George Caffentzis’ tale of two Commons (5): Conclusions

We conclude our treatment of:

A Tale of Two Conferences: Globalization, the Crisis of Neoliberalism and Question of the Commons. By George Caffentzis

George Caffentzis’ essay is a history of the political usage of the concept of the Commons which distinguishes reformist and radical usage.

For extensive excerpts, see our wiki entry on: Antagonistic Usage of the Commons Concept

Today we present his conclusions.

George Caffentzis:

“The methodological and political differences that separate the neo-Hardinite supporters of the commons and the anti-capitalist commonists should be apparent from the above discussion:

(1) The neo-Hardinites see the problem of the commons as an issue of management requiring good institutional designs “to help human groups avoid tragedies of the commons.” They see the property regimes regulating common-pool resources as offering different combinations of outcomes that can be measured by efficiency, sustainability and equity criteria. The solution to the problems posed by the potential for a “tragedy of the commons” can be achieved by greater research on common-property regimes throughout the world and greater theoretical comprehension of the variables involved. It programatically rejects doctrinaire neoliberalism that assumes the superiority of private-property regimes throughout the society including the management of common-pool resources.

(2) The anti-capitalist supporters of the commons see the struggle for a commons as an important part of a larger rejection of neoliberal globalizing capitalism since it is the commons in the indigenous areas, in the global sense, and in the area of collective intellectual production that is now threatened with enclosure by a capitalism bent on commodifying the planet, its elements, its past and future. Their key issues are how to bring together various aspects of the struggle against commodification and create “another world” satisfying the needs of global justice.

A tell-tale sign of a difference in approaches of the two conferences, however, is in the self-description of the Oaxaca conference. For it claims to study “how communities and the resources they manage continue to adapt to, and are being changed by, the globalisation process.” This programmatic statement uses a language where the monolithic “globalisation process” is active and the “communities” are passive. There seems to be no recognition on the part of the organizers of the “other” conference of the possibility that the globalization process might be changed, thwarted, stopped, or even reversed by the said communities. In other words, they apparently do not recognize a class struggle that could have a revolutionary result, for they seem to assume that the “asymmetry of power relations” between the opaquely referred to “local and global institutions and networks” is so overwhelming that at best the local ones can “adapt to” and “be changed by” the global ones. Our AlterGlobalisation conference is based on the opposite assumption, i.e., the globalization process itself is a response to the struggles of workers, peasants, indigenous peoples throughout the planet in the 1960s and 1970s and it is itself now in crisis because of the accumulation of struggles against it in the 1980s and 1990s.

Second, the existence of a rival conference organized in the main by Neo-Hardinites must force us in our conference to become more precise as to what kind of commons will increase the power of workers against capital and what kind of commons would either be compatible with or even expand the power of capital over cooperating workers. Our questions concerning the commons is not of the “efficiency, sustainability, and equity” of a property regime, but of whether a particular commons increases the power of workers to resist capital and to define a non-capitalist future. This precision will require our development of traditions and methods of counter-research that would increase knowledge of alternative commons solutions, but would not lead to the subversion or repression of the commons and commoners in question. Some of these tools of counter-research exist already, but many studies of commons use techniques that are more appropriate to Neo-Hardinian purposes. Thus an institutional design of a common property regime that exploits a resource in a sustainable manner is not in itself positive, if, for example, the workers in the regime are locked into a larger labor or commodity market which exploits them. It is time, as Fanon urged us, to invent, in this case, a methodology that can measure the compatibility of a commons with capital.

Finally, we should recognize that the development of Neo-Hardinism and the calling of large international conferences on the commons like the one in Oaxaca are tributes to the increasing power of the antiglobalization movement’s challenge to neoliberal globalization which risks to be decisively derailed in the near future if, among other things, the anti-privatization resistance in Iraq succeeds in nullifying the US/UK plan to neoliberalize the Iraqi economy. Such radical developments inevitably create opportunities for alliances with powerful reformist forces within capitalism that are at least superficially supporting the same demand. These alliances pose many political problems and require an even deeper understanding of the differences between a capitalist and an anti-capitalist theory and practice of the commons. This is not the first time such a political problematic has been posed, of course, and this is not the first time that Brecht’s famous advice in such situations will have to be practiced: it might be necessary to mix wine with water, but you should know what is the wine and what is the water! ”

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