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Strategizing the commons (3): The fallacy of the Model

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
15th 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 third installment, the author discusses the “fallacy of the political”.

Key thesis: prefigurative strategies are not sufficient! You can’t just build a new society within the old.

Excerpted from Massimo de Angelis:

“This priority of social (rather than political) revolution also implies that to bring about radical transformation we do not need to have a worked-out system to replace the old one before dreaming or wishing its demise. Quite the contrary, and indeed, we have here the second fallacy that I think underpins discourses on radical social change. The fallacy of the model is a fallacy of the widespread idea according to which in order to replace the current system (model), another system (model) needs to be ready to take its place. Unfortunately, this is not the way history works, nor systems, any systems. Alternative systems can certainly be imagined and problematised, but it is not through their ‘implementation’ that the development history of the modes of production occurs. Systems are not implemented, their dominance emerges, and their emergence occurs through the related processes of social revolution and political revolutions, with the former creating the source upon which the latter get their power to perturbate capital while at the same time develop its autonomy.

The process of social revolution is ultimately a process of finding solutions to the problems other existing social systems cannot solve (most likely because they have been generated by them). This implies the establishment of multi-scalar systems of social action that reproduce life in modes, systemic processes, social relations and guiding values and senses that seek an alternative path from the dominant ones and that are able to reproduce at greater scale through networking and coordination. What has become increasingly clear from the various movements in the last few decades, from the Zapatistas in the mid-1990s to the Occupy movement in 2011, is that whatever alternative put forward by an idiosyncratic section of the movement—whether micro or macro, whether participatory budgets, reconfiguration of social spending by the central state, transitions towns, renewable energy cooperatives, self-managed factories, noncriminalised cyber-activism, defence of traditional communities along a river bed threatened by enclosures, general assemblies, selfmanaged public squares and so on—they all depended on some form of commons, that is, social systems at different scales of action within which resources are shared, and in which a community defines the terms of the sharing, often through forms of horizontal social relations founded on participatory and inclusive democracy. These two elements of commons come to life through concrete life practices developed on the ground, their systems of values quite distinct from the value practices of capital and that develops and reproduces the social power necessary to sustain and give forms to the commons system. This social labour and correspondent forms of cooperation located within commons and that (re)produce them is what we call ‘commoning’.

The relation between social and political revolution is thus the relation between the social systems that underpin them, that is commons and movements, and I suggest we should take Marx’s warning about radical transformation beyond capitalism very seriously, when he says in the Grundrisse that ‘if we did not find concealed in society as it is the material conditions of production and the corresponding relations prerequisite for a classless society, then all attempts to explode it would be quixotic’ (Marx 1973 [1859], p. 158).

Commons are these concealed, latent material conditions in which a classless society can be given form. In fact, commons are latent within society and channel all the support and resources through which we reproduce our lives and knowledge. We are generally born into one, even if it only consists of interactions with our parents or careers, and siblings or friends. As soon as the process of socialisation begins, we reproduce our subjectivities in bodies and spirit through engagement in networks of social cooperation which confront us with the need to develop values and measures that are truly alternative to the subordination of life to profit or that push us to learn to adapt to it while keeping a distinct identity. As soon as these networks of social cooperation develop into systematic patterns, we have all the elements of commons: pool of resources, communities and commoning.

We have therefore that

1. Commons are diffused and pervasive within the social body. They are truly everywhere even if often invisible to us.

Commons are everywhere because all forms of social cooperation, even capitalist forms, require spaces in which people pool recources and engage in non-commodified practices. It goes without saying that this also imply that many commons are inserted as part of larger non-commons social systems that constrain and channels their selection and motivations, thus limiting and shaping their autonomy and autopoiesis.

2. They are multi-scalar, that is, present at different scales, because non-commodfied cooperation can occur at different scales, thanks to a large extent to information technology and social networks. There are however many social, economic and environmental reasons linked to the production of commons, social care, food, education and many other ‘services’ that must be developed locally first. But the very fact that commons are multi-scalar implies that these ‘local’ commons can be put in networks, so as local systems of reproduction can be enhanced with combined social powers.

3. They are also present at the interstitial level within other, more hegemonic and larger, social systems. Just look at the classic history of the labour movement (i.e. of a working class inside factory systems). We would not be able to understand this history as that of a social force without thinking about the practices of commoning, of sharing resources, of solidarity, of gift that allows the workers as social body to express this force (in strikes, in support, in patterns of mutual aid, etc.). More so, the labour movement could be a movement, sustain epochal strikes, often by socialising the work of reproduction, by bringing together (i.e. ‘structurally coupling’) families’ ‘microcommons’, by opening up relations with other social subjects that until then were ‘foreign’ to them.

However, commons cannot be reduced to the stereotypes of commons theories, and they do not have a glove fit with any model put forward by any romantic or radical versions of what constitute good or socially just systems. We do not have to fall into the fallacy of the model. To modern cosmopolitan urban subjectivities, many contemporary urban or rural commons are often messy, disempowering, claustrophobic, patriarchal, xenophobic and racist. These are obviously not the commons we want for an emancipatory perspective, and the strategic intelligence we need to develop should really learn to deal with this. But it would be dishonest and dangerous to select these out of our theoretical radar just because these are not desirable characteristics of the commons we want. The more our postmodern condition facilitates subjective nomadism (to escape relationships, jobs, places to live, group identities), the easier it is to escape the entrapment of these reactionary commons. People do this all the time. However, although nomadism allows subjectivities to change their situations, it does not necessarily change the social systems through which subjectivities are articulated and it does not prevent the reemergence of these reactionary traits in new social systems. So, for example, in many parts of Africa, women are escaping the commons while demanding land reforms to change communal practices embedded in customary laws that have often discriminated against them, both with respect to land inheritance and even land use. In these commons only men have control over land, and land rights are required for empowerment and providing livelihoods for their children. The risk however is that ‘this movement can be used to justify the kind of land reform that the World Bank is promoting, which replaces land redistribution with land titling and legalisation’, unless of course the demise and/failure of a patriarchal form of commons is met with ‘the construction of fully egalitarian commons, learning from the example of the organisations that have taken this path, like Via Campesina, the Landless Movement in Brazil, the Zapatistas’ (Federici 2008, pp. 13-14). Reactionary traits however can easily resurface even in ‘politically correct’ commons as soon as commoners seek shortcuts to decide questions of system’s boundaries (who is part of the commons?), of division of labour and distribution of payoffs, or have to deal with the perceived free riding of one group of commoners, and so on.

The solutions that commons can offer to tackle problems depend obviously on particular situations, on specific cultural mix of existing communities for example and on particular resources available for pooling. However, in a situation in which capital and commons are both pervasive systems that organise the social, it is clear that often a solution will imply a particular deal between these two, that is a particular form of their structural coupling. If together with others I set up workers’ cooperatives to sell commodities on the market in order to provide a form of income to a community, and I ground this on horizontal participation and self-management, I still have to meet particular standards, use money, I enter particular institutions that are given to me. Also, I will have to engage with the problematic of profitability (of competitiveness, of efficiency, of cost minimisation and so on), problematic that frame my competing commons (coop) also as an individual capitalist system articulated to others via the market, and this in spite of the social objectives and values of the coop.

Any contemporary institution located within broader fields of social relations, therefore, is the realm in which structural coupling between quite different social systems (commons and capital) present themselves in particular forms.

Does recognising ‘deals’ with capital as a necessary part of what constitute the real step towards selling out?

No, it only means that whatever deal we are able to cut in particular phases of movements is never enough because:

a) it excludes something or someone from benefitting it, thus it contributes to the reproduction of hierarchies and hence it is the basis for the need for new phases of perturbation (struggle);

b) it is the basis upon which capital will develop new forms. It is however also;

c) the basis upon which commons can develop new forms and try to outflank capital.

Precisely for this reason, the development of alternative social systems like commons (with their local rules and networked structures), do not necessarily only involve the creation of new institutions (with a lower degree of structural coupling with capital), but also the advancement of commons within existing institutions. Indeed, even the setting up of new commons-based institutions and associations depend on some structural coupling with capital, be it the conformity of a building with ‘health and safety’ regulations, the need to issue invoices of some sort in some activities of fund-raising, or the signing of a work contract.

However, this advancement of commons implies sooner or later a collision with other social systems governing them, the challenge to existing local rules, of capitalist ways to measure and give value to social action, its value practices, and other networked structures, especially if their development—like the analysis of enclosures and of abstract labour demonstrates in the case of capital—depends on seizing the human and natural resources mobilised by these alternatives. And it is also clear that the force that alternative systems can sustain in this collision course with other social systems (their system’s resilience) is proportional to the degree of the multiple social powers they are able to mobilise. By social system’s resilience I mean the ability of a social system to retain function and a sufficient degree of prosperity, reproducibility and social cohesion in the face of the perturbation caused by the shocks and crises of capital’s systems.

Since capital and commons are to a large extent structurally coupled social systems, these shocks and crises (such as the loss of income due for example to unemployment and economic crisis, or state victimisation criminalising particular struggles) have put to test the commons’ resilience, forcing commons to adapt and evolve. The path of this adaptation however is open, and it can lead to a greater domestication of the commons within capital’s loops (like for example the patriarchal nuclear family in the post-WWII period) or, on the contrary, the development of autonomy and resilience of the commons in spite of capital’s circuits (like for example the experience of social centres in Italy from the 1970s).

My approach here seems at odds with the narrative of classical Marxism. In classical Marxism a class, the proletariat, is the social force that brings capitalism to its knees, that abolishes this system and replaces it with a new one. Social force and social systems were somehow two distinctive entities, the former was instrumental to abolish a social system of one kind and establish another one. My underpinning hypothesis instead is that a social force only emerge, expand and create effective transformative powers vis-à-vis other social forces as a social system’s manifestation of it own powers, and this is so only to the extent it is necessary for its preservation and reproduction (and the preservation and physical/cultural/emotional reproduction of the people comprising it). In order to problematise social change, therefore, we need to problematise social forces, and to do so implies we understand social systems, in particular the commons.

The transformative journey that commons have in front of them as social force share some features with the journey capital undertook in the last few centuries of its expansion. The development of capital has occurred through this twofold terrain: the terrain of the positing of new methods to organise social cooperation under its own value practices, as a way to provide answers to current social problems (often selfgenerated by capital itself), and the struggle against other modes of production and orienting senses, measures and value practices. In the first case, for example, the imposition of capitalist measure in the factories (as local rules) offered temporary ‘solution’ to the masses of the poor and the dispossessed created by previous iterations of enclosures. It also developed on the terrain of struggles against alternative value practices alternative ways to coordinate social reproduction. Whether these alternative ways were the methods of the old (feudal) ruling class, or whether they were the self-organised methods of the communities they enclosed and destroyed (whether in the home country or along the paths of empire with their stench of murder and genocide), or whether they were the emergent patterns of mutual aid and solidarity inside the factories and working-class communities fighting for shortening of the working time, increasing wages and labour rights, the key is that capital developed through struggle, accommodation, alliances, strategic timing pursued by a variety of elements, movements and organisations of the bourgeoisie.

In the various phases of world capitalist development in the last 500 years, power blocks have alternated their government of stratified power relations and class conflict, to reabsorb this conflict and turn it into the mechanism of accumulation and therefore for the development of its form. The struggle against other modes of production and organising senses did use intellectual tools to help rationalise and prefigure the workings of the desired system, but these tools never ended up to predict the forms actually developed. So for example, the world capitalism we live in today would have been certainly unintelligible to Adam Smith. Yet, Smith’s metaphor of the ‘invisible hand’ is still today, in spite of the oligopolistic powers of modern transnational corporations, an evocative image, one that can still inspire and give confidence to the planners of market expansion and privatisation in spite of all experience.

The analysis on the continuous character of enclosures opens thus the door for its mirror image: the continuous character of the commons, their construction in a variety of ways, depended on different subjectivities and situated realities. Indeed, new forms of capital enclosures often correspond to capital’s attempt to close down previously achieved forms of commons (however inadequate, bureaucratic and instrumental to capital accumulation we may have regarded them, like the ‘welfare state’).”

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