• Commons and Conflict

  • Dario Azzellini | 18 Dec 19 | Posted under: Κοινά
  • From the World Bank, transnational companies to the European Union – today, everyone is speaking about commons and commoning, and everyone wants to build the commons. We have to be very clear about what the commons are. Or at least what they are structurally.

    The World Bank has a group supposedly 'protecting and improving the global commons' by reaching out to the private sector to 'advance common goods'. You can find texts on commons on the website of the European Union, banks organise seminars on the commons. Transnational companies tell us they are building the commons, big magazines declare that Uber is commoning cars, and that ‘sharing economyis a form of commoning.

    I think we have to be very clear about what the commons are. Or at least what they are structurally. It does not mean that we can define in full detail what the commons are or what they will be. The commons and the activity of commoning are nowadays carried on by many social, political, and even economic actors. Mainstream research suggests that commons and capitalism can peacefully co-exist. It speaks of the absence of conflict, maintaining that the right of commoners to decide on and manage their own commons are neither questioned nor challenged by external authorities.

    But if we look at history it is important to remember one thing: The commons are not a gift. And even if many researchers tend to describe the commons as working best if there is harmony, maintaining that there is a great desire for harmony in many alternative circles mentioning the commons, this is not actually the case. Commons are most likely to be achieved and/or be preserved if we organise and are prepared for constant conflict because the history of capitalism is a history of enclosure of the commons. The commons preceded private property and capitalism. Capital needs to get hold of the commons for the ongoing accumulation by dispossession. A capitalist system will therefore always prey on the commons and at the same time destroy the bases of sustainable social practices and ultimately the conditions for life itself.

    Especially in the global south, where we have much more traditional commons that have survived or have been preserved over time, people have experienced how capital, transnational companies, etc. grab the commons and incorporate them whenever they need them. Even if there was some kind of official recognition of the commons earlier on or if there was some kind of alleged harmony, it no longer matters once capital wants to appropriate the commons. And it will at some point, always. Because the law of capitalism is expansion; it has to expand. In a limited world expansion means to take away from others. The history of capitalism shows how it incorporates and co-opts what is socially produced by the people. Capital is completely unable to develop anything for humanity. We are told countless tales about the free-floating creativity of capital, which has made all inventions possible. But this is not true. Capitalism blocks progress, for example with patent rights and the like, which make it impossible for example to develop new cancer treatments because when most of the elements have already been patented by a different company, it is no longer worth it for second company to develop a cancer medicine if they have to pay patent rights to the first company.

    We can see that the commons are neither a result of harmony between the state, the private sector, and the majority of people, nor can they be better preserved if there were this supposed harmony. The commons, like everything else people have won over the centuries, are a result of popular struggles. Moreover, we need to take account of an important change over the past decades. Many came to believe that liberal democracy grants rights – which is an enormous misunderstanding. For a few decades liberal democracy was the framework in which rights could be expanded, but always through struggles. No rights were ceded without tenacious struggles waged by huge movements: women’s movements, workers’ movements, etc. They were a result of struggles. But this worked only as long as liberal democracy was the framework in which modern industrial capitalism could develop. We have seen over the past 2-3 decades that liberal democracy is no longer the political model corresponding to capital’s present-day development. That is why we experience authoritarian tendencies everywhere. It is why in so many struggles we have only been barely able to preserve the status quo, but not to make further progress. The liberal democratic framework is no longer a framework for expanding rights. It became the framework for reducing rights, making them invisible, creating structures in which people no longer have a say even if they are told that they have. And we can see very well that people are not satisfied. All the 'anti-representative' revolts of the past decade have been a result of people feeling – in representative democracies as well as in authoritarian regimes – that the current model of representation is not democratic. It does not represent them, they do not have a say, they cannot make decisions about their future. In an interview during my research on the 15-M movement a few years ago, one of my co-interviewers said: 'It’s as if a big storm is coming over you and you have no means of influencing the situation.'

    The hope that we will win simply because we have better arguments, a better reasoning, is a lost hope. We have to organise struggles from the bottom up to preserve commons that exist, to achieve commons that do not exist, and to maintain ourselves as communities, as people, in a position in which we decide, we make the decisions and are constantly involved in decisions that are made. If we do not achieve this, if we leave it to the state to preserve the commons, we will neither preserve them nor create them. Because the times when expansion of rights corresponded to the production model are over. Its function is no longer to preserve or create any rights.

    When we formulate strategies to create commons it is also very important to look at what kind of commons we want to create and how we think about them. Because there are also commons that are functional for capitalism. I am, for example, totally in favour of having free internet access for all, but this is something that is also completely functional for capitalism. It is not the case that every commons is automatically an emancipatory idea.

    We also have to think about reproduction – this has been part of previous seminars we have organised. This is centrally important. The commons cannot be something that continues to be based on gendered labour and the reproduction of labour by women – as other historical modes of production, and especially Fordism, have been. There is always a danger, especially in precarious phases, to externalise a certain amount of work and make it invisible. To create and preserve the commons we have the outer dimension of struggle, which is not based on harmony, and we also have an internal struggle to think and act differently in terms of reproduction.


    Three short films by the author and Oliver Ressler on occupations of workplaces and production under workers' control in Europe in Greece and Italy:

    Occupy, Resist, Produce - Vio.Me., 30 min., 2015



    Occupy, Resist, Produce - Officine Zero, 33 min., 2015



    Occupy, Resist, Produce - RiMaflow, 34 min., 2014


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