Occupy the Commons

Lee Hachadoorian on Nov 18th 2011

Occupy Wall Street is two months old. While sympathetic with generalities of the critique, I’m a little unsure about what actual changes this will lead to. This is partially because OWS has not specified policy demands. This lack of specificity has been defended by Bernard Harcourt as a form of political disobedience, as a protest not only of the current conditions but also of the political system which has led to this point. In this view, articulating demands is merely buying into the institutions and ideologies that OWS rejects. Further, an alternative view of decision-making is being articulated in the participatory democracy of the General Assembly itself. (See this piece on the intellectual roots of the protest.)

But leaving aside participatory democracy, the essence of the critique captured in “We are the 99%” comes down to economic inequality. What is to be done about inequality depends (at least partly) on your opinion of the cause. Participatory democracy is the solution offered by OWS, because the cause of inequality is taken to be corporate capture of traditional political channels. Thus, the Declaration of the New York City General Assembly heavily emphasizes corporate wrongdoing.

Into this milieu have waded a number of celebrities and academics, including Slavoj Žižek. Žižek is one of the ones who Harcourt takes to task for not understanding the anti-ideological nature of the protest. But what interests me here is Žižek’s peculiar disavowal of, and possible redefinition of, communism:

We are not Communists if Communism means a system which collapsed in 1990. Remember that today those Communists are the most efficient, ruthless Capitalists. In China today, we have Capitalism which is even more dynamic than your American Capitalism….

The only sense in which we are Communists is that we care for the commons. The commons of nature. The commons of privatized by intellectual property. The commons of biogenetics. For this, and only for this, we should fight.

The only sense? For this, and only for this? “[T]he problems of the commons are here,” says Žižek. Yes, they are, and they are getting widespread attention in mainstream political and economic theory. The 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics went to Elinor Ostrom for her pathbreaking work in the study of common pool resources, how they have been successfully managed in many societies without either governmental regulation or privatization. While Žižek asks elsewhere in his speech “What social organization can replace capitalism?” he doesn’t define communism as being against capitalism, he (re)defines it as being for the commons.

Perhaps this is for the best. The 54% of Americans who view the OWS protests favorably (more among New Yorkers) are no doubt suspicious of corporations, even outraged at corporate malfeasance during the housing boom and bust, and concerned about growing inequality, but not too many of them are signing on for a wholesale rejection of capitalism. Even among the NYCGA online forums, there are some who choose to distinguish between corporatism and capitalism. Now, I’m definitely being unfair to Žižek in focusing on these few sentences of his. But the point that I want to get to is to agree with the importance of highlighting the commons at a protest largely (if by no means exclusively) focused on inequality, and to invoke the intellectual history of this linkage.

In its original sense, “the commons” referred to land and land-based resources (fisheries, hunting grounds). Thomas Paine, no doubt influenced by his experience of English poverty, and knowledgeable of the history of English enclosure, argued in Agrarian Justice (1797) that poverty was very largely due to landed property. Although earlier writers had discussed landed property in economic terms, he was possibly the first to make the ethical claim that landowners owed rent to everyone else:

It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, cultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal….

Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated lands, owes to the community a ground-rent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds; and it is from this ground-rent that the fund proposed in this plan is to issue.

Writing at a time when most private wealth was in landed property, he proposed that redistribution of wealth be funded by inheritance taxes. The following century, Henry George combined the natural law ethics of Paine with the tools of classical economics (Ricardo’s theory of rent in particular) to argue that these ground-rents should be paid directly to the government for the funding of public works, as well as for the direct transfers that Paine envisioned. Importantly, George argued that this form of taxation would also reduce the incentive for real estate speculation, and would therefore be a macroeconomic stabilizer. It is virtually impossible for me to look at the recent recession—both at the role of real estate in the crisis, and the failure of orthodox macroeconomics to understand it—and not see a vindication of George’s ideas.

What of the other commons that Žižek mentions, such as intellectual property? Is this really a commons? While George defended the moral force and economic benefits of copyright, he was disparaging of the usefulness of patent. He argued that technological innovation was necessarily social, and that the value of innovation, like the value of land, was therefore a community-generated value. He claimed, in all seriousness, that technological innovation was not invention but discovery. In “Henry George and the Intellectual Foundations of the Open Source Movement”, Neil Niman discusses the relationship between technological innovation and agglomeration economies (locationally specific scale economies). The “location” these days can be cyberspace, but whether Silicon Valley or a geographically dispersed group of software developers, a community exists which nurtures innovation.

Finally, my friend and fellow CUNY geographer Amanda Huron is grappling with the theory of the commons (and developing a theory of the urban commons) in her dissertation research on limited-equity cooperative housing. In looking at the participation of the residents in managing and governing their buildings, she asks whether limited-equity housing can be conceived as a commons. A direction that she is going in is understanding the commons as a process, not (or not only) as a thing or as a state. Michael Hardt writes that Jefferson believed that the people could learn to self-govern through the act of participating in self-governance. Huron writes, “it is through laboring together in managing the commons that people learn how to ‘do’ democracy.” Žižek warns that after “the carnival”, much work remains. Occupy Wall Street—the actual occupation of Zucotti Park—may be ending as I write this, but the commons remains, and it needs tending.

Filed in Governance,Urban | 3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Occupy the Commons”

  1. Ante-Thanksgiving Round-Up! : Footenoteson 20 Nov 2011 at 11:16 pm

    […] as they regather.  Lee Hachadoorian took the week of action to consider Zizek’s thoughts on communism and the commons in light of the 99% movement.  Bill Ashton chimed in and showed us the evolution of image […]

  2. The Food Coma Round-Up : Footenoteson 27 Nov 2011 at 9:56 pm

    […] mindful of the events at UC Davis last week.  Occupy movements at Wall Street and elsewhere remain a big part of the conversation in the blogs […]

  3. Kiddoon 09 Dec 2011 at 6:12 am

    Great article, for real. Well-written, documented and all-around interesting. You especially got me interested in Zizek, whom I didn´t know if not by name so far. Hopefully like he said the debate (and the action) goes on and it doesn´t stop at the carnival – which my pessimistic nature and the history of the last 40 years both conjure to make me believe will be the only legacy of this, still really welcome and surprising, movement.

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