Preface to Privatising Nature

01 December 1997

Cover Privatizing Nature

Preface to Privatizing Nature: Political Struggles for the Global Commons
Edited by Michael Goldman
Transnational Institute/Pluto Press, London, 1998

I almost always seem to get the job of prefacing TNI books, which I almost always enjoy. This one was a particular pleasure. Michael Goldman, the editor chose excellent contributors, their pieces are at once factual and innovative and the topic is one that hasn't received nearly enough attention. I hope the preface may encourage people to read the book, published by Pluto like all TNI books in 1998.

One day in May 1875, Karl Marx received a political platform intended to reconcile two antagonistic factions of the German Workers' Party at the upcoming Party Congress. Exasperated, he dashed off the marginal notes which came to be known as the Critique of the Gotha Programme - rather a grand title for a quick, irritated, 'will they never get it through their heads?' sort of reaction.

The first sentence of the offending document declared that 'Labour is the source of all wealth and all culture...' Marx shot back witheringly, 'Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values... as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature...' (Emphasis in the original).

In these waning days of the second millennium, the war of capital against labour seems, one must hope temporarily, on the way to being won. Globalisation pits workers against each other in an international competitive war in which, to use Hobbes' words, 'every man is enemy to every man'. Thus British and American workers are worse off than they were in 1987 and the average CEO of a major US corporation is 'worth' an annual salary 200 times that of his lowliest employee. Workers everywhere are becoming more productive but are mostly penalised for their pains. The rewards flow towards top management and towards stockholders, that is, towards the owners of knowledge and of capital. So far, so familiar.

But capital has not yet won out against nature. Marx, were he to return, would not be in the least surprised to witness the battle now raging over the 'commons'. He would indeed see it for what it is - a titanic struggle for control of the true, primordial source of 'use values' and of the wealth which underpin labour and life. In such a struggle, because the stakes are high, it is not surprising either to find all kinds of weapons employed: ruse and propaganda, intimidation and blatant violence.

Two problems previously seen as separate have now coalesced under the single heading of the 'commons'. The first concerns the destiny of millions of people dependent on commonly managed natural resources; the second concerns the so-called 'global commons' - the air, the atmosphere, the ozone shield, the seas, the forests and the innumerable species upon which we all depend.

As for those millions dependent on communal natural resources, capitalism sees no particular reason to incorporate them into the global economy, on any terms. The difference between our time and Marx's is that it's now almost a privilege to be exploited. 'Exclusion' rather than 'exploitation' is the key word, for capital excludes more people than it needs to include in the process of extracting surplus value, more commonly known as profit.

This new situation helps to explain why capital seeks to incorporate the commons on a grand scale, and why now. It has absolutely no use for the people who live by and from these natural (and sometimes urban) resources but it wants their material base. The Enclosure Movement in Britain threw farmers off the land to make way for sheep, yes, but also to transform the ex-farmers into workers and thereby supply the mushrooming factories of the Industrial Revolution. The contemporary Enclosure Movement which is attempting massive appropriation of common resources everywhere seeks only control over the resources and has no such secondary goal.

Too many people are already competing for the jobs the global economy can provide, the size of the proverbial 'reserve army' is getting completely out of hand. The uprooted, the dispossessed, the despoiled must henceforward fend for themselves; they are not needed. Nor are they the uprooters', the dispossessors', the despoilers' problem.

Politics is thus no longer about pie-dividing, who gets what resources, when and how; or even about who can give orders to whom, but about the deadly serious business of staying alive. From capital's point of view, it matters little whether the commoners live or die. Where resources are to be extracted and a dollar or a cruzado to be earned, the sheer miracle of the survival, to date, of 220.000 Amerindians, the riches of their 140 separate languages and the range of their Amazonian forest lore are mere feathers in the balance. They are expendable, as the 87 distinct Indian groups already exterminated could inform them, were they still able to do so. Antonio Carlos Diegues describes the forces seeking to take over their resources, but also the Indians' strategies (including astonishing media skills) for overcoming multiple threats. On the whole, a hopeful story.

So too is the well-known one of Chiapas, almost a post-modernist romantic legend. Little romanticism is to be found, however, in Lynn Stephen's account, and a good thing too. Stephen brings out especially well the immediate and dire impact of the global on the local. In the present case, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and doubtless the International Monetary Fund as well, demanded rural restructuring in the framework of a complete neo-liberal overhaul of the Mexican economy. Mexico duly redrafted its Constitution so as to stop government redistribution of land to the landless and to allow privatisation of previously communal land.

The change in 'Article 27' affected half the land in the country, 'slammed the door shut for indigenous people to survive in a legal and peaceful manner' and sounded the alarm which Sub-Commandante Marcos has so brilliantly amplified. The Zapatistas are neither passive, pacifist nor passéiste, but rather looking to integrate their production into the global market, on their own terms. The jury is still out, but the heroic ancestor-figure of Zapata (used, naturally, by the government side too) meanwhile seems to inspire them with an ideology for action and the courage to undertake it.

Conflicts over the commons are not so much questions of public-versus-private as group-versus-individual ownership, with the group asserting the right to determine who is a member of the group and who is not. 'Commoners' are deprived of this right to define their society at the same time they are divested of their traditional property. Samuel-Alain Nguiffo's fascinating close-up of Cameroon forest peoples shows how they must contend not only with predatory private logging companies but also with more or less corrupt state agencies, poachers anxious to bag big game, the World Bank, even non-profit and 'philanthropic' organisations.

The notion of 'rights' and 'law' is manipulated so that the commoners are never judged according to the rules of their own society. Their time-tested processes for 'decision-making, arbitration, negotiation and problem-solving' become at a stroke illegitimate, null and void. The victims of appropriation are then blamed for deforestation and their social structures are damaged, for instance when some of their number become well-paid employees of the loggers and defend the latter's interests.

As far as the World Bank is concerned, the part of the forest not given over to logging concessions is a bio-diversity site to be fenced off according to the Bank's rules of 'conservation', a new variety of enclosure. As Nguiffo points out, 'the interests of "mankind" are opposed to those of local people and they are seen as not being a part of "mankind".' Resistance is beginning to flower but has a long way to go. Ownership rights of local people would first have to be recognised and this the other actors vehemently oppose. One thing is certain: If the local people lose, the Cameroonian forests are done for.

In a book of this sort, one needs to go on full 'noble savage alert' and watch out for the idealising of 'commoners' as nicer and worthier than the rest of us. They're not. They simply didn't need to read Matt Ridley's The Origins of Virtue (1) to realise which side their bread is buttered on (or which hive their honey comes from, or whatever other metaphor fits the particular commons). Whether or not this is made explicit, cooperative management of common property resources and reciprocity serve enlightened self-interest whenever one is going to remain a member of the group for the foreseeable future. You can, perhaps, afford to cheat or be horrid to someone you will probably never see again but you can't if you are going to be dealing with them day in and day out. In that case, cooperation and reciprocity are the only strategies for guaranteeing your own survival, much less prosperity.

Capitalism makes exactly the opposite assumption. In that vein, biologist Garrett Hardin thirty years ago posited 'The Tragedy of the Commons' in a celebrated and influential article .(2) According to Hardin, each 'rational herdsman' will try to take advantage of all the others by increasing his herd by one animal, then another, then another - until all the herdsmen are doing the same and the resource base - the pasture - collapses. Hardin may or may not be a competent biologist but he knows little about history and actual human behaviour. Dozens of historical and contemporary examples - from medieval grazing lands to Maine lobster fisheries - demonstrate that common property is not over-exploited so long as group members retain the power to define the group and to manage their own resources. Leaving aside the outright predators (large corporations and the like) it is generally the 'experts' who create chaos and precipitate the 'tragedy' of the commons. This Michael Goldman makes abundantly clear in his two excellent chapters.

Goldman shows how today these experts contribute not only to local disaster but are fast transforming the 'global commons' into private property and a new object of management. Just as the Cameroonians dependent on their own forests are not judged to be part of 'mankind', so all common property arrangements are, for the experts, a priori objects of suspicion. That people might somehow have managed to survive and to sustain their resource base for centuries without the intervention of the World Bank is a thought not to be entertained. Thus the experts and the development professionals conscientiously try to find the problem and fix it; they endlessly ask themselves what they should do. That the answer might be 'nothing' never crosses their minds. Nor could it: they are paid (by any number of institutions) to intervene. One is struck in this text by the variations on the theme of imperialism and the range of new designer outfits in the Emperor's closet.

'Bio-diversity' is another new buzzword facilitating appropriation, not just of physical gene pools but of the local knowledge that goes with them. As Michael Flitner reveals in his lucid chapter, anything non-human and alive - virtually all of nature - is reconfigured under the single term 'bio-diversity' as an object of management and regulation in order to expedite 'free' access. When the knowledge of local people is required for the efficient exploitation of these resources, it too may be incorporated; otherwise, the people themselves are dispensable. 'We' should be wary each time 'we' see the pronoun 'we'. Who, exactly, does it designate? When employed by the Global Resource Managers (Goldman's term) one can be sure that the beneficiaries are to be found at the top of the economic totem pole.

People struggling for the well-being of their families and their communities do not necessarily think of themselves as 'environmentalists'. Nor did their predecessors in the nineteenth century when they fought against child labour in the mines or for decent sanitation. Then and now, all these issues ultimately concern the integrity of the human body. Once again, this body is in mortal danger, as Giovanna DiChiro makes clear in her chapter on the 'Convergence of Environment and Social Justice'. A toxics-spewing incinerator in South Central Los Angeles is to the children of that community as rats and adulterated milk were to the children of South London a century ago. The same kind of community organising is required to oppose these aggressions against the individual body and the body-politic.

Low-income women of colour are often the outstanding leaders of these efforts. Contrary to many mainstream environmentalists, they understand that at bottom there is no difference between humans and 'nature'. The central political problem is to define what counts as 'the environment'. Sometimes, depending on the community and the culture, it is the inner city or the so-called 'urban wasteland'. The 'multi-cultural commons' is surely one of the major sites of future resistance movements.

Life in the commons is no more idyllic than anywhere else, quarrels arise and some people refuse to respect the rules. Sanjeev Prakash provides examples, as well as citing everyday acts of opposition to assault from outside and strategies for repairing a damaged commons. He looks in detail at the notion of fairness, also one of the building blocks of the final chapter by Michael Thompson.

Covering differently many of the questions discussed by Prakash, Thompson ventures a novel and arresting typology of the styles of social arrangements and their applicability to various scales of human organisation, from the local to the planetary. His chapter is surely the basis for another book in itself, opening up a whole new 'Cultural Theory' perspective on the commons which economists and other social scientists would do well to heed. Thompson takes us full circle back to Michael Goldman's chapters at the beginning of the volume, bringing us in a nicely spiralling dialectic to the point of departure, but with everything we've learned from the preceding chapters intact. He gives us a new stepping-stone, the dialectics of fairness (definable in four different ways) that actually holds our societies together. This contribution rounds out a remarkably clear, enjoyable and jargon-free book.

So what are the prospects? On the one hand, we know that capitalism can't stop. It is a kind of malignancy which will keep on devouring new resources even as it undermines the very body - nature itself - upon which it depends. Codes of conduct and voluntary restraint are laughably (or weepingly) inadequate to protect common property resources from capitalist confiscation, because that appropriation allows the cancer to spread for a while longer. This is why the stakes keep rising and the subject of the commons, whether in its local or global form, is now so hotly debated.

As for the Global Resource Managers, they know best and no number of disasters will ever convince them otherwise. Nor are the Global Resource Moralisers likely to be of much help. Michael Goldman describes, for example, the well-meaning efforts of the Worldwatch Institute which, having shown with relentlessly accurate factual research that the problem is entirely structural, proceeds to place its hopes in 'consumers' and the inherent wisdom of the 'international community'.

Worldwatch, for all its merits, belongs to what I call the forehead-slapping school, which holds that once individuals and institutions have (thanks to Worldwatch and its ilk) actually understood the situation, they will smack their brows and, in a flash of revelation, instantly redirect their behaviour 180 degrees.

No, I fear we must return to the prosaic square one of democracy, of faith in local people's ability to sort out their own problems in ways best suited not to the Market, not to the Managers, but to themselves. Couldn't they simply be allowed to get on with it? This modest request is an infinitely difficult objective to attain, yet one worth striving for, on their turf, on their terms and on their side.


1. Subtitled 'Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation', Viking, London and New York, 1996.
2. Garrett Hardin, 'The Tragedy of the Commons', Science 162 (1968), pp. 1243-48.