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Manifesto of the Commons: Toward a New Charter of Social Rights

November 23, 2011

The crisis is a spectre haunting around Europe. The political and economic elite have for more than three years promised a return to normalcy, which in fact means a return to the conditions that gave rise to all that has already occurred.  The policies and interventions of the past three years have placed the well-being of finance capital above all other considerations.  The capitalist appropriation of social life, the insistence on the poorly-named ¨austerity,¨ the cuts to the welfare state and social rights, and the privatization of the commons are nothing more than a politics of dispossession and social degradation.  This – and nothing else – is the realpolitik that causes the weight of the crisis to fall squarely on the backs of the middle and working classes.

Facing a set of adjustments and reforms designed to benefit the most powerful, it cannot be emphasized strongly enough that the crisis is above all else a crisis of the political, and that the we must turn away from a politics that compels us to choose between the privileged sectors of finance, from above, and the new war between the poor, from below.  Nothing is more urgent than to reject the populisms of the new right, catalysers of rapacious greed, who have mobilized against scapegoats old and new – immigrants, students, public sector workers, young people, and whoever else is considered a threat in a society which has already lost its fear. Disgracefully, the future of the commons is bet on the social capacity to draw fear from difference.

Meanwhile, the left, irrespective of its various incarnations, from the most timid to the most extreme, gloats in melancholy and impotence.  Incapable of comprehending the dimensions of the crisis, of presenting a serious proposal to alter the current atmosphere, to point to innovative approaches to income distribution and/or the expansion of social rights, the institutional left is the target of a generalized political disaffection that is leading to a gradual loss of social and electoral support.  And while this trend can be seen across Europe, it is multiplied in Spain.  Here, the left has hurled itself toward a pre-prepared suicide.  The “I won´t let you down” mantra of the Zapatero campaign in 2004 or the promises of left governments in Catalunya, Galicia, Baleares, Barcelona, or so many other locales, are today sad examples of the empty rhetoric of the political class. It hardly needs to be repeated: these governments have not done anything to reinvent political forms, nor the relations between state and citizen, and obviously they have not undertaken policies different from those prescribed in standard manuals of government administration and management.  And all this, when the only window of opportunity for the left to make substantive gains was opened – at the beginning of the last decade – without the institutional left even recognizing it, by virtue of the emergence of new social movements: the mobilizations against the war, the “Nunca Mas” of local struggles against the appropriation of water and land.  It was then when an historic opportunity to open a cycle of political renovation emerged: conceiving society as something more than a mere aggregation of voters, and aiming to transform moribund institutions into more than mere guarantors of a regime of normalized rights programmed from above.  That opportunity has clearly been squandered, with irreversible consequences for the democracy that it could have brought.

In the coordinates of our new political landscape – marked as it is by the new offensive of finance capital and the regression of the institutional left – we are called now to new municipal elections and, in many communities, to autonomous elections.  Among the responses which we hope will be declared with clarity is the following: “they do NOT represent me” or – more simply – “your history does NOT refer to me.”  The times are those of the weak-willed, characterized by a choice between options that fail to convince or to recognize an alternative.

At the point of starting the electoral campaign season and the long litany of tepid promises that it brings, our wager cannot be cast in favour of empty labels or for the lesser evil.  The only worthwhile choice is to go on the offensive – to invent another ethic, another politics which is disconnected from nostalgia and resignation.  Without falling into false conventionalisms or narrow localisms, in a world where almost everything passes through global processes and determinations, the city can be a privileged space of intervention: the stage for a new generation of struggles for the reappropriation and reinvention of the commons; the right terrain for the re-creation of a culture of sharing, which recognizes and thrives on difference and diversity; the first experiment for new forms of just distribution of wealth and labor time.

In this framework, politics, the politics of the city, which will play out in the upcoming elections, confronts two options: to yield to its old ways and opt for competitiveness and economic growth, thereby accepting the false assumption of scarcity of resources; or to assert new rights that recognize productive capacities and the capacity for wealth creation in local, independent contexts.  The political mobilization of the city implicates, in this latter option, the mobilization of a new regime of rights.  It is obvious that these emerging rights surpass the limits of current European institutional and political arrangements, and necessitate an institutional revolution in the European Union that meets – juridically, fiscally, monetarily, and politically – their demands, establishing the only geometry that can respond to the rules of fair distribution and equity.  What is required is a European federation of free cities and regions at the service of those who produce and reproduce the common wealth.  The politics of austerity clearly show that the principal bulwarks of the financial oligarchy in Europe are the worn-out leaderships of sovereign nation-states which are at the service of the party system, and the financial and corporate elite who benefit from the ongoing privatization and exploitation of the commons.  The democratic revolutions occuring in North Africa and the Arab world are a call to action, an inspiration and a challenge for the democratic rebels of Europe and the Mediterranean.

What could not be done by other means has been attempted with a new cycle of social struggles and mobilizations of the poor and immigrants.  In these struggles, poverty is constructed as power, not as lack.  It is not necessary to guess what will be the themes of the new urban mobilizations.  They have to do with problems already on the agenda of these developing mobilizations – problems which are presented as the first draft in the formulation of new and emerging rights.  We formulate these issues now as a charter – the charter of the Rights for the Urban Commons:

1. Universal and Unconditional Right to a Basic Income. Without hesitation, we can say that the majority of reproductive and creative work is not remunerated in any form. Earning a salary cannot be the only consideration for how productive work is defined, and remunerated work cannot be viewed as the general form taken by labor. The law system, however, only grants rights based on salaried work. The weakness and narrowness of this foundational assumption leads to less social protection and fewer rights for a growing number of people. It is for this reason that a universal and unconditional income (we place the amount at 800 euros a month) would not only alleviate the suffering of millions of people subject to unemployment and hyper-exploitation, but would also be a just payment for work that is currently not remunerated. Along the same lines as the basic income, the state can make other important advances: limiting speculative activities related to land and housing, taxing financial transactions, eliminating inequalities in various types of public benefits (transportation, housing, etc.), laying the groundwork for an effective, equal distribution of wealth that exceeds efforts from previous eras.

2. Recognition of the Commons. There is no life, society, or dignified collective existence without the recognition of the common means and resources that sustain them. The city appears as the site of this collective existence by virtue of its public and common dimensions. As a public space, the city also potentially embodies the collection of necessary guarantees for the reproduction of social life: from healthcare to care-giving, from the environment and natural resources (e.g. water and air); from education to pensions. Without recognizing the common condition of these assets and resources, urban life would not only deteriorate into a chain of obligations subject to distinct mechanisms of exploitation (e.g. the mortgage, precaritized work, private forms of social insurance, etc.): it would vanish into a concatenation of individuated lives oriented solely around survival. The economic powers have found in the city a privileged site for the expansion of new forms of self-enrichment: privatizing public health services, attacking pensions, assailing public education. What is at stake in these struggles is the future of our society: the recognition of communal forms of property and management – not merely as assets in the hands of public institutions – is the best defence we have against the privatization of our social existence.

3. Right to Information and to the Free Production and Reproduction of Knowledge.Knowledge is one of the most important common assets of our time: produced by media that are increasingly collective, resulting out of an enormous social investment (as well as huge quantities of public money), this knowledge is shared in publicly-accessible networks and spaces of exchange. It is for this reason that we must aim to break all institutional shackles on the production, modification, and multiplication of knowledge. Instead of presenting a viable framework to house our expanding stores of intellectual wealth, the current drive to privatize knowledge undermines forms of cooperation and exchange that make this wealth possible. We advocate for local governments to intervene in the terrain of knowledge production through public investment efforts, as we strongly support collective experimentation and innovation vis-a-vis the production and distribution of knowledge. Only in this way will the social value of one of our greatest collective intellectual assets be recognized and defended.

4. Right to Mobility. The establishment of a right of universal citizenship is the only just counterpart to the financialization of the economic cycle, the hypermobility of capital, and the steep acceleration of the rate of exploitation of the Global South. This right will only be obtained by abolishing the borders among states, as well as those more subtle, internal borders that fragment urban spaces into zones of exclusion, ghettoes and spaces of control. The internal borders effectively reproduce a hierarchy of liberties and negate the most elementary rights: to residency, to vote, to free association, to a living wage, etc. Local institutions and municipal governments can and should intervene to abolish such mechanisms of exclusion, reestablishing – via access to services and social rights – a generalized right of equal citizenship. If this is not done, urban spaces will degenerate into ungovernable zones of segregation, exclusion, and sharp inequality.

The Manifesto of the Commons offers a framework to reprogram the way our society conceives social welfare, as part of a political and economic project that invites and appeals to all on the political Left. However, it should not be viewed as a means by which the parties of the Left represent their constituents. This way of thinking about politics is outdated, as the people today are constituted by a tendency toward self-representation. Immigrants; women; those affected by the mortgage crisis, the destruction of the environment, the degradation of public services; newly constituted social networks; and a long list of emerging communities have found new ways to speak for themselves, without the mediation of institutional apparatuses or formal representatives. It is time for the Left to accept the limits of its representativeness and reach out – in an open, creative way – to the movements and social aggregations that increasingly make up the fabric of our new urban spaces. Through this reaching out we will hear the call for access to decent housing, the right to healthcare, the recognition of the commons, the right to education, and the right to mobility. And we will develop a new and better way of inhabiting the city.  This manifesto lays out a program for a social movement that annuls and goes beyond the current state of politics and has no need for the participation of so-called experts. What is required now is that all local governments – especially those on the left – place themselves at the service of the necessities of this movement.

All of us signing on to this declaration have no doubt that making the aforementioned rights a reality is the work of the Left. Our historical moment is now and time is of the essence.

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Sign on by going to the following address and sending your information (full name, organizational affiliation, and place of residence). We will publish a list of signatories in a special page devoted to the Manifesto of the Commons:

In the alternative, you can sign the following on-line petition.

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