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A critique of Andreas Weber’s Enlivenment thesis as reverse social darwinism

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
17th July 2013


In a subsequent post, we will republish Andreas Weber’s beautiful and interesting essay,

* “Enlivenment: Towards a Fundamental Shift in the Concepts of Nature, Culture, and Politics. Heinrich Boell Foundation, 2012

I have no problem with the above text, and fully agree with the thrust of it: we need to recognize the subjective aspects of the human and of natural beings and reconnect with life and consciousness in our thinking and feeling-thinking about the world.

However, Andreas Weber doesn’t stop there, as evidence in his contribution to The Wealth of the Commons book of essays, specifically in the text:

* The Economy of Wastefulness: The Biology of the Commons

For example, he states that:

- AW: “There is an all-enclosing commons-economy which has been successful for billions of years: the biosphere. … I wish to argue that nature embodies the commons paradigm par excellence. With that definition I do not only mean that man and other beings have been living together according to commons principles for an overwhelming majority of time. My argument is more complex: I am convinced that ecological relations within nature follow the rules of the commons. “

It is already a problem to define natural processes in terms of an economy, but depending on how you define ‘economics’, I can live with that.

However, a ‘commons economy’ seems a dangerous stretch. The Ostrom school, and commons movements after this, have always defined the commons as a common pool resource that is managed by its users, and it stresses the democratic nature (however broadly defined) of that governance (an autocratic management of a common resource would de facto expropriate its users). Open access resources that are not governed are not considered as a commons. Therefore, to argue that “nature”, the “biosphere” has such a governance process is a hardy hypothesis, and it is impossible to see how nature’s users indeed have such a democratic concert. I wish there was a ‘parliament of all beings’, but I don’t think there is evidence for it.

In this essay, Weber makes the very valuable point that our conception of nature is derived from the conception of the human in Victorian England, it is with other words, a cultural projection:

- “Charles Darwin, the biologist, adapted that piece of theory which had clearly derived from the observation of Victorian industrial society and applied it to a comprehensive theory of natural change and development. In its wake such concepts as “struggle for existence,” “competition,” “growth” and “optimization” tacitly became centerpieces of our self-understanding: biological, technological, and social progress is brought forth by the sum of individual egoisms. In perennial competition, fit species (powerful corporations) exploit niches (markets) and multiply their survival rate (return margins), whereas weaker (less efficient) ones go extinct (bankrupt). The resulting metaphysics of economy and nature, however, are less an objective picture of the world than society’s opinion about its own premises. … We can call this alliance between biology and economics an “economic ideology of nature.”

In turn, this projection then inspires economic and cutural views of how society should be. I fully agree with this assessment.

Andreas Weber draws on these consequences for the nature of our social organisation:

- “The economic ideology of nature excluded any wilderness from our soul; unenclosed nature which accomplishes itself by itself and which is possessed by no being, made no sense to the liberal mind. No understanding of ourselves and of the world which reaches beyond the principles of competition and optimization can now claim any general validity. It is “nothing but” a nice illusion which “in reality” is only proof of the underlying forces in the struggle for existence. Love reduces itself to choice of the fittest mate; cooperation basically is a ruse in the competition for resources.”

But this is not how nature really operates, he adds:

- “Nature as such is the paradigm of the commons. Nothing in it is subject to monopoly; everything is open source. The quintessence of the organic realm is not the selfish gene but the source code of genetic information lying open to all. … Every individual at death offers itself as a gift to be feasted upon by others, in the same way it received its existence by the gift of sunlight. … In the ecological commons a multitude of different individuals and diverse species stand in various relationship to one another – competition and cooperation, partnership and predatorship, productivity and destruction. All those relations, however, follow one higher law: over the long run only behavior that allows for productivity of the whole ecosystem.”

And in conclusion:

- “The term “commons” provides the binding element between the natural and the social or cultural worlds. To understand nature in its genuine quality as a commons opens the way to a novel understanding of ourselves – in our biological as well as in our social life. If nature actually is a commons, it follows that the only possible way to achieve a productive relationship with it will be an economy of the commons. … The idea of the commons thus delivers a unifying principle that dissolves the supposed opposition between nature and society/culture. It cancels the separation of the ecological and the social. “

My objection concerns what is missing from this picture and the great danger of a reverse biological determinism.

Indeed, what is missing from this picture is emergence, i.e. the general idea that new layers of complexity creates new realities and possiblities. Life brings new rules to matter, and so does consciousness, and again so does human culture. Though each emergent layer is embedded in the one that precedes it and must obey its constraints, it also brings innovation and ‘new freedoms’ (example: animals can move of their own volition, plants not).

What this means for me is that human culture and its choices cannot simply be derived from natural laws. Though the human is nature and is embedded in the natural, it also brings a degree of intentional freedom. We can look at nature, but we don’t have to accept all that it is. Nature, as Andreas himself acknowledges, is both “competition and cooperation, partnership and predatorship”. Human society must decide, and can decide, how it manages these impulses. The commons law (dixit Andreas Weber) of predatorship, doesn’t have to be human law. We have to know and recognize our drives, but we socially regulate them. There can be no conscious regulation of nature outside of the human. The commons is not a natural law, it is a human law, it is a human vision of how society and resources can be regulated, amongst other choices. Nature has no property, but humans do, and therefore we must choose when and how to apply it. We cannot simply say, nature will tell us. If nature tells us predatorship is the way, we can say no, at least partially! (to the degree we can manage and sublimate predatory impules and socially embed them in accetable ways, for example). To say nature is a commons is a reverse naturalism, a anti-Darwinism. This is the fatal weakness of the position of Andreas Weber. It criticizes, correctly, social Darwinism, but then takes our current human discoveries, that nature is also a cooperative system, and that we can organize our resources as commons, as ‘characteristics of nature’, projects them onto nature, and then concludes, “haha, nature is a commons, so human society must be a commmons”. The truth is, both nature and society is diverse, and we must observe, know nature and ourselves, and make, if we can, democratic decisions about how to organize ourselves. This was the project of the Enlightenment, and as Andreas Weber observes, it was one-sided and had its dark sides. In this sense, Enlivement is a necessary complement. But not an enlivement that practices a reverse projection mechanism.”

Our enlivement must stay clear of an idealisation of nature, of nature mysticism, and human projection.

So, sorry Andreas, but nature is not a commons ‘by itself’, only humans can bring in democratic governance.

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3 Responses to “A critique of Andreas Weber’s Enlivenment thesis as reverse social darwinism”

  1. Andreas Weber Says:

    Thanks Michel. I appreciate the points you are making. To my eyes some of them are a common misunderstanding of my position, which is not nature-as-objectifiable law, but nature as matter-exchange-and-relational-system and distributed experiential sense organ and self.

    This view also is the baseline for any of my attempts to reformulate economy which I also understand as an exchange system between sensing beings. This is what economy generally misses. I therefore cannot really see what here is „reverse social darwinism“ (and most mainstream biologists also could not, for that matter). My view of biology is explicitly transgressing the objectivst, natural-law-bound approach. (See e.g. Weber & Varela 2002: Life after Kant. Natural purposes and the autopoietic foundations of biological individuality. Phen. Cogn. Sci. 1:97-125.

    Also I do not think nature to be „cooperative“. In some aspects it is, in others it is competitive, in others it is blank chance. Nature is not simply cooperative, but semiotic and teleological, meaning that we have nested meshworks of selves, which in turn are in some strange way also selfless. Nature (and reality, for that matter), is relative, always performing relations and thereby it is self-expressive: in a creative manner, meaning is brought forth via existential relations binding-unbindung individuals into wholes.

    And these wholes, to add a further point, are not feeding back in a top down hierarchical manner onto lower levels (as you seem to suggest in your layer model of plant nature, animal nature, culture). There is a common aspect of meaningful relativity which is working across all these levels. We must not forget that it is not true that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. In many respect it is less, and in other respects it is different.

    The basic point, therefore, is that we just can not approach reality on a natural-law base. The laws of relationships between living agents are constantly brought forth by them and are constantly shifting. However, we can study nature – that which is relation – to understand fruitful relating. But it won’t be possible without body (so economy is NOT only about human cultural decisions). As it won’t be possibly only with body.

    This is why I propose the terms of „empirical subjectivity“ and „poetic objectivity“ to describe a picture of reality from the viewpoint of existential relatedness. Commoning, to put it short, is embodied productive coping with relatedness.

  2. Michel Bauwens Says:

    Thank you so much for responding. I will relay your answers to our community via other sources as well. It will take me longer to respond, as I need to study your work more.

  3. Michel Bauwens Says:

    but perhaps one correction. I’m not suggesting a top down hierarchical relationship when I refer to the holonic nature of emergence, though more complex systems do have demonstrable effects on lower complexity systems. For example, through meditation, i can effectively change my body’s chemistry.

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