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The Transformative Moment is Now

How the idea of the commons can bring sweeping social change

by Jay Walljasper

Published at On The Commons .org


Social change is not something easily diagrammed on a chart. Even sweeping transformations that rearrange the values of an entire culture such as the countercultural upheavals of the 1960s and the Thatcher/Reagan Revolution of the 1980s begin imperceptibly, quietly but steadily entering people’s thinking until one day it seems those new ideas have been there all along. Even in our age of instantaneous information—when a scrap of information can zoom around the globe in mere seconds—people’s worldviews still evolve gradually.

Learning from the Right, 
this is exactly how the free market paradigm of corporate power came to rule the world. Dreamed up in large part by an obscure circle of Austrian economists, it surfaced in the U.S. during the 1950s as a curious political sideshow promoted by figures like novelist Ayn Rand and her protégé Alan Greenspan.

The idea of the market as the bedrock of all public policy entered mainstream debate during the Goldwater campaign in 1964, which appeared to mark both its debut and demise. In the wake of the Republicans’ spectacular defeat in elections that year, small bands of pro-market partisans refused to accept the unpopularity of their ideas. Instead, they boldly launched a new movement that would eventually rearrange American economic life from bottom to top.

Bankrolled by wealthy supporters who understood that modern politics is a battle of ideas, market-oriented right wingers slowly were able to shed their image as fusty reactionaries swimming against the tide of human progress and refashion themselves as visionaries championing a bright, bold course for the future.

Their ranks swelled throughout the late 1970s as an unlikely combination of libertarian idealists, corporate opportunists and anxious defenders of traditional values signed up for the cause. The rapid-fire election of Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Francois Mitterrand in France confirmed market fundamentalists’ global ascendancy. Thatcher and Reagan were articulate advocates for the idea that the market should be the chief organizing principle of all human endeavor. Mitterand, on the other hand, was a dedicated socialist but soon discovered that the rising influence of international capital rendered him powerless to carry out promises of his 1981 election victory. That was the sure sign that we had entered a new age of corporate domination.

Since then our society has been heavily shaped by these forces; Alan Greenspan became the most influential economic policymaker in modern history, and the market paradigm is seen by many citizens not as an ideology that can be debated but as an indisputable truth on the same level as the laws of physics.

It feels that most things in our lives are up for sale to the highest bidder—from water in those ubiquitous plastic bottles to the sky itself, which can be traded by corporations who have been granted pollution rights to the atmosphere through cap and trade schemes. Reform movements of the left and center have successfully resisted certain extreme elements of the right-wing agenda but overall they have lost considerable ground over the past three decades as free market advocates convinced many people that the corporatist blueprint for the future is inevitable. Progress, which was once widely viewed as the gradual expansion of social justice goals, is now often seen as the expansion of corporate power and privatization.

Introducing the Commons Paradigm
But recently there is evidence that the market may have passed its peak as the defining idea of our era. Serious concern about the fate of the earth, especially global warming, offered the first signs of a shift. Then, recent financial upheavals revealed the glaring weaknesses of the current economic model for all to see, forcing even many market true believers scrambling to embrace new policies and positions.

A sudden switch in the mood of the U.S.—the driving engine of free market policies for many years—was seen most dramatically in Obama’s and the Democrats’ decisive victories this fall. While Obama has not used phrases like “the commons”,” his clearly articulated approach to governance is built upon ideas of the common good, which creates an opening to talk about the commons to a much wider audience.

A group of activists and thinkers championing a commons-based society is prepared to do just that by challenging the lockhold market ideology now holds over society. At this point, they’re a small bunch with backgrounds in various social causes, movements and internet initiatives—not so different from the dedicated market advocates of the 1950s and ‘60s, except in where they place their hopes. These commoners, as they call themselves, argue that a commons paradigm is beginning to emerge which could replace the market paradigm.

This idea of the commons—which simply means things we inherit or create together that belong equally to all of us such as air, water, public spaces, the internet, social services, culture and much more—could become a rallying point for people of diverse ideological stripes who question the market party line now enforced by corporate bosses, government bureaucrats and the economics profession.

The current rash of crises in modern life—including climate change, global poverty and social alienation— arise from an over reliance on the market as tool to get things done. That inevitably leads to widespread devaluing and destruction of the commons, with negative effects that can be felt everywhere in our lives, from shabby conditions in local parks to the growing sense of powerlessness most people about the decisions that affect their futures.

The rise of a commons-based society would not mean wholly dismantling the market system of economics but taming it. Ideally, the market and the commons work together to keep society in a kind of natural balance. There is a difference between using the market as an efficient technique for allocating resources in appropriate situations (market tools) and prescribing it as an all-purpose solution for every social and economic problem (market paradigm). Rejecting the narrow “private sector vs. state” arguments that have defined political discussion for so long, commoners envision a society that utilizing the strengths of the market along with those of civil society and government to provide for the common good.

This Unique Moment in History
Public recognition of the commons is rising, best seen in this dramatic statistic from the source that best measures the zeitgeist of our times: google. In June 2004, a google search for “commons” turned up 6.3 million hits. That search repeated in November 2008 yielded 255 million— 40 times as many references in just over four years. Internet growth accounts for a part of this gain, but it’s clear that the phrase “commons” and the wealth of ideas behind it are entering popular consciousness.

But as powerful as this idea is, the commons is not widely understood by the public. The phrase resonates in most people’s ears, but is often understood to mean specific concerns such as public lands or civic spaces. The commons actually represents an interconnecting web of critical concerns that reach deep into the realms of culture, ecology, technology, economics, politics, human relationships and social systems. There is a need for public education campaigns that excite people from all walks of life about the potential of a commons-based society to improve their own lives and reorder society’s priorities.

The growing interest in creating a commons-based society is fueled in part by the auspicious historical moment that is dawning all around us. It’s reminiscent of the time thirty years ago when liberalism was losing its footing and conservative policymakers refashioned their old political rhetoric based on social exclusion and apologies for corporate capitalism into a shiny new philosophy known as “the market”. Previously the thrust of right-wing thought had been focused on what they were against (civil rights, labor unions, social programs etc.), but claiming the market as their mission allowed them to showcase what they were for. The success of that “re-branding” has shaped our world.

The commons now offers a similar opportunity to turn things around in the political land economic spheres. Yet unlike the theory of the market, the commons is not just old wine in new bottles; it marks a substantive new dimension in political and social thinking.

The promise of a commons-based society offers considerable appeal for progressives after a long period in which the bulk of their political engagement has been in reaction to right-wing initiatives. Activists across many social movements, now aware that an expansive political agenda will succeed better than narrow identity politics and single-issue crusades, are starting to embrace the language and ideas of the commons. This line of thinking also appeals to a few traditional conservatives who regret the wanton destruction of social and environmental assets carried out in the name of a free market revolution. In the truest sense of the word, the commons is a conservative as well as progressive virtue because it aims to conserve and nurture all those things necessary for creating a better world.

At this moment in history growing numbers of citizens—including many who never before questioned the status quo—are willing to explore perspectives that once would have seemed radical. Millions of Americans are now making shifts in their personal lives such as buying organic foods, trying alternative medicine, collaborating in creating software, and beginning to search for something that offers a greater sense of meaning in the world. They may not yet understand the idea of the commons, but they are looking for something different in their lives.

The time seems ripe today for a decisive shift in worldview. People everywhere are yearning to tap the potential of the human spirit to create a better world, and the dream of a commons-based society holds great practical potential to transform that hope into constructive action.