The international crisis

Published on Pambazuka News, by Yash Tandon, April 19, 2012.

An analysis of the relevance of concepts of ‘Common Goods’ and ‘Common Good for Humanity’ in the struggle for alternatives to neoliberal capitalism … //


  • This is not an easy question but it is an important one. If we are going to move together on a new trajectory of the ‘left’ strategy then it is fair to ask who constitutes the left; how is the left constituted; how is the left strategy going to be packaged and by whom? There may be no answers to these questions in the abstract, since the ‘identity’ of the left may be defined in the course of the struggle, or more appropriately in the course of several parallel struggles. But the questions are important and unavoidable.
  • There is sometimes an unstated assumption that ‘the left’ constitutes those who take their epistemological and pedagogical bearings from the various writings of Karl Marx (as, in terms of the general application of the method of dialectical materialism, I do), or more loosely those who subscribe to ‘socialism’ in our present epoch. In the same breath people also say that they are averse to any kind of ‘dogma’. This cautionary note is an important check on linear and abstract thinking – we must bear in mind that all struggles are dialectical and by the nature of things unpredictable. We must acknowledge that although the term ‘dogma’ is often associated with religion – especially with structured or institutionalised religions – there is no denying that ‘dogma’ has its secular side too.
  • To go back to history a bit, we know that the Crusades of the ‘middle ages’ (roughly end of the 11th to the end of 13th centuries) were garbed in the ideological clothes of religious dogma, and many atrocities were committed in the name of religion. But we also know from the experience of the Soviet Union in the 1930s and of China during the Cultural Revolution, that violations of human rights committed in the name of secular (even ‘revolutionary’) dogmas can be no less heinous. These are usually recognised – sadly – only after the fact, from a vantage posteriorai perspective.
  • Ironically, ‘secularism’ itself can become a dogma. In our own times, the ‘secular’ doctrine of the so-called ‘Washington Consensus’ (based on the economic ‘reason’ of ‘the market’) is as fundamentalist and genocidal as the crusades of yester centuries and yesteryears. I generally see myself as ‘secular; but I hold that the spiritual too has a place in human society. A wholly secular world, one that is ruled by ‘reason’ alone, could also be horrendous. These matters of ethics and epistemology raise complicated questions.



  • The distinction between Common Good and Common Goods (one in the singular, the other in the plural), as François Houtart explained, is important. The Common Good of Humanity is an all-embracing, philosophical – even existential – matter. It raises deep and weighty epistemological and ethical issues. François did not say this, but let me add that these larger concerns about ‘humanity’ cannot be answered within one philosophical, religious or ethical tradition – be it Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, any other atavistic forms of religion, or within the tradition of Marxism. I shall take the courage to venture into this cross-cultural, cross-religious discourse on ‘Common humanity’ at some more appropriate occasion in the future when I am better prepared.
  • So I limit this essay to the more manageable concept of ‘Common Goods’. A useful distinction here is between ‘common’ goods that are tangible, and those that are intangible. There are as many tangible ‘common goods’ as there are stars in the sky – speaking figuratively of course. The list is endless from land, water, and such other ‘basic necessities’ of life to the global physical environment, and global resources such as oil, forests, seeds, medicinal herbs, elephants, whales, parakeets, invertebrates (many species of all of these are threatened with extinction), and…the North Pole (also threatened). There is a healthy debate among a variety of scholars, researchers, policy makers, and international institutions about the relative merits of all of these for the title of the ‘commons’. Many have identified water as the most significant ‘common’, and I agree with this.


  • Although the word ‘commons’ goes back to antiquity (Western scholars take it back to the Greeks and inevitably to Aristotle, whereas non-Westerns to the more ancient Egyptian and Chinese civilizations, a.o.), its more recent historical use was during the eve of the industrial revolution in England when the ‘commons’ that belonged to the peasants were appropriated by an emerging agricultural and industrial bourgeoisie and ‘enclosed’ for their commercial exploitation. In more recent years the ‘commons’ has become a more generalised metaphor and an argument against the ‘over’-exploitation of finite resources for profit or commercial gain. It has also become a battle ground for the homeless and the landless poor for the loss of what they regard as part of their ‘common’ patrimony.
  • It is a long and arduous debate couched in philosophical, legal and ethical norms. It is also a seductive and emotional debate. The issues of water scarcity and of land grabs have elicited some of the most anguish and rage amongst social activists in recent years.
  • For what it is worth, I would argue, furthermore, that the word ‘commons’ when applied to depleting (or finite) resources, lends itself also to abuse. For example, in the ‘war for resources’ between competing industrializing countries, an argument is made that these resources belong to ‘common humanity’ and therefore countries have no right to limit their export just because they happen to lie within their territories. On this basis (as we are writing these words), the US, Europe and Japan have taken China to the court of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) for putting restrictions on the export of 17 rare earth minerals needed for high-tech goods such as hybrid cars, flat-screen TVs, cell phones, mercury-vapor lights, camera lenses, etc. They say China is indulging in ‘unfair trade practices’ in limiting the export of these vital resources.
  • Notwithstanding this ‘hornet’s nest’ character of the ‘commons’ (because of its endless possibility), it does not excuse the wanton exploitation of finite resources for ‘unlimited growth’. And the important point is that this is inexcusable whether this exploitation is carried out by privately owned profit-motivated corporations, or by state-owned enterprises (the latter, fraudulently, in the name of ‘socialism’). The only permissible ‘human’ value that would legitimise their exploitation is if it effectively (as opposed to rhetorically) removes human misery and poverty. In other words, it is a class question. The present wanton destruction of limited resources of the world is for the rich, the consuming upper layers of society, at the cost of those at the bottom. A case in point is the water-guzzling golf courses all over the world (including drought prone Africa) when millions have no safe water to drink, let alone to bathe and wash.



  • We have reached that point in the evolution of our ‘modernist’ (or ‘post-modernist’) civilization that we have put to risk our own humanity. We have also put to risk the only known planet in our galaxy that has life. Since it is a challenge that faces all humanity, it is necessary and important to be conscious of what divides us as human beings, and why. We are divided along the fissures of gender, race, class, tribe, nation, religion, culture, region, and so on. The divisions themselves are not a problem; on the contrary, our plurality is a reason for celebration. In our rich and colourful plurality lies our humanity. What can cause a human tragedy and an existential threat to our planet is the manner in which we resolve our differences and contradictions that are inevitable products of our divisions and history.
  • No one person or group of persons has all the answers. It is in the light of this that we need to be cautious using terms like ‘the left’ and ‘the right’ in political discourse. Of course, this division has some basis in theory and practice, and history. But they are not absolute categories, and certainly not universal. The context is important. Taking history and context in mind (and my personal experience over the last over 50 years), I have come to the conclusion – as a ‘left’ thinker and activist – that whilst the worker-capitalist contradiction defines the ‘epochal’ struggle, it cannot overshadow the ‘here and now’ struggle for our national liberation from the occupation forces of the US-EU-Japan Empire.
  • I do understand why the word ‘national’ conjures up monsters in Europe (especially with the experience of fascism and of the two world wars), but for us in Africa it is a different experience. Our battles against colonial occupation were part of our struggle for national self-determination. That struggle is not over yet. We are still under the dictation (and in many cases direct military occupation) of the Empire, even if we have nominal independence. Today the people of Greece may well share our sentiment. It is a dynamic, ever-changing, world, full of surprises.
  • It is against the background of the existential threat that our planet and us as humans face today that the words ‘common goods’ (CGs) and ‘common good for humanity’ (CGH) have appeared. They are products of our extant material and spiritual realities. They are offered as conceptual pegs to help us conceive of a better world. But they raise a host of complex questions to which there are no easy answers. This paper offers some food for thoughts.
  • Of the two concepts, the CGH is a more challenging concept, and I explain why. The CGs is a more manageable concept, but that too is full of conceptual traps of which we need to be wary. I divide the CGs between the tangibles (like land, water, etc.) and the intangibles (such as peace and knowledge). However, the debate on the intangible commons merges into issue of the common good for humanity, and I gave examples of human rights and of honour and dignity as matters that lie on the borderline between CGs and CGH. These intangibles I divide into the individual (rights and obligations of the individual human being); the community (rights and obligations of local communities); and the global (such as rights to peace and free access to knowledge, and corresponding obligations of the global community).
  • The above textual presentation of these ideas might be baffling. The following schematic presentation might capture the essence of what is in fact a complex conceptual model with porous lines between the various categories.
  • Obviously, these are still abstract categories. These need to be concretised in the hard material and social realities of our various communities, regions and circumstances. There are forces of war and deprivation that are bent recklessly to endanger world peace and put to risk the sustenance of our planet, even as they proclaim ‘human rights’ as their motivation. These false gods must be exposed for what they are. And here the vast majority of the world’s population is on the side of peace and justice. How to harness this global goodwill to build a common front against the forces of war and deprivation is a challenge that ‘the left’ – however defined in their specific conditions – must face in the months and years to come.

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