Restoring the Commons
February 01, 2022
When actor Jonathan Frakes auditioned for the part of Commander Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation, he knew nothing about the Star Trek franchise. In one of his last screen tests for the role, he asked how he should understand the future that Gene Roddenberry, the franchise's founder, had in his head. Roddenberry replied: "In the 24th century there will be no hunger, there will be no greed, and all the children will know how to read." Rather like our relationship to the imaginary ascenturians capable of sustaining human diversity into the Tenth Millennium, Roddenberry did not have any idea how such a future would come about. His purpose was to envision a future worth having, not to unpick the philosophical and political problems of how to get there. For our ascenturians, however, we might need to establish some kind of principle that could lead to a future without hunger or greed - a future, in other words, without poverty.
The ascenturians are a science fictional people capable of taking all the diversity of human life today and sustaining it for another 48 centuries. Both co-existence and subsistence over such a long time span require some basis by which the different societies comprising this imagined future can interrelate with one another without exploitation or oppression. I take it as quite essential to the ascenturian dream that poverty is eliminated, or at least defanged in some way, but I leave open the manner in which that might happen. This is important, as we are frequently confused whenever we try to think about wealth.
We tend to look at the ultra-wealthy either with admiration and pride, or else with envy or disgust. Those who sway towards the positive (including the billionaires themselves) tend to underestimate the enormous advantages that helped them build (or more commonly, further build) their fortunes. But equally, those whose bile is raised by the 1% fail to recognise how our own comparative wealth (in global terms) contributes directly and indirectly to the poverty of others elsewhere. As aggravating as it may be to see wealth unnecessarily concentrated in a few essentially random individuals, the political problems of wealth inequality need not be addressed to eliminate poverty, and the issues certainly run deeper than the disdain of the well-off for those with even greater wealth.
To assemble the collectives that might provide a basis for the imaginary ascenturian world of the future, we need some principle under which solidarity can prosper, as I sketched in the principle of assembly. But to secure that condition, we will also need to tackle the problem of poverty. I therefore suggest a principle that can lift those who struggle to subsist out of the horrendous conditions of poverty, where there is not enough water, food, or adequate shelter. The following principle of elevation, while vague, might still be sufficient to establish our intentions:
Secure solidarity by eliminating poverty
It is important not to be mislead about what 'eliminating poverty' actually implies. It need not mean bringing those in the poorer nations up to the wasteful standards of living we have become accustomed to ourselves. I would remind everyone reading that despite the conveniences of contemporary technology, we are still a rather unhappy people, and my experiences in Africa taught me not to misunderstand the relationship between convenience and happiness. The Africans I met in Burkina Faso were far happier people than the Europeans I know, despite having incomprehensibly less of what we presume matters. We may also have to confront the possibility that eliminating poverty means bringing us down to a less wasteful form of life than we currently take for granted. The imaginary ascenturians will have to solve these problems, but we (like Roddenberry) can settle for establishing our ends, while leaving open the question of our means.
This brings us back to the question of the ultra-wealthy. The situations that create extreme concentrations of wealth always entail some essentially random circumstances beyond anyone's control. They rest on starting with access to capital-scale money, like Warren Buffet; on being within the circle of contacts that can supply capital, as with Jeff Bezos who gained such connections by working on Wall Street; upon having access to enough wealth to establish a company can be acquired by a far larger company, like Elon Musk; upon creating a technology that happened by chance to be capable of deployment into a previously unforeseen context for massive profit, like Mark Zuckerberg; or upon a fortunate oversight from a wealthy client corporation, like Bill Gates sleight-of-hand with IBM. Being white and male seems (unsurprisingly) to provide significant assistance too. This is not to say that ultra-wealth is purely a lottery: billionaires do contribute significant decisions towards their own success, and many potential billionaires fail to capitalise on their advantages. Yet it is unavoidable that the circumstances behind all billionaires depend to a great degree upon mere chance, just as the majority of people who live in poverty suffer the random misfortune of having been born into it.
What this implies is that while the ultra-wealthy have the means to change the world in whatever way they desire, they have no special qualifications to understand how or why the world ought to be changed. This is an enormous liability. Tech magnates have a nasty tendency, for instance, to view as 'philanthropy' their desire to spread their technology around the world... this is an understandable impulse - like calls to like - but it is overly generous to consider this merely as beneficent charity. Rather, this ought to be seen as a kind of colonial philanthropy... the empires of the Age of Sail, after all, also viewed their occupation of other nations as a beneficent 'civilising mission'. We are at great risk of continuing to repeat this mistake through our dogmatic propagation of accelerating technology.
The only truly altruistic form of philanthropy would be blind to its own agenda; this is not something that can be claimed of organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has fostered a form of corporate globalisation that is unquestionably made in the image of its founder. From the perspective of wealthy nations, the charitable activities Bill Gates conducts seem worthy enough... but this is all too frequently an illusion caused by our own cultural biases. Eradicating polio, for instance, seems like a worthy enough end. Yet every campaign to eradicate a disease entails co-opting the health systems of numerous countries where that disease wealthy white people fret about is a rather insignificant health risk, thus turning a blind eye towards (or even exacerbating) more immediate health concerns. Colonial philanthropy enforces its own ideology onto the world.
What I propose as an alternative is something radical: the use of the surplus capital that has accumulated (in part by pure chance) around the ultra-wealthy to create access to funding for anyone who needs it. Rather like the micro-finance non-profit organisation Kiva, which provides small loans to small businesses in places where money is hard to come by, access to charitable finance could be arranged by request, rather than by imperial magnanimity. Imagine the creation of a common pool of money that provides access to the small scale funding that communities need to solve their problems. This can operate rather like a bank, but a bank with the unprecedented remit to be allowed to lose money to overcome poverty. This is far from unthinkable. And the creation of such a fund - what might be called 'a capital commons' - would only require the ultra-wealthy to demonstrate the charitable impulse they are so fond of telling us they possess by giving money to a common fund over which they themselves no longer possess authoritative control.
I call this 'a commons', but we are quite far from remembering what this term means. In its original sense, this referred to land - village commons, common pasture, or wastelands on manor estates that any 'commoner' was free to use to gather wood or hunt game. These concepts date back to before the the rise of industrial economics, and Ivan Illich is surely correct to suggest that the arrival and acceleration of industry in the 19th century saw not only the enclosure of the commons, but the corresponding transformation of all forms of common lands into resources. Although ecologists managed to keep 'the commons' as a term in circulation through environmental concerns via what Garret Hardin dubbed in 1968 'the tragedy of the commons', almost immediately these terms were degraded back into industrial economic terms. Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom, for instance, preferred the term 'common-pool resource', and although her work was important and worthy of the praise it received, this framing of the commons as resources falls prey of everything Illich warns is entailed in the war on subsistence that industrial politics unleashed.
Most discussions of the commons focus upon the term as it was used in England, which is understandable given that most international law descends from English jurisprudence to at least some degree. But this is also highly problematic, as it will tend to draw us into thinking about these issues in terms of property, and a compelling case can be made that the commons are diametrically opposed to property claims. If we stick to thinking in terms of the history of English law, the commons were always owned by the manor and hence by the nobility, for all that free use of the spaces unfit for farming were granted to the commoners. The danger in looking at it this way now is that we might place 'law' above 'custom' in a situation that blurs the fact that the law is in itself only custom. As a result, there is much to be gained from looking at these problems in terms of the situations facing many different nations.
India, as just one example, inherited English law from colonial occupation, but has recognised a concept of village commons under a variety of different names for millennia. These lands were used as grazing pasture, or to maintain pools of water for cattle to drink or bathe in, for storing harvested grain, as a threshing floor, as playing fields for children, carnivals, and circuses, even as cremation grounds or graveyards. As legal systems grew up, they incorporated these communal lands as inalienable property of the villages that used them. Since Indian independence, however, these village commons have been gradually and unscrupulously acquired or occupied by property developers, either by illegal encroachment or through nefarious political machinations. Yet in January 2011, the Supreme Court of India took a heroic stand in defence of the village commons in the case of a village pond in the State of Punjab, which had been filled in by property developers. The courts forced the developers to restore the lands to the community.
This idea of the commons as land also provides an alternative or supplement to the capital commons I previously suggested. Another way that the ultra-wealthy could act in an authentically philanthropic manner would be to buy up land in order to restore it to the state of commons. Land purchased in this way would be secured for the use of everyone but only for the purposes of subsistence or everyday life, never as a commercial resource. This differs from the notion of a national park or similar reserve, and I do not want to downplay the merit in these kinds of land protection as well. But if our interest is in eliminating poverty, one previously unconsidered way to do so would be to turn land back into commons that are no longer eligible for the extraction of commercial resources, nor for the construction of buildings or factories. These new common lands would be free for anyone to roam, to gather wood, to grow or forage for food, to take water, to graze cattle, to bury or cremate the dead, or just to amuse themselves. It is heresy to propose such a regression of the state of property. Yet it is a heresy with the power to end poverty.
Why even suggest recreating common land? Why not focus on spreading wealth in the form of money? The answer is that just like a casino, the game of money is inherently stacked towards the house. What we call 'the developed world' has all the advantages, while what we call 'the developing world' are merely punters invited onto our gaming tables. It's far from clear that it is in their best interests for the poorer nations to play this game, since the essence of all industrial development is that whoever got there first has the insurmountable advantage (and this is especially true for banks). Extending these conditions to those places that have not yet succumbed to industrialisation is far less likely to end poverty than has been assumed, especially while we continue to raise the bar via ever more luxuriant technologies. Conversely, a patchwork of land commons (that are free for everyone) and reserves (wild lands) offer a potential path back to subsistence - a wholly unthinkable yet nonetheless utterly viable alternative solution to poverty that also happens to be more sustainable than any industrial solution yet proposed.
These two ideas - that of a capital commons, and that of restoring land to the commons - are compatible, and are doubtless not the only ways that we could fulfil the purpose of the principle of elevation that aims at eliminating poverty. Nonetheless, I would suggest as another guideline for our fictional ascenturians a principle of commonisation that could be stated as follows:
Create commons that are open to aid in the subsistence of all
I leave out the mention of 'capital' explicitly here (I don't want to rule out those fanciful futures where 'capital' loses its meaning) but the principle works for both capital commons and land commons, and indeed for many other kinds of commons that offer mutual benefits through cooperation. We have only just begun to explore creative commons, for instance, although perhaps it would be truer to say we have only just rediscovered them, since folklore was a magnificent cultural commons right up until the point we invented 'cultural appropriation' in order to both monetise and puritanise it.
It might be doubted whether the ultra-wealthy would consider supporting anything like these proposals for a philanthropy of the commons. Yet if this were to become what our future ascenturians saw as the only legitimate form of philanthropy - because all commons possess a certain immunity to colonial impulses - billionaires would have little choice but to accept these ideals as the conditions for charity going forward. What's more, they could still salve their vanity by choosing which of the many possible commons to donate funds towards. Perhaps it would be necessary for a few nations to contribute a tiny proportion of their tax revenue to get the ball rolling, but given how much money is squandered on things unnecessary or even harmful, it is far from unthinkable that this could be achieved. As with every aspect of this science fiction story we are writing, it does not have to be likely for it to be capable of being imagined. And I can imagine no better way for Jeff Bezos to atone for using the name 'Amazon' than to be personally responsible for buying all the land encroaching upon that rainforest and restoring it to the commons.
Creating a capital commons provides a route out of poverty by assuring that access to money is available to everyone, which would be a novel path to consider in itself. But creating a network of global land commons would be even more revolutionary - especially if, like the English bridleways, these lands could be connected. On such a path to the future, it becomes possible once again for people to choose to live through subsistence instead of being dependent upon the products of industrial production for their continued existence. It does not matter, from the perspective of our imaginary ascenturians, how many would choose subsistence and how many would prefer the seductive conveniences of industrial life. Either way, the principle of commonisation opens doors to previously unthinkable future forms of life where poverty can be rendered impossible. We cannot all become Kings and Queens, no matter how we organise society, but anyone can be a commoner - and the more we hold in common, the richer we all become.
Gene Roddenberry's dream was that in the future there will be no hunger, there will be no greed, and all the children will know how to read. The dream I want to put into the minds of our science fictional ascenturians is that the restoration of the commons might protect against hunger, that greed might be blunted by the transfer of surplus wealth into community assets that are then no longer available as industrial resources, and that by learning how to share these newly restored commons we might discover how to live together. As for every child knowing how to read... that would be nice. But it is more than enough for me that we can imagine a future where children might still have a world worth living in.
Next week: The Ascenturian Collectives
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