Capitalist Commons

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* Article: The Future of ‘The Commons’: Neoliberalism’s ‘Plan B’ or the Original Disacc umulation of Capital? George Caffentzis



Excerpted from George Caffentzis:

"Ostrom’s reliance on social capital (the commonism in capitalism) to explain commons behaviour is part of a tendency among capitalist intellectuals that developed as a complement to neoliberalism.

The apparent triumph of neoliberalism with its aim to totalise the reign of capital has created its own reaction, that is, the conviction that there is a necessary ‘commons’ to capitalism itself. Thus the notion of ‘social capital’ and the importance of ‘community’ and ‘trust’ have been brought to the fore at the very moment of the so-called triumph of the market.28 In fact, this led to a re-recognition of a social ur-level before contract and ‘the market’ that structures them (which had been discussed for the first time by David Hume in Scotland during the eighteenth century) and is a sine qua non of capitalist accumulation.

These friends of capitalism revealed that neoliberalism was capitalism’s own worst enemy, especially when not controlled by the threat of an alternative. For capitalism can reach, both theoretically and practically, what I call the ‘Midas Limit’ (when all transactions are based on pure utility maximising without any concern for the poorly sanctioned rules of fair exchange, and hence are surfeited with fraud and deception, or in other words, individualism gone wild). Such a generalised condition threatens the system’s own survival as illustrated by the periodic crises produced by a generalised ‘lack of trust’ from the days of the burst of the South Sea Bubble when the system reached one of the first Midas limits. Some have speculated that this limit was again reached in the so-called ‘’ era of the late 1990s when Enron and Tyco executives (among thousands of others) were largely looking to the value of their own stock portfolios rather than the long-term health of the corporations they were running. There is little doubt that an even more dangerous Midas limit was reached once more in the ‘subprime’ mortgage crisis of 2007 that has led to the freezing of credit and a worldwide recession in 2009. This era has given what might be thought to be oxymoronic creatures, capitalist moralists or business ethicists, a new burst of employment in lamenting the ‘state of the world’ and drawing up new rules to generate trust in the executors of capital’s will.


Once this productivity of the commons qua firm is recognised, planning can begin to determine its greatest capitalist potential. This is exactly what the World Bank sees as the purpose of its support for ‘community resource management’ (while still firmly holding on to the overall neoliberal model on the macro-level). Indeed, the World Bank now regularly includes ‘common property management groups’ among the ‘civil society’ institutions it is increasingly interested in supporting. Of course, these commons organisations are to be integrated into the larger project of making the world safe for neoliberalism. Indeed, the World Bank’s integration of common property into its domain has been gathering momentum since 1992. In 1995 it founded the ‘Common Property Resource Management Group’.


Sachs has become one of the articulators (along with researchers like Ostrom and Binswanger) of a neoliberal ‘Plan B’ meant to use the ‘social capital’ appropriate to the commons to counter the threat to capitalism posed by ‘the Poors’. The question for them is, ‘how can a commons and/or public good become useful for capital accumulation?’ They do not assume, as the doctrinaire neoliberals do, that these products of collective choice and rule-making inevitably imply a reduction of accumulation. Sachs went on to ally himself with Blair’s electoral machine, and with Bono and Live8 he devised a successful strategy of confusing the anti-globalisation movement. In retrospect, I see that the key to this strategy was the confusion between capitalist and anti-capitalist commons. This confusion intensified with the beginning of the Obama campaign for the US Presidency that began a year later. As he wrote in his campaign book, The Audacity of Hope in 2006, neoliberalism (what the Bush Administration ideologues called ‘the Ownership Society’) was leading to a political catastrophe for capitalism in the US by creating harsh class divisions, an uncompetitive working class, and a corrupt and irresponsible capitalist class. Obama’s answer to US capitalism’s ills was and is similar to Sach’s answer for Africa: communal actions and institutions must be tolerated in order to make a functioning capitalism possible.


Obama, on becoming President, has fashioned an Administration willing to apply this maxim using trillions of dollars of government funds to undertake a wide spectrum of actions that appear ‘collectivist,’ ‘socialist’ and ‘commonist’ to a doctrinaire neoliberal, from taking control of the banking sector to demanding a specific restructuring of the auto industry. But the aim of these actions is to return the economy back to its pre-crisis state of minimal state intervention not to proliferate permanent commons. Consequently, unless we are clear about the conflicting uses of the notion of the commons, everything fuzzily congeals so that Live8, ‘end poverty’ campaigners and President Obama can appear to be allies of the Zapatista movement! The political conflicts (and hesitations) during the G8 meetings can be understood as a clash (and a merging) between politics motivated by these two conflicting (but confused) conceptions of the commons. A similar point can be made about the Obama campaign and his Administration. Most important for anti-capitalists is the future of the commons, or in other words, whether ‘the commons’ will be ceded to those who want to enclose it semantically and use it to further neoliberal capitalism’s ends or whether we will continue to infuse in ‘the commons’ our struggle for another form of social life beyond the coordination of capital? In a sense, however, the future outside of capital’s time is created by commoning, so the question we posed at the beginning - ‘does the commons have a future?’ - is a malapropism; the real question is: ‘can there be a future without the commons?’" (

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