Friday, August 26, 2016

Common Ownership and the Commons

Common ownership is not merely the sharing of “goods,” but a social practice beyond simply communal possessions. It is about living as one humanity. Capitalists maximize their own benefit do so at other people’s expense, and those other people have to bear the burden. Maximizing exchange value is a virtue. Whatever doesn’t make a profit and money is disregarded and discarded.

Although markets are products of human action, they are not controlled by people but directed by market influences themselves. It is no coincidence that markets are spoken of as if they were active subjects. We can read about what the markets are “doing” every day in the business pages. Markets decide, prefer and punish. They are nervous, lose trust or react cautiously. Our actions take place under the motivation of the markets, not the other way around. Even governments recognise the rule of the market and rather guide the effects of the markets in one direction or the other, they respond to market forces as the market determines. Even in the extreme of state-capitalism, a centrally planned command economy turned out to be nothing more than changing and modifying those so-called Five-Year Plans, planning in retrospect. A common feature of mainstream economic thought and their standard text-books is that they never question markets themselves. That is why markets are at times described as a manifestation of natural laws.  

The fundamental principle of the commons is that the people who create the commons also create the laws (rules) for themselves. With common ownership, people are connected to one another. They use common resources, devise rules to sustain or increase them, and find the social forms that fit best. The starting point is always the needs of the people involved, and those needs are not necessarily the same. In socialism, it is not about individuals’ abstract equality, but rather their concrete uniqueness. Socialism is as explained in the Communist Manifesto “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” The Ubuntu philosophy of the Zulu and Xhosa puts it in these words: “I am because you are, and I can be only if you are.”

We witness rules of open-access usage which make sense for things s that are non-rival and not consumed or “used up” (such as collaborative websites like Wikipedia or free software programs); such rules help avoid underuse of the resource and the danger that they might be abandoned. In contrast, for those things that are consumptive, such as land, water or fisheries, require other sorts of rules because in such cases the problem is overuse, not underuse. We have learned from Elinor Ostrom that drawing such boundaries is important. What is decisive is these rules are recognized by the community as reasonable or necessary. Here, the primary issue is not whether something immediately pays off, but that it is sustainable so that everyone involved can benefit in the long term.

 Conflicts of interest or opinion are to be resolved in such a way that everyone feels that the process and its results are fair. We should always expect and indeed encourage amicable and comradely disagreements. With socialism, people are participants in running the affairs of society and are in charge of shaping and steering the social relationships involved; therefore, they can take responsibility for their actions. It is possible to deal with conflicting goals and varying needs before taking action. In the capitalist market, however, it is action that comes first, and then the consequences are faced later because maximum profits are the touchstone for choice. We want to drive on a good road network without congestion but object to having major roads pass in front of our front doors. We want environmentally friendly energy to replace nuclear power, but we object to windmills marring the landscape. We object to fish stocks being depleted but want to purchase fresh and cheap fish. Different needs and goals conflict with one another, and the one that can mobilize the most market and political power will prevail. Whichever option earns money prevails.  First, we create a fait accompli, then we have to suffer the consequences.

 In socialism, people are capable of mediating between different needs and desires from the outset. Farmers can come to an understanding about the joint usage of pastures in advance, and can do so time and again to avoid over-exploitation of the common resource; fisher-folk can arrange for sustainable fishing quotas, in contrast to nation-states, each of which wants maximum usage for itself; free software projects can agree on programming priorities. Filmmaker Kevin Hansen explains that common ownership cultivates a sense of overarching responsibility: “A commons approach innately presumes responsibility and rights for all. No one is left out. It is the responsibility of all commons trustees (effectively, this means everyone) to be responsible – even for those who do not speak…. This includes not only the young, elderly or disabled people who cannot speak for themselves. It also means the disenfranchised, the poor, the indigenous and other humans who have traditionally not had a significant voice in politics and economics.”

Self-organized common ownership works if it is, in fact, self-determined. The rules of common ownership will be made by the various communities themselves in light of their particular circumstances. With countless collectives engaged in production and distribution, successful best practice will easily be identified and taken into account elsewhere. The different decision-making processes involve understanding and accepting people’s different needs and requirements so may be it in form of consensus or compromise but it is certain people will experience a sense of fairness and will not feel aggrieved. Socialism works only if everybody is included in the community and nobody is excluded. It is based on cooperation, and will generate cooperation. Socialism enables responsible action, and, in fact, require it. People can live as what they have actually always been: societal beings who jointly create their living conditions. In contrast to the logic of the capitalist market, individuals have nothing to gain from competition and gaining at other people’s expense.

No comments: