Rethinking the Common Good

Neither capitalism nor communism, new concept protects resources

May 18, 2011 at 2:06 pm

The usual narrative of America’s Dust Bowl years goes something like this: Midwestern farmers, driven by greed, recklessly and ignorantly wrecked the land to such a point that it became worthless. They essentially ate themselves to death.

But Raj Patel, author of The Value of Nothing, says it wasn’t some innate, every-man-for-himself style of greed that raped the land; it was the dominant capitalist construct that was to blame.

Patel and fellow political theorist Michael Hardt recently visited Cincinnati to discuss the value of “the commons,” the idea that the wealth of the planet — land, air, water and human knowledge — are not things that should be bought and sold but are, in fact, the commonwealth of all mankind.

The public dialogue was held May 12 at the University of Cincinnati.

“When one looks at reasons for the Dust Bowl, what one sees in fact is not unbridled human greed, but capitalism. Either unrestrained corporations forcing people to exploit the resources on which they depend or of state capitalism (doing the same),” Patel says.

“Everyone thinks of China’s environmental problems as pandas not shagging enough,” he adds. “But China’s largest environmental problem is the dust storm that sweeps through every year. That dust storm is the result of incredibly bad ecological practices and farming practices. And if you can’t point your finger at the capitalists, you can certainly point your finger at the state capitalists for the failure in this particular instance.”

The concept of the commons is gaining interest globally because of the crises around the world where capitalism has failed. Patel describes the philosophy as “a robust, democratic and contemporary control of resources.”

Hardt, a Duke University professor who co-authored the book Commonwealth, says these resources are ones that are distinguished from property by the characteristics of shared use and management. The economic crisis of 2008 brought into focus competing views, he says, that there is either the hegemony of privately controlled resources to the bane of public property or the rule of public property to the ill of private property.

“In this vision, the commons becomes invisible,” Hardt says. “What are things outside of property relations?”

Hardt paraphrased Karl Marx, saying that capitalism has made us so stupid that we can’t conceive of something being ours unless we own it.

“We can’t think outside of property, or at least it’s very difficult to,” Hardt says.

And this lack of imagination creeps into every facet of life. Ideas, computer code, communications networks and images — which he says are essential components of the commons — are now considered central products of the capitalist economy.

Defining terms and working toward an understanding of the commons and our relationships with property and world economies is of critical importance to our survival, Hardt says. He describes the terms “freedom” and “democracy” as having lost any real meaning at all after the 2001 election of George W. Bush.

“What democracy means then is at best, regular elections among a limited choice (of candidates). In fact, in most parts of the world, democracy means you better start running because the bombs are sure to follow,” Hardt says.

Likewise, Patel says, the concept of “development” has come to mean something that the rich do to people who are poor, and “democracy” has come to mean something that’s done to us or that we do to others.

“Now that Obama has been elected, we have been encouraged to sit back and let Obama be the bringer of change and hope, that he will be the pizza delivery dude of change and he will bring hot, steaming change,” Patel says.

“It seems to me that view of democracy roundly deserves to be mocked and that view of development deserves to be mocked.”

There are other methods for conducting democracy and development that are defined by activism, not passivity, Patel adds. And reaching for this sort of self-sovereignty is what’s needed to preserve the commons for future generations.