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Movements for the commons






Peace movements and environmental movements are movements for commons – they are not mobilizations of any particular group or category to advance their interest, but they are in some sense mobilizations to protect the whole of civil society from destruction or disintegration or predation.

But peace movements and environmental movements are just the expressions of things that – for better or worse – have managed to work together to create their own identity that lasts over time and space. Most such movements are local and do not feel like anything else. For their commons are only local.

Popular movements defend commons because
- that in the special case is the only way for everyone to get a share; if the commons were privatized, many would be left without,
- in many cases ”gift economies” is more efficient than markets, because everyone contributes and can take part of the contributions without needing bookkeeping,
- privatization and the market initiate dangerous processes; in the market everything is interchangeable and both survival and trust risk being sold for money,
- the management of the commons builds the relationships that create ”society”, and enables us to gain a common understanding of our situation and to protect ourselves from abuse of power;
- reciprocity has an intrinsic value because we humans feel good about having solid relationships with others.

During the nineteenth century and until about 1950, there were two focuses for popular movements. On the one hand, a very broad alliance consisting of almost everyone except the capitalists sought a social security system of health care and insurance against illness, old age, accidents and unemployment. On the one hand, labor movements strived for ”social housing policy”, i.e guaranteed housing for those who flocked to the cities and were confronted with their monopolistic real estate market.

In the South, these issues have never been resolved. There, common movements have always consisted of the residents of the shantytowns trying to get their areas partly legalized, partly provided with water, sewage, electricity, bus lines, schools, health clinics, etc. At some point, these movements have been able to develop far. A shantytown movement in the suburbs of São Paulo, started by liberation theological priests, eventually began to organize in the workplace as well, launching the strikes that overthrew the military regime in the 1980s. Shanty town movements in South Africa became the core of the resistance against apartheid.

In the North, existing commons were threatened by the post-war boom. On the one hand, they began to be divided and placed on the market – against this reacted youth movements that tried to revive a culture based on reciprocity by settling in collectives and taking actions against commercialism. On the one hand, peoples’ life worlds were threatened by large construction projects. Large parts of the city’s cores were demolished and filled with offices and highways or gentrified and filled with people from the upper middle class who were tired of lifeless suburbs. Against this, ”urban movements” were organized by the threatened – an alliance of young people in search of a reciprocal life and old residents that wanted to stay where they were used to.

Since the 1980s, the commons have been threatened even more. The rulers’ attempts at crisis resolution, the so-called Washington Consensus, is about doing everything into markets, to increase the opportunity for business. Against this, people have organized themselves in different ways.

Pioneers can be said to be the people in the slums of the South who organized the so-called IMF uprisings from the 1970s onwards when international banks forced southern governments to abolish social rights in order to pay interest instead. The most comprehensive to date is the one that occurred in Argentina in December 2001. In some places, this has led to more continuous organization.

From the nineties, more forces have joined. Farmers have rebelled against food companies’ attempts to privatize genes. Young people have rebelled against entertainment companies’ efforts to copyright culture, by pirating music. Computer users run a low-intensity warfare against Microsoft’s attempts to monopolize our communications, by pirating programs. Trade unions are trying (when they can get themselves to do something) to protest against the abolition of social security.

The defense of the commons is one core of the so-called the global justice movement, also called the critique of globalization. The other core is the South’s defense against the North.

Jacques Godbout: The world of the gift, McGill-Queen’s University Press 1998
Karl Polanyi: The Great Transformation, Archive 1987
Manuel Castells: The city and the grassroots, Edward Arnold 1983
Neil Brenner et al (ed): Cities for People, Not for Profit, Routledge 2012
Eleonora Pasotti: Resisting redevelopment, Cambridge University Press 2020
John Walton & David Seddon: Free markets and food riots, Blackwell 1994

Olivier De Marcellus: Commons, Communities and Movements: Inside, Outside and Against Capital, The Commoner 6

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