In the first of a series of columns about possible solutions, I explore how commons could transform society and the distribution of wealth
15th December 2016
With one breath, the friends of power told us that global capitalism was a dynamic, disruptive force, the source of constant innovation and change. With the next, they told us it had brought about the end of history: permanent stability and peace. There was no attempt to resolve this contradiction. Or any other.
We were promised unending growth on a finite planet. We were told that a vastly unequal system would remove all differences. Social peace would be delivered by a system based on competition and envy. Democracy would be secured by the power of money. The contradictions were crashingly obvious. The whole package relied on magic.
Because none of it works, there is no normal to which to return. The Keynesian measures espoused by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders – in a world crashing into environmental limits and the mass destruction of jobs – are as irrelevant in the 21st Century as the neoliberal prescriptions that caused the financial crisis.
In his brilliant, incendiary new book Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra explains the current crises as new manifestations of one long disruption, that has been ripping up society for 200 years or more. Our sanitised histories of Europe and America allow us to forget that bedlam and carnage, civil and international war, colonialism and overseas slaughter, racism and genocide were norms of this period, not exceptions.
Now the rest of the world is confronting the same disruptive forces, as industrial capitalism is globalised. It destroys old forms of authority while promising universal freedom, autonomy and prosperity. Those promises collide with massive disparities of power, status and property ownership. The result is the global spread of the 19th-century European diseases of humiliation, envy and a sense of impotence. Frustrated expectations, rage and self-disgust have driven support for movements as diverse as Isis, resurgent Hindu nationalism and stomping demagoguery in Britain, the US, France and Hungary.
How do we respond to these crises? Raymond Williams said “to be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing”. I know I have made despair pretty convincing over the past few weeks. So this column is the first in an occasional series whose purpose is to champion new approaches to politics, economics and social change. There is no going back, no comfort in old certainties. We must rethink the world from first principles.
There are many points at which I could begin, but it seems to me that an obvious one is this. The market alone cannot meet our needs, nor can the state. Both, by rooting out attachment, help fuel the alienation, rage and anomie that breeds extremism. Over the past 200 years, one element has been conspicuously absent from the dominant ideologies, something that is neither market nor state: the commons.
A commons is an asset over which a community has shared and equal rights. This could, in principle, include land, water, minerals, knowledge, scientific research and software. But at the moment most of these assets have been enclosed: seized by either the state or private interests and treated as any other form of capital. Through this enclosure, we have been deprived of our common wealth.
Some commons still exist. They range from community-owned forests in Nepal and Romania to lobster fisheries in Maine, pastures in East Africa and Switzerland, the Internet, Wikipedia, Linux, journals published by the Public Library of Science, the timebank in Helsinki, local currencies and open-source microscopy. But these are exceptions to the general rule of private and exclusive ownership.
In his book Land, the community organiser Martin Adams urges us to see the land as something that once belonged to everyone and no one, yet has been acquired by a minority, that excludes other people from its enjoyment. He proposes that those who use the land exclusively should pay a “community land contribution” as compensation. This could partly replace income and sales tax, prevent land hoarding and bring down land prices. The revenue could help to fund a universal basic income. Eventually we might move to a system in which land is owned by the local community and leased to those who use it.
Similar principles could apply to energy. The right to produce carbon by burning fossil fuels could be auctioned (a smaller pool would be available every year). The proceeds could fund public services and a transition to clean energy. Those who wish to use the wind or sunlight to generate power should be asked to pay a community contribution. Or the generators could be owned by communities – there are already plenty of examples.
Rather than allowing corporations to use intellectual property rights to create an artificial scarcity of knowledge, or (like Google and Facebook) to capture the value generated by other people, we could move towards a “social knowledge economy” of the kind promoted by the government of Ecuador. A share of profits could (with the help of blockchain technology) be exchanged for helping to build online platforms and providing the content they host.
The restoration of the commons has great potential not only to distribute wealth but also to change society. As the writer David Bollier points out, a commons is not just a resource (land or trees or software) but also the community of people managing and protecting it. The members of the commons develop much deeper connections with each other and their assets than we do as passive consumers of corporate products.
Managing common resources means developing rules, values and traditions. It means, in some cases, re-embedding ourselves in the places in which we live. It means reshaping government to meet the needs of communities, not corporations. In other words, reviving the commons can act as a counterweight to the atomising, alienating forces now generating a thousand forms of toxic reaction.
This is not the whole answer. My hope is that, after exploring a wide range of potential solutions, with the help of your comments and suggestions I can start to develop a synthesis: a new political, economic and social story, that might be matched to the demands of the 21st Century. Realising it is a further challenge, on which we also need to work. But first we must decide what we want. Then we decide how to get it.