The Future is Not a Club

Commons - The Vocabulary of Good Social Life/10

by Luigino Bruni 

Published in Avvenire on December 1, 2013


Commons have gradually become scarce and critical, and they are still too absent from the culture and practice of economics and politics.In economics common goods made their first appearance in 1911. They returned after a long eclipse, only at the end of the past century with Elinor Ostrom who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009. In the first relevant article we find three main remarks on commons: it was a study about water, with a historical perspective and written by a woman, Katharine Coman.

Water is still in the focus of the debate about commons, and a representative of their paradigm, because, unlike economic goods, it has no substitute - as Lanny Bruce's well-known joke tells us: "I have invented powdered water, but I do not know what to dissolve it in". The historical perspective is essential, for in order to understand how to handle them we must always ask ourselves how they emerged and how they have been preserved in time.

Without the resource of memory, which is neither nostalgia nor a remembrance but the past put into the service of the present and future, you cannot understand either the adjective (common) or the noun (goods). To manage these goods you should have children and grandchildren, and love those of others freely, and be able to see with your soul's eyes those who are not yet born, or who were born elsewhere. Every child is a very special form of the common good, whose growing up and survival, as we are reminded by the African culture, requires (the assistance of) "the whole village".

To preserve a forest you have to know how to care for and love each and every shrub, which contains in itself the whole forest of today, yesterday and tomorrow. And finally, the third remark, on the female dimension. At the beginning and at the end (for now) of the theory of commons, there are two women. And it is not by coincidence. Commons are essentially a matter of relationships, because they are relationships between people mediated by goods. Without attention to the relational dimension of life and the economy, without a relationship that transcends time and generations, commons first cannot be seen, then they cannot be understood, and finally they perish. When we look at relationships intrinsically, women have a vocation to take a leading role, and so to pass on life, their look and their flesh connect generations and create brothers and sisters out of their members. Capitalist economy has to make a great effort to understand commons because in general it does not address problems in a historical (or geographical) perspective. In fact, it does not see relations but separate individuals, and it is defined entirely within the registry of male rationality. So the main, if not only, economic perspective on commons is their destruction, starting from the now classic text by Hardin on the 'tragedy of the commons' in 1967 - an article that has been cited a lot, even too much, but one that has been rarely read and understood in its entire complexity and ambivalence.

If we wish, however, to understand and save commons and especially to create new ones, it is essential to be able to see the relational dimension. Since these goods are created, used and stored together, to be able to say 'it is mine' we are forced to pronounce it in a chorus, turning the word 'mine' into 'ours', and adding 'all' to it, thus turning it into the five loaves of bread and two fish who feed the crowds. Thus, in the creation and management of commons the norm of reciprocity is inscribed.  As English philosopher Martin Hollis pointed out to us (Trust within Reason, 1998), the typical reciprocity of commons responds to the "logic of the enough/sufficient". When I decide to give up what is mine in order to realise something that is 'ours', I do not expect contractual guarantees or assurances that all my other fellow citizens do the same. At the same time, however, I have to think and believe that 'enough' fellow citizens will do as I do, because if I thought to be the only one, or nearly so, to donate blood or to pay taxes, I'd be very tempted not to do it anymore. Many, in fact, give in. Many, yes, but not all. If there aren't any people in a community who, for some reason, are able to go beyond this logic of reciprocity (however important and necessary it may be), commons are not born and they do not survive. If you wish to make an ecological initiative in the city, to give rise to a form of shared economy, to stop paying protection money to the mafia, if you want to save a wood or an association from dying, if you want to trace and map the paths of a mountain, then it is necessary to have a group of citizens, however small, to be the starters to it, that is ready to engage without warranties, reciprocity or success. In the minds of these 'starter citizens' there is a special kind of logic at work, a logic that we may call the "better me alone than no-one". They know that their donating action is risky and often subject of ridicule because it is considered naive, and perhaps exploited by the opportunists, but, having the commons and the Common Good at heart they prefer to be the only ones to work for that good rather than see it perish, hoping (not expecting ) that their action will be copied the next day. Also, it is crucial that among these there be a few civil starters with the special gift of the care for and nurturing of relationship conflicts that are inevitable given the fact that commons are used together.

It is the indispensable presence of risky and vulnerable freeness especially present in and for the 'starters' that explains and reveals the etymology of the commons. The word common comes from (Latin) cum-munus, where 'cum' means together and 'munus' means gift and obligation at the same time. Commons are a matter of gifts but also of obligations to others, the future generations and the old ones who have left their patrimony to our care (patres - munus), but also the duty to ourselves and the obedience to the tenacious call of our inner world and consciousness.

For all these reasons, commons are difficult to manage by the capitalist market only. At the very least it is sad, if not outrageous, to continue to assist in a silent and resigned manner to speculators who are appropriating water, common land, forests, raw materials. They also take and use public land in our cities where their quest for maximum profit out of goods that are not theirs but belong to everyone becomes an additional implicit tax for the citizens, a tax that does not feed the funds of the town but those of distant shareholders. When will our city councils create an alliance with civil society and businesses to manage the soil, water, the greens and the streets in a non-profit way but efficiently, and when will the States realise that the commodification (much more than privatization) of commons (from highways to public transport) is a short-sighted way without profound social and economic thought?

The capitalist market society, however, is capable of producing very well, and more and more of the so-called 'club goods', goods that unlike the commons shall be unavailable for those who are not among the owners or associates. The club goods (think of the private quarters) are created and managed kept away from the excluded ones, especially the poor, from whom you can protect yourself by property rights, gates, and more and more private security guards. It is the basic rule of the 'open door' policy that has prevented cooperatives from becoming club goods. We should not forget either that in our era a high form of the common good is to give life to a real enterprise where someone takes risks to create jobs and wealth for many, and goods for all - a disease of our time, due to the domination of finance and its culture, is the transformation of businesses from commons into club goods. An enterprise that is a common good is one that enriches the owners together with the whole community and therefore needs 'the whole village' in order not to die; the club type of enterprise, however, is one that is born and dies, and kills, too, and only for the speculative benefits of those who possess it. 

We will only we be able to live together, and to live well if we are able to see, create and love (not destroy) commons which are the precondition and the humus of private goods. But we are in extreme need of old and new 'starters', citizens capable of generating and cherishing common goods, the Common Good, in order to mark the paths of life for all.

Further commentaries by Luigino Bruni in Avvenire are available through the Avvenire Editorial

Translated by Eszter Kató

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