Common Goods, Socio-ecological Metabolism and the Common Future of Humanity

Gian Carlo Delgado Ramos
Thematic Paper of the Conference “From Common Goods to the Common Good of Humanity”.
Rome, 28-29 April 2011, organized by Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Brussels.

The common goods, or that heritage which is essential for the collective life of humanity and which also supports the very existence of the planet’s biological diversity, have in modern times become increasingly the object of appropriation and commercialization. The original accumulation of capital was the first step in dismantling the system of individual ownership based on labour and on the collective ownership of common goods, especially of the land. This led in its turn to private ownership of the means of production, and so to the possibility of buying up the labour of dispossessed peasants, thus establishing capitalist agriculture properly so called.
This original accumulation of capital goods became possible after the collective ownership of the land was dissolved, along with other common goods connected with it. Such dis-possession was then established as a structural element in the current production system. It was in fact a double dispossession, both of common goods and of labour, whereas the latest is understood as the human form of mediating, regulating and controlling the me-tabolism between the human being and nature.
As Marx put it, the process of labour‚ is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction (stoffwechsel) between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence.‛ (Karl Marx, Capital, Vol.1: 637-638). Because of the above, this (socio-ecological) metabolism has become more relevant as a dialectical and also analytical-conceptual tool, since it allows us to resolve the artificial – and mechanical – separation of nature and the human being which has been well established in the body of dominant knowledge in modern science, or ‘normal’ science as Kuhn understood it (1971).
Since then, this process of appropriation has modified and extended itself in time and in space, adjusting and renewing itself to adapt to whatever conditions might be necessary to prolong and deepen the capital accumulation process, thus resolving, at least temporarily, any systemic contradictions such as over-accumulation. It is thus a process in which‚ the right of ownership changes in the course of accumulation into appropriation of other people’s property‛ (Rosa Luxemburg, 2003: 432). Such appropriation is only made possible through the dispossession of others and, as Harvey points out (2003: 115) it is a permanent force in the historical geography of capital accumulation; a process that takes specific features not only within the nation-States but above all between central and peripheral nation-States.
These social-spatial relationships are not just spontaneous but are produced (within society) in obedience to the logic of furthering the accumulation of capital. Thus the territorial space is ordered in a functional manner, establishing practices, processes of organization and the planning of production, distribution and consumption. In the same way the relationships of specific and unequal powers become ‘natural’ and even 'legal', thus increasing the dispos-session still further (and hence intensifying the tragedy of the commons).
Up until now, neoliberal practice has been consolidated as, the‛ contemporary approach of appropriation of wealth and, in practice, of nature and labour, in a way that is now more aggressive and unequal than it has ever been in the history of humanity. This means that not only has the plunder of common goods been maintained and deepened and the exploitation of labour heightened, but closely associated with these developments there has been an enormous increase in the biophysical flows (or material-energy flows) in contemporary societies –though here too in a markedly unequal measure. In this process, ad hoc techno-scientific development has played a key role, influencing to a large extent not only the method, but also the rhythm, intensity and complexity of socio-ecological metabolic inter-actions, or stoffwechsel.
However, whereas this process has certainly in the short term contributed to mitigating the problem of over-accumulation, it has also shown up more clearly than ever the social and natural –relative– ‚ limits‛ of the current system of production, its contradictions and poten-tial implications which are far from behaving as linear processes. This is true, for example, for the case of environmental implications as well as for technological ones.
The result of all this is that the dynamic of capital accumulation in concrete territorial spaces is threatening the preservation of common goods, including the very viability of life – and not only human life. In other words, the effect of the present production system is increasingly and dramatically to endanger the expectations of future generations, diminishing the possibility of establishing the collective construction of the Common Good of Humanity in its multiple forms and methods.
It is precisely for this reason that territorial space is also beset by contradictions, argu-ments, conflicts and social responses, as are other forms of appropriation and its construc-tion. In the process, the issue of socio-ecological metabolism is no small matter. On the contrary, it is hugely important in any efforts to build alternatives as it enables us to analyse labour (in its various forms), taking into account the material-energy flows required and the extent of its viability, both in time and space.
It is hardly necessary to point out that the act of production is an act of producing space and as such it is a historical category that is not given for the eternity because it is indeed a social construction (Santos, 1990: 135-137).3 The way the space is produced depends not only on immediate and direct economic activities, but also on future expectations. It follows that the space dimension is not neutral, since it serves social reproduction (Ibid: 156) wher-ever it takes place.

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