By Derek Wall
27 August, 2012
Capitalism has failed. Leaving the care of
society to the market has led to massive inequality, climate chaos and
financial crisis. The system is indeed one of zombie economics, the doctrine
is dead but the beast still walks amongst us. It reminds me of the cartoons
where Bugs Bunny runs over the edge of the cliff but, not noticing that he
has done so, continues to march on air until realization strikes and the
silly rabbit plummets to the ground.
However while capitalism is in
crisis, alternatives are not obvious to all. The binary choice has been
market versus state. If you have more market you have less state or vice
versa. State provision of goods and services seems innately problematic. A
central plan reduces choice, fails to promote creativity and may be vastly
inefficient. When markets fail, neoliberals can point to the failures of a
soviet style economy to justify the continuation of a system of supply and
There are number of objections that can be made to this.
Fredriedrich Hayek argued, seemingly convincingly, that planners would lack
the information necessary for effective planning. Yet markets increasingly
provide perverse signals and transmit false information. Think of the way
that marketisation has led to commodification of services such as education
and housing. Markets lead to speculation and speculation leads to
catastrophe. Planning is problematic and imperfect, but marketisation
gradually infects an economy with chaos.
Planning can be made
democratic by measures such participatory budgeting. Likewise the National
Health Service is an excellent example of state planned economic activity
that works, although to work better the pharmaceutical companies that make
medicine so expensive and the corporations that spend �ms marketing junk
food would need tackling.
However what is emerging fast is the
alternative of a commons based economy. Peer to peer, social sharing,
collaborative consumption, commons, economic democracy are all terms that
cover economic activity that moves beyond the market and the state, based on
cooperation and harnessing human creativity.
The economics of sharing
is essential to overcome climate change and other environmental ills. If we
can share goods we can reduce our impact on the environment while getting
access to the things we need. Car pools might be seen as a good example and
there is a role for state provision of shared resources � good public
transport is an example. Boris bikes are a good example of social sharing,
we don't privately own the bikes, its just a shame that the bikes taunt us
with Barclays label and only extend to Central London.
economy moves us beyond commodification. Goods are produced because they are
useful and/or beautiful not just to generate cash. An economy of free can
evolve, capitalism to some extent generates artificial scarcity, keeping us
insecure to get us working and consuming.
Commons economies are based
on the principle of usufruct. This is the concept that we can use something
as long as we leave it in a good or improved state for others. Its the key
principle to my mind of effective green politics and socialism. Indeed Marx
observed in Capital, Volume III:
"Even an entire society, a nation,
or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners
of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to
bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres
familias [good heads of the household]."
I don't think utopia or
blueprints are helpful and we don't have to answer every question about the
practicalities. We must recognise that capitalism has failed and struggle
practically and intellectually for an alternative. Its not a matter of
imposing a social sharing economy but of fighting commodification. The
corporate world is keen to enclose the commons of cyber space, fighting
legislation such as ACTA and SOPA is essential. The battle to re-legalise
squatting is another example. Housing in the UK is obscenely commodified, in
the USA there are more empty homes than homeless people. Leaving buildings
empty as investment chips should be a crime, homeless people showing
creativity and using space should be celebrated.
To me the key moment
of class struggle is the struggle over property rights. Those who want an
economy that works should focus on property rights. The banking collapse has
lead to debt and debt to austerity. The agenda is to use debt to privatise
more of the economy so education, health care, water provision are owned by
distant owners and swopped around to make profit. A commons based economy
puts these and other resources into the hands of local people to manage not
for short term greed and the whims of bond markets but for long term need.
Politics is essentially about property rights and the often invisible
battles must be made visible and won.
There is an intellectual task
to show that commons, perhaps termed communism, or democratic ownership of
society by communities, works. The two towering figures here are Marx and
Elinor Ostrom. In many ways they are polar opposites. The late great Elinor
Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for her work showing the common pool property was
an effective way of managing natural resources. She came from a liberal
background and her work is very much about micro economics. Her work was
based on detailed studies showing how an economy based on cooperation can be
created. I would highly recommend both her Governing the Commons and her
final book writing with Amy Potteete and Marco Jannssen `Working Together'.
Marx was, well, Marx! One of his earliest pieces of writing dealt with
the removal of commons rights to German peasants � it became illegal for
them to pick up fallen wood from forests. In Chapter 27 of Capital One he
showed how the English commons had been stolen and enclosed by an elite. His
ethnographic notebooks where he focused on indigenous commons were
astonishing. For Marx the rational creative society is a self-owned one
based on democratic control i.e the recreation of the commons. The working
class can through revolutionary action transcend capitalism and create a
communist society. Its about commons for Marx not top down bureaucracy.
Both Marx and Ostrom were true political ecologists, keen to show how
the wrong kind of human institutions and practices destroyed the
environment. Ostrom's work is cautious, pluralistic and rejects panaceas,
while celebrating the commons, she does not reject the market or forms of
state action. However her work does explore the micro foundations of a non
monetary economics, something most economists would find unthinkable! While
a far from easy read, `Working Together' has astonishing implications. She
spent decades building a more nuanced and creative way of thinking about
human economic behaviour, revolutionary stuff indeed.
practically and intellectually has to be about rolling back commodification
and regrowing a gift economy. Commons economies don't abolish injustice or
guarantee sustainability but we can do better than being slaves to an
economy which marches to the beat of the bond markets. Whether Syriza in
Greece, the work of ecosocialists, the experiments of workers control and
solidarity economies in Latin America or a thousand other examples
alternatives to a bought and sold world are emerging.
Derek Wall is
former Principal Speaker of the Green Party of England and Wales. He is a
founder member of Green Left and the Ecosocialist International, his books
include the No Nonsense Guide to Green Politics
Derek Wall � Prosperity without growth, economics after capitalism