= concept, and the title of a specific book on the topic
“Common has an extraordinary range of meaning in English, and several of its particular meanings are inseparable from a still active social history,” says the 20th century critic, Raymond Williams.3 The root word is “communis, Latin, derived alternatively, from com-, Latin – together and manis, Latin – under obligation, and from com- and unus, Latin – one.” It thus points to either “a specific group or to the generality of mankind.” (http://www.commoner.org.uk/?p=98)
More and more the concept of the common seems to become a third term, alongside the private and the collective.
The common consists of a series of inalienable rights that are hold by all individuals, rather than collective aspects governed by a separate sovereign body, and different from the individualized/privatized aspects of existence.
It translates into new forms of Common Property that has it own rules and theory, applying to Common Goods and Common Pool Resources, sometimes governed by specialized Common Good Licenses such as the General Public License for software.
The concept of the common is therefore essential for building a society based on the Common Good, and is the key to understand Peer Production and how it socially reproduces itself through a process of Circulation of the Common.
Hardt positions the 'common' as explicitely countering the notion of property:
Q: Do you see any connection here with questions concerning the relationship between the common, on the one hand, and common property or common goods, on the other hand? You already mentioned that there is something in the way that the concept of the common is used, which often ends up situating it against various forms of property, but, on the other hand, there are clearly some tensions here, and maybe possibilities to think about how the concept of property could be rethought along similar lines in which you have dealt with concepts such as democracy and communism.
Micheal Hardt: If we move into the contemporary political framework of discussions on the common, there is clearly a great deal of ambiguity, and perhaps there should be a kind of clarifying work done about what is meant by the common. I think one division that is already implied in what you are saying is the division between the common and the public. In many discussions what I would call the public, by which I mean that controlled and regulated by the state, people call it the common, and for me it is very important to make a distinction between the public and the common. Public still functions as a form of property, and here what we mean by property is that it has the same primary characteristics as private property: that is, limited access, and a monopoly of decision-making. That seems to me the defining characteristic of property as a whole in these discussions, both on public and private property. So, that is one division I would say between the public and the common — an area of confusion or mixed discourses which I think it would be helpful to set straight.
It is a slightly different, but also overlapping distinction here that you are making between the common and what sometimes goes as common property or in other discussions as common goods. Here, too, it is helpful to distinguish the common from property, as such, and to avoid conceptual confusions. Also, sometimes attached to these distinctions are real political divisions. One useful scholarly point of reference for the question you just asked, is to think about the passage in Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts, in which he is trying to bracket off, and separate, his notion of communism from what he is calling crude communism. Crude communism in some ways is characterized by a passage from private property to making those same goods the property of the community, which he is ridiculing and mocking. His example of this transfer of property from private to some notion of communal property, or common property, is the passage of women as property of the bourgeois male, as private property of the husband, to some notion of community of women, in which women remain property, as they are in bourgeois marriage, but are now property of the entire community. It is a bizarre example, but nonetheless gives you an idea of Marx’s anxiety about this notion of common property, and the misunderstandings that could follow from that kind of conception. I maintain that we have to understand the common in contradistinction from any form of property. In other words, whereas property (public or private) designates limited access and a monopoly of decision-making, the common must create open access and collective, democratic decision-making.
Q: Could you maybe elaborate a bit more on how you see this relationship between the common and communism.
One of the ways I have understood the project that Toni and I have been working on in all three volumes of this series of our books is to re-think the basic components of the concept of communism. What do I mean by the basic components of the concept of communism? At least a critique of the state; a critique of property; and the proposition of a real democracy, an absolute democracy, a new democratic organization of society. These are at least some of the components of communism that we try in various ways throughout the books to re-think. So, I would say that the common, both as a philosophical concept, as we were talking before, and as a political terrain of struggle, is a way of exploring the critique of private property today. And I would have to add, once again, not only private property, but also public property.
So thinking about the common here is a challenge at least. It is not really an answer to the question; it is a way of formulating the question of the rule of property and the possibilities of social organization that lie outside the rule of property. So in that sense, I would say it is one of the components that one would have to not only articulate, but also work through and transform, in order today to be able to propose some meaning to the concept of communism. It is one among several fields of work that one would have to do to develop the concept of communism today.
Q: This is obviously closely connected to one of the questions being debated in many of the discussions on the common, that is, what is the role that the state should play in relation to it. Now, would it be a total misrepresentation of your recent work to say that in Declaration there is a more explicit role for the state to be found as a strategic tool in the fight against the privatization of the common?
I do think that in our view it is a feasible route in certain circumstances today to maintain an antagonistic, but nonetheless strategic, relationship to the state. But it does depend on the circumstances, so that in Declaration, at that point you cite, we are primarily talking about the power of the social movements in Latin America, that in the last ten years have developed a kind of double relationship to the leftist governments. It seems to us wrong to say that those leftist governments represent us, and we should support them at all cost, but it also seems wrong to say that those leftist governments are really the same as the neoliberal forces we were fighting against previously, and we should therefore attack them in the same way we attacked the previous governments. What we describe, which is not so much our proposal as our recognition of what people are doing, is maintaining a dual relationship with such states. Not to be satisfied with them and constantly support them or to attack them as the enemy, but to maintain a dual combat: with them against the forces of neoliberalism and against them in the interests of the common." (http://www.commons.fi/even-when-you-dont-see-it-it%E2%80%99s-still-there-interview-michael-hardt)
Source: from an interview conducted by Taavi Sundell & Tero Toivanen
What's the Difference between the Common and the Commons?
"The common is used especially in present discussion by theorists of or writers influenced by autonomous marxism. Here the difference is related on what I would perhaps call as a distinction between social processes and resources. One way to see it is that the common is not so much “discovered”, as maybe the commons when seen as resources are, as it is “produced”. For example Hardt and Negri willingly emphasize the difference by relating commons to "shared places" that were enclosed by the time of primitive accumulation. Here the difference is perhaps more philosophical, but, as I see it, they also use it as a way to form new language for political theory and economy. So the common refers to the social processes that are based on the common, produced co-operatively and the result is common, that, then again, is used as common in further production. For Hardt and Negri this, of course, relates to the rise of immaterial production and their conception of biopolitical production: “Common is dynamic, involving both the product of labor and the means of future production. This common is not only the earth we share but also the languages we create, the social practises we establish, the modes of sociality that define our relationship, and so forth” (In book Commonwealth).
On the other hand, we can ask what’s the “new” about this. As historian Peter Linebaugh has shown in his Magna Carta Manifesto, the word “commons” was used as a verb in the times before and during the primitive accumulation and the enclosure. Linebaugh writes at the conclusion of his book (p. 279): ”To speak of the commons as if it were a natural resource is misleading at best dangerous at worst – the commons is an activity and, if anything, it expresses relationships in society that are inseparable from relations to nature. It might be better to keep the word as a verb, an activity, rather than as a noun, a substantive. But this too is a trap. Capitalist and the World Bank would like us to employ commoning as a means to socialize poverty and hence to privatize wealth. The commoning of the past, our forebears’ previous labor, survives as a legacy in the form of capital and this too must be reclaimed as part of our constitution.”
One perspective to look the issue is, of course, the distinction between the concepts of private, public and common. Here, following Linebaugh’s idea of constitution mentioned above, you can perhaps formulate an idea of three different constitutions of societies, or maybe “constituent processes” that all have been present at least since the dawn of capitalism. These three concepts refer to ways how the property, production and class relations are “arranged”. Private property defines the constitution for capitalism: the means of production are owned privately and used by wage labor to gain profit for the owners of the means of production. Public obviously refers to existing public resources regulated by state, but you can also see it grasping the history of “really existing socialism” where the means of production were held by state. I think the key idea here is that in “really existing socialism” the ownership form was confused with the ownership relation. The state ownership of the production is not to abolish the class relations or not even the capitalist ownership, since the producers still are separated, as is also the case with privately owned means of production, from their means of production. This is why, I think, it’s very much legitimate to call the existed soviet experiment as state-capitalism.
Thus, maybe then we can see the common referring to Marx’s idea of “an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common”. (Let’s add here that the concept of common seems also to give a whole new and open, if you like, perspectives to read Marx’s texts). Then the question arises, how far are we to understand common as a property or property relation at all? Or can it be defined something as a concept beyond the idea of property, as Hardt seem to vision? Can the “world of common” be the world of use values beyond the very idea of property and the separation of the producer from the means of production?"
The Common(s) as Meta-Ideology
From an interview by Pascal Gielen and Sonja Lavaert of Antonio Negri:
Q: When we speak of meta-ideology, we refer to the tendency of transcending the traditional party political differences between left and right. It is a trend that can be seen clearly today, wherever the theme of the common is picked up or where common-initiatives are being developed. And elsewhere as well: liberal politicians write books about the importance of the basic income; neonationalism presents itself as a longing for social cohesion; religiously inspired political parties emphasize communion and the community, et cetera.
Negri: Common is not the exclusive property of the left, that much is clear. Looking at history from a Marxist perspective, we see how it was precisely the commons that were transformed by capitalism to be financially profitable. Capitalism’s attitude towards the commons is about expropriation, exploration, creating surplus value, and the dominion that is founded on these things. The common exists in two major forms: there are natural commons and social commons and, as Michael and I put forth in Assembly, these can be subdivided into five types: the earth and ecosystems; the immaterial common of ideas, codes, images and cultural products; material goods produced by cooperative labour; metropolises and rural areas that are the domain of communication, cultural interaction and cooperation; and social institutions and services that provide housing, welfare, healthcare and education. Now the essential characteristic of the present-day economy and society is that the social production of the commons is being exploited by capital. The struggle of the commons therefore is working people re-appropriating that of which they were robbed by capital. Re-appropriating what was taken from them and putting it to work for the benefit of the common: that is the meaning of liberation and emancipation. This also means that the fiction of ‘post’ or ‘meta’ is debunked and eliminated. There is no meta. The struggle of the commons is the possibility of eliminating an ‘outside’ (meta [above], post [after]). This struggle is exclusively fought in the domain of immanence, meaning: here and now, at the heart of the reality in which we find ourselves, because there is no ‘outside’. By the way, we can only speak in the abstract about common as a general unitary, singular and exactly definable concept, because in reality the common is always twofold, just like labour is.
There is much talk about ‘common’ nowadays; studies are undertaken, and various movements and schools of thought have emerged around the theme. Here in France, for example, there is the school of the economist Benjamin Coriat, editor of Le retour des communs (2015); we have Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, who posit the common as a demand and alternative in their Commun (2014), and Carlo Vercellone and other comrades – and Michael and myself are two of them – who regard the common as something that can be used ontologically, can be annexed, and for whom the struggle therefore consists of re-appropriating the common. This also ties in with David Harvey’s reading of Marx. In Assembly we concern ourselves in great detail with his analysis and for the most part we agree with him. However, whereas Harvey focuses on capitalism as a continuous primitive accumulation, we see it as a developmental phase and therefore prefer to speak of formal and real subsumption, but this perhaps is a different theme.
What I’m trying to say is: my distrust of the term ‘meta’ is that it suggests that there is no difference or antithesis anymore between left and right. Well, of course left and right are inaccurate concepts, but to put it more plainly: it means that capitalism is no longer recognised and that being liberated of capitalism is regarded as something that could easily happen or would even be a battle that is already won.
To give a concrete example of how we use the term ‘meta’: the occupation of Syntagma Square in Athens in 2011 was predominantly organized by the left, but people from quite different ideological backgrounds are also joining the movement and are developing new initiatives, out of necessity, for their daily survival. For that reason, this movement, which is really more of a patchwork of initiatives, is sometimes ‘accused’ of being apolitical. In that sense we call commonism a practice-based ideology and we call it ‘meta’ because it brings together people from various, traditionally opposed political currents, and does so out of necessity.
I fully agree with that conclusion and analysis, but I would still be wary of using such an ambiguous term. The word ‘meta’ covers a political concern aimed at reconciliation with regard to the profound rift between, to put it bluntly, the bosses and those who are exploited." (https://www.onlineopen.org/the-salt-of-the-earth)
- Special issue on the common in Rethinking Marxism vol 22, is.3 2010: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rrmx20/22/3
- The Commoner 2001 issue on primitive accumulation and enclosures: http://www.commoner.org.uk/index.php?p=5
- Hardt: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/03/communism-capitalism-socialism-property
- Harvey: http://rhr.dukejournals.org/content/2011/109/101.abstract
- Federici: http://www.commoner.org.uk/?p=113
- Ozgun: http://www.korotonomedya.net/kor/index.php?id=27,340,0,0,1,0
* Book: Commun: essai sur la revolution au XXIème siècle. Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval.
In English: Common: An Essay on Revolution in the 21st Century.
The interview was conducted by Amador Fernández-Savater.
* “What was your intention in writing the book? Why set out this key idea of the common here and now?
Pierre Dardot: This book follows the same trail as our previous works, particularly The New Way of the World. The latter ends with a somewhat elliptical expression: “the reason of the commons”. We wanted to suggest that the ‘counter-conducts’ we spoke about in the book, that is, the practices of resistance and subjectivation, ought to be articulated as a new political reason, an alternative political reason to the neoliberal reason we had analysed.
What we were not so sure about was this very articulation, or, to put it another way, what kind of direct and positive participation in conducts of resistance could help build an alternative rationality. We had in mind an opposition between two principles: competition (a principle of neoliberal logic) and the common [lo común], but it was still very abstract. Ultimately, what was at stake was what we might call the positivity of practices of resistance: we cannot be satisfied with a resistance to power that is purely defensive or reactive. Rather, we have to think about a resistance that can produce new rules. It is only in this way that we will be in a position to overthrow neoliberal reason.
Christian Laval. We were prepared to map out the path from resistance to emancipation, in that sense moving beyond Foucault and his mistrust of the “big projects”. But what was ultimately decisive in writing this book, with this title, were the different movements contesting the private and state-led appropriation of resources, spaces, services, etc. And, most especially, the movement of the occupation of squares (15M, etc) which has set forth new demands with an incomparable energy.
In all these movements a radical questioning of ‘representative’ democracy has developed, in the name of a ‘real’ democracy, linked in certain cases to ecological demands concerning the preservation of ‘common goods’ (urban spaces above all). So something that was for us still rather a matter of intuition at the end of The New Way of the World has now taken shape. We believe that the common is the principle that literally emerges from all these movements. The common is not, then, something that we have invented, but rather emerges from current struggles as their own principle.
* What is your definition of the common?
Pierre Dardot: The definition of the common that we propose at the beginning of the book does not seek to be a general definition, independent of time and place. If we go back to the etymology of this term (cum-munus) it is certainly not to give the impression that the common has always held the meaning we give it today. In Aristotle, the koinôn is what arises from the activity of common endeavour that constitutes citizenship, the activity that involves the back-and-forth between the rulers and the ruled. In the Roman Republic, the word munis meant, above all, the dimension of obligation imposed upon all magistrates that held public office. Today, by the lights of the movement of the squares, the term has a rather different meaning: the only valid political obligation is that which proceeds, not from belonging to the same thing, but from participation and involvement in the same activity or task. This demand is one of participative democracy and as such it stands opposed to representative democracy, which authorises a few to speak and act on behalf of the many.
* Could you explain the difference between your approach to the common and what we find in other discourses at play in more or less the same field? To be specific: 1) What distinguishes the common from the public-state owned? 2) What distinguishes the common from ‘common goods’? 3) What distinguishes your thoughts from those of other intellectuals such as Toni Negri and Michael Hardt?
Christian Laval: The public-state-owned rests upon two demands that are perfectly contradictory: on the one hand, it purports to guarantee universality of access to public services; on the other, the state administration reserves the monopoly over running these services, thereby reducing users to consumers, and excluding them from any kind of participation in their running. The commons must be precisely to put an end to this baleful division between “public servants” [funcionarios] and “users”. To put it another way, the common could be defined the public/non-state: to guarantee universality in access to services through direct user participation in their running.
Pierre Dardot: Secondly, the common is for us a political principle and not a property that might pertain by nature to a certain kind of “goods”. We distinguish between the common [lo común] as a political principle that is not to be instituted but rather applied, and the commons, which are always instituted through the application of this principle. The commons are not ‘produced’, but rather ‘instituted’. This is why we are very reticent with regard to ‘common goods’. Because all goods considered in this way share this quality of being ‘products’. We think this reasoning needs to be turned around: every common that is instituted (whether natural resource, knowledge, cultural space etc.) is a good, but no good is in itself common. A common is not a ‘thing’, even when it relates to a thing, but rather the living tie between a thing, an object or a place, and the activity of the collective that takes charge of it, that maintains it and cares for it. The common can only be instituted as that which cannot be appropriated.
Christian Laval: Finally, our perspective also calls into question the thesis set out by Negri and Hardt of a spontaneous production of the common, which would be at once both the result and the condition of the process of production (in the same mode as the expansive dynamic of the forces of production in a certain kind of Marxism). We think that by idealising the autonomy of immaterial labour in the era of ‘cognitive capitalism’, this thesis fatally ignores the mechanisms for subordinating labour that capital nowadays operates.
* ‘There are no goods that are not common goods [by their very nature, by their intrinsic qualities], but rather commons to be instituted.’ These are the words that round off your work and in a certain way summarise it. How is the common instituted? What kind of institutions are appropriate?
Pierre Dardot: To institute does not mean to institutionalise in the sense of rendering official, of consecrating or of recognising a posteriori what has already existed for some time (for example, in the form of habit or custom), nor does it mean to create out of nothing. It means to create the new with -and starting from- what already exists, as such in conditions passed down independently of our activity. A common is instituted by a specific praxis that we call ‘instituent praxis’. There is no general method for the institution of any given common. Each praxis ought to be understood and carried out in situ or in loco. That is why we must speak of ‘instituent praxes’ in plural.
Christian Laval: Opening up a service that had been until that moment closed down, in a psychiatric hospital, following a discussion with the health workers and the patients, involves an instituent praxis, though it might be a ‘micropolitical’ extension, as Foucault would have it. Similarly, instituting a seed bank for peasants or setting up a cultural centre for common use. And it is these practices that prepare and build the revolution understood as ‘auto-institution of society’.
* There is a classical suspicion among the more egalitarian and horizontal movements with regard to the idea of ‘institution’: the danger of bureaucratisation, the consecration of tradition, the excessively rigid channelling of the ‘flow’ of the movements, etc. How would you respond to this suspicion? How should we think of the institution in a way that responds to these risks? How can we crystallise without freezing?
Christian Laval: Throughout history: there is a ‘curse’ that lies in wait for social mobilisations, for movements of struggle, for revolutionary experiences: the alternative between their swift dissolution due to lack of structure, or their bureaucratisation. Certain writers hold that we cannot escape the petrification of movements, their degradation into a fixed organisation, headed up by a small conservative oligarchy. Sartre, for example, thought that the insurrectional episode of the groupe en fusion inevitably led to an institutional reification. The concept of institution therefore wound up in one thing: the inertia of a dead body.
But this thesis can only be understood as the reverse of the old Marxist-Leninist theory of the Party that saw, in the absence of a disciplined organisation capable of seizing the centre of power, the cause of the defeat of revolutions (particularly the Paris Commune). The Marxist-Leninist party, the keeper of the knowledge of history, was no more than a simulacrum of State, based on the model of the central bureacracy. The challenge of contemporary movements consists in having the capacity to refute this double fatalism.
Pierre Dardot: We have to tackle this feeling of historical impotence that says that effective and lasting politics can be nothing other than the monopoly of the dominant. And to this end there is only one solution: to create institutions whose principle is such that the rules can be the object of a constant collective deliberation so as to avoid a bureacratic ‘freezing-over’. What is essential is that the institution, whatever it might be, should have the capacity to open up to the unforeseen and adapt to new necessities: its functioning must therefore allow at every moment a relaunching of the instituent.”
* At what point are we right now in this struggle?
Christian Laval: The dominant forces in Europe and the world have deliberately entered into a logic of political confrontation, under the pretext of returning debt to creditors, in order to break these fractions of the population that resist neoliberalism and rip the heart out of any will for political rupture. We are entering a new period of struggles. Greece and Spain are the vanguard. The important thing is that they must not remain alone, and that other forces in other countries must come to their aid in order to break these austerity policies.
The situation of confrontation on a European scale shows the practical need for a new internationalism. And hence one of the current risks, undoubtedly the major risk, is that when confronted with the ravages of neoliberalism, some end up succumbing to the deadly siren calls of nationalism and sovereigntism. This is what is currently happening in France, not only on the far right with the Front National, but also in the ‘radical’ left.
- We believe one of the virtues and strengths of your book is that it can appeal both to those involved in grassroots experiences as well as those who have opted for the ‘assault on the institutions’. Regarding grassroots movements, how might your book help to rethink and reassess one of their major problems, that of duration? How can the (egalitarian, inclusive etc) political practices that emergge in exceptional moments of struggle be turned into ‘habit’ or ‘custom’?
Pierre Dardot: Regarding the movements, the reach of our book, at least that which we are seeking, is that the institutional dimension of ‘real democracy’, in the words of 15M, be taken seriously, that it become the object of experiments, debates, collective reflections. For us, real democracy is a matter of institutions. And this is the condition for ensuring the duration and the strength of the movements. It is for this reason that we are opposed to all these illusions regarding the spontaneous development of ‘immanent communism’ in grassroots struggles. These illusions are dangerous, because they short-circuit the decisive question of the institution, that is, in our perspective, the investigation regarding the effective forms of instituent praxes. The dialogue can be established on these grounds.
We should not underestimate how difficult it is to invent new institutions whose functioning is geared explicitly towards preventing their appropriation by a small number, the distorting of their purposes, or the ‘rigidification’ of their rules. The question is not how to ‘create’ new ‘customs’ or ‘habits’, because neither one nor the other can be the object of acts of institution, but rather how to allow practical rules to prevail that allow for debate, deliberation, collective decision-making even in the very definition of the rules that organise collective life.
* And regarding public institutions, how might one contribute from these towards the common? Is it possible, for example, to transform public institutions into institutions of the common
Christian Laval: As we have said, there is a close relation between the ephemeral nature of mobilisations and the more or less ‘grassroots’ spontaneity that condemns any kind of political activity in the name of distrust regarding everything that looks like “politics”. But at the same time, it is not enough to “conquer power” and “occupy the positions” of the State in order to change things. The deep and undoubtedly irreversible crisis of representative democracy in the neoliberal era clearly shows the need to invent another politics, another relation to politics. And that is precisely the challenge of the politics of the common.
Pierre Dardot: We must remember that the common does not come from the State. The State is by no means the owner of the common, except illegitimately. It is from the very inside of society’s movement, through the struggles that transform it, that new political forms are invented. Institutions are born out of conflict. It has been forgotten, no doubt owing to the degeneration of the organisations of the socialist and labour movement, that workers in the 19th century were able, under very difficult conditions, to build new institutions in their day, such as unions, cooperatives, mutuals etc.
The current abundance of associations of struggle and defence of citizens links back to this history while at the same time gives it a deep renewal. It is not only the workplace that needs to be reinstituted politically, as socialists of years past wanted, but all social activities and all spheres of life: the hospital, the school, the home, the city, the culture.
Christian Laval: There is no preestablished plan for this new politics. We only have concrete experiences that need to be considered, compared, synthesised. For example, all that has been explored for years under the name of ‘participatory democracy’ at a local level, in very different regions and under very varied forms, in Latin America, in England, in the Kurdish region of Rojava with its communalist utopia etc. And, above all, this irresistible wave on a global level of collective care of ‘common goods’, which entails (despite its erroneous designation) the participation of citizens in its definition, care, production. The example of the democratisation of water services in Naples, as promoted by the mayor Luigi de Magistris, stands out in this sense, despite its limits.
* To be more specific: what message would you give to the municipal initiatives (Ahora Madrid, Barcelona en Comú, Marea Atlántica) that view ‘the defence of common goods’ as a key axis of their programmes?
Pierre Dardot: One of our ‘proposals’ is to transform public services into instituted commons. This would mean that they would no longer belong to the State as if it were the proprietor, the sole custodian, the overall authority. A public service is only worthy of that title if it is a service that society gives to itself in order to realise its rights and satisfy its needs. We need to break the monopoly of state administration in order to guarantee universality of access to these services: users must be considered, not as consumers, but rather as citizens who take part in the deliberations and decisions that concern them, alongside the ‘public servants’.
Christian Laval: Another condition to be imposed: politics must not be a matter for professionals. Politics is not an office, and least of all an office for life. On the political plane, one of the hinges of the revolution we are tasked with today is the radical modification of the definition of the political mandate, at every level, in order to eliminate the political ‘caste’, who, ever closer to the ruling economic powers, has done so much harm to our societies.” (http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/interview-with-pierre-dardot-and-christian-laval-on-the-politics-of-the-common/2015/07/24)
"The use of common in the singular also casts light on one of the main thrusts of their argument. When one talks of ‘the commons’ in the plural one tends to view contemporary initiatives through the frame provided by the agricultural commons. At the same time, one tends to see the common(s) as a thing rather than as a set of practices. Both tendencies lead us in unhelpful directions for reasons that should become clear below. At the same time, and as the authors also note, we currently find ourselves in a political impasse and desperately need to find ways to move forward. While neo-liberal capitalism is seen to work more and more nakedly in the service of the few, alternatives, whether in the shape of a return to the old Welfarist, post-1945 model, or the authoritarian state socialism of the old Communist bloc, are either condemned to the past or radically undesirable, or both. At the same time, the self-governance and occupation of public spaces practiced by a range of recent protests (Occupy, the Gezi park protests in Turkey) shows a real hunger for more direct forms of democracy and a deep mistrust of traditional, state-centred, representative models. Yet the fact that none of these protests were able to generate more durable or more widespread modes of action also points towards some of their limitations. This is what Dardot and Laval’s important book seeks to address.
The authors begin by noting that our understanding of the common tends to be shaped (and hindered) by a tripartite set of traditions: an essentially theological one that sees the goal of religious and political institutions as the ‘common good’: a juridical or legal one that associates the common(s) with a category of things (as mobilized, for example, by counter-globalisers when they defend the global ‘commons’ of atmosphere, the water or knowledge; finally, a philosophical one that tends to connect the common to the universal (as in our ‘common humanity’ or our shared access to ‘common sense’.) Each of these understandings is problematic for reasons that can only be sketched out here: the first model essentially because it attributes the monopoly of the definition or defence of the good to church or state; the second, as already implied, because of the way in which it tends to reify, naturalize and restrict the common(s), only those things being deemed common that by their (inexhaustible or uncapturable) nature cannot or should not be appropriated by private interests; the third, due to its tendency to either associate the common with the lowly or, more importantly, with that which all people a priori have in common and which is therefore of very little political use. Against these understandings, Dardot and Laval defend a sense of the commons rooted in praxis. As they note, ‘it is only the practical activity of people which can make things common, in the same way as it is only this practical activity that can produce a new collective subject.’ They go on to affirm, ‘The common is not a thing … It is the political principle on the basis of which we must construct commons and return to them to defend them, to extend them and to make them live.’ So, if it is to be politically productive, the common fundamentally relates not to having things in common, nor to the sharing of common things, but to the shared activity through which people shape their relationship to the material world but also themselves in ways which they themselves must decide.
Discussion of the common of course takes us back to the communist legacy, something which recent discussion of the communist ‘hypothesis’ by such as Alain Badiou has tended to bracket or by-pass (through reference to communism as a Platonic idea or as a regulatory norm) but something which Dardot and Laval feel must be confronted head-on if we are to learn from it. Here they come up with another tripartite typology as a way of mapping how communism has been understood. Firstly, they evoke the kind of religious community typified by the monastery and its underpinning belief that, because we receive everything from God, we can only begin to pay him back by renouncing all individual goods and giving ourselves over to communal life. This tradition found its prolongation in the valorization of utopian communities by early socialism. Secondly, they evoke the nineteenth century socialist and communist traditions which, rather than aspiring to some retreat from the social, saw modern society, and its complex division of labour, as the main source of human productivity: in this case, what was central was not a sharing of goods but a more productive and egalitarian organization of social energy that would liberate oppressed social forces from capitalist alienation and exploitation, thereby permitting the free flowering of social activity. In this second understanding, particularly its Marxist variant, capitalism itself was seen as the necessary pre-condition for the association of the producers assembled in factories and workshops. From this position, it was all too easy to imagine that, once assembled by capital, the real productive forces could simply be detached from it. This fallacy still haunts some strands of leftist thought today (Hardt and Negri, for example). It allows us to think that capitalism will somehow create for us the commons of, say, cognitive labour without the need for thought and action on our part or a profound restructuring of social behaviours, roles and hierarchies. Thirdly, Dardot and Laval note, comes the Communist party-state, with its top-down, bureaucratized productivism and its intense subordination of society to party discipline. Of most interest to them perhaps in this latter context is the Hungarian revolution of 1956 which, through its creation of worker councils, its turn to forms of direct democracy that reached beyond factory walls to broader communities, and its belief in co-decision making and not simply co-execution anticipated many of the essential elements of what a contemporary praxis of the common might involve.
As they move to address the current period, Dardot and Laval note that the predominant contemporary mobilization of the common(s) has been defensive but also federative, the latter perhaps only in a superficial way. To the extent that neo-liberal capitalism is framed as predatory on social activity, services and resources, a defensive appeal to the commons can apparently connect mobilisations around the natural world, the intellectual ‘commons’, or public service. This is its seeming strength. But, apart from repeating the error of assuming that capital functions essentially through capture (rather than actively structuring production), it also fails to develop the productive dimension of the common. To engage with the latter, Dardot and Laval turn to economist Ellinor Ostrom and her famous work. What Ostrom’s work brings out, says the pair, is the institutional functioning of the common(s) and the way that the effective sharing of certain resources calls for participatory modes of governance and co-responsibility: the common is thus not simply a thing but a set of practices and the agreed rules and decision taking procedures associated with them. The limitation of Ostrom’s work however, as Dardot and Laval see it, is that it still fails to question the broader set of assumptions that see capitalist and state control and acquisitive individualism as the norm and the common as something suited only for specific and rather marginal areas of co-activity typically associated with the use of natural resources. The lessons of Ostrom’s work nonetheless help to correct certain techno-optimist understandings of the internet, for example, as a space of spontaneous sharing or automatic network formation. On the contrary, Dardot and Laval note, internet networks, of hackers, say, or free software developers, are engendered by co-produced systems of rules, including technical ones, which favour sharing, collective creation and playfulness. At the same time, of course, capitalist corporations find their own ways to assemble and govern the productive activity of internet users and on-line consumers. The internet is anything but an unstructured place of spontaneous free exchange.
This focus on the co-elaboration of rules and institutional forms and the critique of historical or techno-optimism and spontaneism repeatedly bring Dardot and Laval back to Marx and Proudhon. If Proudhon is taken to task for his belief that true productivity comes from a society upon which capital is essentially predatory, he is praised for paying far more serious attention to the workers’ capacity to create their own non-capitalist and non-statist institutions than his German contemporary. In this, he was part of a subsequently marginalized socialist tradition which also embraced figures such as Marcel Mauss and which saw a way forward in mutualism, cooperatives and unions and their capacity to develop their own autonomous rules, rites and norms. At a time when statist solutions have been discredited for one reason or another, and when oppositional movements have repeatedly found themselves unable to develop durable alternative organisations and procedures, this historical capacity to build counter institutions and socially generated (rather than state driven) rules and frameworks is surely one worth returning to and learning from.
One part of Proudhon’s legacy to which Dardot and Laval are particularly drawn is his juridical thought and his attempt to reconcile socialism and the rule of law. But the law to which Proudhon refers is what one might call social law (customs, rules) not state law. Needing to navigate between state despotism and liberal individualism, Proudhon turns to society and its complex system of relationships and asks what institutional forms and rules can be found to organize its interaction in a way that emerges organically rather than needing to be imposed from outside and above. It is this form of questioning that makes him emphasize autonomous workers’ institutions as sites where they will be able to develop their own law-making capacity.
Because it is so central to their argument, this discussion of laws and institutions is developed at great length by Dardot and Laval. In terms of law, and especially property law, perhaps the most interesting parts of their discussion are those where they explore the great diversity of historical forms and practices and particularly the way in which different forms of rights of access to the same property could and did co-exist as when, for example, a lord might have ownership to a forest when it came to hunting while his peasants might have customary access to the forest to gather wood. While this familiar form of custom should not be idealized – it clearly reflected highly unequal social structures – it does show us how a right of co-use, one based in practice, can show ways beyond property rights based on the exclusive ownership of things. With respect to institutions, Dardot and Laval are keen to maintain the tension implicit in the word itself between the institution, as the body created, and institution, as the collective act of creation. While institutions are necessary to maintain norms and practices over lengthy periods of time, they run the clear risk of fossilization. Their instituted dimension thus needs to be held in tension with the collective capacity to create new institutional forms. In contrast to traditional ways of thinking about the constituent assembly which presumes a subject (the people) which pre-exists its action (the creation of a constitution) and only directly accomplishes this one foundational act (before passing power to other hands), the institution needs to be seen as an ongoing praxis whereby the group creates itself through its co-activity even as it creates and continuously recreates institutions and rules. This tension between the instituted and the act of instituting is also essential if the institution is to be prevented from exercising tyrannical power over the group. If the institution is allowed to solidify and its power is located in some higher instance, it can quickly become oppressive. Similarly, the power of the group, its power to limit the action of its members, must not become monolithic or concentrated. The power of the individuals must be limited by all the other individuals so that no individual, or collective instance, can be set up over others. This mode of governance is, of course, familiar to anyone who has knowledge of movements such as Occupy.
At this stage, a lot of the theoretical ground has been cleared, although I have necessarily expressed it in rather sketchy form. What remains, and what Dardot and Laval do in the final section of the book, is to come up with some detailed proposals and to explain how their understanding of the common can help us see, not simply the way towards isolated, local or short-lived social experiments but a real, widespread and durable transformation of our modes of social, economic and political organization by and around the common." (http://lafranceetlacrise.org/2015/12/02/thinking-about-the-common-with-thinking-about-the-common-with-pierre-dardot-and-christian-laval/)
"What I want to do now is focus on the nine key political propositions about how to build the common to which their thought leads them. I have inevitably had to condense their writings and leave out many of their key references but have done my best to convey the spirit of what they propose faithfully.
Proposition 1: it is necessary to construct a politics of the common: Although the politics of the common builds on the tradition of 19th century socialist associationism and 20th century workers’ councils, it can no longer simply be thought in an artisanal context or in that of the industrial workplace. Nor will it emerge from some sort of encirclement of capitalism from the outside, nor from some mass desertion. There can be no politics of the common without a rethinking of property rights concerning the land, capital and intellectual ownership. Rights of use rather than rights of property must be the juridical axis for the transformation of society. It is necessary to find the correct form for the common production of society by creating institutions of self-government (whose role will be the production of the common) in all its sectors. It must not be thought, however, that the existence of a common principle will simply abolish the distinction between different socio-economic, public or private, or political spheres. To prevent public deliberation being captured by the interests of any one socio-professional category, the sphere of production and exchange must be completely reorganized around the self-government of the commons. Each commons must also take account of all the ‘externalities’ of its activity so that the its governance includes the users and citizens concerned by the activity. The socio-economic arena thus becomes schooled in co-decision taking.
Proposition 2: we must mobilise rights of use to challenge property rights. Historically, the articulation between the socio-economic and the public has been constituted by the double principle, coming from Roman law, of dominium (exclusive private property) and imperium (the overarching power of the sovereign). The politics of the common must challenge this double absolutism. Traditional ownership rights grant owners completely free use of their property and therefore imply no accountability before others. In contrast, the user of what is in common is tied to the other users by the co-production of the rules that govern the common use.
It might seem that capitalism itself is moving away from traditional models of property attached to physical things as it moves increasingly towards the provision of services, rather than the selling of goods. Instead of buying property, service users increasingly buy access, something that might seem to announce new models of co-use, and a multiplication of types of rights (rights of use, rights to rental revenue, rights to buy and sell different rights). But we are in reality moving to new forms of enclosure that concern time rather than space: the user has to pay as long as (s)he continues to use something. At the same time, corporations retain ownership and control of the networks through which individuals interact. In this situation, the right of co-use is a hollow one entirely dependent on the will of a higher body that is alone empowered to take decisions. To be truly common, use must be decided by collective deliberation. This is very different from the idea that the common is the equivalent of the universal so that a piece of land, say, is available to be used by everybody. For there to be common and not simply shared things, there must be co-activity. Rather than seeking to develop a form of property right that broadens ownership to include everyone, there must be a right of use that can be mobilized against property rights. The care of a common can only be entrusted to those who co-use it and not to states.
Proposition 3: the common is the route to the emancipation of labour: We always work with others. We also work for others. To work is always to engage oneself in shared action with moral, cultural and often aesthetic dimensions. Work is a way of affirming ones belonging to a community or a peer group. If workers are still attached to their labour, it is not simply due to alienation, voluntary servitude or economic constraint. It is also because work remains the activity through which individuals collectively socialize themselves and maintain ties to others. But we should not think that, by assembling workers, capitalism somehow allows for the spontaneous emergence of a truly co-operative workplace. The neo-liberal enterprise practices forced co-operation. The enterprise demands the active mobilization of the workers while reducing them to simple operatives. The long neglected struggle for workplace democracy must therefore be replaced at the heart of our efforts. It is not enough to ‘enrich’ workers’ tasks or to ‘consult’ them from time to time on their workplace conditions. They must take part in the elaboration of the rules and decisions that affect them. In order for the enterprise to become a truly co-operative space, it must become a democratic institution freed from the domination of capital.
Proposition 4: we must institute the common enterprise: The liberation of work from capitalist control will only be possible if the enterprise becomes an institution of a democratic society and ceases to be an islet of management and shareholder autocracy. As Marc Sagnier famously said, ‘we cannot have the republic in society as long as we have monarchy in the enterprise.’ Any workplace democracy is incompatible with capitalism’s control of what it considers to be its exclusive property. Yet state control is not the way forward. This is the obstacle on which socialism has historically stumbled: so-called social or collective property has been reduced to state property unable to practice anything other than a centralized, bureaucratic and inefficient form of management. In this context, the traditional workers’ co-operative offers an interesting alternative model whereby workers choose their managers, vote on the direction taken by their company and subordinate the company’s capital to their decisions rather than the other way round. But, although an important testing ground for alternative models, this has traditionally been a minor alternative caught between capitalist competition on the one hand and state enterprises on the other. In any case, it is not enough to institute the common in the workplace, as an islet of autonomy. It is necessary to think about how we would reintegrate the economy within the social and introduce a plurality of points of view (worker, consumer) within democratic workplace governance. In the process, the notion of the market itself would need to be rethought to re-inscribe the freedom of individual consumer decisions within frameworks decided collectively, especially at a local level, so that the consumer would no longer be played off against the worker as is the case today.
Proposition 5: association within the economic sphere must pave the way for the society of the common: The third sector or non-lucrative economy is sometimes presented as an alternative economy or even an alternative to capitalism. But the third sector varies from country to country both in definitional terms and in practice and typically involves institutions with different logics: it can be associative, on the one hand, providing mutual support among members of a profession or social group; it can be charitable, on the other, building on a religious tradition. It is therefore difficult to present this diverse assemblage as an alternative to capitalism especially given that its activities are exposed to considerable pressure from both capitalist enterprise and state bodies. Far from promoting an alternative economy, the associative sector currently tends to play a low cost sub-contracting role for the welfare state with the number of its poorly protected and low paid workers rising even as state employers have seen their numbers stagnate or fall. Under certain circumstances nonetheless, the social economy can place in question the monopoly of the definition of the general interest by the state and of value by the market. The kind of locally anchored conviviality preached by André Gorz and Ivan Illich, involving new solidarities at the level of the village, the town and neighbourhood, is undoubtedly something whose potential we should not underestimate. On its own, however, it is not sufficient to create a politics of the common.
Proposition 6: the common must establish social democracy: For some people, the objective of a progressive politics should essentially be the rebuilding of the welfare state. We should never forget, however, that the common was perverted by the state and that the latter now seeks above all to reduce the scope of welfare and to adapt it to the constraints of competitiveness. The social (welfare) state negates the common as the co-activity of the members of society. Its social protection and economic redistribution is granted in return for the abandonment of any real economic citizenship within the enterprise and submission to the most pitiless norms of new forms of organization of work. Therefore, any politics of the common should first aim to return the control of the institutions of reciprocity and solidarity to society.
Proposition 7: public services must become institutions of the common: Nineteenth century associative socialism and twentieth century workers’ councils sought to separate the institutional form that socialism should take from the bureaucratic management of the economy by the state. But these movements generally failed to foresee the future scale that public services would take. Because the latter are sites of conflict and struggle, they should be seen neither as ‘state apparatuses’ working for bourgeois domination nor as institutions fully serving society. The question that therefore arises is how to make them into institutions of the common organized around common rights of use and governed democratically. To this end, the state should no longer be seen as a gigantic, centralized administrative system but as the ultimate guarantor of the satisfaction of needs collectively judged to be essential. The administration of services should be entrusted to bodies including representatives of the state, workers and citizen-users. While services should be administered locally, the state, through the constitution or some other fundamental juridical document, should make access to the common a right. A solution of this sort is needed to guard against the danger of state centralism but also to prevent the reactionary exploitation of localism and regionalism.
Proposition 8: it is necessary to institute the global commons: How can we make the common the political principle for the reorganization of the whole of society under conditions which preserve an irreducible plurality of ‘commons’ of very variable shapes and sizes, going from local commons to global ones? How can we ensure a coordination of the commons without undermining the self-government of each common without which there can be no meaningful co-obligation and therefore no true common?
Various types of solution have been proposed. Some have sought a way forward in the affirmation of the rights of humanity as the basis of new world legal order, with the recognition of ‘crimes against humanity,’ or ‘world heritage sites’ pointing towards the progressive emergence of ‘humanity’ as a rights bearing subject. We know, however, that by retaining the monopoly of the use of force, states can paralyse the development of such a system of rights. We also know how neo-liberalism structures the world according to norms of competition, predatory strategies and warlike logics rather than principles of co-operation or social justice. We note too how neo-liberal practices have led to ‘law shopping’ (shopping around for the most advantageous conditions) in the domains of taxation and commercial and employment laws. These practices make law itself an area of capitalist competition and an object of commerce. In questions of health, culture, access to water, and pollution, the logic which is imposed is that of free-exchange and absolute respect of (private) property rights. A whole globalized and globalizing juridical apparatus made by and for capital is working to produce the institutions of ‘cosmocapital.’ We are witnessing an authentic privatization of international law.
Another discourse seeks to use the tools of classic economic science to plead in favour of ‘global public goods.’ At the start of the 1990s, seeming to diverge from the dominant neo-liberal path, and influenced by figures such as Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen, the United Nations widened the definition of development to include criteria such as life expectancy and literacy. It is in this context that the notion of global good governance emerged and was linked to the production of ‘global public goods.’ Economists of the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) have put forward a tripartite categorization of global public goods: (overused) globally indivisible goods (the ozone layer, the climate); (underused) man-made global public goods (scientific knowledge, the internet); goods that result from integrated global policy (peace, health, stability). One problem with the definition of these goods is its negative, residual nature –it applies to those things that the market cannot ‘spontaneously’ produce. Another issue is who or what will ensure their production: a global state? One answer given by the UNPD is that private actors should be incentivized to take responsibility for them, if necessary through market mechanisms and the reinforcement of property rights, as in the case of global trading in CO2 emissions. The effective outcome is to appear to deal with major questions while actually neutralizing any real challenge to the existing global order. While capitalism takes on the progressive colours of corporate social responsibility, it needs in fact to profit from all the ‘externalities’ put at its disposition by governments, benevolent associations and NGOs. Corporations need political stability, urban infrastructures, ‘high performing’ university systems and even charitable support for low paid workers and prisons for criminals in order to enjoy the environment most favourable to them.
It is clear that dominant neo-liberal logics need to ensure that demands for defense of the global public good be channeled towards the economic terrain of reified common goods in order to restrict their grasp. Progressive political struggle, on the other hand, seeks to extend the reach of common goods by attaching them to fundamental rights so that they are not simply goods but also involve access to services and institutions. In a context where neo-liberal states have become active agents of de-democratisation, it is understandable that political progressives such as counter-globalisers should seek to transform what used to be citizen based welfare rights into universal human rights thus welding the universalist reach of the old welfare state to the problematic of the global commons. But apart from being quite artificial, this move is also an attempt to transfer the old western social model to a radically changed context. It is hard to see how existing states, dominated as they are by capitalist logics, will provide support for the global commons or dispense the common good. Citizen rights, on the other hand, are worth struggling over. They form a core component of modern political subjecthood. But for them to be meaningful, citizens must not simply be social citizens, consumers of services who evoke their rights to welfare. They must be politically and civically active citizens who are able to invent institutions that will allow them to be conscious co-producers of the common.
Without some major shift, the future is unlikely to be one of ordered pluralism. It is more likely to be the kind of re-feudalization evoked by Alain Supiot whereby the social function of states shrinks and the repressive function grows, nation-states may fragment into region-states and there is a multiplication of local and supranational powers following a logic of multi-facetted fragmentation. In the face of this, can the old Westphalian system of nation-states still be patched together without us being swept up in the vast reactionary, nationalist and xenophobic movement which everywhere threatens to grow? We should perhaps ask if we have not come to the end of centralist mode of organization of the state and the forms of subjectivation linked to it. We should then ask ourselves what form of political organization would be capable of giving institutional form to the co-production of the global commons.
Proposition 9: It is necessary to institute a federation of commons: The only political principle that respects the autonomy of local governments is the federal principle. A federation is a contract, treaty or convention whereby one or several communes, or groups of communes, enter into a relationship of mutual obligation for one or several ends. Its essential feature is the reciprocal obligation which excludes all subordination of one party to another in a way which contrasts directly with the kind of sovereignty exercised by the state.
Given the existence of different models of federalism, our task is to identify which particular model lends itself to the practice of shared use at all the levels of social life. Here the thought of Proudhon rather than the Marxist tradition offers the best way forward. While Marx focused on the need for the proletariat to conquer state power, Proudhon preached a dual federal model: a federation of units of production, on the one hand, and of communal units, on the other. This model shows how the political democracy of communes could be combined with the industrial democracy of the workplace. In Proudhon’s eyes, the shared principle that could co-ordinate these two types of common was mutuality and the mutual obligation enshrined in laws of contract. Yet, while in line with Proudhon’s project to replace laws with contracts, this extension of mutuality implied the application of an essentially economic concept to the political sphere. A more suitable unifying principle is clearly the common which is a political principle equally suited to the governance of the socio-economic sphere and the public, political sphere. In terms of the co-ordination of these different commons, there would be no pyramidal hierarchy whereby each higher instance would enjoy greater powers than lower ones. In particular, the state, or any supra-state body, would simply be one level amongst other, with no special privileges or prerogatives. The lower levels could interact among themselves, in a horizontal manner, and on the basis of shared activity, without needing to work through the higher levels. Socio-economic commons (of production, of consumption, of seed banks or whatever) would be constituted independently of any territorial logic and in accord only with the necessity to assume responsibility for the activity for which they have been formed. Thus, for example, a river common might traverse several regional or even state boundaries. Political commons, in contrast, would be constituted according to a rising logic connecting together territories of increasing scale up to an including the global level.
What kind of citizenship could correspond to this proposition for a global federation of commons? It could certainly not be some ‘global citizenship’ thought along the lines of the nation-state model. It would have to be plural and decentred. The problem is that, the more citizenship is extended in territorial scope, the more it tends to lose political density, so that it eventually coincides simply with the quality of being human, a sort of empty cosmopolitanism. We need to develop a citizenship that is neither statist nor national without falling back on something simply ‘moral, ‘commercial’, or ‘cultural.’ A non-statist, transnational citizenship can take very diverse forms: dissociated from any relationship of belonging, and from the rights attached to belonging, it must be thought of in relation to practices and shared activity rather than the granting of formal rights." (http://lafranceetlacrise.org/2015/12/07/building-the-common-nine-political-propositions-from-dardot-and-laval/)
Reading Notes from Michel Bauwens
This is my assessment half-way the book:
- The author want to make an important jump from the commons, to the common. I find this highly problematic. Indeed, the commons are a precise category, a real-life practice, but the 'common' seems like a metaphysical concept. It allows them for example to write about the debate between Proudhon and Marx about the original of labor sociality. But what does that have to do with the new emergence of the commons today ?
- they are very dismissive about the digital commons, not that their critique are necessarily untrue, but they are very one sided in these dismissals
- not one word about peer production
- they seem entirely unfamiliar with contemporary commoning practice, it's a top down theoretical treatise if you like, there is no bottom-up emergence of insights from real practice
- they define the common as that which is entirely outside property, as that which cannot be appropriated. As Benjamin Coriat explains below in French, this is an entirely problematic reductionist move, given the wide variety of contemporary commons which innovate with property regimes
- it seems an attempt to incorporate the commons in the marxist tradition and its very problematic historical experience