How a small, dedicated group of people can transform the world—really
by Jay Walljasper
Social change is not something easily diagrammed on a chart. Sweeping transformations that rearrange the workings of an entire culture begin imperceptibly, quietly but steadily entering people’s minds until one day it seems the ideas were there all along. Even in our age of instantaneous information—when a scrap of information can zoom around the globe in mere seconds, people’s world views still evolve quite gradually.
Learning from the Right
This is exactly how the paradigm of corporate power came to rule the world. First articulated in large part by an obscure circle of Austrian economists, it surfaced in the United States during the 1950s as a curious political sideshow promoted by figures such as novelist Ayn Rand and her protégé Alan Greenspan.
The notion of the market as the bedrock of all social policy entered mainstream debate during the Goldwater campaign in 1964, which appeared to mark both its debut and its demise. Despite Republicans’ spectacular defeat in elections that fall—which extended from the White House all the way to local races—small bands of pro-market partisans refused to accept the unpopularity of their theories. Instead, they boldly launched a new movement that would eventually turn American life upside down.
Bankrolled by wealthy backers who understood that modern politics is a battle of ideas, market champions shed their image as fusty reactionaries swimming against the tide of progress and gradually refashioned themselves as visionaries charting a bold course for the future.
Their ranks swelled throughout the late 1970s as an unlikely combination of libertarian dreamers, big-business opportunists, and anxious defenders of traditional values signed up for the cause. The successive elections of Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Ronald Reagan in the United States, and François Mitterrand in France confirmed market fundamentalists’ global ascendancy. Thatcher and Reagan, each in her and his own distinct way, became effective advocates for the idea that the market should be the chief organizing principle of human endeavor. Mitterrand, on the other hand, was a dedicated socialist but soon discovered that the growing influence of international capital rendered him powerless to carry out promises of his 1981 election campaign. This was final confirmation that we had entered a new age of corporate domination.
Ever since then, our world has been shaped by these forces. Alan Greenspan became the most influential economic policy maker in recent history during eighteen years as chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve. And the market paradigm is now seen by many — a lot of whom did not begin as right-wingers — as an indisputable truth on the same level as the Ten Commandments or the laws of physics.
Today, it feels as though everything is for sale to the highest bidder—from the names of sports stadiums to DNA sequences that make human life possible. Since the 1980s, reform movements of the left and center successfully resisted certain extreme elements of the radical right agenda, but many Americans still believe a free-market blueprint for the future is inevitable. Progress, once viewed as the gradual expansion of social equity and opportunity, is now widely viewed as the continual expansion of economic privatization and unchecked corporate power.
Introducing the Commons Paradigm
There are emerging signs that market fundamentalism has passed its peak as the defining idea of our era. In the United States, the first glimmer of hope was when the Bush administration’s plan to partially privatize Social Security funds in the stock market gained little traction in Congress and public opinion. Painful financial upheavals around the globe revealed the glaring weaknesses of the current economic model for all to see, leaving some market true believers scrambling to embrace new policies. Yet old ideologies don’t quietly fade, especially when they enjoy sizable support in the corporate world. We’ve seen a fierce backlash against Barack Obama’s admittedly modest departures from rigid market thinking.
At the same time, a group of activists, thinkers, and concerned citizens around the world who are rallying support for the idea of a commons-based society. At this point, they’re a scrappy bunch—many with backgrounds in various social movements, community causes, and Internet initiatives—not so different from the dedicated market advocates of the 1950s, except in where they place their hopes. These commoners, as they call themselves, see possibilities for large numbers of people of diverse ideological stripes coming together to chart a new, more cooperative direction for modern society.
The volatile political mood of our era bears some resemblance to the late 1970s when liberalism was losing its footing and conservative policy makers refashioned their old political rhetoric, based on social exclusion and apologies for capitalism, into a shiny new philosophy: “the market.” Pre- viously the thrust of right-wing thought had been focused on what they were against (civil rights, labor unions, social programs, et cetera), but by claiming the market as their mission, they were able to emphasize instead what they were for. The success of that rebranding has led to many of the problems we now grapple with today.
A New Political Dawn?
In the same way, commons-based thinking could eventually shift the balance of politics in the United States and the world. Yet unlike market fundamentalism, the commons is not just old wine in new bottles; it marks a substantive new dimension in political and social thinking.
A commons-based society holds considerable appeal for progressives after a long period in which the bulk of their political work has been in reaction to initiatives from the right. Activists across many social movements, now aware that an expansive political agenda will succeed better than narrow identity politics and single-issue crusades, are starting to experiment with the language and ideas of the commons. This line of thinking also makes sense to some traditional conservatives who regret the wanton destruction of our social and environmental assets carried out in the name of a free-market revolution. In the truest sense of the word, the commons is a conservative as well as progressive virtue because it aims to conserve and nurture all those things necessary for sustaining a healthy society.
Growing numbers of citizens—including many who never before questioned the status quo—now seem willing to explore new ideas that once would have seemed radical. Millions of Americans are now making shifts in their personal lives such as buying organic foods, using alternative medicine, collaborating online, and searching for something beyond consumerism that offers a sense of meaning in their lives. They may not yet be sprinkling their conversations with the word commons, but they are looking for changes in their lives.
Now is the time to introduce a decisive shift in worldview. People everywhere are yearning for a world that is safer, saner, more sustainable and satisfying. There’s a rising sense of possibility that even with our daunting economic and environmental problems, there are opportunities to make some fundamental improvements. Everyone deserves decent health care. The health of the planet should take precedence over the profits of a few. Clean water, adequate food, education, access to information, and economic opportunity ought to be available to all people. In other words, a commons-based society. Let’s transform that hope into constructive action.
Jay Walljasper is the editor and chief author of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. He is editor of OnTheCommons.org and author of The Great Neighborhood Book, writes widely about cities, community, sustainability and travel. On The Commons is a commons movement strategy center.