The tragedy of the capitalist commons

After several decades of relentless neoliberal enclosures, the idea of ‘commons’ is enjoying a renaissance amongst some neo-Keynesian economists and commentators, while political scientist Elinor Ostrom has just been award the Nobel prize ‘for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons’. Massimo De Angelis explains why capital’s commons will always be distorted – because they are based upon social injustice – and why we can only reclaim the commons from capital by constructing common interests.

‘Global commons’ and climate change

During the heyday of neoliberal globalisation, amidst its assault on all forms of public and common ownership of resources – the era the ‘new enclosures’ – an increasingly vocal part of the left started to conceptualise alternatives to neoliberalism and sometimes even capitalism in terms of commons: non-commodified forms of social cooperation and production. At the time commons seemed to offer a way out of the impasse between free-market capitalism and Eastern bloc-style state-capitalist planning.

In the last few years, however, the field of forces within which old and newly emerging commons operate has changed quite significantly. Increasingly, the idea of the commons seems to function less as an alternative to capitalist social relations, and more like their saviour. One example of this is the way the issue of climate change is being framed within a discourse of ‘global commons’. Influential neo-Keynesian economist Joseph Stiglitz asserts that global commons are threatened by a ‘tragedy of the commons’; that is, they are being overused because no one is charged for using or abusing them. Put simply, if polluting does not cost money, companies and individuals have an incentive to pollute. For Stiglitz, the problem cannot be solved by first assigning property rights, such as certificates that allow their owners to emit a certain amount of greenhouse gases, and then allowing markets to operate accordingly. This is the traditional neoliberal approach, but it won’t work for two reasons: first and primarily, because such enclosures often engender resistance; and, second, because they create incentives to pre-empt them by even more rapacious resource extraction. Stiglitz therefore proposes a global tax on carbon emissions to make people pay for the costs they impose on others through their polluting activities. This carbon tax – if set at an ‘appropriate rate’ and effectively enforced – would enable markets to be ‘efficient’ and would reduce emission to agreed targets. Stiglitz then argues that such a tax would create strong incentives for innovation in terms of energy efficiency and other ‘green’ technologies, enabling states to govern capitalist globalisation and promote virtuous, ‘sustainable’ growth.

This platform of management of the global commons is based on one key assumption: that capitalist disciplinary markets are a force for good, if only states are able to guide them onto a path of environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive growth. What this view forgets is that there is little evidence that global economic growth could be achieved with lower greenhouse gas emissions, in spite of increasingly energy-efficient new technologies, which in turn implies that alternatives might just be necessary to stop climate change. This raises the question of how we disentangle ourselves from the kind of conception of commons offered by Stiglitz, which allow solutions based on capitalist growth.

Common interests?

Commons also refer to common interests. To stay with the example of climate change, if there is any chance of significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions – without this implying some form of green authoritarianism – it is because there is a common interest in doing so. But common interests do not exist per se, they have to be constructed, a process that has historically proven to be riddled with difficulties – witness the feminist movement’s attempts to construct a ‘global sisterhood’; or the workers’ movement’s project of a ‘global proletariat’. This is partly the case because capitalism stratifies ‘women’, ‘workers’ or any other collective subject in and through hierarchies of wages and power. And therein lies the rub, because it is on the terrain of the construction of common global interests (not just around ecological issues, but also intellectual commons, energy commons, etc.) that the class struggle of the 21st century will be played out. This is where the centre of gravity of a new politics will lie.

There are thus two possibilities. Either: social movements will face up to the challenge and re-found the commons on values of social justice in spite of, and beyond, these capitalist hierarchies. Or: capital will seize the historical moment to use them to initiate a new round of accumulation (i.e. growth). The previous discussion of Stiglitz’s arguments highlights the dangers here. Because Stiglitz moves swiftly from the presumed tragedy of the global commons to the need to preserve and sustain them for the purpose of economic growth. Similar arguments can be found in UN and World Bank reports on ‘sustainable development’, that oxymoron invented to couple environmental and ‘social’ sustainability to economic growth. Sustainable development is simply the sustainability of capital. This approach asserts capitalist growth as the sine qua non common interest of humanity. I call commons that are tied to capitalist growth distorted commons, where capital has successfully subordinated non-monetary values to its primary goal of accumulation.

The reason why common interests cannot simply be postulated is that we do not reproduce our livelihoods by way of postulations – we cannot eat them, in short. By and large, we reproduce our livelihoods by entering into relations with others, and by following the rules of these relations. To the extent that the rules that we follow in reproducing ourselves are the rules of capitalist production – i.e. to the extent that our reproduction depends on money – we should question the operational value of any postulation of a common interest, because capitalist social relations imply precisely the existence of injustices, and conflicts of interest. These exist, on the one hand, between those who produce value, and those who expropriate it; and, on the other, between different layers of the planetary hierarchy. And, it is not only pro-growth discourses that advocate the distorted commons that perpetuate these conflicts at the same time as they try to negate them. The same is true of environmental discourses that do not challenge the existing social relations of production through which we reproduce our livelihoods. Given that these assertions are somewhat abstract, let us try to substantiate them by testing a central environmental postulate on subjects who depend on capitalist markets for the reproduction of their livelihoods.

Imagine I am a coal miner, or an oil worker. An environmental postulate tells me that ‘our’ common interest is to keep coal, or oil, in the ground because of long-run trends in greenhouse gas emissions. But this does not take into account that my family and I need food, shelter, clothing, etc. now and in a year’s time, as well as in the long run. In order to satisfy those needs in the shorter term, I need to keep working as a coal miner or oil worker. Those making this postulation may or may not themselves have alternative sources of income from working in other industries; or they may even have chosen not to extract coal or oil for environmental reasons. However, their urging me to subscribe to this common interest by forfeiting my livelihood demonstrates that my livelihood is not a matter of common interest. An environmental discourse not tied to questions of forms of livelihoods alternative to capital’s loops is one that regards my livelihood as expendable. Here we have an example of ‘distorted commons’, a common that is based on some form of social injustice. Ultimately, all environmental recommendations made without reference to the question of social justice and reproduction are arguments for distorted commons.

Capital and ‘distorted commons’

Capitalism as a socio-economic system has a schizophrenic relationship to the commons. On the one hand, capital is a social force that requires continuous enclosures; that is, the destruction and commodification of non-commodified common spaces and resources. However, there is also an extent to which capital has to accept the non-commodified and contribute to its constitution. The degree to which it does so, and how it does so, is fundamental for its own sustainability and preservation. But it also has fundamental consequences for the sustainability and preservation of the planet and of many communities. Capital has to reconcile itself to the commons to some degree precisely because capitalism – as the set of economic exchanges and practices mediated and measured by money and driven by self-interest, economic calculus and profit – is not all-encompassing. Capitalism is itself a subsystem of far larger systems necessary for the reproduction of life. This in turn implies that capitalism always finds itself trapped within a shell that constitutes its presuppositions, whether ecological or in terms of non-commodified life practices (non-remunerated childcare, education, etc.). Capital constantly strives to escape this entrapment, to overcome the barriers that constitute it and, through this, to preserve and reproduce itself through perpetual growth.

For capital to now reconcile itself to the commons in order to overcome barriers to its own development, it has to strategically (driven by peoples’ economic and political calculus) intervene and actively participate in the constitution of things shared. In other words, the forces of capital must participate in the constitution of the commons. And this is where capital’s troubles, and everybody else’s, begin.

Let’s take an example. That capital has to engage with the realm of the shared, the non-commodified, is demonstrated by the fact that even the capitalist factory – the paradigmatic site of exploitation, struggle and the imposition of capital’s measure – is a form of common. Those individuals who go to work there have to be recombined with one another and with elements of nature in order for commodity production to occur. Here we encounter three elements that are constituent of any commons. First, a pooling of resources: workers do not need to engage in commodity exchanges with one another when accessing tools and information. Second, the social cooperation of labour: at the assembly line, each worker’s labour depends on the actions of the one before her. Third, a ‘community’ that creates rules and regulations and defines those of entry and exit: factory gates don’t just open for anyone, and not every kind of behaviour is allowed within them. But we also know that these three constituent features of any commons – pooled resources, social cooperation of labour and community – apply to the capitalist factory in very specific, ‘distorted’ ways. The fact that resource-pooling and the social cooperation of labour are functional to the production of commodities implies the subordination of other aspects crucial for human reproduction (dignity, solidarity, ecological sustainability, happiness) to one ultimate aim: the accumulation of capital.

Reclaiming commons

So what about the problem of climate change? Changes in climate patterns are certainly going to impact on people across the globe, although these impacts are to a large extent graded by power and monetary affluence. In this sense, climate change transforms the pool of resources available to humanity to go about its social reproduction. For example, there will be less land available as sea-levels rise: communities in Bangladesh will be destroyed. As a result, climate change brings with it the need to change the social cooperation of labour at the general, planetary level, and also the modalities of labour in particular places. This because its currently highly destructive effects will have to be curbed, and because the resources (e.g. energy) that enable the contemporary organisation of labour might become scarce. Whether this will be an adaptation to the effects of climate change based on our dependency on capitalist loops, or whether we disentangle our reproduction from these loops and constitute our social cooperation on a new common basis, is a question that will be resolved on the open terrain of struggle. And, following on from this, climate change reveals the problem of what constitutes a ‘global community’, of who speaks for it, who decides for it. Will it be governments promoting green technologies and economic growth? Or will it rather be social movements demanding that planetary ecological sustainability be achieved through re-distributive justice, food sovereignty and grassroots empowerment?

The capitalist factory and many solutions to global climate change – although rather different examples – need to be understood in terms of distorted commons. Distorted because of the obvious problems generated by capital’s drive towards self-preservation in constituting the underlying commons (cooperation in the factory and the biosphere), and the resulting social injustice. But they are commons nevertheless, because despite their distortions they are the product and presupposition of our doing and being in common. Recognising them as commons is crucial, because it constitutes a declaration of common ownership, hence of stewardship, responsibility and personal, as well as communal, ‘investment’. It is a first step towards reclaiming them. Critically, this practice of reclaiming is complicated by the fact that we reproduce our lives through many distorted and ‘non-distorted’ commons simultaneously. Which is where we return to common interests: we need to do more than simply postulate them – we need to construct them in struggle.

Massimo De Angelis is Professor of Political Economy at the University of East London. He is author, most recently, of The Beginning of History: Value Struggles and Global Capital, and editor of The Commoner web journal.

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