Progressive commons

Some theoretical and strategic reflections

 One of the most positive developments these past years in the resistance to neoliberal policies has been the emergence of a commons movement and of an alternative economy: citizens taking initiatives in different sectors, from agriculture to production, from care to housing and gardening.

For progressive movements, these alternatives cannot be an end in themselves. They need to be conceptualized as strategic tools for social transformation and system change. And we know many ‘social enterprises’ or ‘commons’ do not answer these needs. However much admiration we may have for the quality or innovation of some projects, we always have to look at their potential, their limits and their possible risks. Some projects may indeed be inspired by traditional or conservative values or may not offer any forward-looking perspective. Another risk is that projects initiated as being transformative end up being appropriated by conservative forces.

Some limits to the potential of the commons are inherent to their design or characteristics: some purely small-scale local commons cannot be generalized at a larger territorial scale; some products we are not ready to abandon are difficult to fit into a commons framework, think of semi-conductors, medicines or planes; and even if we theoretically can produce anything we want, the products will have to compete with others on the market; moreover, many social enterprises have difficulties to give their workers the same economic and social rights as in other and larger. These are but some examples of real-life limits to the potential of commons and they can ruin the most idealistic projects.

If we therefore want to continue to promote commons, as well as social and solidarity economy as a contribution to social transformation and system change, it can be useful to carefully reflect on the conditions to do so. What should our commons look like? What do we have to take care of?

The definitions used in this contribution are these: With ‘commons’ we mean all the things that ‘we’ (at whatever level) decide will be a ’common’. This ‘we’ is part of the building of a political community cooperating in the definition of the common and in establishing the rules by which it can be used. This means there can be no common without commoners and without a commoning process. A fundamental characteristic of the ‘common’ is that it never is inherent in the nature of the thing, but always is the result of a social co-activity. Commons are created by cooperating people who decide how this common can be made available to all.


With ‘social and solidarity economy’ we mean all the economic activities with social and/or environmental objectives instead of or next to profit-making.


Three theoretical elements

A first and most important question to reflect on is the relation to public authorities in general and to the State more in particular. Many scholars working on commons claim this relationship to be impossible and undesirable. In their eyes, commons are per definition in the hands of citizens and can only be seen as commons precisely because they reject any help or link to public authorities.

However, from a progressive point of view this need not be the case. If citizens are working, e.g. in the care sector or in the production of bicycles, some rules have to be respected and a normative framework will be necessary to avoid health risks, discrimination or violations of human rights in general. Also, in work on housing or help to asylum-seekers, public authorities may help citizens’ movements with infrastructure or services. When talking about elements of social protection, it will be clear the funding has to come from public authorities, even if based on contributions or taxes paid by citizens, at least if we want to promote a universal system of e.g. health care.

In other words, if commons go indeed beyond State and market, as is always said, they do not have to exist without States and markets. After all, the products made in a commons movement will still have to be sold somewhere. But it does mean that progressive movements will have to carefully reflect on how to relate to public authorities and how to use the market. This is crucial for ensuring the progressive potential of the initiative and it also requires to reflect on the nature of the State itself. It will have to be at the service of its citizens.

The second element is the crucial point of ownership. Our current dominant economic system is based on private property and this is precisely one of its main problems. How to overcome this problem is one of the hottest debates within the commons movement and it is far from being resolved. For some, property has simply to be abandoned and one has to look for solutions ‘beyond property’. For others, one has to define different types of property, according to the needs of our projects and initiatives. Still others focus on the rights which are derived from different types of property.

Whatever solution one prefers, it is a serious point that has to be reflected on, because it can determine the success or failure of our projects.

The third point is the definition of labour, production and re-production and the creation of value. These points have been on the agenda for a very long time but we are not nearer to a solution now than some decades ago. For some, all ‘commons work’ should be free, that is not paid for, since commons are per definition ‘de-commodified’. All workers then become volunteers and for many, the answer to the question what they will live from is ‘basic income’. Others, mainly feminists, make a distinction between de-commodification and de-monetisation and claim that there is not really a difference between production and re-production. All work creates value and has to be paid for. Also, some scholars think men and women have to free themselves from labour, while others claim it is labour itself that has to be freed from a capitalist logic. It is not possible to summarize this interesting debate in a couple of sentences. It should be clear however that it is a major point to be reflected on as it will also determine the progressive potential of the projects we are working on.

Three strategic points

At the level of strategy as well, choices are open. In order to really achieve social transformation, our reflection should be turned towards the following points.

First of all, for each and every initiative, clearly define the final objective. This is particularly important for all initiatives within the social and solidarity economy, since profit-making will never be the goal. The objective may be social, the environment or care-oriented, or all at the same time and this will clearly have consequences for the way the initiative is organised.

Secondly, talking of commons or citizens based projects, it is important to carefully reflect on the kind of participation that is promoted, since not all of it will be emancipatory. If we are serious about social change, the project will necessarily be about democratically producing and re-producing society and there are different ways to achieve this.

Thirdly, for each and every initiative one will have to reflect on how to achieve the necessary solidarity and reciprocity, confirming our interdependency, that should be present in all projects and are needed for their sustainability.

It should also be clear that however one goes about with the institution of progressive commons, the strategy will have to be for the long-term, since we are aiming at changing different sectors and a dominant way of thinking. This can never be done in a short time lapse.

Beyond the ‘pensée unique’

If the different points mentioned above are accepted, it seems obvious that we will have to abandon the ‘pensée unique’ of the left and go beyond Marx. Capitalism today is not what it was a century ago and the changes we want to promote go beyond the traditional workers’ movement and the shift from private to public. We have to start from the real world we are living in today, characterised by informal and precarious work, the attacks on and the weakening of trade unions, the power of transnational corporations, the emergence of a surveillance capitalism and a shift to a service economy. The multilateral world created after the second world war is under threat and the globalisation we so fiercely condemned may be threatened by an as dangerous protectionism. At the geopolitical level we are witnessing new polarisations and new threats.

At the level of society we are witnessing a progressing dispossession of all common goods and seeing the continued shrinking space for social movements. There are arguments to even speak of the capture of civil society by corporations and/or public authorities. Funding indeed is not necessarily just help, it can be a way of co-opting and silencing. Today, citizens are dispossessed from their possibilities to shape the society they want and one can say it is society itself which is being stolen from people. It is an extra reason to carefully reflect on all commons and alternative economy initiatives, since they may lead to results that are diametrically opposed to the social change we want.

If we want to make real progress, it seems to me we have to watch three fault lines and work along them:

First, the class conflict certainly has not disappeared and requires actions such as the ones the left has always promoted in the past. Secondly, and as important, our relationship to nature, which requires a re-thinking of all production and in fact of our way of living. Thirdly, the question of gender and of diversity, making an end to all discrimination and promoting equality of all human beings.

These three elements are all as important and are closely interlinked. Environmental justice and social justice – including gender equality and living with diversity – go hand in hand. They will form the normative background of all our projects.

If we succeed in doing this and if we succeed in working out projects that take into account these different elements, we may have the enabling tools for a new project for the left, democratizing and transforming the economy, taking care of people and of nature, transforming society and changing power relations.

Commons and social and solidarity economy are not necessarily progressive. If we want to avoid they become just islands of resistance or exercises in (temporary) withdrawal from society – a self-provisioning polpotisation -, some conditions will have to be looked at. Commons and social enterprises can only be progressive if they are geared towards system change and if they are emancipatory. And this can only be made possible with clear positions on the relationship with public authorities, on ownership and on labour and value.

This short contribution is nothing more than an invitation for some serious reflection on all these topics, so that we can work in a participatory and emancipatory way to shape, produce and reproduce, with all citizens, our economies and our societies.

Francine Mestrum

Global Social Justice