The commons are nothing new. History has always counted citizens pooling resources and managing them collectively and autonomously. Cities and states have the responsibility to identify, connect and support them. The commons appear today as a social choice in a breathless world. A society where the economic and productive systems will finally be compatible with the major planetary balances.
We often speak, and more and more, of commons. “Common good”, “public transport”, “Paris in common” … What is it exactly?
Michel Bauwens: Commons are three things at once: a (shared) resource, a community (which maintains them) and specific autonomous governance principles (to govern them). These are very concrete things, which do not exist by nature but are the result of alliances between several parties. “There is no commons without commoning”. It can be a renewable energies cooperative, a shared mobility project, a shared knowledge, an AMAP … In fact, everyone makes connections without knowing it, and has always done so … according to cycles of more or less intense mutualisation.
In fact, everyone makes connections without knowing it, and has always done so … according to cycles of mutualization more or less intense.
If pooling follows cycles, where are we today?
M. B.: There are long, civilizational cycles, and short economic cycles. For the first, whenever a civilization is in crisis, there is a return of the commons. For when class societies break down, when resources are overexploited and run out, pooling becomes more and more meaningful. Today, it is a global environmental crisis that gives rise to a resurgence of the commons. Yesterday was the end of the Roman Empire, the crisis of Japan in the 12th century, in China in the 15th century …
Short cycles are peculiar to capitalism, they are called Kondratiev cycles. These are cycles of 30 years of high growth and 30 years of financialization, which generally correspond to demutualization. 2008 marked the end of a cycle of this type: there has been a resurgence of mutualization projects within capitalism itself.
So we would currently be in a high balance of mutualisation?
Mr. B.: The situation is nuanced. On the one hand, in the third world, the commons are in danger. There is strong pressure for privatization. This concerns, for example, natural resources and land in Africa. On the other hand, the new technologies facilitate the emergence of common knowledge, small and large, which was not possible before. Finally, in the West, we can observe a renewal of the commons. Since 2008, they have multiplied by 10. That’s what I found in Ghent: there were 50 projects of urban commons in 2006, in 2016, there were 500.
If the commons are more numerous … do not they always remain a minority in the global economy?
Mr. B.: What is certain today is that there is a movement of false mutualisation. What we call the “sharing economy” is really very extractive models. We pool resources without giving users control, an essential criterion for talking about common. I call it “captalist capitalism”, a capitalism that exploits human cooperation.
On the one hand, it is Google and Facebook that share the knowledge of humanity, facilitate its communication and sharing while mobilizing our attention and data for market purposes – and without paying us for it. On the other hand, it is Uber and Airbnb who pool personal resources (a car, a parking space, an apartment …), allow their peer-to-peer exchange and charge a commission on each of these interactions.
This refers to an old 19th century debate between Marx and Proudhon. According to Marx, the exploitation came from the added value whereas for Proudhon, it came from the cooperation … It is the idea that by putting 100 craftsmen together, they will be more productive than if they were separated. Today, Proudhon would be right: capitalism is Proudhon!
According to Marx, the exploitation came from the surplus value whereas for Proudhon, it came from the cooperation …
That said, alternatives exist everywhere. In Ghent there is Uber, of course, but beside that there are two shared mobility cooperatives. At the city level, each human supply system exists on a common-oriented model, particularly for food and energy.
While the commons are very advanced in some cities … they remain stammering in others … How to explain it?
Mr. B.: The first explanatory element is the historical context. In Ghent he is quite unique. From the Middle Ages, the city was self-managed by guilds, then became a Calvinist republic. It was the cradle of the labor movement in Belgium, with the first textile reindustrialisation. For 20 years, progressive coalitions were in power. Historically, people have been able to take initiatives in Ghent, they have always been supported. We find similar phenomena in France: Nantes, Nancy, …
Can political interventionism encourage mutualisation movements within cities?
Mr. B.: We never start from scratch, the commons still pre-exist to the action of cities. They are people, projects that work, are resilient but sometimes isolated. The role of the city is first of all to identify these initiatives, to listen to them and to respond to their needs. On the other hand, the commons can never be done without the city. There must be at least an agreement in principle, an unofficial laissez-faire. For example, in Ghent there was an abbey that the city could no longer maintain. The citizens of the neighborhood asked for the key to the building. It has been going on for 10 years: they organize cultural events every weekend. Elinor Ostrom said that no common can succeed without the agreement of public entities. The city necessarily has, at least, a role of steward.
The role of the city is first to identify the commons, listen to them and meet their needs.
In some cities, there is a strong political portage around the commons. This is the case in Barcelona, with the multiannual plan “Barcelona in common”, in Bologna where public-common institutions allow citizens to take care of shared resources, or in Naples, with the recognition and support of the mayor Luigi de Magistris to more than 60 towns in the city. Linking the Commons to the support of the city is not without risks, it can create a dependency. What is needed are public-commun structures: structures that bring citizens together and stimulate their power of self-organization.
Could these public-commun structures be envisaged at the level of a country, of the world? Or are the commons limited to the city walls?
The political problem today, at the national level – for both the left and the right – is the belief that value comes from the market. The commons represent a completely different system in which all citizens create value and contribute to the commons. If some cities have understood this model, there is no political force that carries it to the scale of a country. Instead, there are coalitions of pro-common cities, with network governance. But ideally, political movements at the national level should be convinced of the relevance of the commons.
The political problem today, at the national level – for both the left and the right – is the belief that value comes from the market.
How to pass pooling “on the scale”? How to transform the whole of a country according to a logic of common?
Mr. B.: Not everyone will follow at the same time but if we succeed in mobilizing 10% of the population, we will win, the rest will follow. Today, the actors of sustainable production represent only 2% and they feel alone … At this level, the public power can play a role of example and considerable drive.
One way would be to capitalize on the lifeblood of society by supporting all initiatives in favor of the commons. This could be translated into transition councils for each major supply sector: a food council, a mobility council, a housing council … In these councils, we would give a voice and a power to the pioneers of the transition: those who work in the margins and show that another way is possible. I sincerely believe in this model of democracy – neither participative nor deliberative but contributive. You have a voice because you have demonstrated that you do.
I sincerely believe in this model of democracy – neither participative nor deliberative but contributive. You have a voice because you have demonstrated that you do.
Another way would be to regulate. A state could for example impose “100% of food produced locally, healthy and organic”. In Ghent, we have more than 100 million meals a year, which already corresponds to hundreds of local jobs. In the same way, cars could be produced locally, cars that are both sustainable and bio-degradable.
To return to a local production, distributed … would this be a way to put the commons at the service of the environment?
Mr. B.: That’s what I call cosmo-local production. Neither protectionist nor liberal, it is to share knowledge (which is light) at the global level but produce (all that is heavy) at the local level, on demand. In this way, we decrease the thermodynamic weight of people on the earth. We already have all the technologies to make this system change, but they are not yet put together.
If it is not a technological problem, what prevents to return to local production systems? As long as there is a difference in production costs, delocalization will always be justified from an economic point of view …
Mr. B.: Today, we spend a lot more on transportation than on production – it’s nonsense! To change things, there needs to be a strong political will, both social and environmental. It is about recognizing other forms of value than market value and taking into account the level and limits of global resources in our productive, economic and financial systems.
For example, our accounting systems should be thermo-dynamic: balancing the material used for production and the global ecological limits. Today, you can know how much you use rare metals, how much gas you throw, how much energy you use – without any information about the world around you and its limits. The world can collapse, it does not show up in accounting.
Today, the world can collapse, it does not show in the accounting.
This must also be reflected in our trading currencies. Currently, money is nothing. It could nevertheless represent the outside world and the finitude of its resources. For example, with the project “fish coin”, the currency represents the stock of fish that can be fished without damaging their reproduction.
To make the right day-to-day decisions and to achieve a truly sustainable circular economy, all economic and political actors must be judged by the good and the harm they do – both to the planet and to the planet. Human being.
About Michel Bauwens
A peer-to-peer theorist, Michel Bauwens is the founder of the P2P foundation, a think tank focusing on peer-to-peer alternatives and in particular their mode of production, governance and ownership.
His latest report analyzes how permafrocord distribution chains, distributed registers, protocol co-operatives and new post-capitalist forms of accounting would lead to a socially just and economically resilient world.
P2P Accounting for Planetary Survival: Towards a P2P Infrastructure for a Socially Just Circular Society. By Michel Bauwens and Alex Pazaitis. Foreword by Kate Raworth. P2P Foundation, 2019.
To access it: https://wiki.p2pfoundation.net/P2P_Accounting_for_Planetary_Survival
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