= concept, article and book
- 1 The Concept
- 2 The Article
- 3 The Book
"Nick Dyer-Witheford (2007) has proposed the term Commonism for a society where the basic social form of production are the Commons (while in capitalism, commodities are the basic social form). As the success of commons-based peer production shows, commons and peer production go together very well. We can therefore expect peer production to be the typical form of production in a commons-based society. Commonism would be a society where production is organized by people who cooperate voluntarily and on an equal footing for the benefit of all.
Some people may claim that such a society must be impossible because it never existed or because it is against human nature. But that something didn't happen in the past doesn't mean it won't become real in the future, and arguments about "human nature" miss the fact that people are formed by society just as well as they are forming society. Changing social structures also changes people's behavior.
Nevertheless, commonism would have to remain an abstract idea if it didn't have the potential to develop out of the current social system, capitalism. New ways of production can only emerge when "the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society," as Karl Marx (1859, Preface) expressed it.
There are two preconditions which I consider most relevant for the development of commonism:
- Human labor disappears from the production processes, being replaced by automation and joyful doing.
- Everyone has access to resources and means of production. Developments within capitalism favor the partial emergence of these conditions, though their full realization would make capitalism impossible.
How these conditions change the processes of production becomes already visible in the digital realm, where commons-based peer production flourishes. But as argued above, it's unlikely to stop there. Peer production reaches beyond capitalism, by being benefit-driven and non-hierarchical rather than profit-driven and hierarchical and by obsoleting and destroying markets formerly dominated by commodity production (such as programming tools and encyclopedias). And yet, the preconditions of this development are created by capitalism itself.
A paradox of capitalism is that human labor is its very foundation but also a cost factor which every company has to reduce as much as possible. Labor creates surplus value and thus profit, but at the same time, each company can increase its profit (at least temporarily) by cutting down the amount of labor required, thus achieving a cost advantage compared to its competitors. One way of reducing labor costs is outsourcing to low-cost countries, but in many cases, capitalists can achieve even higher cost savings by replacing human labor with machines, or by getting customers to voluntarily take over activities that formerly had to be paid.
Until some decades ago, machine usage and human labor were usually tightly coupled, e.g. in assembly lines. But increasing levels of automation mean that more and more routine activities can be performed without any human labor. The remaining activities tend to be difficult to automate because they require creativity, intuition, or empathy. Hence modern capitalism is often referred to as a "service economy" or "information society," since most non-automatable tasks are from these areas.
A related trend is the delegation of tasks to the customers themselves, thus further reducing the required labor power. Thanks to self service, supermarkets need fewer salespeople; online shopping and online banking avoid the need for salespeople and tellers altogether; firms like Ikea leave the final assembly of the furniture to their customers, thus reducing labor and transportation costs.
But these developments also change the relationship between people and their actions. As an employee I work in order to earn money. But if I assemble my own furniture or if I browse the Internet for products I want to have, I'm interested in the *result* of my actions. And thanks to higher levels of automation, boring routine activities (which you wouldn't do unless "bribed" by money) are increasingly replaced by more creative and more interesting tasks.
For such tasks, payment is a nice plus (provided you live in a money-based society), but not a necessary condition, as became apparent during the last decades to the surprise of many economists, when voluntary, benefit-driven peer projects started to spring up in all corners of the Internet. These developments are only possible because the participants have access to the necessary means of production (such as computers and Internet access). This precondition may seem to be a serious limitation of the free, commons-based mode of production, since capitalism is characterized by the fact that most means of production are concentrated in a few hands. It's possible to jointly produce software and knowledge where the necessary means of production are relatively small and already available to large numbers of people; but what about things that require huge factories?
Once more, the productive forces of capitalism come to the rescue. The PCs and laptops of today are the progeny of the room-filling mainframes of 50 years ago. Similarly, other productive machines have started to become more and more accessible and affordable for individuals and small groups. Inexpensive, but flexible CNC (= computer-controlled) machines increasingly replace the huge and cumbersome large-scale industrial facilities of the past. The emergence of a commons-based production infrastructure is a consequence of these developments, which originate in capitalism but allow people to go beyond it." (http://www.keimform.de/2011/benefit-driven-production/)
Paper: The Emergence of Benefit-Driven Production. Christian Siefkes.
The concept of commonism as introduced by Nick Dyer-Witheford
"One of the more sustained renditions of a new commons is the notion of ‘commonism’ elaborated by Dyer-Witheford (2006, 2007), who, in a number of articles has sought to promote the concept of commonism as a way to avoid the bad history of authoritarian state communism, while, at the same time, providing an antidote to centralised planning and the restrictions of private property through new forms of collective ownership. An important aspect of the notion of commonism is the way in which it connects with issues of technological production in the context of Open Education and Open Educational Resources. Dyer-Witheford’s most significant work to date has been Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High Technology Capitalism (1999). In this book he sets out the ways in which postmodern capitalism has extended beyond the factory to permeate all of social life, particularly through the digitalised circuits of cyber-space. He shows how these extended social sites and the circuits through which they are connected provide spaces of interconnected collected struggle and resistance.
Cyber-Marx is conceptualized within the framework of Autonomist Marxism. The basic framework of Autonomism is well known (Wright, 2002). Key aspects of this version of Marxism are, firstly, Marx’s mature social theory as elaborated in Capital and the Grundrisse is a theory of capital’s precariousness, rather than the theory of domination espoused by orthodox Marxism. This precariousness is produced through the power of labour (the working class):
We too have worked with a concept that puts capitalist development first, and workers second. This is a mistake. And now we have to turn the problem on its head, reverse the polarity, and start again from the beginning: and the beginning is the class struggle of the working class. At the level of socially developed capital, capitalist development becomes subordinated to working class struggles; it follows behind them, and they set the pace to which the political mechanisms of capital’s own reproduction must be tuned. (Tronti, 1964)
Secondly, this ‘scandalous novelty of this new workerist ideology’ (Wright, 2002: 63) demanded an even more shocking revelation. Not only was Capital not the centre of its own social universe, but the working class was now reconstituted to include not just workers at work in factories, but other groups that included students, the unemployed and the women’s movement, previously not regarded as central to the reproduction of surplus value. Key to this formulation was the concept of the ‘social factory’:
At the highest level of capitalist development, the social relation becomes a moment of the relation of production, the whole of society becomes an articulation of production; in other words, the whole of society exists as a function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination over the whole of society. (Tronti, 1971: 51-2, quoted in Wright, 2002: 37-38)
Thirdly, at the centre of the notion of class composition lies the concept of self-valorisation (auto-valorizzazione). The Autonomists had taken the most central idea of Marx’s capital, the law of value, and turned it against itself: Capital as the self expansive Subject is now replaced by the capacity of the working class for self valorization in and against the Capital relation. Self-valorisation is defined as: ‘the positive moments of working class autonomy - where the negative moments are made up of workers’ resistance to capital domination’; and, ‘a self-defining, self-determining process which goes beyond the mere resistance to capitalist valorisation to a positive project of self-constitution’ (Cleaver, 1992: 129 quoted in Dinerstein, Bohn, and Spicer, 2008).
Finally, one of the very practical ways by which this self-valorisation and class recomposition might be achieved is through workers enquiry or co-research. Beginning as inquiry into actual conditions of work in Italian factories in the 1950s, workers alongside intellectuals used the methods of social science research to develop their own form of radical sociology as the basis for a revolutionary science, i.e., the production of knowledge as a political project: ‘the joint production of social knowledge’ (Wright, 2002: 23); and so come to know the basis of their own class recomposition. This is not knowledge for its own sake but ‘the only way to understand the system is conceiving its destruction’ (Asor Rosa in Quaderni Rosi quoted in Wright, 2002: 29).
All of this practical intellectual activity was possessed with a sense of immanence and urgency, giving immediacy to the slogan: ‘communism is the real movement which abolishes the present state of things’ (Marx, 1998). For these new revolutionary scientists communism is not a project for constructing a model of a future world; but, rather, ‘a practical means for the destruction of the present society’ (Tronti, 1965: 8).
Commonism: as a cell-like form
Dyer-Witheford takes the spirit and the sensibility of Autonomist Marxism, not least its conceptual ingenuity, and attempts to recreate a framework of resistance through his concept of commonism. Just as Autonomia inverts the notion of valorisation as self- valorisation, Commonism takes as its starting point the organising principle on which the circuit of capitalist expansion is established, i.e. the commodity-form, and uses it as the basis of revolutionary struggle. As Dyer-Witheford reminds us, Marx opens Capital Vol. 1 with the statement:
The wealth of society in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, appears as an immense collection of commodities; the individual commodity appears as its elemental form. Our investigation therefore begins with the analysis of the commodity. (Marx, 1990. Authors’ emphasis)
Commonism takes this statement as the organising principle for its own radical response to the social relations of capitalist society:
If the cell form of capitalism is the commodity, the cellular form of a society beyond capital is the common. A commodity is a good produced for sale, a common is a good produced, or conserved, to be shared. The notion of a commodity, a good produced for sale, presupposes private owners between whom the exchange occurs. The notions of the common presupposes collectivities – associations and assemblies – within which sharing is organised. If capitalism presents itself as an immense heap of commodities, commonism is a multiplication of commons. (Dyer-Witheford, 2007)
The emphasis here is on the difference between the production of goods for sale, and the production of goods to be shared as a public good. In each case the emphasis is on forms of ownership and sharing. Dyer-Witheford (2007) argues that the moment of collision between the commodity and the commons is the moment of struggle against the logic of capitalism. He identifies three distinct areas where these struggles are concentrated: the ecology, the social, and the network:
Ecological disaster is the revenge of the markets so-called negative externalities’; social development is based on market operations, ‘intensifying inequality, with immiseration amidst plentitude’; and networks are, ‘the market’s inability to accommodate its own positive externalities, that is, to allow the full benefits of innovations when they overflow market price mechanisms. (Dyer-Witheford, 2007)
Commonism points towards the kinds of progressive forms of social associations that these struggles have created. Commonism identifies these new forms of ownership as the ecological commons – ‘conservation and regulation but also of public funding of new technologies and transportation systems’; the social commons – ‘a global guaranteed livelihood entails a commons based on redistribution of wealth, while solidarity economics create experimental collectively-managed forms of production’, and the networked commons – ‘a commons of abundance, of non-rivalrous information goods’, including free and open-source software as well as OERs (Dyer-Witheford, 2007).
In a moment of theoretical ingenuity, Dyer-Witheford argues that just as Capital operates through circuits of exchange, so too the commons circulate to create self-reinforcing networks of alternative provision in a way that is both ‘aggressive and expansive: proliferating, self-strengthening and diversifying’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2007). It is this sense of linked and connected struggles that form the core of his notion of commonism. Taken together these three spheres will form a new social order: a ‘commons of singularites’; or, ‘the circulation of the common’, i.e., commonism’. Commonism will be carried forward through ‘a pluralistic planning process’ involving state and non-state organisations supported by a ‘commonist’ government, and in that way represent a global new ‘New Deal’ of major proportions (Dyer-Witheford, 2007).
In a previous elaboration, Dyer-Witheford connects commonism very directly with the concept of cognitive capitalism, generated by new high technologies, based on digitalisation and biotechnology, all of which have the capacity to be life-changing (Dyer-Witheford, 2006: 23). Following Marx (1843), he defines this capacity for human transformation, as ‘Species Beings’.
Dyer-Witheford develops the essence of radical subjectivity implied in this notion of the commons through the concept of ‘species being’, which he adapts from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts 1844. Dyer-Witheford reminds us that Marx defined ‘species being’ as human life that is alienated from products of its own labour, from fellow beings, from the natural world and from their own ‘historical possibilities of self-development’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2006: 17). ‘Species being’, after Marx, is ‘life activity itself as an object of will and consciousness’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2006: 17). ‘Species being’ is ‘a constitutive power, a bootstrapped, self-reinforcing loop of social co-operation, technoscientific competencies and conscious awareness’ (2006:17). It is ‘the capacity of humans to affect change in their collective development’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2006: 17). Dyer-Witheford makes the bold claim:
‘Species Being’ is the closest Marx came to positively identifying, transformative agency of communism. The creation of a ‘working class’ as a decomposition of species being inflicted by the ‘class-ifying’ gridding and divisive operations of capital as it alienates species being: class identity is that which has to be destroyed in struggle so that species being can emerge. (18)
Dyer-Witheford argues that the new regimes of biotechnology and digitalisation offer the potential for the socialisation of productive activity, new modes of product creation and circulation outside of ‘the orbit of the commodity form’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2006: 25). This can happen, he argues, through the development of peer-to-peer and open source networks: as ‘creative commons’ and ‘open ‘cultures’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2006: 25), as well as by access to affordable drugs, and the social control of pharmaceutical production and distribution. In this way commonism is contesting the regime of private property of the world market, ‘not as a natural state, but an equalitarian order to be achieved’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2006: 27). Again, Dyer-Witheford argues this can be carried out by a regime of ‘social planning, and on a scale to make previous efforts look retiring’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2006: 30). All of this, he claims, is made possible by the ‘new informational technologies created by cognitive capital [which] makes such governmentality feasible’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2006: 30), kept in check by the logic of the new planetary logic of the commons: ‘the logic of collective creativity and welfare proposed by the counter-globalisation movements’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2006: 16): the new commonism.
Critique of Commonism and Autonomist Marxism
While commonism draws attention to progressive forms of collaborative labour, its focus is very much on the positive redistribution of goods and resources. The implication is that different forms of exchange produce different forms of social activity, ‘shared resources generate forms of shared co-operation – associations – that coordinate the conversion of further resources into expanded commons’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2007). The focus is very much on exchange relations rather than searching for more substantive underlying levels of social determinations in the ways in which social relations are produced.
With its focus on exchange rather than production, commonism not only replays the consumerist limits of the Open Education and Open Educational Resources movement, but also, ironically, is in danger of replicating the forms of social regulation it is attempting to avoid: Socialism. If Socialism is ‘the collective ownership of the means of production and economic planning in an industrialised context’ (Postone, 1993: 7), then commonism looks very much like the latest form of socialist society. Notwithstanding the fact that commonism attempts to privilege one form of planning over another, radical and democratic rather than centralised and repressive, without a fundamental exposition of the processes through which capitalist society is (re)produced, these instructions look normative and contingent rather than determined by a progressive materially grounded social project (Postone, 1993: 11 & 15).
The limits of Dyer-Witheford’s commonism are the limits of Autonomist Marxism. Autonomia does provide a powerful theorisation, the strength of which is its ability to connect and reconnect with movements of revolutionary resistance. However, its populist and enduring appeal is also a source of its theoretical weakness. By presenting the working class as the substance of radical subjectivity, Autonomia is presenting labour as a fetishised and transhistorical category, transgressing the key formulation of Marx’s mature social science. This point is well made by the Endnotes Collective:
Labour does not simply pre-exist its objectification in the capitalist commodity as a positive ground to be liberated in socialism or communism through the alteration of its formal expression. Rather, in a fundamental sense value – as the primary social mediation – pre-exists and thus has a priority over labour. (Endnotes Collective, 2010)
In this way, the overcoming of Capital cannot simply involve the emancipation of workers, or any other form of work that suggests a naturalised quality of human activity, e.g., ‘species being’; but, rather, the destruction of the commodity-form and the value relation on which it is based. The Endnotes Collective refer to this type of negative critique as ‘communisation’." (http://www.ephemerajournal.org/contribution/open-education-commons-commonism-and-new-common-wealth)
- Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2012) 'Open education: Common(s), commonism and the new common wealth'. Ephemera, Vol. 12, No. 4.
Commonism as Ideology and an Aesthetic of the Real
"‘Commonism is not a narrow-minded one-party ideology. Just as the Rhineland and neoliberal model it could shape society though and in that respect it is political ideological in nature, or perhaps we could say it is ‘meta-ideological’, as it accommodates multiple party political ideas.’ – Gielen & Lijster, 2015
Every ideology is good at hiding the fact that it is one. That’s what makes it an ideology. To paraphrase Mark Fisher (2009): Every ideology claims realism. So it claims that it is not an ideology, not a belief-system, but reality: just the way things work and just the way things are. By consequence, it is just how (we need) to do things and how (we need) to deal with things. Communism was an ideology, fascism was also one, neoliberalism certainly is one, and probably most religions function like this. They are all aesthetics of the real. They claim to be the only real truth and by this claim those beliefs give form to society as real. Ideologies are very good in turning a belief into a reality, because they are make-believe and in this way they function as self-fulfilling prophecies. Ideologies are performances of reality.
And, we can confirm, there’s a new one in the making. It is called ‘commonism’. After half a century of neoliberalism, we are excited to welcome this new ideology. For the record, it’s not about communism with a ‘u’, but commonism with an ‘o’. It is still in the margins, very often still under the radar, but we cannot ignore the fact that it’s popping up everywhere: the commons. After the ‘enclosure of the commons’ by privatization, by neoliberal politics or simply by capital, it seems that the era of the ‘disclosure of the commons’ is now dawning. At least, that’s what some people, mostly from the political left, believe in. What is this belief about? They believe that social relationships can replace money (contract) relationships. They certainly believe that we need more solidarity. And they trust in peer-to-peer relationships to develop new ways of production. Some of them think that economy sucks while others believe that only this economy sucks. Most of them agree that the contemporary political model of democracy does not stand for real democracy anymore, because representative democracies are becoming more and more the servants of a financial elite. So, we need another, more radical political system and some people even dream of a direct democracy.
At least it claims to stand closer to our contemporary ecological and social reality than capitalism. But it is also nearer to how social relationships really function, and much closer to what humanity in general is about. The former technocratic soviet communists, the German Nazis, the Italian fascists and the contemporary western neoliberals all share one characteristic: They neglect(ed) the human condition in their political and economic organization of society. Commoners, on the contrary, put this human figure back in the centre. That’s why they think about the ecological, social, political, economic, and even the mental conditions of mankind. Commonism is concerned about the total person in his or her total context and global environment. And it’s this total concern that makes commonism more and more convincing. At least, this new belief gives the impression that it stands nearer to reality today than neoliberalism does. And we—the editors of this book—confess: we too believe in a more common future. We too are sick off neoliberalism and its perverse mechanisms, and we also believe that the proposals of the ‘commoners’ fit better with the contemporary global reality, and with the human condition in general. But, probably unlike a lot of ‘commoners’, we also strongly believe that this belief is an ideology. That’s why we speak about ‘common-ism’, by the way. We do this because we see that commonism too is an aesthetic of real: it argues and operates in the name of realism. In that sense it does not really differ from Friedrich Hayek who started his neoliberal project in the 1940s in name of reality. Just as commonism now, neoliberalism was at that time a very marginal project (Srnicek and Williams, 2015), and just as with neoliberalism we do not yet know if commonism will grow and take up a dominant position, as neoliberalism did in the 1970s. We even do not yet know if we really want this, but just as with neoliberalism that’s out of our hands. For us the main difference probably lies here: just as most historical ideologists, Hayek did not see himself as an ideologist, but as a… realist. Well, the difference is that we do! We say we believe in commonism and also that we know it’s an ideology. So, as a consequence, we are ideologists. And all commoners are, but maybe not all of them agree. Probably their distancing themselves from the notion has to do with the quite negative image the concept of ideology has, as a thing that hides things, that works as an ‘opium of the people’, which masks reality in name of reality. But maybe it’s better to invert this way of reasoning. At least we try to do this here by saying: we are ideologists, we are conscious of our make-believe and we are very aware of the fact that we construct a reality. But we do this, because we are convinced it is a better reality and we also believe it fits better with the contemporary human condition. We could call it a self-conscious ideology, one that tries to convince others because it’s convinced of the truth of another reality than the contemporary one. And we use the same strategies as all the other ideologists by saying that this current reality is not true, it is fake, it is cynical and opportunistic, but certainly not real. And just like other ideologists we do so in the name of realism." (http://ccqo.eu/2017/04/06/pascal-gielen-sustainable-creativity-in-the-post-fordist-city-commnonism-the-art-of-civil-action-residences-revisited/)
A critique of commonism
The Other Spiral:
"Rather than address these problems head-on, the commonists tend to give us an overly-optimistic portrait of how socialism is spontaneously arising out of capitalism, and is just around the corner (luckily we don’t have to figure out how it will work!). The article “The Emergence of Benefit-driven Production” by Von Christian Siefkes is very much indicative of this intellectual tendency, which is utopian and best, and dishonest at worst.
Christian Siefkes combines the work of thinkers as various as Yochai Benkler and Nick Dyer-Witheford in describing how open-source “benefit-driven production” heralds the coming of commonism. The article is interesting, but suffers from the romanticism characteristic of autonomist writing, it lacks a serious analysis both of how the political economy of open-source actually functions, and the limitations of the open-source model in showing the way towards a socialist future. The author very much plays down the important role played by (often corporate sponsored) foundations in the open-source community, and fails to make the vital distinction between the production of public goods, versus that of private goods. It is certainly true that “benefit-driven” production has been an amazing progressive development, and that volunteer work is an integral part of this production system, but the author avoids a proper materialist analysis of open-source production.
A great deal of production of free and open software is done in the producers’ “free time.” Recognizing this fact naturally leads one to ask what these producers are doing in their “unfree time” in order to gain the material use-values of food and shelter which “benefit-driven production” does not provide. The answer is by and large that they are working as wage slaves in the capitalist system producing something else. The only way that the production of free and open software can secure the necessities of life for the producer is if they are “sponsored” in their work by donors (either in the form of individual donors or foundations).
I believe it is fair to say that Linux and all its associated software would not be in the position it is today without the work of paid producers who “anchor” the work of unpaid contributors and help to provide a general direction to their “stigmergy.” This paid work would in turn not have happened without the monetary contributions of IBM, Novell, Red Hat, Oracle, Google, Nokia, Canonical, etc.
For example Ubuntu has become the most popular Linux distribution since its launch 8 years ago. This is largely seen to be the case because of A) its user-friendly orientation and B) its steady funding. Prior to the creation of Ubuntu the notion of creating a user-friendly Linux was often looked upon with outright hostility by elitist members of the Linux community, who argued that it would “encourage stupidity.” This accusation is still often leveled at Ubuntu despite its successes in spreading the use of free and open software. “Stigmergy” was not predisposed to creating a democratic form of Linux. This only occurred after the creation of a well-funded project with a definite direction.
Ubuntu is not the only such example. The popular GNOME, Unity, and KDE desktops, the GTK project, the LibreOffice project and many more fall into this pattern. Even the development of the Linux kernel itself receives corporate support!
This is not to say that “benefit-driven production” requires corporate funding. There is nothing in its structure to suggest that, as the foundations that drive its development often operate at “arm’s length” from their corporate sponsors. The funding could just as easily come from “the associated producers” and this is what truly indicates the progressive character of the “benefit-driven production” model. The current system of free and open software production should be subjected to a critique of its actual political economy, and not romanticized with rose-coloured boosterism that ignores its fundamental contradictions and injustices.
We should not celebrate the fact that the majority of contributors to the development of open-source projects cannot receive the essentials they need to reproduce themselves from their work. Contributions to open-source are not wage labour, but they are still an unsatisfactory solution to the problem of wage labour. The fundamental problems of building socialism remain real problems, and cannot be wished away." (http://theotherspiral.wordpress.com/2012/06/11/against-commonism/)
* Commonism. Nick Dyer-Witheford. Turbulence.
"If the cell form of capitalism is the commodity, the cellular form of a society beyond capital is the common. Nick Dyer-Witheford discusses the circulation of commons and the conditions they would create for new collective projects and waves of organising."
See our entry: Commonism as a New Aesthetics of the Real
- Book: Commonism: A New Aesthetics of the Real. edited by Nico Dockx and Pascal Gielen, for the Antennae-Arts in Society series (Amsterdam: Valiz, September 2018),