• A political vision for the Commons*

  • Von Chantal Delmas , Benoît Borrits | 25 Feb 15 | Posted under: Commons
  • The concept of common good has been increasingly present in class struggles. Could this reference to the concept of ‘the Commons’ lay the groundwork for a political project that surpasses ownership? One could think so given the many discussion seminars currently taking place on the subject. The concept involves expanding the idea of Commons to include employee-led company takeovers, as well as the protection and extension of public services whilst, in both cases, striving to surpass state- or privately-owned properties by focusing on the cooperation between workers and users. But such a programme will have to tackle the required wresting of power from the state, with the aim of its dismantling, whilst social movements will need to mobilise in order to build a federation of Commons that will replace the state. 

    Today, the idea of an alternative political project based on the Commons can be found in many movements. Often reduced to an adjective applied to the noun ‘good’, we talk about common goods such as water, land and culture as if the Commons could only consist of specific categories. Although ‘common’ is used as an adjective in specific struggles, it significantly reduces its impact. Indeed, ‘common’ is the antinomy of ownership. It only exists because it is a social construct, “a political principal that can be found in all community initiatives based on the will for self-governance and the refusal of exclusive ownership.”[1] As well as these struggles for common ‘goods’, we should also include reclaimed and self-managed businesses such as SCOP TI (previously Fralib) in France or VioMe in Greece, and public services as long as they have the potential to become fully democratised, by which we mean managed by producers and users.

    To be valid, the Commons project must be able to create a social alliance that has the potential to surpass capitalism. As such, it needs to be at the heart of society. For that reason, it is essential to take into consideration the employees’ demands for new rights as they benefit businesses at both a social and environmental level. If we wish to discuss and combine experiences of self-management within the Commons together with employees’ acquisition of rights which reduce the power of Capital, we could talk about an economic democracy as all these struggles aim at challenging the capitalist rights to ownership. Dialogue and teamwork between these various social experiments have become a crucial condition to achieving a paradigm shift.


    ‘Right to use’ versus ‘right to own’

    In the 19th century, the legitimacy of people’s right to the Commons was fully discarded by the capitalist movement and solely replaced by the right to own property. The movement thus had no institution left to rely on in order to assert its legitimacy, which had, and continues to have, a dual effect:

    • People who internalised the right to ownership as the sacrosanct norm feel alienated. For instance, when a company goes bankrupt, the first reaction has long been to find a new CEO rather than to consider that employees have a right to take over the company.

    • When the struggle has been fruitful for the Commons, as was the case for the supply of water, it is hard to find sustainable pathways for the Commons that do not include a state-owned company or a multi-board cooperative that will not rule out any future ‘expropriation’ of the Commons.

    For these two reasons, demanding a right to institutions of the Commons is part of the class struggle and becomes involved in the capital expropriation process by replacing the right to own by the right to use.


    Ambiguity of public services

    After the war, we could have relied upon public services to create Commons based on a real democracy. However, both workers and users were excluded from the decision-making process and, from the 1980s onwards, liberalism had no difficulty whatsoever privatising many public entities and faced no major resistance at the beginning of this process. Today, more profitable entities are given to the private sector and public services are expected to be run like capitalist companies on the basis of a limited staff turnover, using cost-effectiveness and profit as a compass rather than what benefits society as a whole. The previous model that served the ‘public good’ and was based on solidarity and universal access to care, water and education is being steadily watered down.

    This position, which has been adopted by the neoliberal state, poses a challenge to those fighting for an alternative. Although it is advisable to fight for the gains public services have already achieved, these benefits are also progressively becoming the tools of neoliberal capitalism –creating growing inequalities – whilst free and undistorted competition is becoming the rule. Resolving this contradiction through social struggles is not an easy task. Wanting to turn public services into Commons managed by their communities (employees and users) instead of the state is one possible way to escape this contradiction when engaging in emancipation struggles. It is no coincidence that many struggles for the protection and the extension of all sorts of common goods stress the importance of the access and implication of stakeholders in the decision-making process, denying the supposed right of potential property owners and presaging a time when ‘ownership’ is surpassed.


    Unavoidable state power

    However, to think that the proliferation of such initiatives that free themselves from state supervision will put an end to capitalism is merely wishful thinking. The state, as a body of order and violence, plays an essential role in retaining ownership. Even though it is possible to develop something intangible under a copyleft license, by and large this type of production still requires moneyed capital and is therefore subject to a copyright supposedly protected by the repressive state. What would be the point, in the long term, of the proliferation of companies taken over by employees and turned into cooperatives if these remain limited to small units that are forced to act as subcontractors for multinationals? People are sometimes, as imagined in the past during the great movement of consumer cooperatives, willing to build their own alternative distribution networks. But today, in our internet world, a considerable part of distribution depends on huge investments that gorge on invested capital. The idea of building a democratic alternative society that would progressively become a substitute for the market and the state existed in the 19th century and disappeared with the death of Charles Gide, who instigated the École de Nîmes cooperative movement [2]. No new technology or paradigm allows us to eliminate the need to intervene in institutional politics and to contemplate the wresting of state power with the aim of its ultimate decline.

    Unemployment is another example of the unavoidable wresting of state power. A recurring phenomenon since the 1970s and the rise of neoliberalism, unemployment has reached unprecedented levels since the European debt crisis and the austerity measures that followed. The French réduction du temps de travail (RTT – reduction in working hours) is an old demand made by the workers’ movement and the reason behind the 1 May bank holiday [3]. It aims at a uniform reduction in working hours without reduction in pay whilst creating the jobs needed in order to reduce unemployment. This is a simple solution which is far more credible than the employers’ claims that regressive social policies tend to drive investments and, indirectly, employment in order to contribute to economic growth. Some alternative methods offer a similar green-liberal view praising the employment growth made possible by the development of renewable energies. Here we do not wish to question the urgency of the energy transition. However, if the use of renewable energy creates jobs and therefore requires greater employment, it means that it is currently more expensive than fossil fuels and thus constitutes a vehicle for reduced productivity. Where will this reduction be made? In capital or in employment? This is the fundamental question we all need to answer. We demand that a reduction in working hours and the energy transition be considered within the remit of capital and, by taking this stance, the substitution of share-capital companies with self-managed structures will be placed back on the agenda.

    One of the basic requirements needed to ensure the flourishing of a full democracy is that every individual has a job and a wage. No serious progress can be made if 20% of the population is forced to survive on alternative sources of income and is excluded from any economic activity on a long-term basis. Equally, the fact that the majority of those employed live with the constant fear of being laid off undoubtedly has a negative impact on their sense of personal fulfilment. The reduction in working hours guarantees a job for everyone as well as extra time off, both of which are essential conditions for employees to take control of their production – which is a fundamental point in building the Commons we are striving to create today.  

    However, this reduction in working hours can become effective without necessarily having a majority government committed to putting it into practice. Other social measures can also come with this demand, such as the reversal of various counter-reforms concerning retirement or the full extension of health-care coverage. But this majority will only be able to smoothly implement these reforms if surpassing companies with share capital becomes one of its goals.


    Surpassing nationalisation

    During most of this “short twentieth century”[4], the prospect of state decline disappeared from the horizons of both sovietism and authentic social democracy, and instead a diluted form of socialisation – one practically reduced to a nationalisation of the economy – was favoured. We now need to rebuild a political project based on the concept of Commons. Tomorrow’s social take-up, therefore, needs to be designed beyond the framework of ownership, and that also means state ownership. If implementing social demands can solely be done in conjunction with the overhaul of companies with share capital, production units managed by both workers and users would be the only possible outcome. The switch to cooperatives or nationalisation can only be seen as ‘stepping stones’ along the way to developing an entirely new system. If social take-up can no longer be achieved through transfer of ownership, three additional lines of action can help us establish a direction for this project:

    1. The socialisation of revenue via social contributions or taxation is already in place for about 50% of our output with, in most cases, half funding the non-tradable sector (free public services, funded organisations) and the other half comprising social benefits (pensions, sick pay, unemployment benefit, etc.). This socialisation of revenue already undermines property owners’ rights to fully enjoy the returns of their capital. This socialisation needs to be increased by gradually disconnecting workers’ revenue from the added value of their production unit. As such, this sharing of revenue becomes a bone of contention within democratic debate among the population.

    2. One of the limitations to establishing self-managed businesses is their need to support themselves in an environment where the banking system is in the hands of a central bank which pursues only a small number of goals such as price stability (ECB) or economic growth (BoE, Federal Reserve, etc.). The creation of a socialised financial system dependent upon investment criteria defined by budgets that are allocated democratically will help provide these businesses with most of the funding for their assets, which could lead to the complete disappearance of equity capital as well as, as a consequence, the idea of production unit ownership.

    3. In production units power should first and foremost be given to the main actors, i.e. the workers, with a right of representation for users who will be able to, for example, have an influence on prices and their direction. These units will no longer be managed by owners but by the relevant stakeholders, depending on the activity in question. As a general rule, every production unit will then automatically become a public service.

    Creating social take-up in this manner – through dividing powers between various stakeholders –  results in investment-related decisions which are validated by a socialised financial sector as well as an increased socialisation of revenue leading to the idea of ownership being surpassed in favour of a logical creation of Commons. But with this creation remains the difficulty of articulating the various levels within the Commons, i.e. some relate to just a small number of people only, while others impact the whole of society.


    Towards a federation of Commons

    Various avenues remain open to exploration can be explored, including federalism. However, here we do not mean state-to-state federalism, but rather a federation of Commons. As Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval say, “The political principle of the Commons draws the outline of a dual federation: a federation of social and economic Commons created on a social and professional basis, and a federation of political Commons created on a territorial basis. With this comes a democracy of Commons.”[5] This dual federation must ensure a democracy- and ecology-based planning, which is one of the founding principles of the eco-socialist project. “Democratic planning must be based on self-management at all levels. People manage their business on a local, national and supranational scale. We must combine direct democracy and delegative democracy through a referendum process. The fundamental idea of eco-socialism is that democracy must not be limited to administrative matters but extended to the economic sphere. Democracy is the only way towards social and ecological rationality.”[6]

    The issue of the state, its decline and how a society of Commons can be created are now the core concerns of the alternative project. However, this project will only be convincing if it offers government proposals (such as the reduction in working hours) combined with a political project whose founding principle is to surpass ownership through the creation of Commons.

    The real democratic process of Commons or self-management movements will allow for the outline of a federation of Commons to be gradually drawn out through experimentation, convergence and dialogues across all levels. From this point onwards, this task will fall to social and political movements and progressive researchers as this revolution will not be the result of the Grand Soir but rather it will stem from a continuous reflection on Commons practices and their political implications.

    Translation from French: Veronika Peterseil

    * This article is not included in the printed version.


    1. Christian Laval, L'Humanité, 17 November 2014
    2. Marc Pénin, Charles Gide 1847-1932, L'esprit critique, L'Harmattan, 1998
    3. The demand for an eight-hour day was the main reason for the strike which took place on 1 May 1886 in the McCormick factory in Chicago and ended four days later with 180 policemen charging at a pacifist crowd in Haymarket Square.
    4. A term coined by historian Eric J. Hobsbawn, (The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, Éditions Complexe, 1999) in reference to the period that begins with World War I and the Soviet Revolution and ends with the collapse of real socialisms at the end of the 1980s.
    5. Pierre Dardot & Christian Laval, Commun, Essai sur la révolution au XXIe siècle, Éditions La Découverte, 2014
    6. Michael Löwy, Écosocialisme, Paris, Éditions Mille et une nuits, 2011. 

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