The commons, the state and the public: a Latin American Perspective

The commons, the state and the public: a Latin American Perspective

An interview with Daniel Chavez | Amandla Magazine Issue 59 | 29 August 2018

What are the commons and what is their political, social and economic relevance?

In recent years, many researchers and social activists have rediscovered the notion of “the commons” as a key idea to deepen social and environmental justice and democratise both politics and the economy. This reappropriation has meant questioning the vanguardist and hierarchical visions, structures and practices that for too long have characterised much of the left.

This concept has resurfaced in parallel with the growing distrust in the market and the state as the main suppliers or guarantors of access to essential goods and services. The combined pressures of climate change and the crisis of capitalism that exploded in 2008 (a permanent and global crisis, which is no longer a series of conjunctural or cyclical recessions) force us to reconsider old paradigms, tactics and strategies. This means discarding obsolete models:

• the planning and centralised production at the core of the so-called ‘real socialism’ of the last century

• the state capitalism that we see today in China and a few other supposedly socialist countries, and

• the equally old and failed structures of present-day deregulated capitalist economies.

At first, the concept of the commons was disseminated by progressive intellectuals inspired by the work of Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, in 2009. Ostrom was an American political scientist. As a progressive academic, she could hardly be classified as a radical thinker or as a leftist activist. In the last decade, academics and activists from very diverse ideological families of the left have reviewed her contributions and have engaged in intense theoretical debates about the potential of the commons. These are based on the analysis of many inspiring prefigurative experiences currently underway.

Ostrom’s main contribution was to demonstrate that many self-organised local communities around the world successfully managed a variety of natural resources without relying on market mechanisms or state institutions. Currently, it is possible to identify various perspectives in the theoretical debates around the commons, but in general they all converge on the importance of a third space between the state and the market.

Most definitions of the commons tend to characterise it as spaces for collective management of resources. These resources are co-produced and managed by a community according to their own rules and norms. We at the Transnational Institute (TNI) have recently published a report on the commons in partnership with the P2P Foundation. In it we refer to this concept as the combination of four basic elements:

1. Material or intangible resources managed collectively and democratically;

2. Social processes that foster and deepen cooperative relationships;

3. A new logic of production and a new set of productive processes; and

4. A paradigm shift, which conceives the commons as an advance beyond the classical market/state or public/private binary oppositions.

Are the concepts of “the commons” and “the public” synonymous?

This question is the axis of heated theoretical debates, since it alludes to the old discussion about the nature and role of the state.

• There are the defenders of the commons who are most disillusioned with the left in government in several Latin American countries, particularly those linked to the fundamentalist autonomist current. They are convinced that the state should not play any role. They argue that the social order should be restructured by transferring political and economic power to self-organised local communities.

• Others retort that such a contradiction is artificial. They argue that we should at the same time expand the reach and influence of the commons. For example, we can create and interconnect new types of authentically self-managed cooperative enterprises. And we should democratize or “commonise” the state, for instance by incorporating workers and users into the management of existing state-owned enterprises, or creating new public-public partnerships for the provision of essential public services.

Michel Bauwens is a Belgian social activist internationally recognised as one of the most creative and influential thinkers in this field. He often highlights the importance of what he has characterized as the “partner state”. From his perspective, the state is not the enemy. Rather, it is an entity that could provide local communities and self-organised workers with the institutional, political or economic power that would be required for these processes to reach their maximum potential in the framework of the political and economic transition that we need. Among several other possibilities to be considered, it also means the provision of financial or in-kind support for cooperatives or other initiatives inspired by the notion of the commons.

The idea of the ​​partner state is in line with some relatively recent theoretical debates among Marxist thinkers. Today, and especially after a series of counter-hegemonic governments that we have had in Latin America, we’re already very aware that the contemporary state is not simply that “committee for the management of the common affairs of the bourgeoisie” that Marx and Engels referred to in the Communist Manifesto. Neither Marx nor Engels were interested in developing a unified or integral theory of the state. So we should not interpret their statement (from the year 1848!) literally.

In the 1970s, Nicos Poulantzas and other non-dogmatic thinkers began to rethink the institutional framework of capitalist societies. They argued that the state should be understood as a social relationship and not as an abstract entity floating above conflicting social classes. They added that the transformation of state institutions could be possible in the context of a “democratic road to socialism”. This was opened up by the government experience of Popular Unity in Chile and brutally repressed by a military coup in 1973. More recently, Bob Jessop has shown how, although the state has a strong structural bias towards the reproduction of social relations, it is also influenced by the totality of social forces, including counter-hegemonic struggles.

My analytical perspective on the state and the commons is very influenced by Jessop, and also by David Harvey. Harvey points to John Holloway and other proponents of the thesis of “changing the world without taking power”. He argues that a big problem on the left is that many, like Holloway, think that the capture of state power wouldn’t be of much significance in emancipatory processes. In fact, we must recognize the incredible power accumulated in the institutions of the state. So we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of state institutions, in particular when there are opportunities to enable the expansion of the commons.

Hilary Wainwright, the British political economist, wrote a book called Reclaim the State: Experiments in Popular Democracy. In it she argued the need to “occupy” state institutions while, in parallel, we organise ourselves to create and connect new political and economic institutions rooted in local communities and workers’ collectives. Her books, including this one and more recent ones, are based on a detailed investigation of positive examples of commons-related initiatives across the globe.

In recent years, within the framework of the New Politics project, Wainwright and many other activist-scholars from different regions of the world have tried to make sense of a substantial shift in emancipatory thinking. Until quite recently, the economic policy of much of the left included the proposal of nationalisation of key industries. Nowadays, and maybe influenced by the recognition of the failures or shortcomings of nationalisation in several places, many of us are more interested in the design of a new economy based on cooperative relations. In those relations, state institutions would play a facilitating and protective role. We emphasise the importance of public ownership of public services and productive infrastructure, but only as long as we ensure a significant level of decentralised ownership and management. This can take place, for example, in the provision of water and energy services, and in the production of a vast range of goods through networks of self-managed ventures.

This perspective also means a deeper and calmer examination of the ambiguous consequences of the scientific and technological changes currently underway. We already know that the emerging forms of organisation and control of information and communication technologies and distributed production constitute a very contested space. In these spaces, a few transnational corporations (I’m thinking of Uber, Airbnb and other examples of the wrongly named “sharing economy”) financialise and benefit. But we should also be able to recognize that the same technological developments could be beneficial for the (re)creation of truly cooperative, democratic and self-managed forms of ownership and management.

Around the world, we can see the emergence of a new generation of workers who are using their technological knowledge to launch new enterprises and networks based on the principles of the commons. They coordinate and collaborate among themselves, transcending economic sectors and geographical borders. They are ethically (and increasingly also politically) aware of the new social and economic order they are creating.

How would you evaluate the so-called “pink tide” in Latin America in relation to the commons?

My personal perspective on these issues has evolved as I have tried to understand the arguments of comrades from other Latin American countries. They have posed a very strong critique of the statist political culture prevalent in some political and academic circles of the region. Like many Uruguayans, it was hard for me to assimilate the positions of compañeros like Pablo Solón in Bolivia, Edgardo Lander in Venezuela, Arturo Escobar in Colombia, Maristella Stampa in Argentina, or Eduardo Gudynas himself in Uruguay. They (and many others) are strong critics of “development”, and in particular of its “(neo)extractivist” component.

In short, my critique of them focused on two aspects: their staunch criticism of the state, and their inability to formulate alternatives or proposals to transcend the reality that they criticised. Over time, I have had many agitated discussions with Pablo and Edgardo in workshops at the World Social Forum, seminars of our New Politics project and other similar spaces. In the process, I have been able to understand that their criticisms of the state (not always as homogeneous or as acidic as I perceived them) were not that far from my own criticism of the Latin American left. And I also ended up realising that indeed there were proposals embedded in their criticisms.

My position on these issues has also been influenced by my increasingly pessimistic interpretation of the outcomes of our progressive, left governments. After having followed very closely the processes of Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, and to a lesser extent also those of Bolivia and Nicaragua, I think we should ask ourselves the questions: up to what point is it possible for the left to get involved in government without losing our autonomy and our utopian perspective? In other words, is it possible to operate within the state apparatus without being caught in the demobilising logic of institutional power?

Unlike some of the friends I have mentioned above, I don’t have a single or categorical answer to such a question. I still believe that the state has a very important role to play, but I’m also convinced that it is now imperative for the left to get rid of its obsolete state-centric vision and open up to fresh perspectives like those of the commons.

What are the organisational and programmatic challenges for the left in the integration of the idea of the commons into its political platform?

To answer this question, I should start by clarifying that I do not believe that the promotion of the commons should be the only strategy of the left. I believe that we must embrace the emancipatory vision of the commons. But we should not forget the role of the state and the need to respond to the very urgent problems of large sectors of the population. We can’t ignore the terrible rates of poverty, exclusion, and poor access to basic goods and services that still affect millions of Latin Americans. Our region should be incorporated into the global fight against climate change, and we must promote new forms of organisation and production that preserve the ecological balance. But we must also respond to social demands in the context of a fairly likely deterioration of the economic situation in the short or medium term. In that sense, I believe that the impulse to the commons must be framed within a broader strategy of growth, different from that offered by predatory and savage capitalism.

Daniel Chavez is a Uruguayan anthropologist, researcher at the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute (TNI) and co-coordinator of the CLACSO Working Group Counter-Hegemonic Alternatives from the Global South. 

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