it is able to mobilise? I think there are two general cases here to be considered. One, that applies to a community, say of fishers, who decide to manage their common fishing waters but in which production is organised by the individual fishers themselves. This is the case dealt with by a large bulk of neo-institutional commons literature, where much emphasis is put to confute Hardin’s tragedy of the commons. The commoning you need to refer to in order to make this confutation is only with respect to decisions and rules and not with respect of working together: the herders still go on the field with their own cattle and in their own time. There is in other words some equity principle at work (“now it is my turn and then is your turn” or, “not more than 5 cows each farmers”) and not some community sharing (“let us share the cows and the work on the field”)). The second case, which interests us here, is one that applies for all those resources that are required to engage in some form of common production.

If I am not missing something, I believe pooling of resources at this level can only occur in one or in a combination of the following ways — leaving out robbery of peers from other communities: a) the members of the community all tip in from their own material or financial savings; b) donors (like NGOs) are found; c) the community subscribe a debt; d) the state pour resources into the community; e) the community expropriate property, occupy, squats (like in the case of brazilian landless movement, MST).

Each of these sources represent challenges and limits from the perspective of scale and social justice, because themselves need to have “sources” and in particular sources of power. The first one, is of course limited by the degree of material wealth of the community, as well as complicated by the division of wealth within the community and the degree of cohesion in spite of wealth difference. The second one, a part from being limited by the money available and the work and know-how necessary to bid for the money, also may require to align local project to international NGOs priorities. The third one tie local community to repayment plans and therefore to markets. The fourth one bring with it the alignment of local communities to the state priorities and may favour their cooptation. The fifth one bring in the threat of repression. Talking to people from different water associations present in this Fair, I had the impression that all of these options have been used in one way or in another, a part from debt. For example, APAAS participated in a competition and won money from the World Bank to fund the purchase of pipes running 7 km. Some community organisations pull savings and buy the land upon which they dig the well partially funded by an NGOs. In another case, the state pour in money for a community water deposit as part of the “Bolivia Cambia Evo Cumple” campaign, and in others some foreign development funds are channelled into community organisations.

In other words, it feels like that in order to grow commons cannot escape development, whether we are talking about transfers from states, supranational institutions such as the World Bank or NGOs, or the need to access money from the market in order to pull savings. In principle, we could of course imagine an alternative process that does not use any state nor markets, i.e. one based entirely on point e) above. In this case, all extension of commons occurs by means of all communities expropriating resources from the wealthy and simultaneously forming direct relations of association among themselves, giving rise to associations of second, third and upper level controlling all forms of social production and distribution made possible by the recently expropriated resources that extend the “pool”.
Obviously, this solution is in principle conceivable not only in moments of intense social revolution, but moments of intense social revolution that do not require an extension of the role of the state, neither in terms of its apparatus in defence of new property configurations against threat of restoration, nor in terms of extension of socialised functions that at the moment of revolution cannot be organised by communities nor by existing markets. Allowing for the state indeed simplifies enormously the problem of transition to a socially just society, as through indirect expropriation (case d) it is possible to fund organised communities of commoners and give rise to an increase in scale of commoning without the use of capitalist markets. This seems the avenue taken by Morales government, although timidly. As I was told by some community associations activists, the government has started to give money directly to grassroots associations and not to local authorities, and this is seen as a great improvement. However, this has happened significantly in areas where there is more opposition to the govenrment — such as Santa Cruz — while in area like Cochabamba — the stronghold of MAS, the party in government — there has been only timid disboursements. However, it may well be the case that the existing power relations and configurations of needs of the people necessitate the state to operate also for the development of market themselves — including capitalist markets — in which case the problems of transition becomes even more complex and risky. This is also the case here in Bolivia.
In any case, ultimately, the “socialist” principle to be a transformational principle must be articulated to the anarchist principles of individual freedom, and the communist principles of community constitution of values through commoning. The extent to which the measuring and valuing mechanisms of capitalist markets overpower the measuring and valuing mechanisms of commoning is a crucial factor to decide whether the “socialist” state is functional to a process of capitalist development or a transformational process towards the development of social justice. In Bolivia I think it is still too early to tell, and the process seems a very interesting process to study. The general question posed by the problems of access to resources becomes how can development be instrumental to the extension of commons, without the latter becoming in turn instrumental to the extension of capitalist development?

The 5 cases listed above apply from the perspective of an association of producers which aim at mobilising more social power than what they have at their disposal, and hope to internalise the means for such a mobilisation. But if we scale up and reach higher levels of association, we discover that there are other ways to extend the social power of commoners. One for example is posed by Asica-Sur with the question of cogestión — co-management. The question of co-management with Semeca is not yet defined clearly, and it raises several eyebrows among some community activists who are afraid that the messing up with the organisational forms of the municipal company would irreversibly contaminate the community organizational values. This would be a case in which the quest for extension of social power would backfire. But the rationale is obvious: to have access to more resources now available to the ineffective and corrupt structure of Semapa. The question is really to find a form that articulates community forms of organisation with this greater urban scale organisation.

Another issue posed, and it is perhaps linked to the question of comanagement, is that the state must allow organisations and firms that have at their disposal means of production and equipment to make it available to smaller organisation who do not have. This is perhaps a type of mild form of temporary “expropriation” that does not damage anybody really, but would give community associations access to fundamental resources and increase the scale of their operations. It is also evidence of a conception that sees the need for private and public property to be communalised, not so much in its formal ownership status, but in terms of the forms of its access and control, allowing us to move beyond old dichotomies.

But mega-projects are also on the horizons and bring new challenges. Misicuni, is a consortium of public and private companies that is building a dam higher up in the mountains around Cochabamba and that promises to fill the water deficit of the area. It is a project that has been in the pipelines for some decades now, but that only in the last few years started to move on. There is some controversy surrounding the project, whether a mega project of this scale was really necessary and whether alternatives could not be found. However in general, all the association representatives I have talked to where happy with the promised water availability promised by Misicuni. I was told by one of the Misicuni representatives present at the Fair, that it will be finished by 2012, a date however that raised some eyebrows of incredulity given the past history. I asked Carlos Oropeza, a dirigente of Asica-Sur, if this development would reduce the need for grassroots associations, but he did not seem to be concerned. “Local coop will buy water and distribute it themselves”, he told me. Asica-Sur is apparently already building the deposits and strengthening the infrastructure for local distribution. “

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