The question of property is central to all left politics from its (organised) beginnings in the nineteenth century until today. The private appropriation and exploitation of labour, resources, and nature are the driving forces in capitalism.
In his theory of value, Karl Marx revealed the contradictory movement between commodity value and use value, the ensuing partly blind regulation of society by market laws, and the consequent generation of a fundamentally alienated relationship to one’s fellow human beings and to nature. Since Marx‘ times the specific manifestations of this contradictory movement within the mode of capitalistic production changed but not the principles. There are three basic elements we all need to share: water, air and earth – and these basic elements have to be guaranteed for all humankind.
We already have outstanding examples for successful struggles: for access to clean water as a common good, for example in Cochabamba in Bolivia and the Referendum in Italy as well as regional referenda in Berlin and Thessaloniki, and the recognition of access to clean water as basic human right by UN; we have increasing examples of struggles for the common use of land in communities of small farmers, fishermen, and indigenous people who do not have individual property rights on their land or coast; as well as citizens’ cooperatives for social housing in cities; and there are growing numbers of initiatives to preserve democratic participation in digital communication structures.
The foundations of the collective life of humanity on the planet are fourfold: the relationship to nature; the production of the requisites for living (the economy); collective organisation, (democracy); and interpretation or the symbolic expression of reality (culture).
In all four dimensions of the collective life of humanity on the planet we have to reorganise our relations:
1) To save the survival of humankind on this planet the most urgent task is to re-organize our relation to nature.
2) This means no less than a paradigm shift in our economic systems.
3) We have to reorganise our collective life through the generalisation of democracy in social relations and institutions.
4) We need to institute interculturalism while building the universal Common Good of Humanity as global objective.
These are the four basic elements for the development of a theory of The Common Good of Humanity. We find at least aspects of those elements in every practical Commons initiative all over the world.
Commons are questioning the private ownership of the goods of life and commodity value as a blind regulatory force – while creating democratic inclusive common participation in the production and distribution of goods, services and use of resources. And – to be clear – the Commons approach is one of the very few methods for transitioning from extractivism and the exploitation of nature, resources, and labour to better practices contributing to the survival of humankind on this planet.
Commons and commoning can be seen as 'active processes whereby subaltern organisations and groups of people identify and take control of resources and manage them in common, i.e., democratically and collectively, not privately or in an exploitative manner’ (Cato and North 2017). In nearly all parts of the globe, initiatives and projects on Commons are on the rise.
As such, the movement around the Commons is quite recent, and we can probably trace its emergence to the massive struggle against the privatisation of water in Cochabamba, Bolivia in the early 2000s. Notably, in 2010, the UN General Assembly made a decision to include access to clean water as a basic human right in the Human Rights’ Charter. In 2012, Italian citizens also decided through a referendum that water should be a common good. The same decision was made by citizens of Berlin and Thessaloniki. Also ongoing are struggles of small farmers for land and natural seeds, such as the Brazilian movement, Movemiento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), which is the largest social movement in Latin America, with an estimated membership of 1.5 million people and a presence in 23 of Brazil’s 27 states. Through it, landless peasants settle on the land of absentee landlords, and use it for cooperative farming and the construction of houses, schools, and clinics. Another example is the struggle of fishermen in India and Brazil for common access to the sea, and against the privatisation of coastal areas.
These few examples show the growing resistance of people all over the world to the commodification of nature, essential resources, and services. The declaration, 'Reclaim the Commons' at the World Social Forum in Belém 2009, puts it this way:
'…a new vision of society is arising - one that honour[s] human rights, democratic participation, inclusion and cooperation. People are discovering that alternatives and commons-based approaches offer practical solutions for protecting water and rivers, agricultural soils, seeds, knowledge, sciences, forest, oceans, wind, money, communication, and online collaborations, culture, music and other arts, open technologies, free software, public services of education, health or sanitization, biodiversity and the wisdom of traditional knowledge.’
In many ways, the commons approach represents one of the most constructive pathways to sustainability, bringing together ecological, democratic, and social needs in a harmonious blend.
Cato M. S. and North, P. (2016), Rethinking the factors of production for a world of common ownership and sustainability: Europe and Latin America compared, Review of Radical Political Economy, 48 (1), 36-52.