• The Common: An Essay on the 21st-Century Revolution

  • By Pierre Dardot , Christian Laval | 08 Mar 16 | Posted under: Commons
  • Our point of departure is that the common is a principle of political activity constituted by the specific activity of deliberation, judgement, decision, and the implementation of decisions. However, this and the fuller definition we present at the beginning of our book1does not claim to be universal, trans-historic, and independent of temporal and geographic conditions. In etymological terms (cum-munus, literally ‘co-obligation’ and ‘co-activity’), the intention is certainly not to suggest that common always carried the same meaning it does today. In Aristotle, the common (koinōn) is that which results from the activity of pooling, which is what constitutes citizenship, an activity that implies the rotation of duties or alternation between those governing and the governed. Today, with a new and unique kind of energy, the movement of the squares (M-15, Occupy, Gezi, etc.) has enriched the concept with new demands.

    The common as a principle of struggles

    These demands involved a radical calling into question of ‘representative’ democracy, which authorises a limited number of people to act and speak on behalf of the great majority. At the same time, these movements have developed environmental demands around the preservation of the ‘commons’ (especially urban spaces). The common seems to us to be the principle that literally emerged from all of these movements. As such, it is not something we invented; it has arisen from current struggles as their principle. The term has thus acquired a quite new meaning, that of ‘real democracy’, for which the only legitimate political obligation is that which proceeds not from membership in a given community, however broad this may be, but from participation in the same activity or the same task. There should be no misconception about our purpose: Although our book’s preliminary chapter offers an ‘archaeology of the common’ we had no intention of interpreting all of human history through this archaeology in the style of those ‘grand narratives’ that have characterised our modernity. Our aim was quite different; it was to show that from the beginning the common has had a meaning that could not be reduced to ‘state-owned’ until it was hijacked and adulterated both by the state and by theology. But this does not mean that its ‘rediscovery’ today is bringing about a return to its Greek or Roman origin. It is about something else: defining a positive political alternative to neoliberal reason oriented to competition.

    Such an alternative allows us to overcome the duality of public/state property versus private property. For too long the left has lived on the idea of an opposition in principle between the state and the market that made of the state the best defence against the offensive of market forces. This opposition, along with the strategy it creates, is entirely a thing of the past. For thirty years now the state has undergone a profound transformation, which has made it a fully fledged neoliberal protagonist. It is itself subject to entrepreneurial logic, and, as an enterprise-state, or ‘corporate state’, it acts like a strategic partner of the big multinationals in the coproduction of new international norms. Marx’s famous formula of a government being no more than the executive committee for the management of the bourgeoisie’s affairs is now largely outdated, not because it is an outrageous claim; on the contrary, it falls short of today’s reality of the increasing hybridisation of state and market. The statist paradigm needs to be mercilessly deconstructed if we are to work on rebuilding the left. The state is less than ever an instrument that can be deployed for ‘political projects’ having other ends. On the contrary, it is the state that imposes its own logic on all those who entertain the illusion of its possible transformation into a means of struggle against neoliberal capitalism.

    It is here that we see all that separates common, understood in this sense, from state and public. The state/public rests on two completely contradictory requirements: on the one hand, it is to guarantee universal access to public services; on the other, it gives the state administration the monopoly of the management of these services and reduces the users to consumers, as such excluded from any form of participation in this management. It is precisely this deadly division into ‘functionaries’ and ‘users’ that the common has to abolish. In other words, the common can be defined as the non-state public; it guarantees universal access through the direct participation of users in the management of services. One of our ‘political proposals’ in the third part of the book is the transformation of public services into institutions of the common. This means that these services do not belong to the state in the sense of the state being their owner or even sole manager. To accomplish this kind of transformation it is necessary to break with the monopoly of state administration in such a way as to guarantee true universal access to these services: The users therefore have to be considered not as ‘consumers’ but as citizens participating alongside the functionaries in the deliberations and decisions that concern them.

    The common and the commons

    As can be seen, we are trying to understand the common in the sense of a political principle and not in the sense of an attribute that naturally adheres to certain types of ‘goods’. To understand the expression ‘common goods’ in a literal sense leads first to establishing a classification of goods (private goods, public goods, common goods) according to criteria related to their intrinsic nature. This approach, which can only end by reifying the common, was made into a system by a particular economic policy before it was taken up by jurists. The latter, however, had to introduce criteria external to the mere nature of things in order to distinguish common goods from public goods. For example, the Rodotà Commission defined common goods according to their relation to fundamental rights or human development. However, to start with the classification of goods equally leads to dismembering the common by distinguishing natural commons, knowledge commons, genetic or biological commons, etc. The common (as a principle) is then confounded with that which is common (as an attribute or characteristic of certain things).

    Our approach similarly rejects the thesis that has been put forward of a ‘spontaneous production of the common’ that is at once the condition and result of the production process (analogous to the expansive dynamic of the forces of production found in a certain brand of Marxism). By idealising the autonomy of immaterial labour in the era of ‘cognitive capitalism’, this thesis does not acknowledge the currently operative mechanisms of subordinating labour to capital. Moreover, and this is doubtless its greatest defect, it does not recognise the irreducible difference between production and institution: production can be spontaneous, while institution is necessarily a conscious activity.

    This is why we are at pains to distinguish between the common as a political principle that does not have to be instituted but implemented and the commons that has always been instituted within and through this implementation. The essential point is that the commons are not ‘produced’ but ‘instituted’; this is why we are very reluctant to accept the notion of ‘common goods’. It seems to us that the reasoning has to be the reverse: every common that is instituted is a good, but no good is in itself common. One has to be careful not to confuse a good in the ethical and political sense (agathon) and a good in the sense of an acquisition that can be exchanged and sold  (ktesis); every common is a good in the ethical and political sense, but it is only such in so far as it is not an acquisition. Once instituted, a common is not alienable; from then on it appears in the sphere of things that cannot be appropriated, which means that it escapes proprietary logic in whatever form (private or state).

    We maintain that a common is instituted through a specific praxis that we call an ‘instituting praxis’, which does not refer to a general method of instituting any kind of common. We need to be attentive here to the oftabused notion of ‘institution’. An entire sociological tradition tried to reduce the institution to that which is instituted without really taking into account the dimension of the instituting activity. In addition, a political critique very widespread on the left in the 1960s and 1970s identified the institution with a power apparatus coercing individuals who ‘entered’ it in order to belong to it. This critique did not problematise the original dimension of the thing that institutes, which seems so fundamental to us. In fact, to institute is neither to institutionalise in the sense of render official, consecrate, or recognise after the fact what has existed long before (for example, at the level of a habit or custom) nor to create out of nothing. It is precisely to recreate with, or on the basis of, what already exists, therefore under given conditions independently of our activity. In this sense, there is no model of an institution, nor can there be, capable of serving as a rule for an instituting praxis. Each praxis has to be understood and carried out in situ or in loco. This is why one can, and even must, speak of ‘instituting praxes’; in the plural. To re-establish a previously terminated service in a psychiatric hospital after a discussion with the care-givers and patients falls in the category of an instituting praxis, even if in Foucault’s ‘micropolitical’ sense. But to institute a seed bank for farmers or to designate a cultural site for common use falls under the same category. These are practices that prepare and construct revolution itself as a ‘self-institution of society’.

    The right of the common as a new type of right of use

    We can draw the same conclusions in terms of law. Indeed, we think that the institution of the commons involves a conflict opposing the right of the common to the ancient right of property and that this conflict of rights is the fundamental conflict of our day. This right of the common is a right of use that differs from the ancient right of collective use founded on longexisting customs. Whether we consider use as simple use outside of law (eating, drinking, living in a house, etc.) or as a collective right arising from custom (the right of gleaning or of commonage), use is always understood to be the action of using an external thing with the goal of satisfying vital needs; use as action implies a certain type of relation to external things that often includes consumption, that is, the destruction of the things in question (abusus in Latin designates complete consumption). But one can equally well say in English ‘use with’, with other people, with a particular person, etc. In this case, what is involved is acting or conducting oneself in a certain way with others, so that there is an active relation to others that is signified, far from any relation to external things that would have as a goal complete destruction, that is, consumption. In this new meaning, use takes on the meaning of supervision, maintenance, and preservation. We can then highlight the difference between the ancient and the new right of use.

    1) The first appreciable difference with the old right involves the nature of the object to which the use relates. In the right of the common, use is not related to an external material thing but to what we call the commons (in the plural). The commons are not ‘things in common’ (res communes). Certainly, things in common are not nothing (the adage res nullius primo occupanti2 does not apply to them). But the limitation of this category inherited from Roman law is that it cuts things off from activity. The concept of commons emphasises the institutional constructs through which the connection between things and the activity of the collective that takes charge of them come to the fore. Thus there are commons of very diverse sorts depending on the type of activity of the protagonists who institute them and keep them alive (river commons, forest commons, production commons, seed commons, knowledge commons, etc.). A river common is not a river; it is the connection between this river and the collective that takes charge of it. Consequently, that which is non-appropriable is not only the river understood as a physical thing but also the river to the extent that it is taken in charge by a certain activity, and thus also the activity itself. In this sense, the concept of ‘commons’ breaks with the subject/object polarity, the polarity of an object offered to be taken up in exclusivity by the first person (as in the relation between the dominus and the res), a polarity that so frequently recurs in a certain legal and philosophical tradition.

    2) In this sense, the use whose axis is the right of the common presupposes as its condition of possibility a conscious act of institution, exactly what we have called an ‘instituting praxis’. This is why it cannot be confused with the right called customary, which reduces practices to the unconscious perpetuation and transmission of usages. The commons are above all else matters of institution and government. Unlike the theory of property as a ‘bundle of rights’ that makes of the right of usage one right among others, disassociated from the right of management and decisions, the use of the commons is inseparable from the right of deciding and governing. The praxis that institutes the commons is the practice that maintains them and keeps them alive and takes full responsibility for their conflictuality through the coproduction of rules. Indeed, the logic of pooling ought not to be confused with the search for unanimity, of harmony or consensus seen as an absolute. Instead, it seeks to overcome conflicts through the coproduction of rules and not through some imaginary abolition of conflicts that are necessarily a part of all collective life. This point needs to be stressed: conflict is not bad in itself; it in no way bears the seed of civil war; on the contrary, it is its antidote as long as it has an institutional expression.

    3) Under these conditions what does it mean to speak of the use of a common, that is, to always speak of the use of oneparticular common? The notion of ‘administrative use’ borrowed from Paolo Napoli enables a better understanding of the difference between use as an action of making use of an external thing and use as the supervision and preservation of a common (it should be remembered that ministrare, from which administration is derived, means first of all ‘to serve’ and in no way means ‘to avail oneself of’). Indeed, one does not use a common as one does a thing, because a common is not a thing but the relation of a collective to one or several things. Administrative use contrasts with the relationship of an owner to his or her thing. The notion of ‘appropriation’ should be clarified in order to avoid any confusion. There is belonging-appropriation, through which someone appropriates a thing to himself or herself and which excludes any other relationship of belonging that involves the same thing, and destination-appropriation, in which a thing is particular to a certain goal. Here too there is a danger of misunderstanding: What is involved is not appropriating the common to that for which it is intended but to appropriate the conduct of the members of the collective to the purpose of the unappropriable thing of which they are in charge. The point is to ensure, through rules of collective use, that predatory appropriation behaviour does not divert from the goal of a specific social destination in common. In other words, the point is to regulate the use of a common without making oneself its owner, that is, without granting oneself the power to dispose over it as its supreme owner.

    4) The plurality of the commons poses the question of their coordination through the construction of institutions in common, whence the idea of a federation of socio-professional commons depending on the type of object for which different commons have responsibility. There are no commons that are purely professional, only socio-professional commons that must absorb within themselves their own relationship to the rest of society. The example of Italy is uniquely instructive on this point. Naples is a political laboratory of the common, not only because of its experience in the participatory management of water but also because of the importance assumed by various ‘occupations’ (among them, the occupation of the Asilo Filangieri, which has been converted into a space devoted to cultural activities). However, these experiences can only live if they promote the demand for self-government at all levels, including in the coordination among commons.

    Revolution and the institution of political democracy

    This demand for self-government is nothing other than the demand for political democracy, which has to prevail in all spheres of social life. It precludes any technocracy or expertocracy to the extent that it has to make everyone’s participation the rule.

    ‘Real democracy’ is a matter of instituting; this is the essence of what we would like to say. What we must not underestimate is the difficulty of inventing new institutions whose functioning explicitly aims at impeding appropriation by a minority, prohibiting the alteration of its purposes and also preventing the ‘ossification’ of its rules. The experiment underway of Barcelona en Comú is exemplary. Electoral victory must not be cut off from what preceded it and made it possible – a great deal of work in the neighbourhoods over four years, especially in the area of housing, which made it possible to bring together the conditions allowing the establishment of an independent electoral list. A mass movement, a sequel of mobilisations, and multiple and continuous confrontations mutated into inventive political forms that made internal democracy into an almost essential operative principle and which fought off any attempt, even attempts from within, to re-establish a vertical hierarchy with the pretext of greater efficiency (a temptation to which some Podemos leaders have yielded). Throughout all of these experiments, the practical question has been posed of the connection between the construction ‘in the here and now’, starting with the extant conditions, of new forms of relations and activities, and the general transformation of society. Their point in common is the rupture they have introduced with an entire oligarchical political ‘system’, closely interlocked with the economic interests of the dominant social groups. However, their irreplaceable value is to have demonstrated that it is impossible to combat the ‘system’ without at the same time inventing, at the practical level, new forms of society and politics. It is this inventive dimension of movements that is the most striking phenomenon – the definition of a desirable society is written nowhere, in no programme; it is not the property of a party nor the monopoly of a vanguard. This is the sense in which these movements can be said to be deeply ‘autonomous’, that is, in the etymological sense of the term; through their acts, they demonstrate the need to reinstitute all of society according to the logic of the common. This is why we say that these movements are revolutionary, by restoring to the term ‘revolution’ the very precise sense of the ‘reinstitution of society’. To our mind, this in no way indicates that a violent riot or an insurrection are equivalents of revolution. Revolution involves something else. The revolutionary sense of contemporary movements is not based on the mode of action they adopt, electoral or otherwise, and not even on the clear consciousness of the ultimate objectives the movements want to pursue. Rather, it is has to do with transforming the tenacious and courageous resistance of large sectors of society to austerity policies into the will and capacity to change political relations themselves, to go from ‘representation’ to ‘participation’. This is what it means to bring the demand of the common to its highest point of expression.


    1. See Pierre Dardot, Christian Laval, Commun, Essai sur la revolution au 21eme siecle, Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2014.
    2. ‘Things belonging to no one go to the first person to occupy them’.

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