From Labour as Commodity to Labour as a Common
Draft of an article by Hilary Wainwright
Text: From labour as commodity to labour as a common?
Resistance to alienation takes many forms: from the refusal to work, humour, sabotage and conventional trade unionism, to a variety of struggles for and experiments with alternatives in and against state and market. An alternative conception of labour, as part of a wider alternative economics, will help us to understand and where appropriate generalise from and explore the potential of these scattered experiences, whether in public, private or civil spheres.
Are there theoretical tools developed in other contexts of the search for an alternative socially-framed economics that can help with such a rethinking?
Using the framework of the commons
The growing movement of thought and the diverse initiatives around the idea of the commons provide one source of inspiration worth exploring (though not a ready-made framework to be applied in a simplistic way).
The scope of commons thinking has widened tremendously in reaction to the incessant drive to commodify goods that had previously been held in common. These range from natural resources and services that historically have been taken out of the capitalist market and organised through public or civic organisations, such as health, education, science and, more generally, knowledge (libraries and archives, for example), to the newly-created digital commons, under constant threat of new enclosures.
At first sight, labour, understood in terms of the application of the human capacity to create, would seem profoundly individual and therefore inimical to organisation as a commons. On further reflection, though, human creativity, with its individual and social dimensions inextricably intertwined, is a distinctive commons that is key to the possibility of a commons-based political economy.
The writer and activist on the commons, Tomasso Fattori, traces the shared characteristics that make the framework of the commons useful for understanding the character of diverse phenomena, without artificially squeezing them into a category implying homogeneity. In an article reflecting on the wider significance of the successful struggle for the referendum vote in Italy on the future of water as a commons (‘a political and cultural revolution on the commons,’ as he describes it) Fattori says: ‘The commons are what is considered essential for life, understood not merely in the biological sense. They are the structures, which connect individuals to one another, tangible or intangible elements that we all have in common and which make us members of a society, not isolated entities in competition with each other. Elements that we maintain or reproduce together, according to rules established by the community: an area to be rescued from the decision-making of the post-democratic élite and which needs to be self-governed through forms of participative democracy.’ (Fattori 2011)
In the light of these reflections, does it make sense, is it useful, to think of labour as a commons?
These conditions for a commons could apply to human creativity on a basis that would not deny its irreducibly individual dimension. Rather, this individual dimension of what depends for its nature, realisation and wider social benefits on the way that society is organised, poses – as do all commons – specific problems of organisation and governance.
Consider the human capacity to create, with Fattori’s definition in mind. It is a capacity that is shared by all humanity – indeed it is what makes us human; a capacity that is a powerful social force, a necessary condition of the life of many other commons; and which, though in one unique moment is individual-centered is also socially shaped. Dependent in good part on the nature of education, culture and distribution of wealth, it can be nurtured and developed or suppressed, undeveloped and wasted. It is socially realised (whether or not this distributed potential is achieved depends on the nature of the social relations of production, communication and distribution) and socially benefited from (who in society benefits from the creativity of others again depends on the economic, political and social relations).
Perhaps we could draw on Marx’s contrast between the bee and the architect indirectly to reinforce the point about human creativity as a particular kind of commons. If we were like bees, then we and our product might be part of the natural commons – with beekeepers as the custodians, cultivators of the commons. But as the equivalent of architects, with the capacity to imagine and to create according to our imagination, we embody a different kind of commons: the commons of creativity.
Of course human creativity is not new! But mass awareness – self-awareness and full social recognition – of creativity as a universal potential, is the result of cultural changes of material consequence. It has been accompanied by increasing conscious attention to the institutional implications of this recognition. I will touch on both of these in the next section of this chapter. I am thinking here especially of the steady, albeit uneven, rise over the past 40 years or so of an insistence, in practice, on cultural equality, in addition to the long tradition of demands for economic and political equality. Additionally, the widespread transcendence of a dichotomy between individual and collective and the emergence of both a social individualism and an associational understanding of collective organisation has helped to lay the basis of understanding creativity as a commons.
Reclaiming the tradition of Ubuntu
Again, this social individualism is not new. In many ways, it is a reconnection, from the circumstances of struggling in and against 21st-century capitalism, with the ethical tradition of Ubuntu. ‘You are a person because of other people,’ as a delegate to the Solidarity Economy Conference that led to this book put it. Or as Archbishop Tutu explains: ‘Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness.’
By naming this creative capacity, this characteristic of all of humanity, as a commons, by highlighting its social as well as individual character and the associative, social conditions of its realisation, we also lay the basis for reclaiming the products of this capacity. These include those that in a certain sense have been appropriated by the state or by capital – such as ‘social capital’ and other forms of ‘free labour’ that are so vital to today’s informational capitalism.
Another implication for our own organisations, political and economic, is the importance of building into them the nurturing and development of this commons. We need to do this in both a prefigurative sense and as an immediate means of strengthening their transformative capacity.
To develop and apply the idea of labour/creativity as a commons, it is important to think of it as a collection of useful tools to be ingeniously deployed, rather than the comprehensive, ready-to-assemble solution that the idea of socialism was often treated as. Here are some of the kinds of tools it might provide.
First, it opens up ways of seeing and understanding the wider potential of existing practices in the solidarity economy in achieving transformative gains in the broader social, public and private economy. An example here would be the importance of learning through and reflecting on practice; thinking of creativity as a commons leads to asking how we could envisage economic arrangements that build self-development, education and regeneration into daily life across what is now divided into work, consumption and personal life.
Understanding labour and the potential of human creativity as a commons changes our view of employment. We can see this already in practice in parts of the solidarity economy where workers are never seen as ‘redundant’ and the aim is always redeployment and retraining. We also see how the scandalous waste of human creativity now evident in capitalist economies across the world has been a driving motive in the explosion of resistance from 2011 onwards, led often by the young unemployed. (Mason 2012)
Human creativity as a commons also points to the importance of thinking at many different levels of economic and social relations and of inter-connecting them. So it leads to asking what institutional conditions for nurturing and realising creativity might mean at a micro level for how enterprises or urban spaces, for example, are organised; what it might mean at a macro level in terms of, for example, a means of livelihood beyond or autonomous from waged labour (what some have called ‘a basic wage’); and what it could mean at a mix of micro and macro levels – for example, in terms of legislative frameworks for the organisation of time. (Coote 2010)
In this way seeing labour as a commons challenges tendencies towards enterprise or community egoism or atomism (a tendency in parts of the social economy as well as in capitalist enterprises) and emphasises the importance of solidarity and flows of mutuality between different elements of attempts at a solidarity and commons-based economy. More generally, it provides the basis for a strong antidote to the possessive individualism that has been so rampant in recent years, without counterposing a reified collectivism. (Macpherson 1964)
A further tool generated by the idea of human creativity as a commons is the means of institutional flexibility to negotiate and live permanently with the tensions between the collaborative dimension of creativity and the varying necessity for individual autonomy, introversion and self-reflexivity. This flexibility and ability to value the duality of human creativity and therefore social well-being is often missing not only from a statist understanding of socialism but from many conceptions of collectivity in the labour and co-operative movements.
The creative commons licence is a good illustration of how it is possible to recognise and value the dimension of individual creativity (and with it a certain sense of ownership) and at the same time protect both the individual and the wider community against the worst consequences of taking a creation out of the commons and into the commodity market. (Berlinguer in this volume)
A combination of these tools could help with institutional design in the solidarity economy, able to deal with a complex of factors. Here I can draw from my own experience of a solidarity economy media enterprise, Red Pepper magazine, an institution based on a multiplicity of interconnecting interests. Its organisational design has to recognise a diversity of sources of support, monetary and in kind, some from organisations, some from individuals, all of whom expect some accountability. It also has to recognise several sources of creativity, the importance of a collaborative editorial process and yet the dimension of individual decision-making at different levels of the project, and at the same time meet the need for a relatively coherent identity. The notion of creativity as a commons seems key to developing a sufficiently flexible, transparent and constantly negotiable form of governance to deal with this complex combination of interests and imperatives."
Book: (Vishwas Satgar (ed) The Solidarity Economy Alternative: Emerging Theory and Practice, Durban: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2014