Why we need the commons

My wife and I recently got chatting to a group of three 19-year olds in the garden of the Golden Fleece. After the initial pleasantries, things got deep quite quickly. One of them said that they’d decided not to have children, because there were horrors on the way that they didn’t think it fair to expose people to without their consent. The other two agreed. I asked if they were unusual, and they said that most young people feel that way. After chatting with several young people since then, sure enough, they said similar things (maybe it’s the circles I move in?).

What a horrific situation for the young to find themselves in, through no fault of their own. Sure, their concerns don’t exactly represent rigorous science, but just the fact that young people are fearful enough of what’s coming to decide not to breed is worrying enough in itself.

What kind of change is (and isn’t) required?

In 2023 I’d like to see a move towards a new system, rather than futile attempts to ‘fix’ capitalism. I don’t think it’s necessary to to try to persuade the majority of people about this. There are enough of us already to kick-start the necessary change. I’d like to talk about some new ideas that are emerging for building this new system – the commons economy.

There are those who believe that we don’t need change at all. We just need more GDP growth, to generate the money to develop new tech that will lead us to a techno-utopian nirvana. I’m not trying to reach those people. They’re unreachable and solidly part of the problem.

Then there are those who believe that the only route to change is via the state. They honestly can’t see any other way, and seem to have a blind spot when it comes to state failures to date. I guess as COP numbers get bigger, this group might shrink. But currently, it’s huge. I don’t want to oppose / try to persuade this group, because a) some legislation might help the development of the commons, and b) many of them will see the benefits of the commons, and become involved. This group I’d rather invite in than try to persuade or fall out with.

Third, there are those who advocate violent revolution. After the horrors of the 20th century, this is a shrinking band, but in the face of apparently intractable climate change and biodiversity loss, there’s a risk that more young people will turn to thoughts of violent overthrow in despair at the lack of alternatives. At the end of the 19th century, Bakunin pointed out that if violent men seize power, they’ll never redistribute it, and therefore violent revolution is a route to totalitarianism, not a better society. Now, this group I want to persuade that Bakunin was absolutely right, and that now we have a viable alternative.

Let me take a couple of minutes to enlarge on this, before focusing on the alternative.

Commons vs Communism

The Communist Manifesto was a mistake, IMO. Marx and Engels saw a problem – that power was concentrated in too few hands, belonging to people with vested interests, unfit for leadership. Their ideas led to revolutions that introduced new a new kind of system, but unfortunately one that didn’t solve that problem. The new leaders that emerged were, if anything, even less fit for leadership. Over 100 years ago, Marx’s followers were warned of the dangers by anarchist factions in the First International, but Marx’s faction won, and the rest is (bloody) history. Now his experiment is more-or-less over, but power is more concentrated than ever, and we also understand the damage being done to the planet’s biosphere.

Unlike the communist party, the commoners’ movement, on establishing a national or even global commons, would allow perfect freedom not to be a commoner. If someone wants to be self-employed, or to live on a smallholding with their family and become totally self-sufficient, then good luck to them. Similarly, capitalists and wannabee capitalists would be free to offer employment in warehouses, delivery vehicles, sweatshops, telesales booths and supermarket checkouts at minimum wage – but why would anyone want those jobs if the commons provided better ones? And why would anyone want to buy their products and services if the commons offered better quality at lower prices?

Similarly with housing – anyone would be able to acquire mortgage debt to own a property that they have to insure, repair and maintain, and end up repaying almost double the original value of the property, due to interest. But how many would want to do that, in a world where they could be co-owners of commons housing that’s affordable, well-maintained, well-insulated and that provide secure tenancies that could be passed on to their children?

Many books claim to contain the solution to our problems only to disappoint with policy suggestions, that capitalist states are never going to implement. At least Marx and Engels understood this, and bypassed the capitalist state – albeit in a way that resulted in a state that was every bit as bad. The commons movement provides ideas that can, if successful, change the course of human history, without forcing anyone to do anything, with or without the help of the state.

Commons vs Capitalism

At the other end of the political spectrum, there’s an argument from social Darwinists that a commons world is not possible because of human nature – that we’re selfish creatures suited only to a dog-eat-dog economy, and that capitalism is ‘natural’. This was the argument used by those defending feudalism before and during the French Revolution – that a hierarchy with God at the top, then kings, church, nobility, yeomen and serfs, was hard-wired and eternal, forgetting or not understanding that for the vast majority of human history people have lived in tribal groups where all the essentials of life are held in common. There’s nothing ‘natural’ about human nature – it always reflects the conditions in the society of the day. But if there’s anything that we could call a ‘natural’ human condition, then it’s the commons, and we’re all (naturally) commoners.

Here’s an introduction to the concept of commoning, and here’s an overview of the various aspects of a commons economy. 

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