Robert Jensen wrote a review of a new book on “the commons” that sparked an exchange with the book’s editor, Jay Walljasper. Jensen’s previously unpublished review of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons/How to Save the Economy, the Environment, the Internet, Democracy, Our Communities, and Everything Else That Belongs to All of Us (The New Press, 288 pages, $18.95) is below, followed by comments.
All That We Share is an exciting and exasperating book. The excitement comes from the many voices arguing to place “the commons” at the center of planning for a viable future. The exasperation comes from the volume’s failure to critique the political and economic systems that we must transcend if there is to be a future for the commons.
In the preface, the book’s editor and primary writer, Jay Walljasper, describes how he came to understand the commons as a “unifying theme” that helped him see the world differently and led him to believe that “as more people become aware of it, the commons will spark countless initiatives that make a difference for the future of our communities and the planet.”
Defining the commons as “what we share” physically and culturally—from the air and water to the internet and open-source software—the contributors recognize that a society that defines success by individuals’ accumulation of stuff will erode our humanity and destroy the planet’s ecosystems. Walljasper calls for a “complete retooling” and “a paradigm shift that revises the core principles that guide our culture top to bottom.” No argument there. Unfortunately the book avoids addressing the specific paradigms we must confront. Is commons-based transformation possible within a capitalist economy based on predatory principles and an industrial production model built on easy access to cheap concentrated energy?
The book appears to offer a kinder-and-gentler capitalism with more regulated markets, but there is no attempt to wrestle with the effects of the corrosive and unsustainable principles—unlimited greed and endless growth—on which capitalism is based. Can we expect those core principles of the system to magically evaporate? Why will the commons become the domain of popular movements rather than corporations? If there is no attention to the inherently predatory nature of capitalism, it’s difficult to imagine how people will win out over profit.
There’s also little in the book about the need to shift from the industrial mode of production, which has generated the material comfort taken for granted by most in the First World. A sustainable commons-based society requires dramatic reductions in consumption, but contributors rarely address the scope of the change necessary (with the exception of Winona LaDuke’s essay on efforts to rebuild indigenous life at the Anishinaabeg White Earth Reservation). Forget about critiquing the lifestyles of the rich and famous—the commons can’t sustain the lifestyles of ordinary folks in a high-energy/high-technology world.
The problem is not that “the commons” isn’t a valuable concept, but that it is not a substitute for analysis of the political and economic systems that degrade the commons. The book is right to call for local experiments in cooperative living (I spend considerable time and energy on such projects; see http://5604manor.org/), but as we pursue those experiments within the existing systems, we have to be honest about the limits of those systems and not fear being labeled radical. Radical analysis is not an intellectual indulgence but a practical necessity.
As a model for “commoners,” Walljasper cites the right-wing forces’ ideological campaign in the late 20th century to shape the market fundamentalism that eventually became state policy. He suggests that today “large numbers of people of diverse ideological stripes” can rally behind the commons, which may be true. But right-wing forces didn’t assemble people of different ideological stripes; they pushed an openly reactionary analysis and had a clear political and economic program. Just as they defended capitalism to the detriment of the commons, a countermovement has to openly critique capitalism to serve the commons. Just as they took the industrial model as a given, a countermovement has to question that model openly.
It may be that the commons has the power to transform people’s consciousness as Walljasper seems to hope, but hanging one’s analysis and political hopes—as the book’s long subtitle suggests—on that concept strikes me as evasion rather than engagement. In the end, we have to come to terms with capitalism and the industrial model that are deeply entrenched in the United States. That can’t be done obliquely but must be confronted head-on.
Response from Jay Walljasper:
As the editor of All That We Share, I appreciate Robert Jensen’s excitement about the commons although I disagree with some of his conclusions.
My aim with this book was to reach as wide an audience as possible. I wanted to push out beyond self-identified leftists to people who are concerned about where they see things headed in our society but who are not ready to sign on to an explicit anti-capitalist/anti-industrial agenda.
It’s my hope the book helps raises people’s consciousness, gets them to look around, ask questions, see the world a little differently, begin to imagine new possibilities, find some hope in collaborative action, arrive at some different conclusions, roll up their sleeves and get to work. That is the starting point of broader political change.
That’s why I emphasized stories of people embracing shared rather than privatized solutions to problems in places like Dayton, Ohio; Nazareth, Texas; the Indian communities of St. John’s valley, Maine; Hyde Square in inner city Boston; and Oaxaca, Mexico. In a society that is steeped in extreme individualism, this is an important step. It leads the way out of cynicism, apathy and the sense that nothing can change.
There is no single, unified critique that holds the commons in its hands. The commons strategy is to let a thousand flowers bloom, some finding fresh opportunities within existing structures that can push in the direction of genuine change, others confronting what’s going wrong.
That’s why I argue that it’s time to reconsider public ownership of companies in one essay in the book while chronicling the success of an immigrant-led co-op growing sustainably-raised chickens in rural Minnesota in another. Both represent a move away from the market absolutism that characterizes modern life.
Robert, I look forward to meeting you some time and exploring our common interest in the commons.
Response from Robert Jensen:
Jay: I certainly understand your strategy, but I think you are misreading our options and presenting false alternatives. You say you want “to push out beyond self-identified leftists to people who … are not ready to sign on to an explicit anti-capitalist/anti-industrial agenda.” I agree, but that statement implies that any discussion of the pathological nature of capitalism and industrial society will alienate anyone who isn’t already a leftist. In my experience, that isn’t the case. It’s possible to talk openly about the foundational flaws of those systems without sounding like a caricature of left sectarianism who will drive away ordinary people. Why can’t one talk about the commons and those failed systems at the same time? If people are going to adopt an anti-capitalist/anti-industrial worldview—which I think is essential to any political progress— they need to hear the ideas articulated. The commons is both an important concept in itself and a vehicle for deepening our political analysis.
Here’s an example: A few years ago in Austin we held a series of community gatherings we called “Last Sunday,” which drew mostly liberals, not leftists. At one of those gatherings I gave a talk I titled “Anti-capitalism in five minutes or less” that offered a simple critique in plain language. It’s online in various places.
It’s possible to offer this kind of left critique and work in projects that have to adapt to the existing system. I am active with a group in Austin that helps start worker-owned/worker-run cooperatives. Those businesses have to exist in the capitalist economy, but they offer a different experience. Most of us involved have an explicitly anti-capitalist politics, which informs the way we talk about the project.
It’s certainly true that some from the left or the deep ecology movement speak in ways that are annoying and alienating. But that’s not the only way to articulate a radical critique. If we don’t find ways to challenge openly the dogma of capitalism and the industrial model—if we are afraid to talk about what we know and believe—it’s hard to imagine any hope of meaningful change. The ideology of the dominant system is imposed on people constantly, and if it isn’t countered there’s no reason to expect people will shift. I think we need to create experiments for people to experience an alternative and articulate the ideas the guide such experiments. If we “reach as wide an audience as possible” but have no coherent challenge to the dominant culture to offer, what has been accomplished?
I feel stronger about this than ever, mostly because I am more terrified than ever of the consequences of the accelerating decline of these systems. The human assault on the living systems of the planet is intensifying, and as a society we aren’t yet capable of dealing with what that will mean not only for future generations but for us in the coming decades.
Response from Jay Walljasper:
These are intriguing thoughts, which make me think you ought to write a book on the commons from this perspective. It will obviously be different from All That We Share but the commons, like healthy ecosystems, thrive on diversity.