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Strategizing the commons (2): The fallacy of the political

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
13th January 2013


* Article: Massimo de Angelis, Crises, Movements and Commons. Borderlands e-journal, VOLUME 11 NUMBER 2, 2012.

Massimo de Angelis has written an interesting essay on how to correlate the growth and re-emergence of the commons, with the rythms of the rise and fall of social and political movements, with a view on the transformation of the present society.

We’ll present it in five installments as a necessary thinkpiece for transformation-oriented commoners.

In this second installment, the author discusses the “fallacy of the political”.

Excerpted from Massimo de Angelis:

“We are facing here the first of the three methodological fallacies I am going to discuss in this paper insofar as the development of a framework addressing our meta-question is concerned.

This is the fallacy of the political, that is, the idea that a political recomposition could generate and sustain, through any sort of political representation, a radical change in social relations and systems of social reproduction. My stand is that political recompositions are certainly necessary to create momentum for change by initiating chain reactions of sociality and channelling social energies into particular directions with efficient thrust. In this sense, phases of political recomposition and the correspondent forms of political representation are important for opening up opportunities for the radical development of new social relations and systems. However in themselves they do not radically change social systems like capital into something else: they can only perturbate them. Capital reacts and adapt to these perturbations, developing new forms, absorbing, enclosing, channelling, co-opting and repressing, and the mix of these will depend on the cost and benefit calculus in given situations.

Let us take for example the case that a major ‘victory’ is acquired following a moment of strong political recomposition. Say that a new system of welfare entitlements is introduced, as it has been in the post World War II period in different forms and it is now auspicated by many sections of the European movement. How do we understand this victory in terms of a fundamental change in social relations? Does it bring us a step ‘in the right direction’? My claim is that the introduction of a new system of generous entitlement is not a change in capitalist system per se, nor a step in the right or wrong direction towards this change, but a moment of a feedback loop, a perturbation that capital will attempt to interiorise and adapt to. Whether this will be possible or what this adaptation will amount to concretely we cannot anticipate. What we can say with certainty though is that adaptation will involve capital searching for ways to reproduce itself in the new situation it faces. This is what we call capital’s strategies. Thus, true, the introduction of this system of entitlements would begin to favour one side of the capitalist social relation—say, the working class—but within the overall acceptance of the systemic relations that ties it to capital. And since capital is fundamentally made of social relations and processes that must, in the totality, bring about accumulation of wealth, and since this is based on exploitation of labour and expropriation of natural resources, this adaptation would require the active participation of the ‘working class’. How capital’s concession is articulated to a particular process of capitalist development depends on the nature of the deal that is institutionalised in particular historical contexts among different classes and strata in society, and on how some parts of the global working class are perhaps more eager than others to accept the deal as it put them in far better position than others. It also depends on how effective are strategies of marginalisation and domestication of those sections made invisible and excluded by the deal.

This has some crucial implications. Everybody knows since the early opening shots of political economy in the seventeenth century that to provide the working class with the means for security (‘welfare’ disconnected from work) is to increase the power for its refusal of capital’s discipline, unless of course a ‘work ethic’ is assumed in the cultural DNA of the working class. But this assumption is possible only if we postulate processes of subjectification and domestication of the working class to capital’s norm, which depends on disciplinary mechanisms involving rewards and punishments (De Angelis 2007).

However, at any given time, rewards may become short (demands for rewards higher) and punishments inadequate (they do not deter from particular anti-accumulation actions) in relation to the particular working-class aspirations. And working class aspirations can change as easily as generations do in the course of life. As radicals engaged in the confrontation with capital in a particular historical moment, we regard the possibility to refuse capitalist work as a good thing.

However, as radicals who problematise transformation of social systems, we know that this refusal, this ‘no!’, is only a precondition to the development of alternative social systems and it does not automatically in and by itself develop alternatives social arrangements, new forms of sociality and cooperation on the basis of this refusal. Alternatively, if they do develop them at some scale, they seem unable to effectively contrast the hegemony of capital. Precisely because of this, capital is able to use the new reforms for its own ends, gain some time, and wait for the right moment where it can decompose the working class and take the entitlements away. The alternatives therefore are organisationally outflanked. For example, the postwar period the concession of a welfare state following the cycle of struggle that begun with the Soviet Revolution, major movements of political recomposition following the Soviet Revolution has turned into a means of discipline and conformity (through for example threats of welfare withdrawal, policies and cultures that promote patriarchy in nuclear families) and growth (divisive of the working class and environmentally catastrophic consumerism). At the core of these concessions there were the ‘productivity deals’ bringing together representatives of the workers (unions), state and employers.

It was only within the framework of these deals—what I termed the social microfoundations of economics (De Angelis 2000)—that profitability could be made compatible with growing wages, full employment policies and a system of welfare entitlements. All the same, it was only within the framework of the neoliberal deal following the 1970s cycle of struggle (individual lifestyle freedoms, declining real wages, cheap products due to globalisation and cheap and easy credit in exchange with your active engagement within the market) that profitability was made compatible with the maintenance of standards of living of a working class with middle-class expectations.

When these deals collapse due to the inability of the adapted system to bring about further accumulation within the framework of the deal, or due to the fact that the excluded from the deal are launching a new phase of political recomposition and perturbates the system, an impasse is generated. The process of capital’s adaptation to its own concessions is the process of capitalist development, like when in order to bypass working-class struggle against the length of the working time it is forced to introduce automation.

One could argue that from the perspective of true radical transformation beyond capitalism, the problem is the deal, because the function of every deal for capital is to allow its reproduction as a social system. While formally true (deals do allow the reproduction of capital), this position fails to recognise that social reproduction (in households, communities, or in ‘services’ such as care, health and education) is to a large extent at given times also coupled to the reproduction of capitalist social system. This means that deals with capital also make it possible to reproduce life in given circumstances. The problem posed by our meta-question therefore is now clearer and becomes: how do we at the same time set a limit to capital while allowing the reproduction of alternative systems that disentangle us from it?

Although political recomposition—cycle of struggles—do not bring victories that lead us into radical change per se, the deals that they may ensue (‘victories’) —especially when they are ‘good’ deal—create new conditions for refusing market discipline and therefore may create momentum for developing new social relations and modes of production. For example, many movements in Europe today seem to converge towards the demand for a citizen income. It is of course possible to claim it as a ‘human right’ or spin it as a new form of social charity made necessary by increased poverty and social insecurity, or even as a way to save money for state finances, as it would be borderlands 11:2 accompanied by restructuring of other sources of entitlements. In all cases, welfare is framed functionally in such a way to correlate some aspects of the crisis of social reproduction to capital’s needs for its own reproduction. The challenge instead is how we frame this demand within a strategic horizon for the development of alternatives.

A first moment of this is, as many argue, to frame the demand for citizen’s income as a compensation for the social cooperation that occur beyond the market and that is freely appropriated by capital. That is, starting from the labour of care and reproduction in the home to production of culture and fashion in the public sphere, the claim to capital would be a sort of ‘reproduction debt’, or ‘cooperation debt’.

However, it will never be possible to live on citizen’s income if the latter is the result of a deal with capital, and certainly it will not be possible to live with it as citizens with middle-class aspirations.

However, it may be possible to find ways to make citizen’s income ‘dysfunctional’ to capital’s reproduction process insofar as it becomes a condition for the development of alternatives founded through a commoning that creates new subjectivity while meeting needs. For example, it would be necessary to think how to pool together part of this income and use it to reinforce cooperative forces (commons) that satisfy needs and at the same time are founded on radically different value practices.

The fallacy of the political involves therefore a conception of radical change, of ‘revolution’ that is aligned to Marx’s conception of social revolution (rather than of Lenin’s political revolution).

In the first place, a social revolution is not the ‘seizure of power’ engineered and lead by a political elite (whether through reformist or political revolutionary means), but the actual production of another form of power, which therefore corresponds to the ‘dissolution’ of the old society and of the old ‘condition of existence’ (Marx 2005 [1848], p. 19) or a change in the ‘economic structure of society’ that is constituted by ‘the totality of the [social] relations of production’ (Marx 1977 [1859]). Secondly, precisely for its characteristics of being constituent of new social relations reproducing life (and dissolving old relations), social revolution cannot be reduced to a momentary event, a ‘victory’, but it is epochal and configured by a series of ‘victories’ and ‘defeats’. Marx thus speaks of the ‘beginning’ of the ‘epoch of social revolution’ (Marx 1977 [1859]), but how long is this epoch, none can say (although climate change and the massive crisis of social reproduction are putting some constraints and urgencies on the horizons). This distinction between social and political revolution does not imply that social revolution is not itself ‘political’. Social revolution is political in the sense that it acts as a crucial perturbation of established political systems that seek to discipline, order, and channel or draw resources from socioeconomic systems. In this sense, the old feminist dictum that ‘the private is political’ was spot on, in the sense that the social revolutions the women movements managed to produce (or aimed at having) had a crucial impact on political systems.”

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