Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Commons in an Age where Sharing is "Socialism."

I read two articles back to back this morning. The first in Mother Jones with the title Pawlenty's Education Committee: Kindergarten Sharing Is "Socialist".

It describes a 2003 battle in Minnesota over educational standards for the state's schools. Mother Jones reports "Members [of the] standards committees dismissed sharing and cooperation as 'socialist' ideas..."

This illustrates the problem many of us have in arguing for values in anything but marketplace terms. (A common theme of this blog.) An excellent article by David Bollier in Share the World's Resources argues that supporters of the idea of the value of the commons (our shared resources) need to find a better way to celebrate its history and defend its importance. Here are some excerpts, but I recommend the entire article:

So much of nature, culture and economic activity utterly depend upon the commons – the atmosphere, the oceans, wildlife and seeds as well as the Internet, scientific knowledge and creative works, among countless other commons. And yet corporate-dominated markets are doing everything they can to privatize and commodify our commons. After all, there is big money to be made in mining the deepsea ocean floor, patenting the genes of plants and animals, claiming proprietary control of agricultural seeds, owning new sorts of synthetic nano-matter that can replace ordinary substances, and owning mathematical algorithms that power software programs.

The great, unacknowledged scandal of our times is the market enclosure of things that belong to all of us. Instead of having free or low-cost access to the shared resources that belong to all of us, companies are privatizing them and forcing us to pay...

we commoners need to do a better job of articulating and advancing what I call the value proposition of the commons. Here’s what I mean by that. The market has its own well-developed, aggressively promoted story about how material wealth is created and human progress is advanced. It’s a story about how private property rights, money and market exchange generate wealth. It’s a process that considers Gross Domestic Product a proxy for happiness. The market story is a story of bigger, better and faster, and it is the dominant norm of our time, a global religious catechism that is only now starting to come unraveled, thanks to the economic crisis of 2008.

The commons is a very different narrative – one that fills out that picture that this mainstream economic narrative omits. The value proposition of the commons cannot be expressed as a “bottom line” because it’s all about community empowerment and social equity and ecological security. Unfortunately, this is a fuzzy and complex storyline in the public mind, at least right now.

Some other reasons that the commons narrative has trouble going mainstream have everything to do with the intrinsic nature of the commons. Unlike the market narrative, which presumes to be standard and universal, the commons consists of countless distinctive and locally rooted examples, each different. The market celebrates quantitative measures of its performance, and so comparisons about who’s best, who’s richest, and so forth, are easy. By contrast, the value of the commons tends to be qualitative, social, spiritual, ecologically complex and long term. Needless to say, these values cannot be plugged into a spreadsheet and put into rankings, like the “Commons 500.” As a result, the commons is harder to see and name as a distinct sector – and therefore, it can be harder to reclaim a commons or build one from scratch...

Now, the argument is often made that the commons is simply a vestigial, pre-modern throwback. They say it’s impractical, it’s inefficient, it’s a “tragedy.” With the failures of communism and state socialism still hanging in the air, the claim is made that self-organized collective action threatens “freedom.” We need to fight these myths by asserting the real value-proposition of the commons...

I think we need to recover a world in which we all receive gifts and we all have duties. This is a very important way of being human. Tragically, the expansion of centralized political and economic structures tends to eclipse our need for gifts and duties. We rely on money or the state for everything. And so we forget what Ivan Illich called the “vernacular domain” – the spaces in our everyday life in which we create and shape and negotiate our sense of how things should be: the commons.

And finally, for your enjoyment, a classic video from the socialists at Sesame Street: