23 mai 2019 4 23 /05 /mai /2019 17:53
The commons needs Europe and Europe needs the commons
We are living a virtual divorce between the principle of reality and the principle of imagination. Our societies are in the midst of such an intense, obsessive individualized determinism and fatalism oriented toward the market and economic growth that we are incapable of even imagining any alternatives to our major social and environmental problems. Almost all of our present utopias and even our ideas of good and bad are enclosed within the illusion of autonomous rational individuals making individual choices in which the usual indicator of success is mainly found in dull digital “likes”, shiny marketplace charisma and stark numbing consumerism.
As Byung-Chul Han has observed our massive obsession with digital screens has closed us off more and more within ourselves: “The digitalization of the world, which amounts to total humanization and subjectivation, makes the earth disappear completely. We cover the earth with our own retina, and in doing so we become blind to what is different.”
Our liberal democratic ideas of human rights have become intimately entwined with this fixation of “free” individual election of what to buy or, in other words, how to live. Our identities are often moulded by shopping and psychological self-realization in a world full of price-tags with the absence of any intrinsic value. This exhibitionist narcissism that feeds our egos has been put on steroids by digital social media to which we have surrendered our personal, even intimate, biographies to such a point that often we can´t even imagine a collective/political “we”. We even consider our individualized, emotional use of twitter, Facebook and Instagram as “freedom” when we are more controlled, marketed and herded than ever.
Here there are no possible politics of the common collective good; only the sum of individual, autonomous, self-serving human subjects in a frenetic hunt of fleeting, unstable emotional satisfaction and unlimited material gain. We are continuously sermonized that “all the problems are in your head and the solutions are there too”. Nothing else seems to have value nor voice nor worth. Our accelerated mental and physical pace tends to leave little time for community, reflection and contemplation which are prerequisites for collective political action in defence of the social and natural common good. Time is atomized by the eternal present of many short-lived, superficial experiences, often digital, that usually exclude patient ponderation of the present or reflective dialogue about the future. This individualized caging of choices that encloses our imaginations and separates us from “otherness” also tends to marginalize collective political action, community involvement or what can be considered “moral multiplication”.
Shockingly we are approaching probable ecological and social catastrophes without any clear collective alternatives on our political agendas and our moral imaginations are usually blank. We are running toward the cliff as if we were oblivious to the impending fall. What is offered by our liberal elites, the media and our institutions is just more of the same “growth, global competition and buying power” with some minor techno-fix “green” tweaks and loud, usually incoherent rhetoric about enlarging individual rights for women, without any significant structural changes to our profit dominated, extractive economies and growth-oriented political priorities. The consideration of underlying causes of major problems has become taboo in our dominant political culture.
Only worse. In the context of this “there is no alternative” mantra we are losing the capacity to apply a morally inclusive perspective to others and to nature. This adiaphoria or moral indifference can be seen in the callous, fearful response by a large segment of Europeans to the waves of immigrants who are seeking refuge, a rise in nationalist populism and in the suicidal consumerism that expresses a lack of practical sensibility toward other living species, and to nature in general. This highly selective moral sensitivity toward otherness, be it people or nature, responds to the same perceived goals of short-term self-interest, personal security and the dominant narrative of personal financial gain at any cost. In general, empathy seems to be losing ground.
Contrary to the tragically impossible “the sky is the limit” frenetic spin of commercial globalization, the imagination of the commons, is about a realistic “landing” in concrete territories/communities with rules, relationships and more solid connections compatible with visions of universal health, global ecological well-being and equality. Unfortunately, these inclusive futures have practically been pushed off our political and personal agendas.
We tend to be immersed in varying degrees of cognitive dissonance or contradictory “double-binds” in which our daily life and institutional priorities have little to do with our declared moral values. Due to the atrophy of our social imaginations a wave of pessimism concerning the future has engulfed us. Beyond the false panaceas of techno-fixes and scientific miracles or the obsession with individualized media reality-show case-studies, there is little social debate about how we should organize and live differently in the future. There is also a worrisome and unsubstantiated over-confidence that the relative institutional, social and economic stability we have experienced in Europe over the past 60 or 70 years thanks to cheap and easily accessible fossil fuels and other raw materials extracted from the Global South will continue indefinitely into the future. Amidst today´s volatile, insecure economies many “progressive” and left Europeans look back with nostalgia at the baby-boom generation of life-long job stability, social safety nets, sustained economic growth and upward mobility but at the same time they sense that there is no going back.
In this context there are two dominant options in our political landscape that seem to be starkly different. On one hand we have various degrees of reactionary populism led by Trump, Orban, Bolsanaro, Brexit and on other hand we have “progressive” globalized liberalism represented by most of our liberal and traditional “left” politicians. Reactionary populism plays the card of a delusive return to national sovereignty in face of the loss of national control caused by globalization along with a toxic cocktail of privatization, xenophobia and a glorification of “traditional values”. On the other hand, “progressive” neoliberalism combines a defence of globalized free trade, economic growth and further extraction of our natural world with a defence of formal human rights(including women, LGTB, immigrants, ethnic minorities and civil liberties in general), often in a narrow exercise of “identity politics” based on equal opportunities in the market, meritocracy and non-discrimination that garner significant support from the political left. But this exclusively individual rights approach to feminism, gay rights, ethnic/national minority rights in the context of our cut-throat global market economy is perceived by a some Europeans that support right-wing populism as threatening campaigns to gain a bigger piece of the economic pie for small minorities of certain groups. The liberal approach to individual rights does not commit to any structural changes in favour of social equity nor any greater democratic community self-defence to control the excesses of the globalized economy. Both dominant camps depend on an unwavering commitment to continuous unlimited growth with greater material and immaterial extraction to carry out their programmes. The globalization camp does propose some weak technological adjustments or misleading “decoupling” (more material growth with relatively less impact) proposals to deal with climate change while the right populist camp just tends to ignore or deny evidence of ecological collapse.
Both of our majority political narratives accept a value system based on the amount of money and material resources extracted and spent by the private sector and the labor market. Both are of the opinion that the principal debatable questions are how much the state should tax private profits and how the state can afterwards redistribute more or less this income. They are both focussed on increasing the size of the economic pie, not on the ingredients nor the relational mix, nor even how the ownership of the pie is cut up and pieces are distributed. Most importantly, both proposals are not viable on a finite deteriorated planet with the less and less margin for economic growth based on cheap resources, cheap credit and cheap labour power.
Populist right-wing movements also cynically exploit and criticize the tremendous power of global industry and finance that has grown far above and beyond the autonomy of both our national governments as well as weakening the capacity of organized citizen control and accountability. This has fueled a sense of powerlessness, frustration and disaffection from democratic institutions that will not be solved by their chauvinistic calls for a return to national sovereignty but instead by supporting translocal policies on a European level that help strengthen community-based peer-to-peer economies, cultures and social organization.
Despite the terrible scientific warnings about climate breakdown and the coming collapse of our social, food and energy systems we remain paralyzed by the inability to even consider that our collective near future could be very different from the model of relative prosperity and social improvements we have experienced in the last 60 years that has also paradoxically driven us into our present systemic predicaments. Our narrow minded political and cultural elites cling firmly to the status quo of our exploitative growth model as the only means of maintaining a fragile social peace. But from increasingly worrisome environmental indicators and recent social unrest around the world we can already realize see that our current extractive, growth model is soon approaching its expiry date.
The problem is not finding a new spin to try to sell the same policies with a shiny wrapping. . Instead, we are referring to a substantive shift in politics and morality from almost uncritical support our present top-down state-market collusion to a determined incremental support and defence of the social, cultural and natural commons based on community control, horizontal democratic processes and a decentralization of a large part of our economies. This means a major social-ecological revolution where material growth is progressively substituted by equality, sharing and caring.
How can an alternative be built outside of today´s two dominant options that often moves many people to choose the lesser evil? How can we promote imaginative pro-commons politics that dares to desire what does not yet exist by thinking and building alternatives outside the box?
The commons approach attempts to confront what is basically a two pronged challenge: de-constructing the false sense of abundance that is driving our extractive destruction and overcoming the absurd artificial scarcity of abundant cultural/scientific/technological knowledge, enclosed by patent and copyright monopolies, that could be shared globally with great social and environmental benefits.
One solution as proposed by George Monbiot is to shift resources from the state and the market into the commons or, in the words of Kate Raworth, “pre-distribution” of material/immaterial resources to go beyond traditional “end of the pipe” redistribution of wealth by means of taxes for public services. The crucial previous questions usually sidelined by our elites are “who will supply my electricity, my food or who will make my soup or take care my elderly family members”. The commons is about progressively liberating territories from the state-market growth obsessed duopoly into a caring, common good economy centred on households, cooperatives, small businesses, neighbourhoods and civil society. Here the role of the state should be diminished but instead progressively transformed.
While the commons is far from a panacea nor a utopian all encompassing paradigm, commoning based on sharing, reciprocity and exchange in local communities is one way of strengthening collective identities without resorting to nationalism. At the same time commoning on the ground builds alternatives to the dominant egotistical mental infrastructures that are crippling our ability to build a different future. The commons movement can offer some important responses to the illnesses of narcissistic consumerism, moral indifference, growth obsession and the shrinking of our moral imaginations. Despite their small-scale often marginal nature, commons initiatives in the spheres of local democracy, land-trusts, open internet governance, renewable energy, food cooperatives, nature stewardship, collaborative science, co-housing and open culture, among many others, can be both a showcase and a vanguard of alternative community values. It is one positive way of being the change we want.