As someone with a capitalist economics education, I look at this from a different perspective, which maybe helpful (try to keep an open mind guys: remember diversity of tactics). Just as with ipads, you can use the tools of the system against it.
An important branch of textbook capitalism, as opposed to the extreme free market crap that is going on now, is perfect market theory, which posits that some goods are well allocated by markets and some markets are not, and gives rules that can be used to determine which are which. (I wrote a research paper a few years ago explaining why health insurance can never be a market good for example). There is also the related field of externalities, which says that some things (like pollution or file sharing) are not reflected in prices. At the moment only the government can step into broken markets and try to make them allocate resources in a smarter way. In the short run, it may be a useful, and more easily explained way to make distinctions between markets that we do not need to mess with and those that need to be regulated or government run. It may be smart to call markets that do not allocate resources in the way that society has decided is necessary (through the democratic process) "the commons." This has roots in economic history but the possibility to evolve into something fairer, and smarter.
Perfect markets are supposed to have:
perfect knowledge by all participants
infinite numbers of sellers
infinite numbers of buyers
zero barriers to entry for sellers or buyers
zero friction of movement of goods
Obviously nothing is perfect (the market for NYC pizza is considered to be a decent approximation), but the point is that when you can find multiple large violations of these principles, you can say that the market is broken, and call for intervention within capitalism. (For example I would call health insurance a "common" because society (at least in the US) has democraticaly decided that everyone should have healthcare, but the market tends to restrict it to fewer and fewer people.) I know the idea of working within capitalism is anathema to some of you, but I feel that transformation of the system is a long and arduous process, and that shortcuts can do more harm than good. If you point out exactly how capitalism doesn't even follow its own rules, then people will be more open to radical changes if necessary.
Shaista, very good questions. I'll try to answer them briefly. There is a vast literature on the commons/common. I think the most complex work is Hardt and Negri's Commonwealth. You can buy it on print or download it for free from aaaaarg.org. The book has its limits, but what doesn't.
A simple definition I am throwing here: The commons is a resource whose mode of disposition and usage is determined by its users, that is, we decide together who has a right to access a commons (not all commons are open access) and in what way (how the commons is to be used and reproduced).
Re: relationship to private property and the state
Capitalist accumulation as you know has been largely built upon the enclosure of common pastures, the privatization of the land, the water, etc. David Harvey calls it "accumulation by dispossession." This means that the commons stand in radical opposition to private property and the state apparatus whose primary function is to defend the rights of property owners.
As Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis have shown, living labor is also a common resource that capital needs to privatize in order to have an exploitable workforce reservoir at its disposal. When workers can rely on common resources (such as those provided by a social movement, common lands, etc) they do not need to rely on the wage in order to reproduce themselves. --> The more we expand the commons the less we need to rely on wages in order to satisfy our needs and reproduce ourselves.
Are there example of existing commons? Absolutely: workers and consumers' cooperatives (such as farmers coops or the Park Slope Food Coop) are examples of commons. Linux and Wikipedia are commons. The Maine fisheries are or were managed as commons. (See the work of Elinor Olstrom on Common Pool Resources). Not all these commons are managed in a democratic way and they should not be idealized, but in the examples I made resources are collectively managed.
The problem is that commons don't go far enough, i.e. they touch upon only few segments of the production and distribution chain, and are thus integrated by capitalism as "exceptions" that can be even useful for capitalist innovation.
A few questions for the movement:
-- If the movement learns to reproduce itself as a commons, what are the strategic resources we need to take over in order to make this process durable and sustainable? Can for example the Food Committee strike a long-term agreement with CSAs?
-- How can we rely on a communication infrastructure that is actually managed in common? Can we strike a durable alliance with the Open Source Community? (I can't believe we are still having this conversation on a corporate listserv!).
-- If we declare that ground water should be always treated as a commons, how do we strike a durable alliance with the anti-fracking movement? And what can we learn from the indigenous communities that have been managing water as a commons for many many centuries?
--If we declare that energy production should be tread as a commons, how do we work with those who have been working on this issue for quite a while (e.g. 350.org)?
--If we think that education should not be treated primarily as a commodity but as a commons how do we link the campaign to cancel student debt to the struggle to defend public education? Is it possible to think of a widely decentralized system of education that is free of charge, whose physical infrastructure is managed by the state but whose cultural production is managed as a commons?
There is so much work to do, but I think it is totally worth to try and take the long view. If not now, when?
On 10/18/11 10:57 AM, shaista husain wrote:
Snafu we love you too--
my utopian self weeps in joy at this idea of the "commons" but my pragmatic side needs elaboration (there is no military, no judiciary, not even "leadership" held up for accountability--how do we define this commons What is the base of this commons--is it only for exchange--and what is its relations to the state apparatus--market and private property etc..etc etc. etc.
Are there any documents i can read that defines this commons you are speaking about?
On Tue, Oct 18, 2011 at 10:44 AM, Snafu <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I am changing the subject of this thread to split it from the discussion on cooptation, otherwise it is too messy.
Andy, I am in total agreement. I think the positions on this listserv are closer than we think. However, the Demands Committee met on Monday and I think it agreed to pass as a first demand a "National Jobs Program with direct government employment." I had to leave at a certain point but it seems to me that this point has been approved, am I right?
Using similar arguments I have been using in this discussion, I explained why I disagreed with a neo-Keynesian approach. A demand of this kind has two major flaws imho:
1. It keeps laying the emphasis on labor and quantitative growth, downplaying the environmental crisis and the limitedness of natural resources. Let's not forget that capitalism cannot grow without living labor so labor under capitalism is part of the problem (as much as of the solution).
2. It centralizes this growth by expanding the reach and power of the federal government.
This means that internally this demand will meet the opposition of the environmental, anarchist, and libertarian wings of this movement.
Rearticulating a program of demands by rooting it in a strategic vision of a society built upon the commons-- a society concerned with "reproduction" and "repair" rather than growth and expansion--will allow us to keep many of these differences together.
It will take time to articulate this program in a realistic way, but I think it is worth giving it a try.
Love you all,
On 10/18/11 8:15 AM, email@example.com
I think snafu's very crucial points can be made to fit a program of demands.
While we certainly need many new jobs for much needed infrastructure, what we need far more are more service jobs: teachers, childcare workers, homecare workers, paid maternity/paternity and care for the elderly leave, etc., etc. Even -- or rather especially -- a new Civilian Conservation Corps to repair the environment. AND paid cultural workers.
Capitalism, because of its crisis of profitability, can't make a buck in making things. So the money got funneled into speculative (financial) investments. One reason it can't make a buck is we're TOO productive: too many factories turning out too many things chasing the same underpaid consumers. Ergo, crisis and trillions traded every day at the punch of a button with no productive result.
But that's not our problem. We say, Jobs for ALL! And if you claim you don't have the money, let us see your (electronic) accounting books. And WE'LL decide how to allocate that money to pay for the jobs listed above at union wages and benefits.
(Notice that nowhere in the above do I pander to the "end the Fed" right-wing libertarian demagogy. Or the liberal "revive Glass-Steagall" fantasy.)
---------- Original Message ----------
From: Doug Singsen <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: [september17discuss] MoveOn Execs Now Official Spokespeople For OWS, According to MSM Execs
Date: Mon, 17 Oct 2011 20:58:23 -0400
I've said this before on this list, but it's an error to assume that reforms act as brakes on movements. Often, reforms only increase the militancy of movements. The passage of civil rights legislation in the mid-sixties didn't lead to the demobilization of the civil rights movement. The legislation basically granted all of the reforms that the movement had previously demanded, but that didn't mean that it was over or out of steam. Instead, it actually escalated, transitioning into the Black Power movement. When the demands of the civil rights movement were met, the movement didn't stop, it just led to the realization that the needs the movement was trying to address actually went much deeper than just formal legal equality, but actually encompassed material inequality and structural racism and power relations, which the movement then went on to challenge.
In Egypt, Mubarak and then the army repeatedly made concessions to the movement, but that did not stop it from continuing either. (It's still very much ongoing, although you wouldn't know it from the MSM.) When FDR passed the Wagner Act, that didn't calm the labor movement down, it set off a massive wave of strikes, occupations and insurrections. And so on and so on.
A lot of people at OWS have said that we shouldn't have demands because if they grant our demands, we won't be able to continue the movement. This has always struck me as incredibly silly. Demands are not set in stone. There is no rule that says that you can only come up with demands once, and that you can never raise more demands later. That's not how movements work and never has been.
On Mon, Oct 17, 2011 at 4:05 PM, Snafu <email@example.com>
Right, but I do not want to have a new New Deal. Even admitting that this would be feasible nowadays, in the 1930s they did not face the massive ecological crisis we are facing today. If we keep laying the emphasis on creating "good jobs" or sustainable capitalism we keep missing the point--i.e. that capitalism proved to be an unsustainable system and it will make human life impossible on this planet in the matter of few decades. *Capitalism is the crisis* so it is time to take the bull by the horns, rather than trying to patch it up once again.
Shaista, you ask, what is to be done. My suggestion is why don't we begin to think of water, food, energy, health care, education, the communication infrastructure, and transportation as commons? The commons is a *limited* resource that can be managed beginning from the local level according to rules that have to be determined by the community of its users. It takes nature and creative production as departure points (rather than just the latter) and moves from there all the way up.
If we assume that water is a commons, the question is why is it privatized? And what is to be done so as to make it common again? The same could be asked of education and health care.
In this context demands acquire a tactical significance. We demand to reinstate Glass-Steagall to demonstrate that they cannot reinstate it without bankrupting the banks that are gambling our money on the stock market. We demand a living wage or a universal income (rather than a national jobs program) to make the case that everyone has a right to have a decent life regardless of his/her productivity. Once you begin taking care of these common resources from below, labor acquires a new significance, it becomes an activity that is detached from the wage and becomes attached to tasks that are socially necessary in order to reproduce society and the commons.
On 10/17/11 3:24 PM, Doug Singsen wrote:
I basically agree with Aaron's formulation, except that I would add that financial power and state power are both structures of capitalist power. They are not two rival forces, they are heavily coordinated with each other and serve the same ultimate ends, yet at the same time there is a nominal and structural separation between the two. Finance capital is the dominant form of capital today, but that does not mean that states are irrelevant. States perform all kinds of functions (military, economic, social, political) that finance capital and capital as a whole do not and can not perform directly and which they desperately need, now more than ever. States may not be able to contain the economic crisis, but neither can any other power center, including finance capital. This crisis escaped anyone's control from the moment it began. The appearance of control was restored for a few years, but the crisis was just festering under the surface until it exploded again.
While the state ultimately serves the interests of capital, which effectively means the interests of finance capital since that is the strongest sector of capital today, in order for the state to perform its functions in the service of capital, it must maintain both the illusion of autonomy (which is now cracking) and at least a small sliver of real autonomy. If the state were seen to be totally in the service of capital, if it was seen as having absolutely no possibility of reform or action outside of finance capital, it would no longer be able to pacify people and keep them plugged into the system. That illusion is beginning to break down today, but we are still at the very beginning of that process. Most people still believe the state is capable of granting reforms in the interests of the majority of people. And there is actually some truth to this. In periods of extreme social upheaval, the state can act to rein in the most egregious forms of capitalist exploitation, in order to prevent even further upheavals from occurring. In fact, this is how all major reforms under capitalism happen. This is how we got the New Deal and civil rights for African-Americans. This is one of the state's key functions, and it requires that states be able to separate their interests at least temporarily from their capitalist masters.
On Mon, Oct 17, 2011 at 10:44 AM, Aaron Gemmill <firstname.lastname@example.org>
in general i don't think you can peg one as subordinate to the other (tho i don't know of any banks with aircraft carriers). financial power is an instrument of state power and vice versa.�
Doug, on the question of national debt and economic growth, state power is clearly subordinated to financial power. It is the markets that decide whether it is safe to invest in state bonds or in any other financial asset in a given country. National governments and central banks have now the primary function of reassuring the markets by slashing the debt, propping up the banks (which increases in turn the debt exposure) or through quantitative easing. The mass of circulating financial assets is roughly 10 fold the global GDP. In 2010, the US GDP was estimated at $14.7 trillions whereas US financial assets at $131 trillions. It is financial capital that leads the game and it should be the primary target of this movement. You are right, Standard&Poor is a corporation. But it expresses the "collective interests" of financial capital, which needs to have arbiters that (pretend) to set the rules of the game. In this respect, it is a new form of sovereign power. The downgrading of the US debt was the first time in history in which you saw an entire political class having to justify itself before a financial institution.
(The alter-globalization movement did not ebb in Europe and other countries right after September 11, but much later--i.e. around 2005, when activists begun getting tired of chasing G8 summits. The European Social Forum in Florence was attended by 1 million people in 2003).
On 10/16/11 10:47 PM, Doug Singsen wrote:
But rating agencies and all the other players in the financial industry are themselves corporations, so they are part of the system that is described under the rubric of "corporate power." And I don't think that states are irrelevant or powerless at all. That argument was a mainstay of the global justice movement of the late nineties, but 9/11 and the events that followed blew that argument to bits, along with the global justice movement itself, which was not prepared to deal with either the massive wave of reactionary patriotism or the aggression of a suped-up, militarized US state. At a time when the US is occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, holding "terrorists" with no legal rights in Guantanamo Bay, bombing targets in Pakistan, trying to install a puppet regime in Libya, and green-lighting repression in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, state power seems far from irrelevant.
On Sun, Oct 16, 2011 at 10:20 PM, Snafu <email@example.com>
You are right Doug, and I thank you for this observation. It was not my intention inserting any reference to the obsolescence of past struggle in the declaration. I was just noting that most statements produced and approved by the GA so far are focusing on either corporate power or (now) the two-party system, whereas none of the two are to me the hegemonic forces in contemporary capitalism.
�Financial capitalism is a tough beast to fight because it is at the same time abstract and diffused at a molecular level. Yet if Standard&Poor's downgrading of the US debt has such massive effects, it means that we have entered a new phase, one in which the power of rating agencies stands above that of national governments. Hence my hesitation on supporting statements that keep focusing on the traditional enemies and seem to be oblivious to the new forms of sovereignty that are emerging. The more you claim that the state is useless and powerless the more you will have to confront financial power directly. But who will regulate the stock market as the system keeps melting, the GA?
On 10/16/11 7:08 PM, Doug Singsen wrote:
It's not true that market volatility is mainly the result of the automation of financial transactions. Markets were highly volatile long before automation. The biggest financial collapse in history took place before the invention of the microchip. Rather, market volatility is an inherent part of capitalism. We also need to beware of declarations that all previous resistance is obsolete and that we need to invent new tools from scratch. The lessons of past struggles are still very much relevant today, and ignoring them is a quick recipe for repeating their errors today.