Future of the Common

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= (post)autonomist interpretation of the commons?

  • Course: GEOG 8980: The Future of the Common: Nature, Work and Technology

Fall 2009 Lecture Series and Graduate Seminar, Department of Geography/Institute of Global Studies, Instructor: Bruce Braun


Since the 1970s, a number of political theorists and social activists on the left have offered up the “common” as a politically salient concept that names both the material conditions of work and life, and that which is transformed by the generative practices of living labor, in a kind of spiraling historical movement where work, art and politics continuously reconstitute and reassemble their enabling conditions. Stated in slightly different terms, the “common” names the collective potentiality embodied in the communicational, linguistic, ecological and technological networks that constitute life and its capacities, which capital and the state seek to harness and control, and which political movements seek to bend towards more just and pleasurable forms of life.

The Future of the Common: Nature, Work and Technology, is a lecture series and graduate seminar that will draw together diverse writers, artists and activists to evaluate the continued relevance of the “common” as an analytical and political concept within increasingly interconnected global circuits of labor, capital and technology. Speakers will address this in a variety of ways, tracing the genealogy of the concept and evaluating its purchase for contemporary politics; investigating the material conditions that constitute the “global common” today and exploring its possibilities for new forms of life and work; examining new subjectivities being forged in ‘post-Fordist’ or ‘communicational’ capitalism; and attending to emerging experiments with forms of life that seek to escape capture and control by capital and state, from political struggles over new media to social movements fighting the “new enclosures” of neo-liberalism, to radical and anarchist movements, such as expressed in the pages of The Coming Insurrection.


The concept of the common has received immense attention in the past decade, but it is no means new. Its most recent incarnation is often traced back to the writings of scholars and activists associated with the autonomia movement in Italy in the 1970s, for whom the “common” named the material conditions that stood as the basis for human productive and artistic activity, i.e. the technological systems, linguistic and communicative capacities, forms of labor, and movements of people that constituted what Marx called living labor and gave to it both its present capacities and its potential to create new, singular forms. Although initially linked closely to social and political transformations associated with post-Fordism in Italy, the concept has gained increasing traction among political theorists and social activists worldwide, and in the past decade has become a key element in the political imagination of a broadly defined ‘left’. From the recent writings of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, to worker and immigrant rights movements, to the dissemination of journals, blogs, and pamphlets such as The Commoner, and Turbulence, to name but a few examples, the common as concept has increasingly been called to action – and called into question – in response to transformations in communication technologies, new media, biotechnologies, new forms of immaterial and affective labor, international movements of workers and refugees, and ecological and climatic transformations that are said to present new conditions and new possibilities for life and work today.

As these ideas disseminate to an ever widening circle of scholars, readers, and activists, it is perhaps an appropriate time to critically reflect on both the conditions that the concept seeks to name, and the analytical and political purchase of the concept itself. In terms of the former, we seek answers to some of the following questions:

• How, for whom, and with what effects, have new technologies and new forms of labor transformed the conditions for life and work in the past two decades? Have these changes been as significant as some have claimed, or as widespread? And how do we explain these changes and the possibilities for life and work that they open or close?

• How shall we evaluate claims that new media and new communication technologies have usheded in radically new subjectivities, and radically new possibilities for collective life and action?

• How has the productive power of sociality, and not just labor time, become an object of political struggle between workers and capital? What form have these struggles taken?

• In what ways have these and other technologies, including biotechnologies, become objects of democratic struggle, and with what results? What form have these struggles taken, and what is the relation between the “common” and the “commons” in these struggles?

• What is the relation between the “common” and the university? How has the university today become a site of struggle over the common, and what form have these struggles taken?

In terms of the further goal of reflecting on the “common” as an adequate concept for contemporary political thought and action, we seek asnwers to questions such as the following:

• What is the function of the concept “common”? In relation to what problems and solutions does (did) it come into being and attain its force?

• What analytical and political purchase does the concept of the common have today, some three decades after it was articulated in the work of Italian autonomists?

• To what extent can the common, and the conditions that are thought to characterize the common, be said to be global, particulary given geographical difference and uneven development?

• Does the concept adequately capture present-day material conditions and name a transnational political project, or is it yet another example of a political imaginary and movement that originates with the realities of workers in the West only to be projected as ‘global’ by actively forgetting the imperial logics that divide workers between center and periphery?

• Finally, is the ‘collective potentiality’ named by the common always a revolutionary potential that threatens constituted power, or must we also account for the many different directions that it can move?

The purpose of the series and graduate seminar is to evaluate the common as an analytical and political category, to trace its genealogies and locate its incipient potentialities, and to imagine what comes next in struggles over its future form. All invited speakers have been intimately engaged with this question, either as scholars whose work has attended to contemporary transformations in work, nature and technology and the political movements that they have spawned, or as activists and artists who have taken these conditions, and the possibilities and dangers they hold, as the object of their concern."

Suggested background readings:

Those who wish to do background readings in preparation for the class may want to read selections from the list below, with an eye to understanding how the following concepts and terms are related and deployed: “immanent causality”, “species-being”, “biopolitical production”, “post-Fordism”, “formal and real subsumption”, “immaterial labor”, “general intellect”, “multitude”, “constituent power”, “common”, “singularity”. This is not mandatory; we’ll be developing the concepts as systematically as possible over the course of the semester. For those with limited time, a good sense of the arguments and concepts that the course will be interrogating can be found in Dyer-Witheford, Virno (both texts), Read, and Negri (or the more popular versions of the latter in Hardt and Negri).

  • Spinoza, Ethics, Part One including Appendix
  • Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, edited by Dirk Struk, New York: International Publishers, pp. 106-119.
  • Karl Marx, “Production process as content of capital….”, “On the commune and property/primitive accumulation”, “Fragment on the machine”. From The Grundrisse, London: Penguin Press, 1993, pp. 304-310; 483-514; 690-711.

Nick Dyer-Witheford, ‘1844/2004/2044: The return of species being’, Historical Materialism, 2004, 12,4: 3-25.

Antonio Negri, ‘Twenty theses on Marx: Interpretations of the class situation today.’ In Marxism beyond Marxism, edited by Saree Makdisi, Cesare Casarino and Rebecca E. Karl. London: Routledge, pp. 149-180.

Antonio Negri, ‘Alma Venus’, from the essay ‘Kairos, Alma Venus, Multitudo’ in Time for Revolution, London: Continuum, 2003, pp. 170-208. NB: The whole essay, pp. 131-242 is worth reading, but it is pitched at a very abstract level. For ‘popularized’ versions of similar arguments, see:

Michael Hardt and Antonnio Negri: Empire, Harvard University Press, pp. 1-66, 260-280, 351-413

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri: Multitude, Penguin Press, 99-157, 189-227

Paolo Virno, ‘Notes on the ‘general intellect’’. In Marxism beyond Marxism, edited by Saree Makdisi, Cesare Casarino and Rebecca E. Karl. London: Routledge, pp. 265-272.

Paolo Virno, The Grammar of the Multitude, Semiotext(e)

Cesare Casarino, ‘Surplus common’, in Casarino and Negri, In Praise of the Common, University of Minnesota Press, 208, pp. 1-40.

Maurizio Lazzarato, ‘Immaterial labor’, in Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, edited by Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt, University of Minnesota Press.

Tiziana Terranova, ‘Communication biopower’, from Network Culture, Pluto Press, 2004, pp. 131-157.

Jason Read, The Micro-Politics of Capital, SUNY Univesity Press, 2003.

Giorgio Agamben, ‘Form-of-life’, in Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, edited by Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt, University of Minnesota Press.