Commons in Marx’s Thinking

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Justin Kenrick:

"Both the classic Marxist and Neoliberal traditions paint a picture of humanity as moving away from scarcity and towards abundance – whether through supposedly freeing the market from the state in the Neoliberal version, or through the seizing of the state by the producers of wealth as a consequence of ever-increasing exploitation in the Marxist tradition.

For Marx, what makes capitalism unique is that it is a system in which human labour, our capacity to transform the world, can be bought and sold (Graeber 2001: 55), and the money through which this process occurs measures and mediates the importance of certain forms of human action. It integrates us into the total market system, because it is the reason we are working.

Erik Olin Wright summarises the Marxist anti-capitalist thesis, as resting on the belief that, although capitalism “creates institutions and power relations that block the actual achievement of egalitarianism”, “one of the great achievements of capitalism is to develop human productive capacity to such an extent that it makes the radical egalitarianism needed for human flourishing materially feasible”.

But where this Marxist analysis sees capitalism as the route to emancipation, Christine Gailey forcefully points out (2006) that later in life Marx changed his understanding and instead saw the real possibility for emancipation as being in communities protecting their rights rather than becoming absorbed solely by the class struggle. In 1881 Marx wrote:

- “What threatens the life of the Russian commune is neither a historical inevitability nor a theory; it is state oppression, and exploitation by capitalist intruders whom the state has made powerful at the peasants expense” (in Gailey 2006: 41).

In his later writings Marx argues that the capitalist state of periodic disasters and “state of crisis . . . will end only when the social system is eliminated through the return of modern societies to the ‘Archaic’ type of communal property” (in Gailey 2006: 41).

Just as Hardin’s later reflections on the Commons point out that there is not a ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, rather it is systems in which people do not collectively decide on their use of resources that are the ‘Tragedy’, so at the end of his life Marx’s analysis became one that advocated, not a march of modernising progress through capitalism to socialism, but that we protect commons regimes where they exist and restore them where they do not." (