Interview with Massimo De Angelis on the Commons

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Source: special issue of e-flux on the post-capitalist self:

Article: On the Commons: A Public Interview with Massimo De Angelis and Stavros Stavrides.



Excerpts from Massimo de Angelis only.

The Commons: From Movement to Society

"An Architektur: The term “commons” occurs in a variety of historical contexts. First of all, the term came up in relation to land enclosures during pre- or early capitalism in England; second, in relation to the Italian autonomia movement of the 1960s; and third, today, in the context of file-sharing networks, but also increasingly in the alter-globalization movement. Could you tell us more about your interest in the commons?

Massimo De Angelis: My interest in the commons is grounded in a desire for the conditions necessary to promote social justice, sustainability, and happy lives for all. As simple as that. These are topics addressed by a large variety of social movements across the world that neither states nor markets have been able to tackle, and for good reasons. State policies in support of capitalist growth are policies that create just the opposite conditions of those we seek, since they promote the working of capitalist markets. The latter in turn reproduce socio-economic injustices and hierarchical divisions of power, environmental catastrophes and stressed-out and alienated lives. Especially against the background of the many crises that we are facing today—starting from the recent global economic crisis, and moving to the energy and food crises, and the associated environmental crisis—thinking and practicing the commons becomes particularly urgent.

Massimo De Angelis: Commons are a means of establishing a new political discourse that builds on and helps to articulate the many existing, often minor struggles, and recognizes their power to overcome capitalist society. One of the most important challenges we face today is, how do we move from movement to society? How do we dissolve the distinctions between inside and outside the movement and promote a social movement that addresses the real challenges that people face in reproducing their own lives? How do we recognize the real divisions of power within the “multitude” and produce new commons that seek to overcome them at different scales of social action? How can we reproduce our lives in new ways and at the same time set a limit to capital accumulation?

The discourse around the commons, for me, has the potential to do those things. The problem, however, is that capital, too, is promoting the commons in its own way, as coupled to the question of capitalist growth. Nowadays the mainstream paradigm that has governed the planet for the last thirty years—neoliberalism—is at an impasse, which may well be terminal. There are signs that a new governance of capitalism is taking shape, one in which the “commons” are important. Take for example the discourse of the environmental “global commons,” or that of the oxymoron called “sustainable development,” which is an oxymoron precisely because “development” understood as capitalist growth is just the opposite of what is required by “sustainability.” Here we clearly see the “smartest section of capital” at work, which regards the commons as the basis for new capitalist growth. Yet you cannot have capitalist growth without enclosures. We are at risk of getting pushed to become players in the drama of the years to come: capital will need the commons and capital will need enclosures, and the commoners at these two ends of capital will be reshuffled in new planetary hierarchies and divisions.

The Three Elements Of The Commons: Pooled Resources, Community, And Commoning

Massimo De Angelis: Let me address the question of the definition of the commons. There is a vast literature that regards the commons as a resource that people do not need to pay for. What we share is what we have in common. The difficulty with this resource-based definition of the commons is that it is too limited, it does not go far enough. We need to open it up and bring in social relations in the definition of the commons.

Commons are not simply resources we share—conceptualizing the commons involves three things at the same time. First, all commons involve some sort of common pool of resources, understood as non-commodified means of fulfilling peoples needs. Second, the commons are necessarily created and sustained by communities—this of course is a very problematic term and topic, but nonetheless we have to think about it. Communities are sets of commoners who share these resources and who define for themselves the rules according to which they are accessed and used. Communities, however, do not necessarily have to be bound to a locality, they could also operate through translocal spaces. They also need not be understood as “homogeneous” in their cultural and material features. In addition to these two elements—the pool of resources and the set of communities—the third and most important element in terms of conceptualizing the commons is the verb “to common”—the social process that creates and reproduces the commons. This verb was recently brought up by the historian Peter Linebaugh, who wrote a fantastic book on the thirteenth-century Magna Carta, in which he points to the process of commoning, explaining how the English commoners took the matter of their lives into their own hands. They were able to maintain and develop certain customs in common—collecting wood in the forest, or setting up villages on the king’s land—which, in turn, forced the king to recognize these as rights. The important thing here is to stress that these rights were not “granted” by the sovereign, but that already-existing common customs were rather acknowledged as de facto rights.

The Commons and Marxism

An Architektur: We would like to pick up on your remark on the commons as a new political discourse and practice. How would you relate this new political discourse to already existing social or political theory, namely Marxism? To us it seems as if at least your interpretation of the commons is based a lot on Marxist thinking. Where would you see the correspondences, where lie the differences?

Massimo De Angelis: The discourse on the commons relates to Marxist thinking in different ways. In the first place, there is the question of interpreting Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation. In one of the final chapters of volume one of Capital, Marx discusses the process of expropriation and dispossession of commoners, which he refers to as “primitive accumulation,” understood as the process that creates the precondition of capitalist development by separating people from their means of production. In sixteenth- to eighteenth-century England, this process became known as “enclosure”—the enclosure of common land by the landed nobility in order to use the land for wool production. The commons in these times, however, formed an essential basis for the livelihood of communities. They were fundamental elements for people’s reproduction, and this was the case not only in Britain, but all around the world. People had access to the forest to collect wood, which was crucial for cooking, for heating, for a variety of things. They also had access to common grassland to graze their own livestock. The process of enclosure meant fencing off those areas to prevent people from having access to these common resources. This contributed to mass poverty among the commoners, to mass migration and mass criminalization, especially of the migrants. These processes are pretty much the same today all over the world. Back then, this process created on the one hand the modern proletariat, with a high dependence on the wage for its reproduction, and the accumulation of capital necessary to fuel the industrial revolution on the other.

Marx has shown how, historically, primitive accumulation was a precondition of capitalist development. One of the key problems of the subsequent Marxist interpretations of primitive accumulation, however, is the meaning of “precondition.” The dominant understanding within the Marxist literature—apart from a few exceptions like Rosa Luxemburg—has always involved considering primitive accumulation as a precondition fixed in time: dispossession happens before capitalist accumulation takes place. After that, capitalist accumulation can proceed, exploiting people perhaps, but with no need to enclose commons since these enclosures have already been established. From the 1980s onwards, the profound limitations of this interpretation became obvious. Neoliberalism was rampaging around the world as an instrument of global capital. Structural adjustment policies, imposed by the IMF (International Monetary Fund), were promoting enclosures of “commons” everywhere: from community land and water resources to entitlements, to welfare benefits and education; from urban spaces subject to new pro-market urban design and developments to rural livelihoods threatened by the “externalities” of environmentally damaging industries, to development projects providing energy infrastructures to the export processing zones. These are the processes referred to by the group Midnight Notes Collective as “new enclosures.”

The identification of “new enclosures” in contemporary capitalist dynamics urged us to reconsider traditional Marxist discourse on this point. What the Marxist literature failed to understand is that primitive accumulation is a continuous process of capitalist development that is also necessary for the preservation of advanced forms of capitalism for two reasons. Firstly, because capital seeks boundless expansion, and therefore always needs new spheres and dimensions of life to turn into commodities. Secondly, because social conflict is at the heart of capitalist processes—this means that people do reconstitute commons anew, and they do it all the time. These commons help to re-weave the social fabric threatened by previous phases of deep commodification and at the same time provide potential new ground for the next phase of enclosures.

Thus, the orthodox Marxist approach—in which enclosure and primitive accumulation are something that only happens during the formation of a capitalist system in order to set up the initial basis for subsequent capitalist development—is misleading. It happens all the time; today as well people’s common resources are enclosed for capitalist utilization. For example, rivers are enclosed and taken from local commoners who rely on these resources, in order to build dams for fueling development projects for industrialization. In India there is the case of the Narmada Valley; in Central America there is the attempt to build a series of dams called the Puebla-Panama Plan. The privatization of public goods in the US and in Europe has to be seen in this way, too. To me, however, it is important to emphasize not only that enclosures happen all the time, but also that there is constant commoning. People again and again try to create and access the resources in a way that is different from the modalities of the market, which is the standard way for capital to access resources. Take for example the peer-to-peer production happening in cyberspace, or the activities in social centers, or simply the institutions people in struggle give themselves to sustain their struggle. One of the main shortcomings of orthodox Marxist literature is de-valuing or not seeing the struggles of the commoners. They used to be labeled as backwards, as something that belongs to an era long overcome. But to me, the greatest challenge we have in front of us is to articulate the struggles for commons in the wide range of planetary contexts, at different layers of the planetary wage hierarchy, as a way to overcome the hierarchy itself.

An Architektur: The notion of the commons as a pre-modern system that does not fit in a modern industrialized society is not only used by Marxists, but on the neoliberal side, too. It is central to neoliberal thinking that self-interest is dominant vis-à-vis common interests and that therefore the free market system is the best possible way to organize society. How can we make a claim for the commons against this very popular argument?

Massimo De Angelis: One of the early major pro-market critiques of the commons was the famous article “The Tragedy of the Commons” by Gerrit Hardin, from 1968. Hardin argued that common resources will inevitably lead to a sustainability tragedy because the individuals accessing them would always try to maximize their personal revenue and thereby destroy them. For example, a group of herders would try to get their own sheep to eat as much as possible. If every one did that then of course the resource would be depleted. The policy implications of this approach are clear: the best way to sustain the resource is either through privatization or direct state management. Historical and economic research, however, has shown that existing commons of that type rarely encountered these problems, because the commoners devise rules for accessing resources. Most of the time, developing methods of ensuring the sustainability of common resources has been an important part of the process of commoning.

There is yet a third way beyond markets or states, and this is community self-management and self-government. This is another reason why it is important to keep in mind that commons, the social dimension of the shared, are constituted by the three elements mentioned before: pooled resources, community, and commoning. Hardin could develop a “tragedy of the commons” argument because in his assumption there existed neither community nor commoning as a social praxis, there were only resources subject to open access.

Furthermore, it is important to note that the problem of the commons cannot be simply described as a question of self-interest versus common interests. Often, the key problem is how individual interests can be articulated in such a way as to constitute common interests. This is the question of commoning and of community formation, a big issue that leads to many open questions. Within Marxism, there is generally a standard way to consider the question of common interests: these are given by the “objective” conditions in which the “working class” finds itself vis-à-vis capital as the class of the exploited. A big limitation of this standard interpretation is that “objectivity” is always an inter-subjective agreement. The working class itself is fragmented into a hierarchy of powers, often in conflicts of interest with one another, conflicts materially reproduced by the workings of the market. This means that common interests cannot be postulated, they can only be constructed.

An Architektur: This idea of the common interest that has to be constructed in the first place—what consequences does it have for conceptualizing possible subjects of change? Would this have to be everybody, a renewed form of an avant-garde or a regrouped working class?

Massimo De Angelis: It is of course not possible to name the subject of change. The usefulness of the usual generalizations—“working class,” “proletariat,” “multitude,” etc.—may vary depending on the situation, but generally has little analytical power apart from indicating crucial questions of “frontline.” This is precisely because common interests cannot be postulated but can only be constituted through processes of commoning, and this commoning, if of any value, must overcome current material divisions within the “working class,” “proletariat,” or “multitude.” From the perspective of the commons, the wage worker is not the emancipatory subject because capitalist relations also pass through the unwaged labor, is often feminized, invisible, and so on. It is not possible to rely on any “vanguard,” for two reasons. Firstly, because capitalist measures are pervasive within the stratified global field of production, which implies that it hits everybody. Secondly, because the most “advanced” sections of the global “working class”—whether in terms of the level of their wage or in terms of the type of their labor (it does not matter if these are called immaterial workers or symbolic analysts)—can materially reproduce themselves only on the basis of their interdependence with the “less advanced” sections of the global working class. It has always been this way in the history of capitalism and I have strong reasons to suspect it will always be like this as long as capitalism is a dominant system.

To put it in another way: the computer and the fiber optic cables necessary for cyber-commoning and peer-to-peer production together with my colleagues in India are predicated on huge water usage for the mass production of computers, on cheap wages paid in some export-processing zones, on the cheap labor of my Indian high-tech colleagues that I can purchase for my own reproduction, obtained through the devaluation of labor through ongoing enclosures. The subjects along this chain can all be “working class” in terms of their relation to capital, but their objective position and form of mutual dependency is structured in such a way that their interests are often mutually exclusive.

The Commons and Capitalism: Commoning Inside the Capitalist Structure

An Architektur: Massimo, you put much emphasis on the fact that commoning happens all the time, also under capitalist conditions. Can you give a current example? Where would you see this place of resistance? For Marx it was clearly the factory, based on the analysis of the exploitation of labor, which gave him a clear direction for a struggle.

Massimo De Angelis: The factory for Marx was a twofold space: it was the space of capitalist exploitation and discipline—this could of course also be the office, the school, or the university—but it was also the space in which social cooperation of labor occurred without the immediate mediation of money. Within the factory we have a non-commoditized space, which would fit our definition of the commons as the space of the “shared” at a very general level.

An Architektur: Why non-commoditized?

Massimo De Angelis: Because when I work in a capitalist enterprise, I may get a wage in exchange for my labor power, but in the moment of production I do not participate in any monetary transactions. If I need a tool, I ask you to pass me one. If I need a piece of information, I do not have to pay a copyright. In the factory—that we are using here as a metaphor for the place of capitalist production—we may produce commodities, but not by means of commodities, since goods stopped being commodities in the very moment they became inputs in the production process. I refer here to the classical Marxian distinction between labor power and labor. In the factory, labor power is sold as a commodity, and after the production process, products are sold. In the very moment of production, however, it is only labor that counts, and labor as a social process is a form of “commoning.” Of course, this happens within particular social relations of exploitation, so maybe we should not use the same word, commoning, so as not to confuse it with the commoning made by people “taking things into their own hands.” So, we perhaps should call it “distorted commoning,” where the measure of distortion is directly proportional to the degree of the subordination of commoning to social measures coming from outside the commoning, the one given by management, by the requirement of the market, etc. In spite of its distortions, I think, it is important to consider what goes on inside the factory as also a form of commoning. This is an important distinction that refers to the question of how capital uses the commons. I am making this point because the key issue is not really how we conceive of commoning within the spheres of commons, but how we reclaim the commons of our production that are distorted through the imposition of capital’s measure of things.

This capitalist measure of things is also imposed across places of commoning. The market is a system that articulates social production at a tremendous scale, and we have to find ways to replace this mode of articulation. Today, most of what is produced in the common—whether in a distorted capitalist commons or alternative commons—has to be turned into money so that commoners can access other resources. This implies that commons can be pitted against one another in processes of market competition. Thus we might state as a guiding principle that whatever is produced in the common must stay in the common in order to expand, empower, and sustain the commons independently from capitalist circuits.

Massimo De Angelis: We must, however, also make the point that seizing the internal opportunities that capitalism creates can also become the object of co-optation. Take as an example the capitalist use of the commons in relation to seasonal workers. Here commons can be used to undermine wages or, depending on the specific circumstances, they can also constitute the basis for stronger resistance and greater working-class power. The first case could be seen, for example, in South African enclaves during the Apartheid regime, where lower-level wages could be paid because seasonal workers were returning to their homes and part of the reproduction was done within these enclaves, outside the circuits of capital. The second case is when migrant seasonal workers can sustain a strike precisely because, due to their access to common resources, their livelihoods are not completely dependent on the wage, something which happened, for example, in Northern Italy a few decades ago. Thus, the relation between capitalism and the commons is always a question of power relations in a specific historic context.

The Role And Reactions Of The State

An Architektur: How would you evaluate the importance of the commons today? Would you say that the current financial and economic crisis and the concomitant delegitimation of the neoliberal model brought forward, at least to a certain extent, the discussion and practice of the commons? And what are the respective reactions of the authorities and of capitalism?

Massimo De Angelis: In every moment of crisis we see an emergence of commons to address questions of livelihood in one way or the other. During the crisis of the 1980s in Britain there was the emergence of squatting, alternative markets, or so called Local Exchange Trading Systems, things that also came up in the crisis in Argentina in 2001.

Regarding the form in which capitalism reacts and reproduces itself in relation to the emergence of commoning, three main processes can be observed. First, the criminalization of alternatives in every process of enclosure, both historically and today. Second, a temptation of the subjects fragmented by the market to return to the market. And third, a specific mode of governance that ensures the subordination of individuals, groups and their values, needs and aspirations under the market process.

Arenas for Constituting the Commons and Their Limitations

Massimo De Angelis: The occupied factory we just talked about exemplifies an arena in which we have the opportunity to produce commons, not only through making gift gestures but also by turning the creative iteration of these gestures into new institutions. And these arenas for commoning potentially exist everywhere. Yet every arena finds itself with particular boundaries—both internal and external ones. In the case of the occupied factory, the internal boundaries are given by the occupying community of workers, who have to consider their relation to the outside, the unemployed, the surrounding communities, and so on. The choices made here will also affect the type of relations to and articulation with other arenas of commoning.

Another boundary that comes up in all potential arenas of commoning, setting a limit to the endeavors of the commoners, is posited outside them, and is given by the pervasive character of capitalist measure and values. For example, the decision of workers to keep the production going implies to a certain extent accepting the measuring processes given by a capitalist market which puts certain constraints on workers such as the need for staying competitive, at least to some degree. All of a sudden they had to start to self-organize their own exploitation, and this is one of the major problems we face in these kind of initiatives, an issue that can only be tackled when a far higher number of commoning arenas arise and ingenuity is applied in their articulation.

But before we reach that limit posed by the outside, there is still a lot of scope for constitution, development, and articulation of subjectivities within arenas of commoning. This points to the question of where our own responsibility and opportunity lie. If the limit posed from the outside on an arena of commoning is the “no” that capital posits to the commons “yes,” to what extent can our constituent movement be a positive force that says no to capital’s no?" (