I recently encountered a bracing essay, “The Commons and World Governance,” by Arnaud Blin and Gustavo Marín.  Blin is a French historian and political scientist, and Marín is a Chilean-French economist and sociologist who is Director of the Forum for a new World Governance. Their 33-page piece is a terrific philosophical and historical overview of capitalism and governance, and it makes a strong case for the appeal of the commons in meeting contemporary ecological and economic challenges. 

The essay’s opening paragraph states that we are now undergoing “the first global revolution in history” brought on by the declining powers of the nation-state: 

Today the state is no longer equipped to ensure the sustainability of humankind, nor is it able to prevent itself, other states, and private actors from plundering our most precious treasure, our planet, irretrievably. The sudden powerlessness of the most powerful actor of the global stage has been caused by the onrush of globalization, which with breathtaking speed has overtaken the traditional actors of international politics and rewritten the rules of the game of economics. By doing so, it has also fostered the need to devise and uphold what can be described as the global interest, one that should inevitably take precedence over the outdated and ineffectual individual “national interests” that have for centuries determined the direction of international affairs.

How can humanity begin to articulate and protect the “global interest” in the face of marauding national and transnational corporate interests, and the decline of state power?  That is the problem.

One reason that the “national interest” is losing its coherence as a concept, according to Blin and Marín, is because it can no longer intelligently declare who is friend and who is foe.  This is a defining element of any society, according to the German jurist Carl Schmitt, “who posited that each society defines itself by its opposition to other societies. As such, politics in and of themselves are defined through the dichotomy friend/foe, with the state having historically embodied the most complete form of politics.” 

Today globalization is destroying this dichotomy.  It can be extremely difficult to uphold the “friend” vs. “foe” duality because things have become much more complex through globalized commerce and culture.  With the rise of the Internet and cheap and transnational communication, the state no longer has a monopoly in making and molding judgments about friend and foe; the people can more readily make their own judgments.

This is part of a larger story:  the waning power of the nation-state to control things, most notably the environment, global economic and social justice, migration, global resources and common goods, among other things.  Most significantly, the nation-state is not well equipped to control capitalists’ abuses of people and nature. 

As the limitations of state power become more clearly recognized, it is more likely that they will also be challenged, write Blin and Marín:  “In the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville counter-intuitively noted that political regimes begin to crack not when they revert to authority but rather when they open up, thus showing their shortcomings, which then appear intolerable, a logic that precedes many revolutions, as it did notably in France and Russia.  The same logic is true of neoclassical economic practices.”

Blin and Marín note that our received notions of “private property,” as asserted by John Locke, have become a tool for a privileged few to oppress and dispossess the many, all in the name of freedom.  This must change — and the commons may help.  “….Our definition of what property entails needs to evolve from a very narrow vision of individual property to a broader understanding of collective property, one that not only involves rights, as with private property, but also responsibilities, one that does not simply amount to a ‘negative’ vision of property, as belonging to no one but rather as belonging to everyone, a subtle distinction that in both theory and practice has significant consequences.  In this light, the emergence of the commons as a key concept in contemporary political thought might prove crucial in altering our basic conception of property.  This, in turn, might be a formidable stepping stone toward establishing the structure for a truly global system of governance.”

Blin and Marín go on to discuss the “failure of global society” and the need for a “global social contract,” noting that “the concepts of ‘commons’ and ‘commoning’” hold great potential.  They allow one to “radically transform the traditional equation of freedom and property by reasserting freedom in a global – and not just individual – fashion while also extracting from this concept its traditional tie to private property.” This might be the basis for imagining a new sort of global citizenship. 

It’s hard to do justice to Blin and Marín’s essay in a brief blog post.  I recommend that you chase it down and read it here