Previously, I introduced ICIRD 2013, a Bangkok-based conference exploring issues of development, greater economic integration, and the idea of the regional commons. This blog post will delve more deeply into the background of the commons, an alternative way of organizing public goods that circumvents the hungry advance of neoliberal globalization.
By way of illustrating, one of the most pressing current issues surrounds the Mekong River, the classic example of a regional – and transboundary – commons in Southeast Asia. Crossing six countries, laden with social and historical significance, and layered with overlapping claims and uses, millions depend on its shared resources, while growing hydropower development threatens large-scale devastation and destruction of riparian ecosystems. But forms of the commons can range in scale from municipal parks and shared community fishing sites along river banks, to oceans and digital commons on the far end.
The Commons as Social and Historical
Certainly in the context of greater regional integration augured by the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), the concept of the commons becomes an increasingly important, if imperiled, way of organizing assets and resources within communities. Introducing the Focus on the Global South Round Table I, Shalmali Guttal offered the following definition of the commons: it is a collection of assets that are actively managed for the good of the collective and should be accessible by everyone. They include not only natural and physical resources, but social, cultural, political (e.g., concepts like justice) and intellectual wealth as well.
But that’s not all that the concept offers: there can be no commons without a certain type of social relations based on sharing. It’s important to remember that the commons are entwined within the history of Southeast Asia, just as its growing commodification is embedded within the larger context of globalization. As Dr. Victor Savage (National University of Singapore) mentioned in an earlier panel, historically the Southeast Asian region has lacked traditional notions of private land ownership. Here, instead, usufruct rights guaranteed the rights of access for communities, and the commons functioned as safety net and social insurance.
But over time, as Dr. Walden Bello (Member of the Philippines’ House of Representatives) reviewed, the transition to capitalism became inextricable from the plunder of non-Western societies, in a process that continues even now. He argued, for example, that the ADB and World Bank are central in enforcing ideologies of private property and codes to delegitimize communal traditions.
The tension between these divergent worldviews, one based upon the primacy of private property and the other upon the social relations upholding the commons, is ultimately not about choosing between a given set of choices, but rather about entire ideological frameworks brought together in one current, historically-informed confrontation.
Resistance and Alternatives
Pervasive throughout the ICIRD panels was the idea that everywhere the commons are being threatened by a neoliberal logic that seeks its enclosure and commercialization. The growing commodification of nature makes itself readily felt in the rise of issues like land grabbing, water privatization, and rampant hydropower development in the region, all of which were repeatedly raised in the course of the conference.
Neoliberalism, in Dr. Bello’s account, lost much of its legitimacy, due in part to the role of research organizations and scholars who documented its high human costs, as well as the internal crises of neoliberalism, erupting spectacularly in the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the global crisis in 2008. He argues that while neoliberalism has been largely discredited, the lack of alternative paradigms means that it remains a source of default strategies for technocrats.
It may be partially true that business as usual continues for lack of other competing visions. But power also incentivizes its own perpetuation. And raising alternative possibilities is one way to counter the naturalization and legitimacy of dominant neoliberal globalization as it is taking place.
In seeking alternative forms of state-community relationships, it makes sense to step back from the lens of the nation-state. Yong Ming Li’s presentation (subtitled “Seeing like a chao baan/neak tonle,” in reference to James C. Scott’s seminal tome) offers one such narrative. By shifting down to the scale of the local, social-natural relations take on a new centrality that includes “a multiplicity of grounded perspectives and practices from the chao baan (villagers) of Chiang Khong, Thailand and the neak tonle (villagers living on the Tonle Sap lake)” (from ICIRD paper abstract). These social-natural relationships defy conceptualization based solely on market relations with nature.
The role of the research and academic communities seems clear – to keep giving voice to critical analyses of the changes taking place in the region and what’s at stake. To illustrate, the “Encouraging Green Growth in Thailand” forum was based on the appealing premise that “green economies will lead to higher resource efficiency, and investments in green innovation will benefit green pioneers with new markets, higher productivity, and human capital development” (from panel summary). Yet the forum ended in a robust debate about whether green growth (with its undeniable focus on growth) represents merely another reconfiguration of capitalism being pushed towards a new frontier.
Ultimately, as former Philippines Senator Dr. Orlando S. Mercado (who holds the distinction of being the first permanent representative of the country to ASEAN) told me after the Focus panel:
“We have to struggle to have our voices heard. But we should not only just be making our voices heard. We have to be able to move within the system to affect changes by taking advantage of various crises that erupt. To me, as a scholar interested in disaster mis-management, I feel that the cause of protecting the commons is served very well by making sure that each crisis, each disaster, each calamity, is taken advantage of to show that there must be people championing the cause of those who are adversely affected by its lack of management and the privatization that is ongoing as a consequence of economic development – all on the altar of creating a community that is ‘prosperous’.”