What does the notion of commons mean? Can it bring about the unity of struggles as diverse – in appearance – as those for free water, for the safeguarding of public services, against tuition fees, for workers’ self-management initiatives, against huge construction projects, for the migrants’ right to stay in their country of residence or against privatization of public squares?
Is the eagerness for grassroots democracy the common denominator of these struggles? How to overcome the legal system that underpins private ownership, as well as the state’s bureaucratic management?
These questions were at the core of a European Seminar that took place in Paris from the 7 to 9 November at the initiative of transform! and WorkersControl.net, and with the active support of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and MEP Marie-Christine Vergiat (GUE/NGL). The seminar allowed setting up an open discussion space between researchers (university professors, law experts, trade unions researchers, etc.) and commons activists (local struggles for natural goods, self-organized workers, etc.) to secure a great multiplicity of view and opinions.
The struggles for the commons emerged as a reaction to the 1990’s triumphant neoliberalism, both in concrete local struggles and in large-scale political mobilizations. Their origins are to be found in the alter-globalization and ecologist movements that sought to address the growing commodification of natural resources. As the actors of the battle for water in Cochabamba that triggered the massive Bolivian social and political transformation put it, “we have been the subjects of a major theft, even though we do not own anything”. This statement embodies perhaps the philosophy of the commons at best.
Beyond some differences of interpretations, everybody agreed that the concept of commons is about reclaiming an access to commodified fundamental resources and a democratic control over them. It is a characterization of material and immaterial resources benefiting to all, as well as the inclusive process of managing them in a grassroots democratic fashion. Moreover, it stands against the ever-growing neoliberal process of commodification and the bureaucratic management of public resources at the same time.
That being said, it is worth mentioning that a lot of room was given to the controversial relation Commons – Public Sector. It was stressed that the public management of a state-owned company does not necessarily prevent from abuses, corruption and opacity – since it has been contaminated by neoliberalism and neo-management methods. The relation Commons – Private Sector was also at the center of the discussion, with a focus on ongoing struggles for self-organization within threatened companies and industries and the problems raised by the different degree of politicization – and mobilization – among the concerned workers. The common thread might be the implementation of a real economic democracy putting an end to the sterile separation of the worker from the citizen.
The network on Commons will continue its work throughout 2015 with, notably, the organization of workshops at the forthcoming World Social Forum in Tunis (24 – 28 March) and a European Seminar to be held in Rome next autumn. This working process will further provide researchers and activists with a privileged space to exchange their views and deepen their analysis on the triptych public sector / commons / private sector, with a special focus on alternative ways to top-down firm management.
For conference programme, abstracts and CVs of the speakers click here.