I gave the following talk at “The Tragedy of the Market: from Crisis to Commons,” in January of 2012. Billed as “a community gathering,” it certainly was that, but it also took on a very “Occupied” focus as many in the audience had either participated in, or were vary curious about, the Occupy movement, and what “the commons” could tell us about it.
In this talk I try to re-purpose Marx’s famous “equation” about the circulation of commodities—C-M-C (commodity-money-commodity) by replacing “commodity” with “commons,” so that our “social metabolism” begins and ends in the commons—something that I think reflects “reality,” and which we could do with paying attention to as we pursue our critique of crisis-ridden capitalism and the unfolding of Occupy’s “idea whose time has come at last.”
What if we imagined an economic totality that begins and ends with the commons—a new version of the C-M-C equation for a thoroughly globalized system, an economy pushing against its ecological limits? Taken as a whole, all life, all production and reproduction, begins in the commons—at C: intellectually, genetically, we inherit, we are gifted from past generations, from what already exists. (This is of course what capitalist property relations have long sought to obscure and deny.)
All that we depend upon—plants, animals, air, water, soil, knowledge—comes from a common fund. We transform that fund through our social metabolism, acquiring what we need to persist and even prosper. This is at M, which here stands for material production and reproduction. Finally—what if the goal of our economy, or our social metabolism, was to return to the commons—the final position C—so that the commons at the end of our social metabolism was just as healthy and full, as a totality, as it was at the beginning of our life process?
This is what I’m calling the metabolic commons. It’s the idea that the maintenance, health, and sustainability of the commons should be at the heart of our social metabolism. It’s an idea based upon seeing economy and ecology—how we make our living and where we make our living—as the roots and branches of the same tree. It’s an idea based on the complete inseparability of the “social” and the “natural”—an idea that we are simply part of a single large organism that is the biosphere. There only is an atmosphere we can breath, and soil from which all living things can grow, because in the past living things have gone through their cycles of production and reproduction, life and death. At the most primary, metabolic level, we, the totality of living beings, have built the commons upon which we all depend through our collective existences, throughout the course of history, through long cycles of living, dying, and evolving in metabolic exchange with our environments. It is only in the past few centuries that we have had an economy whose mission appears to be to imbalance the metabolic commons and emaciate the future.