A New Multilateralism of the Global Commons

If commons are to take root and grow in our society, at the local, national and international levels, what might that mean for the future of the nation-state, multilateral institutions and public policy? These are big, complex questions that need to be asked. We need to re-imagine governance in profound ways, not just in terms of local or digital commons, but also with respect to new roles for nation-states and new types of multilateral governance systems.

I was delighted to encounter just such a commons-friendly re-imagining of the world by James Bernard Quilligan, a long-time analyst and administrator in international development and a former advisor to such politicians as Pierre Trudeau, Francois Mitterand, Olof Palme, Willy Brandt, Jimmy Carter and HRH Prince El Hassan. Writing in the fall/winter issue of Kosmos journal, Quilligan describes the failures of postwar multilateral institutions, the enormous potential of the commons and a sweeping vision for a new commons-based system of governance at many levels.

Below, I summarize Quilligan’s visionary essay, People Sharing Resources: Toward a New Multilateralism of the Global Commons. However, I encourage everyone to read the entire piece for a richer treatment of some provocative, thoughtful ideas.

Quilligan starts with a critique of the problem:

We have begun to see that the benefits of perpetual economic growth are not compensating for the vast damages and risks they create — from energy insecurity, global warming, ecological degradation and species loss to hunger, poverty, debt and financial meltdown. We’re also realizing that neither the private sphere of property and trade nor the public sphere of government provision and distribution — which created these problems to begin with — are capable of solving them.

The structures of nation-states and multilateral institutions have made it difficult for governments even to recognize the reality of global common goods, Quilligan writes. That’s because societies have a "pervasive commitment to free markets in driving global economic integration and sovereign reciprocity in making global decisions.”

As a result, all sorts of global commons — things that are neither private goods nor public goods — are not managed responsibly, fairly or sustainably. Fisheries, forests, ecosystems, genetic life forms and species, seeds, climate and atmosphere, not to mention the airwaves, Internet, cultural traditions, ethnobotanical knowledge, and much else — all of these resources have little standing in public policy because they are neither private property nor public goods. They are common goods, which are either gifts of nature or the creations of social communities.

Quilligan proposes new forms of property management for these commons through what he calls "co-governance" and "co-production." Co-governance means that commoners at the lowest possible level of authority take over decision-making activities that historically have been performed by the state. Co-production brings together resource users and resource producers and providers through open social networks — not as “sellers” and “buyers,” but as co-producers. By establishing self-governing communities of co-production, the commons "formalizes the process of just governance and democratic oversight by closing the gap between resource users and resource managers, producers and providers."

The process is highly appealing, and works well, because it is all about people "finding new identity and significance through sharing information, seeking consensus-based solutions, keeping value in their communities and distributing the benefits that arise form the use of commons resources." Many of the dysfunctions of traditional government bureaucracies and governance can be avoided.

Quilligan sees commons-based governance, now occurring throughout the world in countless circumstances, as the basis for a new form of multilateralism: "The co-production of global common goods can now be facilitated through direct collaboration between local resource users and multilateral institutions."

To facilitate this new order, governments must recognize commons rights for commoners. “Commons rights differ from human rights and civil rights,” writes Quilligan, “because they arise, not through the legislation of a state, but through a customary or emerging identification with an ecology, a cultural resource area, a social need or a form of collective labor."

He also calls for the creation of social charters, or "commons trusts," that establish specific legal authority for people to help each other manage and produce what each of them needs. By having legal control of commons resources, trust managers can "keep the value created through the commons within the commons," and so check the harmful effects of state-supported capitalism that we now suffer from.

A system of commons trusts would benefit multiple parties, Quilligan writes: "Private industry flourishes from the surplus resources which are rented from commons trusts, the socially marginalized and vulnerable receive a subsistence income from the state, and the primary assets of the commons are preserved and regenerated."

Under commons trusts, value would not be based on the financial value of common assets in the marketplace, but on the "preservation of commons resources and the resilience of the system that manages and produces them...Hence long-term wealth arises, not through consumer demand, investment or capital accumulation, but in the enhancement of the carrying capacity of the global commons to support life and life systems, expressed through sustainable choice."

Perhaps the most bracing idea that Quilligan proposes is a new sort of "commons reserve currency."

Modern societies are locked into a permanent growth imperative — with disastrous consequences for the Earth — Quilligan argues, because of the current system of privatized credit. Banks and financial institutions are constantly pushing individuals and businesses to borrow money. But this debt and the interest on it cannot possibly be repaid except through relentless and perpetual economic growth. This is one reason that markets are constantly seeking to monetize (“extract value from”) non-market realms such as ecosystems, genes, nano-scale matter, social relationships, time, etc. New market enclosures are driven by the need to repay debt and increase returns to capital.

This structural imperative of modern economies can no longer be physically sustained, however The Earth is finite, and the approach of Peak Oil and the limited capacity of the atmosphere to absorb carbon, require us to find new approaches.

One way out of this quandary, Quilligan suggests, is to treat the money system and individual purchasing power as a social commons instead of a private profit center. He envisions the creation of a new international currency whose value is pegged to a "basket of global common goods as resource reserves." These reserves for the currency would include natural resources such as air and water quality, ecosystem health and biological diversity, as well as cultural resources such as indigenous wisdom, household work and the arts. It would also include social resources such as economic output and income distribution.

This new currency would help stabilize and democratize the control of money. Instead of our current system of privately administered debt, which requires infinite, Earth-destroying growth, we could convert to an equity-backed system of currency that benefits all sectors of society and nature itself.

A new international currency based on global common assets as reserves “would generate a broad measure of common wealth and well-being that is not based on productivity, profit or interest, but on the perpetual vitality and continuous adaptation of local resources to support a good quality of life for all human beings....It would mean using our commons-based capital — cultural, social, intellectual, nature, genetic and material — as collateral for an equity-based global reserve system that issues credit underpinned by these resources."

An ambitious scheme, obviously. But Quilligan helps us envision structural solutions that can work over the long term, rather than resorting to Band-Aids. Quilligan’s scenario has the unique virtue of being comprehensive in scope, analytically rigorous and conceptually coherent — with the commons as a philosophical centerpiece.

There is not only virtue, but necessity, in pursuing a holistic vision. Quilligan sets forth the inexorable logic:

We cannot end the financial crisis without a new monetary system.

We cannot create a new monetary system without creating long-term incentives for solving the ecological and energy crises.

We cannot create long-term incentives to solve the ecological and energy crises without a low-carbon system of production and trade.

We cannot create a low-carbon system of production and trade without a new multilateral system of governance.

We cannot create a new multilateralism without a total redefinition of wealth.

Now there’s something to ponder. Read the whole essay here.