The Life-Ground, the Civil Commons and the Corporate Male Gang | Prof John McMurtry (2001)

John McMurtry (2001) The Life-Ground, the Civil Commons and the Corporate Male Gang, Canadian Journal of Development Studies / Revue canadienne d’études du développement, 22:4, 819-854, DOI: 10.1080/02255189.2001.9669944

Reproduced from:

The Life-Ground, the Civil Commons and the Corporate Male Gang

John McMurtry

Canadian Journal of Development Studies, VOLUME XXII, SPECIAL ISSUE 2001


Scientific and everyday language have long lacked generic concepts to identify the market’s underlying systems of natural and social reproduction. In consequence, expropriation and destruction of these ecological and civil infrastructures by monetised capital expansion has evaded understanding. This investigation provides the conceptual bearings required to understand what has occurred and its modes of resolution by explanation of the long overlooked “life-ground” and “civil commons”; their evolving “social immune system”; and a “life-value calculus” whereby to assess authentic social development and retardation. At the same time, the analysis explains the causal structure behind a world-wide degradation and confiscation of life infrastructures whose principal victims and resisters are unwaged women. Finally, the argument distinguishes the civil commons and the life-ground from notions of “the global commons”, “the life-world” of Habermas, and the now dominant concept of “civil society.” Throughout, the analysis draws on real-life examples to demonstrate deep infrastructures of human life advance and regression which have eluded the received paradigms of social and political analysis.


Depuis bien longtemps, il manque dans le langage scientifique quotidien de notions générals pour identifier les systèmes de la reproduction naturlle et sociale qui sont à la base du marché. Par conséquent, l’expropriation et la destruction des ces infrastructures écologiques et civiles par l’expansion du capital monétaire échappent à la comprehension. Pour expliquer ce phénoène et ces modes de résolution actuels, cette étude fournit une base conceptuelle des notions ignorées depuis longtemps, telles que la «base vitale», la «commune civile», le «système immunitaire social» qui en émerge, et le «calcul des valeurs vitales», notions par lesquelles on évalue le vrai développement social ou le retard. Par ailleurs, l’analyse démontre la structure causale entre la dégradation mondiale et la confiscation des infrastructures vitales dont les principales victimes et opposantes sont les femmes au travail non rémunéré. Enfin, l’analyse différencie la notion de la commune civile et de la base vitale de celles des «biens publics globaux», du «monde de la vie» de Habermas, et de la «société civile» qui dominent dans le discours présent. L’analyse se sert des exemples actuels pour illustrer les infrastructures profondes des progrès et des reculs de la vie humaine qui ont échappé aux paradigmes de l’analyse sociale et politique actuelle.


The civil commons can be defined as any co-operative human construct that enables the access of all members of a community to life goods. Like everyday language, which is its base, the civil commons is normally presupposed as a given order of the world. It is also conflated in this way with what is not the civil commons – ancestral tradition, custom and law which are all assumed as the fabric of everyday life, “our way of life.” There is no greater inertial block to social development than this conflation. It blinkers out the distinctive nature of the civil commons ground.

A social practice, institution or obligation only qualifies for the civil commons insofar as its implementation in fact gives its social members universal access to life goods. Thus the instituted belief that one’s own society’s hierarchy of privilege is specially favoured by divine design is not a civil commons formation, nor is any customary practice like rite-of-passage mutilation or “natural rate of unemployment” that may be assumed as ultimately necessary and good, but is, in fact, systematically life-disabling.

On the other hand, a society’s instituted provisions of means of life for those in need, for example the old and the ill, are quintessentially civil com­mons constructs. So are environmentally sustaining regulations that recognize and protect, by force of law, the life-values of natural commons. A founda­tional distinction arises here. The regulatory inhibitions protecting natural commons as sources of life goods make the natural commons a civil commons – a distinction that has been fatefully overlooked in historical and social sci­entific literature.1

Because the civil commons of a society is usually assumed as an everyday substratum of life by its members, there is little recognition of it. In fact, a powerful vested interest combats this recognition as an unspoken threat to dominant privileges – especially if some own a great deal of private property while many go homeless or starve.2 Consequently, in any society of oppres­sive inequalities, the civil commons is blocked from view by official represen­tations, or denounced as “unaffordable” or “socialist.”

The fatal flaw of the dominant global market mind-set today is that it can­not, in principle, see the common life-interest which is the regulating base of the civil commons. This is because it cannot think past profit and priced com­modities as a way of providing people with goods. In consequence, the mar­ket value-set cannot recognize the defence and the production of otherwise scarce means of life as the meaning of an economy. Accordingly, the civil com­mons infrastructures of non-capitalist economic formations have been the objects of genocidal invasion and war for five hundred years – from the continuous enclosures of the natural commons for centuries in Britain and its imperial colonies, through the age of the inter-continental slave trade, to the stripping of social sectors and public regulatory systems in the world with the post-1980 era of transnational privatization and corporate globalization.3


When Margaret Thatcher said, “Society does not exist, only individuals and their families do,” she expressed the market metaphysic of atomic and self­-seeking market agents by which the globalization ideology is programmed – a value-set in which the civil commons snuffed out a priori. At its most life-blind, this mind-set repudiates any civilly protected life-good that does not yield profit as a socialist provocation – “regulatory invasion,” “tax expropria­tion,” “obstruction of the market,” and so on. The demands of the corporate market absolutism become warlike the more independent a society is in pro­viding non-priced goods and life-spaces free of for-profit occupation. This deep-structural conflict of interest is an unseen war on society across such phenomena as the death squads in the Third World and the destruction of the welfare state.4

Although civil commons institutions like national banks that loan to gov­ernments at low interest in place of private bondholders, public broadcasting without advertisers’ financial control, public management of natural resource extraction, and public health insurance and tuition-free education all work very well for the common life interest, they also block out profitable control of these lucrative resources and markets for the corporate sector. In the major­ity world, community land title, political mobilization of the poor, union organization and, above all, public ownership of natural resources have been deemed “communist,” and their leaders targeted for assassination.


Yet no market can survive or flourish for long without the underlying life infrastructure of the civil commons sustaining its social life-host – as the les­son of the gigantically failed capitalist experiment in the ex-Soviet Union shows. The civil commons remains, nonetheless, unrecognized and untheo­rized as the unifying infrastructure of every successful social order through history. It does not even have a name.

Undefined vague categories of the welfare state on the one hand, or social capital on the other, symptomize the problem. Their ubiquitous usage comes with no criterion to distinguish the life-serving civil commons from corpo­ate subsidy schemes or bureaucratic empire-building masked in phrases of the public interest. In particular, no principle of distinction has been available to pick out public expenditures which enable citizens with vital means of life (the civil commons) from state outlays which merely bleed or oppress the cit­izenry with no gain in their actual life capabilities (eg., rug-ranking hierarchies, non-defensive military systems, or public pork barrels for dominant political parties).5 Even market-critical social theory lacks a category by which to identify this underpinning life infrastructure of societies, and, more deeply, a general principle by which to distinguish expenditures on it from structures of state repression and bureaucratic waste.6

The problem of civil commons blindness is therefore tridimensional: the unconscious presupposition of its means of life as an everyday given, selec­tion against its community-owned resources by dominant private property and profit interests, and a general theoretical underdevelopment in matters of unpriced life-means sustaining daily existence. Even Marx’s wage-centred par­adigm is blind to the latter.7 The life infrastructure of the civil commons has in these ways remained blocked from conscious identification or recognition of its underlying normative ground of effective social life-organization across cultures and life domains.


The problem is, at bottom, a market-induced block against seeing what is there. As long evolved and shared life-goods of universally accessible clean air and water, healthcare and education, public assistance and housing, commu­nity culture and communications, collective walkways and transit, and biodi­verse life-spaces are rapidly degraded or stripped across the globe by a cor­porately-led program of defunding and privatization, there is no unifying concept by which to comprehend or to defend what is, in fact, being invaded and overrun. It is as if a society were to be occupied and its social life base appropriated and dismantled by a foreign invasion it cannot recognize because it cannot comprehend its own deepest structures of community life-organization. Marxian thought, ironically, conforms to this blocking out of the civil commons insofar as its theoretical base is productive forces and class struggle, not the social and environmental life-ground underlying both. Liberal thought is in principle far blinder because it is a doctrine for maxi­mally limiting the powers of the collective, and granting ultimate sovereignty to rights of private property.8 These rights, in turn, no longer have any grounding at all in whether they protect or enable the actual life needs and capacities of community members.9

In these ways, society’s life-ground of reproduction has been effectively lost in a conceptual amnesia. At the root of the blindness is a dominant economic paradigm which has no life coordinates in its econometrics of input and out­put revenues. While its ruling value of monetized growth escalates velocities and volumes of private money demand and strip-mines ecosystems and domestic economies across the planet, its value calculus cannot discern any problem. This is because the market paradigm has no life parameters of judge­ment by which to recognize the disorder.10



Before this time the towns about London – had so enclosed the common fields with hedges and ditches, that neither the young men of the city might shoot, nor the ancient persons might walk for their pleasure in the fields, except their bows be taken away […] or honest persons arrested or indicted […] a great number of the city assembled themselves in a morning, and a turner in a fool’s coat came crying through the city, “Shovels and spades!” and so many people followed that it was a wonder, and within a short space all the hedge walls about the towns were cast down, and the ditches filled, and everything made plain, the workmen were so diligent […] and so after the fields were never hedged. (cited from Hall 1984, p. 106-107)

Here the natural commons become the social construct of the civil com­mons so far as natural conditions of life are protected for universal access to their life goods by all members of the community – in this case by a sponta­neous collective uprising against private enclosures “that were never hedged after.” If the young men with bows and arrows were themselves to privately appropriate the life goods of this socially protected commons so as to dimin­ish its reproduction of natural life values, then, to that extent, these young men would have violated the civil commons, both as food providers and as host of fellow creatures’ lives.


During the long dry seasons in the far north west of Kenya, the people of the Turkwel River keep themselves alive by feeding their goats on the pods of the aca­cia trees growing on its banks. […] The acacia woods are a common: a resource owned by many families. Like all the commons of the Turkana people, they are controlled with fierce determination. (Monbiot 1994)

Here again we can distinguish between the natural commons as an ecolog­ically given land or resource and the civil commons that effectively protects it and life means, and ensures access of community members to its continuing vital means of existence. As with the traditional village commons of England before their private appropriation by agribusiness capitalism, the Kenyan aca­cia trees of the Turkwel River were regulated to sustain their provision of life goods for all. Here too, rationing defence of this communal access to natural means of life was an essential social construct for their reproduction through time – exactly the opposite structure of the commons projected onto it by the market ideology of privatization for protection (see note 1).

In both Kenya and England cases of the civil commons in rudimentary form, there were strict community rules or customs to ensure both that the natural resources were preserved and that there was continued access of all members of the community to their life wealth. In the English commons, for example, there was an effectively binding rule that a commoner could only turn out as many head of livestock to the shared pasture as were kept in the household corral over the winter. This is the nature of the civil commons in its earlier forms, still conceived as the commons – or now with planetary ecosystem parameters, the global commons. It becomes civil commons insofar as the common life-good for which it provides is effectively protected by soci­ety from privatization or destruction.11

The global commons is a recent coinage and fails as much as past commons concepts to recognize this protective dimension that is all-important to the sustainability of shared life means.12 The us-led failure of the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change and its simultaneous exclusionary militarization of space make this deep-structural pattern of privatization and destruction all too clear underneath official market ideology and representations.13

C. COSTA RICA (1941-80)

The Calderonista-Catholic-Communist alliance reflected […] a convergence of interests […] in an unusual historical conjuncture. […] The social security legis­lation passed in 1941 laid the groundwork for a national medical care system and provided obligatory health, disability, retirement, unemployment, maternity, and life-insurance – for salaries below 300 colones […]. The ‘Social Guarantees’ [a year later] included the formal creation of a national healthcare system, a broader sys­tem of retirement and disability pensions […] a low-cost housing program – a new Labor Code – minimum wage commission […]. The 1948 civil war [won by the social democrat party] – repressed the defeated communists and calderonistas as well as organized labor [but] – institutionalized the reform process […] with a 10% tax on capital – constitutional prohibition of a standing army[…] [and] shatter[ed] the economic stranglehold of the powerful agro-export and banking families[…] purchasing grain from farmers at guaranteed prices[…] [and con­structing] retail outlets providing low-cost foods […]. By the late 1970’s, roughly one-third of all agricultural producers belonged to cooperatives [which with] a variety of public and cooperative research and extension institutions gave Costa Rica the highest per hectare yields in the world and assured that coffee produc­tion remained profitable in even times of depressed prices […]. By 1980, a remarkable 27% of the population of university-student age was enrolled in 30 institutions of higher learning – a large-scale program of family assistance […] established healthcare programs in rural zones and provided virtually all low­ income students with nutritious hot meals. (Edelmann 1999, p. 53-56)

I will not, here, labour the post-1980 attacks on this evolving civil com­mons of Costa Rica, except to observe that they were, by far, the same devices of civil commons stripping as elsewhere in the world – trebled oil prices, imposed debt crisis by us-multiplied compound-interest rates, and IMF and World Bank loans to pay high debt loads on condition of privatizing reforms.14

Global market advocates endlessly contend that all such government pro­grams required restructuring for efficiency. However, the case of Costa Rica dis­closes the opposite – just as comparisons of Russia or Nicaragua or Yugoslavia before and after the private capitalization of their economies demonstrate more strikingly. Costa Rica’s people were far more aware of this pattern of fact than state and market planners. Their civil commons fightbacks included a two-week public occupation of the streets in April 2000 to successfully reverse a government decision to privatize the nation’s publicly owned elec­trical-power system, the Costa Rica Institute of Electricity. A bill was passed at the same time to include rights for transnational corporate access to and control of the genetic codes of Costa Rica’s tropical-forest flora and fauna. (Rogers 2000, p. 2-5)

In overview, what is of particular explanatory interest in these examples is that an underlying and unifying logic links very different cases of civil com­mons constructions across times, cultures and instances. All are structured to enable society’s members a universal access to one or another vital means of life or life good in some form – a life good being formally distinguished from a commodity by (1) its freedom from price barrier, and (2) its property of enabling vital life-capabilities.

Civil commons means of life are characterized by the following features. All are life-serving structures which reproduction is regulated by considera­tion of life rather than production or price gains. All are non-utopian, func­tional structures of cooperative, non-profit economic organization of the common life interest of society. And all are, predictably, attacked by corpo­rate-state policies of defunding and by mass media vilification as “wasteful cost burdens.”

In sum, the organizing idea of the civil commons integrates all of society’s protection and provision of unpriced life goods into a common supporting structure of social meaning shared by all cultures. The civil commons is, we might say, the long-missing link between the is of economic organization for ever-accumulating private-profit maximization, on the one hand, and the ought of social organization for citizens’ vital life-needs and capacities, on the other. But unlike utopian and revolutionary ideals with which we are famil­iar, the civil commons is a long-evolved historical fact underlying our present without any received category to designate it.


The roots of the civil commons are deeply entrenched. They begin with the origins of language itself, the prototype and model of both humanity’s and the civil commons’ evolution. The language of everyday life and community interaction is not only a ground and model of the civil commons, but its prime medium and universal organizer of human understanding. We know little of the origins of language, but most agree it distinguishes human social organization. The ability to communicate the properties, locations and rela­tions of the world’s creatures, plants and minerals by symbolic universals – food to eat, water and game sources, places to go or not, names of individual members and so on – confers on humanity its greatest advantage of life repro­duction, enjoyment and expression. From the beginning, language has been the species’ most important distinguishing tool. It is also the communicative field of humanity’s evolving individual and social ideas, projects and cre­ations. Its second-order world of signs, meanings and organizing concepts has lifted the species onto another ontological plane.

What is most important about the nature of language for our understand­ing of human society and its development is something philosophers and sci­entists have failed to register. The signs and syntaxes of a language become ever richer for each the more others use and share them. Language is thus a moving margin of life-range, deepening and broadening the more people have and use it in common. Without its shared use, it becomes a dead language. Confined to a class or priest caste in its written form, as it has been through history, a language loses its powers of communication in direct proportion to its confinement. This has been seen in the past with the court-monopolized languages of Sanskrit, Latin and Norman French. Today, the civil commons of language is controlled in its public expression by a corporate agenda of copyright and dissemination that selects only what might profit corporate stockholders. It is thus debased into a conditioning mechanism of ad imper­atives and slogans rather than being the interactive field of meaning that defines us as humans.

The more the wealth of a language is accessible and disseminated to every­ one, the more individual people are able to communicate by its expressive resources. The more they are able to differentiate and extend their conscious lives by the self-directed exchanges of its symbols and structures. In contrast, the global market system constructs, selects and communicates language’s constructions only so far as they maximize shareholders’ profits, increasingly deforming it into a one-way propaganda of sectarian signals.

Language is, in this way, a model of the civil commons insofar as it grows in value for each the more it is universally accessible and shared by all. Yet, this is not a property of language that· has been observed in numberless learned works on language. This lost consciousness of language’s underlying nature as the communal basis of individuality is representative. Individuating wealth in common property is incoceivable to the metaphysic of the market. It can only comprehend the individual through what he or she appropriates in priced goods and private profit. “Market man,” as Gauthier (1986, p. 177) declares in basing his morality on its principle, “always seeks more.”

The market’s inner logic has been applied to the very conditions of life itself. As a consequence, the global commons of the air, the atmosphere and the oceans have become industrial sinks, while the world’s forests and ocean habitats have been invaded and occupied as moving reserves of privatized stripping and extraction. At the same time, societies themselves have become increasingly restructured as corporate instruments and resource sites, and the genetic structures of life-forms themselves patented as private monopolies.15 But neither theory nor popular consciousness registers the civil commons’ meaning as the common life-ground that underlies human individuation. Conversely, it does not recognize the systemic threat to life individuation by the homogenizing prescriptions of global marketization masked as an agenda of “individual freedom.”


As we have observed, language is the primary layer of the civil commons. However, social life-organizations have always survived because they have evolved a multi-level system of institutional structures that protect and facil­itate the lives of all their members. From the beginning of human culture, these social immune institutions have regulated the members’ lives and func­tions so as to prevent or to expel what is perceived as dangerous to the com­munity’s health and well-being. Whether in ancient Jewish or Egyptian or Hindu or Melanesian societies, we find this underlying structure of organiza­tion as a cultural universal of enduring human social orders.

Despite the primitive nature of the early development of these regulatory systems, their overriding organizing principle of keeping the unclean away from the clean to protect the social body from life-threatening disorders had many effective functions of social body defence.16 For example, infected or toxic or dysfunctional food products and practices were excluded from con­tact, ingestion or adoption, thereby preserving both individual and commu­nity life-hosts from infectious agents, poisons and maladaptive features. Even taboos, which contemporary medical science wrongly supposes as harmful to social welfare,17 are typically prohibitions surrounding the chief acts of life that have a life-protective value. Strict prohibitions against contact with corpses, or against harsh treatment of infants, or against promiscuous genital penetration, or against water-wasting livestock like pigs in desert regions have all given social-body defences to society and its members.

The invasion and spread of contagions in tribal societies were, in this way, an embryonic form of immune recognition on the social level of life-organi­zation. It is, we argue, the defining nature of the civil commons to develop blind customs into effective social-immune competences. In contrast, social institutions that are not life-protective but life-destructive, as military insti­tutions of mass sacrifice or free markets in children’s lives, are not the civil commons, but its opposite. Such cultural disorders are precisely what the civil commons is structured to prevent as a regulating norm of human develop­ment, however much these pathologic structures may be revered as “our way of life.” Since most life-destructive disorders of social organization are insti­tuted to privilege a sect of the community, we see here an unseen meta-oppo­sition within social institutions through history: the principles of the civil commons versus the principles of factional right to special privilege. Marx conceived this as an objective class opposition of productive workers and exploiting owners. But this is too narrow a concept because it misses the wider opposition of values at work.18

A core strand of the civil commons is socially understood science. In its lead forms, it develops exact principles of test and falsification of what actually pre­vents disease, trauma or depredation of human and non-human life-hosts (e.g., rules of hygiene). Scientific public health systems, for example, origi­nated in European city centres over two centuries ago. Their purpose was to respond to masses of propertyless humanity in urban markets. Its deprived life conditions caused a host of deadly social threats of runaway sewage, pol­luted water supplies, adulterated food products, contagious diseases, homeless people and abandoned children without familial or civil commons support systems – the very same kinds of degradation we see growing again in the “global free market” today.

In recognition of these dangers to the lives of society’s members, the mod­ern civil commons evolved in response. Increasingly universal life-protective programs and infrastructures were consciously developed and instituted. These include hygiene and sanitation systems of water supply, drainage and sewage (all being variously privatized again); isolation and regulation of dis­ease-bearing slaughterhouses and cemeteries, and of infected life-hosts; devel­opment of medical societies, corps of doctors, clinics and society-wide sys­tems of distribution of inoculations and vaccinations for recurrent diseases; and, despite fierce resistance from the privileged ones benefiting from market arrangements of disease and cure, the evolution of universal health-care sys­tems and unpriced treatment of the ill and disabled (revealingly not yet achieved in the civil-commons backward, but market-leading USA).19 Women often led this great social development. For example, in the case of the cholera outbreaks in London in the 1850s, women campaigned successfully to demand that the authorities ensure by public ownership the extension of clean-water pipes to the poorer districts of the city. As in other civil commons developments, it has been the gender-specific function of women to lead the mutual-support relations of the civil commons in the wider family of the community.

Subsequent to the introduction of sanitary infrastructures and public health programs, a long development of non-profit social institutions further con­stituted the civil commons of the industrial age, regulating the market despite an endless ideology of invalidation of non-profit public enterprises. So far as I know, there is no history or study of these strikingly successful public enter­prises as an historical pattern over centuries, so one has to deduce them from the present from beneath market culture’s instituted blindness to the value of these civil commons formations. Over time, public regulations were clearly instituted to ensure the purity of food and milk as well as water supplies; inspection, disinfestation and condemnation of private as well as public struc­tures deemed to be health hazards; the construction and maintenance of com­munity systems of waste and garbage disposal; systematic testing, inspecting and screening of commercial products to validate their safety for human use and consumption; formation of publicly enforced workplace standards in pri­vate factories and places of business; provision of public centres, walkways and parks to ensure non-priced enjoyments of free movement and life spaces; and development over generations of non-profit public libraries, museums and education systems accessible to all and managed by public servants for whom price or profit demands would constitute a criminal offence. Quiet spaces free of corporate commodity machines, however, have almost been anni­hilated altogether without notice of what has happened.20

Let us reflect upon the full range and depth of the architectonic infra­structure of evolved non-profit public enterprises protecting and facilitating the lives of all citizens free of profit tribute. Let us also examine both the qual­ity of infrastructure’s long-term achievements and its dramatically lower life­ costs compared to the market. In so doing, we are left with a picture of pub­lic-sector efficiency, durability and good management. This is the very oppo­site of what is pervasively asserted by corporate market propaganda. In this light, we can see that market imperatives of deregulation and privatization are, in effect, campaigns to reverse historical human evolution. Public enterprise is, in truth, a far more efficient system of production and distribution of life goods than the corporate market in every area in which it has been permitted to democratically develop.21 Yet the short-term accounting parameters, for­ profit management, cheap methods and self-maximizing priorities of the market model are still asserted as “more efficient” in the face of overwhelm­ing evidence to the contrary. Since life-values are excluded from the market’s monetary computation, which lacks even a concept that refers to life needs, the doctrinal culture is correspondingly decoupled, and so can see no prob­lem.22 What its prescriptions effectively demand is an abolition of human society.

With all of the subsystems of the civil commons we may excavate, there is one unifying principle in opposition to the corporate value-set. Not one civil commons institution or practice is instituted or financed to generate money profit for private investors. All are publicly formed over time to protect and enhance the lives of community members as a value in itself. There is, how­ever, no distinction to recognize this profound opposition within even govern­ment expenditures. State activities and outlays are increasingly funded and structured to serve corporate interests before all else – virtually all of the expenditures and subsidies on natural resource access, extraction, production and regular use, on air transportation, on armed forces abroad, on armament procurements, on diplomatic offices and negotiations; and most of the expen­ditures on political consultations, on penal and higher civil court systems, on heavy-gauge highways, and on police forces and prisons.

There is not just one state. In today’s world, there are two: a state for pri­vate corporations, and a state for the public life-interest. The former serves the interests of the dominant agents of the global corporate system and is increas­ingly prioritized (for example in Europe and Canada as “the economic union“). The latter protects or enhances the lives of its citizens and is increasingly sub­ordinated and defunded (“the social union“). Yet the oppositions between the requirements of the citizenry’s life economy and the market economy have been effectively repressed. Distinction between society’s expenditures that serve private money interests and expenditures that serve the common life interest does not yet exist in the analyses of economic science.23


Life is not a given, but always a conditional process. That is, it is a process that requires a complex set of conditions to continue as life. Buddha recognized this principle of our existence as pratityasamutpada, which means that every­ thing depends on everything else at once and in unison. We need to under­ stand this principle of planetary interdependency well, because the main problem of the global market system is that its economic paradigm is blind to this conditionality of all life, conceiving of “the real world” as decoupled transactions among self-maximizing buyers and sellers who look only to commodity prices and maximum returns for themselves.

Reality is more complex. Life is always a conditional sequence in which the beginning and ending terms of any extent of it are mediated by countless means of life it requires to continue and reproduce as life. Here we refer not only to priced means of life, which can be bought in the market if one pos­sesses the money-demand to pay. We refer also and more basically to the unpriced means of life of nature, such as clean air and sunlight, and of com­munity construction, such as language, social nurture and acceptance, and education.

The unfolding of the life process at all the levels of its possibility is what we can call the life sequence of value. This life sequence of value is infinitely complex in its variations and complexities, but can be formal­ized as follows:

Life → Means of Life → More Life (L → MofL → L1)

The civil commons is constituted of institutions that protect and facilitate citizens’ lives by ensuring universal access to those means of life that are the middle term between each moment of life and its reproduction and growth as more life. There are two general kinds of life-means that sustain the life sequence: protective life-means (e.g., regulatory systems for clean air, water, food, and safe working conditions), and enabling life-means (e.g., universal education, public art and architecture and open environmental spaces).

Civil commons institutions that secure these means of life for all citizens bridge the artificial dichotomy of individual versus society which has been pro­mulgated by liberal theory over 300 years. Civil commons formations ensure, that is, the non-priced means of life which protect and enable individuals. Without them, the individual cannot express herself or himself as an individ­ual. One must first breathe clean air, have access to clean water, be protected from circulating disease and criminal assault, and have access to the tools of literacy before one can individuate. Only the civil commons ensures these conditions for individual life and expression. With insufficient money­ demand to buy what they need, many lack the food, lodging and healthcare required to be individuals.

It is perhaps the most striking absurdity in the history of human thought that what enables individual members of a community to individuate with­out insecurity, deprivation or subjugation to others’ command is claimed to be opposed to individuality because it is not a priced commodity for profit. Just as remarkable has been the assumption that what in fact abolishes indi­vidual life and freedom for everyone without money demand, the market sys­tem of priced exchange, is the sole foundation of individual freedom. We see in such cases the profound incoherence of principles that regulates the mind­ set of corporate market culture.

As we have argued, the formula

Life → Means of Life → More Life (L → MofL → L1)

is the underlying principle defining the normative structure of the civil com­mons. The civil commons always, in one way or another, ensures its realiza­tion for each individual of the community. But what do life and means of life exactly mean? As we know, many who focus their attention solely on a ges­tating development within a woman’s uterus tirelessly proclaim that they are “pro-life;’ while in fact they override the rights of life of the life-host herself as well as the society that must cope with an unwanted child. If we are to avoid such deformed conceptions, we need to know more precisely what we mean by “life.”

By “life,” we refer specifically to self-organizing sentient life. Self-organizing sentient life, in turn, is life which can move, feel and – in the case of humans – think in concepts as well as images. These three planes of being – (1) organic movement, (2) sensation and feeling, (3) conceptual and image thought – are, in truth, the ground of all terrestrial value whatever. That is, there is no value that exists that is not such by virtue of bearing or contributing to one or more of these planes of life participation and enjoyment.

Even the postmodernist is constrained to agree. For the principle of mul­tiplying difference to which the postmodernist is committed presupposes these underlying fields of value as the ground of what is differentiated. No matter how far we go with the testing of this shared life-ground, there is no real value which does not derive all of its value from bearing and expressing one or more of these fields of vital life. That this value ground is not recognized by any tra­ditional or existing economic or value theory is an indicator of our intellec­tual loss of bearings.

Means of life can be defined as whatever allows life to be preserved or to extend its vital range on these planes of being alive. Breathable air, nutritious food, clean water, adequate shelter, effective interaction, variety and space of environmental surroundings, health care when sick and accessible learning conditions are basic means of life. They are called basic because without any one of them, human life is known to be reduced in its capabilities by precise degrees of loss that health professionals, educators and social scientists inves­tigate and report on. Disease, impairment or death over time are the conse­quences of continued deprivation of these means of life. A person collapses and dies in minutes without oxygen or in very polluted conditions, in days or less without water, in not much longer without food, and so on. All this is more or less exactly known, whatever the cultural differences of those without breathable air, vitamin-bearing food or unpolluted water. The investment cir­cuit of the civil commons is, then, what recognizes and responds to the needs of its members for such means of life – not only protective, but enabling life goods, at best across the fields of life-bearing and expression. A life economy’s logic of investment is to net more comprehensive life rather than more money income at the end of each reproduction of its circuit. Money in this life-sov­ereign order returns to its proper value function when it is a means of exchange to produce or access means of life, not the means to produce and access more money-demand. The latter ordering of priorities eventually leads to what may be called the death economy (see McMurtry 1999a).

Basic means of life are complemented in their necessity by countless other conditions of life, which are typically presupposed or ruled out of attention by the confinement of the dominant market paradigm to money values. In consequence, these non-monetary values can be degraded or despoiled by massive pollutions, extractions and exploitations without any deficits what­ ever registering in the monetized accounts of states or corporations. But basic and background means of life must be somehow sustained and available to humans for their life sequences to reproduce and grow rather than decline or die. To reproduce life is not simply for a body or bodies to go on living. It is to maintain life ranges of capability – of thinking, of acting, and of feeling with in all the very rich and complex parameters of each of these fields of being human.24 For example, it is false to think that a generation is being reproduced in its organic capabilities when, as now, ever more children are malnourished and illiterate in most of the world. Also, when the saturation of the world’s richest junk-food market leads to a doubling of obesity rates in less than a decade in “the world’s leading economy.”25 Here life-value is being depredated, not increased, whatever global market figures or monetized growth may mis­lead us into supposing.

In general, to reduce life-value is to diminish or to extinguish any domain of vital life capability, whether it be cognitive, emotional or physical. This is the bottom line of the life-value metric, and it can be identified by social as well as individual indicators. Market figures do not register either. For this rea­son, the global market paradigm is life-blind in principle. To increase global corporate trade, for example, has dictated the radical reduction of public health and education financing as well as environmental protection systems around the globe, while opening up their public funds as procurement mar­kets for foreign corporations.26 This is why when we examine the many fronts of opposition to this corporate market system, we will find that underlying their diversity of standpoint is a single unifying principle of concern: that life’s reproduction and growth matter more than the reproduction and growth of monetized trade and profit, and that corporate and life systems are not mutu­ally reinforcing, but are increasingly in deadly conflict. Opposition to the global corporate system in all particularities and differences of individual and culture is in this way motivated by an underlying life code of value.

The life sequence of value not only reproduces by the middle term of means of life. It also extends life capabilities to greater ranges of vital life function. To increase life-value in this way is to increase or deepen organic capabilities of both individuals and societies to a broader scope – as in education, which root meaning is “to cause to grow.” But what indicators of this growth of life­ value do we find anywhere since the restructuring of economies for ever more global trade and profit have been selected for since 1980? At both the human and the environmental levels, the pattern of almost all life indicators has been downwards. This is particularly so at the environmental level where species extinction is now over 1000 times greater than the evolutionary background rate, and forest, fish and water habitats and stocks have precipitously fallen or collapsed.27

Greater or lesser ranges of being alive on the micro or macro level are the truly defining parameters of all value and disvalue. This remains the princi­ple of the real common interest whatever scale of judgement we care to analyse. Only by such a life-value parametric is the true growth or decline of societies and economies identified. But no country or international trade region has yet constructed a life-value index of its reproduction. Deteriorating global life-indicators in species diversity, atmospheric stability, water, soil, forest, fishstock and air quality, and the civil commons infrastructures pro­tecting these do not register in the market calculus. On the contrary, life value is systematically confused with money value – with measures of economic welfare being consumers’ spending more money, or commodity trade increas­ing between countries. But life registers its gains and losses on its bearers alto­gether independently of increases in consumer demand or global trade. This seems like a simple point, but it is blocked out by the market metric and by public policy following it. Having money may certainly be a condition of hav­ing access to means of life in a market society. But even if it is held in suffi­cient quantities, even for the decreasing minority who have enough money to spend, this monetary possession does not ensure vital life reproduction or growth. The global market may be, and increasingly in fact is, dominated by ever more unnourishing food, polluted air, saturating noise levels, alienated civil relations, mindless entertainment, iatrogenic pharmaceuticals, and a demolished life-environment. Yet the more economic growth registers in money value, the better off life conditions are assumed to be. This inversion of reality is a form of cultural insanity.

Increased incomes for all, the ultimate solution of global market advocates, do not therefore ensure, but militate against a better life for the world’s peo­ples. The truth is that money-demand has no connection or correspondence with life coordinates in any market paradigm; and, in truth, their growth requirements are in escalating conflict – as the evidence demonstrates with ecosystem services. But since there is no life-value or civil commons measure by which economies are now judged in the global corporate market, its demands can unravel the life-webs of the planet with no indicators to recognize the problem. Its “growth” and “development” can, in reality, be the cumu­lative despoliation of the world, as we see around us in weather destabiliza­tion, carcinogenic solar radiation, extinction spasms, and crisis degradation and depletion of water supplies, arable soil, aquatic life, and forest habitats and root-systems.

We may summarize by a single general principle and its converse. An econ­omy succeeds in reality rather than in claim to the extent that life’s ranges of vital being are maintained and/or increased for its members. It fails to the extent that the opposite occurs, and the life of its members or their environmental life-host degrades and/or declines on these planes of life capability and enjoy­ment. An economic system becomes a death economy to the extent that life is rapidly reduced and destroyed in its forms at the levels of species, cultures and individual life capabilities.


Although the parameters of the life code of value are not computed in the industrial market paradigm, their lines of quality and quantity reveal to what extent an economy serves, or violates, society’s life means and conditions. These parameters of the life economy are not mysterious or opaque. Even very small reductions of the vital range of breath, feeling, organ or limb are nor­mally experienced on the individual level as something wrong, whether or not they register in the priced transactions of an economic metric. The measure of life-value is exactly calibratable in its gains and losses. The entire corpus of scientific medicine, for example, can be understood as the development of ways and means of assessing and responding to deficits of normal life ranges – mainly, by diagnosing disease and prescribing treatment for the deficits of those life ranges.

Similarly, every principle and practice of formal education can be decoded as the process of judging and enabling more comprehensive levels of think­ing across defined breadths and depths of cognition. Yet again, environmental protection can be understood as the body of practices that effectively defend the evolved scopes of life of the species and ecosystems around us. One could unfold the accomplished measures of life-value in all of these domains of its protection and increase as far as there are findings, deploying the unifying principle of vital life-range function across levels and divisions of analysis. One may review the life-system principles just formalized for health care, edu­cation and environmental protection to test this general contention. All of these domains of life sustainment and growth are hallmark subsystems of the civil commons, but, in principle, none can develop as universal goods for human communities by any price and profit mechanism.

In general, from the standpoint of the life-ground of value, the more of life’s breadths and depths are reproduced and extended, the better the objec­ tive condition. Conversely, the more of these life domains are reduced or lost, the worse is the objective condition. The predicament of global civil society today is that public health, educational and environmental expenditures to realize these macro-life sequences of value have been increasingly defunded throughout the world, in accordance with the demands of the corporate mar­ket paradigm of value.

Theoretically sustaining the life-blind market econometric is a currently fashionable belief in the academic and corporate boardrooms that blocks this life basis of the civil commons from being understood. It is the belief that human need cannot be defined; that what is one’s need is another’s desire; that need is an inherently culture-bound or normative concept; that if one defines need, one is prescribing to others what they must have or not have; and so on. In neo-classical economics in particular, the concept of need has been ban­ished from every text, class and boardroom as effectively heretical or, as the Economist has put it, “meaningless.” Such denial of the very meaning of life requirements has the consequence of delinking economic and political doc­trine from the conditions of life’s healthful reproduction.

In truth, a need is clearly definable as whatever a person cannot be deprived of without invariably suffering a reduction of life capability. There is no need that does not meet this criterion, and nothing that meets it that is not a need – from exactly constituted clean air and sufficient protein, to a life-various environment, to reading matter for a literate person.

Such means of life offer a more vital and comprehensive life to all mem­bers of a community, and their better and more universal fulfilment is the measure of all authentic, as distinguished from spurious, social development. The civil commons, in turn, is what ensures this development by providing in one measure or another universal access of members of a society to the vital life goods whereby they and their life-hosts are sustained and grow in mind, affect and body. The civil commons, in other words, is the grounding institu­tion and regulator of what Karl Polanyi has called, but never defined, as “the human and natural substance.”


The civil commons is, at bottom, humanity’s long-buried, but still-evolving ground of solution to the systemic crisis of social and environmental life orga­nization across the world. In the depths of its evolution lie the origins of lan­guage, the rule of law, effective pollution controls, universal education, labour and human rights, and flourishing public spaces. But our historical crisis is that societies are being stripped of the civil commons and the lifeground by their government defunding and corporate appropriation for private profit. This is the life-and-death threat of our current condition, but this too is blink­ered out by market slogans of “growth to overcome poverty” and repudiation of non-profit scientific reports as “alarmist.”

What distinguishes the civil commons through historical periods, cultures and social purpose is that all its forms are co-operative constructs. The regu­lating goal of these constructs in diverse functions is the universal access of community members to the protection and means of vital life. These allow them to grow and express themselves as human. Yet, what is also in common is that the global corporate system by its nature of expansion threatens each and all of their life-enabling functions. That is, each and every subsystem of the civil commons is suffering stripping and degradation by privatizing and defund­ing operations. Since the means and sources of life protected by the civil com­mons are, in the end, what planetary as well as human life requires to repro­duce and diversify, the global corporate system’s relentless attacks on its reg­ulations and unpriced life goods pose a threat to planetary and human sur­vival itself.

A covertly catastrophic fact of the global market system needs, therefore, to be registered as a systemic fact, and not as a series of crises to analyse as dis­crete issues from this or that professional or academic perspective, expertise and jurisdiction. The main problematic is that our shared life infrastructures have been increasingly deregulated, defunded and eliminated. However, what they require are more advanced development and transnational coordination and interlinkage to recognize and respond to our global predicament. Regulatory, monitoring and preventative public agencies have evolved over generations to protect and maintain citizens’ lives, workers’ health and safety, and aquatic and land environments from the mounting industrial burdens, dangers and pollutions of the borderless global market. However, these agen­cies have been systemically dismantled.28 We can thus walk through the list of basic means of existence, and find an unprecedentedly rapid cascade of civil and ecosystem incapacities to lead a healthy life. Even with increasing output capacities, the unconnected factors of population increase driven by mass impoverishment, exhausted and depleting soilcovers from intensive mono­culture farming and pollution-induced climate change, increasing reliance on genetically altered and homogenizing plant and animal varieties more vul­nerable to disease mutations, and the increasing inaccessibility of the poor to either land or food commodities: all reveal, in fact, a globally declining life condition.29

Competitive enterprise in accordance with the dominant market paradigm is incapable of recognizing or responding to this problematic. “World system theorists” cannot penetrate the problem with no life-coordinates of analysis. Yet, without a developed civil commons to comprehend and meet such an evolving global system crisis, the consequences can be transnationally cata­strophic. In fourteenth century Europe and Asia, for example, the majority of these continents’ entire populations contracted bubonic plague and suffered excruciating personal deaths without the social immune defence system of public sewage and water systems, health clinics and so on. These subsequently evolved as the modern civil commons. The Black Death was, revealingly, pre­ceded by the weakening of the peasantry, by the expropriation and conversion of its arable land to large-scale sheep production for global market export. This is an etiology of health disaster that is blinkered out in the expropriat­ing processes of subsistence farmers in the world today for the same global market goal of priced mono-crop exports to rich foreign markets (Cartwright and Biddiss 1991, p. 35-6). In the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19, in post-war conditions of social infrastructure destruction with no public health sys­tems, 25,000,000 people died as the pandemic circled the globe without publicly funded health infrastructures to respond to it (Hume 1997, p. K9). As we can see from such past global disasters, the presence or absence of civil commons institutions is a primary determinant of the life and death of social majorities themselves.


If man is the father of the social orders of patriarchy and capitalism, as fem­inist analysis contends, woman is the mother of the civil commons. The defin­ing nature of the civil commons is the provision of unpriced life goods to those who need them: all of us all of the time in the case of clean water, edu­cation and breathable air, and some of us all of the time in the case of need for old-age support, social assistance and care for the sick. The civil commons principle has been at work, in some form, by shared symbol systems and bonds of community beyond kinship in every society since humanity became a distinctive species.30

The post-1980 counter-revolution against the industrialized world’s “wel­fare state” is, in a wider view, a revolt against the species’ historical matura­tion after the world’s greatest Depression and War. At the psycho-social devel­opment level, its pattern resonates at a level which analysis has not yet con­sidered – an atavistic return to the archetypal pattern of the unaccountable male gang seeking to dominate society. The bounds of this model seem stretched by the reality, but the analogue exposes a primeval plane of moti­vation and domination which explains our condition at an untracked level. There is a disorder at the core of the ruling male psyche which is concealed under the trappings of law and order.

The adolescent group-mind plots in secret behind the closed doors of secluded forts for control of the rest of society to maximize the gang’s private take. Privately multiplied debt issuances are the currency of the global corporate gang’s control. Sex and violence are the ruling images of its kingdom of ever bigger deals and attacks on designated out-groups. The gang’s ethos of power and control pervades the larger society with a barbaric code of acquis­itive stratagem, takeover of others’ territories, continuous extraction of gang tribute, and indiscriminate violence and armed force at will. Throughout, group slogans and tough-talk re-enforce the bonds of male and servant­ female bravado in the face of mounting extremes of life-depredation, confis­cation and insecurity of those that are ruled. The universal insecurity the many feel is, as the resistance grows, played back to them as what the gang is protecting them from.31

Lacking the resources of character to compete at even odds or the physical prowess to secure dominance in the usual gang ways, the global corporate gang everywhere relies on controlled images of power and mastery instead. The image-set loved most by the atomized masses are performed around the clock through every home and place. Symbolic male gangs in corporate logos attack one another day in and day out in blood sports and spectacles, all con­structed to glorify the competitive way of life. The never-ending sudden-death dramas hold the many in thrall, and so the actual violent struggles of life and death in the wider world are diverted from and displaced onto the sports screen as a universal marketing site. The richest are the best, competition is the meaning of life. “Sport,” as it is called, is the corporate gang’s daily moral­ity play where the furious drive of money selfishness, trained groupthink, and fanatic factionalism rule. Defeating others by overpowering monopoly is the heroic display most highly revered. Pistols, bombs, collisions, space thrusts, takeovers, wars, round-the-dock terror, get-rich schemes, endless machines and fast-lane consumption are “our way of life” before adoring crowds and female smiles.

Behind the scenes, “instruments of transnational trade and investment,” “competititive mergers” and “privatization and deregulation of the public sec­tor” are the deep booty system of the global corporate gang. Outside the man­ufactured conflicts of interest inside the never-ending games the many have their hearts and minds fastened to, the world is restructured as a pay-on-time system where the payments issue more and more debt for all to pay to the gang. As this or that entertainment product wins or loses in the coliseum, the gang’s trade lawyers covertly construct hundreds of new edicts in secrecy to privilege their operations across borders, backed by iron cages, starvation, rains of gas and clubs for resisters, and genocide for peoples from which the latest declared Enemy comes. It is an extortion gang writ large with official trappings, but it cannot be named. And so its order is ritualized in the para­phenelia and incantations of “being number one,” with ever more one-sided shows of mass destruction and violence discharged on the dispossessed to demonstrate the inevitability of its rule.

Ian O. Angell (2001), an approving Boswell to the global corporate gang at the London School of Economics, writes in awe:

None but the brave will win here… We are virtual enterprises at the hub of loosely knit alliances linked together by global networks… We assemble to take advan­tage of any temporary business opportunity… we don’t pay any rent… we are free to exploit workers… no income tax!… Governments have no choice – Too many are born… The lights are going out for wide sectors of society… States have to be run like corporations . .. The natural order is reasserting itself… Grass eaters beware, the jackals are circling, the hyenas are laughing… Why not join us?… Where will you fit in? (p. 173-179)32

The ruling numbers game of exploiting price/tax/regulation differentials across borders may be far from “the brave;’ but in its final throes, it is the ter­ror of the gang’s images that count.

Silvia Federici reads the pattern so far as it is gender-specific. She argues in her standard-bearing Women, Globalization and the International Women’s Movement (2001) that “globalization is essentially a war against women.” This argument is certainly right as far as it goes. The global corporate onslaught on civil commons rights to the free goods of nature, water, forests, indepen­dent livelihood, welfare, healthcare, and material means of life has been sys­tematically structured against women without money demand. The war on poorer women has also brought in its wake economic compulsion into unemployment, prostitution, military service, poisonous living and work environ­ments and homelessness or refugee status almost everywhere in the world. But there is an underlying pattern at work here which does not invade only the life-ground of women. The pattern of confiscation targets any non-profit pro­vision for life need outside the global corporate gang’s control. It does so by the for-profit appropriation and deprivation of unpriced life resources upon which the life services of women depend. The war is against all social con­structs not controlled by debt-issuance and opportunities for profit. Any price­ free sector of life goods from which a new money profit can be made, may trigger invasion of it as a “necessary sacrifice.”

The more sinister and general pattern is not yet recognized. It is a global war of movement against the life economy. The systematic war against women by corporate globalization which Federici and others document is a war whose diverse forms express a more catastrophic structure of life rapine. The corporate globalization agenda is a war against women, but it is more gener­ally a war on life-organization itself: a war on all means of life which are pro­vided by nature or by community free from corporate price and profit. This world war is waged on social and ecological life-hosts everywhere which are outside the ever-expanding zones of for-profit tribute.

Whatever stands in the way of the global corporate gang’s axings of expen­ditures on life is declared “an obstacle” to its freedom or – in revealing slogan – a “protectionist barrier.”33 The war against the life-economy prohibits pub­lic law at any level to regulate, protect or retain control over any sector of domestic economies.34 Women are in particular targeted by this above-the­ law rule, but they are targeted by “the invisible hand” and “the impersonal laws” of the market, to use Adam Smith’s and F. A. Hayek’s conceptualizations of this regime, as the rule of a Higher Design. Women, that is to say, are attacked insofar as they do not have the money to buy or to afford the means and protections of life which are increasingly only priced commodities, inso­ far as they are more dependent on non-monetized work and resources which are being replaced, cut back or seized, and insofar as their labour of serving the lives of their children and co-habiting men is both unpaid and increased by family unemployment, low wages, loss of social-sector support, and loss of communal natural resources. Every one of these depredations of women’s lives – from which other violations of forced sweatshop labour and prostitution of women and their daughters follow as “serving market needs” – is at the same time a wider attack on social and environmental life-systems and the non-profit life economy.

Insofar as globalizing capitalism attacks the roots of women’s lives, we need to recognize that:

  1. it more destructively attacks their children’s lives;
  2. it still more destructively attacks their sustaining life environments; and, most generally,
  3. it attacks everything that exists which does not wield money-demand and price as its license to existence.

The connective link between the depredation of women’s lives and the depredation of non-profit life reproduction as a whole is, in other words, the underlying social infrastructure of the civil commons. When the global mar­ket system deprives or invades any one of these means of life, it typically attacks both. Their past and present are interlinked. They are attacked because both are cooperatively self-organized to serve life’s rebirth and production outside of profit and commodity price. The larger community of the life­ ground itself is conceived as “limitless market opportunity” for “maximum penetration and control.” The logic of life invasion and plunder crosses gen­ders, races and species. Its opposition is not only the woman’s movement. It is the life-encompassing civil commons that represents all life in the resistance of the Oikonomia against global corporate occupation.


In the end, the civil commons is the evolving fact and ground of society’s life substance and sustainability. At the same time, its principle of ensuring means of life at all levels to its members is its guiding norm of development – a norm which in the end comprehends the global community as its membership, and the planetary ecosystem as its co-ordinates. Social reality both falls vastly short of and is already far advanced in the realization of the civil commons’ regu­lating principle and ideal. Universal education, for example, is plainly an ideal not yet realized. But it is an ideal that admits of degrees of realization, and the achievement of many societies, including poorer Cuba and Kerala, is that they have developed the educational civil commons as far as they have. That all members of the community can read and write at some level, or become lit­erate as a social entitlement, is an historic achievement of the civil commons’ evolution. To gauge the underlying advance of the civil commons through even corporate state attacks on its public funding, this educational condition can be compared to a situation not so long ago when only a privileged caste could read or write at all.

In identifying the parameters of real social development, we can always adopt as a normative reference body a past time period or another economic order as our comparative set of indicators of the life capabilities of social members and their ecosystem life-host. These would include literacy, longevity, child nutrition, poverty levels, disease ratios, institutions of cultural participation, biodiversity of environment, and so on. The many referents of these vital life statistics and indicators are always in the process of decline, sus­tainment, or advance – whatever parameters of the civil commons’ life­ ground we identify or track. Sound judgement of good or bad, better or worse, always follows from the evidence of everyone’s gain or loss in the life-capabil­ity ranges of the population assessed.

Since these life indicators are not commensurable with one another to afford a one-dimensional aggregate, as is presently done with fixated mone­tary measures which do not measure the life gains or losses of any people, there can be no pretense of a magic single number. The life development of a society is a profile of a number of different indicators. The conceptual and evaluative unity lies in the evaluative principle itself, which can be applied to any domain of life condition, and can assess gain or loss with respect to any comparative reference-body that analysis may choose. All authentic develop­ment is identified by such a life-grounded metric. A Basic Well-Being Index (BWI) would, for example, include as a minimum parametric: (1) air quality, (2) access to clean water, (3) sufficient nourishing food (4) security of housing, (5) opportunity to perform meaningful service or work of value to others, (6) available learning opportunity to the level of qualification, (7) healthcare when ill and (8) accessible healthy environmental space for leisure and play. Each of these is a vital need in the way defined, for none can be deprived with­ out reduction of vital life capability. Any measure of any economy’s success in providing its members with means of life otherwise in short supply (the lost meaning of an economy) requires such life co-ordinates. Otherwise, as with the market metric, there is no way of knowing whether the economy is, in fact, working. Numerical identification of those who are deprived in any of these life parameters, and their levels of deprivation, is the margin of an economy’s failure, and what it should be structured to overcome. Conversely, where the society’s life indicators show no disabling deprivation and the BWI is satis­fied, the life economy is genuinely healthy.

Our most profound problem on the level of understanding has been that no received social or economic theory or paradigm has yet adopted life terms of reference as a unifying ground of evaluation. This failure is a systemic ide­ological symptom of an industrial, money-sequencing civilization which has increasingly decoupled from life coordinates and the civil commons in a glob­alizing monoculture of turning all that exists into fungible means of priva­tized money circuits.

If we review the diverse spheres of the civil commons we have considered in this discussion, we observe that their unifying principle remains constant through all of their various constructs: universal health care, health and occu­pational safety standards, public education, city streetscapes, parks, pollution regulations, consumer law protection, sanitation infrastructures, old-age pen­sion, city plans, unemployment insurance, social assistance, environmental regulations and the rule of life-protective law. All such universally accessible, life-serving institutions require secure social, non-market funding to be reproduced and developed in the contemporary world. Yet, because their life goods divert revenues from market-money sequences, they are “axed” and “slashed.” Consider the nature of these slogans in connection with the gang model of the global corporate system. The revenues that are thus “chopped” are then appropriated by ever more tax cuts, subsidies and public resource pri­vatizations. The outcome, it follows predictably, is more degraded conditions of the underlying life economy of the natural and civil commons that have been deprived of funding support, and simultaneously more command over market money-demand by the global corporate system. Every step of economic restructuring to which societies are subjected has in this light a single unify­ing function: to convert expenditures on society’s life infrastructure into sev­ered money sequences with no commitment to any wider life-host.


The civil commons is not only institutional in its formations. It can also be understood as the social subject within. Its phenomena are regulated by a structure of motivation which is opposite to the self-maximizing rationality of the market – as, for example, in the world-wide indignation and rage at the frame-up hanging of Ken Sara-Wiwa and eight others in Nigeria after they led over 300,000 of a total community of 500,000 in peaceful demonstrations in 1995 against Shell Oil’s and the military dictatorship’s pollution and depre­dation of their lands. Such fight-back responses to the corporate invasion of Ogoniland – or to the bombed Vietnamese people of the past, or to the cor­porate agenda of life-infrastructure stripping which has brought tens of thou­sands of people into the streets across continents from Paris to Seattle to Washington to Prague, Quebec and Genoa – are all unified by an underlying principle of global life-defence. September 11, 2001 and its aftermath can be best understood as a constructed diversion away from the rising civil com­mons resistance of the world’s peoples to more male-gang war and pretexts for repression.

If people observe the destruction or brutal reduction of vital life ranges where no compensating security of others’ lives can explain it, they rebel from within as if there was an evolved structure of human response that puts all “in common” with the lost life and the threatened life. This is what we might call the internal correlative of civil commons identification. If one is skeptical about such a structure of motivation, then a question needs to be answered in the face of very compelling evidence. Why would state and corporate agents continually go to any lengths of expenditure and effort to intervene with set­ up wars, cover-ups, rationalizations, silencing of witnesses and saturating pro­paganda to keep this internal identification with a common life-interest from being aroused if it did not exist? It is, in fact, the repressed common ground of humanity’s vocation – a unifying life ethos that can arise across national and cultural divisions and move entire societies and peoples into action.

Because received theories of motivation cannot compute such civil com­mons bonding, recognition of the shared life-ground at work becomes a re­volutionary act of recovering what is already there. Even at the level of the lone artist, apparently the most isolated character of market societies, the indi­vidual seeks to “reach the whole world” – the visionary audience with whom human creators of every kind seek to connect.

Where the civil commons has been permitted to develop, its members’ con­cerns for fellow members of the community extend wider and deeper as its underlying social infrastructure develops, past the family or the region to the nation and outwards as an evolving system of social life-organization. The Scandinavian countries show such a pattern, as do significant sectors of the still “mixed” economies of the European Union and – at severe risk in 2001 – Canada. The civil commons is an open possibility. To the extent that its domains are institutionalized over time and serve the life-needs of society’s members, they refuse to submit to the destructive program of defunding social sectors and privatizing for corporate profit. We can see the evidence of such civil commons movement from within, for example, in the refusal of regionally divided Canadians to accept any “two-tier” market reforms of their public health system. These are visible indicators of the internalized value-set of the civil commons that is not utopian or theoretical, but a realpolitik fact that even corporately financed political frontmen do not dare to challenge except by diversion.

Beneath the notice of daily presupposition, society’s forebears over cen­turies have struggled for and evolved a shared life infrastructure wherever they exist. It is commonplace in this period to say that our world “lacks a moral anchor of shared values” by which to guide it. The remarkable fact is that this very normative ground underlies daily life across virtually all cultures in var­ious levels of development, built stitch-by-stitch over generations, from the common language of its members and their life-protective laws and customs to social infrastructures of shared walkways and universally accessible places of learning. As long as this substructure of life-sustaining conditions remains unapprehended by even theoretical recognition, it is endangered. The long­ missing common ground, however, has been there since before we were born.


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  1. One must distinguish, here, between the literature that forms the ideological justifica­tion for corporate market privatization of various natural commons, notably Hardin’s (1968) globally republished article “The Tragedy of the Commons,”‘ and Goldman’s (1998) developed empirical studies. Those following Hardin project the capitalist market axiom of self-maxi­mizing “rationality” onto subsistence herdsmen or other commons users who are precisely reg­ulated by social norms against privatized overexploitation. On the other hand, social scientists and historians like E. P. Thompson and Goldman investigate actual facts. Yet it is important to note that neither literature distinguishes the civil from the natural commons.
  2. Jesus and the Old Testament prophets both inveighed against such unneeded property accumulations while others were destitute. Their themal calls to feed the hungry, protect the homeless and clothe the naked can be interpreted as early voices of the civil commons. On the other hand, their persecution and, in the case of Jesus, political execution can be read as arche­typal illustrations of ruling structures of power selecting for the liquidation of such initiatives. Liberation theology today may be seen as an extension of the pattern, both in its stand for the poor, and in the persecution of its stand by the established hierarchy of privilege for exam­ple, in Latin American from 1975 to 1990.
  3. The literature on this genocidal pattern is complex and extensive. McMurtry (1998) explains it in terms of the inner logic of the market paradigm which presupposes forms of exis­tence which annul the right of any other form to exist. This analysis is furthered in Value Wars (2002) which shows the operation of this concealed program in the genocidal destructions of the social infrastructures of Iraq and Yugoslvia in particular, but also welfare state structures across the world.
  4. The dominant role of U.S. foreign policy and covert campaigns of international terror since 1945 in this continuous campaign of civil commons destruction is documented by Blum (2000). Blum’s documentation features the U.S. security apparatus’s particular involvement in the narcotics trade as a financial basis of its covert terrorist operations alongside its overt military threats and armed invasions.
  5. McMurtry (1999a) provides in The Cancer Stage of Capitalism (chap. 5, p. 223-226) for­mal criteria whereby to distinguish public administrative structures which are life-serving from those which are not.
  6. Polanyi (1944) in his classic The Great Transformation, talks often of the “human and natural substance of society.” He also speaks of specific provisions of means of life by society for those requiring them to go on living (e.g., the Speenhamland “allowance system” from 1795 to 1834), but nowhere conceptualizes this social life infrastructure in exact or general princi­ple, and proposes no precise parameters to comprehend its nature across specific instances or social orders.
  7. There is an enormous literature of this kind, the most incisive being the analysis of Waring (1988, 1996), which exposes the failure of both neo-classical and Marxian economic theory to take into account the unpriced labour of women in sustaining priced as well as future labour, as well as familial life-systems in general.
  8. Communitarianism is a falsely named theoretical challenge to liberalism which typically deploys the theoretical device of rights to apply to collectives (like ethnic groups) as well as individuals. Communitarianism in this sense has nothing in common with the concept of civil commons developed here.
  9. Even when communitarian analysis becomes life-grounded rather than right-grounded, as it does in the work of MacIntyre (1981), there is no distinction between social practices, the core community good for him, which enable versus disable the community members’ lives. For example, traditional and long perfected excellences of military and caste institutions qualify as quintessential moral goods under his criterion of practices, although he does not engage this criticism.
  10. The similarity of this invasive pattern of blindly reproducing private money sequences overrunning life sequences of social reproduction is documented and developed as an explana­tory model in McMurtry (1999a). Interestingly, the life-blind autism of the mathematical mod­els to which contemporary economics has become confined has been recently attacked by both eminent French economists and their students at the École Normale Supérieure as a “patho­logical taste for a-priori ideologies and mathematical formalization disconnected from reality” (CCPA Monitor, 2001, p. 12).
  11. For an excellent source of concrete examples of traditional commons within “sustenance economies,” see Mies and Shiva (1993).
  12. Mies and Beenholdt-Thomsen (1999) sense the problem here when they say that “the concept of global commons is being introduced by international agencies and global players, mostly for the benefit of TNCs [transnational corporations].” They insist instead on “reinvent[ing] the commons from below, through grassroots action of local people for local peo­ple” (p. 156 ff). What this critique of the global commons concept does not provide, however, is a principle whereby the corporate-state-invaded global commons can be recognized and defended at a level of comprehension and action beyond “the grassroots action of local people for local people.” One may support the local standpoint as far as it goes, but it does not speak to the deep problem. The concept of the civil commons as defined here, in contrast, recognizes the global commons as requiring a civil construct of protection to be sustainable – “a global civil commons.”
  13. The so-called Son of Star Wars militarization of space (National Missile Defence [NMD] Program) is not, as claimed for public consumption, a defensive project to stop incoming mis­siles from enemy states. According to the U.S. Space Command’s own description in its offi­cially circulated Vision for 2020 (my emphasis), “the space dimensions of military operations is to protect U.S. [private corporate] interests and investments” (Slater 1999).
  14. These external repressions of Costa Rica’s civil commons by U.S.-led financial policies have been drawn from Edelman (1999, p. 60-95). It is useful to observe here as well that other more specific tactics in the stripping of Costa Rica’s civil commons infrastructure were the flooding of corporate media by global market ideology and collateral financial expropriation of the Costa Rica social system by USAID terms for bailout and a parallel U.S.-funded system of agricultural research institutions.
  15. Consider, for example, the following profile of planetary life destruction by private cor­porate depredation. “The unbridled plunder of the world’s forests by giant timber firms,” reports the Environment Investigation Agency of the UN Inter-Governmental Panel on Forests, “is increasing at an alarming rate. […] The $100 billion timber industry is running out of control. […] Unless swift and decisive action istaken to control the intense pressures on thecworld’s forests, the 20th century’s legacy will be the extermination of most of the world’s species and massive social disturbance.” The timber trade, the UN Agency (Harrison 2000) reports, is 95% dominated by multinational firms who now control 45 million hectares of rainforest. All log illegally as well as legally. Mitsubishi leads the”forest rapists,” Daishowa and Musa of Indonesia face charges of corruption. Samling of Malaysia, Hyundai of Korea, the US Boise Cascade, Rougier of France, Klunz and Karl Danzer of Germany and Macmillan-Bloedel of Canada are charged with systematically illegal practices. “Deforestation is wiping out plant and animal species, increasing soil erosion and flooding and contributing to global warming,” the UN report continues. “27,000 species are made extinct each year in tropical forest alone.” (Harrison 2000)
  16. Much of anthropology can be understood as a decoding of tribal communities’ beliefs and practices which confer survival advantage by protecting them from dangers and harms which would otherwise compromise their capacities to reproduce. A prolific contemporary expositor of this view is Harris (1974).
  17. Dorland (1994), for example, defines a taboo as “any of the negative traditions and behaviours that are generally regarded as harmful to social welfare.”
  18. The conflict at the deepest level is between regulating value-sets. Value sets are infra­structural rather than superstructural insofar as they regulate material actions rather than rationalize them. The primarily opposing value sets of the contemporary world can be analysed as life sequences versus money sequences of value (McMurtry 1999a, p. 105 ff). This opposi­tion occurs within class agents, and also outside them. Unwaged women’s work too confronts this value-set opposition, as do governments.
  19. The private market of health-care in the U.S. is a paradigm case of this social back­wardness at the heart of the world’s leading corporate market system. “The cost [of healthcare] is approaching 15% of the U.S. gross domestic product, and more than one-quarter of the pop­ulation is not covered” (Brown 2000). What Brown does not observe is that this is over $1,000 more per capita than the public healthcare system of neighbouring Canada which covers all its citizens. The US “health maintenance” system also kills over 80,000 people a year by mal­practice (Nader 1996, p. 37). Nader’s figures are from the Harvard School of Public Health.
  20. Franklin (1993) explains: “Silence has to remain available in the soundscape, in the landscape, and in the mindscape. […] What we are hearing, I feel, is very much the privatiza­tion of the soundscape, in the same way in which, in Britain, the enclosure laws destroyed the commons […]. What does town planning have to say about silence?”
  21. The privatization of British Rail and California electricity have been catastrophic fail­ures in productive and cost efficiency compared to their publicly controlled forbears, as Ontario Hydro is turning out to be. In matters of life services like health-care, the difference is not only increased costs and reduced services by privatization, but the loss of tens of thousands of lives. Market fundamentalism like other religious fundamentalisms is closed to fact. See note 19.
  22. Thus even when theorists refer to the Lebensvelt or lifeworld – as the continental philo­sophical tradition does from Husserl to Habermas – they do not mean any form of life beyond what is borne by communicative symbols. The eminent critical theorist, Jurgen Habermas (1984), for example, conceives of the “lifeworld” as confined to the linguistic plane of existence. This “lifeworld” not only precludes all life that is not symbolic, but excludes the market econ­omy itself from “civil society.” Habermas (1996, p.366-72) writes “What is meant by civil soci­ety – no longer includes the economy as constituted by private law and steered through mar­kets in labour, capital and commodities – [and] has an influence only on the personnel and programming of the system.”
  23. An excellent article exposing the incoherence of current political and economic concep­tualizations of “social capital” is Ben Fine’s (1999) “The Developmental State is Dead – Long Live Social Capital?” But even the critically acute Fine does not penetrate this baseline distinc­tion in principle.
  24. We need to distinguish this sense of capability from Amartya Sen’s (1999, p. 75), which means “the alternative combinations of functionings that are feasible for her to achieve” or, more simply, “the ability to achieve functionings” (Sen 1992, p. 49). Sen’s definition could apply to a machine, and he does not provide a principle – as distinguished from examples – to indicate how capabilities for life-promoting functionings are to be distinguished from life­ reductive functionings. My sense of capability is restricted to range of life function, and does not require alternative combinations. It is not clear that Sen’s “ability to achieve functionings” rules out snowmobiling or shooting animals as such a functioning, or counts the ability and air to breathe as a capability if there is no alternative available.
  25. Hog Nation,” Editorial, Earth Island Journal, Spring 2000, p. 23.
  26. While Canada’s Trade Minister publicly promises that public education and health-care are not on the agenda of the World Trade Organization’s General Agreement on Trade in Services, the government’s own trade magazine, CanadExport, monthly enthuses about the need for more WTO regulations to protect all the opportunities in foreign markets for Canada transnational businesses, with education and health-care procurement contracts a regular feature.
  27. See McLaren, (1996, p. 3). Such figures are typically suppressed, however. The European Union and the World Wide Fund For Nature, for example, suppressed, demanded rewrites and then pulped their own commissioned expert report on the state of the world’s tropical rain­ forests after it reported that World Bank and IMF structural adjustment programs required African, Caribbean and Papuan economies to sell their forests for cash to pay back debts to for­eign banks (Brown 2000, p. 3).
  28. Malaria outbreaks and increase, for example, are at a record level in market-industrializing regions, with 300-500 million cases annually by 1997. But there is no tracking. Two ento­mologists ask: “Can you get funding? Probably not. Funding for malarial pathogens and their vectors is at an all-time low. Money [is] the organizational goal” (Higley and Stanley 1997, p. 210-11.)
  29. Shiva and Mies (1999) are militantly astute in identifying the latter patterns of life depredation. See also, Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen (1999).
  30. Hayek (1986) typefies market monotheism in his claim that “our civilization depends, not only for its origin but also for its preservation, on what can be described only as the extended order of human co-operation more commonly, if somewhat misleadingly, known as capitalism – [but in fact] the competitive market” (p. 6-7). His curious conflation of compe­tition and co-operation with no explanation is typical of a value-set whose totalization equates opposites as a given.
  31. Charles Krauthammer (2001) writes in Time Magazine: “America is no mere interna­tional citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome. Accordingly, [corporate] America is in a position to reshape norms – How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will” (quoted by Lapham 2001, p. 32-3). An academic mem­ber of the corporate male gang, the author of its End of History, Francis Fukayama (as cited), adopts a negative tact. ”A country that makes human rights a significant element of its foreign policy tends towards ineffectual moralizing at best[…] “(p. 36).
  32. Angell (2001) disassociates himself from this volume in which his work is republished.
  33. At the local level of the world-wide occupation, Turner (1994) defines and deploys the concept of “male dealers.”
  34. The pattern of unilateral command is formalized in McMurtry (1999, p. 45-57; and 2001, p. 7-8).

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