The commons as a strategic perspective for social movements

This is a translation of a german article. Hier gibt es den Artikel in deutsch.

The power of social movements lies in their heterogeneity. Because of it, they achieve longer lasting and more fundamental change than other societal actors. But it makes them confusing, too. In addition to fighting for change, they are subject to fights themselves. From parties over NGOs to trade unions and churches, they all fight to play a role in social movements.

social_movements_todayWe can somewhat order this chaos by looking at the relation between worldviews, strategies and tactics of the players involved. Most often strategies are employed which match the respective worldview. For example, the social democratic strategy of seizing state power and softening the impertinences of capitalism is expression of a socialistic worldview; the strategy of demanding value based decisions is based on a conservative worldview, etc. Here, the respective notion of societal change becomes visible as well. Experience shows that communication between actors that have different worldviews is almost impossible. Across strategic borders understanding is difficult. This is one of the reasons why communication within social movements often is so exhausting.

Societal change works (in my worldview) through a dialectical relation between theory and practice, which are mutually dependent. You cannot develop a theory about the world and how it should be and then deduce a practice from this. On the other hand, theory has to continually incorporate the experiences from practice. Permanent communication between practitioners and theoreticians is necessary to change society (the union of both in one person is desirable but seldom the case). Furthermore, change should encompass at least in principle the  whole of society instead of only being enacted in niches. The multiple crises of today show that this all-encompassing change is needed.

Now, I could now work towards the goal that everyone joins my worldview and strategy of change (which is: expansion of commons based peer production). And this will surely be necessary in the long run. However, as experience shows, this could only happen very slowly, because worldviews are deeply anchored in the individuals‘ manifold experiences. A person who has have never experienced that self-organization and self-regulation works will have problems grasping these concepts (and will in turn hardly be able to experience that these concepts work). For this reason the heterogeneity of social movements is essential for medium term results. And medium term results are desperately needed in times of multiple crises.

Unfortunately, social movements in their conventional form have a grave disadvantage: Because of their internal diversity it is very hard for them to come to a common denominator – even in tactical questions. For example, right now because of different worldviews and strategies it is almost impossible to formulate a common answer to the financial crises: For liberals the financial crisis is a sign for too little market and for social democrats a sign for too little state. In the end, the common denominator between these world views became: „We don’t pay for your crisis!“ (german) – which is not completely wrong but somewhat helpless.

But there is another even more serious problem, which I will tentatively call „the strategic barrier“. Experiences of social movements will be interpreted very differently in terms of theory depending on this structure. Theoretical classification can only happen at a strategic level. This is because I can only apprehend practices theoretically in relation to a formulated strategy. And I can only correct or discard a strategy in light of a practical experiences. For this reason, differences in strategies are a serious problem for the dialectics of theory and practice. Difference is desirable on the level of woldviews, but they pose serious problems on the strategic level.

How could we possibly avoid this dilemma? I propose to seek an agreement at the strategic level in spite of different worldviews. For that we would need a strategic platform with the following characteristics:

* it allows to keep different worldviews,
* it can in principle be used in the whole of society,
* it allows application through many existing social movements and room for new ones,
* it allows the search for answers to the multiple crises of our time,
* it allows common reflection of different practices,
* … and enables therefore a common theory-practice-process within all kinds of movements and worldviews.

social_movements_commonsImpossible? Surprisingly, it is not. In my opinion, the commons approach, which we have discussed here repeatedly, meets all these demands. Conservatives like that it is conserving and community-oriented, liberals like its distance to the state and that it is not completely incompatible with market economies, anarchists like its focus on self-organisation, and socialists and communists embrace that it promises to control property commonly. The applicability of commons theory reaches to nearly all kinds of contemporary movements and commons play a fundamental role in all crises of today. Finally, there exists a multitude of theories around the commons, so we do not have to start from scratch.

It is not essential that every single activist in every social movement can live with this platform. More important is achieve support for it through a critical mass of movements with as many different worldviews as possible. If this is accomplished, a new dynamic in the medium and long term unfolds due to productive relations between theory and practice. Commons-based movements also mix well with traditional multi-strategic movements.

I do not mean to implement a new ruling agenda or „party line“ for social movements, which only would produce new exclusions. It is just meant to give social movements new strategic options and to enable better exchanges between theory and practice.

To succeed it will hardly be enough to just abstractly acknowledge that what was proposed here is a good thing and then to implement it. A commons-strategy can only work if it has convincing answers to the antagonisms of our time. It has these answers because of two reasons:

  1. The commons are more threatened than ever. In my opinion this is because of the hegemonic crisis (german) of capitalism. It cannot realize enough value any longer and is therefore thrown back to primitive accumulation.
  2. The commons are more powerful than ever. This is because of structural changes within the public sphere (german), which is more and more organized around commons principles and is more and more dependent on working commons.

For this reason it is not only necessary to move the strategic barrier, but also possible. This does not remove all differences of worldviews in social movements, but it makes longer lasting and more comprehensive cooperation possible without ignoring still existing barriers of different worldviews.

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