All That We Share Isn’t Enough

All That We Share is an exciting and exasperating book. The excitement comes from the many voices arguing to place “the commons” at the center of planning for a viable future. The exasperation comes from the volume’s failure to critique the political and economic systems that we must transcend if there is to be a future for the commons.

In the preface, the book’s editor and primary writer, Jay Walljasper, describes how he came to understand the commons as a “unifying theme” that helped him see the world differently and led him to believe that “as more people become aware of it, the commons will spark countless initiatives that make a difference for the future of our communities and the planet.”

All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons/How to Save the Economy, the Environment, the Internet, Democracy, Our Communities, and Everything Else That Belongs to All of Us
By Jay Walljasper and On the Commons
Publisher: The New Press, 2010
Paperback: 288 pages, $18.95
ISBN: 978-1-59558-499-1

Defining the commons as “what we share” physically and culturally — from the air and water to the internet and open-source software — the contributors recognize that a society that defines success by individuals’ accumulation of stuff will erode our humanity and destroy the planet’s ecosystems. Walljasper calls for a “complete retooling” and “a paradigm shift that revises the core principles that guide our culture top to bottom.” No argument there. Unfortunately the book avoids addressing the specific paradigms we must confront. Is commons-based transformation possible within a capitalist economy based on predatory principles and an industrial production model built on easy access to cheap concentrated energy?

The book appears to offer a kinder-and-gentler capitalism with more regulated markets, but there is no attempt to wrestle with the effects of the corrosive and unsustainable principles — unlimited greed and endless growth — on which capitalism is based. Can we expect those core principles of the system to magically evaporate? Why will the commons become the domain of popular movements rather than corporations? If there is no attention to the inherently predatory nature of capitalism, it’s difficult to imagine how people will win out over profit.

There’s also little in the book about the need to shift from the industrial mode of production, which has generated the material comfort taken for granted by most in the First World. A sustainable commons-based society requires dramatic reductions in consumption, but contributors rarely address the scope of the change necessary (with the exception of Winona LaDuke’s essay on efforts to rebuild indigenous life at the Anishinaabeg White Earth Reservation). Forget about critiquing the lifestyles of the rich and famous — the commons can’t sustain the lifestyles of ordinary folks in a high-energy/high-technology world.

The problem is not that “the commons” isn’t a valuable concept, but that it is not a substitute for analysis of the political and economic systems that degrade the commons. The book is right to call for local experiments in cooperative living (I spend considerable time and energy on such projects), but as we pursue those experiments within the existing systems, we have to be honest about the limits of those systems and not fear being labeled radical. Radical analysis is not an intellectual indulgence but a practical necessity.

As a model for “commoners,” Walljasper cites the right-wing forces’ ideological campaign in the late 20th century to shape the market fundamentalism that eventually became state policy. He suggests that today “large numbers of people of diverse ideological stripes” can rally behind the commons, which may be true. But right-wing forces didn’t assemble people of different ideological stripes; they pushed an openly reactionary analysis and had a clear political and economic program. Just as they defended capitalism to the detriment of the commons, a countermovement has to openly critique capitalism to serve the commons. Just as they took the industrial model as a given, a countermovement has to question that model openly.

It may be that the commons has the power to transform people’s consciousness as Walljasper seems to hope, but hanging one’s analysis and political hopes — as the book’s long subtitle suggests — on that concept strikes me as evasion rather than engagement. In the end, we have to come to terms with capitalism and the industrial model that are deeply entrenched in the United States. That can’t be done obliquely but must be confronted head-on.

Robert Jensen is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and collaborates with the New Perennials Project at Middlebury College. He is the author of It’s Debatable: Talking Authentically about Tricky Topics, coming this spring from Olive Branch Press. This essay is adapted from his book An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, co-authored with Wes Jackson. Follow him on Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on December 16th, 2010 at 9:36am #

    like i said, i’d like to burn 99.999999% of all books. but i’d only burn them to heat my own fantacy basement and my cold kitchen. it is in the kitchen, where my PC is sat chest-high on my table, that i write my posts standing up.
    ok! my syntax seems to be askew, but no, i am not going to rewrite the above.

    so, i summarize, in ten words or less: burn, baby, burn ?all books! i only used five words! tnx

  2. celiaalario said on December 16th, 2010 at 11:30am #

    I think the mistake the reviewer makes here is to give an negative critique to a book because it isn’t the book he would have written, or somehow thinks needs to be written (if so, why not write it yourself rather than trash a great work as insufficient!)

    What is killing the left among other things is a belief that in order to speak of what can work, to tell the stories of solutions and good news that we have to also include manifestos on a detailed diagnosis of the problem.

    That actually isn’t required, and often turns off many who would otherwise support us and make key lifestyle changes or rally for political shift we know are critical.

    The legendary activist David Brower said we’d win because ‘we have more fun then them’. There is something to that.

    I think a book that celebrates what is working without deconstructing all the details of what isn’t is just fine, just ENOUGH.

  3. Deadbeat said on December 16th, 2010 at 6:24pm #

    celiaalario writes …

    What is killing the left among other things is a belief that in order to speak of what can work, to tell the stories of solutions and good news that we have to also include manifestos on a detailed diagnosis of the problem.

    This is a cop out. The problem are dealing with rhetoric that poses as “solutions” but are ineffective and misses key aspects and analysis of the problems. I generally agree with Mr. Jensen’s critique but unfortunately he too makes mistakes that is reflected in his analysis which I’ll address in another post. But for now Mr. Jensen critique especially about the author’s failing to properly analyze Capitalism means that the book is advocating for a “feel-good” bourgeois answers that won’t help the vast majority. It will only aid those who are already secure and those who have access to resources and money.

    We’ve already experienced 70 years of trying to “manage” Capitalism and trying to put a pretty face on the system. It was called “Keynesianism” and it didn’t work and only prolonged having to properly deal with these very issues.

  4. ajohnstone said on December 17th, 2010 at 1:46am #

    Can i recommend this book instead – The Rise of the Green Left: Inside the Worldwide Ecosocialist Movement, By Derek Wall

    On the question of the “commons” i think Wall is much more on the right track when he says the key to successful ecosocialism lies in the concept of “the commons”.( An even more everyday example of “the commons” is libraries, where items are borrowed and returned as the need arises.) The concept can be applied to whole economies.

    “The commons overcomes many of the problems with traditional state socialism because it tends to be flexible and decentralised”, says Wall. “It has an inbuilt ecological principle based on the concept of usufruct, that is, access to a resource is granted only if the resource is left in as good a form as it was when first found. By extending this concept of usufruct, we can provide the basis of an ecological economy. By providing access, the commons enables prosperity without growth; if we have access to the resources we need, we can reduce wasteful duplication.”

    And i think Wall identifies the same weakness as perhaps the author of the article does when he states that bringing about that change will require intense political struggle but he also cautions about the dangers of reformism – “the political system has been better at transforming radicals than radicals have been at changing the political system”. Wall says in Western societies, Greens have abandoned their principles once in power and often ignore the working class as agents of change.

    He insists activists must know economics. That requires a return not to Trotsky but to Marx and Engels.

    And again he adds the caveat. “There will never be a convincing blueprint for survival and socialism, of whatever shade, should not be constructed by a committee.”
    taken from here

    The change required must be based on the socialist principles of common ownership and production solely for needs, and also the environmental principles of conserving the wealth of the planet. It is the waste of human and other resources used in the market system which adds to the problem and stands in the way of their solution. Some may claim that the proper use of market forces will solve the problem, but as time goes on the emerging and mounting facts of what is happening serve only to contradict those voices.

  5. bozh said on December 17th, 2010 at 12:19pm #

    omitted is the fact that we have thousands of in-transit social structures, but only two to fully develop: egalitarian and inegalitarian. not in utopian sense or imposed, but freely accepted by, say, 80- 99% of any pop!
    so, this elicits the question: which of the two available choices are being developed in china, austria, india, u.s, israel, et al? tnx