Common in Commonism

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Michael Hardt looks at what Marx had to say about the common.



"The Manuscripts provide an occasion for reading the common in communism, which is increasingly relevant today, but also for measuring the distance between Marx’s time and our own.

In the first passage, titled “The Relation of Private Property,” Marx proposes a periodization that highlights the dominant form of property in each era. By the mid-19th century, he claims, European societies are no longer primarily dominated by immobile property, such as land, but instead by mobile forms of property, generally the results of industrial production. The period of transition is characterized by a bitter battle between the two forms of property. In typical fashion Marx mocks the claims to social good of both property owners. The land-owner emphasizes the productivity of agriculture and its vital importance for society as well as “the noble lineage of his property, the feudal reminiscences, the poetry of remembrance, his high-flown nature, his political importance, etc.”ii The owner of movable property, in contrast, attacks the parochialism and stasis of the world of immobile property while singing his own praises. “Movable property itself, “ Marx writes, “claims to have won political freedom for the world, to have loosed the chains of civil society, to have linked together different worlds, to have given rise to trade, which encourages friendship between peoples and to have created a pure morality and a pleasing culture” (339). Marx considers it inevitable that mobile property would achieve economic dominance from immobile property. “Movement inevitably triumphs over immobility, open and self-conscious baseness over hidden and unconscious baseness, greed over self-indulgence, the avowedly restless and versatile self-interest of enlightenment, over the parochial, worldy-wise, artless, lazy and deluded self-interest of superstition, just as money must triumph over the other forms of private property” (340). Marx, of course, mocks both of these property owners, but he does recognize that movable property, however despicable, does have the advantage of revealing “the idea of labor as the sole essence of wealth” (343). His periodization, in other words, highlights the increased potential for a communist project.

I want to analyze a parallel struggle between two forms of property today, but before doing that I should note that the triumph of movable over immobile property corresponds to the victory of profit over rent as the dominant mode of expropriation. In the collection of rent, the capitalist is deemed to be relatively external to the process of the production of value, merely extracting value produced by other means. The generation of profit, in contrast, requires the engagement of the capitalist in the production process, imposing forms of cooperation, disciplinary regimes, etc. By the time of John Maynard Keynes profit has such dignity with respect to rent that Keynes can predict (or prescribe) the “euthanasia of the rentier” and thus the disappearance of the “functionless investor” in favor of the capitalist investor who organizes and manages production.iii This conception of an historical movement within capital from rent to profit also corresponds to the purported passage in many analyses from primitive accumulation to capitalist production proper. Primitive accumulation might be considered, in this context, an absolute rent, expropriating entirely wealth produced elsewhere.

The passages from rent to profit and from the dominance of immobile to that of mobile property are both part of a more general claim by Marx that by the mid-19th century largescale industry has replaced agriculture as the hegemonic form of economic production. He does not make this claim, of course, in quantitative terms. Industrial production at the time made up a small fraction of the economy even in England, the most industrialized country.

And the majority of workers toiled not in the factories but in the field. Marx’s claim instead is qualitative: all other forms of production will be forced to adopt the qualities of industrial production. Agriculture, mining, even society itself will have to adopt its regimes of mechanization, its labor discipline, its temporalities and rhythms, its working day, and so forth. E. P. Thompson’s classic essay on clocks and work-discipline in England is a wonderful demonstration of the progressive imposition of industrial temporality over society as a whole.iv In the century and a half since Marx’s time this tendency for industry to impose its qualities has proceeded in extraordinary ways.

Today, however, it is clear that industry no longer holds the hegemonic position within the economy. This is not to say that fewer people work in factories today than 10 or 20 or 50 years ago – although, in certain respects, their locations have shifted, moving to the other side of the global divisions of labor and power. The claim, once again, is not primarily quantitative but qualitative. Industry no longer imposes its qualities over other sectors of the economy and over social relations more generally. That seems to me a relatively uncontroversial claim.

More disagreement arises when one proposes another form of production as successor to industry as hegemonic in this way. Toni Negri and I argue that immaterial or biopolitical production is emerging in that hegemonic position. By immaterial and biopolitical we try to grasp together the production of ideas, information, images, knowledges, code, languages, social relationships, affects, and the like. This designates occupations throughout the economy, from the high end to the low, from health care workers, flight attendants, and educators to software programmers and from fast food and call center workers to designers and advertisers. Most of these forms of production are not new, of course, but the coherence among them is perhaps more recognizable and, more important, their qualities tend today to be imposed over other sectors of the economy and over society as a whole. Industry has to informationalize; knowledge, code, and images are becoming ever more important throughout the traditional sectors of production; and the production of affects and care is becoming increasingly essential in the valorization process. This hypothesis of a tendency for immaterial or biopolitical production to emerge in the hegemonic position, which industry used to hold, has all kinds of immediate implications for gender divisions of labor and various international and other geographical divisions of labor, but I cannot treat them in this essay.

If we focus on the new struggle between two forms of property implied by this transition we can return to Marx’s formulations. Whereas in Marx’s time the struggle was between immobile property (such as land) and moveable property (such as material commodities), today the struggle is between material property and immaterial property – or, to put it another way, whereas Marx focused on the mobility of property today at issue is centrally scarcity and reproducibility, such that the struggle can be posed as being between exclusive versus shared property. The contemporary focus on immaterial and reproducible property in the capitalist economy can be recognized easily from even a cursory glance at the field of property law. Patents, copyrights, indigenous knowledges, genetic codes, the information in the germplasm of seeds, and similar issues are the most actively topics debated in the field. The fact that the logic of scarcity does not hold in this domain poses new problems for property. Just as Marx saw that movement necessarily triumphs over immobility, so too today the immaterial triumphs over the material, the reproducible over the unreproducible, and the shared over the exclusive.

The emerging dominance of this form of property is significant, in part, because it demonstrates and returns to center stage of the conflict between the common and property as such. Ideas, images, knowledges, code, languages, and even affects can be privatized and controlled as property, but it is more difficult to police ownership because they are so easily shared or reproduced. There is a constant pressure for such goods to escape the boundaries of property and become common. If you have an idea, sharing it with me does not reduce its utility to you, but usually increases it. In fact, in order to realize their maximum productivity, ideas, images, and affects must be common and shared. When they are privatized their productivity reduces dramatically – and, I would add, making the common into public property, that is, subjecting it to state control or management, similarly reduces productivity.

Property is becoming a fetter on the capitalist mode of production. Here is an emerging contradiction internal to capital: the more the common is corralled as property, the more its productivity is reduced; and yet expansion of the common undermines the relations of property in a fundamental and general way.

One could say, in rather broad terms, that neoliberalism has been defined by the battle of private property not only against public property but also and perhaps more importantly against the common. Here it is useful to distinguish between two types of the common, both of which are object of neoliberal strategies of capital. (And this can serve as an initial definition of “the common.”) On the one hand, the common names the earth and all the resources associated with it: the land, the forests, the water, the air, minerals, and so forth. This is closely related to 17th century English usage of “the commons” (with an “s”). On the other hand, the common also refers, as I have already said, to the results of human labor and creativity, such as ideas, language, affects, and so forth. You might think of the former as the “natural” common and the latter as the “artificial” common, but really such divisions between natural and artificial quickly break down. In any case, neoliberalism has aimed to privatize both these forms of the common.

One major scene of such privatization has been the extractive industries, providing access to transnational corporations to diamonds in Sierra Leone or oil in Uganda or Lithium deposits and water rights in Bolivia. Such neoliberal privatization of the common has been described by many authors, including David Harvey and Naomi Klein, in terms that mark the renewed importance of primitive accumulation or accumulation by dispossession.

The neoliberal strategies for the privatization of the “artificial” common are much more complex and contradictory. Here the conflict between property and the common is fully in play. The more the common is subject to property relations, as I said, the less productive it is; and yet capitalist valorization processes requires private accumulation. In many domains, capitalist strategies for privatizing the common through mechanisms such as patents and copyrights continue (often with difficulty) despite the contradictions. The music industry and computer industry are full of examples. This is also the case with so-called biopiracy, that is, the processes whereby transnational corporations expropriate the common in the form of indigenous knowledges or genetic information from plants, animals, and humans, usually through the use of patents. Traditional knowledges of the use of a ground seed as natural pesticide, for instance, or the healing qualities of a plant are made into private property by the corporation that patents the knowledge. Parenthetically I would insist that piracy is a misnomer for such activities. Pirates have a much more noble vocation: they steal property.

These corporations instead steal the common and transform it into property.

In general, though, capital accomplishes the expropriation of the common not through privatization per se but in the form of rent. Several contemporary Italian and French economists who work on what they call cognitive capitalism, Carlo Vercellone most prominently, argue that just as in an earlier period there was a tendential movement from rent to profit as the dominant mode of capitalist expropriation, today there is a reverse movement from profit to rent.vii Patents and copyrights, for example, generate rent in the sense that they guarantee an income based on the ownership of material or immaterial property. This argument does not imply a return to the past: the income generated from a patent, for instance, is very different from that generated from land ownership. The core insight of this analysis of the emerging dominance of rent over profit, which I find very significant, is that capital remains generally external to the processes of the production of the common. Whereas in the case of industrial capital and its generation of profit, the capitalist plays a role internal to the production process, particularly in designating the means of cooperation and imposing the modes of discipline, in the production of the common the capitalist must remain relatively external.viii Every intervention of the capitalist in the processes of the production of the common, just as every time the common is made property, reduces productivity. Rent is a mechanism, then, to cope with the conflicts between capital and the common. A limited autonomy is granted the processes of the production of the common with respect to the sharing of resources and the determination of the modes of cooperation, and capital is still able to exert control and expropriate value through rent.

Exploitation in this context takes the form of the expropriation of the common.

This discussion of rent points, on the one hand, to the neoliberal processes of accumulation by dispossession insofar as primitive accumulation can be called form of absolute rent. On the other hand, it casts in a new light the contemporary predominance of finance, which is characterized by complex and very abstract varieties of relative rent. Christian Marazzi cautions us against conceiving of finance as fictional, in opposition to the “real economy,” a conception that misunderstands the extent to which finance and production are both increasingly dominated by immaterial forms of property. He also warns against dismissing finance as merely unproductive in contrast to an image of productivity roughly tied to industrial production. It is more useful to situate finance in the context of the general trend from profit to rent, and the correspondingly external position of capital with respect to the production of the common. Finance expropriates the common and exerts control at a distance.

Now I can bring to a close and review the primary points of my reading of this first passage from Marx’s early manuscripts, in which he describes the struggle between two forms of property (immobile versus moveable) and the historical passage from the dominance of landed property to that of industrial capital. Today we are also experiencing a struggle between two forms of property (material versus immaterial or scarce versus reproducible).

And this struggle reveals a deeper conflict between property as such and the common.

Although the production of the common is increasingly central to the capitalist economy, capital cannot intervene in the production process and must instead remain external, expropriating value in the form of rent (through financial and other mechanisms). As a result the production and productivity of the common becomes an increasingly autonomous domain, still exploited and controlled, of course, but through mechanisms that are relatively external.

Like Marx, I would say this development of capital is not good in itself – and the tendential dominance of immaterial or biopolitical production carries with it a series of new and more severe forms of exploitation and control. And yet it is important to recognize that capital’s own development provides the tools for liberation from capital, and specifically here it leads to the increased autonomy of the common and its productive circuits.

The brings me to the second passage from the Manuscripts that I want to consider, “Private Property and Communism.” The notion of the common helps us understand what Marx means by communism in this passage. “Communism,” he writes, “is the positive expression of the abolition of private property” (345-346). He includes that phrase “positive expression” in part to differentiate communism from the false or corrupt notions of the concept. Crude communism, he claims, merely perpetuates private property by generalizing it and extending it to the entire community, as universal private property. That term, of course, is an oxymoron: if property is now universal, extended to the entire community it is no longer really private. He is trying to emphasize, it seems to me, that in crude communism even though the private character has been stripped away, property remains. Communism properly conceived instead is the abolition not only of private property but property as such.

“Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it” (351). What would it mean for something to be ours when we do not possess it? What would it mean to regard ourselves and our world not as property? Has private property made us so stupid that we cannot see that? Marx is searching here for the common. The open access and sharing that characterize use of the common are outside of and inimical to property relations. We have been made so stupid that we can only recognize the world as private or public. We have become blind to the common."