Various Dimensions of the Concept of Common Good

Excerpted from François Houtart:

“The notion of Common Good has known lately a new interest. For some it is the renewal of an old idea and the opportunity of giving to conservative forces of society the appearance of a modern approach. For others it is a way of coming out of a stereotyped vocabulary used by revolutionary movements and to propose a more acceptable way of expression. It may also be related with a radical criticism of the concept of modernity transmitted by capitalism and not challenged by real socialism. In order to develop this late conception, it is important to indicate three levels of its semantic utilization: Common Goods, Common Good and Common Good of Humanity.

The struggle for Common Goods is related with the history of capitalism. In England, the “enclosure” of the common lands has been one of the main origins of the capitalist system. To reduce the “commons” and to transform them in private property was the beginning of a process of accumulation. Common lands were considered as wasted lands. Land reforms like the ones of China and Vietnam have restored this notion, with the socialization of land.

Today, neo-liberalism all over the world has reduced the social conquests of more than a century, among them the organization of public services, social security and popular education, creating new forms of poverty. Struggles to restrain such a trend and to reorganize areas of solidarity, have been developed among social movements: labour, peasants, women, indigenous peoples. In Latin America post-neoliberal governments have reestablished or increased programmes against poverty, better access to health and education, social insurances, development of formal labour, public investments.

One aspect of the action has been the claim for a universal allowance. However two main philosophies are at the base of such a proposal. The first one is individualistic: the right of any individual too chose to work or not to work and still to exist. It is sometimes backed by a modern capitalism, understanding that the reduction of poverty is an efficient way of increasing the base of the market and that too big social distances are dangerous for the social order. Hence the notion of equity developed by John Rawls. The second one has a social approach, based on solidarity and aiming at reducing the inequalities, in order to promote the capacities of all human beings to contribute to general well being. This perspective is not compatible with an economic system giving priority to the exchange value aimed at capital accumulation and acting in the short time. On the contrary, it is based on the priority of use value, which includes other aspects than the market profit and adopts a long term vision for the relations between human beings and nature (equilibrium of metabolism). The second dimension is the idea of Common Good. Developed already by Aristotle, it covers all what is necessary for the collective live of a society: norms of common living and social behaviours, inter-communication, public spaces, peace and security, harmony, all what transcends the purely individual interests.

Thomas of Aquino, influenced by the Greek philosopher, made of the concept of Common Good the base of the social ethics for Christians living at the turn of the medieval societies and at the early beginning of market’s urban economies. It became the backbone of the Social Doctrine of most of the Christian Churches, especially in the Catholic Church, with Leo XIII (neo-thomism). This appeared as a good answer to socialism and even more to marxism, while still condemning the injustices of the capitalist economy (“salvage capitalism” as qualified by John Paul II). Indeed the achievement of Common Good was envisaged on a moral base, thanks to the collaboration of all social groups.

Such a position allowed an analysis of the capitalist societies, not in terms of social classes structurally linked by contradictory interests, but in terms of social strata called to build together the society. It had the advantage of negating the notion of class struggle, as a tool of analysis and as a means of action and it confirmed the role of the Church as a moral instance. Politically it bought about Christian Democracy. In the present situation of crisis, the concept of Common Good has known a new life. It is used by the struggles to restore public services. It became part of the discourse of neo-keynesians rightly afraid of the consequences of the economic turmoil. Post-neoliberal Governments in Latin America use the word to justify their political practices. International organizations like UNCTAD speak about “global common good”. Surely there is nothing wrong in emphasizing this concept, and in a short time it may be useful to alleviate the fate of million of people. However it should not serve as an argument to reproduce the existing economic system, with some improvements.

This is why the notion of Common Good of Humanity (Birgit Daiber and François Houtart, A postcapitalist paradigm: the Common Good of Humanity, Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Brussels, 2012) is proposed as a new paradigm (fundamental orientation) of the collective life of Humanity on the planet. It means the possibility of creating, reproducing and bettering life on earth. This is proposed not in an idealistic platonic view, neither in the tradition of utopian socialism, but in response to a system destructing the earth and having adopted a sacrificial economy able to eliminate entire social groups in name of progress. It is a radical critic of the kind of modernity transmitted by the logic of the market and not completely abandoned by the socialist experiences.

Concretely, it means to transform the four ”fundamentals” of any society: relations with nature; production of the material base of all life, physical, cultural, spiritual; collective social and political organization and culture. For the first one the transformation means to pass from the exploitation of nature as a natural resource (merchandize) to the respect of nature as the source of life. For the second one: to privilege use value rather than exchange value, with all the consequences on the concept of property. The third one implies the generalization of democratic practices in all social relations and all institutions and finally interculturality means to put an end to the hegemony of Western culture for the reading of the reality and the construction of the social ethics. Elements of this new paradigm, post-capitalist, are already present all over the world, in many social movements and popular initiatives. Theoretical developments are also produced. So, it is not a “utopian vision” in the pejorative sense of the word. But an aim is necessary to organize the convergences of action. It is a long term process which will ask the adoption of transitions, facing the strength of an economic system ready to destroy the world before disappearing. It means also that the structural concept of class struggle is not antiquated (fiscal heavens and bank secrecy are some of its instruments). Social protests, resistances, building of new experiences are sources of real hope.

The concept of Common Good of Humanity is not in opposition to the notions of Common Goods or of Common Good. It helps to give an orientation to the concrete actions of both of them and therefore it adds a meaning and a coherence for a fundamental transformation.”

Source: the Common Good mailing list, March 2014

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