Beyond Economism

The Prospect of the Commons
Yavor Tarinski

The “commons” have turned out to be good compasses not only as an analytical concept facilitating the dialogue between disciplines which usually do not “speak to each other”, but also as a political project that can coordinate seemingly incoherent and incompatible struggles, both in the city and in the province…

~ Nikolas Kosmatopoulos [1]

 

Nowadays, the social imagination is effectively being modelled in the framework of economism. We can say that everything is being subjected to the economy and its basic engine: the paradigm of constant growth. Local communities, nation-states, entire populations, and nature are being subjected to the will of the "almighty" markets. Our habitats (cities, homes, etc.), as well as the way we think, are being narrowed along economism's basic principles: consumerism and commodification. The Greek-French philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis, with his critical stance towards economism, describes this logic as the idea of “rational mastery of the unlimited expansion of economy and technology on nature and society” (1987, 56-68).

Karl Polanyi, for whom humans are social creatures that take part in economic activity, criticizes economism's approach. He developed the concept of the "economistic fallacy" as a response to the trend - present amongst Marxists and classical liberals alike - of separating economics from other fields of human life and then reducing those aspects and fields to mere aspects of economics. [2] 

And indeed, if today power over the dominant system is situated in the hands of the Right, we can see that its main competitor - the Left - is entrapped in the imaginary of economism as well. According to Castoriadis, Karl Marx was equally sedated by the economism of capitalism in placing the economy at the centre of politics; in adopting, in other words, capitalism’s model of homo economicus. [3]  Thus both the Left and the Right view the economy as something separated from society, to which the most suitable managers should be appointed. Neither the Left nor the Right seek to fundamentally change the correlation between the economy and other spheres of coexistence.

To a certain degree, this explains the attitude of many on the Left towards the authorities’ imposed narrative that the contemporary politico-economic model is extremely "decentralized" - if not "anarchic" (or even chaotic): proposing a return to the big bureaucratic governments of the past as better economic planners than the markets. But if we inspect the dominant system more carefully we will see that this narrative is just a cover-up, masking an equally authoritarian and centralized model of decision-making, with transnational financial and economic institutions dictating the political direction of entire societies.

The dominant logic of economic hegemony over the political is being internalized by society. The most common way of life, as we can observe it in every contemporary capitalist state, is based on mindless consumption and alienation of labour time from so-called “free time”. And resistance towards the dominant order, since it emerges from the midst of this very culture, remains entrapped in this economically-centered way of thinking. For a long time, alternative economic demands and models were amongst the top priorities of activists worldwide.
 

The effects of economism on nature

In accordance with the worldview of economism, nowadays nature is viewed as a mere tool that can be placed in service of economic growth. Forests are being rapidly cut, water basins are being depleted, and species are disappearing at a frightening pace, not to mention non-renewable resources like oil. In a few words, everything is being commodified. The question being posed is not 'if' but 'when' and 'how' this commodification will take place.

The very development of our societies is presented as hostile towards nature. Usually this implies that the creation of more jobs, cars, technology, etc. requires over-exploitation of nature. And this worldview - rooted in the same growth-based, anthropocentric logic - is shared by many on the Left, as well.

Neither the Left nor the Right seek to fundamentally change the correlation between the economy and other spheres of coexistence.

We can again detect, at the root of this worldview, the logic of domination, of hierarchy or 'power-over'. As the thinker Murray Bookchin observes, the idea of human domination over nature is rooted in human domination over other humans. [4]  Thus the principle of hierarchy is located at the heart of our present-day ecological crisis.

But the current approaches towards the preservation of nature do not seem to reach this conclusion. Completely in accordance with the dominant imaginary, many people view nature as a commodity. Thus many of their demands circulate around the preservation of certain areas, which are then to be exploited for tourism. The equivalent of this is so-called "green capitalism", which includes certain state involvement in the economy and environmentally "responsible" behaviour of capitalist firms, but does not challenge economic hierarchies and the very concept of constant growth.
 

State and market

There are countless practices in all spheres of human life, including the economy, that successfully exist beyond - and antagonistically to - statist bureaucracies and capitalist markets. The contemporary ruling elites, however, have interest in the hegemony of statist bureaucracies and capitalist markets, for they do not challenge the dominance of the economy. Thus they are harnessing all their powers in the promotion of the market-state dichotomy as the only valid and/or realistic one. The mainstream narrative today has successfully been hijacked by this pseudo-dilemma of market and state, which influences the direction of the dominant politics as well as their supposed alternatives.

On the one hand there is the capitalist model with its private sector, "free" market and constant economic growth.  These are presently the most powerful forces influencing politics, social relations, and much else. However, they are also one of the main sources of desperation and misery.  By the enclosure of common resources by private owners, many communities are left with nothing but their bare hands, to sell their labour power on the market. Even societies in the so-called 'first world' are suffering from the effects of the capitalist system. Consumerist culture and the corporate hierarchy, enforced by it, are stripping everyday life of meaning and dignity, while economic growth, as the main engine of capitalism, destroys the environment, making it hazardous to people's health.

The market vs. state pseudo-dilemma suggests that the sole alternative to market-based capitalism is state-based socialism. But a closer look at them both shows why they are, as the autonomists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri suggest [5], false alternatives. In its essence, the state is a hierarchical and bureaucratic mechanism that encloses common resources and then assigns functionaries to manage them for society, disallowing social participation. Thus, the state once again deprives society of direct interaction with its environment and introduces a tiny managerial elite. In practice this elite is the owner, having the last word about how things should be done.
 

Economic determinism

Determinism is one of the main pillars of economism. Thus our current capitalist system, as well as the totalitarian socialist one of the past, is built on economic determinism. Economic determinism is based on the idea that a pseudo-science can exist through which human potential can be calculated (just like in mathematics) and the future direction humanity will take can be predicted. In a sense it is a kind of quackery which creates a certain narrative, excluding some practices and logics while presenting other ones as realistic and possible.

Economic determinism is a precondition for the dominant market vs. state dichotomy, of which I spoke earlier. The “free” market and the state are configured in certain historical stages, which can vary according to different economic and deterministic theories, but are viewed as necessary conditions for the further advancement of humanity. Thus they are viewed by experts, economists, politicians, etc. as the only systems that are possible, real and “rational”. In this way, alternative organizational forms are being excluded as “utopian”, i.e. maybe desirable in a naïve way, but completely impracticable and foolish. Castoriadis concludes that economic determinism destroys the possibility of thinking about historic alternatives or the emergence of the new. [6]
 

Commons

The paradigm of the commons contains the potential for radical breaks with economism. [7]  Although it could ostensibly be taken as just another economic model, it goes much further than that. By placing the political question of inclusive and participatory forms of decision-making at its core [8], the paradigm of the commons embeds itself in a wider project of direct democracy which encompasses all spheres of human life and nature. Thus it cannot be viewed separately from wider social and environmental emancipation.

The very practices of commoning are much more rooted in social deliberation and communitarian relationships rather than just the narrow questions of production and consumption. Questions of production and consumption, in turn, also tend to be charged with ethical and political characteristics.

In its relation with nature, unlike the economistic approaches described above, the paradigm of the commons challenges both the growth doctrine and hierarchical economic relations. Its target is not constant over-production and articulation of artificial needs in the name of profits for the few (i.e. economic growth). On the contrary, it aims at sustainability and satisfaction of the needs of everyone involved in it through the mechanisms of common ownership and direct-democratic managerial procedures. The direct participation at its core ensures that the needs, created and satisfied by the participants (like those in ‘solidarity economy’ co-ops and entities), are real individual and communal needs, and not artificially created by bureaucratic or capitalist mechanisms.

As a result of this, commoners do not seek to exploit nature. On the contrary, they try to nurture it, since people and communities at the grassroots depend on their land, forests, fisheries, etc.for their survival.  By rejecting domination of humans over other humans, they sometimes consciously - and sometimes unconsciously - repudiate the domination of humans over nature. This connection is evident from the adoption of ecological practices (like permaculture) by many collectives and co-ops from commons-inspired networks.

In its relation with nature...the paradigm of the commons challenges both the growth doctrine and hierarchical economic relations.

The paradigm of the commons is cutting across the ‘state-market’ pseudo-dilemma, proposing instead direct management of land, resources, means of production, et cetera by the individuals and communities involved. This is evident from the writings of thinkers like Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis, for whom governing principles for the management of the commons should be equal access, reciprocity between what is given and what is taken, collective decision-making, and power from the ground up. [9] The direct-democratic procedures and collective/communal forms of ownership it incorporates exclude private owners and the state apparatus. The paradigm of the commons thus fuses society with land and nature. That’s why it is important for the commons to be incorporated into a wider and holistic project of direct democracy, which will be able to challenge the domination of the capitalist market and the state in all spheres of life.

The commons, as opposed to the imaginary of economism, goes well beyond deterministic logic. It does not strive to predict what should be done tomorrow in terms of tight politico-economic programs. This is also evident from the author Massimo de Angelis, who, regarding the future of the commons, rejects the idea of determining the subject of change. [10]  That’s why the commons encompass different communal and social forms, varying in certain aspects, but always sharing democratic and collaborative principles.

The commons can be viewed as a tool for experimenting in real-time, rather than as a strict economic model. Exactly because it does not rest on deterministic thinking, today commoning experiments with different practices that share some desirable principles, trying to discover their pros and cons, in order to develop them further or engage with new ones that appear in the process. The paradigm of the commons thus fits with the famous slogan of the Zapatistas: Asking, we walk.
 

Conclusion

Nowadays, in mainstream economics the economy is viewed as something separate from society, a science that calculates social dynamics and produces models that people should follow. This logic is a fertile soil for the emergence of technocratic, expert elites who know what “the economy” is and how it operates. By this logic, these elites should direct the rest of society, the great majority of which is deemed “unenlightened” in the mysteries of the economy. Thus the dominant hierarchical organizational structure of society is not only maintained, but deepened even further.

The paradigm of the commons represents a radical break with this logic. By embedding different social and economic practices into the everyday life of the participating individuals and communities, it manages to internalize the economy into the whole of society, thus making the role of technocrats and experts - who feed on the externalization of the economy - obsolete. In a sense, it dissolves “the economy” into autonomous economic practices which can be experimented with and changed separately, unlike “grandiose” models of capitalism or socialism.  

Thus the commons are providing us with the opportunity for different expressions of popular anger and dissatisfaction with the status quo. Unlike the forms of resistance that have been dominating revolutionary movements for centuries - like electing “radical” governments, fighting over the seats of power, or trying to destroy every last bit of the present system and then starting anew - the commons offer a different paradigm. It allows people to express themselves through creativity, by building today new forms of sharing and coexistence based on fundamentally different core principles, like direct democracy, trust, solidarity and dignity.

 


Notes:

[1]  Nikolas Kosmatopoulos on behalf of the Organisational Committee of Mataroa 2013. Mataroa 2013: Against the Crisis, for the Commons, towards a New Mediterranean (http://www.x-pressed.org/?xpd_article=mataroa-2013-against-the-crisis-for-the-commons-towards-a-new-mediterranean)

[2]  Somers, M. 'Karl Polanyi's Intellectual Legacy'. In "The Life and Work of Karl Polanyi." Kari Polanyi-Levitt, ed. Black Rose Books, Ltd., p. 152

[3]  Papadimitropoulos, Evangelos. Socialisme ou Barbarie: From Castoriadis’ Project of Individual and Collective Autonomy to the Collaborative Commons. Published in Triple C Journal, Vol 14, No 1 (2016)

[4]  Bookchin, Murray. What is Social Ecology? (1993) (http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bookchin/socecol.html)

[5]  Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri. Commonwealth, The Bleknap Press of Harvard University press, 2011. p. ix

[6]  Bottici, Chiara. Imaginal Politics: Images Beyond Imagination and the Imaginary, Columbia University Press, 2014. p.47

[7]  Schroyer, Trent. Beyond Western Economism: Toward Sustainable Economic Cultures (http://korinthos.uop.gr/~anthropology/files/Presentations/Trent%20Schroyer.pdf)

[8]  Bollier, David. The Commons, Political Transformation and Cities (2011) (http://bollier.org/commons-political-transformation-and-cities)

[9]  Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis. Commons against and beyond capitalism. p. i102

[10]  On the Commons: A Public Interview with Massimo De Angelis and Stavros Stavrides, published in e-flux (2010) (http://www.e-flux.com/journal/on-the-commons-a-public-interview-with-massimo-de-angelis-and-stavros-stavrides/)

 

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About the author: 

Yavor Tarinski is an activist and community organizer from Bulgaria. He is a compiler of two books in Bulgarian on direct democracy.

Citations: 
When citing this article, please use the following format: Yavor Tarinski (2016). Beyond Economism. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO), http://www.geo.coop/story/beyond-economism
Publication Date: 
Monday, November 14, 2016