Category Archives: political economy

The Commons: Caught Between Sovereignty and Property

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

One of the main purposes of this blog is to pluralize fields of thought which on the surface present themselves as stable and indisputable dichotomies. We maintain that theories presenting themselves in such a fashion are potentially dangerous, intrinsically exclusionary and often serve narrow ideological ends. One of such discourses is the dichotomy between the categories of the “public”, understood as the domain of the state, and the “private”, the domain of free markets. The quintessential contrasts between government and private enterprise, between centralized planning and free markets, or between bureaucracies and corporations are ones which have conquered the way we conceptualize the world and the institutions governing it.

The point that this essay attempts to make however, is that there might be something lost by conceptualizing the world in such a narrow fashion. Are the domains of “public” and “private” adequate and efficient paradigms through which to categorize our world and our institutional arrangements?

A growing field of thought thinks otherwise. The movement in defense of  “the commons” claims that both the state and the private sector are inadequate stewards when it comes to managing the long term sustainable use of common resources. Common resources may consist of water basins, forests, fisheries, oceans, the atmosphere, biodiversity as well as ancestral knowledge or cultural memories. They are things which not do not belong to anyone in particular, but which are fundamental to environmental sustainability and the fulfillment of human and civil rights (the right to water, food, education, etc.).

This movement believes that such resources belong to mankind in common, and that the private sector as well as governments have no right to exclude stakeholders from their management through instances of privatization or bureaucratization. As corporations and governments are unable to overcome their short-term visions, due to quarterly profit targets or election cycles, common resources –when possible- should be governed by local institutions through participatory and democratic practices.

And yet, the idea of local stakeholders governing the resources on which they depend (think of fishermen governing the sustainable use of coastline fisheries) appears outlandish and unfeasible. Surely, across-the board regulation or the privatization of such resources would lead to their more efficient use. Alas, as we well know, this is not so. Callous exploitation of natural resources, environmental disasters, privatization of education and healthcare, and the embarrassing incompetence of governments to produce anything resembling an agreement on climate change are proof of this.

So why does the idea of local self-government of common resources appear to most as naïve? As suggested by this essay’s introduction, one possible reasons is because the categories of “public” and “private” have successfully saturated socio-political discourse to the point where “alternatives” are hastily dismissed as the utopian fantasies of un-pragmatic idealists. It is therefore worth exploring this apparent dichotomy further, as what we find at its heart are not two mutually excluding and fundamentally opposed concepts, but rather two categories functioning along the same logic.

Let us turn to one of the greatest theorists of the modern nation, Max Weber, in order to understand some fundamental characteristics of modern governments. For Weber, modern states exercise a type of domination over their territory called “rational-legal” domination, based on the strict following of  legal rules carried out by stiff bureaucratic administrations. In fact, bureaucracies are a defining feature of modern governments, they are hierarchical structures of authority concerned primarily with efficiency. Bureaucratic administration is characterized by “precision, speed, un-ambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination” (Weber, 1948). They are thus “blind” to cultural norms, religious beliefs or traditional values:

“the more bureaucracy is dehumanized the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from all official business love, hatred and all purely personal, irrational and emotional elements which escape calculation.” (Weber, 1948)

For Weber, modern politics is about domination through the bureaucratic apparatus: communal institutions and traditional modes of collective organization are thereby excluded from government through legislative means (or coercion) in the name of state sovereignty.

On the other end of the spectrum we find the proponents of the private sector. For neo-classical economists such as Milton Friedman the centralized bureaucracies of modern nations are inadequate regulators and inefficient distributors of goods. Free markets and private enterprise, on the other hand, are able to cater to individual and very specific needs of both consumers and providers. Moreover, competition between rational individuals motivated by their self-interest will lead to overall beneficial outcomes. Private property is the cornerstone of this theory, based on the assumption that private possession of a good, as opposed to public, leads to its most efficient use and management. Privatization of all kinds of goods, resources and services -at the expense of other types of possession- is thus to be actively pursued. (Steger & Roy 2010)

The public and private domains appear to be diametrically opposed, but a closer look will actually reveal a few fundamental similarities. Private property functions on a principle of exclusion: it excludes others from what is properly one’s own. The modern state is based on the same exact principle: excluding others from the government of what it has sovereignty on. The exploitation of natural resources, for example, is pursued by all governments in absolutist and exclusionary fashions no different from corporations. Both Weber’s bureaucratic state and Friedman’s free market therefore govern their respective property by excluding stakeholders from the government of common resources. Furthermore, a corporation and a state bureaucracy share the same hierarchical structure, with decision-making powers concentrated in the hands of senior administrators and a lack of stakeholder inclusion or participation.

As such, the “public-private” dichotomy effectively rules out possibilities such as joint or mixed forms of government of common resources. It exhausts the field of possibilities and displaces viable alternatives: only a private company or a government agency may legitimately govern a common resource. Ugo Mattei, an Italian jurist and long-time advocate of the defense of the commons, calls this a zero sum game, in which less government leads to more privatization and more government yields less private enterprise. This zero-sum game excludes a priori ideas of participatory governance of common resources (Mattei, 2011)

The dichotomy between public and private, therefore, serves a specific ideological purpose: that to confute and exclude any theory advocating an inclusive, collaborative and diffused government of resources belonging to all in common. It is high time to refute the indisputable status of this dichotomy and open up the managing of the commons to other forms of joint government. Both the future and the universal access to common resources depends on it, as neither state sovereignty nor private property are capable of ensuring their sustainable use for generations to come.

For more information regarding the movement in defence of the commons, please consult the following links:

Bibliography:

  • Mattei, Ugo, 2011. Beni Comuni: un manifesto. Gius. Laterza & Figli: Bari, Italy
  • Steger, M. B. & Roy, R.K. 2010 Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford
  • Weber, Max, 1948. “Class, Status, Party” in From Max Weber: essays in sociology. Ed. Gerth, H. & Mills, C.W. Routledge and Kegan Paul: London

 

 

 

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Filed under Commons, Environmentalism, neoliberalism, Participatory Democracy, political economy

Conceptual Innovations in Latin American Indigenous Movements

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

What can new political concepts advanced by indigenous movements teach the Western tradition of democratic theory?

As the undeliverable promises of social democracy gave way to the irrational exuberance of the neoliberal consensus, western liberal democracies today are struggling to present a new paradigm of governance capable of facing the challenges of the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, the BRIC countries continue to grow (in both geo-political and economic influence) thanks to a recipe of state-led capitalism and, in some cases, outright authoritarianism.  In this context, the West finds itself at an apparent impasse: how can it preserve the democratic values and freedoms which it purports to represent while remaining globally competitive?

Unsurprisingly, western democracies have increasingly traded in their cherished democratic values for security and economic growth. The primacy accorded to the War on Terror and to budget-deficit reduction through austerity measures bears testament to this. Of particular concern, however, is how this chronic state of emergency has stifled innovation in democratic thought within the West, impeding new ideas and concepts from presenting interesting alternatives to an unsustainable status quo. With the notable exception of the Occupy movements, there appears to be a dangerous lack of interest in how to re-articulate democracy in the light of twenty-first century challenges.

Not the same can be said for Latin America however. In fact, the indigenous struggles of countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador have expanded democratic thought in innovative and interesting directions. Throughout the past decade, these struggles have radically changed the political panorama of the region, forcing governments to listen to the demands of some of the most neglected and excluded people in the world.

Although the demands of indigenous movements have not yet crystallized into tangible social change for their countries, within the field of political theory they have brought notable conceptual innovation. Three important ideas have been produced by indigenous political thought which simultaneously demand a break with -and imply an expansion of- the Western tradition of democratic theory.

The first concept is called “El Buen Vivir”, or “Good Living”. This idea, which in Quechua language is referred to as Sumak Kawsay, is understood as an alternative paradigm of development. For indigenous movements, both the Marxist and neoliberal governments of the past have depended on the callous exploitation of natural resources to fuel their projects of modernization. Large-scale mining in the high Andes and oil drilling in the Amazon are but two examples of how “modernization” and “development” have degraded the ancestral homelands  and destroyed the livelihoods of communities which previously lived in relative harmony with their natural surroundings.

The Sumak Kawsay therefore presents an idea of development founded on the harmonious relationship between society, the economy and the environment. It is informed by a principle of economic sustainability opposed to a regime dependent on short term profits. As such, it demands that nature be not conceived solely as capital or private property but as a patrimony: we inherit our natural resources and have a duty as citizens to nourish, use and protect them so as to pass them on to future generations. There is thus a principle of intergenerational justice involved[1].

Central to the concept of Sumak Kawsay, therefore, is the rupture from the western model of development based on the emancipatory promise of societies guided by the invisible hand of rational markets. Contrarily, it draws inspiration from the solidarity and communitarian economies of indigenous communities which stress cooperation and associativism over competition and rugged individualism[2].

The second conceptual innovation presented by indigenous movements is the idea of environmental rights. Although not a new concept, they were the first in the world to enshrine them within national legal orders, both in Bolivia and Ecuador.  The idea of giving rights to nature implies another radical break from the juridical tradition informing western democratic thought. In fact, it demands that we cease giving value to nature based on its instrumental use to us as humans (i.e. the uses we can put it to for production purposes in a market economy) and recognize its intrinsic value in virtue of its existence.

Recognizing environmental rights forces us to reconsider our anthropocentric stance vis-à-vis nature. Protecting the collective rights of ecosystems to exist and regenerate provides an innovative juridical framework with which to reverse the ecological damage caused by an extractivist paradigm of development[3].

The third conceptual innovation is referred to as plurinationality. Both Ecuador and Bolivia are countries with very diverse societies consisting of a plethora of ethnic groups. This diversity was never truly represented, but rather excluded by the practices of a western architecture of the state which assumed the homogeneity of the nation. Traditionally, the liberal state tends to remain neutral with respects to social plurality and conceives of its citizens solely as rights bearing individuals. Not recognizing the diverse ethnic groups and their respective demands allowed for the wholesale exclusion of the indigent and the different from policy making and political participation.

The concept of plurinationality seeks to reverse this process by changing the architecture of the liberal state. What it demands is not the homogenization of social plurality within a universal liberal understanding of citizenship, but rather the recognition of difference as the basis for a new configuration of citizenship. The plurinational state explicitly recognizes the diversity of its citizens; it actively promotes an intercultural dialogue, and provides platforms of mediation amongst them[4].

These three ideas radically question the Western understandings of development, the legal standing of nature, and what constitutes citizenship, respectively. They are, however, also expanding democratic theory by exposing the Eurocentric, anthropocentric and liberal bias that Western thought projects onto its alleged universal understanding of democracy. Precisely through a rupture with fundamental concepts of the Western model was indigenous political thought able to imagine new legal instruments and a new democratic ethic founded on the principles of environmental sustainability and collective rights.

The examples presented here allow us to see that Western democratic thought, once capable of shedding its particular liberal biases, is indeed free to expand in new and different directions. Such an expansion is critical in this historical moment as basic democratic tenets are being increasingly sacrificed in the name of a perpetual state of exception. Democratic theory should not give in to the false choices presented by the logics of crisis; rather, like indigenous movements, it should begin to reinvent itself by overcoming its liberal ideological limitations.

Bibliography

  • Galeano, E. 2009, “La Naturaleza no es Muda” in Acosta A. & Martínez, E. Derechos de la Naturaleza: el futuro es ahora. Abya Yala: Quito
  • Gudynas, E. 2009 “Seis puntos clave en ambiente y desarrollo” in Acosta A. & Martínez, E. El Buen Vivir: una vía para el desarollo. Abya Yala: Quito
  • Ramírez, R., Navarrete R. Seeds of “Good Living” in Ecuador? New Left Project. Available @ http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/good_living_in_rafael_correas_ecuador
  • Santos, Boaventura de Sousa 2009, “Las Paradojas de Nuestro Tiempo y la Plurinacionalidad” in Acosta A. & Martínez, E. Plurinacionalidad: democracia en la diversidad. Abya Yala: Quito

[1] Gudynas 2009

[2] Ramirez & Navarrete

[3] Galeano 2009

[4] Santos 2009

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Filed under Democratic Theory, Development, Environmental Rights, Environmentalism, Indigenous, Latin America, liberalism, political economy

Popular Sovereignty and Sovereign Debt

What does the friction between popular sovereignty and sovereign debt entail for our democratic orders? Are we experiencing a loss of popular sovereignty in the sovereign debt crisis?

Voices from both the left and the right decry the austerity measures devised by supranational institutions as amounting to nothing less but an assault on popular sovereignty. As fiscal hawks chip away at the welfare state in their “give-no-quarter” pursuit of balanced budgets, many a political pundit has donned the populist cape and rushed to the rescue of the “sovereign people”. Indeed, the austerity-medicine shoved down the throats of most European citizens -without their consent- has brought to the fore what now appear as two diametrically opposed concepts: popular sovereignty and sovereign debt.

It is easy at this point to slip into demagoguery, claiming that sovereign debts are illegitimate because, after all, “the people” did not cause the crisis. Blame the bankers, right? What is harder, however, is to understand what the friction between the concepts of popular sovereignty and sovereign debt entails for our democratic regimes. A look into the past at one of the first moments in history when this tension surfaced will help us understand the matter more profoundly.

The years were the 1690s in England, a period also known as the Financial Revolution. In 1694 the Bank of England was established to supply fresh credit to a cash-strapped Crown for the expansion of the Royal Navy’s fleet. For the first time individuals and firms could invest in the fortunes of government on the assumption that they would be paid back with interest at later date. Future revenues from taxation and/or economic growth of the nation would serve as collateral for investment – hence the build-up of national, or sovereign, debt[1].

The institution of national debt however was not well received. In fact, it implied a radical re-thinking of the relationship between the people and government. In the late seventeenth century this relationship had been defined by the political theories of civic republicanism (Harrington, Milton) and social contract theorists (Pufendorf, Locke) as one based explicitly on the consent of the governed. It was the people’s responsibility, as bearers of god-granted rights and as free citizens, to erect a government through the election of public magistrates (or monarchs) which would rule in their stead. Sovereignty ultimately resided with the people who enjoyed the right to revoke the mandate given to their representatives if their trust was breached. Late seventeenth century political consciousness generally conceived of a legitimate government as one founded upon on the will of the people and upon some idea of a social contract.

Accompanying the idea of “the people” as the original source of political sovereignty was the concept of civic virtue. The civic virtues were those qualities required by citizens and governments alike to be in control of their destiny and not succumb to external dominion. Civic virtue entailed political agency: participating in the political affairs of one’s community as a means of protecting individual freedoms. In fact, the very notion of personal liberty was intimately connected to the idea of civic virtue. Liberty was defined by a certain degree of political self-determination which ensured autonomy from external rule (the arbitrary rule of a monarch or of another nation for example). On the contrary, not being free was caused by being dependant on the will of someone or something else. Un-freedom thus entailed the condition in which one lost human agency and the ability to defend and define one’s liberty[2].

Within this conceptual universe, the idea of sovereign debt clashed with both the concepts of popular sovereignty and civic virtue. While before the fate of the nation was conceived as inextricably tied to the political agency of the sovereign people, now sovereign debt chained the fortunes of government to the will of anonymous investors. As nations increasingly relied on external and private credit (and eventually on the issuing of bonds), it was perceived that the people would steadily lose political agency and control over the fate of their nations. Sovereign debt therefore created a condition of dependence of government towards creditors. And, as we have seen, dependence signified the loss of civil freedom[3].

In such a way, the stability of government was no longer sustained by the civic virtue of its citizens, nor from that holy pact called the social contract. Now, government was to rely on the fickle nature of investors and what would eventually become the almighty bond market. As the historian J.G.A. Pocock puts it:

“Stability of government in the present became linked to the self-perpetuation of speculation concerning the future … government and politics seemed to have been placed at the mercy of passion, fantasy and appetite, and these forces were known to feed on themselves and to be without moral limit”[4]

“Booms and busts, bulls and bears became the determinants of politics”[5]

The lesson we may draw from this historical example is not that sovereign debt is intrinsically bad. Every modern government must at some point take up debt in order to deliver on its responsibilities. The lesson here is in recognizing the dangers posed by the loss of democratic control over the institutions of public governance. Increasingly the policies of sovereign nations are unduly influenced by credit rating agencies, international markets and anonymous investors through their speculating and passing judgment over sovereign debt. Brought to an extreme this situation becomes incompatible with the basic tenets of democracy. Subsuming popular sovereignty to the arbitrary whim of capricious markets robs the concept of the social contract of its fundamental source of legitimacy, namely, what Locke called the “consent of the governed”.

The political discourses of the late seventeenth century show us that, at times, the machinations of the world of finance and the balanced functioning of a democratic regime may be at odds. It also warns us that dependence of our governments on unaccountable institutions minimizes the political agency of citizens, thereby curbing our democratic freedoms first of which is the exercise of democratic control over government. No matter how serious the sovereign debt crisis may be, democracy and popular sovereignty must remain non-negotiable.

Bibliography

Pocock, J.G.A. 1985. Virtue, Commerce, and History, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Skinner, Q. 1990. “The Republican Ideal of Political Liberty”, in Bock, Skinner & Viroli ed. Machiavelli and Republicanism, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge


[1] Pocock 1985, p69

[2] Skinner 1990

[3] Pocock 1985, p69

[4] Pocock 1985, p112

[5] Pocock 1985, p112

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Filed under Democratic Theory, John Locke, political economy, political philosophy, political theory, Social Contract