Political Economy of the Common

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* Book: The Political Economy of the Common. Ed. by Andrea Fumagalli. (as yet untranslated Italian-language book)


"Economia politica del comune, collects a series of essays, mostly published elsewhere, which summarize his analysis of post-crisis contemporary capitalism"


By Adam Arvidsson:

(Translated from the Italian by Tiziano Bonini)

"Capitalism has changed. Andrea Fumagalli says so. And he said that, for a long time, his school; the tradition of autonomy, starting from the early writings of Mario Tronti and Raniero Panzieri of the sixties, passing through the intellectually fertile experience of Potere Operaio of the seventies and the brilliant analysis of post-Fordism and the new figure of the social worker 'of the eighties, always with the analysis firmly anchored in the thought of the now internationally recognized master of the Italian Theory Antonio Negri, has developed a Marxism for the digital age, focused on the Grundrisse, and in particular on the famous' fragment on the machines ', more than on Capital. Together with Christian Marazzi and Maurizio Lazzarato, Andrea Fumagalli is the person who most contributed to this perspective, adding a solid empirical basis based on his experience as a professional economist.

The new book by Andrea, Economia politica del comune, collects a series of essays, mostly published elsewhere, which summarize his analysis of post-crisis contemporary capitalism. For the author, the scenario of the last ten years has been a strengthening of a model of biocapitalism where capitalist exploitation is based no longer on the mere theft of working time in factories or on the appropriation of intellectual production - in the form of technological innovation or intellectual property, central to the analysis of cognitive capitalism - but now on the subsumption - that is, the inclusion and putting to work - of the deepest dimensions of the human condition, such as those related to affections or relationships, particularly when they are articulated through the ubiquitous connectivity of smartphones and social media, and even to life itself as an object of biotechnology.

The man-machine union, visible and potential object of criticism or sabotage in the Fordist factories, has now progressed to become part of the human condition and in this way capable of making life itself - la nuda vita, Agamben would say - in its dimensions pre and post human, in vitro as well as in silico, object of appropriation and capitalist valorization.

In biocapitalism, production is based on putting the commons to work, a concept that is different from that of common goods, even if these are part of it, but which also refers to that life in common - made up of elements such as language, the gestures, the affections, the corporality and the relationships - which now, through digital technologies, is potentially put to work in its most varied manifestations: the freelancer who organizes his temporary cooperation with a team for a specific project, the Airbnb guest who strives to offer a positive stay experience or the teenager who posts a selfie with her favorite brand on Instagram.

Capitalist valorization has also progressed far beyond the Marxian model of the bourgeois drinker of the worker’ sweat. Financial markets play an increasingly central role and, through the financialization of life and productive relations, operate like giant vacuum cleaners that suck up crumbs of surplus value from the global productive and reproductive factory - the credit card, the shipping insurance required in the just-in-time value-chain - to then redistribute them, without transparency or democratic regulation, on financial markets. In this situation in which the socialization of the productive forces, the commons that constitute the true source of value - has now left the greedy pockets of the individual bourgeois to circulate on the financial markets in the form of digitized data - communism is already with us, only that does not belong to us. Biocapitalism represents the realization of the communism of capital, the famous concept taken up by Antonio Negri - and by Marx who, although he never uses it, mentions this possibility in the Grundrisse.

What to do then, comrades? There is no longer a factory to be sabotaged, nor a winter palace to be conquered. But, Andrea suggests, we can re-appropriate the tools in the hands of the capitalist class: finance and money. The currency, - writes Andrea - is now a direct expression of capitalist power, without the intermediation of the state. Andrea proposes the creation of coins and alternative financial instruments, suggesting the use of the seductive technology of the crypto-currencies: blokchain and bitcoin, which are able to establish circuits of valorization external to global finance; it would be desirable for a new currency of the commons suitable to finance a new welfare of the commons, triggering processes of local redistribution of wealth, to then let them grow and acquire more and more powerful autonomy. A strategy similar to that of the autonomy of the eighties, the age of the Hakim Beyi’s TAZ’s, the golden age of the Italian centri sociali of the nineties that, among other things, Andrea recognizes as his main source of inspiration.

The book offers a theoretical sum by one of the main representatives not only of the contemporary Marxist thought but of one of its most fruitful veins. As such it should be seen, in particular the introductory essay “The premise and Twenty thesis on bio-cognitive capitalism”, which sums up the subject with admirable clarity. For me it was a very fruitful reading: Andrea is and always has been, since its brilliant analysis of the new forms of self-employment of the second generation in 1994, a Master.

At the same time I think that the book a little 'exaggerate the grip and power of bio-capitalism. The result is a totalitarian image, where every human activity is immediately subsumed and exploited, from pedaling for Deliveroo to being on Facebook, and, using the same logic - why not -, playing soccer is actually a way to help reproduce the basics of the football market that exploits the fans as well as the television audience. What to me it sounds “weird”, however, it is the astonishing ineffectiveness of contemporary capitalism in exploiting the common which has partly generated. Facebook, Airbnb and Amazon earnings all in all modest, Uber and Deliveroo are at a loss, start-up incubators around the world are abandoning the cash for equity model, finding that they do not make a lot of money by incubating start-ups. Above all, there is a lack of innovation and ideas: large multinational companies have liquid reserves of unprecedented historical size - Apple announces a stock buy back of $ 100 billion - and no one seems able to find profitable use of big data or algorithms that go beyond the completion of the advertising targeting or the advice of other songs you may like on Spotify.

Capitalism like that will definitely not be able to survive the radical challenges that await us as we begin to cross the Anthropocene. To paraphrase another great master of Italian postwar Marxism, Giovanni Arrighi, the problem is not that the cognitive biocapitalism exploits our life, but that it isn’t able to do it well enough. I say this because as long as there is exploitation at least there is a rationality to criticize or sabotage. Instead contemporary biocapitalism looks increasingly like a rotting body that no one has the power to take away, as the German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck claims. In this context, the alternative currency will certainly contribute to creating alternative valorisation circuits. My intuition is that the protagonists of this process are not so much those of Macao or Teatro Valle, but rather the entrepreneurs of that pirate modernity that now connects the small Chinese factories with the needs of the popular classes of Lagos or Tangier, passing through Piazza Garibaldi of Naples."