In Search of a Lost Alternative
The commons are an attempt to improve political systems from within, but the question remains whether they can cope with the upcoming crises and, if not, what is there to replace them.
Foto: Tomislav Medak/Filckr
Everything was forever until it was no more, reads the title of Alexei Yurchak's well-known book about the last Soviet generation. Primary school history already teaches us that every major political entity was fragile and finite, but it is hard to translate this knowledge from books to everyday life. Even in this volatile region, a significant portion of the population has only lived in a democratic and capitalist order which, however unsteady it may seem, does appear to be relatively stable. We simply don’t know firsthand how it can be different, and this in turn undermines public pressure to change the structure. The belief that there is no alternative thus makes for a solid ground for any conservative policy, and it is up to the imagination to be progressive, as it alone can combine an unlived history or an envisioned future with the actual experience.
Tensions over the (un)changing reality and (im)possible alternatives are becoming an increasingly relevant political topic, as awareness is growing that current economic and political systems cannot meet the needs of the population; they cannot adequately respond to unpredictable crises and, in fact, many of these crises generate themselves. With the pandemic and the awareness of the far-reaching consequences of environmental crises, the idea that an alternative must become possible is gaining ground. In this context, the concept of commons (common goods), which has over the past decade shifted from an academic theory to a new political model, called for by theorists and social movements alike, is of particular interest. The idea of commons on a theoretical level represents the possibility of an organizational third way (as a way out of the usual "state or market" dilemma), while in practice it is becoming a common denominator that brings together different movements, slowly moving left-wing politics from the margin into the mainstream.
We are not wolves to one another
It’s not hard to get informed about the commons these days – online materials, introductory and advanced, are available aplenty. To name a few editions from the region: Commons in South East Europe (Institute for Political Ecology, Zagreb, 2018) and Spaces of Commoning: Urban Commons in the Ex-Yu Region (Ministry of Space / Institute of Urban Policy, Belgrade, 2020), including the web platform Zajednicko.org (where a short introduction lecture by Iva Čukić is available). The amount of materials about the commons, easy access to its basic ideas, a number of practical examples, and the links to political activism indicate how much this term, which until recently mattered primarily in the academic community, has shifted to a wider public sphere.
The term originated in 1968 in the work of economist Garrett Hardin who actually associated it with the opposite political stance. Hardin discussed the tragedy of the commons, arguing, in fact, that uncontrolled collective use of limited general resources leads to a disaster for all. Hardin was concerned about the impact of population growth on resource availability, but his ideas were later largely used to corroborate the view that general resources should be regulated by an external instance, not by citizens directly. Hardin was countered by economist Elinor Ostrom in Managing the Commons (1990), an influential book in which she presented the commons as a legitimate form of social organization. Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for her work, on the grounds of having successfully demonstrated that collective resources can be managed without central regulation or privatisation. With a due lack of enthusiasm for the Nobel Prize, this decision by the Swedish Academy shortly after the onset of the global economic crisis does point to the relevance of alternative models of governance.
In the book (and in her work in general), Ostrom dealt with the practices that are used by community members themselves to organize common resources, without interference from the state or the market. She examined successful examples from Switzerland, Japan, Spain, Turkey, the Philippines, and other countries, where individual communities have for centuries managed irrigation, land and crop distribution, fishing, etc. Ostrom cited some unsuccessful examples as well, from around the world, so as to demonstrate that the commons are not a universal remedy for all problems. Rather, she used these examples to infer eight necessary principles for the commons to function. In short, members of a community should on the one hand be limited (by clear and fair rules and effective supervision), and on the other hand, be free (through the right of access to resources and equality of decision-making in the community). Yet these principles are exercised by members themselves, and they, in turn, are not wolves to one another, but are able to cooperate in the common interest.
Ostrom approached the topic academically, without political ambitions, and was careful to avoid speculation as to whether her insights can be applied on a broader scale. Indeed, as we are reading about the fascinating examples of common grazing in the Swiss Törbel or irrigation in the arid regions of Spain, what remains unclear is whether these principles can be applied in more complex communities or if the commons are at all an alternative to the market or the state (since they exist in parallel with them). Nevertheless, Ostrom developed a theoretical model that treats individuals not as selfish, infantile or passive actors, but rather emphasises the possibility of their direct cooperation. Her work has thus encouraged further development of the model within critical theory, having inspired a wave of political activists who found a concrete model to rely on in their struggles against privatization and state control.
Solid values and an unclear mechanism
As the concept of commons was gaining foothold in theory and practice, it took on an array of different meanings. The earlier mentioned book that deals with this issue in Southeast Europe provides a useful overview of various critical theoretical approaches to the phenomenon. Although this is another “kaleidoscope of perspectives”, one can observe that unlike Ostrom, who used the term to describe existing phenomena, critical theorists (Silke Helfrich, Ugo Mattei, David Harvey, Silvia Federici, etc.) speak more about what the commons might and should be. That is no easy task – Elinor Ostrom’s model is based on settlements of a few hundred inhabitants and it is not easy to elegantly translate it to multi-million cities and states.
In the field of activism, the term functions better because it can serve as a distinctive symbol rather than a precisely designed model. The commons are invoked by many different movements around the world that fight for open public access to certain resources, be it academic work, digital culture, intellectual property in general, cultural spaces, rivers, motorways or a local park. Different movements are brought together by general values and resistance to neoliberal policies, and not necessarily a specific mechanism of governance. On this note, political scientist Danijela Dolenec downplays the radicalism of commons as "there is no doubt that the commons are not inherently opposed to the capitalist relations of production". But she does point out their current importance: "the new framework for diagnosing the present moment has gained unfaltering momentum: deeply displeased with capitalism and representative democracy, we have rejected the political message of Thatcherism (There is no alternative). This energy fuels the commons movement as a viable alternative to the existing modes of production and governance".
In the 2010s, the so-called urban commons, a series of practices of resistance to neoliberal tendencies in running the city, increasingly came into focus around the world. On the one hand, city authorities and the market have made cities more and more closed and fenced off: housing prices are on the rise, public spaces are being privatized and public services are abolished, becoming costlier or increasingly under control. The freedom of movement, behaviour or simply being in the city is being undermined. On the other hand, citizens self-organise and launch initiatives that seek to take control of city resources and make them widely available. This includes protest actions against construction projects in parks and squares, but also less visible practices such as the founding of housing cooperatives, the squatting of abandoned city spaces, urban gardens, neighbourhood initiatives, etc. What is behind all these is not a closely connected and concerted political agenda or vision on how to govern the city as a whole, but the needs of various citizens’ groups to directly appropriate a particular portion of their “right to the city” and make city life easier and better.
The aforementioned books citing a number of examples of city commons in the region: protests to preserve public areas ("We won’t give away Varšavska Street" in Zagreb, "Don’t let Belgrade (be suffocated)", Dubrovnik’s "Srđ is ours"), informally launched cultural centres (Karlo Rojc in Pula, Recreational Zone Banja Luka, New Cultural Settlement in Novi Sad, Belgrade’s Cultural Centre Magacin, etc.), housing rights initiatives (Serbia’s Joint Action Roof over Our Head). We should also mention the overall work of the Right to the City association, the interventions by Saša Šimpraga, an activist and researcher from Zagreb, the rise and fall of the BEK squat, etc. The great number of these initiatives is evidence of the strengthening neoliberal policies in the region, but also to the increasing efforts by citizens to retain the cities and keep them open.
It may seem logical to conclude that these forms of self-organizing are necessarily at odds with city authorities, yet that needn’t be the case. The best-known examples to the contrary are Naples, Bologna, and Belgian Gent which have formally opened up to the commons, encouraging citizens to cooperate and get more directly involved in running the city. This shows that the work of public bodies and direct civil initiatives are not mutually exclusive, i.e. that commons are not necessarily an alternative to the existing ways of governing the city. What is more, it seems at the moment that greater democratization of city governance can be achieved more easily and quickly from within than from outside the system. It is from such local struggles to preserve public spaces that political platforms Zagreb is OURS! and Možemo! have emerged. Through representation in the City Council and the Croatian Parliament, they have gained more media coverage and a greater influence over public policy than before, and through their program and work, the commons are slowly entering the political mainstream.
The commons are more characterized by a programmatic set of values that are sought through traditional political channels than they are a call for an alternative form of organising. In this sense, they represent a genuine attempt to repair and democratize existing political systems from within, through the work of councillors, MPs, and formal political organisations. But the question remains whether these systems – in Croatia and elsewhere – are capable of coping with the upcoming crises and, if not, what is there to replace them. One must add that the commons, as a concept imported from Western theory, facilitate a whitewashed revival of similar ideas of self-government and cooperatives which, due to their clear association with socialism, still have the status of dirty words or obsolete ideas in much of Croatian society. Therefore, the commons open up a space for bringing left-wing ideas back to life, but the potential for learning from Yugoslav theory and practice remains little explored.