Commons-based Society as a Thought Experiment

In preparation of the Commons Economics Conference which will be held in Berlin on May 22-24, there have been three „Deep Dive Workshops“ around the world (Bangkok, Mexico City, Paris). I had the opportunity to participate in the European Meeting in Pontoise near Paris. David Bollier generously wrote an interpretative summary based on notes from a pirate pad, which was collectively used by the participants. In his blog he published some excerpts from the lengthy paper which seem interesting to him. During the workshop I did a Though Experiment on how a commons-based society could function. Here is the respective part taken from the summery:

Stefan Meretz’s Thought Experiment

Stefan Meretz presented his vision of how a commons-based society could function with a very different logic and values than that of the capitalist market economy. He said that this vision seeks to fulfill a Hegelian expression, aufheben, which has three separate ideas wrapped into one: the idea of abolishing the existence of something, preserving it, and taking it to a new level. In the same vein, Meretz’s idea consists of “something that needs to be removed; something that needs to be re-arranged; and something that needs to be taken to a new level.”

Capitalism posits that the most elementary form of mediating social relations is the commodity. It is considered the primary means for producing our livelihoods. The commons-based economy instead regards the commons as the most important social form for producing our livelihoods. “What the commodity is for capitalism, the commons is for a free society,” said Meretz.

How do the commons and commodity differ? First, in a commons, production and consumption are not separated from each other. Second, and more important, the producers themselves are not separated from each other, while in capitalism they are. Capitalism’s producers always have to speculate about future demand in order to assure that their products will be sold. These producers must always transform commodities into money in order to buy other commodities that fill their needs. This is an indirect way of satisfying needs – so there is always an uncertainty about whether our needs can and will be satisfied after production, via the market.

In a capitalist order, needs only exist as market demands. Lots of other needs exist beyond a given product or market transaction, of course, but they have no standing without monetary “demand.” Therefore, in the capitalist system, there are many externalities that are produced in the process of trying to make profits from invested money. Because of this logic, a “negative reciprocity” between people is dominant, especially between sellers and buyers, and among producers as competitors.

By contrast, in a commons, people’s needs are central and come first. A broad variety of needs exist, which means that you have to mediate and prioritize among many different, sometimes-conflicting needs. The solution is not to produce first and query about actual needs later. This is not only inefficient but environmentally wasteful. The goal is to take the needs of all commoners into account in the first place, and then to choose among many creative solutions that meet problems while avoiding externalities.

In a commons-based society, old notions of labor do not apply because spheres of work, leisure, etc. are not segregated, but integrated. Moreover, the point is to meet everyone’s needs and shared goals, not compete in meeting private, conflicting goals. There is thus a “positive reciprocity” among people. Or as Marx put it, “The development of the individual requires thedevelopment of all.” This is the commons. The challenge is to find a way to scale this inclusivist logic.

Since no single commons could serve everyone’s personal needs, people in a commons-based society would participate in many different commons. They are not on the same “horizontal” level, but nested in each other, at many different levels. Today’s “division of labor” would be a “division of activity” among different commons. In the triple meaning of aufheben, some activities (previously done through commodified-labor) would no longer be done because they are not necessary, or a waste. Other activities would be maintained, and many other activities would be increased or added, especially those which have to do with repairing the global damages of capitalism.

A commons-based society can promise better lives because the wasteful aspects of running a monetary sphere would be unnecessary. There would no longer be a need to navigate the division between paid and unpaid, or productive and reproductive labor. Instead, we would simply live. Our lives would be more integrated. The more urgent question would be, How can human and commons-based productivity go to the places where they are needed? New technologies, especially the Internet can mediate these issues through better social communication. Freed from market imperatives, people would have plenty of time to deal with really important questions.

Meretz argued that we should try to eliminate money as a driving force behind commodity production and profit. This is not possible today, because money is still needed. But we should try to de-couple the external logic of money from the internal logic of commons. This means de-coupling giving from taking (exchange), and enabling a positive reciprocity via social inclusion and trust.

As a working example, Meretz cited CSAs [community supported agriculture] and, in particular, the Garden Cooperative Freiburg. Instead of selling its produce – which means that poorer people still have to pay the same amount as rich people – a CSA could host a bidding process to raise the sums needed to meet costs. If costs are not met, a second round would be held. Once the necessary revenues are raised, then production takes place. Many necessary contributions can be performed as in-kind services by cooperative members themselves (e.g. transportation using “cargo-bikes”). In de-coupling exchange from market principles, users who were at first too shy to take the vegetables that they really needed, could take more. Meretz: “We have to unlearn habits that regard giving and taking as a calculation, and learn how to act from our needs. We have to learn how to ‘undo capitalism’ as it has been internalized.

Two objections were raised to Meretz’s scenario for a commons-based society: First, that it would not be feasible in practice to reach a consensus about all the problems the society faces and therefore which needs to address first (before production); and second, the temptation or likelihood that the society would entrust expert-technicians with the authority to solve the complicated problems.

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