Commons: Alternatives to market and state
Capitalism has failed. Leaving the care of society to the market has led to massive inequality, climate chaos and financial crisis. The system is indeed one of zombie economics, the doctrine is dead but the beast still walks amongst us. It reminds me of the cartoons where Bugs Bunny runs over the edge of the cliff but, not noticing that he has done so, continues to march on air until realization strikes and the silly rabbit plummets to the ground.
However while capitalism is in crisis, alternatives are not obvious to all. The binary choice has been market versus state. If you have more market you have less state or vice versa. State provision of goods and services seems innately problematic. A central plan reduces choice, fails to promote creativity and may be vastly inefficient. When markets fail, neoliberals can point to the failures of a soviet style economy to justify the continuation of a system of supply and demand.
There are number of objections that can be made to this. Fredriedrich Hayek argued, seemingly convincingly, that planners would lack the information necessary for effective planning. Yet markets increasingly provide perverse signals and transmit false information. Think of the way that marketisation has led to commodification of services such as education and housing. Markets lead to speculation and speculation leads to catastrophe. Planning is problematic and imperfect, but marketisation gradually infects an economy with chaos.
Planning can be made democratic by measures such participatory budgeting. Likewise the National Health Service is an excellent example of state planned economic activity that works, although to work better the pharmaceutical companies that make medicine so expensive and the corporations that spend £ms marketing junk food would need tackling.
However what is emerging fast is the alternative of a commons based economy. Peer to peer, social sharing, collaborative consumption, commons, economic democracy are all terms that cover economic activity that moves beyond the market and the state, based on cooperation and harnessing human creativity.
The economics of sharing is essential to overcome climate change and other environmental ills. If we can share goods we can reduce our impact on the environment while getting access to the things we need. Car pools might be seen as a good example and there is a role for state provision of shared resources — good public transport is an example. Boris bikes are a good example of social sharing, we don’t privately own the bikes, its just a shame that the bikes taunt us with Barclays label and only extend to Central London.
The commons economy moves us beyond commodification. Goods are produced because they are useful and/or beautiful not just to generate cash. An economy of free can evolve, capitalism to some extent generates artificial scarcity, keeping us insecure to get us working and consuming.
Commons economies are based on the principle of usufruct. This is the concept that we can use something as long as we leave it in a good or improved state for others. Its the key principle to my mind of effective green politics and socialism. Indeed Marx observed in Capital, Volume III:
“Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].”
I don’t think utopia or blueprints are helpful and we don’t have to answer every question about the practicalities. We must recognise that capitalism has failed and struggle practically and intellectually for an alternative. Its not a matter of imposing a social sharing economy but of fighting commodification. The corporate world is keen to enclose the commons of cyber space, fighting legislation such as ACTA and SOPA is essential. The battle to re-legalise squatting is another example. Housing in the UK is obscenely commodified, in the USA there are more empty homes than homeless people. Leaving buildings empty as investment chips should be a crime, homeless people showing creativity and using space should be celebrated.
To me the key moment of class struggle is the struggle over property rights. Those who want an economy that works should focus on property rights. The banking collapse has lead to debt and debt to austerity. The agenda is to use debt to privatise more of the economy so education, health care, water provision are owned by distant owners and swopped around to make profit. A commons based economy puts these and other resources into the hands of local people to manage not for short term greed and the whims of bond markets but for long term need. Politics is essentially about property rights and the often invisible battles must be made visible and won.
There is an intellectual task to show that commons, perhaps termed communism, or democratic ownership of society by communities, works. The two towering figures here are Marx and Elinor Ostrom. In many ways they are polar opposites. The late great Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for her work showing the common pool property was an effective way of managing natural resources. She came from a liberal background and her work is very much about micro economics. Her work was based on detailed studies showing how an economy based on cooperation can be created. I would highly recommend both her Governing the Commons and her final book writing with Amy Potteete and Marco Jannssen ‘Working Together’.
Marx was, well, Marx! One of his earliest pieces of writing dealt with the removal of commons rights to German peasants — it became illegal for them to pick up fallen wood from forests. In Chapter 27 of Capital One he showed how the English commons had been stolen and enclosed by an elite. His ethnographic notebooks where he focused on indigenous commons were astonishing. For Marx the rational creative society is a self-owned one based on democratic control i.e the recreation of the commons. The working class can through revolutionary action transcend capitalism and create a communist society. Its about commons for Marx not top down bureaucracy.
Both Marx and Ostrom were true political ecologists, keen to show how the wrong kind of human institutions and practices destroyed the environment. Ostrom’s work is cautious, pluralistic and rejects panaceas, while celebrating the commons, she does not reject the market or forms of state action. However her work does explore the micro foundations of a non monetary economics, something most economists would find unthinkable! While a far from easy read, ‘Working Together’ has astonishing implications. She spent decades building a more nuanced and creative way of thinking about human economic behaviour, revolutionary stuff indeed.
The struggle practically and intellectually has to be about rolling back commodification and regrowing a gift economy. Commons economies don’t abolish injustice or guarantee sustainability but we can do better than being slaves to an economy which marches to the beat of the bond markets. Whether Syriza in Greece, the work of ecosocialists, the experiments of workers control and solidarity economies in Latin America or a thousand other examples alternatives to a bought and sold world are emerging.