Strategizing the commons (1): Introduction

* 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 few on the transformation of the present society.

We’ll present it in five installments as a necessary thinkpiece for transformation-oriented commoners.


“Commons movements’ first goal is addressing directly different needs of reproduction by mobilising the natural and creative resources at their disposal. On the other hand, movements of protest mobilise these resources to put forward claims to the state so as to prevent the cut in these resources or their extension.

For this reason, it is possible to find ideological and class divisions between commons movements and protest movements, which provide a fertile ground for capital to use these divisions and further its livelihood and ecological, crisis-ridden agenda. It is therefore becoming a vital necessity to develop paradigmatic horizons that favour an epistemic decoupling from capital, and a sense of how it is possible to link the formation of resilient alternatives that address the problems of ecology and livelihood posed by these crises, while at the same time building social movements that favour these alternatives and open more spaces for their development. We therefore face the double problem of how to link together the positive movement for commons to the negative movement of class. This paper seeks to shed some light on the relation between commons and capital today in the context of current crises, the patterns and risks of commons ‘cooptation’ by market mechanisms, and the potentials and opportunities for decoupling from capital.” (

Introductory Discussion

Excerpted from the introduction to the essay, by Massimo de Angelis:

“We can postulate the development of four phenomena.

First, the growth of struggles of different sectors within the global society throwing a spanner in the wheel and resisting the reduction in rights and entitlements necessary for further neoliberal governance of the crisis, against debt and demanding some form of re-distributive justice to the state. This is what we will refer to as social movements.

Second, the growth of collective self-help solutions to the problems of social reproduction faced by communities. This corresponds to what we call the development of the commons.

Third, the development and refinement of capital’s commons cooptation strategies, or what I have elsewhere (De Angelis 2012) called commons fix.

Fourth, the development and refinement of strategies of repression of struggles and enclosures of commons.

In this paper I will not discuss in detail these four postulated developments, but problematise the interrelation among the first three for the purpose of contributing to the debate over the establishment of alternatives to capitalism.

Indeed, what underpins this analysis is an attempt to answer, or at least develop a framework with which to start to answer an important naïve question. The role of naïve questions, Socrates taught us, is to problematise the systems of knowledge at the basis of our certainties, of our mental schemes through which we give meaning to the world around us and thus intervene in it. In this paper I want to address very big and naïve questions, in fact, meta-questions at the basis of what we may call a critical theory of the commons. How can social movements and struggles change the world? And how can they do it in the direction of a far better place for all (or at least the ‘99%’), more convivial and cohesive, socially economically and environmentally just, where dignity, peace, freedom, autonomy, solidarity, conviviality, equality are not so much articles of faith, but guiding values of an orienting compass of ongoing social transformation? I do not intend nor aspire to provide a firm answer, as this can really be generated through praxis.

Here I only want to discuss few points that I believe must be considered as part of the answer.

I begin by arguing that first, in order to ground this question in the broad field of power relations, we must have an understanding of the systemic forces we are up against. Second, the fact that these are systemic forces implies that struggles—even if they seek a radical transformation of the system and even when ‘victorious’—can be absorbed and become part of the system (co-opted), thus renewing it and sustaining it. This gives rise to the first fallacy we have to guard from, what I term the fallacy of the political. This is the belief that a political recomposition following sustained social movements could generate and sustain, through any sort of political representation, a radical change in social relations and systems of social reproduction. I argue this is not possible given the (adaptive) nature of capitalist system. Together with two other fallacies that I briefly discuss (of the model and of the subject) the fallacy of the political points crucially at the need to distinguish between social and political revolution or, in terms of the systems that need to underpin these in order to sustain social and political revolution, between commons and movements.

This paper thus discusses the relation between these two (correspondent to the first two contemporary development I have identified above).

Commons have as a first goal that of addressing directly the various needs of reproduction of different communities by mobilising the natural and creative resources at their disposal or that they are able to identify and reclaim from other social forces. Often these resources may be pooled across a community (an association for example), but they can also be reclaimed from the detritus left by capital’s accumulation (such as Argentinean cooperatives in factories abandoned by their owners, or empty buildings or land left aside for speculative purposes) or by mass movements against their privatisation (like the Bolivian ‘water war’ in 2001 that saw the mobilisation of grassroots water associations initiating a mass movement). If commons have a long tradition of turning into movements, on the other hand social movements of protest mobilise resources to put forward claims to the state so as to prevent cut in entitlements or demand their extension. Recent movements such as the Arab Spring in 2011 and the Occupy movement in 2011-2012 showed that movements do this by pooling resources and coordinating actions and decisions through inclusive and horizontal decision making processes. Movements therefore are based on commons—without which they could not have materiality—and commons require movements to keep capital’s claims at bay and extend their organisational and productive reach.

In the literature on social movements or commons this broad relationship between commons and movements is insufficiently problematised and theorised. To offer an example from the literature on commons, the seminal extensive work of Elinor Ostrom so much focused on the sustainability of commons, offers little guidance on the need for commons to organize vis-à-vis external social forces such as capital in order to be sustainable.

In what follows, by discussing some relations between commons, movements, and capital, I aim at a first tentative answer to the meta-question: our world can be changed by developing a new mode of production (social revolution through commons) while keeping at bay the old one and reclaiming resources from it (political revolution, through movements).”

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