Open Democracy

Expanding democracy through the commons

Dolenec, D

Since the commons simultaneously invoke the principles of ownership and of governance, they collapse the artificial distinction between the economic and political domains.

Occupy Amsterdam, 2011. Flickr/ Peter Visser. Some rights reserved.Even though I am a political scientist, I don't expect that the kind of political change that we need today will come from parliaments, governments or parties. Instead, I look to the streets. This is why when we talk about the future of democracy I put my hopes in the recent cycle of protests and new social movements emerging around the world since 2008.

They are usually interpreted as being motivated by austerity, assuming that people protest worsening standards of living, unemployment, and economic insecurity. I am not saying this is not so, but I would like to draw attention to the fact that many times in history people lived in 'objectively' poor economic conditions, suffered hunger, disease, slavery, all kinds of indignity, but this did not lead to social mobilization of the kind that we have witnessed.

This is because most of the time we accept our conditions of social existence or perhaps even see them as inevitable. We are not aware that our consent is necessary for the active reproduction of the status quo which it is often not in our interest to maintain. In other words, objective circumstances, however unjust, on their own cannot trigger collective social action. For that to happen there needs to be, in Bourdieu’s (1987) terms, a reinterpretation of our conditions as no longer tenable.

This is how I see protests and social movements that have emerged since 2008: as a reinterpretation of our social existence, a diagnosis of current regimes as sclerotic, illegitimate and unsustainable. This reinterpretation of reality as unjust and untenable opens up the space for change, which is why we should think of these movements as movements for democratization. Citizens reject the ritualized, formal shell of institutions that ostensibly allow participation in government, while what we actually have is an ‘oligopoly of elite insiders’ that disregard citizens’ preferences. If we agree that democracy as a regime is viable for only as long as it keeps expanding social power and broadening the scope of liberty and equality, then the current wave of contention is indeed to be seen as a democratization drive, an opportunity to infuse new energy into this system of reproduction of the same as difference.

We often say that we live in a moment of 'crisis'– I want to reinterpret that to say we live in a moment of “condensed intensity“ in which politics – in the most broad sense of designing rules for living together - is being renegotiated. Outcomes are not predetermined, and I don't think the crisis is necessarily an opportunity because things can go from bad to worse. This is why we now need to remember that democratization historically happened only through struggle: the struggle for suffrage, for representation and – which we tend to forget - the incorporation into government of socialist parties in the early twentieth century. Though standard textbooks on democracy mark the inclusion of socialist parties in government as the fundamental moment in which democracy took its contemporary form, in the early 21st century we have forgotten about this.

One of the reasons for that is the fact that the great redistributive project of the twentieth century has in the meantime been abandoned, dragging along with it any realistic chances of broad democratic political participation. Instead of redistribution, we have been offered economic growth as the panacea that was supposed to lead us to a better future. Economic and political domains were artificially separated, as we learned to accept that it was possible to be free without being equal.

A recent study recorded a steady increase of protest events globally, documenting economic justice and failure of democratic representation as the main causes of outrage. Their most sobering finding is the overwhelming grievance over the lack of “real democracy“, which prevents economic issues from even being addressed. Observed anecdotally, protests are often portrayed in the mainstream media as inchoate, without clear programmes of action. Looking at one event at a time, they may seem unrelated, given that specific grievances range from revolt against energy prices, attempts to depose a corrupt mayor or demands to put a stop to privatizations that led to local job losses. But, when observed comparatively, it quickly becomes clear that the demand for more democracy unites the many specific grievances that are being articulated.

If we accept that the current protests expose the fact that the current regime is bankrupt, this is where advocating for the commons becomes a way to advance democracy. Since the commons simultaneously invoke the principles of ownership and of governance, they collapse the artificial distinction between the economic and political domains. Therefore, the commons represents at the same time the resistance to the logic of capitalism – its growth-orientation, productivism, commodification, consumerism; and the resistance to top-down, bureaucratic, centralized, elite-based decision-making.

Since the commons are essentially about democratising power over decision making, both through the principle of common ownership and the principle of self-management, advocating for commons principles in key social infrastructure and services means experimenting with new forms of governance and designing innovative institutional architectures that embody participatory principles and democratise decision making.

When we say we want to organize our societies according to commons principles, we are advocating for radical democratic practices of self-management, horizontal relationships, subsidiarity and collective ownership which expand social power and broaden the scope of liberty and equality, and this is where I think that the transformative power of the commons lies.

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© Danijela Dolenec 2023
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