Essay of the Day: The More-Than-Human Commons: commoning is caring

A really excellent and well-written (draft) essay on the implications of the commons for how we relate to each other and to other natural beings:

* Source: The More-than-Human Commons : From Commons to Commoning. Patrick Bresnihan. Forthcoming Chapter in Space, Power and the Commons, Routledge.)

Excerpted from Patrick Bresnihan:

“Where the more-than-human commons departs from other interpretations is in recognizing how the starting point is not an individual subject separated from other people and the world around them, but a relational subject who is always already caught up in a world that is intimately shared . This understanding is not based on an ideal but on the materially and socially constituted relations and practices that tie humans and non-humans together within a particular collective or territory. If we talk of ‘use-rights’ in the commons then these must be contingent on ongoing participation in the production and care of the commons understood as the entire collective of humans, animals, artifacts, elements that are necessary to maintain life processes. This meaning can already be found in the roots of the word ‘commons’: ‘com’ (together) and ‘munis’ (under obligation). First, this tells us that the commons is produced together, reflecting our inter-dependence, the assumption that our world is already shared. Second, and arising from this, the obligation that such inter-dependence demands of us. The commons is not a ‘thing’ that we have access to because we hold a title deed or authorization, but something that is ours because we produce and care for it, because we common.”

The Social Commons as a perspective on the commons:

“A second perspective on the commons that has become popular within and outside the academy shifts attention away from the so-called ‘natural’ commons, focussing instead on the emergent possibilities of the ‘social’ or ‘immaterial’ commons. These include the knowledge and cultural commons (Hyde 2010), the digital commons and peer-to-peer production (Bauwens 2005) and the biopolitical commons (Hardt & Negri 2009). While the political perspectives that inform these analyses differ, they all assume an analytic distinction between the ‘immaterial’ commons and the ‘material’ commons. In his article ‘Two Faces of the Apocalypse’, for example, Michael Hardt describes the difference between anti-capitalist activists and climate change activists at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 15) in Copenhagen (Hardt 2010). While the former insist that ‘another world is possible’, the latter adopt the slogan: ‘There is no Planet B’. Hardt traces these different political positions to their contrasting notions of the commons. On one hand, anti-capitalists consider the commons as a social/economic commons, representing the product of human labor and creativity, including ideas, knowledge and social relationships. On the other, environmental activists speak for the ecological commons, identified as the earth and its ecosystems, including the atmosphere, rivers, forests and forms of life which interact with them. Hardt argues that the former does not operate under the logic of scarcity, while the latter does. While the first perspective on the commons emphasizes the natural resources on which we all rely, the second emphasizes the social resources that have become increasingly central to contemporary forms of capitalist accumulation. In the first case, nature (commons) is a stock of bio-physical resources which, as Hardt identifies, is subject to the logic of scarcity, bringing us into the domain of liberal political economy and the institutions of formal and informal property rights. In the second, nature is no longer represented as a material background limiting human activity but becomes something malleable and infinitely reproducible, subject to re-combinant technologies and human creativity. This is the domain of neoliberal political economy and the fantasies of contemporary capitalist (re)production (Cooper 2007). The problem with this distinction is that we end up with one form of the commons that appears to be asocial (excluding the socially productive and reproductive labor of humans involved in caring for the ÔnaturalÕ resources they rely on), and another that appears to be anatural (excluding the material limits and properties of more-than-human bodies involved in the (re)production of the ‘social’ commons). While the distinction between the material/natural commons and the immaterial/social commons can be analytically helpful it tends to be over-stated, obscuring the continuity and inseparability of the material and the immaterial, the natural and the social.” (

The commons is not a resource, but a relation:

“A third perspective on the commons does not admit such a distinction and thus takes us in a different direction. From feminist scholars (Federici 2001; Mies & Bennholdt-Thomsen 1999, 2001; Shiva 2010; Starhawk 1982), geographers (Blomley 2008; St. Martin 2009) and historians (Barrell 2010; Linebaugh 2008, 2011; Neeson 1996; Thompson 1993) we learn that the commons was never a ‘resource’. The commons is not land or knowledge. It is the way these, and more, are combined, used and cared for by and through a collective that is not only human but also non-human. That the commons can continue to be identified as a ÔresourceÕ and not as a complex of relations between humans and non-humans attests to the long history of invisibility associated with Ònonrepresentational, affective interactions with other-than-humansÓ (De la Cadena 2010 : 346). The ÔinvisibilityÕ of peasant and indigenous cultures and forms of life has been well documented by historians and anthropologists (Brody 2002; Bird Rose 2006; De la Cadena 2010; Escobar 1995; Linebaugh 2008; Thompson 1993); colonialism begins with the erasure of any existing claims to territory or history on the part of those who are being colonized. The concept of terra nullius refers to the identification of ÔwasteÕ land, or land that has not been inscribed with human culture and production. This term was not just used in the conquest of territories in the ÔNew WorldsÕ but also in the enclosure of common lands, moors and heaths, that took place in Britain during the eighteenth century (Goldstein 2013). Silvia Federici, for example, argues that enclosure relies on the epistemological separation of the social and the natural spheres, the productive and the reproductive. She reads this separation-through-enclosure as something far more fundamental than simply the privatization of land. The relegation of ‘women’s work’ (childbirth, child rearing, cleaning, cooking, caring) to the domestic sphere outside of the ‘productive’ economic sphere represents the ‘naturalizing’ of this kind of labour : “[a]ll the labour that goes into the production of life, including the labour of giving birth to a child, is not seen as the conscious interaction of a human being with nature, that is a truly human acivity, but rather as an activity of nature, which produces plants and animals unconsciously and has no control over this process” (Mies 1998: 45). While reproduction is most often associated with human reproduction and the management of the ‘household’, from childbirth, to childcare and healthcare, cleaning and cooking, reproduction also extends beyond the confines of the house narrowly construed as four walls. Federici herself describes how her time in Nigeria observing and documenting the labor and activity of women in mostly subsistence economies led her to extend the notion of reproduction (Federici 2012): the household, or oikos, was not just a home or family but a wider sphere of communal reproduction that involved direct relations with the land, water, plants and animals, for exampleii. The conclusions that are drawn from these insights is that capitalist enclosure and biopolitical control necessarily involve the de-valorizing and ‘invisibilizing’ of those myriad, situated relations and practices of (re)production that exist between people and the manifold resources they rely on (De Angelis 2007; Federici 2001; Shiva 2010). What is significant is that this understanding of the commons focuses on the particular relations and practices that are characterize the commons as a different mode of (re)production.

As Peter Linebaugh explains, “[t]o speak of the commons as if it were a natural resource is misleading at best and dangerous at worst, the commons is an activity and, if anything, it expresses relationships in society that are inseparable from relations to nature. It might be better to keep the word as a verb, rather than as a noun, a substantive” (Linebaugh 2008: 279). This is why the noun ‘commons’ has been expanded into the continuous verb ‘commoning’, to denote the continuous making and re-making of the commons through shared practice. In this way the commons is not a static community that exists a priori or a society to come a posteriori but something that is only ever constituted through acting and doing in common. At the heart of this relational, situated interdependence of humans and non-humans is not an impoverished world of ‘niggardly nature’, nor an infinitely malleable world of Ôtechno-nature,Õ but a more-than-human commons that navigates between limits and possibilities as they arise (Bresnihan forthcoming). Nor is the more-than-human commons a pre-modern ideal that has been lost or marginalized. It arises wherever there is an immediate and intimate understanding that the world is shared, that human and non-human life is interdependent. This not an ideal norm but a materially and socially constituted reality that has been documented in many different settings (Linebaugh 2008; Scott 1990)

There are new fields of research that can help us to decipher what is going on in the more-than-human commons. These include the work of anthropologists examining indigenous cosmologies and relations with nature and territory (De la Cadena; Escobar 1999; Viveiros Castro 1998; Rose 2004), as well as post-humanist and vital materialist theory (Barad 2003; Bennett 2010; De la Bellacasa 2010, 2012; Papadopolous 2010, 2010a) that help shift the methodological and epistemological lens away from subjects and objects to the relata, the relations that constitute our world (Barad 2003). These rich literatures can help us disrupt the liberal humanist epistemologies that both individualize and place humans at the centre of world-making processes. In terms of the more-than-human commons this also means making an intellectual leap into contexts where social and material resources are already immediately and intimately shared between humans and non-humans.”

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