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Strategizing the commons (5): Some conclusions about the relations between Commons and Movements

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
19th 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.

This is the fifth and last installment with the conclusions of this necessary thinkpiece for transformation-oriented commoners.

Excerpted from Massimo de Angelis:

“To embark on a project of radical transformation of the present, we must ask not just how this creative ‘explosion of the middle class’ is possible—something of which every cycle of struggle reassure ourselves by bringing always new forms and modes of cooperation, democratic grassroots participation and commoning—but how can it be sustaining itself, how can it contribute to give rise to a new world? To address this question, we must briefly further explore the relation between commons and movements. These are two modalities of social systems within what we call society, the social broth that includes all social systems. Within this social broth we find social systems that reproduce themselves or die out all the time. The former give rise to a social fabric, the latter to any form of material or biographic detritus. By social fabric I mean the social space constituted by the multiplicity of social systems in their structurally coupled interactions, or deals. We can have structurally coupled interaction among individual capitals (through market exchanges, partnerships, collusions, etc.) or among commons (networks of households, associations, etc.), and across capital and commons (for example a deal between a company and a trade union). One of the key political projects of social revolution is to constitute a social fabric of a particular quality, resistance and resilience, something we are accustomed to call a new mode of production. From this perspective a social movement is a wave in the social broth that results in a change in various degree, in the quality of the social fabric. Ultimately, there are four ways to change this social fabric: through systems’ perturbation; through changes in the patterns of structural coupling; through decoupling and autonomisation of systems; through destruction of systems. None of these ways are more ‘politically correct’ than others; as they all depend on the particular situation and balance of forces in which social movements find themselves. But what we can say is that social movements acquire a class meaning when the change in the social fabric that they give rise to provokes a change in the way capital has to strategise its own reproduction. Each social movement as a succession of waves and cycles is a recomposing and decomposing force, it favours certain types of connections and destroys others, and it creates sociality and creates alien differentiations with the ‘enemy’ while at the same time overcoming alien relations among commoners. But if social movements favour connections and sociality, it does not mean that they create a new social fabric that can reproduce and sustain itself in characteristics that we may recognise as fundamentally alternative to the current one dominated by capital. This is because, as we have discussed in section 2, the cycles of social movements, the waves they are made of, mirror capital’s movement in terms of class decomposition and recomposition following the ups and down of economic cycles.

Precisely for their own limited characteristics, social movements can only contribute to the making of alternatives; they themselves are not the alternative. The latter require different types of cycles, cycles with different objectives and rhythms. It is thus worthwhile to reflect analytically on some distinct characteristics between social movements and commons.

In the first place, from the perspective of their pre-conditions, they both presuppose one another. Social movements cannot be conceived without a commons basis for the reproduction of the lives of the subjects participating in them as well as the form of their sociality. As discussed in section 3, we would not be able to understand the labour movement, without thinking about the practices of commoning, of sharing resources, of solidarity, of gift that allows the workers as social body to express their force in the struggle against capital. All the same, the occupy movement in New York City or the Arab Spring in Cairo or Tunisia would not be possible without a commons basis in which material and immaterial resources are shared in different modalities.

Correspondently, the reproduction of commons and correspondent communities is often predicated on particular deals with capital, obtained as a result of struggles that have occurred in the past and given rise to particular institutional forms and cultures.

In the second place, social movements and commons sequences have different starting and ending points. Their cycle intertwines, and coincides often, but they are not always identical. The starting point of a social movement expresses itself as a concentration of forces in a point, a clashing event, that then opens up to a series of events moving in waves, the end of which is a sort of deal with other social forces of power whether it does bring or does not bring advantages. It goes without saying that the type of deal depends on the web of power relations.

The starting point of commons in contemporary capitalism instead, is always a given pact with the devil, a deal, and the resources that can be pooled at that given time. The end point of the commons instead is its reproduction, and this passes through an event that allows it to do so: the harvest, the payment of a social wage, the sharing of a meal.

The process of social revolution therefore must seek ways to couple social movement and commons, to synchronise their respective sequences, to make more clearly the subjects of movements commoners and make commoners protestors. Historically speaking, social revolution can be illustrated as (a process) in which each iteration of the movement produces a value for the commons.

This relation between commons and movements points to one thing: it is not a question of whether we should prioritise movements through commons or commons through social movements. In its general character, the question of organisation is the question of how it is possible to facilitate their co-evolution in a direction that can lead to a radical transformation of the social fabric that can sustain new forms of livelihood’s reproduction. Given the location of reproduction commons within a field of power relations, both commons and social movements are fundamental, hence a novel form of organisation must keep both in mind.

However, capital gives rise to three ways for commons and social movements to be either co-opted or repressed, and all these are actions upon subjects:

a) criminalisation: the state and discursive strategies that use organised violence and control of mass media to reproduce capitalist markets, the correspondent regime of corporate property and interactions among commons.

b) temptation: the micro-ludic capital strategies that re-create subjects as atomised free subjects, as opposed to commonised free subjects, i.e. subjects in association with others: marketing, mortgaging, commodified fields of desires, constitution of subjects and status as consumers. Temptation is at work if, in spite of other existing ways to construct and actualise desires or meet reproduction needs, subjects act as market agents to acquire money, status, identities, and means of reproduction.

c) reproduction need (socially determined). The preconditions to one’s own existence and preservation must be met. If no other ways are present or conceived but through an engagement as productive node within capitalist market, then subjects are compelled to embrace capitalist markets.

The sustainability of commons and social movements of course depend on the extent to which these capitals’ strategies upon subjects create divisions and decompose movements and commons.

Thus listed, they point at three objectives for the political organisation of the commons:

a) struggle to de-criminalise movements and legitimise the extension of commons and growing sustainable relations among them: critical pedagogy, education, media, communication, critical mass.

b) reconfiguration of ludic energies, motivation and identity through commoning: doing, sharing, valuing, deciding, designing.

c) extending the realm of the non-commodified field of reproduction. This is the starting point and centre of gravity of the commons organisation: our bodies (care, nurture, health, happiness), our energies (food and water, heat, power), our communications (media), our environments (earth).

However, put in this way, these objectives of the political organisation of the commons seem to be ranked to correspond to the powers faced by commons that either enclose them or compete with them. In terms of the problem of long-term organisational thrust however we must revert this ranking. The starting point of strategic undertaking and centre of gravity is c), followed by b) and a). Only starting from a problem of reproduction (c), and contributing to the development of inclusive, convivial and resilient forms of commoning to reappropriate the conditions of reproduction (b), that de-criminalisation and legitimacy can be obtained, hence critical mass achieved (a).

Ultimately, the latter may coincide with commons at a new scale of social action, a larger circle of cooperation and mutual aid, engaging in social movements that are stronger and wider in scope. The bottom line is that the material basis of the power from below is given by the degree of autonomy in reproducing the commoners’ bodies and social bonds. The movement from c) to a) therefore is a moment of a generative loop, like the rotary movement of engines and pistons that give thrust and ultimately provide linear movement. Or, to follow an organic metaphor, like each individual cells that seek reproduction and only by doing so in structural coupling with other cells, gain strength, develop immune systems and resilience, even giving rise to new forms of life—organisms and species — as emergent properties of their interaction.”

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