The ‘Capitalist’ Commons as Plan B to save the system from fundamentalist neoliberalism?

In an extensive essay, George Caffentzis thinks we must be weary of commons that are conceived as saving the system of capital from fundamentalist neoliberalism, and believes we must learn to distinguish between ‘capitalist commons’ and ‘anti-capitalist commons’. The essay examines the Zapatistas, Live8 and the Hobohemia Commons of the 30’s as case studies helping us distinguish one from the other.

* Source: The Future of ‘The Commons’: Neoliberalism’s ‘Plan B’ or the Original Disaccumulation of Capital? George Caffentzis

Excerpted from George Caffentzis:

Part 1: The Capitalist Commons:

“Ostrom’s reliance on social capital (the commonism in capitalism) to explain commons behaviour is part of a tendency among capitalist intellectuals that developed as a complement to neoliberalism.

The apparent triumph of neoliberalism with its aim to totalise the reign of capital has created its own reaction, that is, the conviction that there is a necessary ‘commons’ to capitalism itself. Thus the notion of ‘social capital’ and the importance of ‘community’ and ‘trust’ have been brought to the fore at the very moment of the so-called triumph of the market.28 In fact, this led to a re-recognition of a social ur-level before contract and ‘the market’ that structures them (which had been discussed for the first time by David Hume in Scotland during the eighteenth century) and is a sine qua non of capitalist accumulation.

These friends of capitalism revealed that neoliberalism was capitalism’s own worst enemy, especially when not controlled by the threat of an alternative. For capitalism can reach, both theoretically and practically, what I call the ‘Midas Limit’ (when all transactions are based on pure utility maximising without any concern for the poorly sanctioned rules of fair exchange, and hence are surfeited with fraud and deception, or in other words, individualism gone wild). Such a generalised condition threatens the system’s own survival as illustrated by the periodic crises produced by a generalised ‘lack of trust’ from the days of the burst of the South Sea Bubble when the system reached one of the first Midas limits. Some have speculated that this limit was again reached in the so-called ‘’ era of the late 1990s when Enron and Tyco executives (among thousands of others) were largely looking to the value of their own stock portfolios rather than the long-term health of the corporations they were running. There is little doubt that an even more dangerous Midas limit was reached once more in the ‘subprime’ mortgage crisis of 2007 that has led to the freezing of credit and a worldwide recession in 2009. This era has given what might be thought to be oxymoronic creatures, capitalist moralists or business ethicists, a new burst of employment in lamenting the ‘state of the world’ and drawing up new rules to generate trust in the executors of capital’s will.

Once this productivity of the commons qua firm is recognised, planning can begin to determine its greatest capitalist potential. This is exactly what the World Bank sees as the purpose of its support for ‘community resource management’ (while still firmly holding on to the overall neoliberal model on the macro-level). Indeed, the World Bank now regularly includes ‘common property management groups’ among the ‘civil society’ institutions it is increasingly interested in supporting. Of course, these commons organisations are to be integrated into the larger project of making the world safe for neoliberalism. Indeed, the World Bank’s integration of common property into its domain has been gathering momentum since 1992. In 1995 it founded the ‘Common Property Resource Management Group’.

Sachs has become one of the articulators (along with researchers like Ostrom and Binswanger) of a neoliberal ‘Plan B’ meant to use the ‘social capital’ appropriate to the commons to counter the threat to capitalism posed by ‘the Poors’. The question for them is, ‘how can a commons and/or public good become useful for capital accumulation?’ They do not assume, as the doctrinaire neoliberals do, that these products of collective choice and rule-making inevitably imply a reduction of accumulation. Sachs went on to ally himself with Blair’s electoral machine, and with Bono and Live8 he devised a successful strategy of confusing the anti-globalisation movement. In retrospect, I see that the key to this strategy was the confusion between capitalist and anti-capitalist commons. This confusion intensified with the beginning of the Obama campaign for the US Presidency that began a year later. As he wrote in his campaign book, The Audacity of Hope in 2006, neoliberalism (what the Bush Administration ideologues called ‘the Ownership Society’) was leading to a political catastrophe for capitalism in the US by creating harsh class divisions, an uncompetitive working class, and a corrupt and irresponsible capitalist class. Obama’s answer to US capitalism’s ills was and is similar to Sach’s answer for Africa: communal actions and institutions must be tolerated in order to make a functioning capitalism possible.

Obama, on becoming President, has fashioned an Administration willing to apply this maxim using trillions of dollars of government funds to undertake a wide spectrum of actions that appear ‘collectivist,’ ‘socialist’ and ‘commonist’ to a doctrinaire neoliberal, from taking control of the banking sector to demanding a specific restructuring of the auto industry. But the aim of these actions is to return the economy back to its pre-crisis state of minimal state intervention not to proliferate permanent commons. Consequently, unless we are clear about the conflicting uses of the notion of the commons, everything fuzzily congeals so that Live8, ‘end poverty’ campaigners and President Obama can appear to be allies of the Zapatista movement! The political conflicts (and hesitations) during the G8 meetings can be understood as a clash (and a merging) between politics motivated by these two conflicting (but confused) conceptions of the commons. A similar point can be made about the Obama campaign and his Administration. Most important for anti-capitalists is the future of the commons, or in other words, whether ‘the commons’ will be ceded to those who want to enclose it semantically and use it to further neoliberal capitalism’s ends or whether we will continue to infuse in ‘the commons’ our struggle for another form of social life beyond the coordination of capital? In a sense, however, the future outside of capital’s time is created by commoning, so the question we posed at the beginning – ‘does the commons have a future?’ – is a malapropism; the real question is: ‘can there be a future without the commons?’”

Part 2: The Anticapitalist Commons:

“There is another concept of the commons that is in opposition to capitalist accumulation. In fact, these anti-capitalist commons must be enclosed in order to separate the producers from the means of production and subsistence to sustain the accumulation process. These anti-capitalist areas have their basis in both pre-capitalist and post-capitalist time and their action congeals a process of dis-accumulation.

In fact, at every point in the history of capitalism new commons are formed (and are almost invariably criminalized in due course). Many of these commons arise from the appropriation of new technologies by workers and refer to a future form of production and reproduction. Three examples of such ‘post-capitalist’ commons are those created by the eighteenth-century Atlantic pirates, the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century hobos of US Hobohemia, and the late twentieth- and early twenty-first century programmers and hackers of the free software movement throughout the planet.34 After all, the pirates expropriated the most advanced machine of their period, the ocean-going ship, ran it on new communalist rules and used it to plunder the plunders of American wealth. The hoboes similarly expropriated the railroads and railroad land for their own purposes, and developed new codes for appropriating these machines and land. Finally, the programmers and hackers of the free software movement are expropriating the most sophisticated technology of the age, creating new rules for sharing it (such as the ‘creative commons license’), and using it to undermine the power of the large software monopolists like Microsoft, Inc. They all have a rather limited class composition, it is true; its activists being mostly male and white. But these are far from the only examples of the creation of new commons in the heart of capitalism and we have many examples of Africans, indigenous Americans and women establishing commons that presupposed the existence of capitalism.

There are a large number of examples of the creation of a commons out of capitalist terrain where time future becomes time present.”

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