Radical Democrats on the Concept of the Common

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* Article: Conflicts in common(s) ? Radical Democracy and the Governance of the Commons. Martin Deleixhe. Thesis Eleven, Vol. 144(1) 59–79, 2018

URL = https://www.academia.edu/35866812/Conflicts_in_common_s_Radical_Democracy_and_the_Governance_of_the_Commons?email_work_card=view-paper


"Prominent radical democrats have in recent times shown a vivid interest in the commons. Ever since the publication of Governing the Commons by Elinor Ostrom, the commons have been associated with a self-governing and self-sustaining scheme of production and burdened with the responsibility of carving out an autonomous social space independent from both the markets and the state. Since the commons prove on a small empirical scale that self-governance, far from being a utopian ideal, is and long has been a lived reality, a few authors have attempted to turn them into the conceptual matrix of their own account of radical democracy. Negri and Hardt, on one hand, Laval and Dardot, on the other, have jointly coined the term ‘the common’ (in the singular) to suggest that the self-governance quintessential to the commons could be turned into a general democratic principle. Though this is an attractive theoretical prospect, I will contend that it fails to account for an important contradiction between the two theoretical frameworks it connects. Whereas the governance of the commons depends on harmonious cooperation between all stakeholders which in turn relies on a strong sense of belonging to a shared community, radical democracy is highly suspicious of any attempt to build a totalizing community and constantly emphasizes the decisive role of internal agonistic conflicts in maintaining a vibrant pluralism. I will further contend that the short-sightedness of radical democrats on this issue may be partially explained by the strong emphasis in the commons literature on a related but distinct conflict, that which opposes the commoners to the movement of enclosures. I will argue, however, that this conflict is not of an agonistic nature and does little to preserve the dynamism and the constant self-criticism proper to the radical democrat regime."


Martin Deleixhe:

"I will contend that it fails to account for an important discrepancy between the two theoretical frameworks it connects. Whereas the governance of the commons depends on harmonious cooperation between all stakeholders which in turn relies on a strong sense of belonging toa shared endeavour, radical democracy is highly suspicious of any attempt to build a totalizing community and constantly emphasizes the decisive role of internal agonistic conflicts in maintaining a vibrant pluralism (Mouffe, 2005: 3). I will further contend that the short-sightedness of radical democrats on this issue may be partially explained by the strong emphasis in the commons literature on a related but distinct conflict, that which opposes the commoners to the movement of enclosures. I will argue, however, that this conflict is not of an agonistic nature and does little to preserve the dynamism and the constant self-criticism proper to the radical democrat regime. Consequently, if we want to escape the naıve belief that no form of oppression is to be found in the commons, then instead of assuming that such governance schemes are democratic per se, we need to think about how to democratize them, which implies allowing the expression of internal conflict between commoners."

Commons are not only common-pool resources but also a set of co-decided social practices and norms

Martin Deleixhe:

"Elinor Ostrom should be credited for upending the conventional wisdom on the com-mons. In medieval times, commons were pastures and woodlands available by custom for joint use by all villagers (Vogler, 2000: 2–3). By extension, the term commons came to be used to refer to ‘a resource to which no single decision-making holds exclusive title’ (Wijkman, 1982: 512) or, in more technical terms, to ‘subtractable resources managed under a property regime in which a legally defined user pool cannot be efficiently excluded from the resource domain’ (Buck, 1998: 5). Prior to the seminal work of Ostrom, it was widely admitted that the twin features of the commons, namely their open access and the rivalrous nature of the goods they either contained or produced, would Deleixhe lead to a collective action problem akin to the prisoner’s dilemma (Olson, 1965). The commoners, who were assumed to be rational, incommunicative and selfish agents, would be locked into short-term strategies and continue to subtract goods from the commons up to exhaustion point (Dawes, 1973). As a result, only two distinct policies could be prescribed to ensure that long-term interests would prevail over immediate individual gains. The tragic fate of the commons must be prevented either by privatizing the commons or putting them under a public authority: either the invisible hand of the market or the leviathan state (Ostrom, 1990: 8–13). For quite some time, the debate regarding the commons has therefore been structured along the lines of this sole alternative.Elinor Ostrom convincingly showed that the pessimistic ‘metaphoric model’ of the prisoner dilemma was misleading. It rests on a mistaken construal of the commoners which clearly does not tally with empirical facts. Through a careful scrutiny of numerous case studies in the Philippines, Switzerland, Japan and Spain, Ostrom argues that commons have existed and proven themselves sustainable over long periods of time(centuries in the case of the Andalusian irrigation system) (Ostrom, 1990: 58–88). One of the reasons for their enduring success is that commoners do not act as homo economicus. Commoners are social actors embedded in tight-knit communities who communicate, observe social norms and judge their fellow members on the basis of their reputation(Ostrom, 1990: 15–21). They are still considered as individualistic agents – Ostrom remains within the theoretical frameworks of both rational choice and game theory, which she seeks to refine and expand but never to radically criticize – but they under-stand that it is in their own best interest to build institutions that will create incentives for others to cooperate. Consequently, commoners are capable of collectively making binding decisions that supply institutions, restrain their individual consumption and preserve their resource domains in the long run. Notably, they design monitoring and conflict-resolution mechanisms that foster mutual trust by preventing commoners from free-riding (Ostrom, 1990: 94). In sum, commoners have proven themselves capable of self-organization and autonomous government of the commons on which they depend for their subsistence (Ostrom, 1990: 90–102).From the viewpoint of democratic theory, however, Ostrom’s main contribution still lies elsewhere, in what we may call her constructivist/institutionalist turn. For she was the first author to clearly expose that commons were not just a pool of open-access, rivalrous resources but also relied on a coordinated governance. The set of collective institutions and social norms created by the commoners are not just instrumental in sustaining the commons. In fact, they are part of the commons themselves. What is noteworthy in her analysis is that it considers commons as a pool of resources that relies upon autonomous and cooperative social practices, semi-independent from both state and market logics, to ensure their sustainability (Ostrom, 1990: 24–5). This approach highlighted that commons were not only a natural thing but also partly a social construct . Nevertheless, Ostrom appeared to shy away from her own conclusions. The persisting assumption that goods have to bear certain intrinsic qualities (rivalry and non-excludability) in order to qualify as commons trapped her into a naturalistic framework and prevented her from questioning whether such co-decided cooperative social practices could extend beyond a specific set of collective action dilemmas (Dardot and Laval, 2014: 157; Harribey, 2011). Instead of adhering to her rationale and considering that anything could become a commons if it was governed as such, Ostrom inconsistently argued that only certain goods, namely common-pool resources and the knowledge commons, should be collectively administered (Dardot and Laval, 2014: 30–3).Parallel to Ostrom’s line of investigation, another body of literature has marveled at the new possibility for large-scale cooperation brought about by the radical change in the organization of social production due to the shift from industrial to post-industrial economies. Along with new infrastructures of communication and innovative information technologies came the rise of decentralized, horizontal, and egalitarian networks producing immaterial goods (Benkler, 2006). Linux and Wikipedia are often portrayed as the spearheads of this new type of digital commons but they only represent a fraction of what peer production has made possible with regards to knowledge and culture(Bauwens, 2008;Stallman, 2015).Here too open-access and non-rivalrous goods, thoughkey tenets of the digital commons, are not a quintessential quality of the goods in question, for information can just as easily be turned into an exclusive commodity. The ownership regime of these goods can fall prey to IP regulation, copyrights and other patents generating financial rents out of restrictive access to a piece of information(Boyle, 2008; Rifkin, 2000). What characterizes those ground-breaking cooperative practices is rather their governance regime, i.e. their stubborn resistance to any form of centralizing authority (Galloway, 2004; Himanen, 2002), coupled with a rejection of the wage relationship typical of the labor market (Lessig, 2001).


The common: Not just a potential model of economic production but a general democratic principle

Martin Deleixhe:

"The ‘reification of the commons’ in Ostrom’s work is roundly condemned by Dardot and Laval. Firstly because, in their view, it fails to explain why the first movement of enclosures had historically occurred (Dardot and Laval, 2014: 30–33). If meadows and forests ceased to be governed as commons and were privatized in 16th- and 17th-centuryEngland, it was not because landlords suddenly realized that their naturally open layout could be altered in order to make them exclusive. Rather, it was due toa shift in the social relations between the gentry and the commoners (Meiksins Wood, 2002). Similarly, Susan Buck observes that open-access goods tend to be regarded as natural or global commons to be governed multilaterally (Antarctica, deep seabed, outer space, etc.) only while there exists no technology that makes their exploitation profitable (1998: 1). For their part, Dardot and Laval happily throw overboard any remnants of naturalism in the commons theory and argue that no good is inherently common, or naturally escapes appropriation. Commons denote not a relation between a resource and a community but a specific kind of relation between individuals who consider themselves to belong to a shared and constructed community. In a similar vein, these authors discard any reference to a common heritage of mankind, for it rests on a theological perspective according to which the custody of the world was given in common to all men by a superior power, which is incompatible with the non-hierarchical governance typical of the commons (Dardot and Laval, 2014: 25–32). If no good is naturally (or theologically) common, it follows that goods must be instituted as commons; that is, they have to be put in common. Strictly speaking, commons are nothing but the outcome of a continuous process of commoning. Dardot and Laval argue that: ‘it is only the practical activity of men that can make things common’ (Dardot and Laval, 2014: 49). In other words, they take Ostrom’s institutionalist logic one step further. Collective self-governance is not part of the commons, it is constitutive of the commons. Dardot and Laval subsequently suggest calling this collaborative activity itself the common to radically distinguish it from its reified forms. At first glance, this sets them on a slippery slope. For the common could then easily be turned into a vague principle of altruism. Peter Linebaugh, for instance, states that: ‘Human solidarity as expressed in the slogan “all for one and one for all” is the foundation of commoning’ (Linebaugh, 2014: 7).The related terms ‘commoning’ and ‘the common’ then run the risk of being used to describe any forms of effective cooperation. This is precisely why Dardot and Laval painstakingly outline its institutional components. According to them, the principle of the common invites us to ‘introduce everywhere, in the most radical and most systematic fashion, the institutional form of self-government’ (Dardot and Laval, 2014: 46). Two things should be said regarding the content of this political principle of the common. First, it contrasts radically with the two classical policy prescriptions, that is, the recourse to market or to the state, in that it is not articulated as a property regime. It is not assumed that the political solution to the conundrum of having multiple owners making claims toa single pool of goods lies in clarifying the rightful owner (whether by distributing private property rights, turning the commons into a public good or even outlining what a common ownership of the good would potentially look like). Since Dardot and Laval consider that commons are nothing but the institutionalization of the cooperative social practices that surround them, they consistently argue that the commons cannot belong to anyone (Dardot and Laval, 2014: 476–80). The political principle of the common is even at one point presented as ‘the negation in practice of the right to property’ ((Dardot and Laval, 2014: 481). For it struggles against any form of definite appropriation and intends to substitute the right of use for any claim to property. Hence only those that take an active part in the production of the commons are entitled to be co-participants in the decision-making process about its use. Second, the common blurs the distinction between the social and the political. Empirical examples of commons, from region-wide irrigation systems to locally organized inshore fisheries and peer-to-peer data transfer, prove at once to be an efficient model of economic production – ensuring that a collective resource will not only be preserved but also proliferate in the long run for the greatest benefit of all – and to be instrumental in shaping self-governed communities.

The commoning process creates autonomous social organizations that escape the classical dichotomy between private and public, and reshuffle the boundaries between the social and the political (Dardot and Laval, 2014: 463–4). The radical demand of self-governance that underpins the principle of the common is as valid for small production schemes as it is at the level of the whole political community, where what is at stake is society’s creation of itself (Castoriadis,1999). Betraying their Marxist theoretical background, Dardot and Laval argue that the social is always intimately intertwined with the political: ‘the primacy of the common in both spheres [i.e. social and political] is what enables their reciprocal articulation and turns the socio-economic itself into a daily school in co-decision making ’ (Dardot and This is also what enables them to suggest, with a hint of melodramatic eloquence, that the institutionalizing process they call commoning should be turned into ‘a general principle for society’s reorganization’ (Dardot and Laval, 2014: 155).Hardt and Negri share this insight on the vanishing boundary between the social and the political and follow suit in assimilating modes of production and political regimes. However, their analysis proves to be a lot more deterministic and eventually leaves little room to politics. In Commonwealth, Hardt and Negri argue that capitalism has entered into a new phase which they call cognitive capitalism (or, in more philosophical terms, biopolitical production) (Hardt and Negri, 2009: 132; Lazzarato, 1996; Moulier-Boutang, 2011). With the advent of new communication technologies, social production is now ever more connected and self-regulating. As a consequence, capital no longer plays an authoritative role. While capital used to be key in disciplining workers and creating the conditions of their cooperation (in the context of the factory for instance), its coordinating role has now become superfluous since workers organize, network and co- produce autonomously. In Hardt and Negri’s terms: ‘capital is increasingly external to the productive process and the generation of wealth’ (Hardt and Negri, 2009: 141). For, in cognitive capitalism, what is being produced is mostly immaterial. Affects and knowledge, ‘the labor of the head and the heart’ (Hardt and Negri, 2009: 132), are the innovative products of this revamped economy. And in order to produce these, workers need to be dynamic, creative and thought-provoking, which requires them to be emancipated from the strict discipline that existed in the workplace (Hardt and Negri, 2009:140).Capital’s raison d’etre is to reproduce, that is, to accumulate more capital. But if it no longer controls production, it is deprived of any means to deprive the workers of the surplus value their cooperation produces. Capital’s last resort has therefore been to turn to predatory practices and to expropriate values from the commons. The exploitation that used to be internal to the production cycle looks increasingly like the typical primitive accumulation of capital, relying on a violence external to the economic cycle (DeAngelis, 2001). Since capital no longer intervenes in production, it has no choice but to expropriate values from the commons collectively produced by the workers. This parasitic intervention of functionless capitalists has often happened over the last three decades with the benediction and/or the active support of the state. Neoliberalism is the ideological expression of this strategic shift in which capital and states cooperate to enable a new wave of enclosures of the commons on a large scale, labelled by David Harvey as an ‘accumulation by dispossession’ (Harvey, 2004). However, in a markedly dialectical fashion, this strategy bears its own contradiction and will eventually lead to a decisive crisis. For the productivity of labour greatly decreases every time capital encloses and destroys the new immaterial commons on which its cooperative practices rest (Hardt and Negri, 2009: 145). In the long run, this strategy can only be self-defeating. Hardt and Negri even go as far as to suggest giving up on class struggle, a bold claim for two authors who belong to the Marxist tradition. For in their view, labour will in the future grow ever more autonomous from capital’s control. The point then willno longer be to fight its rule but to escape its reach. Hence their call for an ‘exodus of labor’ (Hardt and Negri, 2009: 152). According to this perspective, there are no longer two classes facing each other in an existential economic struggle (as in the classical Marxist view), but one capitalist class keen to privatize the commons produced by the cognitive working class that does its best to wrestle it out of the control of the capitalist class. Commoners should no longer engage in a fierce struggle to defeat the capitalists; they should simply abandon them to their – presumably miserable – fate. It should also be pointed out that Dardot and Laval’s theoretical account of the common retains a dialectic dimension. It stresses the interplay between the political and social, arguing that the latter could be the learning space for democratic practice in the former, whereas Hardt and Negri show less caution and appear merely to translate the spontaneous cooperation they attribute to cognitive capitalism into the political sphere. Hence their unflinching optimism and the contestable claim that: ‘Cognitive labor and affective labor generally produce cooperation autonomously from capitalist command, even in some of the most constrained and exploited circumstances, such as call centers or food services’ (Hardt and Negri, 2009: 140). As many commentators have already pointed out, the thesis of a radical shift toward cognitive capitalism overestimates the extent to which capitalism has changed and consequently overlooks the persistence of hierarchies, be it in international divisions of labor, in new ‘horizontal’ modes of management that hide rather than challenge their implicit hierarchy or in the enduring importance of the first and the second sectors of the economy in the Global South (Frassinelli, 2011). What is strikingly similar in the two approaches just discussed – Laval and Dardot, Hardt and Negri – is that they uncritically endorse Ostrom’s claim that commons are harmonious self-governing schemes of cooperation. In doing so, they overlook the fact that Ostrom was facing an uphill struggle when she first wrote about the commons. Since the overwhelming consensus in the academic community at the time was that no commonly-owned goods could be efficiently administered and managed, Ostrom had to prove that self-governing cooperation could overcome collective action issues. Consequently, she had to emphasize the productive communities’ ability to align all relevant private interests with a larger collective goal. It would however be unfair to portray her research as sweeping under the carpet their internal conflicts to paint a rosy picture of an idyllic community of commoners. Ostrom is in fact acutely aware of the empirical existence of internal conflicts and is at pains to stipulate that conflict-regulation mechanisms, i.e. social institutions allowing stakeholders to sort out their respective complaints regarding the interpretations and applications of the rules they are submitted to, are key to an enduring and successful cooperation (Ostrom, 1990: 100–1). What is closer to the truth, though, is that she sees conflicts mostly as a threat to the sustainability of cooperation. Hence the emphasis on their quick and efficient resolution. As a result, Ostrom has little consideration for the value of conflict (in particular, structural conflict)and its potentially constructive role in bringing about reforms to the organization of cooperative practices. What defines the governance of the commons for her is first and foremost its collective resilience in the face of divisiveness, free-riding, and lack of individual compliance. As I will try to show in the following section, using the conclusion that conflicts should be restricted to a marginal role in the self-governance of cooperative practices to turn the commons into the matrix of radical democracy may come at a cost. For, while the two theoretical projects share similar political goals and are concerned with the same object, that is self-governed communities, they nevertheless adopt staunchly opposed views with regard to its internal conflicts. Any attempt to compare broadly both schools of thought inescapably fails to make justice to their internal diversity. But allow me to try nevertheless to state what is at stake in this discrepancy. Radical democrats take democracy to be synonymous in modern times with popular sovereignty, that is the ability for each and every member of a people to be the effective author of the rules to which (s)he is subjected (Lummis, 1996; Warren, 1996). This demanding understanding of popular sovereignty implies more than a hypothetical self-legislation through the election of representatives. It calls rather for an increased participation of the citizens inthe decision-making process, antithetical with a wide gap between professional politicians and regular citizens, but also with sustained social inequalities or with any heteronomous source of norms such as religion or tradition. As far as this demanding interpretation of popular sovereignty is concerned, self-governed commons and radical democracy are a match made in heaven since the former embodies that very form of direct participation the latter is so eager to foster (Bevir, 2006).The crux of the matter lies elsewhere. Radical democrats are post-totalitarian thinkers or, in other words, are keenly aware of the dramatic corruptions that the concept of sovereignty, including in its popular declination, has undergone in the 20th century(Morin, 1991). With the benefit of historical hindsight, they thus concur that popular sovereignty direly needs some checks and balances beyond the formal constraints of the rule of law. But they also refuse stubbornly to give up on the demands of radical autonomy. Hence their preference for internal conflict as the best means to foster pluralism and prevent democracy from turning into a totalizing and homogeneous society, as we will explain in more detail below. And here is, we argue, where both schools seem to part ways. As far as internal conflicts are concerned, radical democrats appear to be more cautious than their ‘commonist’ friends (Dyer-Witheford, 2007). For the authors that turn the commons into the matrix of a revamped radical democracy donot deny that internal conflicts are a constitutive part of their self-governance, but they fail to identify their crucial role in the struggle to democratize democracy."