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Re-Awakening Our Social Commons

This is a summary version of our full monograph Re-Awakening Our Social Commons that was released in the summer of 2020.  We invite you to read the full version which reflects our initial thinking on the subject and the key concepts that were then distilled into our five core pillars. 

The Challenges We Face

The pandemic has laid bare the precarity of much of our social and economic life, and that our political and economic institutions lack a moral compass to protect and extend human rights. We need to think, act, participate and govern differently and in ways that recognize our public and community infrastructure as the foundation of civic society. 

The transformation we seek rests on four pillars: strengthening human rights, an economy focused on meeting human needs, building community assets within an inclusive, social justice framework, and a collaborative and enabling role for government in re-creating civic life and shared community resources.

Re-Discovering the Commons: A Transformative Way of Thinking

The Commons offers a framework for re-organizing our economy, social relations, and democratic political institutions in order to create a society of equity, justice and shared opportunity for all.  We understand the Commons as all those things that people in a political community or society view as being held in common, because they belong to the group as a whole. This includes the rules for governing, regulating and monitoring the use of these Commons and shared resources within them.

The Commons is a cooperative way of living, concerned with the reproduction of resources for sustainability not their depletion.  It is the equitable pooling of resources, collectively governed for fair access for all.  The Commons can also be viewed as living social systems through which people generate the necessities of life essential to sustainability and address their shared problems in self-organized ways in their communities.  In any particular setting, it takes shape through local engagement in governance, provisioning, and social practice.  Further, the Commons seeks to live in harmony with nature and is consistent with an Indigenous worldview that sees us as responsible for the life and well-being of seven generations to come.

Universal Values and Collective Human Rights

Universal values underpin our strong human bonds to each other evident across all cultures.  These values assert our obligations to each other in terms of ensuring freedom from want and fear and sharing abundance fairly. We ask these questions: What is our path to greater social and environmental justice?  Will that path address our enduring human needs for home, for community, for economic security, for contribution, and for good work?  The 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a major touchstone for answering these questions. These rights articulate universal basic human needs, calling for the “advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want.”

Although the original and subsequent declarations and conventions have never been fully realized in practice, national governments in the western world did assume leadership in framing a social contract with private capital and labour founded on full employment and public provision for a thirty year period until the 1980s. Further, we believe that human and social rights are intertwined with a third level of rights, environmental rights, designed to protect all life on the planet, including preserving natural habitats.

Our Systems Are Failing: The Fallacies of Global Capital and Neo-Liberalism

There is stark and mounting evidence that our current systems are failing us.  Neo-liberalism as an ideology puts the state and its institutions largely at the service of global capital rather than safeguarding human rights, providing social protection and ensuring ecological sustainability.  Three destructive fallacies underlie global capitalism’s current economic growth mindset:

  • that we can continue and even accelerate the damage to our eco-sphere and natural habitats upon which all life on this planet depends without exhausting the earth’s finite resources potentially within decades;
  • that the free flow of financial capital internationally to jurisdictions with low taxation, low labour costs, and reduced workplace and environmental standards produces global economic progress  rather than labour exploitation and  increased inequalities in income and wealth; and
  • that future creativity, innovation and cultural and scientific advances are best propagated through a system of proprietary accumulation, which limits access to knowledge for current and future generations rather than seeing knowledge as an inter-generational cultural inheritance, encouraging the free flow of ideas and as the springboard of creativity, innovation and future prosperity. 

The fallacies of global capital in combination with the austerity measures implemented under neo-liberalism are a path to a dystopian future.  We require a new way of thinking that recognizes the centrality of addressing human need over corporate greed.  We must:

  • change development practices and consumption patterns to focus efforts  on reducing ecological damage and waste that threatens the survival of life on this planet;
  • focus political and economic activities on ensuring that everyone can meet the basic necessities of life and can achieve an acceptable community standard of living;
  • reverse policies that enable  corporations, and those who control them to amass vast wealth while many of the earth’s inhabitants are denied the necessities of life, decent sustaining work and fundamental human and civil rights,; and
  • end the private appropriation of the cultural and scientific knowledge of past generations that excludes access to it for current and future generations

Our Conception of the Social Commons

We need to broaden our conception of “social protection” to include maintaining a thriving Social Commons. For us, the Social Commons focuses on human health and well-being, living in harmony with nature, and ensuring everyone both economic and social security through individual and collective rights that allow each of us to flourish and thrive.  

A critical part of this is a strengthening of civil society as active agents that give meaning and legitimacy to policies and programs funded and enabled by all levels of government.  In particular, the Social Commons provides a justice framework for rethinking social, economic and environmental policies and actions which are equitable, inclusive and transformative. 

Growing the Social Commons signifies a sustained effort to redress the power imbalance built up in the last two generations that resulted in growing income inequality, privatization of public assets and that imperils the sustainability of life on this planet.  In contrast, the Commons envisions a future with:

  1. People re-imagining a more politically engaged civil society, supporting community building collective actions and strengthened local self-government
  2. People in control of their lives, and able to claim and assert their rights
  3. Commons resources protected by governments, available to and shared by all
  4. An economy organized around meeting human needs and sustainable development
  5. Collaborating with and supported by governments in protecting human rights and in co-generating local plans
  6. Living systems that are protected and adapt over time and allow for local self-expression and creative solutions in promoting sustainability
https://www.dpie.nsw.gov.au/premiers-priorities/great-public-spaces/festival-of-place/great-public-spaces-toolkit

Role of the Emancipatory State:

Transition from the Neo-Liberal State to the Emancipatory State is an essential pillar and enabler of the Social Commons and will entail:       

  • The “emancipatory state” as steward of people’s rights and a partner in creating the social, economic, and ecological conditions for respecting, endorsing, and enacting these rights;   
  • Senior governments as a partner in the initiatives of society, setting standards, allocating resources, and ensuring decisions and outcomes produce equitable access to resources;
  • A robust social protection framework and new social contract designed to ensure that everyone can meet the basic necessities of life and  has access to sufficient resources and opportunities to achieve an acceptable community standard of living; and
  • A legal framework that asserts the primacy of human rights and ecological sustainability and which makes  private corporate interests subservient to meeting human needs and holds them to account.

Conclusion

We see the above reflections on the value of the Commons framework in the Canadian context not as a definitive or prescriptive approach but as an invitation to further discussion and elaboration of these ideas. Our interest is in engaging people active in community mobilization and social policy in discussions at the broadest level and/or focused on any priority issues for which it has relevance. Finally, in applying the Commons concept, there is much interdependence and overlap among the different spheres within the Commons (social, natural, cultural, civic, knowledge, economic). Those with a main focus on any one of these spheres may wish to examine the potential of the Commons as a framework for both community action and policy development. 

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