Commons, Territoriality and Procommunal Ethos vs Commodity Consensus

Maristella Svampa, from Argentina, has an undergraduate degree in Philosophy and a PhD in Sociology from Paris‘ École d’Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. She is researcher at the National Center for Scientific and Technical Research in Argentina. Maristella considers herself an „amphibious intellectual“. She delivered one of the two keynotes at the ECC conference on „Commons beyond Development: The strategic Value of the Commons as a Paradigm Shift in Latin America.“ The talk was in Spanish, so here is a rough transcript/translation into English.Problema-Comunarios-Perol-Cajamarca-Conga_LRZIMA20120921_0155_3

The presentation consists of three parts:

  1. context of the debate in LA
  2. language and notions of collective resistances
  3. alternatives

Maristella uses the term „bienes comunes“, which is mostly used in LA in the context of struggles to defend natural resources, biodiversity, water etc. Bienes comunes includes the spaces and forms of social cooperation. It also comprises the use and usufruct of production and reproduction of knowledge. I.e. commons (bienes comunes) refers always to the shared codices of collective life. Something that Gustavo Esteva called, years ago, „ámbitos de comunalidad“ (ambient spheres of the community). It is about the whole of social relations. The term „bienes comunes“ is widely spread in LA; Maristella sticks to it given the problems to translate commons and the even less helpfull Spanish term „procomún“ (used by Spanish commoners however – S.H.).

1. Context in LA:

LA went through shock treatments prescribed by the IMF and other forces since the 1970s and 80s, comparable to the austerity programs we have now in Europe. At the same time LA has developed a lot of creative ways of resisting and building new coalitions and finding a new language for the vivid social practices all over the region. We can see it as a laboratory where new ideas are being created. Nontheless, it’s becoming ever more difficult to defend what is called commons.

During the last decade, in LA we have moved on from the Washington Consensus to the Commodities Consensus. That is, Latin America has passively accepted to role assigned to it in the context of the international division of labor as being the provider of raw materials (bulks of resources for exportation without further processing). A similar tendency can be observed in Africa and Asia. The prices of those products (they include crops like maize, soya, fuel, hydrocarbons, minerals, metals) are defined at an international level. This is nothing really new, but we can now see the expansion of megaprojects, projects set up for mining and extraction of natural resources and for exportation without adding any value to it. We talk about a „commodities consensus!, meaning by it that it’s not just about the economical order but also an issue of politics and ideology.

This consensus is pushed on behalf of the emerging powers, and by the increasing demand of these powers, mainly China, that is clearly interfering in countries of the global South. The logic of the Commodity Consensus creates „comparative advandages“ leading to the growth of exports, while bringing economic wealth. But it also leads to new divisions and asymmetries in society and environment but also in the political and cultural field; it generates new dependencies and neo-colonial enclaves in LA.

The Commodities Consensus describes a devastating and complex process, that affects all spheres of life and leads to very profound processes of deprivation (depossession) that has been analysed mainly by marxist scholars like David Harvey; who describes how accumulation is based (for instance) on land grab on a mega scale.

In this sense, a central category for us in LA is: Neo-extractivism, a term that refers to the over-exploitation of finite natural resources. It doesn’t only refer to mining but also to the expansion of limits of cultivating soya and similar crops occupying land that was until then considered „unproductive“. The same happens with the fishing or watershed boundaries. They are pushed and constantly expanded…  Neo-extractivism refers to a series of activities on a mega scale, that does not really benefit the countries where they originate but others. Neo-extractivism has a vertical dynamic. It is imposed on the land, displaces the local economy, reorients completely economic activities in a given territory, forces people to get rid of the local communities and interferes in/violates the local decision-making processes. It’s a whole serie of activities that fosters the „specialisation“ of Latin American countries as producers of raw material.

In the 90s in LA, there was said, that there was No Alternative to the Washington Consensus and no alternative to neoliberalism. Nowadays, we see the Commodities Consensus doing the same thing. It forces us to accept neo-extractivism and the place given to us as a result of the international division of labor. It closes down the possibility of thinking about alternatives. The Commodities Consensus – independently from the political color of the respective government in a country – it is an ideology of resignation. It passes on the idea that we have to accept capitalism as the only reasonable option and leave aside the resistance that questions the advance of neo-extractivism as fundamentalist and anti-modern. And there’s a third element: The scenario validates an explosion of social-environmental conflicts in virtually all of Latin America in relation to the mining activity, building of dams, exploitation of gas or oil fields, fracking. Mega-minery is certainly one of its most extreme expressions. Therefore, a few data to visualize the dynamics:

2. Language and notions of collective resistances

According to Ocmal, in Latin America (there are conflicts in almost every country) :

  • there have been 120 mining conflicts in 2013, 150 affected communities
  • 2012: 161 mining conflicts / 212 affected communities
  • 2013 (April): 184 mining conflicts / 253 affected communities

Perú, 31; Argentina, 25; Chile, 30; Brasil, 21, Colombia, 11; México 23; Ecuador 7

Emblematic conflicts in the last years:

The fights against mega-mining are accompagnied by slogans like: El agua vale mas que el oro. → Water is worth more than gold. Or: No a la mina:No 2 mine.
The foto above shows an assembly of indigenous people in Peru who defend their territories and especially 4 lakes that would dry out if the Conga project would be carried out. There are many similar fights. But there’s also a very strong trend towards criminalising protest, a new wave of human rights violations is affecting us, beyond what we have seen in the last decade in LA. This is not a minor issue.

The very problem is, that this Commodity Consensus includes all governments being them conservatives or progressive or mid-left; even if we have to recognize the blatant differences among them. The progressive governments focus on the intervention of the State and on the (forms of) participation of civil society. But, and this is fundamental, in their first phase, they also helped to expand the scope of law („la frontera de derecho“); this was very clear in the case of Ecuador and Bolivia where the rights of indigenous people were included in the respective constitutions and where the rights of nature – as in the case of Ecuador – were recognized by law. This was an important moment of cooperation between social movements and governments.

Today, the collective rights of indigenous population are eroding again in different countries. We witness a retrocession, a (re-)reduction of the scope of law and the result of it is the enclosure of what is common to us. This is clearly derived from a state driven perspective (or a government-driven perspective, but governments represent the states), which is attached to the neo-extractivism and to the multiplication of extractivist mega-projects which are clearly cannibalizing the common goods.

This is the current situation in several countries of Latin America and it explains many ongoing social conflicts. These conflicts gave rise to a new language and to a new framework of action that the different movements in LA are co-constructing. In that context, several core issues have to be considered.

The issue of the commons (bienes comunes) is present all over and it suggests solutions beyond both market and state. Another issue is environmental justice, which complexifies the environmental question as not being only a technical issue but also a social one, linked to gender relations and racial questions. There is also the concept of buen vivir – „Living well“ which refers to the cosmovision of indigenous people: The buen vivir debate is particularly strong in Ecuador and Bolivia. It’s a concept still in development, it is very generic, it points us mainly to the philosophic-political arena and suggests to see/realize the relationsship between nature, people and society in a different way, in a situation of equilibrium and respect of nature. But this concept is currently being relativised and it is beginning to be sucked by the same progressive governments who promote the interests of extracting industries.

The last concept I’d like to mention, is the idea of Rights of Nature: The constitution of Ecuador (for the first time in history) enshrines the need to think of nature not just as capital or instrument. This includes a shift from the antropocentric vision to a bio-socio-centric vision; yet, there are many discussions about the reach and scope of the rights of nature and if nature can be thought of as subject or not.

Anyway, this eco-territorial shift and the related new languages have evolved as a product of the fights and mobilisations. The are the result of the articulation of an independent expertise (independent of market and state) with vernacular knowledge, that has been made invisible but is still present in the communities that are mobilised against the mega-extractivist-projects. These are frameworks for collective action that allow us to really think about alternatives (to the neo-extractivist framework).

3. Alternatives:

They have in common, that they question the hegemonial notion of development, which is fundamental to understand. Actually the neo-extractivist approach is tied to a very classical, economist and productivist notion of development, even though this notion has been strongly challenged by indigenous and social movements. This linear notion of development and progress came back and settled down as strong narrative in LA, both in countries with and without progressive governments. The dominant narrations of „progress“ and „development“ just express the alliance between corporations and governments.

So, the starting point is a critique to this notion of development; and to offer an alternative to development (in terms of public policy). The different concepts share one thing in common: they deny an instrumental vision of nature, a vision of nature as capital, as a sheer resource pool. Instead, they start from a different idea of nature, a non-productivist perception of the territory and from a strong notion of sustainability (a notion that has been hijacked as well by corporations and governments).

Eduardo Gudynas is CLAES director (Centro Latinoamericano de Ecologia Social). He has suggested different alternatives to extractivism focusing on the transition to a post-extractivist era. He wants to find a large-scale answer for Latin America (given that extractivism is large scale as well). We have to rethink different public policies that reflect the articulation of redistribution (that is, the question of poverty which is very present in the discourses of all progressive governments) and the environmental aspects. Therefore CLAES suggests higher ecological taxes combined with moratoriums or the cancelation of mining projects. This is interesting and new in LA and it is currently being discussed in different countries, as it has to be pushed by different countries at the same time. The CLAES approach can be considered as a proposal from above; combined with public policies…

There are other approaches as well, from below, developed by social movements, where the notion of „bienes comunes“ uses to be present; while being always perceived as something positive and linked to two fundamental questions:

Territoriality and Procommunal Ethos

Commons and territoriality (Bienes comunes y territorialidad): There is a very close link between the commons and territoriality. In southern countries this is an essential concept. Territoriality as opposed to territory refers to something not given to us by nature but it is a social counter-hegemonic construct. Territoriality is opposed to the vision embraced by large companies and governments who conceive territory as productive territory that can be used and exploited and converted into tradable value and capital. (The notion of) Territoriality instead defends the need to build different social relationships in which human beings are part of the ecosystem. Territoriality is nothing that belongs to anyone but it is something symbolic, a social territory constructed through the social struggles themselves. This notion of territoriality emphasizes that commons aren’t commodities (therefore, it dissociates from the market), nor are they strategic natural resources (therefore, it dissociates from the state), but commons (bienes comunes) allow for the production and reproduction of life in the territories. So, the concept of territoriality is fundamental and it is opposed to the occupation (grab) of resources inherent to the extractivist model.

Procommunal Ethos (Ethos Procomunal): a latin american concept that can sustain the idea of the commons is the procomunal ethos. When I was thinking about this notion I wondered: ‚This cannot be new, somebody surely has thought about before’… and I started to google. Actually, I found lots of literature about different communal forms in Latin America, as social practice. But event the notion of Communal Ethos has been elaborated and discussed, and it seems interesting to me to look back and figure out what heritage of Latin American thinking tells us about. Actually, the social and symbolic construction of territoriality associated with the commons, has a specific ethical base: this is the procommunal ethos. It is conceived with a different logic and based on a different rationality.

I refer here to the works of Bolivar Echeverría from Ecuador. He was emphasizing the ethos and the crystallization of strategies of survival that were spontaneously invented and further developed by the community. The Procommunal Ethos questions the nucleos of capitalism, because it rejects the idea of structuring life and interaction by qualitative objectives and because it is based on the value of use, not the value of change which is the structuring principle of capitalism. Procommunal Ethos reflects the different forms of sociability, human life and behaviour in modern times. In this sence, it is linked to the paradigm of commons and has adopted different historical forms. Two of these seem important: first of all communal forms of political and social life as kept alive by indigenous people. That is: community spaces and forms of sociability as fields of experimentation which are usually not recognized and valorized by the State, but only by collective entitities attached to them. Note; this is not to romanticize the notion of community, but if we talk about those communal spaces we point out that in such spaces very innovative notions have been evolving, like autonomy and the plurinational state (as enshrined in the above mentioned constitutions) – which are now present in the political discourse in LA.

Also, as a reaction to the current capitalist phase of taking away and enclosing what belongs to the people, new community spaces are emerging. They try to act and experiment (Boaventura de Sousa Santos) outside the realm of the market or the government. Those experiments are potentially, but not always radical. We have different examples in LA – for instances the cooperatives of workers in reclaimed factories (fabricas recuperadas), self-organising educational spaces (cf. MST); social and solidarity economy and many others. They put the „economy of life“ (economía de la vida) in the centre and create – sometimes by hazard – new relationships among communities disrupting the capitalist logic; associating territoriality and autonomy. It is important to note, however, that the state often tries to patronise this kind of experiences. That is: they are vulnerable and can always be co-opted.

The role of women is absolutely pivotal in the struggle of nowadays, and of course also in the past. It is the women who care for life instead of accumulation. They act in an ethics of care and mutual reciprocity, complementarity and cooperation.

If we talk about procommunal ethos we also talk about a prefigurative practice (Gramsci). What we are trying to detect or the develop here, are the new social relationships inherent in a future society where one cares about collective creation and knowledge.

Foto: via

5 Gedanken zu „Commons, Territoriality and Procommunal Ethos vs Commodity Consensus

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