Production of the Commons and the Explosion of the Middle Class

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Article: The Production of Commons and the “Explosion” of the Middle Class. by Massimo De Angelis


Very important essay by Massimo De Angelis, proposing a political strategy of Commoning, and a summary of the author's book, The Beginning of History

URL = http://www.taller-commons.com/downloads/angelis.pdf


Abstract

"In the last few decades, a theoretical stalemate has developed between Marxism, Post-structuralism and Neoliberalism, which coincided with what has been termed “the end of history”, that is the idea that capitalist markets and Western democracy are the bliss point of human evolution . In the book The Beginning of History (De Angelis 2007) I argue that the diverse struggles for commons and dignity around the planet developed in the last few decades across the wage hierarchy reveal a different reality: that of the “beginning of history”, of the positing of modes of producing in commons other than those promoted by profit seeking capital." (http://www.taller-commons.com/?page_id=23)


Excerpts

On Commoning:

Massimo De Angelis:

"Commoning, a term encountered by Peter Linebaugh (2008) in one of his frequent travels in the living history of commoners’ struggles, is about the (re)production of/through commons. To turn a noun into a verb is not a little step and requires some daring. Especially if in doing so we do not want to obscure the importance of the noun, but simply ground it on what is, after all, life flow: there are no commons without incessant activities of commoning, of (re)producing in common. But it is through (re)production in common that communities of producers decide for themselves the norms, values and measures of things. Let us put the “tragedy of the commons” to rest then, the basis of the economists argument for enclosures: there is no commons without commoning, there are no commons without communities of producers and particular flows and modes of relations. Hence, what lies behind the “tragedy of the commons” is really the tragedy of the destruction of commoning through all sorts of structural adjustments, whether militarised or not." (http://www.taller-commons.com/downloads/angelis.pdf)


Commoning as a political strategy:

1.

"the challenge is how to engage in a constituent process of new social relations, which can only be a process of commoning, able to keep at bay and push back the form of commoning predicated on capitalist relations and, therefore, capitalist value practices. One basic condition for meeting this challenge is that we face up a hard reality of what we are up against, that is capital as a social force and field of social relations that seeks to reproduce itself through boundless expansion. This means first, that struggle is both necessary for the subjects and ubiquitous across the social fields inhabited by capitalist relations. However, it also implies that struggle is the life-blood of the system’s dynamism.

Furthermore, second, this dynamism is predicated upon and produces a new vertical segmentation of the condition of reproduction of labour power. The “working class” is divided in a wage hierarchy and no ideological call for unity will ever bring the different segments to work together in the direction of a radical transformation of their production in common beyond capital, and therefore beyond their hierarchy. Struggle therefore is also divided across a wage hierarchy, which implies that the possibility of its capitalist governance, predicated on division and exclusion at a point of crisis, are quite broad." (http://www.taller-commons.com/downloads/angelis.pdf)


2. On Creating lines of flight, without capitalist landing:

"This is of course a crucial question for all those whose perspective is the sustainability of the “beginning of history”, the persistence and development in time of new forms of commoning, of producing in commons that push back those compatible with the selfpreservation of capital.

From the point of view of the subjects, the clash of value practices implies first of all a “refusal”, a “no” to indignity, as Holloway (2004) so clearly put it. However, we have an immediate problem on our hand. How can we refuse capital’s measure without actively and self-consciously participating in the constitution of other common measures? And how can we participate in this commonality without at the same time setting a limit, refusing capital’s measure of things and its drive to separate, subsume and co-opt? 7 The setting of a limit to the “beast” and the problematic of how to constitute and sustain the “outside” which is brought to life by the many struggles, are two inescapable strategic coordinates of the beginning of history." (http://www.taller-commons.com/downloads/angelis.pdf)


3. Value struggles

"The vacuum is filled with an ideological struggle that seek converted. In a Western urban environment this might be expressed in this way: capital wants you to eat meet, you must become vegan; capital wants you to earn money, you build a life-style without money; capital wants you to compete, you proclaim “solidarity”, and so on.

However expressive of real desires and processes of identities production that seek disengagement from capital’s value practices, an ideological struggle of this type can only produce, precisely, singular identities, individual and groups whose values system is predefined as ethical choice. But commoning is not only based on pre-existent values, preexistent “ethical” choices. The commoning we seek is also and most importantly a field of production of values, and the precondition for this production is that a wide range of different ethics, different cultures, different life-styles, and, as we will see, different power positions within the planetary wage hierarchy participate in the co-production of new systems of values, of producing what is of common value together." (http://www.taller-commons.com/downloads/angelis.pdf)


4. We have to avoid struggles that lead back inside the problematic of the end of history, not for the creation of an outside, a beginning of history:

"The bottom line of the discussion so far is that the minimum condition for alternatives to be able to both reproduce themselves and set a limit to capital is that they constitute processes of commoning through which cooperating subjects seek, establish, represent, and communicate a field of value production which is not only opposed to that of capital, but also propositive and constituent of new social relations at every occasion of struggle. In this sense, the process of commoning beyond capital is a process of destructive creation as opposed to the process of creative destruction of Schumpeterian memory. While for the latter the creation of the new and the correspondent destruction of the old is concerned with the mutation of the forms of capitalist social relations, we can understand the concern of destructive creation the destruction of these very capitalist relations and the correspondent creation of new forms of commoning predicated on different value productions. Here the emphasis is on the constituent processes of commoning other than capital, rather than on mutated forms of capitalist commoning." (http://www.taller-commons.com/downloads/angelis.pdf)


On Common Rights:

Massimo De Angelis:

"It is because this organic relation between the activity of the commoners and the commons that “commons” rights differ, in their constitution, from legal rights such as “human”, “political” or “social” rights. In the latter sense, a “right” is a legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way. A title deed constitutes evidence of such a right.

For the medieval English commoners instead,

- common rights are embedded in a particular ecology with its local husbandry. . . . Commoners first think not of title deeds, but human deeds: how will this land be tilled? Does it require manuring? What grows there? They begin to explore. One might call it a natural attitude. Second, commoning is embedded in a labor process; it inheres in a particular praxis of field, upland, forest, marsh, coast. Common rights are entered into by labor. Third, commoning is collective. Fourth, commoning, being independent of the state, is independent also of the temporality of the law and state. It goes deep into human history" (Linabough 2008: 44-45). (http://www.taller-commons.com/downloads/angelis.pdf)



On the Middle Class as the political subject needing to be overcome

Massimo De Angelis:

"The problem we face is therefore this: there will be no beginning of history without the Middle Class, nor there will be one with the Middle Class (i.e. with the system that reproduce labouring subjectivity as Middle Class) We must therefore seek an outside from which to stand on new ground.


There are three outsides to the Middle Class as we have defined it. The first one passes through Middle Class subjects themselves, to all, to a variety of degree, and it is expressed in atomic re-appropriations of labour time and its products and space away from capital, or in molecular communities reproducing commons and their defense in factories, in the offices, in the neighborhoods, in the homes, in the streets, in cyberspace. It is the frontline of value struggle passing through the bodies of labouring subjects. It’s the hint that what we are doing in common, and how we are doing it, is crazy. It’s the daily apprehension of reality beyond the fetish. It’s the guy responsible for purchasing chicken in a supermarket chain, abhorring for an instant at the idea that he may be instrumental for the appalling ways those chicken are produced. Or the woman taking up a job in a development NGO and hating the fact that most of her time has to be spent to fine tune projects to the requirements of donors. Or the precarious call center worker who hates repeating stupid marketing questions to rude and uninterested respondents.

These outsides, if given an organizational form, might then well be later co-opted and made to work for capital when articulated to its reproduction, but they nevertheless sparks light when they appear. The Middle Class subjects, with all the dangers of generalization, are divided subjects, a division which is an expression of their separation from the commons. They face their commoning, their social production in common, as an alien force posited outside them, as money, as “the economy”, and hence they face one another within this social cooperation as “other” and “foreigner”. On the other hand, they also face one another directly, as colleagues, friends, mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts, friends or enemies, sons or daughters, mates or companions, neighbors and so on, in a variety of modalities, social roles and forms of social intercourse. In this way, they often combine and recombine communities of struggle in which they discover new communal dimensions for their power through commoning at the frontline.

There is a second outside to the Middle Class. It is the political subjectivity that might be created as a result of the change in composition: suddenly, the Middle Class finds that among itself there is an increasing section who either does not want to or cannot sustain its livelihoods as Middle Class. In the first case, we are talking for example of the period of the student movements in the 1960s, in which Middle Class youth battled against the authorities of fathers, police, university professors and politicians, refusing with life-style choices and mass gatherings, the life-style of its class. The beginning of history however is not about individual’s life-style; it is about the production in common of life. Capital was able to capture the playful-sexual energies liberated by those movements and channel them into new life-styles filling creative jobs with many Middle Class children who had to move on with their lives after the season of protests. It was thus able to turn the struggle for freedom of this movement into a coherent neoliberal project in which individuals pursuit of their “freedom” could occur within commons shaped by disciplinary markets.

In the second case, we are talking about temporary work, casualisation, precarity in a world of drastically reduced social entitlements and skyrocketing personal debt. The specter is given voice in the news: for the first time in the history of capitalism, the Middle Class children of Middle Class families might have to do with less than their parents. The “American dream” the illusion according to which “more” is always better and possible for all seem to have reached an impasse. Precarity seem to be the condition of the age. The Middle Class precariat is often highly educated, the expression of a mass intellectuality brought about by generations of schooling. Yet, many are in low paid jobs that do not have anything to do with their education and the aspirations they invested in them. They are the children of that moving goalpost that the interacting subjectivities within the market always create. Aspirations are often frustrated. The precarious subjects are often in condition to sell a type of labour power for living (say, working as security guard or as hamburger flipper) and offer another type of labour power as “gift” in order to add a line of “experience” on their CV (say as a “creative” type of job in advertisement). Needs and desires are here held in check one against the other. Ins and outs of one segment of the labour market create, amplify or soften up cycles of depression and exhilaration in subjects. The precariat is thus in a condition of limbo, its presence and imaginary is both outside and inside the Middle Class.19 This is a dangerous situation for capital, as we might be in presence of a potential social detonator. Needless to say, this situation, which coincides with some of the trends in the labour market in Western economies in the last 30 years, is now aggravated by the incumbent economic crisis in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

Finally, there is a third outside to the Middle Class, an outside that remind us of the social constitution itself of the Middle Class and, indeed of capitalist production. As we have seen, the social constitution of the Middle Class is predicated on particular social production of “order” and “betterment”. These are both predicated on the construction of “the other”: the other as a foreign alien or the other as the poor, the unwaged, the waged at the bottom of the scale (who cannot access “our” rights and entitlements, but who can be forced into migration by “our” rights to capital movements seeking valorization; who can clean “our” office toilets and subways, but who cannot speak to the world about the conditions and remuneration of this because of the threat of detention; who cannot follow the swings of their existential needs and desires, but who must endure the swings of pervasive and never ending capitalist restructuring; who can mind our children so as we can concentrate on the intensity demanded by waged employment, but whose children are minded through an intensification process of unwaged labour of reproduction of sisters and grandparents in the home countries).

In presence of this outside, and its struggles, the Middle Class is truly confronted with its social constitution, the elements defining the invariant character of the Middle Class, that which remains the same through consumer fashion, changes in governments, TV comedy seasons, and structures of labour markets. What remain the same is that the existence of the Middle Class qua Middle Class, even when it moves and struggles, is predicated upon the order of gated communities, identity cards, national and supranational border control which helps define the average social wage and the modality of deviation from this average in given reproduction fields. The gate and the management of the gate therefore contribute to structure a yardstick for measuring the singularities’ distance from “betterment”, to measure their progress through the wage hierarchy, whether in a life time or across generations. The policed gate in order to manage a wage hierarchy, and a wage hierarchy in order to legitimize and produce a policed gate: the dissipation of this double dimension involves the dissipation of the Middle Class itself.

The emergence of commoning across borders and through the wage hierarchy in forms that are other than the commoning of capital reproducing borders and the wage hierarchy is a commoning through which both borders and wage hierarchy are problematised, and their dissipation seek. But since both borders and wage hierarchy are pillars of the capitalist form of production in commons, to problematise them imply to constitute new forms of production in common. (http://www.taller-commons.com/downloads/angelis.pdf)


Conclusion

In conclusion:

"How will this explosion be brought about I do not know. But it is clear that if it will come at all, it will be through the creation of an outside of capital which is far greater than the sum of the three outsides I have discussed. And this because it is an outside constituted through the creation of commons across these three outsides. Here the explosion of the Middle Class corresponds to a process of political recomposition across subjects that connect the frontline struggles of capital across the wage hierarchy and national borders resulting in new forms of value production. Seeking commons across these actors is certainly difficult organizational work, but what other ways are there to create the conditions for the explosion of the Middle Class and open the ground for the constitution of new commoning beyond that of capital. When we struggle across the wage hierarchy and/or across national borders, we problematise the existing modalities of accessing social wealth created in common in the global factory. When we do this, we cannot avoid transforming ourselves. But this is a transformation of the self of a different nature of those planned out in the “me me me” survival manuals of busy urban Middle Class. It is this process of transformation associated to a commoning, of both the subjects involved in co-production and their relation. The other is no longer alien but a co-producer of life in commons. The explosion of the Middle Class seems to be truly our only hope to safe ourselves from alienation, poverty and ecological disaster." (http://www.taller-commons.com/downloads/angelis.pdf)

More Information

  1. Book: De Angelis, Massimo (2007). The Beginning of History. Value Struggles and Global Capital. London: Pluto, about the Commons as a political movement inaugurating a new era of history
  2. Circulation of the Common