House of Commons Portcullis House
London, 8 May 2012
It is an honor to be a guest in this august body, the House of Commons.
I’m sure that you don’t need an outsider to come in here and tell you about English history, but I would like to remind you about the meaning of this word, commons.
In the beginning was the common. People hunted and gathered on the common to meet their needs. Like all species, human beings inhabited familiar territories in their vicinity, but these were communal to their family or tribe, not owned by particular persons. People took the commons for granted because their was no reason not to.
Yes, many, many times people fought over their spaces, but for the most part, each person shared their own little corner of the world with friends and family. We would not be here today if our ancestors had been driven only by a ‘selfish gene’ — if they had not shared their commons and destroyed themselves. For them, the commons were simply the economics of human need and replenishment.
Eventually, in areas like Egypt, Persia, Phoenicia, Carthage and Greece, a small private or business sphere began to evolve alongside a larger public or governmental sphere. By the time of Ancient Rome, society was becoming differentiated between private, public, and common interests. In the face of these private and governmental sectors, the commons needed legal justification to remain relevant.
The Roman Justinian Code of 533 AD declared, “The law of nature is that which she has taught all animals; a law not peculiar to the human race, but shared by all living creatures, whether denizens of the air, the dry land, or the sea”.
In Britain, King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215, and in 1217 the Charter of the Forest was signed by his son, King Henry III. It declared the royal forests as common land that could be enjoyed and used by all citizens, including serfs and vassals. But during the 16th and 17th centuries, the English commons began to be privatized or enclosed. These enclosures began with the common meadows used for hay, the common land used to graze livestock, and the arable farmland used to grow food.
By the late 19th century, after 4000 acts of Parliament, over 98% of the agricultural land in England and Wales was owned by less than 1% of the population. During the past several centuries, the privatization of common land has become a familiar story across the world.
What happens when private owners are granted legal titles to common properties and enclosure becomes a primary driver of wealth creation in the world economy?
Let’s make a brief review of the enclosure of the commons.
• Commoners are forcibly displaced from the forests, streams and fields they had once considered inalienable through customary law.
• Commodities become detached from their real value as gifts beyond price.
• The personal use value of things is transformed into commercial exchange value.
• Cooperation, altruism and mutuality are displaced by reciprocity, calculation and utility.
• The State emerges to protect private property and defend the homeland through legally sanctioned violence against those who challenge private ownership.
• Civil law replaces customary or moral law.
• The world becomes increasingly mechanical and decontextualized.
• Access to nature is restricted. • Society is divided into creditors and debtors. • Exchange takes place through a currency based on bank debt.
• Interest charges promote competition and encourage perpetual growth.
• Commercial exchange expands.
• Alienability becomes marketability.
• Common faith and community bonds deteriorate.
• The significance of tradition and culture is diminished.
• Morality and natural law become a matter of self- interest and personal choice.
• Material wealth and poverty exist side by side.
• The commons is no longer the economics of sufficiency and replenishment.
• The commons is now the economics of scarcity and consumption.
Today, we vaguely recall this social history of the enclosures of the commons.
But how were these developments rationalized by science, political science and economic theory? In classical physics and chemistry, systems were regarded as the sum of their component parts. Applying this principle to human beings, philosopher John Locke viewed the person as a mental substance and the body as its material property. This created a kind of atomism or reductionism in liberal social thinking, where individuals are thought to be comprised of preferences and assets. Enlightenment thinkers began to teach that these preferences and assets are in constant interchange among people through their social relationships. They applied this liberal version of metaphysics to the liberal vision of society.
In the political sphere, the mind of government (through policies and institutions) coordinates the body politic (through votes and taxes). Similarly, economics is conceived as a mechanistic system — the minds of producers coordinate the supply (of property and material resources) to meet the demand of consumers’ bodies (through their utility and happiness).
This should sound familiar. It’s the basis of today’s consumer society. We consume what we need. But the economics of human need has failed us. By focusing on consumption, economics has neglected the rest of the cycle: we consume what we need, but this also means that we consume to be replenished. Yes, as individuals, we are replenishing ourselves through consumption. But individual consumption is not replenishing society. And individual consumption is certainly not replenishing nature. This is the legacy of the enclosure of the commons.
For generations our resources have been under assault from global market forces, regional and national policy development, and inadequate legal recognition of common property rights. We’re drilling for oil in the oceans, releasing vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, patenting the genes necessary to cure diseases, privatizing water, and claiming seeds as its intellectual property. The private sector now penetrates segments of society that we had previously considered off-limits to commercial interests. Public education, scientific research, philanthropy, art, health care, prisoner rehabilitation, roads, bridges have ceased to be public or commons spaces but are now under private control.
Why? Because this is an expression of individual freedom and creates economic growth.
We’re told that we’re being old-fashioned by clinging to the archaic forms of the past — like the commons — since modern society advances only through growth. Yet we are recognizing that the benefits of perpetual economic growth are not compensating for the vast damages and risks they create — from social insecurity, global warming, ecological degradation and species loss to hunger, poverty, debt and financial meltdown.
We’re also realizing that neither the private sphere nor government provision and distribution — which created these problems to begin with — are capable of solving them. Business has adopted the idea that it is meeting human needs by selling private goods to individual consumers. Government has adopted the idea that it is meeting human needs by regulating and provisioning public goods to individual citizens.
But who is responsible for preserving our common goods?
Who is responsible for replenishing what is consumed?
Who is creating the collective will for sustainability?
The economics of human need must be broadened to encompass the sustainability of the commons. But who is creating this new economics of replenishment? Look at our divisive political world. We divided ourselves by ideologies that focus upon the social good, or ideologies which focus more on individual rights. But all of those who have chosen to champion a particular view of either the social good or of individual rights have generated an enormous political polarity.
This duality between the ideals of social equality and political freedom discourages personal and social reconciliation, the transformation of our communities and the creation of a commons-based economy. When the individual is set in competition with the whole of society, the moral will and creativity of the people are suppressed. Mind and body are seen as separate units. Our being is split from our actions. Our common purpose is lost. This is why Western Liberalism is in crisis. We have not fully understood that the society which sees itself as an inevitable polarity between the social good and individual rights destroys the forms of life that are rooted in the commons. Capitalism is failing because it does not recognize the need for creating and maintaining the commons. This has left us starved for the equality and freedom which express the interrelatedness of human life and which can arise only through our commons.
Recall that the system of privitization did not begin with Mrs. Thatcher. It began in Ancient Rome. If we take the long view of things, one could say that the Roman Empire was never really defeated until the end of World War II and the demise of the Nazi regime. But Rome is reviving itself now through the Market State. This phenomenon called the Market State has been defined by both Philip Bobbitt and Phillip Blonde.
It is the confluence of business and government that we have been witnessing since the 1970s. Market State describes what seems like a role reversal over the past forty years between the private and public sectors. Indeed, the business community has now taken up many of the social and cultural responsibilities that were formerly the concern of government, such as policing power, prisons, social problems, environment, personal health, public and adult education, and the fostering of culture through finance.
And the state has embraced market dynamics and corporate principles of efficiency and management to a greater degree than before, marginalizing the role of representative government. Where is the voice of non-dualism today? Who is speaking for a genuine Third Way?
Unlike the Market State, the commons cannot be coordinated by some ultimate authority exercising control through a unified command structure, the social hierarchy of private property, the division of labor and the enclosure of what belongs to everyone. Rather, the commons express the massive, heterogeneous forces of society and the common responsibility of people to protect and sustain their valuable common goods. Without a sense of the indivisibility of human existence, the modern ideologies of collective rights and individual rights are both devoid of the realization that we take part in a variety of commons which are the source of our livelihood and well-being.
The commons recognize the dichotomy between individuals as the sum of their desires and ends (through the common good) and the individual being who is free to make choices independent of those desires and ends (as in individual rights). The commons movement brings them together as a consciously organized third sector that can create a more beneficial balance in economics and society. The commons are resources which people self-organize through their own production and governance. These commons — involving social, cultural, intellectual, digital, solar, natural, genetic and material resources — are now being rediscovered and rapidly becoming a potent counterforce to the Market State. The commons offer a unique form of non-dualism — a way of integrating the individual with the collective, the self with the whole.
We are now recognizing that our Beloved Commons are both the state of individual being and the collective state of the world. But what happens to the liberal ideals of freedom represented by the invisible hand of the market, and equality and justice represented by our social contract with government? The self-organization and rule-based production of a commons is a grassroots application of the principles of freedom and equality which are idealized but imperfectly expressed through modern free markets and state-enforced justice. We are expressing freedom and equality far more directly through the commons. This freedom and equality arise through the production and governance of the commons, which express the principles of pluralism, polycentrism, subsidiarity, checks and balances, and horizontalist decision-making.
This new social dynamic — arising from the shared values and meanings of people’s life-experiences in the organization and production of their commons —includes but transcends the market and state, thus bringing people a new form of political power. People across the world are creating commons trust and social charters. We’re developing new forms of co-production and co-governance. Open source models of self-organisation and value creation are inspiring communities in innovative ways.
We’re learning that the commons are not just resources but the set of relationships they create, including the communities that use them, and the cultural and social practices and property regimes that manage them. Unlike Moses coming down from the mountain with his tablet proclaiming the laws of God, there is no prophet of the commons holding a set of immutable principles that we can say are universal laws.
Yet there are some guidelines that many of us are following which seems to reflect the evolution of human civilisation in the 21st century.
• We are Co-creators of Nature
• By Creating this Shared Environment, we Participate in our own Culture
• Through this Creative Cooperation, Resource Users become the Producers of their own Resources
• Cooperation between Users and Producers is the Practice of Stewardship
• The Social and Political Expression of Stewardship is Trusteeship
• Trusteeship of the Commons Transforms the Ownership Structures of Modern Society
• Co-produced and Co-governed Commons Generate Sources of Value which Transcend the Marketplace and Government
• Commons Value is the basis of a Debt-Free Monetary System
• A Commons-Based Society results from our Collective Intentions for Sustainability
• The Economics of the Commons is Replenishment
What does this mean — that the commons is the economics of replenishment?
In our present view, we consume what we need. But this economics of human need has failed us. By focusing on consumption, economics has neglected the rest of the cycle: we consume to be replenished. As individuals, we are replenishing ourselves through consumption. But our consumption is not replenishing society — and it is not replenishing nature.
As I said earlier, business has adopted the idea that it is meeting human needs by selling private goods to individual consumers. Government has adopted the idea that it is meeting human needs by regulating and provisioning public goods to individual citizens. But who is responsible for preserving our common goods? Who is responsible for replenishing what is consumed?
Who is creating collective intentions for sustainability? Friends, the House of Commons took its name to remind the public that civil law emerged from common law. I understand this to be a promise by the Government to honour the people and their right to the resources of this nation.
It’s time that our leaders broaden the economics of human need to encompass the commons, not just in the United Kingdom and the Western World, but in all nations.
What would this future look like?
The only institutions capable of managing replenishment are commons trusts. The primary purpose of commons trusts is the regeneration of resources for future generations. This will lead to a new global monetary system, using commons resources for its reserve assets. The commons will lead to sustainability rates that replace our present interest rates. They will lead to the development of new ways of financing replenishment, including the development of Commons Wealth Funds which invest in the commons trusts which preserve our resources.
The commons will lead to peer-to-peer job creation, in which the users of resources become the producers of those resources, creating innovative forms of employment. It is our collective responsibility to replenish what is consumed. The commons must be created and sustained for the benefit of everyone. Now is the time to manifest abundance in our world, to manifest the processes needed to ensure that our commons are used wisely and sustainably, so that everyone will get their needs met today, tomorrow and hundreds of years into the future.
The non-dualism of individual rights and the social good is teaching us how to rebuild our commons, create collective intentions for the planet based on sustainability and restore the peace and tranquillity of the world.
The liberal economics of consumption has failed us.
The commons is the economics of replenishment.