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Reframing the Commonwealth: Commercial or Civic? (Part 2)

(This essay is now available in Michael Boylan, editor, Business Ethics, 2nd Edition (Wiley/Blackwell, 2013)

Part 2 of an important essay from Marvin Brown:

* Commercial and Common Wealth

“In a commercial society, what counts as wealth is what can be treated as a commodity in the market. In a common society, wealth will not be limited to what we can purchase, but will include all that we need for a good life. People will acquire much that they need through sharing and giving. Instead of focusing on the accumulation of property, the focus will be on the making of provisions. A common society will provide for one another though processes that are based on shared endeavors, as well as on individual efforts.

A common society will also allow us to recognize the planet as a living provider instead of only seeing its property value. Most importantly, instead of treating the planet as an object we control, we can see it as something to which we belong. This means that inhabitants of the planet can relate to one another not primarily as owners, but rather as members of a commons. \

These differences are not absolute. It would be a mistake to see the distinction between commercial and common wealth as an either/or choice. We need commercial activities and property ownership. I am not trying to do away with either one, but rather trying to put them in their place in a commonwealth that actually provides wealth for everyone. This requires a rejection of Adam Smith’s belief that a commercial society was the final stage of human evolution. We need to begin with what we have in common, and then to see how commerce fits with it. What kind of relationship, in other words, should we build between the commons and the commercial?

This may seem like the question for business ethics today. How can businesses function in such a manner that our common resources remain available to all? Can businesses help to make water, clean air, and knowledge available to all and owned by none? Well, it depends on your view of business.

Does business also belong to the commons? Not as we know it. In fact, business today is usually about the commodity market, about property relations. It belongs to commerce. It is commerce. If people share cars, for example, that would be bad for business, because people would buy fewer cars. Perhaps business and the commons are really mutual enemies, and they actually pose threats to each other’s existence. If we remain in a commercial framework for thinking about the role of business in society, we easily come to these conclusions. Another option is to create another platform, so to speak, on which we could stand and from this vantage point reconfigure the relationship between the commons and commercial. I want to suggest that we should construct a civic platform for developing a new framework for a contemporary commonwealth.

* A Civic Platform

In terms of individual identity, we are all commoners, consumers, and citizens. As commoners, we share with others what is available to all. As consumers, we select commodities in the market based on our preferences. Most of us are probably quite familiar with the identity of consumers. Who does not like to go shopping? The identity of commoners is more challenging. In fact, there is a strong fashion in modern cultures not to be common, but to be special. This fashion, however, echoes the pervasiveness of the commercial culture that values what we “have,” instead of what we share in common. In any case, the most thought provoking is the third form of identity—our identity as citizens.

To be a citizen is to be a member of a city (that is actually its original meaning). In other words, you cannot be a citizen alone. Our identity as a citizen, to quote the political theorist Sheldon Wolin, “provides what other roles cannot, namely an integrative experience which brings together the multiple role activities of the contemporary person and demands that the separate roles be surveyed from a more general point of view” (2004, p. 389). This more general point of view is not to be found in the mind of the individual, but in conversations among citizens. It is the mutual learning from engagement in conversations with others that allows an expansion of each person’s knowledge as well as the creation of collective knowledge. We can assume that such conversations have been occurring, in some fashion, in many different communities. The patterns and expectations that civic conversations create and maintain can serve as a platform for seeing the economy itself as a mixture of the common and the commercial, or a civic commonwealth.

* A Civic Commonwealth

A civic commonwealth can be created and maintained by the decisions, actions, and policies that emerge from civic conversations among citizens about how we should provide for all. These conversations must both recognize the differences between the commercial and the common, and yet still integrate the two. This process of integration depends on answers to three questions: (1) How should we design an economy that makes provisions for everyone? (2) How should we deal with disagreements among citizens? and (3) How should we govern a civic commonwealth?

An economy that provides for everyone

As we have seen, common wealth is inclusive, while commercial wealth is exclusive. How do we integrate these two types of wealth into our economy? We can begin by examining how we actually gain access to the things we have reason to value. Some of the things we value, such as practical wisdom or community celebrations, can be acquired through sharing—a gift economy. Others can be shared through mutual coordination. Groups agree to take turns to use parks, have street fairs, and so on. People will acquire what they have reason to value, in other words, in a variety of ways.

Many provisions originate in the commons, and are transformed into consumer products by the commercial. From a civic perspective, the commercial functions as a transformative process of changing common resources into provisions for our families and communities. Food, for example, comes from the earth, lives in a common biosphere, and is processed and distributed in common spaces (cities and infrastructures). The commercial belongs to this process of making food available for all, from farming to processing, shipping, and selling in markets. From a civic perspective, however, food should not be treated only as private property.

Imagine a farmer who decides to burn a cornfield instead of harvesting it and sending it to market. Has not he destroyed our common wealth? Of course, from the perspective of commercial wealth, the corn is his private property. But from a civic commonwealth framework, the corn belongs to the commons, and should be brought to market. There, the farmer can ask for a good price for the corn and receive his due for his work, and even honor for taking care of the land for this and future generations. Actually, the movement from the cornfield to the table involves many agencies that together comprise what can be called a system of provision.

For those of us who live in urban cities, most common resources become available to us only through elaborate systems. To get a drink of water in San Francisco, for example, we rely on a complicated water system that brings the melted snow from the Sierra mountain range on the other side of the state. In the greater San Francisco Bay Area, from Santa Rosa to Santa Cruz, we are around 8 million people. Every morning, there is food for almost all of us. It comes from local, regional, national, and international sources. In the best of times, our milk and apples could come from within California. Our bananas will not, neither will some other products. In fact, the “food system” is a vast and multidimensional system that includes many different organizations from the land to the grocery store and restaurant. In a nutshell, the food system transforms things from the land (a commons) into products (through commerce) that provide daily nutrition for all of us.

At the core of any system of provision—whether it is food, housing, or healthcare—there should be citizens deliberating about the design of the system. Such civic conversations can occur in any of the organizations that have a stake in the system, from farmworkers to research scientists. All the key stakeholders of this system can be seen as engaged in the civic process of directing the whole system toward its goal of making provisions for all. We actually can imagine three concentric circles here. The inner circle is composed by civic conversations. This circle is surrounded by the basic activity of a civic commonwealth: human providers transforming natural provisions into accessible provisions for our families and communities, and then an outer circle of the key stakeholders of the system. Figure 2.1 shows these concentric circles for the food system.

Other systems of provision, of course, have other stakeholders, and yet most have some of the same. Banks, for example, have an important role in most systems of provisions, from housing to healthcare, because most systems need credit and money as a means of exchange. A good bank is one that fulfills its systemic function. The system of provision, in other words, determines the bank’s purpose. It would be a mistake if the bank were to take the debt that it received from extending credit and turn it into a commodity that it could sell for a profit in a financial market. Banks, like other stakeholders in the system of provision, find their purpose in their contribution to the success of the whole system to which they belong.

And what is a good system? A good system, I would suggest, fulfills its purpose, fits in with other systems, and protects the significant characteristics of its parts. So a good food system provides good food for people, does it in such a way that it fits in with larger social and natural systems (promotes justice and sustainability), and protects the labor, land, and investments that energize the system. Moving any system of provision toward these general ideas of the good is possible through the strategies of persuasion, incentives, and regulation. Before we review these three forms of governing, we need to address our second question: how to deal with disagreements (see Brown, 2003).”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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