Massimo de Angelis continues his Andean travels and is know in Bolivia. In an article on water commons in the country, he makes some very interesting general points about the relation between the commons and the state, which we’ll publish in two parts:
“Commons, understood generally as the autonomous institutions and practices of people self-organisations and self-help, are the backbone of people livelihoods all around the world. Especially in the global South, without commons people would die, because they would lack access to the basic resources like food and water necessary for life. When we hear the often-quoted statistics referring to the 40% of world population living on less than a dollar a day, we in the North tend to see only victims. We do not see self-reliant and dignified subjects from whom we have a lot to learn. Indeed, how could they live on such a low level of monetary income, if not through the fact that they pool their resources and labour together and build commons, thus overcoming the scarcity that they face as individuals? But to the external and untrained eye, commons are either invisible or opaque, because they are relational fields among a group of people that constitute itself as community, hence build some sort of wall or border around them which obscure its workings or indicate its presence to the outside only as an amorphous cluster.
Obviously, one cannot demand transparency to a commons, unless its activity create negative externalities on other commons, because a commons is not a public institution, and the borders around it — in spite of the different degree of porosity and possibility for an individual to go through — have generally a rational kernel: they represent the contextual limit of the sphere of its activity. On the other hand, we can legitimately demand transparency to a public institution because such institutions ought to benefit all of us, and not only a part of us, ought to be our commons. Hence our demand for transparency in this case implies a demand that we should all be part of its relational field and be able to exercise control over it, whether by sending people reps to its board of directors, or as social movements contesting the effects of its managerial and top-down administration. This is the same as regarding public institutions as distorted commons, i.e. to regard them in an aspirational way, as what, from the commons perspective that understand commons through the lens of commoning and grassroots democracy, they ought to be.
Now, if commons transparency and visibility is not a given property of commons, when commons become visible and invite you to see how they work and what they do, when in other words they come out, celebrate and share among themselves and communicate with others, we know there is something going on, we know that we are in the presence of a social movement that is not made of individual “citizens” or “civil society”, but of . . .commoners.
A social movements of commoners is one that seek to extend the scale of commons, extend the social power mobilised by commoning. In this sense, the struggle undertaken by this social movement is not only one that manifests itself in cathartic street demonstrations, but is also hidden in the daily reproduction of livelihoods. Actually, it is this latter activity that gives this movement both strength and its rhythmical presence into the streets. I do not think we can measure a commoners movement with the yardstick of traditional social movements where we correlate the presence on the streets with the strength of the movement. When we talk about commoners movement, strength seems to be, if not the cause, definitively the material basis of the presence in the streets. While the presence in the streets is produced through events, the strength is reproduced in daily processes, and there is an obvious lag between the time of productive contestation and the time of reproductive commoning. So for example, 500 years of indigenous resistance is not 500 years of daily street battles, but 500 years of value reproducing commoning activity that sustained and reproduced itself in spite of the massive wave of murderous enclosures deployed against it. Commoners movement is a type of social movement and social struggle we should hope to see growing and develop in the next century if any change to our conditions of life and living must occur.
One such a social movement is the one I saw at the III Feira del Agua in Cochabama. And indeed, if anybody had any doubt about the existence and relevance of commons to people lives and livelihoods, well a Fair like this should help dispel any such doubt. Spread along the four sides of a large football pitch and beyond, dozens of community water associations and cooperatives like the one of Flores Rancho that I visited the other day (see previous post) are making their own showcase, with the help of hand-made posters and polystyrene models, to mark their presence and to exchange information, knowledge and technology.”
The article then discusses in detail the local situation in different communities after attending a water fair, and adds a number of important conclusions, see part two tomorrow.