I have been invited to participate in the annual gathering of green activists in Croatia, which is known as a place of red-green dialogue in that part of Europe. This year’s commons module has a great stress on the relation of the commons with the state.

A tentative agenda of the event can be found here.

Thematic concept of the module

“Commons is a concept which was launched into mainstream science and policy by American political scientist Elinor Claire Ostrom who for this received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009. From the early 1970s with her colleagues she studied hundreds of local communities which successfully governed natural common-pool resources like forests, fisheries and pastures without the interference of both state and market. She showed how instead of government regulation on one side or privatisation of property on the other, number of communities independently succeeded to design their own rules/institutions to self-govern these resources in order not to overuse them. For Ostrom crucial condition that individuals as members of these communities achieve this personal and collective benefit is ability to communicate and sufficient level of trust.

Commons are defined in many ways by various authors but most of them consider it a distinct social practice in governing of resource by community of its users through different institutional arrangements. Three key elements here are: resource, governance regime and community. Even though the concept was used in beginning only for natural resources which refer to traditional land commons from Middle Ages in Europe to contemporary ecological common-pool resources analysed by Ostrom, the concept of commons is now also used for social and non-material resources like knowledge which refer to modern commons, for example digital commons. Element of governance regime points to various rules which are designed by users and which are different from one commons to another but Ostrom believed that all successful commons share some universal principles for design of these rules. Community is another important element as there is no commons without active role of commoners or people who co-produce, re-produce and take care of commons. To what extent are commoners a part of community and what binds them together is still a matter of theoretical and empirical debate.

Commons is first of all a scientific and analytical concept used for empirical research of existing practices, but it is also a policy concept for those who aim to create or enhance commons through institutional design which was also goal of Ostrom. However, commons are lately becoming widely used as political concept by various actors of the Green and Left spectrum who oppose on one side the neoliberal policies of privatisation of various natural and social resources and on the other side criticise etatisation of resources for the benefits of corrupted elites within neoliberal state. This is rather normative use of the commons concept as progressive but then some normative criteria related to resource are often added like fair access, collective control and sustainable use which means that commons is inherently contested concept. Nevertheless, because of its radical democratic appeal that resources should be governed by its users and unifying nature of the concept as it transcends differences between social and environmental struggles, the commons became common ground for various progressive social movements fighting against market fundamentalism and state paternalism.

However, pure commons are difficult to find within modern societies as there is always some degree of influence by the market and the state. One set of questions arises on what is the relationship between commons and markets but in this module we want to explore on what is the relationship between commons and “the state” on theoretical level and “states” on empirical level. Even if commons sphere is to be enhanced, the state seems here to stay in near future and will not “wither away” so soon. This begs the question of what to do with the state and if it can be used for support towards commons or at least prevented to hinder the commons. There is a large number of examples where states actively destroyed or enclosed commons but also a growing number of examples where states developed enhancing frameworks for commons to prosper. Also the border between the state and commons is becoming in practice blurrier as there are new experiments with hybrid forms of commons and public governance through state-community partnerships.

Theories of the state differ and there is even debate if there could be a general theory of the state. One has to have a clear understanding of what state is and where the state begins and ends before exploring relationship with the commons. There are also important debates about the nature and role of the state with liberal and Marxist answers to that questions. Critical theory does not see state as a neutral entity but rather as instrument of the upper class although there is a disagreement if there is some autonomy of the state apparatus in serving this class interests. If there are contradictions within capitalist state perhaps there are cracks to be used for transformation of the state. State which would be supportive towards commons or even to transform the state through concept of commons to diffuse its power relations through participation of users in different public services and various mechanisms of social control of the state apparatus by local communities. There is a long history of attempts and failures to do so but perhaps some conclusions can be made to progress forward if any agency is possible. This also invokes the old debate on the Left if one should transform society from “outside of the state” or state power should be first captured to make deep social transformation.

Many on the Green and Left remain sceptical towards the state for achieving systemic changes towards ecological and social justice and would rather decrease its scope or even dismantle it. Looking at the issues like climate change which will further more increase global and local, environmental and social injustice because of unequal distribution of hazards between and within societies, it is difficult to imagine coordination and redistribution needed to address these problems without some role of states. This however cannot be existing states as it is not only markets that failed to solve issues like climate change but it is also states which failed. Commons probably can’t replace states but can perhaps provide ideas on how to transform them to replace both old paternalistic state and new public management state so citizens are not clients nor customers but participants.

Exploring the relationship between commons and state(s) should be informative for participants of Green Academy who seek through research, activism or other social engagement to transform both the state and commons towards progressive ends. Objective of the module is also geographical contextualisation in order to see how theories of the commons and theories of the state apply to context of Balkans and wider European semi-periphery including Southern Europe and Central Eastern Europe. To be able to achieve this, participants are invited to steer lecturers towards regional context and participate in debate about applicability of these concepts for their local work. Finally, participants are invited to contribute to empirical part by giving local successful and unsuccessful examples related to relationship between commons and states.”

Sample abstracts of lectures

Michel Bauwens: Concept of the Partner State

McKenzie Wark calls Kojin Karatani’s The Structure of World History (Duke University Press, 2014) “an astonishing work of synthetic historical theory”. It’s premise is that humans allocate resources using different modalities that have always co-existed, but in different configurations. This allows us to look at social change not as a change in mode of productions that then overdetermine the superstructures, but as reconfigurations between the four modalities of pooling (mutualization, the commons), gift-based reciprocity, the market (capitalist or not), and the state (‘rule and protect’, ‘plunder and redistribute’). The re-emergence of commoning as a central feature of both capitalist extractivism and commons-based collaborative economies, invites to reconsider social change strategies based on reconfiguring the mutual relations of the different modalities. This has been the core practice of the commons transition strategies developed by grassroots economic coalitions and their ‘transvestment’ strategies (i.e. striving for ‘value sovereignty’ by disciplining value originating from the other modalities to the needs and demands of the commoners), which aim to subsume the state and market functions to the logic of the commons, through partner state practices and generative market forms. In this presentation, we will move from the micro-economic experience of p2p phyles (economic eco-systems at the service of the commons) to the potential for a full macro-societal strategy for social change.

Tomislav Tomaševi?: Commonising the State

In the current crisis of both states and markets the concept of commons is becoming more and more popular among progressives of various political colors. Commons are often defined as “outside the realm of state and market” but this could be criticized as no contemporary social practice is completely outside state rule(s) and isolated from the influence of markets. For example, all social practices have some material base and footprint which is linked with territory while rule over territories of the whole planet is shared between states. Commons are also usually defined as governance of resource(s) by the community of users so comprising of three elements: resource, governance regime and community of users. One might notice how this is not very different from the classical definitions of the state which define it as political community under single government ruling over defined territory so comprising also of three elements: territory, government and people in political community. There are many competing theories of the state but if we take that state is not neutral entity separated from society and economy but part of the capitalist system there is an old political dilemma on the Left if it should attempt to capture state power to change socio-economic relations or this attempt is doomed to fail. Within the New Left this debate is between autonomists who focus on building socio-economic alternatives “outside” of the state and new parties-movements who focus on taking state power through representative democracy in order to create new socio-economic alternatives from “inside” the state. One option leaves the state power in hands of neoliberals and far Right while the other option in examples of left-wing governments in Latin America shows that it is not absolved from corruption and isolation of state elites from society. Perhaps the way out of this dichotomy can be the concept of commons.

If concept of commons is to be understood normatively and politically as a force of democratization, I believe it can be also used for democratization of the state. Even if the state is instrument of upper class and has its internal logic of power relations and institutional self-preservation, if one insists on some agency then the commons experiences can be instrumental in changing state institutions to include more of real participatory and direct democracy. This would make the border between commons counter-power and state power blurrier. There is a whole spectrum of cases between pure public and pure commons governance of resources like co-management, civic-public partnerships, democratic governance of public enterprises, civic non-profit concessions etc. Progressive commons practices with fair access, collective control and sustainable use of resources can be perhaps a way forward in transforming state institutions both from the “outside” and from the “inside”.

Daniel Chavez: The state, New Politics, and the commons

The presentation will be focused on a discussion of the meanings, possibilities and limitations of the interaction between the commons and the state. The key questions to be explored will be the following: Is it realistic to think about ‘commonising’ the state’? What would that mean in practice, in the context of the current international political economy? Could the state be perceived as a tool to promote the expansion of the commons? Can the state be democratised and reclaimed by ordinary citizens and local communities? Are there real-life examples of ‘alternative’ state forms evolving today around the world? What are the implications of scale?

The presentation will also refer to highly polarised academic and political debates in Europe and in other regions of the South (particularly in Latin America). On the one hand, there are activists and thinkers who still perceive the state as a social relation and a set of institutions that could be transformed to create or expand commons, while on the other hand there are many who argue that the left (or the emancipatory forces, more in general) should stop worrying about the state and focus all the efforts in building local, socially controlled and fully autonomous initiatives for social, economic and political change. Are there possibilities for dialogue and cross-fertilisation between these two seemingly opposite approaches? The presenter will refer to the New Politics project, a recently international initiative recently (re)launched by TNI that aims to promote further conversation and eventual joint work, linking activists and thinkers from different regions and theoretical and ideological traditions.

Finally, the presentation will offer a quick review of a few processes presently evolving in different parts of the world. In Latin America and some European countries, the left has entered state institutions and have experimented with local and national governance. In the case of Ecuador, for instance, part of the national government supported the design of a commons-driven transition plan, focused on the notion of the ‘partner state’. More recently, in Barcelona and other Spanish cities, progressive social and political organisations have advanced innovative proposals for the democratisation of the state, including concrete moves towards water justice and energy democracy. The presentation will analyse the prospects and constraints of these processes in terms of ‘commonising’ the state.

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