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Stealing Back The Commons: Citizen Economics Beyond Capitalism

By Jules Peck

06 March, 2013

Michael Jacobs, an ex-SpAd to Gordon Brown, has recently written in the New Satesman that ‘green social democracy can save capitalism’. Well, not everyone agrees. For some, the ‘green social democracy’ experiment has, thus far, not worked, and indeed, might be running out of time.

And as for capitalism – or at least capitalism1.0, it’s no longer heresy to question its infallibility. Since we last blogged about capitalism, a host of mainstreamers like the BBC’s Stephanie Flanders, the FT’s Martin Wolf, UBS’s George Magnus, Joseph Stiglitz and Nouriel Roubini, have started questioning our growth-obsessed, capitalist economics and calling up Karl Marx from his grave.

And, as a search of Amazon will show you, there’s no shortage of recent books both questioning capitalism and laying out ideas for its updating or replacement.

But why might we have to consider alternatives to capitalism and what might an alternative look like?

Limits to growth

As we’ve mentioned often on this site, people like Professors Tim Jackson and Herman Daly has shown that, due to the scale and urgency required to tackle things like climate change, technological solutions to ‘decoupling’ growth from carbon emissions are nothing short of delusional.

So its becoming clear that continued growth of the macro economy would push us into climate meltdown and commit the world’s poorest and our children to unthinkable trauma. As someone I’m now working with, IPCC scientist and Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre Professor Kevin Anderson, recently said, “we can either deal with climate change or have a growth economy – not both.”

Economist Kenneth Boulding famously said pretty much the same thing, now being repeated by finance brokers Tullet Prebon, “to believe in infinite growth on a finite planet you have to either be an economist or a madman.” In any case, whether we want to keep growing or not may be out of our hands, as writer Richard Heinberg points out “growth is over, like it or not.”

The good news is that emerging macro-economic modelling from the New Economics Foundation (Nef) and by Professors Peter Victor and Tim Jackson is showing that an end to global economic expansion needn’t stop us delivering high employment, high wellbeing and fiscal balance.

In other words, there is hope that the rich world can well afford to find a quantitative reverse gear so that the poor world can hopefully continue to develop qualitatively.

But what are the implications for our current economic-incumbent capitalism?

Some would argue that capitalism has played a role, along with other forms of market and non-market socio-economics, in historic improvements in material and non-material wellbeing. But capitalism brings with it endless ‘externalities’, as historian Mike Davis argues in the fascinating Late Victorian Holocausts, “Millions died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism; indeed, many were murdered … by the theological application of the sacred principles of Smith, Bentham and Mill.”

For todays ‘full-world’ challenges, a new, or radically updated system is needed. This new economics will need to deliver two key things. It will need to deliver wellbeing to all, current and future generations. And it will need to do that sustainably. Call it ‘sustainable wellbeing economics’.

The problem for capitalism, as it jockeys for position as our preferred economic model for the next 300 years, is that it relies on continued and exponential economic growth to support the dynamic of profit maximisation and the ‘treadmill of accumulation’.

Attempts at incremental reform of capitalism – Michael Jacobs’ ‘green social democracy’ and other models such as ‘market ecology’, ‘natural capitalism’ and ‘capitalism-as-if-the-earth-matters’ have failed. Eco-socialists will say they were always doomed to fail. Others that they might have worked if given more time.

But time is something we don’t have. NASAs climatologist James Hansen says “we may already be too late’. Kevin Anderson that, without urgent change we’re locked into 4 degrees of warming . As we blogged recently, that’s scientist-speak for apocalypse.

As our current economics continues to unravel towards ‘peak money’ and social unrest, with the pain of real austerity hitting Greek citizens, and with the Red Cross giving out food parcels in Spain, where there are now 2.3m ‘vulnerable’ people, many are asking ‘are we next?’

There are of course alternatives to pure free-market capitalism. Red-in-tooth-and-claw Anglo-Saxon capitalism is just a more extreme version of variants such as European Social Democracy, Asian mixed economy and Keiretsu capitalism. But no form of capitalism has ever been able to sustainably provide ‘good lives’ for all. And certainly never been able to, nor could ever, operate without growth.

Res Communes – sustainable wellbeing economics of, by and for the citizens

I’m involved currently with a group of people from the Transition Towns movement, Nef and elsewhere which is developing a draft document which we plan to put online as an open-sourced wiki manifesto. The idea is that anyone out there will be able to help us fill in the gaps.

It’s a vision of economics which is very much in the ‘for, by and of the people’ heritage and its been inspired by the work of Nobel laureates like Ostrom, Stiglitz, Sen and Kahneman, and the work of Manfred Max-Neef, Peter Barnes and Tom Crompton, amongst others. Their work has been updating our understanding of socio-economic relations, values, co-operation, the commons, reciprocity and wellbeing and pointing the way towards alternative forms of socio-economic relations beyond growth and capital-ism.

In line with the commons/state/private sectors of ancient Rome, this new economics Res Communes economics would aim put the citizen centre stage of a socio-economic transition to a resilient, mutualised, co-operative, communitarian, localised and participatory democracy, with a radical shrinking away of the short-termist private, Res Privita and state, Res Publica sectors.

Transitioning to this new form of economics will have wide ranging implications including for everything from social relations, equity, cultural values (from extrinsic to intrinsic wellbeing satisfying values), new visions and narratives of ‘prosperity’, commercial, national and international accounting, the balance between ‘use’ and ‘exchange’ values, and the end of a debt-based monetary system.

To see how elements of this are already emerging, witness the flourishing participative democracy and budgeting movement pioneered in Porto Alegre Brazil and now taking hold in the UK and elsewhere.

We should rightly question everything about our current economics. If elements can’t be compatible with sustainable wellbeing economic principles, then they ought to go. Even currently construed shibboleths such as markets will need to prove they can be our slave not master if they are to make the grade for the transition to this new economics.

Elements of this new Res Communes economics already exist

There are many new and old forms of alternatives to the shareholder-owned enterprise model that are showing the way forward. Take the countless mutual, employee, community and cooperatively owned enterprises which include some of our best-loved enterprises like John Lewis and Waitrose. There is no reason why we could not all work for, buy from and own such enterprises which can live beyond the growth obsessed profit motive.

Witness the Transition Towns movement, the Buen Vivir movement championed by Evo Morales and the flourishing commons and ‘commoners’ movements that, as commons-guru David Bollier of puts it, is repudiating “the corruption of the market/state duopoly”.

Take Spain’s £4.3bn Mondragon Co-operatives Group, with 53,000 stakeholder-owners. The World Bank has said that, for over twenty years, Mondragon was “more efficient than many private enterprises…. there can be no doubt that the co-operatives have been more profitable than capitalist enterprises.”

Indeed, some of our best loved enterprises in the UK are co-ops such as John Lewis and Waitrose and the mighty Co-op Group which, aside from its food and farming markets is now representing a healthy threat to the myopic privately owned banking system which has done so much harm to society. And think of perhaps the world’s most successful and well known commons-based, collaborative, non capitalist, participative enterprise – Wikipedia – with over 7m entries and used by 2m people a day.

These sorts of successes are showing that the idea that profit maximising, shareholder-owned capitalist enterprises are far from the only alternative. Maybe some day soon we will all work for, own and buy from similar enterprises.

Implications for the left

Perhaps the time has come to move on from the tired, left-right dialectic of state-versus-market, capitalism versus communism. Nether state nor private ought to have the upper-hand. In a truly participative economic democracy it should be the people and the notion of the commons which calls the shots. This will have huge implications for politics.

As this is fundamentally a change-manifesto, which recognises the current system is badly faulty, its not necessarily going to be an easy agenda for conservatives. But for the left, for whom this ought to have been home-turf, these changes represent an exciting opportunity for renaissance.

Despite Blair’s dragging of the Labour Party across to the right of centre, Labour could once again find its roots as the party of the people. Its worth remembering that Clause IV, despite its characterisation as wholly and dogmatically about nationalisation and state control, was in its original 1918 vision in fact about common ownership. The text ran:

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

Only after 1944 did Clause IV firmly become a policy of nationaliation. If the Labour Party had stuck to its earlier vision and explored opportunities beyond both state and private, we would not have had to put up with the traumas of Blairism.

So if the Labour Party in the UK stands, and deserves, any chance of finding a solid footing and rising to the challenges of our time, then a vision of Res Communes ought to be central to its reinvention.

Reason for optimism

There is reason to be optimistic. Growth long since has failed to deliver increases in life satisfaction for those in the rich-world. We need not fear the end of growth and a new post-capitalist economics. It’s an exciting time to be alive – truly revolutionary changes are afoot.

There’s a C17th poem which starts:

“The law locks up the man or woman, who steals the goose from off the common, but leaves the greater villain loose, who steals the common from off the goose”.

Perhaps its time we stole back the commons?

Jules Peck was Director of David Cameron’s Quality of Life Policy Group, advising the Conservative Party on wellbeing and environment issues.





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