The tragedy of the capitalist commons

By Massimo De Angelis
Professor of Political Economy at the University of East London


“Increasingly, the idea of the commons seems to function less as an alternative to capitalist social relations, and more like their saviour. One example of this is the way the issue of climate change is being framed within a discourse of ‘global commons’. Influential neo-Keynesian economist Joseph Stiglitz asserts that global commons are threatened by a ‘tragedy of the commons’; that is, they are being overused because no one is charged for using or abusing them. Put simply, if polluting does not cost money, companies and individuals have an incentive to pollute. For Stiglitz, the problem cannot be solved by first assigning property rights, such as certificates that allow their owners to emit a certain amount of greenhouse gases, and then allowing markets to operate accordingly. This is the traditional neoliberal approach, but it won’t work for two reasons: first and primarily, because such enclosures often engender resistance; and, second, because they create incentives to pre-empt them by even more rapacious resource extraction. Stiglitz therefore proposes a global tax on carbon emissions to make people pay for the costs they impose on others through their polluting activities. This carbon tax – if set at an ‘appropriate rate’ and effectively enforced – would enable markets to be ‘efficient’ and would reduce emission to agreed targets. Stiglitz then argues that such a tax would create strong incentives for innovation in terms of energy efficiency and other ‘green’ technologies, enabling states to govern capitalist globalisation and promote virtuous, ‘sustainable’ growth.

This platform of management of the global commons is based on one key assumption: that capitalist disciplinary markets are a force for good, if only states are able to guide them onto a path of environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive growth. What this view forgets is that there is little evidence that global economic growth could be achieved with lower greenhouse gas emissions, in spite of increasingly energy-efficient new technologies, which in turn implies that alternatives might just be necessary to stop climate change. This raises the question of how we disentangle ourselves from the kind of conception of commons offered by Stiglitz, which allow solutions based on capitalist growth. (…)

Commons also refer to common interests. To stay with the example of climate change, if there is any chance of significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions – without this implying some form of green authoritarianism – it is because there is a common interest in doing so. But common interests do not exist per se, they have to be constructed, a process that has historically proven to be riddled with difficulties – witness the feminist movement’s attempts to construct a ‘global sisterhood’; or the workers’ movement’s project of a ‘global proletariat’. This is partly the case because capitalism stratifies ‘women’, ‘workers’ or any other collective subject in and through hierarchies of wages and power. And therein lies the rub, because it is on the terrain of the construction of common globalinterests (not just around ecological issues, but also intellectual commons, energy commons, etc.) that the class struggle of the 21st century will be played out. This is where the centre of gravity of a new politics will lie.

There are thus two possibilities. Either: social movements will face up to the challenge and re-found the commons on values of social justice in spite of, and beyond, these capitalist hierarchies. Or: capital will seize the historical moment to use them to initiate a new round of accumulation (i.e. growth). The previous discussion of Stiglitz’s arguments highlights the dangers here. Because Stiglitz moves swiftly from the presumed tragedy of the global commons to the need to preserve and sustain them for the purpose of economic growth. Similar arguments can be found in UN and World Bank reports on ‘sustainable development’, that oxymoron invented to couple environmental and ‘social’ sustainability to economic growth. Sustainable development is simply the sustainability of capital. This approach asserts capitalist growth as the sine qua non common interest of humanity. I call commons that are tied to capitalist growth distorted commons, where capital has successfully subordinated non-monetary values to its primary goal of accumulation.”

Read full article at Turbulence

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