The crisis, the alternative, and the commons movement
The crisis of the dominant system marks the end of an epoch. It is not another phase of the same.
Capitalism is unable to keep its promises of eradicating poverty and hunger, ensuring social justice, respecting the environment, and overcoming the South-North divide. It defends by means of warfare “its” right to resources South and North. It thereby pillages nature and identifies quality of life with economic “well-being.” For people in flesh and blood this means the loss of any possibility to decide over their own living and working conditions, or to have any self-determination or chance to decide about their lives’ prospects. So it has become “normal”, for example, to put one’s health at risk and lose one’s life at the workplace. Nineteenth-century representative democracy, tied to national states and political parties as the bridge between the state and citizens, is no longer enough in a context of globalization. People are no longer able to defend themselves, while Earth is on the brink of collapse because of excessive resource consumption both through extraction and emissions and waste. However, governments are insensitive to people’s demands for real democracy and they are blind to the relationship between economic and ecological crises. Unemployment and corruption spread but they–European Union governments and bankers, for example—at most busy themselves in “mitigating” austerity policies, instead of putting the economy and the planet right. The global defeat of the left over the last decades and especially in Europe—the cradle of western democracy—has allowed the ruling classes to erase the social and cultural improvements of the twentieth century and to exclude not only workers from public debate, but also the masses and their culture. This has given rise to an unprecedented social division between the 99 and 1% of the people. Leftist parties and unions have not been able/willing to change themselves to deal with the challenges of globalization and so they have enabled neoliberalism and austerity policies, while defending poorly (and therefore pointlessly) only “secure” workers. They have bought into the capitalist ideology of the market and the industrialist ideology of development based on mass consumption. This has favored the separation of life from work and economy from society, making obvious the left’s inability to perform its historical role as defender of the marginalized. In Italy, for example, the “glorious” Italian Communist Party collapsed with the fall of the Berlin wall, opening the road to the triumph of il pensiero unico (mainstream conformist thinkinglike TINA, There Is No Alternative).
Everywhere people are looking for alternatives. Rural and metropolitan communities North and South make up a vast resistance movement that in resisting proposes alternatives, whatever the labels used and claims made, from the struggle against enclosures to the defense of health. This movement is today called “the movement of the commons,” but even the definition for commons is controversial among scholars and there is the risk that the movement will be used to consolidate the existing system instead of transforming it. Community andmovement struggles rarely succeed, but when they do they find it hard to change the existing social order as a result of opposition from both the dominant classes and the rest of the population. Three centuries of capitalism have shaped common sense and have given life to the “demonization of the past.” Thus, it has become commonplace that the past is something to throw away entirely, especially local communities and the closer personal links that they imply, replaced by more “comfortable” virtual internet communities. “In those days there reigned hunger and war” is the motivating phrase to justify this attitude. But changes need to be seen at the planetary level and then it becomes clearer that hunger and war persist and have mainly been transferred to the South.
Local communities and social movements are the subjects putting the alternative into practice. They are in fact (de facto), but not in right (de jure) because they do not have the “power” to realize the solutions they have worked on. Constituted powers try to reduce and often succeed in reducing them to a role of “servants to the system,” while the decisions rest in the hands of legally recognized institutions: the State, the Market, the Banks, the European Union, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Nevertheless, all forms of popular participation must be encouraged “here and now” in the transition, in the ecological transformation of economy and society. Communities and movements will have to become subjects recognized in law and in the Constitutions of various countries. This objective must be kept firmly in mind from the start, during the transition. Communities and movements must be empowered, that is, enabled in deciding and co-deciding over local development and the fate of surface (water, land, agriculture) and subsurface (minerals, energy) resources. The CNS-EP Collective advocates for a cosmopolitan localism that will need to be defined by experts of various discipline, together with local communities in struggle, who are many and present in every country. They work on a wide variety of problems, from the “volcano mothers” of Campania region in Italy to the rural and metropolitan communities North and South to the communities of water, energy, and steel” against the Ilva company in Taranto in Italy and the Vale multinational in Brazil, which extracts iron destined to the Ilva company furnaces in Taranto (see reporting from the Italian weekly Espresso, and the international seminar held in Brazil in May 2013). The delineation of ecological communities and social movements’ powers will not be simple at all, it will depend on available opportunities and it will require a long time to overcome many forms of resistance. Nobody anyway thinks that no problems or contradictions exist within communities, but real democracy is knocking at our doors.
The CNS-EP Collective proposes to organize in Italy a conference on the issues posed by the above-described alternative. We would like to see similar conferences in other countries and/or regions with cultural frameworks, institutions, and political experiences that are different from those in Italy and Europe. We are strongly convinced that it is necessary to give visibility to those left out by the dominant system, although being the majority of the population. The planning of the conference we want to organize in Italy will have to give special attention to those who are to benefit from the meeting itself and these are local communities, rural and metropolitan, alongside intellectuals and the institutional entities that are sensitive to the subject matter, such as the Comuni virtuosi (Virtuous Municipalities) network.
Roma, October 2014
[Note: CNS-EP (Capitalismo Natura Socialismo – Ecologia Politica, also called Ricerche per l’alternativa, Research for the Alternative) is an online journal (formerly in print in 1991-1997 and 2001-2002) and part of the CNS international network. Since the beginning of this century, with the historical defeat of the Italian and European Left becoming completely clear, the journal decided to concentrate on the alternative and the commons and to raise the visibility of social and ecological movements. The CNS-EP Collective’s position paper above is a manifesto aiming to facilitate the organization of international conferences on these themes].