For a communalisation of the public

For a communalisation of the public

~ by Carlo Vercellone, Alfonso Giuliani, Francesco Brancaccio ~

In this short article – For a communalisation of the public – Carlo Vercellone, Alfonso Giuliani and Francesco Brancaccio reflect on the way the emergence of commons movements can challenge the construction of the public in line with the logic of capital. This challenge allows us also to speak of the common in the singular, and pose the need of communisation of the public, in which the principles of democracy of the commons and its inappropriability can go at the very heart of the large institutions of the public and transform it from within. The conclusion: “…the public administration, once its transcendent position has been removed, must be rethought as a mere agent, and no longer as the owner, of collective goods and resources that it now feels free to abuse, alienating and privatising them…”.

Original French version can be found here.

For a communalisation of the public

In the face of the neo-liberal offensive that has been going on for more than forty years and of which the current pension reform is only the latest act, the return of state sovereignty is often invoked. One forgets, however, that ‘state power’ has not passively undergone the process of privatisation of the institutions it was supposed to protect from the logic of the market and the financialisation of capital. Not only has the state disengaged itself from this task of protecting welfare institutions, but it has often been a strategic actor in the opposite direction, promoting on all levels the neo-liberal strategy based on the commodification, propertization and corporatisation triptych.

This development is by no means the result of a fatality. It is based, to a large extent, on the way state public property has been constructed on the same absolute and exclusive logic as private property and in function of its protection (New Public Management). This is demonstrated by the fact that, in legal terms, while expropriation and nationalisation of private property always provide for compensation, privatisation of public property does not provide for any consultation or compensation for the community.

The strength and inventiveness of the resurgent commons movement, which has led us to speak of the commons in the singular, as an emergent mode of production, can help us emerge from this false state/market alternative. The forms of self-management of production, common property, and the experiences of direct democracy enacted by the new movements do not merely revive the social and solidarity economy and the non-statist tradition hegemonic within the early labour movement up to the Paris Commune. They also provide us with essential lessons for reflecting on what we can call the communisation of the public, where by this concept we refer to a configuration in which the principles of the democracy of the commons and inappropriability penetrate into the very heart of the macroscopic institutions of the public and transform, from within, the way public administration and public services function.

In support of this thesis, in this short space at our disposal, two main elements can help us overcome the conception of the public that is still dominant today, historically and theoretically.

The first is the establishment of the general social security system in France in 1945. Originally, the collection of social security contributions did not depend on the state or employers, but on a fund whose management was entrusted to workers’ representatives, first appointed by the trade unions, then directly elected by the employees. In this sense, the first organisational model of social security can be understood as a macroscopic institution of the common and still constitutes an essential reference for thinking about an alternative to the State-Market duopoly. In this regard, it is worth remembering that the stratagem adopted to pass the current pension reform through a rectifying finance law was only possible thanks to a progressive process of re-centralisation, the main stages of which lie in the Jeanneney ordinances that, in 1967, imposed paritarism and abolished the direct election of administrators by workers, and then, in 1996, in the institution of the social security financing laws that completed its statehood.

The second element is the reflection that developed in Italy within the Rodotà Commission (2007). As part of a project to rewrite the Civil Code, it proposed the introduction of the legal concept of ‘common goods’, but also a comprehensive reorganisation of the regime of public goods belonging to the state. Common goods are defined as ‘things that express functional utility for the exercise of fundamental rights and the free development of the person’ and that must be protected ‘also in the interest of future generations’. They are therefore inseparable from the processes of self-government that guarantee their reproduction, according to rules of ‘collective civic use’ that oppose the exclusive logic of property, whether public or private. Another proposal of the Rodotà Commission was to take away from the state administration the power to dispose of public goods as if it were their exclusive owner, and to design stronger legal devices to establish the inalienability and inappropriability of these goods.

In conclusion, the public administration, once its transcendent position has been removed, must be rethought as a mere agent, and no longer as the owner, of collective goods and resources that it now feels free to abuse, alienating and privatising them.