If the cell form of capitalism is the commodity, the cellular form of a society beyond capital is the common. Nick Dyer-Witheford discusses the circulation of commons and the conditions they would create for new collective projects and waves of organising
It has been eight lean years for the movement of movement since its Seattle high point of 1999. Since September 11th 2001 many activists’ energies have been directed to opposing the invasion and occupation of Iraq, other conflicts in Afghanistan and Lebanon, and abuses of civil liberties and media truth. But the war on terror has also had a deadening effect on oppositional hopes and imagination. Or so it seems to me, an academic in Canada whose political energies have recently been absorbed opposing his university’s making tanks for the US Army. Comrades are engaged in labour organising, post-carbon planning, the self-organisation of the homeless, municipal elections and other projects. But the optimistic sense of another world as not only possible but probable, imminent, has given way to something more sombre. Even in this no-longer-frozen North, the upsurge of popular movements and governments in Latin America is an inspiration. Otherwise, however, horizons have contracted.
Global capitalism appears – by profit levels – robust. Cascading ecological calamities, suddenly peaking oil, another 9/11, or an uncontrolled unwinding of US-China relations could all destabilise the world system. But not only are such scenarios contingent; it is uncertain they would be to the advantage of progressive movements. Neo-fascists, fundamentalists and martial law capitalists could be the beneficiaries, unless intellectual and organisational preparation lays the ground for a better alternative.
It therefore seems important to renew the discussion of what we want: to think through not just what we are against, but what we are fighting for (and hence who ‘we’ are), and to consider what might be plausibly achieved in present circumstances. Many movement activists and intellectuals are currently addressing this task, here and in other forums. My contribution will be to propose and discuss ‘commonism’.
‘Commons’ is a word that sums up many of the aspirations of the movement of movements. It is a popular term perhaps because it provides a way of talking about collective ownership without invoking a bad history – that is, without immediately conjuring up, and then explaining (away) ‘communism’, conventionally understood as a centralised command economy plus a repressive state. Though some will disagree, I think this distinction is valid; it is important to differentiate our goals and methods from those of past catastrophes, while resuming discussions of a society beyond capitalism.
The initial reference of ‘commons’ is to the collective lands enclosed by capitalism in a process of primitive accumulation running from the middle ages to the present. Such common agrarian lands are still a flashpoint of struggle in many places. But today commons also names the possibility of collective, rather than private ownership in other domains: an ecological commons (of water, atmosphere, fisheries and forests); a social commons (of public provisions for welfare, health, education and so on); a networked commons (of access to the means of communication).
Let us extend this term ‘commons’ in a slightly unfamiliar way. Marx suggested capitalism has a cell-form, a basic building block, from which all its apparatus of commerce and command are elaborated. This cell form was the commodity, a good produced for sale between private owners.
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 this exchange occurs. The notion 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.
The forces of the common and the commodity – of the movement and the market – are currently in collision across the three spheres we mentioned before: the ecological, the social and the networked.
In the ecological sphere, decades of green struggle have disclosed how the market’s depletion and pollution of nature destroys the common basis of human life. This destruction runs from pesticide poisoning to clear-cutting to species-extinctions. What now highlights this process is global warming. The prospect of chaotic climate change destroying agriculture, water supply and coastland around the planet (although, as usual, most devastatingly in the South) throws into sharp relief the scale of ecological crisis. It also definitively displays the inadequacy of the ‘free market’ and its price system as a social steering system. The scale of intervention now necessary is indicated by George Monbiot’s recent ten-point plan to address global warming: targets for rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, borne primarily by the developed North; individual carbon quotas; high-energy efficiency building regulation; banning and taxation of high-emission devices; diversion of public funds from ‘defence’ and road building to clean energy and public transport systems; freezes and reductions in air travel and out of town superstores. One can debate every point in this prescription. But if Monbiot is even close to correct, the remedy required exceeds anything the market, even as ‘green business’, can do. It demands regulation, rationing and major public investment. Global warming (alongside other ecological crises, from fish stocks to water tables) puts back on the table precisely what neoliberalism attempted to erase: massive social planning.
In the social sphere, the red thread of labour, socialist and communist movements traces the attempt to replace the class divisions of capitalism with various forms of common wealth. Defeating this challenge was the mission of neoliberalism. It has had great success. Precisely because of this, intensifying global inequalities are now having universal consequences. The afflictions of what Mike Davis calls the ‘planet of slums’ cannot be walled off from the planet of malls. They return as disease (HIV/AIDS and other pandemics) or insurgency (‘terror’). In this context, two movement initiatives have picked up the issue of ‘common wealth’ in innovative ways. One is the movement of ‘solidarity economics’ focused on cooperative enterprises of various sorts and associated with the success of the Latin American left. I discuss this later. The other is a set of proposals and campaigns around what is variously known as a ‘basic’ or ‘guaranteed’ income, which, by assuring a modest level of subsistence, saves human life from utter dependence on a global labour market. Such programmes also address feminist political economists’ point about the market’s systemic non-reward of reproductive work (care of children and households). Basic income was initially proposed in the global North West, and in that context can be criticised as a supplement to an already-affluent welfare state. But basic income has recently appeared as a policy initiative in Brazil and South Africa. Some groups have proposed and costed a basic global income of $1 a day. Insignificant in a North American context, this would double the monetary income of the one billion plus people officially designated as living in extreme poverty. If one thinks this utopian, consider the $532 billion 2007 US defence budget. Again, there are more than enough debates to be had about a global basic income: it might, for example, be better conceived not as a cash economy payment but as a basic ‘basket of goods’ or a guaranteed global livelihood. But the failure of trickle-down market solutions to poverty and inequality (even in the midst of a global boom), and the increasing extremity of the consequences, creates opportunities for new common-wealth activism.
In the network sphere, the failure of the market appears in a different way – as capital’s inability to make use of new technological resources. Computers and networks have created the increasing capacities for extremely fast, very cheap circulation of communication and knowledge. These innovations were made outside of the market, in a strange encounter between public funded science (the military/academic sector) and libertarian (and sometimes revolutionary) hackers. Capital’s contribution has been to try and stuff these innovations back within the commodity form, realising their powers only within the boundaries of information property and market pricing. But digital innovation has persistently over-spilled these limits. Peer-to-peer networks and free and open source software movements have taken advantage of the possibilities for the reproduction of non-rivalrous goods and collaborative production to generate networked culture whose logic contradicts commercial axioms. The movement of movements realised these potentials in its early weaving of what Harry Cleaver called an ‘electronic fabric of struggle,’ using the internet to circumvent corporate media and circulate news, analysis and solidarity. Increasingly, however, free and open source software and P2P constitute an electronic fabric of production, equipping people with a variety of digital tools for everything from radio broadcasts to micro-manufacturing. Capital is attempting to repress these developments – through incessant anti-piracy sweeps and intellectual property (IP) battles – or co-opt them. But alternatives beyond what it will allow are expressed in ‘creative commons’, ‘free cooperation’ and ‘open cultures’ movements contesting the intellectual property regime of the world market.
All three domains – ecological, social and networked – evidence major market failures. Each illustrates the failures of a commodity regime, though in distinct ways. Ecological disaster is the revenge of the market’s so-called negative externalities, that is, the harms whose price is not, and indeed cannot be, calculated in commercial transactions. Intensifying inequality, with immiseration amidst plenitude, displays the self-reinforcing feedback loops of deprivation and accumulation intrinsic to market operations. Networks show 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. Together, all three constitute a historical indictment of neoliberalism, and of the global capitalist system of which it is only the latest, cutting-edge, doctrine.
Also in all three domains, movements are proposing, as alternatives to these market failures, new forms of commons. These too vary in each domain, although, as I will argue in a moment, they also overlap and connect. In the ecological sphere, commons provisions are based primarily on conservation and regulation (but also on public funding of new technologies and transportation systems). In the social sphere, a global guaranteed livelihood entails a commons built on redistribution of wealth, while solidarity economies create experimental collectively-managed forms of production. In the case of the networked commons, what is emerging is a commons of abundance, of non-rivalrous information goods – a cornucopian commons.
Of course, these three spheres are in reality not separable; any life-activity resonates in all three, so that, for example, ecological and networked activities are always social commons – and vice-versa. Indeed, my argument is that the form of a new social order, commonism, can be seen only in the interrelation and linkage of these domains – in a circulation of the common.
Marx showed how in capitalism, commodities moved in a circuit. Money is used to purchase labour, machinery and raw materials. These are thrown into production, creating new commodities that are sold for more money, part of which is retained as profit, and part used to purchase more means of production to make more commodities… repeat ad infinitum. Different kinds of capital – mercantile, industrial and financial – played different roles in this circuit. So, for example, the transformation of commodities into money is the role of merchant capital, involved in trade; actual production is conducted by industrial capital; and the conversion of money capital into productive capital is the task of financial capital (banks, etc).
We need to think in terms of the circulation of commons, of the interconnection and reinforcements between them. The ecological commons maintains the finite conditions necessary for both social and networked commons. A social commons, with a tendency towards a equitable distribution of wealth, preserves the ecological commons, both by eliminating the extremes of environmental destructiveness linked to extremes of wealth (SUVs, incessant air travel) and poverty (charcoal burning, deforestation for land) and by reducing dependence on ‘trickle down’ from unconstrained economic growth. Social commons also create the conditions for the network commons, by providing the context of basic health, security and education within which people can access new and old media. A network commons in turn circulates information about the condition of both ecological and social commons (monitoring global environmental conditions, tracking epidemics, enabling exchanges between health workers, labour activists or disaster relief teams). Networks also provide the channels for planning ecological and social commons – organising them, resolving problems, considering alternative proposals. They act as the fabric of the association that is the sine qua non of any of the other commons.
Let’s suppose that a publicly-funded education institution (social commons) produces software and networks that are available to an open source collective (networked commons), which creates free software used by an agricultural cooperative to track its use of water and electricity (ecological commons). This is a micro model of the circulation of the common.
This is a concept of the common that is not defensive, not limited to fending off the depredations of capital on ever-diminishing collective space. Rather it is aggressive and expansive: proliferating, self-strengthening and diversifying. It is also a concept of heterogeneous collectivity, built from multiple forms of a shared logic, a commons of singularities. We can talk of common earth, a common wealth and common networks; or of commons of land (in its broadest sense, comprising the biosphere), labour (in its broadest sense, comprising reproductive and productive work) and language (in its broadest sense, comprising all means of information, communication and knowledge exchange). It is through the linkages and bootstrapped expansions of these commons that commonism emerges.
This concept has a clear affinity with the movements of solidarity economics that emerged from Latin America and are now gaining increasing attention in North America and Europe. Broadly defined, these aim to link self-managed and worker-owned collectives, cooperative financial organisations and socially-responsible consumption practices to create expanding economic networks whose surpluses are invested in social and ecological regeneration. Euclides Mance, one of the theorists of the movement, writes of such ‘socially based cooperation networks’ reinforcing their component parts until ‘progressive boosting’ enables them to move from a ‘secondary, palliative or complementary sphere of activity’ to become a ‘socially hegemonic mode of production’. This type of activity – to which, I think, basic income programmes would be complementary – seems to resemble the sort of cell-growth of commons envisaged here.
Mance says that this process is ‘not about the political control of the State by society’, but about ‘the democratic control of the economy by society’. Latin American activists will, however, be much better aware than I that the creation of grass roots alternative networks goes better with protection, support and even initiation at a state level. For that reason, one might think of the circulation of the common as involving not only a lateral circuit between ecological, social and networked domains, but also a vertical circuit between new subjectivities, autonomous assemblies (solidarity networks, cooperatives, environmental and community groupings) and governmental agencies.
The movement of movements has been tacitly split between autonomist and anarchist groups, with strong anti-statist perspectives, and socialist and social democratic movements, committed to governmental planning and welfare functions. Rather than either repressing this tension, or replaying it ad infinitum, it may be both more interesting for both sides and closer to the real practice of many activists to think about the potential interplay of these two poles.
Commons projects are projects of planning: the regulation of carbon emissions (or other ecological pollutants), the distribution of a basic income (or of public health or education) or the establishment of networked infrastructures are all extremely difficult on any large scale without the exercise of governmental power.
The nightmare of previously existing socialisms was the assumption by this governmental planning power of despotic bureaucratic forms. The antidote is a pluralistic planning processes, which involves a multiplicity of non-state organisations capable of proposing, debating and democratically determining what directions governmental planning takes. Thus a requirement of ‘commonist’ government is the cultivation of the conditions in which autonomous assemblies can emerge to countervail against bureaucracy and despotism, and provide diversity and innovation in planning ideas. Planning and anti-planning have to be built into each other: there should always be, to quote Raymond Williams, at least two plans.
As George Caffentzis has pointed out, neoliberal capital, confronting the debacle of free market policies, is now turning to a ‘Plan B’, in which limited versions of environmental planning terms (e.g. pollution trading schemes) community development and open-source and file sharing practices are introduced as subordinate aspects of a capitalist economy. But the question hanging over this encounter is which logic will envelope and subordinate the other: who will subsume who?
Commonism scales. That is, it can and must be fought for at micro and macro, molecular and molar, levels; in initiatives of individual practice, community projects and very large scale movements. If the concept is at all meaningful, it is only because millions of people are already in myriad ways working to defend and create commons of different sorts, from community gardens to peer-to-peer networks.
In my view, however, a commonist project would gain coherence and focus by agreement on a set of high level demands to be advanced in the ecological, social and network spheres at the national and international level, demands that could be supported by many movements even as they pursue other more local and specific struggles and projects. These demands might include some briefly discussed here: for example, a guaranteed global livelihood, carbon-emission rationing and adoption of free and open-source software in public institutions.
Such demands would be radical but not, in a negative sense, utopian. Success would not mean we had won: it is conceivable that capitalism could persist with these provisions, although they would represent a planetary ‘New Deal’ of major proportions. But achieving them would mean, first, that the movement of movements had won something, averting harms to, and bestowing benefits on millions; and, second, it would mean that we were winning: these altered conditions would create opportunities for new collective projects and waves of organising that could effect deeper transformations, and the institutions of new commons.
It might be objected that, in Marx’s description of the inner workings of capitalism, the commodity is presented as possessing a self-creating, self-reproducing dynamism, and that the fact that some commons – especially the ecological ones – are finite would prevent such dynamism. But this objection confuses a qualitative with a quantitative issue, or, more accurately, a social dynamism with a dynamism of production. The model proposed here, of circular interaction between ecological planning, basic income and open networks, argues for the expansion of the social relations of the commons: a secure level of livelihood for global populations reduces the need for constant environmentally destructive growth; open networks enable ecological and income planning to be democratically debated, monitored and revised in an ongoing collective process of general intellect; planning in turn ensures the infrastructures and access for this process. Whether or not this social dynamism would be productively dynamic – whether it would produce more or less goods – is a different question, to which the answer is surely ‘more of some, less of others’: less SUVs, energy mega projects and luxury mega-homes, more public transport, solar panels and decent basic housing. But the commons form, like the commodity form, is first and foremost a social relation, and its most important dynamism lies in the alteration of collective logics.
A computer, say, is a ‘rival’ or ‘rivalrous’ good. My possession of it deprives you of it. But goods like software are ‘nonrivalrous’. A piece of software can be copied costlessly and therefore we can both use it simultaneously.
Harry Cleaver’s piece ‘Computer-linked social movements and the global threat to capitalism’ is available at http://www.eco.utexas.edu/~hmcleave/polnet.html. George Caffentzis discusses neoliberalism’s ‘plan B’ in his chapter in Shut Them Down! (available at www.shutthemdown.org).
Nick Dyer-Witheford is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Information & Media Studies, University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario, Canada, and a member of the Counter-Stryker collective opposing military-academic-corporate collaborations. He is currently studying the contemporary usefulness of the young Marx’s concept of ‘species-being.’ He can be reached at ncdyerwi[at]uwo.ca
Spanish translation available here.