[OPE] (Fwd) Immanuel Wallerstein (and other commoners) in South Africa

From: Patrick Bond <pbond@mail.ngo.za>
Date: Wed Nov 11 2009 - 12:47:48 EST

We just had a terrific time with Immanuel giving us a dot-connecting
mind-expanding set of lectures, mostly around the theme of capitalist
crisis and social resistance. (Conference details below - we'll soon be
uploading more materials on 'commoning' against capitalism. But the
readings below give a sense of the contributions and debates)


Crisis of the Capitalist System
Where do we go from Here?

Immanuel Wallerstein's Wolpe Lecture 5 November 2009

Full text in PDF format


Durban debates on politics, economics and environment
4-7 November 2009

Join us for a Durban Reality Tour and discussions at the University of
KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society
cohosted by Amandla! Magazine and iKwezi Institute

School of Development Studies, Memorial Tower Building, Howard College

Welcome from Dennis Brutus, with special guests Immanuel Wallerstein,
Dani Nabudere, Michael Hardt, Hazel Henderson, Eunice Sahle and others

The world is in turmoil; so are Durban and South/Southern Africa! How do
we make sense of it? Do we continue allowing the powerful to offer only
‘false solutions’ to our vast political, economic, social and
environmental problems? If not, what can ordinary people do, working
through institutions of civil society? Will the state continue to block
our aspirations, and will capital continue to run wild? Can we beat back
xenophobia, ethnicity, patriarchy and class conflict within society?
Will crises persist, or instead can a ‘commons’ strategy joining
humanitarian and ecological values across national boundaries arise,
imposing on the state and capital new values and politics, transcending
profit as the core rationale for economic activity?

The limits of internal capitalist reform are now clear. Too often, civil
society institutions have been forced to adapt our strategies and lower
our expectations, accepting narrow reforms ‘within the box’. For
economic development we have been told we need to be entrepreneurs to
move ‘from the second to the first economy’, in part by becoming more
‘competitive’ for export markets regardless of the ensuing economic
injustices. To address the climate crisis, we have been told that we
must use the market-based strategy of ‘carbon trading’ (with Durban
landfills serving as guinea pigs). But reforms have failed, and the
economic and ecological crises we face require more urgency,
sophistication and creativity than the elites are offering.

Why ‘the crises’? The world’s and South/Southern Africa’s deep economic
crises can be traced deeper than the short-term catalysts in the
‘financial sector’ - to long-term causes within capitalism’s distorted
‘real sector’, as well; both need analysis and action. In addition,
environmental crises – especially climate-related but also threatening
water, fish stocks, air quality and other ecological commons – are
becoming potentially lethal to planetary health and the very survival of
our and many other species. These problems in turn will create more
geopolitical, social, gendered and psychological tensions. Because these
crises are interlinked, it is time for holistic analysis: ‘world
systems’ perspectives, political economy and political ecology.

Why ‘the commons’? Instead of an individualistic approach, which too
often retreats from confrontations with socio-economic injustice, we
need a new approach to liberatory politics. We need to tackle not just
the distributional problems – unequal access to goods and services -
which have already generated world-leading human rights campaigns in
South and Southern Africa (e.g. social struggles and mutual aid systems
in the health and water sectors, where civil society activists have
opposed corporate/state neoliberalism and won free medicines and the
defeat of privatisation, respectively. In addition to fairer
distribution of a greater share of capitalism’s spoils, the ‘commons’ as
an idea allows us to move beyond a world based on profit, to one in
which basic needs goods are supplied as a human right.

Through and beyond ‘rights’. But a new debate has emerged, about whether
civil society strategists should transcend ‘rights talk’ which sets
struggles on legal and individualized terrain - sometimes
unsuccessfully, as Sowetans learned in the September 2009 Constitutional
Court case regarding Free Basic Water and prepayment meters, but
sometimes successfully, as Abahlali baseMjondolo showed in defeating the
KZN Slums Act in October 2009.

A regional commons of the people. In addition to South Africans, other
activists in our region are exploring these lessons and adapting
strategies/tactics accordingly. A regional commons of people can also be
constructed, as was shown in April 2008, when in our local port
(Africa’s largest), a Chinese ship carrying three million bullets
destined for use by Robert Mugabe’s armed forces was sent home by trade
unionists and church leaders. In contrast, the economic crisis is
exacerbating various structural factors that contributed to South
Africa’s 2008 xenophobia outbreak: migrant labour, tight housing
markets, Home Affairs corruption, extreme retail trade competition, and
crime. These need to be addressed in short- and long-term ways, so that
the regional commons happens bottom-up, instead of a commodified economy
being imposed top-down.

Commoning nature, too. A commons perspective takes the full life-cycle
of the subjects of social advocacy and campaigning seriously. For
example, the drops of water enjoyed in Johannesburg swimming pools and
flushed into a polluted water table which affects water access
downstream in Mozambique must be understood from their origins in the
mountains of Lesotho. In Durban, the Inanda Dam is the immediate source
of water, and a major campaign was recently declared successful:
restoration of land rights which were violated for the local Qadi clan
during the late 1980s when the dam submerged their traditional
residential and burial sites. The energy commons will be highlighted
with studies of global warming and the Inga hydropower facility that
will potentially export electricity as far north as Italy and as far
south as Cape Town, while ignoring the vast majority of needy Southern
Africans – especially women - who operate with ever-scarcer woodlots as
their primary energy source. The commons is especially important for
environmental analysis given the threat posed by carbon trading to a
holistic strategy for climate change.

The cultural commons. Thanks to South African and Zimbabwean cultural
artists, the fusion of politics, ecology, music and poetry all come
together as the basis for launching the Centre for Civil Society’s new
space at UKZN: the top three floors of Durban’s tallest building. Join
us from the bottom (Memorial Tower Building courtyard) to the top for
some enlightenment of the brain and inspiration of the soul on Friday,
from 6pm ‘til late. Then on Saturday, activists return to hard work.

CCS, Amandla! magazine and the iKwezi Institute’s Skenjani Roji Seminar
Series present a day of discussion:


Development, Protests and Democracy in South Africa: Social Movements
and the Crisis of Service Delivery

South Africa has experienced major protests over services delivery in
recent years, with police counting roughly 8,000 per year. The last few
months, in spite of hope for a new and different state leadership, the
protests have increased in tempo and ferocity. The authorities have
responded with intense repression, but also major concessions.

Yet there is a conspicuous absence of social movement organisations
providing leadership and articulating community interests, especially in
view of the depth of SA’s economic crisis.

What is the state of the new social movements in South Africa? Have
these organisations been decimated since their rise a decade ago? Or is
there renewed space to organise and build democratic social movements
which has not yet been taken advantage of?

The national democratic state has delivered services to communities at a
rate higher than the apartheid state did, yet prices of water,
electricity and housing have risen to unaffordable levels for many. In
this context, do the protests challenge the legitimacy of the democratic
local state, similar to the way urban protests of the 1980s undermined
the legitimacy of apartheid’s Black Local Authorities? Are communities
properly informed of development plans by municipalities? Is local
corruption a problem? Do community organisations have adequate voice?
Are protests linked to internal political crises within the ANC, or are
external political influences guiding the protests? Are the uprisings a
manifestation of residents’ genuine frustration over the state’s failure
to serve – because of municipal shortcomings and because of
inappropriate national policies and inadequate national funding subsidies?

Today, social movement organisations seem to be peripheral to the
community protests, at a time they could be providing leadership,
articulating development challenges that affect communities, negotiating
with authorities, utilising information based on organic research, and
proposing genuine solutions.

So what is the future of social movements if they are not present in the
communities during this period of social and political crisis? How
should they reorganise, if that is the challenge? Are they now facing a
crisis of legitimacy too?

Durban and South African activists working in community, environmental,
social and labour organisations - and more broadly for a democratic left
- have been divided, and need to unite.


The Crises and the Commons Public events at the University of
KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society
in the School of Development Studies, Memorial Tower Building, Durban
cohosted by Amandla! Magazine (CT) and iKwezi Institute (Jhb)

Programme of Activities, 4-7 November

Nov 4 – DURBAN REALITY TOUR7:45 Bus pick-up at UKZN in front of Memorial
Tower Building
8-9:45 Warwick Early Morning Market & Albert Park – hosted by Baruti Amisi
10-12 South Durban toxic tour – hosted by Oliver Meth
12:15-2:30 Chatsworth/Crossmore (with lunch) – hosted by Orlean Naidoo
3-4:30 Cato Manor – hosted by Faith ka Manzi
5-7 Other Durban discussions, solidarity and cultural events at UKZN MTB

Memorial Tower Building, Howard College, ROOM L1
8:30-9 – INTRODUCTION – Patrick Bond, Mazibuko Jara and Dennis Brutus
9-11 – DURBAN AND SOUTH AFRICAN CRISES with Cathy Sutherland, Julie May
Ellingson, Dudu Khumalo and Patrick Bond
11-11:15 – TEA BREAK
11:15-1:00 – REGIONAL AND AFRICAN CRISES with Dani Nabudere
1-1:45 – LUNCH
1:45-3:30 – GLOBAL/ECO CRISES with Hazel Henderson, Bert Olivier,
Malcolm Roberts
3:30-3:45 – TEA BREAK
3:45-5:15 –THE MEANING OF COMMONS with Michael Hardt and Ashwin Desai
5:15-5:30 – move from Memorial Tower Building to Shepstone 1
5:30-7 – (Shepstone 1): WOLPE LECTURE by Immanuel Wallerstein:
“Crisis of the Capitalist System: Where Do We Go From Here?”

Memorial Tower Building, Howard College, ROOM L1
11-1 – COMMONING RESOURCES: Alaskan oil, Ecuador’s Yasuni, Niger Delta,
Xolobeni – with Jack Hickel, Art Davidson,
Rehana Dada, Siziwe Khanyile, Sinegugu Zukulu
1-1:45 LUNCH
1:45-3:30 – COMMONING SERVICE DELIVERY: Health/meds, water, electricity,
3:30-3:45 – TEA
3:45-5:30 – COMMONING PEOPLE: local unity, national alliances, regional
anti-xenophobia, int’l solidarity – Baruti
Amisi on Durban research; ‘Citizen X film project’ with Arya Lalloo;
Pamela Ngwenya with participatory video teams
5:30-6 – CLOSURE: Trevor Ngwane, Orlean Naidoo, Patrick Bond, Dennis Brutus
Outspoken, Chabvondoka with Comrade Fatso, Davyn &
Kho, Matt Wilson, Iain Ewok Robinson, Cato Manor Maskandi Band in MTB

Nov 7 – ACTIVIST STRATEGY DAY *Skenjani Roji Seminar Series with iKwezi
Institute Development, Protests and Democracy in South Africa: Social
Movements and the Crisis of Service Delivery plus workshops on related
themes, 9-5

PDF version of this Document

* RSVP essential: Lungi 031-260-3577 (a modest fee to cover costs may be
(We are grateful to the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Open Society
Initiative of Southern Africa, Harold Wolpe Trust, CS Mott Foundation
and Atlantic Philanthropies for interest and support.)


Presented by participants in the CCS Crises and Commons conference, 5-7

Where Is the World Headed?

By Immanuel Wallerstein

ZCommunications, May 08, 2009

As the world heads into the next decade, there are two arenas where we
can anticipate great turbulence the geopolitical arena and the world
economy, with the relative decline of US geopolitical power, now
acknowledged by almost everyone and which even President Obama will be
unable to reverse.

We’ve moved into a truly multipolar world where the power of relatively
weaker states is suddenly much greater. The Middle East in 2008 was but
one example: Turkey brokered long dormant negotiations between Syria and
Israel. Qatar brokered a negotiated truce between fiercely opposed
factions in Lebanon. Egypt sought to broker negotiations between Hamas
and Israel. The Palestinian Authority resumed negotiations with Hamas.
And the Pakistani government entered into a de facto truce with the
Taliban inside the zones bordering Afghanistan. What’s significant about
each of these actions is that the United States opposed all of these
negotiations and was simply ignored without serious consequences for any
of the actors.

Alongside the US, European Union, and Japan there is now Russia, China,
India, Iran, Brazil as the putative leader of a South American bloc, and
South Africa as the putative leader of a southern Africa bloc.

There’s an immense amount of jockeying for alliances, with internal
debate about optimal partners and plenty of uncertainty about what they
will decide. In addition, other countries like Poland, Ukraine, Korea,
Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Mexico, and Canada are unsure about how to
maneuver. Clearly the new geopolitical situation is quite unlike
anything the world has known in a long time. It isn’t quite total
anarchy, but it is certainly massive geopolitical disorder.

This geopolitical disorder accompanies acute uncertainties about the
world economy. There is first of all the issue of currencies. We have
lived, since 1945 at least, in a dollar stabilized world. The decline of
the US, in particular its decline as a dominant locus of world
production, combined with the overstretch of its debt, has caused a
serious decline of its exchange rate, one whose end point is unclear but
probably still lower.

This decline of the dollar poses a serious economic dilemma for other
countries, particularly those which have placed their increasing wealth
into dollar denominated bonds and stocks. These countries are torn
between wanting to sustain the US as a significant purchaser of their
exports and the real losses they incur in the value of their dollar
denominated assets as the dollar declines and pondering when to abandon
it. But as with all financial exits, the issue for the holders of assets
is timing neither too early nor too late.

Will some other currency replace the dollar as the reserve currency of
the world? The obvious candidate is the euro. Whether it can play this
role or whether European governments wish to play this role is
uncertain, although it’s possible that this role may be thrust upon it.

If not the euro, might we have a multi currency situation one in which
the dollar, the euro, the yen, possibly the Chinese RMB and the pound
are all used for world transactions? The answer here is akin to the
question of geopolitical alliances. It would not be total anarchy, but
it would certainly be disorder, and the world’s governments and
producers would feel most uncomfortable not to speak of the world’s

Many large countries have seen large increases in both their productive
output and their level of consumption. Take the so called BRIC countries
Brazil, Russia, India, and China which harbor something like 60 percent
of the world’s population. The increase in their output and consumption
levels has led to an incredibly increased demand for energy, raw
materials, food, and water. Something must give. We could have a major
worldwide inflation, as the prices of all these commodities zoom upward,
fueled by surging demand and speculation. We could then have massive
protectionism, as governments seek to safeguard their own supplies by
limiting any and all exports.

But, as the world has now acknowledged a so-called credit crunch, the
more likely scenario is acute deflation. Excessive inflation and nominal
deflation are simply two variants of serious constraints on world
production and serious misery for the large majority of the world

As we know from past experiences, this could create an erratic vicious
circle. We could have massive food and water shortages felt here and
there, resulting in high mortality rates and serious additional
environmental catastrophes.

Governments assaulted by reduced real revenues, under pressure not to
increase taxes to compensate, might cut back in the three key domains of
education, health, and old age pensions. But these are the domains that,
as part of the democratization of the world over the past two centuries,
have been the key demands in which publics make demands of governments.
Governments unable to address the maintenance of these three forms of
social redistribution would face a major loss of legitimacy, with
uncertain consequences in terms of civil uprisings.

Now this entire short run negative picture is exactly what one means
when one says that the system has moved far from equilibrium entering
into a state of chaos. Chaos, to be sure, never goes on forever. Chaotic
situations eventually breed their own resolution in what Prigogine and
Stengers called ‘order out of chaos’ in the English title of their
classic work. As the authors emphasized, in the midst of a bifurcation,
there is creativity, there is choice, but we cannot be sure what choices
will be made.

In the world battle between the Left and the Right, the former had a
vertiginous rise in the nineteenth and especially the twentieth century.
The Left mobilized support on a vast scale and very effectively. There
came a moment in the post 1945 period when it seemed to be succeeding
everywhere in every way.

Then came the grand disillusionments. The states where the antisystemic
movements came to power in one way or another were in practice far from
what the popular forces had expected and hoped to institute. And the
presumption of irreversibility of these regimes turned out to be another
illusion. By the early 1990s, triumphalism had disappeared amongst the
world Left, to be replaced by a widespread lethargy, often a sense of

And yet, as we know, the subsequent triumphalism of the world Right fell
apart as well, most spectacularly in the utter fiasco of the neo con
assertion of a permanent US imperial domination of the world. From the
1994 Zapatista uprising to the successful shutdown of the 1999 Seattle
meeting of the World Trade Organization to the 2001 founding of the
World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, a reignited world Left
reemerged on the world scene.

We live in a chaotic world environment and it’s difficult to see
clearly. It’s a bit like trying to make one’s way forward in a major
snowstorm. Those who survive both use a compass to know which direction
to walk and also examine the ground inches ahead to make sure they do
not tumble into some hole. The compass guides our middle run objectives
the kind of new world system we wish to build. The ground inches in
front of us is the politics of the lesser evil. If we don’t do both,
we’re lost. Let us debate about the direction of the compass, ignoring
the states and ignoring nationalism. Let us nonetheless engage with the
states and nationalism in the short run, so that we avoid the crevices.
Then we have a chance of survival, a chance we will achieve that other
world that is possible.

Z Net - The Spirit Of Resistance Lives URL:


By Dani Nabudere

www.pambazuka.org, December 2008

The present financial crisis afflicting the global economy should not be
seen from the narrow focus of the credit crunch and its relationship to
the subprime mortgage crisis in the Western countries, especially the
US. The crisis goes to the very foundations of the global capitalist
system and it should be analysed from that angle. What is at the core of
the crisis is the over-extension of credit on a narrow material
production base. This is in a situation in which money has become
increasingly detached from its material base of a money commodity that
can measure its value such as gold.

The expansion of the world economy from 1945 onwards was based on the US
providing some kind of link between money and the gold standard, which
the US tried to maintain until its collapse in the 1970s. Increasingly
the dollar became the global currency but without a backing to its
currency from a money commodity. The over-expansion of credit that has
taken place since then, especially with the globalisation of the world
economy, has meant that a lot of paper money and monetary instruments in
the form of derivatives and ‘future options’ have lost any relationship
to the ‘fundamentals’ in the material production of the world economy.

That is why there has been a growing outcry that the growth of
‘speculative capital’ has over-run the growth of ‘productive capital’
with large amounts of money and credit circulating without the backing
of any production at all. That is also why the relationship between the
‘fundamentals’ in the economy and the new credit instruments created on
a daily basis in many cases from speculative ‘short-selling’ have become
narrower and narrower over time. This is also why the present financial
crisis is also a reflection of the energy and food crisis, because oil
and food products such as wheat, rice and other commodities have been
subjected to speculative trading to back up paper money many years in
the future. The British Prime Minister, among the world leaders, is the
only one who has seen this connection when he brought it up in the World
Bank meeting a few months ago and also when he met the US Democratic
Party Presidential candidate, Barrack Obama, when he visited Europe

Thus the amount of credit floating around the world is ‘loose money’
completely run-wild, which claims a relationship with a narrow
production base. This is in a situation when the US is increasingly
unable to repay debts it has accumulated in its Treasury Bonds and
Bills, in which the rest of the world have placed their reserves. Most
African countries have millions of dollars in these US Treasury bills,
which are held as the countries’ ‘reserves.’ China, India and Japan have
trillions deposited in these ‘T’ bills and bonds This means that should
the world economy collapse under pressure of ‘loose money’ wanting to be
given a value (which they do not have) so that the holders of that
‘money’ can preserve their wealth, those holdings in US Treasury bills
(or US debt to the rest of the world) will be lost forcing many weak
economies to collapse along with it.

This is why it is wrong to conclude, like many people do that capitalism
has the capacity, as it has shown over the years, to always reinvent
itself by growing a new skin to resist the pangs of crisis inflicted on
it by its own greed. That is a false conclusion. US and British
capitalism are being put under pressure to stay a float only by
nationalising a number of banks and the corporations that can no longer
sustain their operations because of shortage of ‘liquid cash.’ These
corporations and banks demand that the state should bail them out. The
state is being forced to bail these enterprises out on condition that
they shall sell the bulk of their shares to the state. This means that
these capitalist states are being forced to move in the direction of
central planning and management of the economy. For lack of space, we
cannot go into this matter in greater detail.

In short, what Karl Marx called ‘the financial oligarchy’ is demanding
that the state should take over their burdens and maintain the ‘value’
of their valueless credit instruments while insisting that the poor
workers and the middle classes shall take care of themselves. In other
world, the oligarchy demand communism for themselves while relegating
socialism and capitalism for the middle class and the working class and
the other poor strata of society because socialism and capitalism are
the only ways through which the middle class and the working poor can
‘compete’ among themselves for survival. Remember that Marx defined
communism as: ‘to each according to his needs’ and socialism as: ‘to
each according to his capacities.’ Capitalism can now better be defined
as: ‘to each according to his own devices,’ which is a paradigm fit for
the working poor.


The economic crisis has also revealed the way credit over-expansion has
affected food prices throughout the world. In fact when the credit
crunch struck the world and the food crisis was announced, the crisis
was recognised as a global food crisis. That is why the International
Monetary Fund and the World Bank immediately held a special session of
the Boards of Governors of their institutions to develop policies to
deal with this crisis when it became clear that the food crisis was
likely to stay with us until 2015 at the very least.

Immediately following the meetings of these multilateral institutions,
the World Food Organisation-FAO held an urgent Food Summit on June 3-5
in Rome, in which the Summit called for an immediate response by
governments. After the World Bank meeting, the British prime minister,
Gordon Brown, wrote a letter to the Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo
Fukuda, who was at the time the chair of the G8, in which he asked the
group to act with speed to address the soaring food prices. What was
significant was that Gordon also recognised that the financial
market-based risk management instruments, including derivatives, had to
be considered as contributing to the food price volatilities. What did
Gordon Brown mean by this statement? The real problem underlying
currency instability and commodity price volatilities is the fact that
the dollar, which acts as a global reserve currency, is not backed by
any solid money commodity such as gold or silver. These money
commodities were historically overwhelmed by the growth of capitalist
wealth. As a result not all paper wealth that was held by economic
actors could be changed into gold in periods of crisis when the demand
for ‘real’ money became overwhelming. With the collapse of the gold
standard in the US in the 1970s because of the outgrowth of Eurodollars,
attempts were made to rely on other commodities such as platinum to back
up the dollar, but this was a non-starter because the cost of storing
platinum was too high to be borne by paper wealth holders. But financial
instruments, especially future options and instruments called
derivatives continued to grow in volume.

This is what led to the food commodities coming into the picture to back
up future contracts and derivatives expressed in US dollars. The centre
of the global commodity trade is the Chicago Board of Trade-CBOT. It is
here that global trade in commodities is valued and undertaken together
with other commodities markets. It is also here that all commodities,
including food commodities, are ‘financialised’ in dollar financial
instruments Wheat, oats, corn, rice and soybean are all agricultural
products traded on various commodities exchanges, including the CBOT.
Here the exchanges also trade the financial ‘products,’ as well as
futures and options contracts on these and several derivative products
such as bean oil. Coffee, cocoa, sugar, cotton and orange juice are all
‘soft’ commodities, many of which are traded on the CSCE (Coffee, Sugar
and Cocoa Exchange). Interestingly, since 80% of the oranges grown in
the U.S. are turned into frozen orange juice concentrate, it’s the juice
that is traded as a commodity, not the fruit.

An article that appeared in the Toronto Globe and Mail of 31st May 2008
argued that it was the deregulation of financial markets and the
systematic exploitation of US regulatory loopholes that had led to the
upsurge of speculative investments in food commodity markets, much of it
by institutional investors such as the managers of pension funds. ‘These
funds’, wrote the authors, ‘have ploughed tens of billions of dollars
into agricultural commodities as a way of diversifying their assets and
improve returns for their investors.’

According to the authors, the amount of fund money invested in commodity
indexes had climbed from just $13-billion in 2003 to a staggering
$260-billion in March 2008, according to calculations based on
regulatory filings. There were warnings that this amount could easily
quadruple to $1-trillion, if pension fund managers allocated a greater
portion of their portfolio to commodities, as some consultants suggested
they were poised to do. Thus, it was the progressive loosening of
regulatory requirements, which made possible the enormous influx of
money, much of it fleeing the meltdown in the market for mortgage-backed
securities and the wider fallout, including big leveraged buyouts in banks.

Because agricultural markets are small - relative to stock markets - the
amount of cash pouring into these markets gives these funds substantial
clout. The authors observed that these big institutional investors
controlled enough wheat in futures instruments, which could supply the
needs of American consumers for the next two years. They blamed the
‘demand shock’ from these recent entrants to the commodities markets as
the primary factor behind the sudden soaring of food prices. They noted
that if no immediate action was taken, food and energy prices were bound
to rise still further leading to the catastrophic economic effects on
millions of already stressed U.S. consumers and the possible starvation
of millions of the worlds poor.

For instance, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension fund, which began with a
modest investment in food commodities in 1997, had by 2008 invested some
3 billion dollars in this market. With rising investor activity and
increasing demand, prices began to rise. Between 2000 and 2007, the
price of wheat increased 147 per cent on the Chicago Board of Trade.
Over the same period, corn increased by 79 per cent and soybeans by 72
per cent. As more funds moved in to invest, speculators began clamour
for more flexibility with trading limits and since there were no
controls, the food commodity prices kept on rising.

It has been estimated that for every one percent increase in the price
of food, there is an additional 16 million people who go hungry. In its
briefing paper for the World Food Summit, the FAO Secretariat devoted
two whole paragraphs to the influence of financial markets in pushing
upwards the cost of staple food commodities in its assessment of recent
developments. However, it had nothing to say about the matter when it
came to recommending ‘policy options’ for dealing with the problem. This
was not accidental, but a reflection of the positions of the States.

This is why it was correct to conclude, as we have done above, that for
the financial oligarchy who wield power in the States, the demand is
that the State must guarantee them ‘communism’ (which can assure them
their needs) while for the producing and middle classes the attitude of
the State is only to guarantee them the conditions for ‘free
competition’ for the little the financial oligarchy is able to leave
aside for the ‘markets’ (to compete over according to their abilities
and devices). Financial markets in the global capitalist system, as well
as global inter-governmental organisations such as FAO, it seems, have
no ‘policy options’ to attend to the needs of the starving masses. There
always are, however, ‘options’ for ‘bailing out’ the financial oligarchy
while the masses are left to the devices of ‘the markets.’


It is clear from the above that agricultural production has become a
victim of late capitalist crisis. This is as it has been because from
its birth capitalism had always profited from agriculture as an ‘old
industry’ in which this ‘industry’ provided the raw materials for its
expanded reproduction at low cost. Capitalist crisis has therefore
contributed greatly to the exploitation of agricultural workers and
ultimately to its collapse. It did so first, by plundering the European
peasantry and converting them into paupers through the enclosure system
by using the proceeds for its ‘primitive accumulation’ of capital as one
of the sources of its birth.

In so doing, it turned the peasants into workers and in its imperialist
phase turned to the colonies for agricultural raw materials where the
colonial peasant producers were paid prices below subsistence subsidised
by female and child free labour working on land. Only after
decolonisation and the establishment of the European Common Market did
Europe develop a common agricultural policy to avoid being starved in
case of wars in the post-colonial States.

Secondly, with the increasing securitisation of commodities, in which
the central banks relied on a variety of commodities to give value to
paper debt instruments, capitalists fell to agriculture in the
post-colonial States of Africa to save their currencies from collapse.
This as we saw above is what led to the escalation in the prices of food
products leading to their destruction as commodities. The collapse of
the dollar and other ‘hard currencies’ has meant a doom for those
agricultural food products as their prices begun to plummet with the
collapsing currencies.

This is what the economists are calling a ‘recession.’ But nobody knows
when the recession will end although many of them now agree that it is
already on in all the developed capitalist countries. So those who
believed that with high food prices the peasant producers would earn
high incomes had better rethink their arithmetic because they need to
revise their knowledge of how capitalism operates in its old age.
African agricultural and food production based on exports to the markets
of the developed countries can no longer be assured and so the African
farmer has to find a way out of this mess as quickly as possible.

What we have said above must already alert us as to what we have to do
to get out of the mess. First, we have to look at how we can survive in
terms of food availability. For the first time, we have to wake up to
the reality that African countries need a food security policy as a
matter of urgency about which leaders can no longer dilly-dally. That
means African countries have first to focus on the home market followed
by the regional market and finally the global market. With the home
market becoming the focus for our production, we can create regional
currencies because in that case we shall have no alternative but to
create them to serve the regional markets, but operating under
completely new conditions and principles. But we cannot develop a food
security based on food crops of which people have very little knowledge,
especially since with the currency crisis; we shall not have sufficient
dollars to buy foreign food products with in the short and medium terms.

This means we have to rely more on indigenous food products as the basis
of our food security, which we must quickly encourage the farmers to
revive. Although many of our indigenous food crops were abandoned in
favour of exotic products that could also be sold on the market, there
is still a reservoir of knowledge about these crops in the rural
communities. So reviving these crops would not be an uphill task if we
have a policy that is driven with the same zeal as that of the current
production for export. The African elites will have to content
themselves with consuming indigenous crops since they can no longer
depend on exotic foreign products.

Secondly, we have to consider the strategy of encouraging cooperative
production because with the increasing population driven by poverty and
the great fragmentation of land holding, it will not be possible to
sustain families on the small farm-holdings. A cooperative policy also
presupposes a sound credit policy that can enable farmers to borrow for
their production and hence the need to hasten the creation of a regional
currency that can inform the creation of new local credit systems
drawing on the experiences of the ‘informal sector.’ We should learn
what the people of Somaliland have done in this respect because they
have managed to create a very strong local currency that is not pegged
to any global currency.

The collapse of the global capitalist system will not mean the end of
the world! On the contrary, it will release the bottled up energies of
the people that have been suffocated by the collapsing capitalist
system. We shall survive by burying the old system and creating a new
one. Such a new system will have to be socialist-oriented since even the
most developed capitalist countries have no alternative but to do so as
we can already see with the whole sale nationalisation of banks
throughout Europe and the US. Some countries such as Iceland have
already gone bankrupt.

This means that even the political system has to change. The key to
political rejuvenation will lie in the ‘deepening of democracy’ right
from the family level, to the clan and to the traditional institutions
level since the post-colonial state would have collapsed along with the
dollar. New forms of political power will emerge at a local level unless
new warlords try to occupy the political space. But the warlords are
already doomed as the Somali situation already demonstrates. The local
power structures will need a wider cooperative basis on the model of
confederal or federal regional states and we should consider Southern,
Eastern African or the Great Lakes region for such a partnership.

The development of local markets will need the backing of regional
markets for wider exchange of commodities. Therefore, new forms of
agricultural and industrial production will have to be tailored to local
needs and tastes. Similarly, new local markets will emerge in other
parts of the world calling for global exchanges of commodities with
those consumers. Eventually a new global currency or currencies based on
a basket of commodities will have to be created to facilitate these
exchanges on a completely new basis not based on capitalist
super-profits run by transnational corporations.

At a political level, we shall increasingly see the emergence of a
global civil society along side the new global market. Hence, we can
already envisage the emergence of a GLOCAL SOCIETY (a Global society
based on local nationalities and global citizenship). Along side with
these developments will eventually emerge a federated global State,
which will be developed by the local powers. We can no longer return to
the caves, we can only move forward to a new world. Yes, a New World is
possible and it can now be said with certainty: A NEW WORLD IS INEVITABLE!

* Professor Dani W. Nabudere is the Executive Director of the Afrika
Study Centre

Is there an ecological crisis?

By Bert Olivier

13 October 2009

As I said in my previous posting, there is a clear divide between those
who deny the existence of an ecological crisis, on the one hand, and
those who assert that the inhabitants of planet Earth face an ecological
crisis of unprecedented proportions. On both sides there are scientists
— at least people who claim that they are scientists — something that
causes no little confusion on the part of the public, given the way that
we have been taught to respect scientific judgement. Which so-called
scientists do we trust?

In the final analysis, however, one must make up one’s mind, which is no
easy task, by using as many sources of information as possible and
exercising independent thinking and judgement. As for myself I have made
up my mind to believe and trust those thinkers, writers, scientists and
activists who are trying their level best to convince the rest of us
that time is running out as far as being able to do anything about the
looming ecological disaster is concerned. Quite apart from the question,
whether one can be sure that they are right, there is this consideration
(reminiscent of Pascal’s famous ‘wager’ concerning God’s existence):
what if they are right and we don’t do anything?

One of the most convincing thinkers when it comes to taking seriously
the possibility that civilisation as we know it could ‘collapse’
globally, unless we do things ‘right’, unless we learn from the mistakes
of other civilisations that have ‘collapsed’ irreversibly, is Jared
Diamond, whose prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel paved the way for the
book I have been alluding to eponymously, namely Collapse: How Societies
Choose to Fail or Succeed.

Focusing on the beautiful state of present-day Montana, in the US, he
shows that all the ingredients for a collapse are present in that state
— those that would accelerate such a collapse, as well as those that
could, if they were pursued and expanded, prevent a collapse. In this
way one is put in a position to understand that Montana is a microcosm
of planet Earth and that the things that need to be done there are the
same things that should be done everywhere on the planet (including, not
working against nature when it comes to allowing forests to grow
naturally, instead of interfering by thinning out underbrush and smaller
vegetation in forests; not allowing toxins to leach into rivers and
lakes from mining operations).

Diamond’s painstaking elaboration on the reasons why earlier societies
failed — such as that on Easter Island or the Mayan civilisation —
brings to light that in every case the people concerned underestimated
the long-term effects of their environmental destruction, especially
that of life-giving vegetation like forests. In the chapter on Easter
Island, where palm trees were systematically cut down to the very last
one (for religious reasons, unbelievably — for transporting their
gigantic rock-hewn statues to the sites where they were erected, to
‘placate the gods’), Diamond says that he wonders what went through the
mind of the men who cut down the very last tree on the island. One could
say the same of people who knowingly release toxic waste of various
kinds into life-giving rivers.

Another uncompromising ecological thinker, whose work I respect because
of its thoroughness and clarity of vision, is Joel Kovel, whose book,
The Enemy of Nature acted as a kind of wake-up call when I read the
first edition about five years ago. If one reads Kovel’s book against
the backdrop of the insights gained through Diamond’s Collapse, that
human depredation of nature has historically led to the implosion of
several civilisations, it becomes increasingly clear that such
depredation has been occurring, for decades now — but in accelerating
fashion, from about 1970 — not merely in isolated areas of the planet,
but globally. Moreover, and this is the crux of The Enemy of Nature
(subtitled The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?), the current,
globally dominant economic system, known as neoliberal capitalism, is
largely to blame for the speed with which ecological degradation is
occurring, because of its uncompromising commitment to (economic) GROWTH
at all costs.

To be sure, the (dirty) industrial activity of communist and socialist
countries contributed significantly to the pollution of the Earth, as
well as to climate change through carbon emissions, but the
differentiating factor between these economic systems and capitalism is
precisely the latter’s unrelenting pursuit of ‘growth’. Just how
shortsighted this is, Kovel points out, should be clear to anyone who
understands that human economic growth cannot occur indefinitely within
a finite biosphere. And yet, most companies treat natural ecologies as
if they are a smaller part of human economies!

I have mentioned climate change and carbon emissions. Kovel remarks that
when the first edition of his book appeared in 2002 there could still be
honest disagreements among scientists about the relation between carbon
emissions and potentially catastrophic global warming, but that, when
the second edition appeared in 2007, this could hardly still be the
case. There is virtual consensus among scientists worldwide that the
industrial-economic behaviour of humans is largely responsible for the
runaway warming of the Earth’s biosphere. And those denialists who point
at the vacillation between periods of hot and cold climatic conditions
in the history of the planet, conveniently overlook the fact that those
oscillations have, as far back as scientists can determine, always
remained between certain extremes, but that more recently — as Al Gore
has argued in his book, Earth in the Balance, as well as in the film, An
Inconvenient Truth — the upwards swing of the thermometer has gone off
the chart, as it were, and is still rising.

Hence, to return to the question, whether there is an ecological crisis
facing humanity, it seems to me that the answer is an emphatic yes!
There is overwhelming evidence, moreover, that it has been of human
making, through the blind pursuit of an economic system that turns
everything into resources for the sake of growth and the generation of
material wealth. Kovel reminds one of the remarkable fact that, in 1970,
growing anxiety about the deteriorating condition of planet Earth
resulted in a new ecological awareness and a new politics.

On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day was proclaimed, and has been
commemorated on that date every year since then, to affirm human
dedication to the preservation of the non-human environment. Shortly
afterwards, in 1972, one witnessed the extraordinary event of some of
the world’s power-elites (the so-called Club of Rome) issuing a
‘manifesto’ pertinently and clairvoyantly called The Limits to Growth.
Sadly, Kovel observes, since that time growth has, instead of slowing
down, only accelerated. He provides the following list regarding the
impact of human economic activity on the planet between 1970 and 2000
(imagine what it is today!) whatever kind of impact it might be:

– The human population had increased from 3.7 billion to 6 billion (62%).
– Oil consumption had increased from 46 million barrels a day to 73
– Natural gas extraction had increased from 34 trillion cubic feet per
year to 95 trillion.
– Coal extraction had gone from 2.2 billion metric tonnes to 3.8 billion.
– The global motor vehicle population had almost tripled, from 246
million to 730 million.
– Air traffic had increased by a factor of six.
– The rate at which trees are consumed to make paper had doubled to 200
million metric tons per year.
– Human carbon emissions had increased from 3.9 million metric tons
annually to an estimated 6.4 million — this despite the additional
impetus to cut back caused by an awareness of global warming, which was
not perceived to be a factor in 1970.
– As for this warming, average temperatures increased by 1 degree F — a
disarmingly small number that, being unevenly distributed, translates
into chaotic weather events (seven of the ten most destructive storms in
recorded history having occurred in the last decade) and an
unpredictable and uncontrollable cascade of ecological trauma —
including now the melting of the North Pole during the summer of 2000,
for the first time in 50 million years, and signs of the disappearance
of the ‘snows of Kilimanjaro’ the year following; since then this
melting has become a fixture.
– Species were vanishing at a rate that has not occurred in 65 million
– Fish were being taken at twice the rate as in 1970.
– Forty percent of agricultural soils had been degraded.
– Half of the forests had disappeared.
– Half of the wetlands had been filled or drained.
– One-half of US coastal waters were unfit for fishing or swimming.
– Despite concerted effort to bring to bay the emissions of
ozone-depleting substances the Antarctic ozone hole was the largest ever
in 2000, some three times the size of the continental United States;
meanwhile, 2 000 tons of such substances continue to be emitted every day.
– 7.3 billion tons of pollutants were released in the United States
during 1999.

These figures speak alarmingly for themselves, but it took Kovel a book
of more than 300 pages to place them in the interpretive framework that
indicates what their effect has been so far, what their likely long-term
effect will be, and what there is that humanity can do to lessen the
impact of climate change on the Earth (including human society). That
will be the topic of another post. Suffice it to conclude this one by
pointing out that even a mainstream journal such as National Geographic
issued a special edition on climate change in 2004 titled ‘Global
Warning: Bulletins from a Warmer World’, where human industrial activity
was implicated in no uncertain terms.

Defending the Global Commons

By Hazel Henderson

Prepared for CCS Crises and Commons conference

I cut my civic action teeth in the mid-1960s in New York City,
organizing Citizens For Clean Air. We passed local ordinances to prevent
trash burning in millions of incinerators; got TV, radio, and press to
release the City’s primitive Air Pollution Index in weather reports; and
fought the auto industry to speed installation of catalytic converters.
All the while, our 40,000 members knew we were only scratching the
surface, offering Band-Aids. While we released praying mantises and lady
bugs in pesticide-sprayed Central Park to teach about natural methods of
insect control, many of us knew the problems were national and
international, involving fossil-fueled industrial methods, faulty
technologies, and pursuit of the American Dream of keeping up with the
Joneses via mass consumption.

I ended up realizing that too few people and resources were focused
on-let alone defending-the global commons, the heritage of all humans:
oceans, atmosphere, satellite orbits and electromagnetic frequencies
that carry communications and commerce, and the rich genetic library of

Any foray into the international arena must begin with some
understanding of nation-states, their politics and their competitive
behavior patterns set in motion by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.
Until the transnational challenge, national sovereignty was nations’
holy writ, fostering patriotism and armies to defend their respective
territories, echoing the ecosystem-spacing methods of our
gatherer/hunter ancestors. Can such deeply rooted nationalism and
patriotism, usually based on patriarchal social structures, be
transcended? Can human awareness expand and societies restructure
democratically to embrace planetary ecological realities in time to
avoid disastrous collapses, more species die-backs and
extinctions-including possibly our own? Most environmental activists,
working on local, regional, national, or global issues, think such
thoughts continually.

The United Nations

As I jumped into defending the global commons in the early 1990s I
rediscovered the United Nations. I attended the first UN Summit on the
Environment in Stockholm in 1972, where I participated with Stewart
Brand, Stephanie Mills, Margaret Mead, Paul Ehrlich, Jerry Mander, Teddy
Goldsmith, Barry Commoner, and others in a series of enlightening dinner
conversations. The UN (in spite of much opposition from national
governments) subsequently convened a series of summits on the real
agenda of ‘We the Peoples,’ on such topics as food, shelter, population,
health, children, human rights, science and technology, poverty and
unemployment, cities, environment, and women and development.

The contemporary struggles over the global commons are just the latest
in the fifty-three-year history of the United Nations, one of the major
social innovations of the twentieth century. Few in the US understand
that networking, convening, brokering, and facilitating
standard-setting, treaties, and agreements among the 186 member states
constitutes the bulk of UN activities. Agreements on universal human
rights, work place and health standards, education, child development,
the status of women and indigenous peoples, consumer and environmental
protection, the promotion of the arts, sciences, and culture, as well as
the UN’s more visible peace-keeping roles, have been painstakingly
achieved since the UN’s Charter was signed in the Fairmont Hotel in San
Francisco in 1945.

Despite the UN’s severe limitations as a deliberative body that can only
recommend to nation-states, many of its international agreements work
anyway. Sometimes this is due to countervailing forces and creative
coalition-building between countries, e.g., the Canadian-lead,
NGO-driven ‘Ottawa process’ which lead to the treaty to ban landmines in
1997. Sometimes, NGOs have assumed the role as monitors and enforcers of
UN Charters (see ‘Neptune’s Manifesto,’). Maybe a third reason
agreements work is that playing fair creates a more predictable market
which benefits all the parties. It reduces the cost of bickering (at the
World Trade Organization or a world court), and of negotiating and
renegotiating many bilateral agreements.

Civic society organizations (CSOs) or NGOs are now one key to defending
the global commons and making the UN more effective. (I no longer like
the acronym NGO, since the World Trade Organization uses it for
multi-national corporations; e.g., it designates General Motors and
Microsoft as NGOs!) The UN, since Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali’s 1992
initiative, has been creating ever more space for CSOs and making them
partners in many of its programs, culminating in the People’s Millennium
Assembly to be held in New York in the year 2000.

Between National Sovereignties and Transnationals

Dealing with today’s accelerating destruction of our global commons
requires the UN-as the only international body with the mandate of ‘We
the Peoples’ and the broadest membership of all the nations. If the UN
were not there, we would truly have to invent it. In large part because
of its success, the UN is suffering a backlash. National governments and
corporations do not like to be upstaged. Both often resort to the
popular pastime of demonizing the UN.

Because the mass media cover UN summits, justice, equity, and
sustainability issues become hot topics in many countries, where
reluctant politicians are pressured to deal with them. No wonder the UN
is in such a crossfire, as its nation-members alternatively use the
world forum as a fig leaf for their policies (as George Bush did in the
1991 Gulf War) or as a scapegoat (as both Bill Clinton and Bob Dole did
as presidential candidates in 1996-both erroneously, and shamefully,
portrayed US command failures in Somalia and Bosnia as the fault of the
UN). Such policy disinformation, along with deceptive advertising and
media campaigns, are now a major block to the UN’s contribution to a
sustainable future.

Of course, it’s impossible to deal with the global commons without
paying salaries to do it. The current financial crisis at the UN is due
largely to one sovereign nation-the US’s non-payment of some $1.3
billion in back dues. With dues payments stalemated in Congress by
Senator Jesse Helms and other conservatives, isolationists, and
fundamentalists, and, in addition, a notable absence of leadership from
Democrats and the White House, the UN is enmeshed in US political
cross-currents. Since 1996, the fifteen countries of the European Union
have offered to support a cut in the US share of UN dues from its
current twenty-five percent to fifteen-to-twenty percent and from its
thirty-one percent share in the peace-keeping budget to twenty-five
percent. Helms rejected this offer, yet still makes such a reduction one
of his forty onerous and often irrational ‘conditions’ for the US to
meet its arrears obligations.

Meanwhile, the US still uses its veto in the UN Security Council as if
it were a paid-up member, and attempts to influence the UN in countless
ways. This has lead to increasing frustration among the Europeans and
other US allies, many of whose leaders have commented that there should
be ‘no representation without taxation,’ as the UN Charter states. The
war of words continues with sloganeering about ‘reforming’ the UN and
its ‘bloated bureaucracy.’ The reality is that the UN’s annual budget is
only about four percent of that of the City of New York, while its core
functions cost much less than the yearly budget of the Tokyo Fire

The lack of US funding has pressured the UN into seeking funds from and
partnerships with businesses. Such partnerships-especially with green
businesses-should be encouraged. But, what standards will a corporation
partnering with the UN be required to meet? The UN Development
Programme, whose mission is poverty eradication and sustainable human
development, is seeking partnerships with corporations-provided that
they meet its high standards. Any contracts with polluting,
employee-exploiting, or otherwise irresponsible companies could harm UN
credibility. Any partnerships that avoid corporate transparency and
external auditing will be questioned. Some CSOs and smaller companies
suspect that the UN favors the World Business Council on Sustainable
Development and other corporate giants of the industrial era. Yet the UN
will never offer its ‘brand name’ to the highest bidder.

These questions have not been allayed by the realization that powerful
global corporations have captured the World Bank, the IMF, and the World
Trade Organization (WTO)-all originally within the UN’s mandate-and
succeeded in shutting down agencies they opposed, including the UN
Center on Transnational Corporations, and in crippling UNESCO, UNCTAD,
and UNIDO (seen as controlled by developing countries ) and
marginalizing the International Labor Organization and the UN
Environment Program.

Championing The UN

Contrarian that I am, I decided the best way to call to account those
currency speculators, tax evaders, bio-pirates, drug dealers, arms
traffickers, transboundary polluters, toxic waste dumpers, and child
exploiters was to champion the UN and its time-honored standard-setting
and treaty-negotiating process. This meant that I had to defend the UN
from anti-abortion foes, various militia groups, and isolationists
within the US and Congress. Their numbers are small in spite of the
noise they make; surveys show most Americans still support the UN and
actually trust the UN more than their own politicians in Washington.

In 1994, I launched a civic group with friends and allies in many
countries, the Global Commission to Fund the United Nations. The Global
Commission functions as a virtual organization, with members from over
forty countries, ranging from ambassadors, parliamentarians, and a Nobel
Laureate, to leaders of civic organizations.

The Global Commission produced a report showing how defending the global
commons could also raise money to conserve such resources, and to fund
the UN and many other humanitarian and development activities around the
world. The Commission’s report clearly demonstrated that the stumbling
block to equitable, sustainable, human development is not money.
Although the Agenda 21 agreements signed by 170 nations in Rio de
Janeiro in 1992 estimated that shifting priorities to sustainable
development would cost $650 billion, the Commission showed the truth. If
governments just stopped funding some $750 billion worth of subsidies to
unsustainable development (i.e. pork-barrel projects), there would be
plenty of money left over. The Commission’s report also advocated
defending the global commons by encouraging international agreements, so
that countries could (1) levy user-fees on all commercial exploitation
of oceans, atmosphere, the electromagnetic spectrum, space and the newer
commons of financial cyberspace, and the global casino, and (2) exact
fines for abuses such as arms trafficking, polluting, and currency

Other proposals included a UN Security Insurance Agency (UNSIA), a new
global commons system of political risk management that is now possible.
Employment of UNSIA could reduce the world’s military budgets by using
insurance instead of weapons. UNSIA would be a public-private-civic
partnership among the UN Security Council, the insurance industry, and
the hundreds of civic, humanitarian organizations which engage worldwide
in conflict-resolution and peace-building. Any nation wanting to cut its
military budget and redeploy its investments into its civilian sectors
could apply to UNSIA for a peace-keeping insurance policy. The insurance
industry would supply political-risk assessors and write the policies.
The premiums would be pooled to fund both properly trained peace-keepers
and a rapid-deployment online network of existing civic and humanitarian
organizations to build trust and confidence on the ground. The UNSIA
proposal is now backed by several Nobel Prize winners, including Dr.
Oscar Arias and other leaders, and risk-management insurance is taught
at the London School of Economics and other major institutions. UNSIA
was debated in the UN Security Council in April, 1996, the first time
that body had considered the need to bring civic humanitarian
organizations into peace-keeping operations. In May 1996, the Security
Council called on the Secretary General to investigate the feasibility
of a rapid-deployment humanitarian force and, in October 1996, the
Norwegian government pledged $1 million to this project.

I am now a working investor on a new project: global, multi-cultural,
public access TV. I’ve always dreamed of this global way to counter
consumerist disinformation from commercial sources and give prominence
to emerging trends that favor sustainability and a more ethical
marketplace. I do not expect to see the fruits of any of these
initiatives in my lifetime-but my grandson may-as our societies evolve
toward planetary ecological awareness and we remember the difference
between common money and the wealth of the commons.

Politics of the Common

By Michael Hardt

Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by
ZCommunications, 6 July 2009

A central task for reimagining society today is to develop an
alternative management of the common wealth we share. In this essay I
want to explore two distinct but related domains of the common. On the
one hand, the common refers to the earth and all of its ecosystems,
including the atmosphere, the oceans and rivers, and the forests, as
well as all the forms of life that interact with them. The common, on
the other hand, also refers to the products of human labor and
creativity that we share, such as ideas, knowledges, images, codes,
affects, social relationships, and the like. These common goods, I will
argue, are becoming increasingly central in capitalist production -- a
fact that has a series of important consequences for efforts to maintain
or reform the capitalist system as well as projects to resist or
overthrow it. As first approximations you could call these two realms
the ecological common and the social and economic common or the natural
and the artificial common, although these categories quickly prove

I will focus in this essay on the relation between these two domains or
guises of the common, especially from the standpoint of resistance and
activism. In many but not all respects these two guises of the common
function according to the same logic. They both, for example, defy and
are deteriorated by property relations. In addition, perhaps as a
corollary to that fact, the common in both domains confounds the
traditional measures of economic value and imposes instead the value of
life as the only valid scale of evaluation. Indeed the divisions between
the ecological and the social become blurred from this biopolitical

There are at least two essential respects, however, in which these two
domains of the common at least appear to be animated by opposite logics.
First, whereas many ecological discourses regarding the common focus on
conservation, highlighting the limits of the earth and the forms of life
that interact with it, discussions of the social or artificial forms of
the common generally focus on creation and the open, limitless nature of
the production of the common. Second, whereas social discourses
generally maintain the interests of humanity as central, many
environmental discourses generate a sphere of interest much broader than
the human or animal worlds. My suspicion is that these seeming
oppositions will turn out, after investigation, to indicate potential
complementarities rather than contradictory relations between these two
guises of the common as well as between the forms of political action
required in each. What I hope to make clear, at the least, though is the
need for a dialogue about the different domains of the common, their
qualities, and the potential relations between or among them.

My discussion here will be relatively theoretical and I will offer no
specific policy proposals but it should be clear that the issues at
stake for political thought and action are immediately practical. If you
feel the need for a concrete anchor in such an abstract discussion,
think of the organizational issues involved in the preparation for the
actions surrounding the UN Climate Conference to be held in Copenhagen
in December 2009. (See, for example, www.climateaction09.org.) These
actions will likely involve a confluence -- with conflicts and
challenges, of course -- of ecological activists with anti-capitalist
movements and other social movements, which have traditionally pursued
separate and sometimes even divergent courses. The success of the event
will depend on understanding and negotiating the differences and
potentials of the domains of the common that are the primary objects of
each of these movements. This event by no means exhausts the relevance
of this theoretical discussion but it does highlight its practical

The theoretical discussion must begin by establishing the centrality of
the common. Thinking the centrality of the common is much more advanced
and widespread in ecological thought than in other domains. Not only do
we generally share the benefits of interaction with the earth, the sun,
and the oceans but also we are all affected by their degradation. Air
and water pollution are not confined to the location where they are
produced, of course, and they are not limited by national boundaries;
climate change similarly affects the entire planet. This is not the say
that such changes affect everyone in the same way: rising ocean levels,
for example, will have a more immediate impact on those living in
Bangladesh than those in Bolivia. The common, though, is the basic
foundation of ecological thought against which the singularities of
specific locations stand out.

In social and economic thought, however, the centrality of the common is
not widely recognized. The claim for its centrality relies on the
hypothesis that we are in the midst of an epochal shift from a
capitalist economy centered on industrial production to one centered on
what can be called immaterial or biopolitical production. Toni Negri and
I have argued this hypothesis over the course of three books -- Empire,
Multitude, and Commonwealth. I give only a brief synthesis here.

The first part of the claim is easy: for much of the last two centuries
the capitalist economy has been centered on industrial production. That
does not mean that most of the workers throughout this period have been
in factories -- in fact, they have not. Indeed who works in industry
rather than the fields or the home has been a central determinant in the
geographical, racial, and gender divisions of labor. Industrial
production has been central, rather, in the sense that the qualities of
industry -- its forms of mechanization, its working day, its wage
relations, its regimes of time discipline and precision, and so forth --
have progressively been imposed over other sectors of production and
social life as a whole, creating not only an industrial economy but also
an industrial society.

The second part of the claim is also relatively uncontroversial:
industrial production no longer holds the central position in the
capitalist economy. This does not mean that fewer people are working in
factories today but rather that industry no longer marks the
hierarchical position in the various divisions of labor and, more
significantly, that the qualities of industry are no longer being
imposed over other sectors and society as a whole.

The final element of the hypothesis, however, is more complex and
requires extended argument and qualification. In short, the claim is
that there is emerging today in the central position that industry once
occupied the production of immaterial goods or goods with a significant
immaterial component, such as ideas, knowledges, languages, images,
code, and affects. Occupations involved in immaterial production range
from the high to the low end of the economy, from health care workers
and educators to fast food workers, call center workers, and flight
attendants. Once again, this is not a quantitative claim but a claim
about the qualities that are progressively being imposed over other
sectors of the economy and society as a whole. In other words, the
cognitive and affective tools of immaterial production, the precarious,
non-guaranteed nature of its wage relations, the temporality of
immaterial production (which tends to destroy the structures of the
working day and blur the traditional divisions between work-time and
nonwork-time), as well as its other qualities are becoming generalized.

This form of production should be understood as biopolitical insofar as
what is being produced is ultimately social relations and forms of life.
In this context traditional economic divisions between production and
reproduction tend to fade away. Forms of life are simultaneously
produced and reproduced. Here we can begin to see the proximity between
this notion of biopolitical production and ecological thought since both
are focused on the production/reproduction of forms of life, with the
important difference being that the ecological perspective extends the
notion of forms of life well beyond the limits of the human or the
animal (but more on that later).

One can also approach the hypothesis of the emerging dominant position
of immaterial or biopolitical production in terms of the historical
changes in the hierarchy of forms of property. Before industry occupied
the central position in the economy, up to the early 19th century,
immobile property, such as land, held a dominant position with respect
to other forms of property. In the long era of the centrality of
industry, however, mobile property, such as commodities, came to
dominate over immobile property. Today we are in the midst of a similar
transition, one in which immaterial property is taking the dominant
position over material property. Indeed patents, copyrights, and other
methods to regulate and maintain exclusive control over immaterial
property are subject of the most active debates in the field of property
law. The rising importance of immaterial property can serve as evidence
for or at least indication of the emerging centrality of immaterial

Whereas in the earlier period of transition the contest between dominant
forms of property turned on the question of mobility (immobile land
versus mobile commodities), today the contest focuses attention on
exclusivity and reproducibility. Private property in the form of steel
beams, automobiles, and television sets obey the logic of scarcity: if
you are using them, I cannot. Immaterial property such as ideas,
languages, knowledges, codes, music, and affects, in contrast, can be
reproduced in an unlimited way. In fact, many such immaterial products
only function to their full potential when they are shared in an open
way. The usefulness to you of an idea or an affect is not diminished by
your sharing it with me. On the contrary, they become useful only by
being shared in common.

This is what I meant when I said at the outset that the common is
becoming central in today’s capitalist economy. First, the form of
production emerging in the dominant position results generally in
immaterial or biopolitical goods that tend to be common. Their nature is
social and reproducible such that it is increasingly difficult to
maintain exclusive control over them. Second, and perhaps more
importantly, the productivity of such goods in future economic
development depends on their being common. Keeping ideas and knowledges
private hinders the production of new ideas and knowledges, just as
private languages and private affects are sterile and useless. If our
hypothesis is correct, then, capital paradoxically increasingly relies
on the common.

This brings me to the first logical characteristic shared by the common
in both the ecological and social domains: they both defy and are
deteriorated by property relations. In the social and economic domain,
not only is it difficult to police exclusive rights over immaterial
forms of property, as I said, making biopolitical goods private also
diminishes their future productivity. There is emerging a powerful
contradiction, in other words, at the heart of capitalist production
between the need for the common in the interest of productivity and the
need for the private in the interest of capitalist accumulation. This
contradiction can be conceived as a new version of the classic
opposition, often cited in Marxist and communist thought, between the
socialization of production and the private nature of accumulation. The
struggles over so-called bio-piracy in Brazil and elsewhere is one
contemporary theater of this clash. Indigenous knowledges and the
medicinal properties of certain Amazonian plants, for example, are
patented by transnational corporations and made private property, the
results of which are not only unjust but also destructive. (I object to
calling this piracy, by the way, because pirates at least have the
dignity to steal property. These corporations steal the common and
transform it into private property.)

In the ecological domain it is equally clear that the common both defies
and is deteriorated by property relations. It defies property relations
simply in the sense that the beneficial and detrimental effects of the
environment always exceed the limits of property just as they do
national borders. Just as your land shares with the neighboring land the
benefits of rain and sunshine it will share too the destructive effects
of pollution and climate change. Although the strategies of
neoliberalism have been most visibly aimed at the privatization of the
public, in terms of transport, services, or industries, it has equally
involved the privatization of the common, such as oil in Uganda,
diamonds in Sierra Leone, Lithium in Bolivia, and even the genetic
information of the population of Iceland. The deterioration of the
common by private property here also suggests a contradictory relation:
the private nature of accumulation (through the profits of a polluting
industry, for example) conflicts with the social nature of the resulting
damages. By putting together the two formulae, then, we can see the
contradiction with the common on both sides, so to speak, of private
property: the increasingly common nature of production clashes with the
private nature of capitalist accumulation and that private accumulation,
in turn, clashes with the common, social nature of its detrimental effects.

Numerous powerful struggles have arisen in recent decades to combat
neoliberal privatization of the common. A successful struggle that
illustrates part of my argument here is the war over water that centered
in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2000, which, together with the war over gas
that peaked in 2003 in El Alto, contributed to the 2005 election of Evo
Morales. The events were precipitated by a classic neoliberal script.
The IMF pressured the Bolivian government to privatize the water system
because it cost more to deliver clean water than the recipients paid for
it. The government sold the water system to a consortium of foreign
corporations, which immediately ‘rationalized’ the price of water by
raising it several fold. The subsequent protests to de-privatize the
water intersected with a variety of other efforts to maintain control
over the common, in terms of natural resources, the forms of life of
indigenous communities, and the social practices of the peasants and the
poor. Today, with the disasters of neoliberal privatization becoming
ever more evident, the task of discovering alternative means to manage
and promote the common has become essential and urgent.

A second logical characteristic shared by the common in both domains,
which is more abstract but not for that reason any less significant, is
that it constantly disrupts and exceeds the dominant measures of value.
Contemporary economists go through extraordinary gymnastic to measure
the values of biopolitical goods, such as ideas or affects. Often they
cast these as ‘externalities’ that escape the standard schema of
measurement. Accountants struggle similarly with ‘intangible assets,’
the value of which seems to be esoteric. In fact, the value of an idea,
a social relation, or a form of life always exceeds the value that
capitalist rationality can stamp on it, not in the sense that it is
always a greater quantity but in that defies the entire system of
measure. (Finance, of course, plays a central role in the valuation of
biopolitical goods and production and the current financial and economic
crisis derives in large part, I would argue, from the inability of
capitalist measurement to grasp the newly dominant forms of production.
This is a complex discusion, however, that I have to leave to another
occasion.) A central character in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times is a
factory owner, Thomas Gradgrind, who believes he can rationalize life by
submitting to economic measure all aspects of it, including ‘affairs of
the heart’ such as his relationships to his children, but, as the reader
quickly guesses, Gradgrind will learn that life exceeds the bounds of
any such measure. Today even the value of economic goods and activity,
since the common is increasingly central to capitalist production,
exceeds and escapes the traditional measures.

In the ecological domain too the value of the common is immeasureable
or, at least, does not obey the traditional capitalist measures of
economic value. This is not to say that scientific measurement, such as
the proportion of carbon dioxide or methane gases in the atmosphere, is
not central and essential. Of course, it is. My point is rather that the
value of the common defies measurement. Consider, as a counterexample,
the much-publicized arguments of Bjørn Lomborg against taking action to
limit global warming. Like Mr. Gradgrind, Lomborg’s strategy is to
rationalize the question by calculating the values involved in order to
set priorities. The estimated value of the destruction expected by
global warming, he concludes with impeccable logic, does not merit the
costs to combat it. The problem is that one cannot measure the value of
forms of life that are destroyed. What dollar amount should we assign to
the submersion of half of Bangladesh under water, permanent drought in
Ethiopia, or the destruction of traditional Inuit ways of life? Even
contemplating such questions elicits the kind of nausea and indignation
you feel when reading those insurance company schedules that calculate
how much money you will be reimbursed for losing a finger and how much
for an eye or an arm.

The inability to grasp the value of the common with traditional
capitalist measures provides one means for evaluating proposals for
carbon trading schemes such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Waxman-Markey
bill now being discussed in the United States. Carbon trading schemes
generally involve a cap to the production of carbon dioxide gases and
other greenhouse gases so as to create a limited market in which the
production of such gases can be given determinate economic values and
traded. Such schemes, then, do not pretend directly to measure the value
of the common, but instead claim to do so indirectly, by assigning
monetary values to the production of gases that harm or corrupt the
common. I don’t mean to discount the fact that in some cases carbon
trading schemes can have positive effects in controlling harmful
emissions. (Strategic support or opposition to such carbon trading
schemes has to be determined through a different kind of argumentation
than this and through analysis of the specific situation.) One should
certainly keep in mind, though, that assigning determinate values to
immeasurable commodities and assuming that market rationality will
create a stable and beneficial system has in many cases led to disaster
-- see, for example, the current financial crisis. And one should also
explore the ways that such property logics and market schemes will not
diminish but probably exacerbate the global social hierarchies marked by
poverty and exclusion. It should be clear, in any case, that proposals
that rely on the capitalist measurement of value and the market
rationality that presumably accompanies it cannot grasp the value of the
common and address the problem of climate change at the fundamental
level, even through such indirect means. Forms of life are not
measureable or, perhaps, they obey a radically different scale based on
the value of life, which it seems to me we have not yet invented (or
perhaps we have lost).

My primary point here is that just as the different forms of the common
both rebel against property relations so too they defy the traditional
measures of capitalist rationality. These two shared logics are a
significant basis, it seems to me, for understanding both guises of the
common and struggling together to preserve and further them. The shared
qualities of the common in these two domains, which I have analyzed so
far, should constitute a foundation for linking the forms of political
activism aimed at the autonomy and the democratic management of the common.

I recognize two important respects, however, in which the struggles for
the common operate according to opposing logics in these two domains.
The first has to do with scarcity and limits. Ecological thought
necessarily focuses on the finitude of the earth and its life systems.
The common can only sustain so many people, for instance, and still be
successfully reproduced. The earth, especially its spaces of wilderness,
must be defended against the damages of industrial development and other
human activities. A politics of the common in the economic and social
realm, in contrast, generally emphasizes the unlimited character of
production. The production of forms of life, including ideas, affects,
and so forth, has no fixed limits. That does not mean, of course, that
more ideas are necessarily better, but rather that they do not operate
under a logic of scarcity. Ideas are not necessarily degraded by their
proliferation and by sharing them with other people -- on the contrary.
There is the tendency, then, for discussions in the one domain to be
dominated by calls for preservation and limits, while the other is
characterized by celebrations of limitless creative potential.

In simplistic terms, indeed too simplistic, one might say that whereas
ecological thought is against development or for curbs on economic
development, advocates in the social and economic domain of the common
are resolutely pro-development. This is too simplistic because the
development in question in the two cases is fundamentally different. The
kinds of development involved in the social production of the common
departs significantly from industrial development. In fact, once we
recognize, as I mentioned earlier, that in the biopolitical context the
traditional divisions between production and reproduction break down, it
is easier to see that calls for preservation in the one case and
creation in the other are not really opposed but complementary. Both
perspectives refer fundamentally to the production/reproduction of forms
of life.

A second basic conflict between struggles for the common in these two
domains has to do with the extent to which the interests of humanity
serve as the frame of reference. Struggles for the common in the social
and economic domain generally do focus on humanity and indeed one of the
most important tasks is to extend our politics successfully to all of
humanity, that is, to overcome the hierarchies and the exclusions of
class and property, gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, and
others. Struggles for the common in the ecological realm are much more
likely, in contrast, to extend their frames of reference beyond
humanity. In most ecological discourses human life is viewed in its
interaction with and care for other life forms and eco-systems, even in
cases when priority is still accorded to the interests of humanity. And
in many radical ecological frameworks the interests of non-human life
forms are given equal or even greater priority to those of humanity.

This is a real and important difference, it seems to me, between the
perspectives on the common in these two realms but not an insuperable or
even a destructive difference. My view is that it is beneficial for
those primarily focused on the environment to learn more about and be
forced to confront the nature of social hierarchies and the means to
combat them, at the level of activism and that of theory, just as it is
beneficial for those focused on social struggles to learn more about and
be forced to confront the limitations of the earth and other life forms
both insofar as they interact with humanity and as they exist on their
own terms.

What I hope to have articulated in the course of this essay is how the
concept of the common serves to name some of the central issues facing
politics today by focuses on two of its domains or guises. (I leave to
other occasions to explore the nature of the common in other domains,
including that of identity and identity politics, for instance, or in
the context of social institutions such as the family and the nation.)
Struggling over the common and inventing alternative means to manage it
are fundamental for any project to reimagine society today. The
divergences between struggles oriented toward different guises of the
common need to be articulated and negotiated, but these differences are
healthy in my view and engaging them can only carry us forward. That is
one reason I want follow the preparatory discussions and the
organizational efforts for the actions at the UN Climate Summit I
mentioned earlier, which will bring together environmental activists
with anti-capitalist movements and other social movements. Discussions
on issues such as these are often most productive and advanced furthest,
after all, through the practical and theoretical forms of co-research
conducted among activists in movements. I’m anxious to learn what they
come up with.

(Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Harry Halpin for his comments on a
draft of this essay.)

The Commons:
 From Tragedy to Celebrity

By United for a Fair Economy


The recipients of the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics were announced on
Monday October 12th. The prize was shared between two Americans, Elinor
Ostrum and Oliver E. Williamson.

Ostrum deserves a special toast for several reasons. First, such
high-level recognition of her work brings the idea of The Commons into
the spotlight, which is fitting given how broken our current economic
system is. Second, she is only the second non-economist to win the award
and, as the first female recipient of the award, she shattered yet
another glass ceiling for women the world over.

Ostrom’s research, which essentially bridges political science and
economics, focuses on community vs. private or governmental management
of common resources like land, forests, irrigation waters and fisheries.
One of her key findings is that successful governance can result when
end-users - the people actually using the resources - actively
participate in the process.

This directly contradicts the long-standing theory of the ‘Tragedy of
the Commons,’ in which property rights and privatization are seen to be
the only means to preserving finite resources.

The commons doesn’t just refer to natural resources, however. It
includes anything that is shared by members of local, national or even
global communities. And it raises the idea that we can shift from a
market-based society narrowly focused on private wealth, to a
commons-based society focused on managing common assets so they benefit
everyone. Essentially, it offers a framework for revamping our currently
flawed economic system, and seeks to do so to benefit the many - an idea
that is right up our ally.

About the Commons http://onthecommons.org/content.php?id=1467

The commons is a new way to express a very old idea-that some forms of
wealth belong to all of us, and that these community resources must be
actively protected and managed for the good and all.

The commons are the things that we inherit and create jointly, and that
will (hopefully) last for generations to come. The commons consists of
gifts of nature such as air, oceans and wildlife as well as shared
social creations such as libraries, public spaces, scientific research
and creative works.

Biopiracy: The practice where traditional knowledge of natural
resources, especially medicinal and agricultural plants, is appropriated
by international companies to create products, for which they are
awarded exclusive rights to use under patent laws…

Common assets: Common assets are those parts of the commons that have a
value in the market and which are appropriate to buy and sell (see
‘inalienability’). Radio airwaves are a common asset, for example, as
are timber and minerals on public lands and, increasingly, air and
water. By recognizing certain resources as common assets, it becomes
natural to ask: Are the common assets being responsibly managed on
behalf of the general public or a distinct community of interest? Is the
capital being depleted?

Commons movement: A growing social and political movement that believes
the commons is a crucial sector of the economy and society and useful
prism for talking about resources that should be shared. The commons
offers not only an affirmative vision of a more equitable, eco-friendly
society: it also serves as a countervailing force to keep excesses of
the market and government sectors in check. Some speak of an emerging
commons paradigm as a new way of looking at the world, one that opens up
the competitive, mechanistic, profit- centric mindset that has ruled
Western civilization since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, with a
more humanistic, environmentally aware and holistic world view. A wider
appreciation for the enduring importance of the commons has developed
over the last eight years, especially among people deeply involved in
the politics of water issues, the internet, the over commercialization
of culture and public spaces. This world view is now reaching into many
other arenas, including economics, the environment, social justice and
numerous citizens movements around the world.

Copyleft: This refers to a license that allows free re- use and
modification of creative work so long as any works derived from the
original remain available on the same terms. Copyleft, formally known as
the ‘General Public License’ or GPL, was initiated by computer
programmer Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation. By
protecting the creativity and energy of the commons from private
appropriation, the GPL has enabled communities of programmers to build
shared bodies of code, such as free software and open source software. A
similar set of licenses for other types of creative works has been
devised by the Creative Commons.

Corporation: A self-perpetuating legal entity whose mission is to
maximize short-term return to shareholders. In its aggressive pursuit of
this mission, the corporation not only produces new innovations and
efficiencies, it also displaces costs onto the environment, our
communities and our personal lives (see externality).

Enclosure: Historically, this refers to the privatization of common
grazing lands beginning in 15th Century England, which impoverished many
peasants. Today it is used to describe the conversion of a commons into
private property. Enclosure entails not just the privatization of a
resource, but also the introduction of money and market exchange as the
prevailing principles for managing that resource. Enclosure shifts
ownership and control from the community at large to private companies.
This in turn changes the management and character of the resource
because the market has very different standards of accountability and
transparency than a commons. (Contrast a public library with a
bookstore, or Main Street with a private shopping mall.) Because of its
compulsion to extract maximum short-term rents and externalize costs,
market enclosure often results in the ‘tragedy of the market.’

Externality or illth: A social or ecological cost that is not paid by
its creators. As the scope of market activity expands beyond a certain
point, engulfing more of nature and daily life, it yields less and less
happiness and wellbeing even as it causes more and more unintended
problems. In market logic, the expanding output must be regarded as
‘progress’ and ‘wealth.’ In fact, the accelerating pace of the market
machine is producing more ‘illth’ - the opposite of wealth. Author Peter
Barnes ( Who Owns the Sky ) has popularized this term, coined by John
Ruskin in the 19th century, to describe the unintended but increasing
destruction of nature, social disruptions, health problems and other
(unacknowledged, unintended or disguised) costs of market activity.

Gift economy: A community of shared purpose, such as an academic
discipline, whose members give time and creativity to the community and
reap benefits in return. In gift communities, money is an unacceptable
‘currency’ because relationships are rooted in personal, particular and
historical experiences of each individual, and cannot be converted into
cash or any other fungible unit. Despite the absence of cash, legal
contracts and market exchange, a gift economy can be tremendously
productive, efficient and innovative, as seen in free and open software
communities, online wikis and other collaborative websites, blood
donation systems and scientific research disciplines.

Inalienability: The principle that a given resource shall not be freely
bought and sold in the marketplace, but shall remain intact, in its
natural context. Inalienability derives from a social consensus that
certain things and behaviors are so precious and basic to human identity
that they are degraded if they are put up for sale. ‘Goods’ that have
traditionally been regarded as inalienable include votes, babies, bodily
organs, sex, genes, living species and most aspects of nature, but
market forces are increasingly challenging long-standing norms of

Land trusts: An alternative model of land ownership in which a tract of
land is owned by a non-profit organization-usually to preserve its
natural assets or to maintain it as affordable housing. There are more
than 1,600 land trusts in the US today encompassing 37 million acres.
Land trusts provide a good example of how a commons economic model can
exist outside the realm of both government and private control as a
distinct sector for advancing the public good. Professor Carol Rose of
Yale Law School has cited land trusts as an example of ‘property on the
outside, commons on the inside’-meaning that the resource exists within
the market system as legal property yet is managed internally according
to commons principles.

Open source software: (See copyleft) Open source software is
functionally similar to free software that is protected under the
General Public License, or GPL, except that open source programs allow a
program to be freely copied, modified and distributed, but do not
require it. In addition, the open source community does not necessarily
subscribe to the political agenda of Richard Stallman, founder of the
Free Software Foundation, who regards the GPL as the foundation for a
vision of political and creative freedom. Open source programmers tend
to be more focused on the practical value of open source code in
developing superior software.

Public goods: Resources that, because of their ‘public’ nature, are
difficult or costly to exclude anyone from using. Examples include
lighthouses, city parks, broadcast programming and the global
atmosphere. In the lingo of economists, these are ‘non-rival’ and ‘non-
excludable’ resources. Government often steps in to pay for public goods
because it is difficult to get individual beneficiaries to pay for them.
But in the networked environment of the Internet, it is increasingly
feasible for self-organizing groups to create and pay for public goods.
Open source software is a prime example.

Public space: Any place where people are free to gather for social or
civic interaction. The value of public spaces is increasingly being
recognized as essential to the health of local communities and
democratic societies in general. While usually defined as parks, streets
and sidewalks, plazas, libraries and public institutions, the concept
can also be expanded to include congenial privately owned settings such
as a coffee shop, corner grocery or a plaza outside an office building.
Shopping malls, which in many suburban communities function as Main
Street, have stirred controversy by forbidding civic activities such as
gathering signatures for petitions-a policy upheld by the courts which
worries many civil liberties and public space advocates.

Public trust doctrine: A legal doctrine that says that the state holds
certain resources in trust for its citizens which cannot be given away
or sold. Public trust doctrine has its origins in Roman law, which
recognized that certain resources such as fisheries, air, running water
and wild animals belong to all. Under the doctrine of res communes , the
king could not grant exclusive rights of access to a common resource.
The point is that there is a clear distinction between common property
(which belongs to the people) and state property (which can be
controlled and mismanaged by government).

Tragedy of the commons: Title of an influential 1968 essay by biologist
Garrett Hardin, which argued that overuse of common resources is a
leading cause of environmental degradation. This was interpreted by
some, especially economists and free-market libertarians, to mean that
private ownership is preferable to the commons for the stewardship of
land, water, minerals, etc. Yet in recent years many have challenged
this view on both empirical and philosophical grounds. Professor Elinor
Ostrom of Indiana University has been a leading figure in demonstrating
the practical utility and sustainability of commons governance regimes,
particularly in developing countries. Other analysts, such as Professor
Yochai Benkler of Harvard Law School, have shown how people in online
commons can indeed collaborate sustainably to produce and protect
valuable resources. This suggests that the vision of human behavior
implicit in the tragedy of the commons metaphor is not as immutable as
many economists assert, and that collective management is an eminently
practical governance strategy in many circumstances. The tragedy of the
‘anti-commons’ is now frequently invoked to describe the problems
associated with excessive privatization and fragmentation of property
rights, such that collective action for the common good is thwarted. An
example is the proliferation of patents on bio- medical knowledge that
impedes research on cures for malaria, or the proliferation of
copyrights in film and video that prevents documentary filmmakers from
clearing the rights to images for use in new films.

Trust or stakeholder trust: A legal institution for protecting the
commons and managing any assets that may arise from it. If the
corporation is the preeminent institution of the market, the trust is
the premier institution of the commons. The managers of a trust, the
trustees, have clear legal responsibilities to manage its resources on
behalf of the beneficiaries. This includes strict fiduciary
responsibilities, transparency and accountability. (See land trusts)

Value: Economists tend to regard ‘value’ as a quantifiable object with a
price tag. But as commoners realize, ‘value’ can also be something
intangible and not available for sale. An example is the social
satisfaction of belonging to a community and contributing to a shared
goal. A commons can also create economic value as efficiently as a
market; examples include Wikipedia, the online user-generated
encyclopedia, and Craiglist, the online advertising service. The
difference is that a commons usually does not convert its output into a
marketable commodity.

Alaska stays true to vision of its founders

By Wally Hickel

Published: June 27th, 2009 06:27 PM
Anchorage Daily News

This coming August I will turn 90. I was 21 in October 1940 when I
stepped off the S.S. Yukon in Seward. I had no money, no job and knew no
one. With no place to stay the night, I slept on the floor of the lobby
of a small hotel.

The next morning I asked several people for help to buy a railway ticket
to Anchorage. A generous fellow with a Polish accent gave me a $10 bill,
so I bought breakfast and boarded the train and arrived in Anchorage
with 37 cents in my pocket.

I knew nothing about Alaska, but I knew where I was going. Raised on a
tenant farm in the Dust Bowl days of Depression-era Kansas, I was
looking for a country.

Two days before arriving in Seward, I made a promise when the Yukon
sailed into Prince William Sound. As we looked up at magnificent Mount
Saint Elias in the Wrangell Range, I said out loud: ‘You take care of
me, and I’ll take care of you.’ For the record, he’s kept his promise,
and I’ve kept mine.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of statehood, the world is looking
north. They need our resources. They admire our natural beauty. And they
relish the adventures Alaska offers.

Eventually, they will also discover here a new idea that was born when
the Alaska Constitution and the Alaska Statehood Act were written. It’s
an idea that could eliminate poverty from this world.

I sum it up like this:

We, the people of the world, own most of this planet in common. The
Institute of the North estimates that 84 percent of the earth’s surface,
including the oceans, is either owned in common or owned by no one.
That’s what we call ‘the commons,’ and it includes the air we breathe
and the water we drink. It is the source of life on earth. The future of
the human race depends on learning how to use and care for the commons
for the good of the total, not just the few.

Article VIII of the Alaska Constitution mandates that our commonly owned
resources must be developed for the maximum benefit of the people, not
for the benefit of a few insiders or multinational corporations.

In the past 50 years, we have built our state on that principle. It’s
the only place like it in the world.

Statesmen and scholars are wondering if there is an alternative to the
failed capitalism of Wall Street and the worn-out socialism of Europe
and the former communist world. They are looking for a better way.

Some of the top economists and scientists in Russia are studying the
Alaska model. In 2006, I was the first speaker to address the People’s
Chamber, a body of more than 100 prominent Russians established by
then-president Vladimir Putin to look for solutions to Russia’s greatest

In Moscow’s ornate Center for Foreign Relations, I explained how the
Alaska people won ownership of much of our land and resources. And I
described how after 50 years of striving and learning, Alaska has become
a successful owner state, pioneering a road to prosperity based on
common ownership yet rooted in democracy.

I see Alaska as a diamond, a brilliant star, a state with an outstanding
quality of life, celebrating our natural environment and a healthy economy.

Of course, sometimes we stumble. Some of those we elect through the free
and often frustrating democratic process put politics before principle,
stuff their pockets with cash from lobbyists, or see no greater vision
than themselves.

But, on the whole, Alaskans have been true to our Constitution and the
vision of our founders.

That’s the idea I saw born when we fought for and won statehood. It’s
still young, but it is thriving. And my birthday wish as I turn 90 is
that in the years ahead Alaska’s emerging leaders will share the owner
state idea with the world.

Walter J. Hickel served as governor of Alaska from 1966-1968 and from
1990-1994 and as U.S. Secretary of the Interior from 1969-1970. He is
the founder of the Institute of the North and his latest book is ‘Crisis
in the Commons: the Alaska Solution.’

A common hate enriched our love and us

By Dennis Brutus

A common hate enriched our love and us:

Escape to parasitic ease disgusts;
discreet expensive hushes stifled us
the plangent wines became acidulous

Rich foods knotted to revolting clots
of guilt and anger in our queasy guts
remembering the hungry comfortless.

In drafty angles of the concrete stairs
or seared by salt winds under brittle stars
we found a poignant edge to tenderness,

and, sharper than our strain, the passion
against our land’s disfigurement and tension;
hate gouged out deeper levels for our passion—

a common hate enriched our love and us.

 From A Simple Lust, 1963

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