Louis Wolcher and Massimo de Angelis on the Meaning of the Commons

Video presentation, recommended by the Commoner blog:

“Great opening talk by Law Prof. Louis Wolcher on a one day conference »The Law of the Commons« organized by the Seattle Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild Friday, March 13, 2009. He is speaking about the forgotten tradition of commoning as a social practice of people taking their lives in their own hands.”

Here are the views of the editor of the Commoner blog, Massimo de Angelis, about the crucial concept of the commons in the context of the current crisis:

I believe the key to the current crisis and the key to its solution is our relation to the commons. It is the key to the current crisis because the relation to the commons and to the “shared” that global elites have been promoting in the last thirty years is the main cause of the current crisis. Neoliberal capital has responded to the crisis of “regulated capitalism” through massive enclosures of the commons and the planetary intensification of a form of social production, of “commoning”, which is based on a civil war of all against all, what they call “competition”.

But after all, what would you expect from a set of policies that have found inspiration from an economic discourse that see the “shared” as a tragedy? This discourse is for example simply put in 1968 by Gareth Harding “tragedy of the commons” argument, which goes something like this. Imagine a group of producers, say of herders, who access the land held in common. In the fashion of economic assumptions, each of the herders is assumed to want to maximise its return with no regard for the “common good”. In this condition, each of the herders will try to get most pasture for their own cattle. But if all do this, the common will be depleted, hence the tragedy of environmental degradation, resource depletion and of poverty. From this simple parable, there are only two possible policy implications: either privatize the commons, build fences, and let the private producers take care of their own now privately owned resources. Or get the state to manage it. In other words, the commoners’ livelihoods will be preserved only through markets or through the state (or a combination of the two). And so, upon this principle, the last thirty years have seen privatization and enclosures of land, rivers, public services, water, education, and many other resources around the world. But with the enclosures of all forms of commons, and the heavy repression of movements that have raised in their defense, what was also engineered was the dependency of people to the market that increasingly became the only viable option to reproduce their own livelihoods. With increased worldwide competition, lowered access to common wealth as entitlements or community wealth, and new labor market laws that promoted “flexibility” and reduced workers rights everywhere, the result was the increase in poverty, precarity and debt. And the current crisis was triggered by debt!

There are two possible ways to confront the “tragedy of commons” parable, both of which offer us some important hints for the possible direction forward. On one hand, there is the one provided by new communities of commoners who through peer to peer networks, open sources programming or simply the sharing of music and videos on the internet in defiance of property right laws on knowledge and culture, have demonstrated to us how commons are not a dead residue of time past, but are at the basis of innovation and creativity into the XXIst century.

On the other hand, there is the one provided by the communities of “traditional” commons themselves, by virtue of their simple presence, sustainability and renewal in spite of powerful social forces that have been demanding their annihilation. This is because there is a major fallacy in the “tragedy of the commons” argument. In this parable, the commons are understood as resources for which there is “free” and “unmanaged” access, resources for which there is no one responsible, there is no one who take care of them. By assuming that commons are a free for all space from which competing and atomized “economic men” take as much as they can, Hardin has engineered a justification for privatization of the commons space rooted in an alleged natural necessity. Hardin forgets that both historical and contemporary evidence show that there are no commons without communities within which the modalities of access to common resources are negotiated, as a previous speaker has abundantly illustrated drawing from his anthropological research. Incidentally, this implies that there is no enclosure of commons without at the same time the destruction and fragmentation of communities. Common resources and empowered communities are two sides of the same coin.

But if we instead choose to highlight the commoning that economic theory chooses to blur, the answer to the question “what has to be done”, is slightly clearer. Because commoning is nothing else than the activities of the community of commoners who decide for themselves what to produce, when to produce, how and how much to produce, when to produce and how to redistribute among themselves the products of labour and the tasks of social reproduction as a function of needs, desires and abilities rather than of money, managerial hierarchy and power.

This is for us a defining moment of history then, because the crisis of capitalism coincides with a massive crisis of social reproduction at many levels, and the crisis of the capitalist form of commoning can give way to socially just and environmentally sustainable forms of commoning. But this only if we reclaim the commons, all of them, wherever we are, by reclaiming democratic forms of commoning. To raise to this challenge, the challenge of our times, there is only one thing to be done: we must claim ownership to the places and institutions we inhabit as workers, teachers, students, doctors, patients, producers and consumers, take responsibility for them and together reinvent our commoning, make it inclusive, healthy, and convivial, rather than competitive, unjust and blatantly stupid.”

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