The concept of commonism as introduced by Nick Dyer-Witheford

Excerpted from an essay by Mike Neary and Joss Winn:

One of the more sustained renditions of a new commons is the notion of ‘commonism’ elaborated by Dyer-Witheford (2006, 2007), who, in a number of articles has sought to promote the concept of commonism as a way to avoid the bad history of authoritarian state communism, while, at the same time, providing an antidote to centralised planning and the restrictions of private property through new forms of collective ownership. An important aspect of the notion of commonism is the way in which it connects with issues of technological production in the context of Open Education and Open Educational Resources. Dyer-Witheford’s most significant work to date has been Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High Technology Capitalism (1999). In this book he sets out the ways in which postmodern capitalism has extended beyond the factory to permeate all of social life, particularly through the digitalised circuits of cyber-space. He shows how these extended social sites and the circuits through which they are connected provide spaces of interconnected collected struggle and resistance.

Cyber-Marx is conceptualized within the framework of Autonomist Marxism. The basic framework of Autonomism is well known (Wright, 2002). Key aspects of this version of Marxism are, firstly, Marx’s mature social theory as elaborated in Capital and the Grundrisse is a theory of capital’s precariousness, rather than the theory of domination espoused by orthodox Marxism. This precariousness is produced through the power of labour (the working class):

We too have worked with a concept that puts capitalist development first, and workers second. This is a mistake. And now we have to turn the problem on its head, reverse the polarity, and start again from the beginning: and the beginning is the class struggle of the working class. At the level of socially developed capital, capitalist development becomes subordinated to working class struggles; it follows behind them, and they set the pace to which the political mechanisms of capital’s own reproduction must be tuned. (Tronti, 1964)

Secondly, this ‘scandalous novelty of this new workerist ideology’ (Wright, 2002: 63) demanded an even more shocking revelation. Not only was Capital not the centre of its own social universe, but the working class was now reconstituted to include not just workers at work in factories, but other groups that included students, the unemployed and the women’s movement, previously not regarded as central to the reproduction of surplus value. Key to this formulation was the concept of the ‘social factory’:

At the highest level of capitalist development, the social relation becomes a moment of the relation of production, the whole of society becomes an articulation of production; in other words, the whole of society exists as a function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination over the whole of society. (Tronti, 1971: 51-2, quoted in Wright, 2002: 37-38)

Thirdly, at the centre of the notion of class composition lies the concept of self-valorisation (auto-valorizzazione). The Autonomists had taken the most central idea of Marx’s capital, the law of value, and turned it against itself: Capital as the self expansive Subject is now replaced by the capacity of the working class for self valorization in and against the Capital relation. Self-valorisation is defined as: ‘the positive moments of working class autonomy – where the negative moments are made up of workers’ resistance to capital domination’; and, ‘a self-defining, self-determining process which goes beyond the mere resistance to capitalist valorisation to a positive project of self-constitution’ (Cleaver, 1992: 129 quoted in Dinerstein, Bohn, and Spicer, 2008).

Finally, one of the very practical ways by which this self-valorisation and class recomposition might be achieved is through workers enquiry or co-research. Beginning as inquiry into actual conditions of work in Italian factories in the 1950s, workers alongside intellectuals used the methods of social science research to develop their own form of radical sociology as the basis for a revolutionary science, i.e., the production of knowledge as a political project: ‘the joint production of social knowledge’ (Wright, 2002: 23); and so come to know the basis of their own class recomposition. This is not knowledge for its own sake but ‘the only way to understand the system is conceiving its destruction’ (Asor Rosa in Quaderni Rosi quoted in Wright, 2002: 29).

All of this practical intellectual activity was possessed with a sense of immanence and urgency, giving immediacy to the slogan: ‘communism is the real movement which abolishes the present state of things’ (Marx, 1998). For these new revolutionary scientists communism is not a project for constructing a model of a future world; but, rather, ‘a practical means for the destruction of the present society’ (Tronti, 1965: 8).

* Commonism: as a cell-like form

Dyer-Witheford takes the spirit and the sensibility of Autonomist Marxism, not least its conceptual ingenuity, and attempts to recreate a framework of resistance through his concept of commonism. Just as Autonomia inverts the notion of valorisation as self- valorisation, Commonism takes as its starting point the organising principle on which the circuit of capitalist expansion is established, i.e. the commodity-form, and uses it as the basis of revolutionary struggle. As Dyer-Witheford reminds us, Marx opens Capital Vol. 1 with the statement:

The wealth of society in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, appears as an immense collection of commodities; the individual commodity appears as its elemental form. Our investigation therefore begins with the analysis of the commodity. (Marx, 1990. Authors’ emphasis)

Commonism takes this statement as the organising principle for its own radical response to the social relations of capitalist society:

If the cell form of capitalism is the commodity, the cellular form of a society beyond capital is the common. A commodity is a good produced for sale, a common is a good produced, or conserved, to be shared. The notion of a commodity, a good produced for sale, presupposes private owners between whom the exchange occurs. The notions of the common presupposes collectivities – associations and assemblies – within which sharing is organised. If capitalism presents itself as an immense heap of commodities, commonism is a multiplication of commons. (Dyer-Witheford, 2007)

The emphasis here is on the difference between the production of goods for sale, and the production of goods to be shared as a public good. In each case the emphasis is on forms of ownership and sharing. Dyer-Witheford (2007) argues that the moment of collision between the commodity and the commons is the moment of struggle against the logic of capitalism. He identifies three distinct areas where these struggles are concentrated: the ecology, the social, and the network:

Ecological disaster is the revenge of the markets so-called negative externalities’; social development is based on market operations, ‘intensifying inequality, with immiseration amidst plentitude’; and networks are, ‘the market’s inability to accommodate its own positive externalities, that is, to allow the full benefits of innovations when they overflow market price mechanisms. (Dyer-Witheford, 2007)

Commonism points towards the kinds of progressive forms of social associations that these struggles have created. Commonism identifies these new forms of ownership as the ecological commons – ‘conservation and regulation but also of public funding of new technologies and transportation systems’; the social commons – ‘a global guaranteed livelihood entails a commons based on redistribution of wealth, while solidarity economics create experimental collectively-managed forms of production’, and the networked commons – ‘a commons of abundance, of non-rivalrous information goods’, including free and open-source software as well as OERs (Dyer-Witheford, 2007).

In a moment of theoretical ingenuity, Dyer-Witheford argues that just as Capital operates through circuits of exchange, so too the commons circulate to create self-reinforcing networks of alternative provision in a way that is both ‘aggressive and expansive: proliferating, self-strengthening and diversifying’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2007). It is this sense of linked and connected struggles that form the core of his notion of commonism. Taken together these three spheres will form a new social order: a ‘commons of singularites’; or, ‘the circulation of the common’, i.e., commonism’. Commonism will be carried forward through ‘a pluralistic planning process’ involving state and non-state organisations supported by a ‘commonist’ government, and in that way represent a global new ‘New Deal’ of major proportions (Dyer-Witheford, 2007).

In a previous elaboration, Dyer-Witheford connects commonism very directly with the concept of cognitive capitalism, generated by new high technologies, based on digitalisation and biotechnology, all of which have the capacity to be life-changing (Dyer-Witheford, 2006: 23). Following Marx (1843), he defines this capacity for human transformation, as ‘Species Beings’.

Dyer-Witheford develops the essence of radical subjectivity implied in this notion of the commons through the concept of ‘species being’, which he adapts from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts 1844. Dyer-Witheford reminds us that Marx defined ‘species being’ as human life that is alienated from products of its own labour, from fellow beings, from the natural world and from their own ‘historical possibilities of self-development’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2006: 17). ‘Species being’, after Marx, is ‘life activity itself as an object of will and consciousness’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2006: 17). ‘Species being’ is ‘a constitutive power, a bootstrapped, self-reinforcing loop of social co-operation, technoscientific competencies and conscious awareness’ (2006:17). It is ‘the capacity of humans to affect change in their collective development’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2006: 17). Dyer-Witheford makes the bold claim:

‘Species Being’ is the closest Marx came to positively identifying, transformative agency of communism. The creation of a ‘working class’ as a decomposition of species being inflicted by the ‘class-ifying’ gridding and divisive operations of capital as it alienates species being: class identity is that which has to be destroyed in struggle so that species being can emerge. (18)

Dyer-Witheford argues that the new regimes of biotechnology and digitalisation offer the potential for the socialisation of productive activity, new modes of product creation and circulation outside of ‘the orbit of the commodity form’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2006: 25). This can happen, he argues, through the development of peer-to-peer and open source networks: as ‘creative commons’ and ‘open ‘cultures’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2006: 25), as well as by access to affordable drugs, and the social control of pharmaceutical production and distribution. In this way commonism is contesting the regime of private property of the world market, ‘not as a natural state, but an equalitarian order to be achieved’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2006: 27). Again, Dyer-Witheford argues this can be carried out by a regime of ‘social planning, and on a scale to make previous efforts look retiring’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2006: 30). All of this, he claims, is made possible by the ‘new informational technologies created by cognitive capital [which] makes such governmentality feasible’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2006: 30), kept in check by the logic of the new planetary logic of the commons: ‘the logic of collective creativity and welfare proposed by the counter-globalisation movements’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2006: 16): the new commonism.

* Critique of Commonism and Autonomist Marxism:

While commonism draws attention to progressive forms of collaborative labour, its focus is very much on the positive redistribution of goods and resources. The implication is that different forms of exchange produce different forms of social activity, ‘shared resources generate forms of shared co-operation – associations – that coordinate the conversion of further resources into expanded commons’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2007). The focus is very much on exchange relations rather than searching for more substantive underlying levels of social determinations in the ways in which social relations are produced.

With its focus on exchange rather than production, commonism not only replays the consumerist limits of the Open Education and Open Educational Resources movement, but also, ironically, is in danger of replicating the forms of social regulation it is attempting to avoid: Socialism. If Socialism is ‘the collective ownership of the means of production and economic planning in an industrialised context’ (Postone, 1993: 7), then commonism looks very much like the latest form of socialist society. Notwithstanding the fact that commonism attempts to privilege one form of planning over another, radical and democratic rather than centralised and repressive, without a fundamental exposition of the processes through which capitalist society is (re)produced, these instructions look normative and contingent rather than determined by a progressive materially grounded social project (Postone, 1993: 11 & 15).

The limits of Dyer-Witheford’s commonism are the limits of Autonomist Marxism. Autonomia does provide a powerful theorisation, the strength of which is its ability to connect and reconnect with movements of revolutionary resistance. However, its populist and enduring appeal is also a source of its theoretical weakness. By presenting the working class as the substance of radical subjectivity, Autonomia is presenting labour as a fetishised and transhistorical category, transgressing the key formulation of Marx’s mature social science. This point is well made by the Endnotes Collective:

Labour does not simply pre-exist its objectification in the capitalist commodity as a positive ground to be liberated in socialism or communism through the alteration of its formal expression. Rather, in a fundamental sense value – as the primary social mediation – pre-exists and thus has a priority over labour. (Endnotes Collective, 2010)

In this way, the overcoming of Capital cannot simply involve the emancipation of workers, or any other form of work that suggests a naturalised quality of human activity, e.g., ‘species being’; but, rather, the destruction of the commodity-form and the value relation on which it is based. The Endnotes Collective refer to this type of negative critique as ‘communisation’.”

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