The Concept of ‘The Common’

For some years, transform! europe is promoting a research project, networking and exchange of experiences on common goods and proposing a discussion on the political level. A working group meeting was held at the summer uni of EL and transform! in Vienna. Read the result of the discussion, which, hopefully, can open a wider debate and participation

Having begun in the 80s, the destruction of the European historic compromise passed between capital and the labour movement at the end of the 2nd World War has now been completed. Obtained by class struggle, its main achievements were healthcare and education systems for all, the formulation of new rights for employees including paid holidays and pension rights, plus across-the-board public services with the state supposedly acting as safe-keeper of the compromise. This very state being also supposed to represent us (democracy by delegation).

The historic compromise has gradually lost ground in the context of financialised capitalism. In this new phase of capitalism, the state is no longer the protector of the populations but the protector of capital and of its financial interests, with no possible margin of compromise with the people. The 20th century European trade unions and political parties were shaped by the class compromise in the West and by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and its implied model; the model was totally discredited in the 80s (fall of Berlin Wall in 89).

With the coming new era of capitalism and the collapse of the communist alternative, the social-democratic model found itself unable to maneuver and to offer reforms. It was thus totally absorbed by social liberalism. Entirely controlled by financialised capitalism, the economy now runs counter to the demands and needs of the people. This new configuration of the balance of power between capitalism and the working classes is generating the political crisis as a whole and, within this crisis, the crisis of the left of transformation. These upheavals also tend to reinforce the extreme populist and xenophobic movements throughout Europe.

Confronted by this profound crisis of the left of transformation, how can we find ways to get out of the deadlock?

The first major challenge is to put together a project that speaks to everyone. While we have many interesting proposals, they do not make sense for the majority of the population. When we talk about communism or even socialism, we are not understood. Even if we know that communism is not what has been practiced in the Eastern European countries, the word has become synonymous in the eyes of the majority with a certain level of equality, but especially with a total lack of freedom. If we use the word socialism, it is also tainted by the betrayal of the social democrats, unable to sustain their social and reforming mindset, and instead sliding increasingly towards social liberalism.

Confronted by this situation, our duty is to intervene without betraying our values ​​of solidarity, fairness, justice and also ecology.

It is clear that when we speak of ‘the Common’, it sounds like a positive value, with no reference to the historical failure of the Left. It is immediately perceived, especially by young people, as being in-tune with their solidarity and democratic ideal. Of course, we often hear of common goods, of the shared goods of humanity, of ‘communes’. All these types could indeed be related to or part of the concept of ‘the Common’.

But what does this concept of the ‘the Common’ mean? It is actually derived from two key notions:

First of all, let us state that there is no such thing as a common in itself or as a natural common; ‘commoning’ is a process elaborated between humans for the purpose of creating a social entity either in the field of production (cooperative enterprise) or in the field of reproduction (education, health, etc.) or in the political field (communes, for example). The human group thus constituted decides together the purpose of the ‘common’ (objective, means of horizontal democratic operation).

Why do we say that there is no such thing as a common in itself?

Let us consider the example of water, often described as a "natural" common good. In fact, flowing water, if not accompanied by a social process to carry it to the users (pipes, faucets) is not a common. What makes it a common is the social construction decided together by human groups to provide access to water for all. It only becomes a common when the groups have defined the social process that will provide transport and use of the water. The common is therefore the social process by which human beings decide to do something together.

Second, let us pay attention to a very important feature of the common. ‘Commonality’ is determined by the right of use. Society decides how this right is to be applied. This definition is in conflict with the current constitutional law used in government which is based on the ‘right of ownership’. Thus, the common, governed by the right of use is a subversive entity since it proposes to build a society that will replace the right of ownership by the right of use. That is also why it is a constitutive element of the class struggle; the common is not an ecumenical concept but a concept that provides a way to build a society based on social activities and not on the appropriation of things. The society of the commons is a society without capitalist ownership.

Possible pitfalls of the commons

We must be vigilant as some speak of common goods with the idea of reserving certain fields for the common (water, air, education) and leaving the rest for commodification. This looks like a new compromise with capital and we all end up as losers in the end. Capitalism eventually takes over all the socialised fields from which it can derive a profit and reduces the state to its regal functions. Thus, if we accept the theory of the ‘common goods’ it means that we are ready to agree with capital on a new compromise. If we want ‘the Common’ to be a project of alternative transformation our objective must be precisely to steer society toward developing commons that will no longer be managed on the basis of private property but on the basis of the right of use.

We already have experience in the production of commons:

Production cooperatives, struggle against the high-speed train line in the Italian Alps, against the pipeline that was supposed to cross all of Canada, as well as against the airport of Notre Dame des Landes in France … Even though these struggles are very different they have similarities in terms of action: they are movements against major projects destroying the ecosystem and against the maximised profit made by capital in their realisation. These movements unite the impacted populations: indigenous people, ordinary people, environmental activists, farmers, local authorities …  At the same time, we see in those movements of resistance the will to create alternative collective models based on commoning. Confronted by very strong resistance the "public authorities”, the states are often forced to back down and withdraw their projects. In parallel, they are also constantly striving to erase these collective experiences in the name of restoring the "rule of law" which is nothing other than the restoration of "the right of capitalist property". In its entire history capitalism has sought to remove all traces of a possible future society based on the common. These examples are testimony to the scope and to the proven results achieved when this concept of the common is put into practice. It is a concept related to both the class struggle (oppressed, oppressors) and to the experimental production of alternatives on behalf of a new left project.

However, if we do not want the Common to be marginalised and nibbled away, or appropriated by financial capitalism, we must apply it to the whole of society.

Some essential issues must be considered:

First we must rethink the state not as a supreme entity above the citizenry, but as a body emanating from the various decisions taken by the Commons (social commons, productive commons ….). This means a state emanating from collective work and not one dominating the citizens. In this battle for a new type of state the question of public services is essential. All public services must become institutions of the Common. Let us be clear that this not about ending public services and replacing them by commons. It is a matter of democratising public services so that they emanate from the social needs of the citizenry and of making sure they cannot be privatised. They must become part-and-parcel of the Common and be run on the foundation of the right of use. In short, a totally democratised public service is a common.

Second, we must consider the struggle for economic democracy in large companies, making sure that:

a) Employees and users of the products have control of the company, thus replacing the shareholders.

b) The question of the finality of work is placed at the center of the company (what do we produce, for whom, for what environment?).

c) The relocation of production is set-up, allowing for a simplified and more rapid understanding of the economy and of the issue of property.

Third, we must end the dichotomy between social and political life on the one hand and economic life on the other: the struggles of employees for a reduction in working time, a job for all, equal pay for men and women, and a revaluation of reproduction jobs as compared to production employment will be likely contributors. Local authorities and other local entities must be the spearheads of this new economic and socialised democracy. The commune, because of its proximity, could be the basis of the unified political common. All issues of productive relocations can contribute to a system harmonising economic and social needs.

These are a few ideas to think about to make the concept of the Common operational.

To conclude, I would be tempted to say that, at the time of the 20th century communist bloc, and under the influence of the left-wing parties, we saw the birth of a collective counter-culture in rupture with capitalist common sense and the prevailing imaginary. This was achieved via cultural and sport associations, popular education, allotment gardens, and a local press. This counter-culture gave a positive and daily content to the class struggle that was both local and open to international exchanges.

Thus, what is emerging today is the birth of another counterculture that is centered on the Common. It is more polymorphic than the older working-class culture, but is equally important in terms of power and continuity. This is our task, and it has already been started some in our societies; we must support it and devote ourselves to it if we want to develop an alternative progressive project.