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Conservatism and the Commons by Carlos Perona Calvete

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Conservatism and the Commons

A bell rings thrice, thrice again, and thrice a third time. The echo fades without response. For a while everything is still but pregnant, like an inhale. Soon a stirring of muffled voices and doors opening and closing in all directions gives way to heavy steps, all moving in one direction. Three bells, three times, calls the council together, one person per household, to decide when and where to meet next and how to do whatever needs doing—open a path, plug potholes, make a gutter, re-roof the church, help such-and-such’s eldest build himself a house. They are about the business of management of the commons and mutual aid. 

Today, municipalities have all but replaced village councils, and the land our great-grandparents owned communally is now either private or government property. What was once the context in which most people lived is today barely a memory. 

In times gone by, and in present times still going by, it was believed that to confront a state one had to mirror its whole anatomy. If the state has a social base, the party will have its militants, and in place of legislature, party congresses. Where the one has policies, laws and a constitution, the other has statutes and a manifesto, and where one has the executive, the other has its leadership and trusted committee. I recently read an article that reminds us of this in order to refute it. For now, its author observes, the solitary person can make due, can overturn the whole thing and conquer government on the back of charisma and ideas. The piece is commenting on the rise of Zemmour and of Macron before him, but it could well have added Trump into the mix (disregarding the financial resources and friends in high places that might render certain ‘lone’ figures really not very lonesome at all). 

As is common, we encounter those who believe in the state, and those who believe in the individual—as though the state did not always index itself, its unity and presence, to a single person, and as though the individual did not quickly accrue and structure myriad mechanisms through which to form and exert decisions. The dialectic is a familiar one. Too often, when new political initiatives are faced with established binaries, they ultimately choose one instead of rejecting both: we have the familiar pairs of the invisible hand of the market and the visible hand of the state; the nation as business and the nation as charity (or, sometimes, open-air festival); individual liberté and state-guaranteed égalité. More abstractly, the primacy of freedom and that of fairness; the assiduous application of rules, and the exercise of sheer rule; compulsive purism and coercive power; pharisaical teachers and pharaonic tyranny; iconoclasm and idolatry. 

And just as political discourse obsessively polarizes between individualism and statism, right-wing liberty and left-wing equality, the third term of political modernity (whose conceptual categories I am, in any case, not endorsing), that of fraternité, is more or less forgotten. Where liberty corresponds to individual property and equality to the state, we might suggest fraternity finds its true context in ‘the commons.’ The commons implicitly posits the local community (village, neighborhood, etc.) as a fundamental unit within greater political associations, because that community owns local resources unitarily. This opens up a middle way. A robust commons supports individual entrepreneurship while preventing social atomization and the harm wrought by individual interest maximizing. It also represents an obstacle to state encroachment while potentially showcasing examples of virtuous, local innovative solutions that may inform policy. 

Recently, a member of the Spanish political party VOX delivered a speech in which she argued that the now deceased luminary of the Spanish Left and long-time mayor of Cordoba, Julio Anguita, would today disown the political Left and find himself proud of her own party. The suggestion is untenable. Despite his incisive criticisms and genuinely principled positions, Anguita was always a supporter of explicitly leftist parties—even of Podemos, and even when this party’s postmodern deconstructivism could quite reasonably have been intuited. However, the speech points to something. Perhaps it is an understanding that, today, we must at least speak transversally. Perhaps it is a recognition that the defense of economic interventionism for the sake of national reindustrialization, and the corresponding critique of the EU’s trajectory that one found in Anguita, today has more of a home in VOX than in any other party. But then we should remember what the socialist elder once stressed to Podemos’ leader, Pablo Iglesias: “the left, or whatever you want to call it, has to start building its alternative now—cooperatives for consumers, production, even energy generation.” In other words, if you want to build socialism, set up cooperatives, for socialism more than for the state. Or at least, we might add, don’t distract people from doing so, don’t hide their neighborhood and its needs behind protests and voting. 

Today, we could say the same thing to those politicians who find themselves representing a rising tide of discontent towards the various cultural corrosives currently heaped upon us. If you want a healthy society, encourage people to build it. Just as a political veteran like Anguita had to remind his successors that the Left is more than the state, conservatives should begin with the awareness that the Right (“or whatever you want to call it”) is more than the individual. In other words, conservatives are not—cannot afford to be—‘classical liberals’ (a term so often invoked), for, as Italian elite theorists like Vilfredo Pareto, or Hannah Arendt for her part, tell us, social engineering requires that a community of twenty-thousand be divisible into a set of twenty-thousand isolated individuals (twenty people cannot convince twenty-thousand, but they can convince one person twenty-thousand times).

The issue is quite practical. The uptake and recycling of value for the continued enrichment of a community that is thereby properly compensated for its productivity, can only take place if there is a sufficient ability to absorb it. One can pour money into a village, but if there are simply no businesses on which to spend it, those who receive that money will quickly use it to buy goods and services at a nearby city. Similarly, politics can promote values, but if we lack the communal context in which to exercise these and in which these might be passed on organically, nothing will come of it. Like rain on concrete, it may get the ground wet, but nothing will grow.

This latter, psychological and cultural rather than economic capacity for absorption, the need for there to be ground in which roots might anchor, should be of paramount importance to any program calling itself conservative. Simon Weil saw it clearly in The Need for Roots:

Participation in collective possessions—a participation consisting not in any material enjoyment, but in a feeling of ownership—is a no less important need. It is more a question of a state of mind than of any legal formula. Where a real civic life exists, each one feels he has a personal ownership in the public monuments, gardens, ceremonial pomp and circumstance; and a display of sumptuousness, in which nearly all human beings seek fulfilment, is in this way placed within the reach of even the poorest. But it isn’t just the State which ought to provide this satisfaction; it is every sort of collectivity in turn. A great modern factory is a waste…for it is unable to provide…the least satisfaction in connection with this need. When methods of exchange and acquisition are such as to involve a waste of material and moral foods, it is time they were transformed…Any form of possession which doesn’t satisfy somebody’s need of private or collective property can reasonably be regarded as useless. That does not mean that it is necessary to transfer it to the State; but rather to try and turn it into some genuine form of property. (Italics added.)

‘Resilience’ is currently a fundamental pillar of policy for the UN and EU, albeit their use of the concept is in some ways incoherent and counterintuitive. Resilience, properly understood, is all important to the revival of civic life. In Europe, the trend this past year has been one of decline for local government investment, partly on account of its reliance on central government subsidies during the COVID-19 lockdowns, and partly because it is as yet unprepared to tax new business models like Airbnb. Some initiatives have helped counteract this drift. URBACT’s impact bonds highlight the need for liquidity, while the proliferation of mutual aid solutions to challenges brought about by the quarantine illustrated how much can get done organically by local actors. The production of value from, and proper management of, local resources, as well as the ability to absorb funds when they come–while avoiding reliance on these–can all be delivered through a rehabilitated ‘commons’ (and the dynamics of a so-called ‘gift-economy’).

Thanks to the work of Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, we can safely disregard the orthodoxy according to which individual benefits and costs (the calculative faculty and the political subject as conceived by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments and onwards throughout the history of liberal thought experiments) will tend to collapse a resource system by exploiting it beyond its maximum sustainable yield (‘the tragedy of the commons’). This should serve to take a great administrative burden off the state, central and local. For communities to be resilient, as well as more efficient than both states and markets, argues Ostrom, they need boundaries, clear rules adapted to local conditions, agreed upon by members and monitored for compliance, with appropriate degrees of sanctioning and conflict resolution mechanisms.

At stake in conservatism’s defense of locality and the commons, rather than constant invocations of the individual as bastion of resistance, is a question of authenticity. How far back does one’s memory go, how much of one’s heritage is to be recovered? The philosophical turn that simplified society into individuals and state was, at root, a rejection of the notion that there might be any meaning in harmonious difference, in the ordered filigrees of nature and society and the cosmos. It was at some point determined—by certain theologians—that if God’s sovereignty is absolute, His election to have something happen or exist is unconstrained by what would now come to be regarded as subsidiary concepts like ‘the good.’ Sovereignty simply is, and so, simply chooses in the manner of a free, un-premised, gratuitous exercise of power. This being so, an effect does not inherently have anything in common with its cause, nor do the relations between things tell us much of anything about them. As theologian John Milbank puts it:

Protestant theology inherited and developed a disconnection of reality—a nominalist denial that all effects analogically echo their causes in a great chain of being leading back to God…It was not, as is frequently supposed, scientific and critical objectivity which led to the rejection of…inherited assumption. Rather, it was a misguided and priggish pietism, informed by a poor reading of the Bible, which saw in [the older, medieval view] an excessive paganism and wished rather to celebrate an entirely inscrutable, self-willed God who has created the world as an arbitrary set of disconnected things, linked only by mechanism. (Italics added.)

In contrast, the older understanding presents an “analogical and participatory vision” in which we 

live in a naturally just cosmos where all eventually returns to its source and in due measure…subjects and objects both belong in this single continuum, such that if things also unconsciously praise their maker, subjects also have their natural and objective place in a given cultural order, however variously this may be construed with legitimate cultural variation. The cosmos is an organism, suffused with life in various degrees.

And from this there sprang a damnable political program, the modern project in its maniacal obsession with freedom.

Human beings are then thought to operate in this natural order, no longer in the first place with respect to justice towards all creatures…but in the image of a self-willed God as mere dominators and manipulators of dead, meaningless processes.

This disordered sense of freedom has philosophical implications. If God’s will is not aligned with any other concept, if it is a pure, un-premised, exercise of power in any direction, we cannot participate in the fundamental reality of goodness and love from our experience of things, or of our own consciousness. We lose participatory metaphysics. We can only discover it by observing it externally, as one observes a separate person. God is not so much ‘the Being of beings,’ as in classical theism, but a large, powerful being among smaller, weaker ones. Nothing about Him is inherent to us or the cosmos. And if beings—or human persons—do not share a common Being, there is no basis on which to assume that their interactions could be harmonious. If we are irreducibly distinct, we may be irremediably at odds.

So alienating a view naturally gives rise to the idea in “Protestantism and distorted Catholic … Augustinianism” according to which “human beings are totally or near-totally depraved,” such that “society cannot be governed…by appeal to a lost sense of intrinsic justice. Instead, order must either be imposed by an absolute ruler, or distilled from the balancing of vice with vice.” 

If someone argues against the removal of governing structures because individuals cannot be trusted (vice will not simply balance vice to good effect), and a libertarian critique interjects that yes, indeed they cannot, which is precisely why none should have such great a power over others as the state makes possible (a ruler can be vicious as easily, or more so, as virtuous), the disagreement is irreconcilable. The two share one premise, and like William Blake’s cloven-reason, their disagreement is a devil’s hoof. 

All we can do is hope for an external agent to bear down upon us and force peaceability (God, the state), or for an impersonal instrument quite distinct from our shared deliberative abilities, like the market, to strike a balance in which conflict never quite allows you to destroy me, and vice-versa. Fundamentally, the reality of anything other than the individual as skin-encased ego with its own specific interests, is denied. There is no reality to community, because there is no subjectivity to inhabit it. No warrant is given to the possibility that the consciousness that inhabits the individual might also ecstatically (‘self-exitingly’) inhabit the vantage of others, loving these as himself.  

A successfully self-managed commons, I would suggest, displays harmony among its co-owners and serves to illustrate a participative metaphysics. It is not that individual interests balance in a competitive equilibrium, as in a (certain conception of the) market. Neither is an external, top-down entity responsible for administering them, as would be the case if they were nationalized. Rather, the commons regulate themselves, following Ostrom. And it is not only the integrity of an individual farmer who owns his own cattle, combined with the shared grazing land he co-owns, that displays this. The principle may find a plethora of applications, including Blockchain, open-source software licenses and so on. But the bell should still sound thrice, and we should still have the satisfaction of building things together.

Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.


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