Out of the Pandemic: Reverse the Plunder of the Commons

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Tackling Coronavirus (COVID-19): Contributing to a Global Effort

In a dark time, the eye focuses on Rescue. But we should not forget Resilience and Revival in what comes afterwards. In this pandemic, we must recall lessons that should have been learned from policies pursued after the last global crisis, the financial crash of 2008.

Most governments pursued variants of a strategy known colloquially as austerity. This worsened the threat of the Eight Giants blocking the way to a Good Society – Inequality, Insecurity, Debt, Stress, Precarity, Robots, Extinction and Neo-Fascist Populism. But austerity also resulted in something that has left societies without Resilience to face the pandemic – the Plunder of the Commons.

Austerity involved a policy of cutting public spending, particularly social spending. Attempts to cut budget deficits were made harder when governments also cut revenue by cutting corporation and inheritance taxes, leaving rising wealth much less taxed than income. But a lesson for the coming period is that by putting most weight on social spending cuts, our institutional resilience was corroded, thus increasing fragility to any systemic crisis.

Austerity merely accelerated the plunder of the commons. That hit the natural commons, including forests, parks, allotments, village greens, urban trees and waterways. Maintenance was neglected, privatisation and commercialisation depleted them.

The plunder has also hit the social commons, amenities that belong to all of us as commoners, including social housing, health services, care homes, refuges for women and children suffering from domestic violence, playgrounds, youth centres and public transport systems. Now, most vividly, we are seeing the frightening death rates in privatised under-resourced care homes.

There has also been erosion of our civil commons, equal access to institutions and procedures of affordable justice respecting principles of due process.

In this regard, many parts of cities and towns have been turned into what is known as POPS – privately-owned public spaces – often resulting in lost access to what had been zones of recreation and leisure. We need more public space, and yet we have been losing it.   

 

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There has also been erosion of our civil commons, equal access to institutions and procedures of affordable justice respecting principles of due process. The precariat has been denied due process in social policy increasingly oriented to means-testing and behavioural conditionalities in many OECD countries, where bureaucrats can often deny benefits without due process.

In some countries, homelessness has been criminalised. In some, governments have cut funds for legal aid. In many, privatisation of prisons has worsened over-crowding, by profit-seeking companies. Too many of us have remained silent about such trends.

 

Contagious Virtue: We need a pandemic of compassion to end homelessness by Juha Kaakinen, Y-Foundation

Then there is the erosion of the cultural commons, measured in the loss of public libraries, commercialisation of museums and art galleries, and a trend towards increased reliance on commercial sponsorship, allowing the rich to shape what is funded and what is not, leading to self-censorship by stewards of our cultural commons.

Finally, there is what should be a very worrying erosion of the knowledge commons, of which there are three components – information, education and ‘intellectual’. The information commons have shrunk, that is, access to balanced, objective, well-informed information. 

Instead we are bombarded by dis-information, funded by plutocrats and zealots, keen to manipulate.  A number of prominent tech firms have further colonised the information landscape. If we lose the information commons, our resistance to the erosion of all commons is eroded too.

 

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The education commons have been weakened too. But it is the plunder of the intellectual commons that has worsened inequalities most dramatically. Since the passage of TRIPS (Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) in 1994, many more ideas and innovations have been privatised and turned into the source of monopoly profits, lasting for 20 years or up to 40 years in the case of patents, and for life and more for copyright.

Thomas Jefferson famously said, ‘Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.’ He would scream with rage today. There are over 12 million patents in effect, many the outcome of publicly funded research. Many patents are taken out to stop production, not to boost it. Many result in horrendously expensive medicines or treatments, putting them beyond the reach of public health services and the common man and woman. 

 

Read "Why open science is critical to combatting COVID-19"

In 1955, Jonas Salk, who had just invented the polio vaccine, was asked by the iconic TV interviewer, Ed Murrow, ‘Who owns the patent on this vaccine?’ ‘Well’, said Falk, ‘the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?’ Sadly, a similar ethic in the treatment of coronavirus may not prevail in the coming months.

In sum, we must appreciate that if the diverse forms of commons are enclosed, privatised, commercialised or neglected, our social fabric is weakened, making society much more fragile, and both society and us as individuals and families less resilient to shocks. The plunder of the commons will have worsened the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. We must, at national and international levels, rebuild the commons, for the sake of all of us. The plunder must be reversed.  

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Guy Standing

Professional Research Associate, co-founder of BIEN, University of London

Guy Standing is a Professorial Research Associate at SOAS University of London and a founding member and honorary co-president of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), a non-governmental organisation that promotes a basic income for all.

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