Production and Commons: on the political potential of a commons approach for production and protection and the shaping of a better world
The world of work is changing. The European Union already has a very high unemployment rate, especially for its young people (respectively around 10 and 20 %). Moreover, the new technological revolution probably will destroy millions of jobs in the near future and consequently destabilize society. With the development of ‘on demand labour’ a general precarization is in the making.
The only answer so far given to these negative developments, is the emergence of new forms ow production and work: cooperatives, collaborative and sharing economy, self-managed enterprises, P2P, etc. coupled with a demise of social protection and the introduction of a basic income for all. While it is far from clear that these new modes of production and protection can mean a real alternative to the existing world of work, progressive forces should carefully examine their potential for the construction of ‘another world’.The political world is changing as well. The awareness of the climate crisis is finally gaining ground and a new common sense is in the making. The successes of leftwing candidates in different electoral campaigns show that there is a real and direct demand for progressive policies. Neoliberalism certainly still is, unconsciously, in the hearts and minds of many progressive people, but young generations certainly are ready for something different: nor more TINA (there is no alternative) but Tamara (there are many alternatives readily available).
While this new common sense is slowly emerging and young generations clearly do not want more of the same old policies, it is also sad to notice that very few leftwing political parties are getting the message. Social democracy has made itself incredible by supporting most of austerity policies and even push-back policies for refugees, the radical left is hopelessly divided and competes for ideological purity. Green parties still too often forget about social justice.
A daunting task
We still have no alternative discourse, except that we want ‘another world’ and ‘another Europe’. but in the meantime, many small-scale alternatives are being tried out at the local level, more often than not out of powerlessness to tackle national and supranational political levels. People do not want to wait anymore and start to tackle problems themselves, ‘here and now’: kindergartens, urban agriculture, repair shops, local libraries, care for the elderly, etc. On the one hand, this has to be welcomed, since citizens can indeed achieve a lot without constantly presenting their demands to governments, on the other hand, we should know that these ‘small revolutions’ cannot just be added on in order to lead to big changes. Action will be needed at all political levels, from local to national to European and global. We will need to reflect on real change. Doing ‘as if’, without clear objectives and without strategy will not work. We should urgently get rid of the neoliberal fantasy that we can change the world by just helping people, claiming that ‘empathy’ and ‘bonding’ is all we need. Our task is not to develop parallel systems to a life-destroying capitalism. In other words, we need to better organize, better collaborate and become more political.
Let me just give one example of a necessary and urgent collaboration: the environmental movements and the social justice movements are natural allies, but they too often prefer to ignore it. What binds them, apart from their obviously linked topics for a socially just transition, is the fact they both want to integrate either care or nature into the dominant economic thinking. If this reasoning is pursued, one immediately comes to the conclusion that the economy itself will have to change, putting ‘care’ in the centre by which is meant that the whole production system should be oriented towards the real needs of people, from traditional care to mobile phones, transport, food, housing, etc. In that case, one will have to tackle, inevitably, the multinational corporations that threaten our health and our environment.
Environmental protection is about preserving the possibility of nature to regenerate, while social justice is about social re-production.
Methodology and Strategy
What is required is an awareness of the political needs for transformative action, which means we have to know there are power relations that will seriously hinder any transition. They will have to change, which means structures, mechanisms and tools to convince large groups of people. This should be the first priority for progressive political forces.
An interesting political tool for systemic change can be an approach through ‘commons’. French authors Dardot and Laval present just that: a political approach to ‘commons’ which does not refer to things with intrinsic characteristics, but are the things that a political community decides to be our commons. ‘Commons’ are not ‘common goods’. The best example to show the difference is water. Water clearly is a common good, we all need it and have a right to it. But water will only become a ‘common’ when a political community, at whatever level, decides to consider water their common, regulates the access to it, monitors its use, etc. It is a fundamentally democratic and participative co-activity, always the consequence of collaboration between people. Commoners then, will be social and political actors that decide on what in their community – at whatever level, local, national, regional or global – has to be considered a common. It is a profoundly emancipatory exercise with responsibility for all.
It is clear to see that many things can become commons, in the first place production and re-production, but also money, the environment and our food, as well as democracy itself. In what follows I will just mention some of the topics concerning production and re-production:
– Production itself, whether we organize in cooperatives, in P2P networks, in the sharing economy: when workers organize and decide that the means of production are theirs and that they will take into their hands the production, distribution and sales, they are responsible for a common. They will have to market the goods they produce, obviously, and will have to be paid decently. It seems difficult to eliminate the price mechanism. What is meant as a common here is not the result of production, but the productive co-activity itself, including the means of production, it is the collaborative effort of producing and regulating this production. This leads to products that will have to be sold, while workers will have to be paid. It is not a ‘free for all’ economy, neither will growth or profit-making be its major objectives. The social and solidarity economy of today is a perfect example, though it is still too often limited to the local scale. Cooperatives are possible at a higher level as well, for banks, insurance companies or pension funds. With proper rules for decision-making and profit-sharing – prohibition on the distribution of profits? – clear rules for ownership which never can give absolute rights, this can change the economy considerably.
– Another important example is that of human rights, and by extent our social protection systems. Social protection is today high on the agenda of the international community, though very often in a neoliberal and/or minimalist sense. If we consider social protection to be our common – something we all need, in whatever circumstances or regime we live – we can not only protect individual human lives, but also – via the co-activity and collaboration – protect our societies as such, thus countering neoliberalism. We can enlarge our rights and focus on collective as well as on individual rights. Public services, not in the hands of the state but shared with citizens, will have to be part of it. Contrary to a basic income, social protection is based on a horizontal and structural solidarity amongst all members of society. The existing systems certainly have to be reformed and improved, and many elements currently promoted by the advocates of basic income will be more than welcome. These social commons seem to me to be central in our common efforts to make a better world. Conceptualizing our economic and social rights – and many more – as our commons, makes social protection into a transformative project that indirectly also tackles the economic system. In fact, these elements of social re-production should never be delinked from production, since they are fundamentally interdependent.
Advantages and further questions
A conceptualization of all the things we all need in terms of commons, especially our production and protection systems, has many important advantages.
The first one is that we can overcome the past dichotomies. We do not have to, see things in terms of state vs market or public vs private. We do not have to look for a ‘third’ middle way, but we have to learn to think differently, and redefine the major concepts we have worked with in the past.
Secondly, commons are fundamentally democratic and participative. Citizens decide on what they want and how they want to organize it. They will need a state, amongst others to guarantee their rights, but it will be a different kind of state, organized by citizens themselves.
Thirdly, and very importantly, we do not have to wait for capitalism or neoliberalism to disappear: we can start now by re-defining our needs, by defining our commons. A commons approach is a long term project, it is a progressive way to progressive, transformative and emancipatory politics.
Finally, it seems clear to me that it is also an excellent way to promote alliances between green and leftwing movements, conditioned however by the abandonment of some dogmatic thinking, e.g. on the necessity of growth, the linearity of progress or the existence of a romantic convivial past and communautarian future.
Several questions remain however and serious research and debate will be necessary. Allow me to mention just three elements:
– While commons are based on the self-organisation of people, they cannot exist without a state. States will be needed especially in the realms of production and re-production to give the framework of what is possible and not possible, to respect the ecological and social needs, to guarantee rights and to avoid discrimination. It seems difficult if not impossible to just trust the intrinsic positive motivations of people. This state will certainly be different from what we know to-day, but how we can organize a state at the service of the many, is an open question. Some speak of a ‘partner state’, but this will have to be examined.
– A second point to discuss and examine is the necessary ‘multi-scale’ approach, from local to national and global. How to articulate the different political levels, how to avoid the global is de-linked from the local and the local exists in a political void? How to tackle the global financial sector? Can the shaping of ‘commons’ be about the organization of ‘convivial’ communities, or should we accept the reality of diversity and difference while organizing solidarity? Can the relevance of every local initiative be questioned with the ‘What about Monsanto?’ enquiry?
– Other questions also should be clarified: it would help to have a clear definition of ‘commons’ from a political and transformative perspective; in what is it different from ‘common goods’ and how to avoid co-optation by the current system. How to avoid the dualisation of the economy and the emergence of a parallel system to capitalism?
We are living in a time of much uncertainty. No one knows what tomorrow will be made of. But there is no need to wait, we can start working today, at the local level with ‘small revolutions’, at the national level with trying to change the power relations, and thus also at the supranational levels by democratizing and changing the decision-making. ‘Commons’ can be a useful tool for transformation, at the material as well as at the conceptual level. They can directly or indirectly change the world of production and re-production, while they are a tool for convincing new generations that another world is indeed possible. They are basically about democracy, participation and power-sharing in a constant struggle for economic and social justice from the perspective of the sustainability of life. Without convincing people that our current system cannot take care of the sustainability of life, and that there are and that we have utopian and feasible alternatives, we cannot achieve anything.
Francine Mestrum, Global Social Justice, Brussels
 Dardot, P. et Laval, C., Commun : essai sur la révolution au XXIème siècle, Paris, La Découverte, 2014.
 For a more detailed analysis of social protection as a common: Mestrum , F., Social Commons. Rethinking Social Justice in Post-neoliberal Societies, e-book, www.socialcommons.eu.