Commons, Market, Capital and State (2): Commoning as resistance and disruption

Article: The „Great Transformation“ to „Great Cooperation“. Commons, Market, Capital and the State. By Andreas Exner | 9. April 2010

A translation from a important German-language blog contribution to the debate on the commons, from a more radical ‘anti-market’ point of view. The title refers to the classic ‘Great Transformation’, from Karl Polanyi, in which he describes the great transformation towards capitalism. In the first part of his contribution, Andreas focused on the system-confirming aspects of commons-oriented thinking, leading to ‘distorted commons’, while in this second part, he stresses the disruptive aspects.

For the full article, inclusive of bibliography, go here.

Andreas Exner: Resistive commons as tipping points

“In contrast to those types of commons, we should discern another understanding and type of commoning, corresponding to practices of resistance against market and capital. Actually, communities as they exist today constitute and produce commons in cases where something is to be defended against the grip of private property, the market, and valorisation (see e.g. Diegues 1998) – if this might be true in the same way for historical commons and commoners, which positioned themselves against social domination and appropriation, we cannot further discuss here. A concept of the commons which would be derived from this kind of social reality would not be an abstract analytical construct which everywhere sees „commons”, from language to genetic information, not leading much further, but would be a concept grasping the real movement that embodies emancipative qualities.

The crucial point in such a movement is to attack capital practically and to foster an alternative mode of organizing human praxis and social life. In this perspective, it is not the universe of commons which can be described in a static and abstract (and sometimes even naturalizing) way which is most interesting, but the tipping points for commons becoming dysfunctional for capital are of paramount importance and should be analyzed in a dynamic and concrete way.

The many forms of resistance being rooted in the commons and directed against the imperialist claim of market, capital and the state, are the main precondition – paradoxically – for market, capital and the state to exist in the longer run. Labour power would have long ago been destroyed by capital if the working class movement had not achieved social regulations by way of self-defense. The market does not work without a minimum of ethical values which it is incapable to produce on its own. Disciplinary measures affected by the state use capacities and dispositions generated mostly within the family. And even a class in school, which is social group formed by social domination, displays elements of commoning.

The capitalist mode of production always exists in combination with non-capitalist modes of production: modes which are rooted in pre-capitalist times (e.g. some sorts of commons); modes which have been developed against capital (e.g. some sorts of cooperatives); modes that developed together with capital and which structurally depend on it (such as the modern private household or simple commodity production by professionals and small enterprises).

It is not solely a question of analytically stating this, but it is crucial to clarify tipping points of collective resistance grounded in commons and producing them, which are able to shift the balance between capitalist and non-capitalist modes of production (and transform the character of non-capitalist modes subordinated to capital as well). Pushing back capital in the last instance means to overcome it – were market and capital not oriented towards expansion and continued enclosures driven by its inner structural logic, there was no reason to struggle against it.

In this sense, Massimo de Angelis correctly explains: „We need to decouple from the mechanism of capital’s self-preservation, from the mechanism of homeostasis through which capital derives ist oxygen, and ground the reproduction of our livelihoods on a different terrain. This process of decoupling and constitution coincides with the problematisation of the outside. In a word, we must ask again and again how do we (re)produce, sustain and extend an outside to capital’s value practices” (de Angelis 2007, 226). Und er führt noch deutlicher aus: „…capital generates itself through enclosures, while subjects in struggle generate themselves through commons. Hence ‘revolution’ is not struggling for commons, but through commons, not for dignity, but through dignity“ (a.a.O., 239).

Such tipping points we might recognize in the way commons of the emancipative type are constituted – I am talking about „resistive commons“ here – and in the type of resources, which should become commons or are interpreted as commons. At this point, the blind spot (which is more than a spot, actually) of the usual commons-debate appears: the question of how to appropriate the means of production and social infrastructures.

Linking commons and solidarity economy debates might enable us to make substantial progress in this respect. Focusing on the appropriation of means of production by self-managed structures, which is a core issue of solidarity economy, directs our awareness towards precisely the blind spot. On the other hand, the commons-debate might help solidarity economy by supplying knowledge of the preconditions and functional principles of „communities”. In this regard, the research on the commons has produced a rich array of insights.

Markets are anti-commons

The research on commons shows that markets are dysfunctional for the development of commons – not only structurally but also on the level of motivations for individual action (see Vatn 2007 and literature cited there). Thus, institutions are seen as a counter-principle to abstract economic value, i.e. the market, which organizes norms and bargaining procedures. From such a point of view, studying concrete social practices and institutionalized ways of regulation becomes a rich source of knowledge relevant for any attempt to reinvent, newly constitue or extend commons.

Regardless of this critical knowledge on the deficits and fallacies of markets, many engaged in the commons-debate however argue that markets must exist in a society based on commons as well, even conceiving markets as a commons. In this way, the market is critized on the one hand, but is reaffirmed on the other hand as a totalizing social mediation by way of equivalent exchange. This contradiction would vanish, it is argued, if we take into account the research done by Karl Polanyi, who allegedly has shown that markets are a basic feature of any human society. Thus, it is concluded, the way of socially embedding markets is decisive, whereas to critize markets in a fundamental manner misses the point. One would have to differentiate between markets-as-places and markets-as-abstract space. The latter type of markets should be overcome, while the first one will continue to be the concrete place of exchange and in this way will be essential for any commons-based society of the future.

The uncritical reference to Polanyis approach results in importing some of its deficiencies to the commons-debate. (If Polanyi actually did hold that markets are an ahistorical feature of societes I do not further discuss here.) The crucial point in Polanyis thought is the idea that markets in capitalist society are disembedded. In this way, he overlooks that this is only the view of liberal ideology, which sees markets endowed with an autonomous functional logic, working in a social vacuum. In reality, markets always are constituted politically and socially. Furthermore, the position of Polanyi implies a constant economic logic which is in some societies embedded, in others disembedded.

Let’s take a concrete look at a social web which from the modern point of view seems to be a market, the Greek agora. As a result of a more accurate analysis, the agora, despite its similarities with modern markets that a perspective coined by modern markets might be attempted to see, is a very different way of human relation. Alfred Bürgin explains: „Because the polis was constituted by households, a totalizing concept of an ‘economy’, the (abstract) idea: ‘the economy’, did not exist. However, one had precise concepts and a rich experience in many sectors of producing: in agriculture, the oikos, in the financial management of the polis etc. There, ideas, recommendations and teachings could be developed and appear as subjects; but each of them could only have a limited content, refer to concrete sections, but never could represent economic relationships on the whole or general perspectives” (Bürgin 1996, 41f.)

In contrast to the market economy which only comes into existence together with the capital relation, Bürgin further states: „The free availability and combination of all factors of production is a precondition of a market economy. This was not the case in antiquity: slave labour and labour of politically rightless were dominant. Land was the monopoly of the citizens. If in the 5. and 4. century there are markets in Attica, if there circulates money, if there exist trade and commerce, we have to see and interpret these phenomena in the framework of the Attic economy and society; in this endeavour, concepts and ideas which have been developed in the course of modern markets and on modern markets are of no use and lead to erroneous results (1996, 44f.).

Markets of the Middle Ages would require a separate analysis, which would point out their differences both in relation to the Greek agora as to the market economy of the developed capital relation. This cannot be further discussed here.

In any case, the partial and contradictory critique of markets in the discourse on the commons and on solidarity economy alike, points towards a general problem: the impossibility to think an alternative form of social mediation beyond market and the state, so that the tipping point leading from a society dominated by capital to one based on commons must be missed. However, the ability to dominate and control non-capitalist, commons-based modes of production (implying their partial distortion), is crucially dependent on the fact that society is mediated not be direct human relations (as in commons), but by way of the abstract forms of commodity and state law.

Hence, commons remain fragmented and in a subaltern position, while capital and state constitute society and define the relation, position and function of the fragments of commons. At the same time, capital and state are rooted in the substratum the commons-debate is studying – it could also be denoted as civil society, terrain of struggles structured by social domination, being integrally related to capital and state.

The lack of understanding of structural differences, differences of social forms as exemplified by commons versus markets, also seduces to appreciate accidental features as essential features. Contrary to other positions, we must stress that collective ownership is not the decisive feature of the commons. A capitalist joint stock company – just to give an example – is owned collectively, yet in the form of capital. Vatn is clear in this regard: „Despite the difference in naming, both private and common property regimes involve several agents. As common property is property for a group of co-owners, the corporation is normally also owned by a multitude of agents. The difference lies in the relationships between co-owners and the way they can trade the property. … Co-owners of a common property are not free to sell any part of the common resource…” (Vatn 2007, 625).

So it is the social connex, the form of social metabolism and the corresponding property regime which is the key point. While in the case of a joint stock company, we find private property, i.e. the possibility to sell property, i.e. the equivalence of a part of the company with another „object of value” of any kind, implying the possibility to accumulate this abstract economic wealth, in the case of the commons we find the features of non-tradability, of non-value (in the abstract economic sense), of non-market goods, of something which cannot be sold or bought.

Meta-Commons instead of the state

Since commons and commoning are mostly regarded as a principle of social organization beyond markets and the state, it is quite surprising that in many cases people conceive of the relation between the commons and the state as a peaceful coexistence.

Such a view can only be held if it is ignored that state and capital are in close structural (and not in a mere personal) relation – hence defending commons against capital by invoking the state as „protector” is very questionable. In this way, and that is probably even more problematic, the social features of the state are misinterpreted as resulting from peaceful discussions and enlightend elites, so that the real importance of commoning is neglected, despite the own claim that commons should be recognized as a social reality in its own right.

In fact, one must understand social features of the state as a success of militant, commons-based social struggles (especially of the working class), which resulted in sedimenting, inscribing commons in state apparatuses, namely in the case of social security systems. Furthermore, the state sometimes codified commons of pre-modern origin and in this way gave them a certain stability – examples would be (in Austria) the general right of way in forests (which became a law only in the 1970s) or the right to collect fruits and mushrooms.

Strategically, the state should only be overcome if emancipative social services and functions can be unhingend from its apparatus and can be reproduced by a commons-based way of community. And the state can only be overcome if the capital relation is attacked effectively and is replaced by an alternative mode of organizing production.

In this perspective there is of course much more to do than is currently discussed in the debates on the commons and solidarity economy – regardless of the fact, that in these debates we find the necessary and indispensible points of departure and experiences for any progress. Much more will be required on the level of a thinking about „meta-commons“, trying to discern elements of their establishment.

Free software is the sector of the commons which shows most potential to tackle the question of meta-commons, since this organically evolves out of the experience of global cooperation in knowledge production. Maybe experiences and ideads of free software producers might be fruitful in order to overcome the peculiar gap between a quite narrow, civil society-oriented localism when it comes to issues of land etc. on the one hand and a state-affirmative globalism on the other, with regard to the atmosphere, the oceans etc. – leaving no middle ground in the debate on natural commons. Here again, it would be helpful to realize that commons should not be a mere supplement to market and capital, if we discuss them in an emancipative perspective, but that we really must orient ourselves towards the production of a historically new, complex pattern of social integration: without abstract economic value and its legal expression, i.e. private property.

The „Great Transformation“ to the capitalist mode of production, we might paraphrase Karl Polanyi, has to be continued by a similar Great Transformation to „Great Cooperation“ (Arild Vatn). Along this way, commons should be understood firstly as a field of struggles, secondly as a precondition and thirdly as a result of struggles against capital, market and the state.

Anything else menaces to only reproduce those structures – which depend on commons, but distort and destroy them at the same time. This menace really becomes a dark one at the historical limits of the capitalist mode of production, since commons might be able to degenerate to a core element of a new, non-capitalist mode of social domination. For an effective realization of the potentials of the commons-debate, a critique which is radical in the best sense and does not shrinks back from its results is a necessary companion.”

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