Self-Organisation of the Whole of Life

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* Brigitte Kratzwald. The Whole of Life – Self-organisation between joy and necessity.


Originally a German-language book: Kratzwald, B. (2014): Das Ganze des Lebens. Selbstorganisation zwischen Lust und Notwendigkeit. (The Whole of Life. Self-organisation between joy and necessity. Translated by the author of this review) Sulzbach/Taunus: Ulrike Helmer Verlag, p.11.


Economies of Commoning:

"The Austrian author Brigitte Kratzwald’s book ‘The Whole of Life – Self-organisation between joy and necessity’ revolves around work from a feminist perspective, with the objective of repositioning self-organised reproductive activities as more meaningful with potential for societal transformation.

Kratzwald’s main question is the following: “Is it possible to produce all things necessary for life in such ways that everybody has enough, everybody can contribute their abilities and codetermine wherever they are affected?”3 She does not aim to find final answers to this question in her book, but rather to sketch out possible routes towards a model for a more sustainable society. The theoretical part of the book is followed by an analysis of interviews Kratzwald conducted with a range of people engaged in self-organised initiatives in Germany and Austria, such as a community garden (Allmende Kontor), fab labs (Fablab Hamburg & OTELO), and a project platform (workstation ideenwerkstatt).

Work as a “contradictory myth”

Kratzwald starts out with an account of work as a “contradictory myth”, where our societies seem to struggle to define what the term work actually means. Activities that bring joy and satisfaction such as painting a picture, making jam, or sewing clothes, are rarely called work – this term seems to be often associated with rather negative connotations. Work is generally understood as being separate from life, an arena where activities are subject to the logic of the market, efficiency and marketability; work as activities that are stressful, tiring, and arduous. That’s why work needs to be paid, otherwise nobody would be motivated to do work. But is it really so?

Kratzwald describes a paradox situation: if a job offers more opportunities for self-fulfilment and development, it often leads to people working more for less money, where life and wage labour are not separate any more. At the same time, the division of life and work is not desirable either, if we want work to be pleasurable – but as soon as work is a pleasure, it is not regarded any more as proper work.

Despite all this, work has a reputation of being the miracle cure against all social problems: the creation of jobs is a legitimate reason for any kind of undertaking, even if the work itself is damaging to the environment.

“All work that is being traded today on the job market is more damaging than useful. Whoever was lucky enough to snatch a job hazards the harmful consequences.” (Gronemeyer 2012)

To be in wage labour is the precondition for economic survival and social appreciation, no matter if the work itself is useful for society or not. Our society has long become a ‘work society’, where work exists for its own sake.6 Nevertheless, the belief that people would actually prefer to not work and therefore need to be forced or motivated into it is still widely spread, particularly in discussions about the unconditional income.

In a short historical excursion, Kratzwald examines why it is so. In old Greece, work (as it was understood) used to be done by slaves and house employees, while the Athenians would spend their days contemplating and doing politics (which was not understood as work). Time was the condition for being able to participate (isn’t it the same way today?). In most European languages, the etymological roots of most terms indicating labour correlate directly to this historic development: the French word travail, for example, is derived from the Latin word ‘trepaliare’, meaning: to torture. “Free” people would conduct their activities on another basis: a carpenter, for example, would do his work to perform well in his craft with time and patience, not necessarily efficiency (compare Sennett, 2008). Today’s understanding of work came into being with the rise of civic society and the reformation. Work was seen as a vocation and increasingly used as a means to show one’s obedience to god and bring oneself closer to heaven. Material wealth became a sign of one’s ardour, which everybody could achieve if one only works hard enough, similar to the American tale ‘from rags-to-riches’. This protestant work ethics of being obliged to work formed the basis for capitalist production principles.

Division of productive work vs. reproductive work

Kratzwald stresses that this positive revaluation of work left out the work of women in households. Housework had a bad reputation and wealthy women tried hard to avoid doing it themselves. This division of well-respected productive work (as wage labour mostly done by men) vs. unvalued reproductive work (mostly done by women and lower classes) took place parallel to the change of the meaning of work and continues until today.

Feminist movements tried to make these invisible activities visible again, but struggled to move on beyond this, which lead to a division of the feminist movement. Mainstream feminism today stresses the emancipatory potential in wage labour for women, as it would make them independent and more equal to men. Kratzwald criticises that this led to a redistribution and “commodification” of care activities, and the continuation of our capitalist-patriarchal understanding of work8, underpinned by the following quote:

= “Many women think of themselves as feminist and anti-patriarchal when they think of the housewife’s existence as hell and of the wage worker’s existence as a heaven of independence. What a fallacy!” (Bennholdt-Thomsen/Mies 1997)

The Bielefelder subsistence theorists, to which Maria Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen belong as important figures, criticised from the very beginning the subsumption of all activities under the logic of work and the market. Instead, they looked at the problem of the division of work and labour under capitalism. They demanded the recognition and establishment of subsistence work for the production of the “good life” and a socially and ecologically sustainable society. This so-called subsistence perspective10 could not gain traction back then – the more it seems to today. It seems like their visions were too early, and that the expectations towards the emancipatory potential of wage labour first had to be proved wrong.

Finding a new language for positive criticism

To be able to go beyond mere criticism and through that, potentially reinforce existing conditions, Kratzwald sees a need to develop a new language in order to be able to frame work and our economies in new ways. Drawing from a workshop with other theorists in 201312, she sketches out a range of terms and possibilities that were collectively discussed, such as caring economy, commonism, commonie, ecommony, peercommony, and buen vivir for organisational forms of our economy; re-production, peer production, subsistence production, peer subsistence, and commoning to describe concepts of work. Kratzwald concludes that the basic condition for the activity of work is life itself, leading to the need for a language that describes the “whole of life” positively, not just “the whole of work” to contribute to the making visible and strengthening of already existing practices. In the following, Kratzwald attempts to bring together two approaches that seem very wide apart from each other: subsistence – those activities that are necessary for the reproduction of life –, and peer production – a way of producing something non-hierarchically (often soft- or hardware) on a voluntary basis, where the division between producer and consumer, employer and employee does not exist.

The subsistence perspective

Subsistence as a perspective was developed in the 80s, mainly by the three Bielefelders Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, Maria Mies and Claudia von Werlhof. They also pioneered women’s studies and developed feminist methodologies to oppose the alleged objectivity of academic research in Germany, pointing out the influence of gender relations and hierarchies on human thought and action. The subsistence perspective is one from below – it looks at the whole of the ‘iceberg’, an image of the economy developed by Bennholdt-Thomsen and Mies, not too dissimilar from the one by J.K. Gibson-Graham.

Iceberg model after Maria Mies

Only from this perspective, they claim, it would be possible to understand the economy and its relationships as a whole. According to the Bielefelders, capitalism only works through a three-fold colonisation: the one of nature, of women, and of subsistence in developing countries. Kratzwald describes it as such: “the invisible economy, the efforts of nature, the unpaid work by women, the subsistence work by farmers, the exploitation of developing countries, all this makes the market economy and wealth of a few possible”.22 Based on Marxist theory, subsistence theory considers patriarchy together with capitalism as two jointly linked power relationships that can only be overcome together, as the patriarchy established the division of humanity from nature, and the equalisation of nature with women and slaves.

Subsistence is often associated with poverty and a state of underdevelopment, which, according to Benntholdt-Thomsen, only came into being through the discourse of progress defined by technological development and control of nature. But, subsistence can also be understood through its positive emancipatory potential: self-confidence, joy, vitality, and abundance about being able to (re)produce and sustain oneself.

The term ‘subsistence production’ is being used to point out the productive character of such activities, where Kratzwald (p. 96) refers to Bennholdt-Thomsen/Mies (1997):

= “Subsistence production – or production of life – entails all work that produces and maintains immediate life and also follows this purpose. The term subsistence production is an opposition to the production of goods and added value. The goal of subsistence production is ‘life’. The production of goods is about money that “produces” more money, or the accumulation of capital. Life is, to a certain extent, only a side effect.”

Subsistence production today

Everybody is involved in the production of subsistence today, it has only changed appearance, Kratzwald refers once more to Bennholdt-Thomsen, who describes it as a “ahistorical term” describing the production and reproduction of life that is organised in different ways in different societies.24 There has never been, according to Kratzwald, a society without subsistence, but also none without a market. It is more about the significance of the market for the production and distribution of goods. Kratzwald calls for the development of a contemporary form of subsistence that is viable and does not cause harm to others. She refers to similar approaches from the commons movement and computer culture – but what all of these alternatives need to achieve is changing the relations between women and men, between generations, between the urban and the rural, classes and nations, and between human and nature.

Peer production as the production of commons

A new method of production very close to the logic of subsistence production has been emerging in the computer, internet and information industry, coined as peer-to-peer production by Yochai Benkler (2006), in short P2P-production or, in the past years, also commons-based peer production. Benkler describes that the means of production and products of the knowledge and information society have moved the economic and legal institutions of our age including private property, wage work and the market in an unfavourable light: private property, for example, is extremely inefficient when it comes to the distribution, improvement, and development of knowledge and information. With the means of production being available to many, at least in the industrial nations, new forms of decentralised knowledge production are in emergence that have the potential to change societies permanently. The slogan “Free Software – Free Society”28 points towards the correlation of social and technological development and their self-empowering potential. Still, Kratzwald criticises, the “invisible part of the economic iceberg” remains invisible in all this, as the production of the hardware for peer producers is still based on the exploitation and colonisation of people and nature.

Nevertheless, peer production has transformative potential to change societal infrastructures as it is able to develop parallel to existing conditions, until it could possibly “outcooperate” dominating institutions (Meretz, 2013).30 This potential is based on the following characteristics: it is (often) unpaid and voluntary, motivated by self-development rather than profit; self-organised, cooperative, and globally connected.31 Kratzwald refers to Christian Siefke’s description of free software and peer production as “modern commons”, that are not only based on commons, but also create new ones and maintain existing ones.

Possible bridges towards a new subsistence

The founder of the fab labs, Neil Gershenfield, describes a return to preindustrial methods of production, where people reconnect with their means of production and produce locally and individually rather than for the masses (Gershenfield 2005). This correlates directly to the idea of subsistence – but, Kratzwald asks, how to build bridges between two entirely different cultures that are extremely gendered, with almost only men representing free software and mostly women representing subsistence theory?

To overcome capitalism and existing power structures towards a humane, ecological and sustainable society, it is crucial to move subsistence work in the centre of attention. Through the long lasting degradation of women’s (house)work, it has become more and more difficult to gain recognition and self-confidence, both from an inner and an outer perspective. But in the end, it is not about quota control, but to overcome the degradation of the essentials of life. Kratzwald describes Bennholdt-Thomsen’s observations of the similarities between peer production and subsistence: the motivation to give without expecting something back. Furthermore, they are based on an understanding of mutual dependency as a basic principle of life and of self-organisation as a way to become more autonomous of market and state.37 If these two cultures are to find together, they could profit likewise: peer producers could become more aware of societal power structures and exclusion, whilst subsistence could benefit from the positive connotations of the new DIY-movements to become more self-confident.

Kratzwald concludes her book by reflecting on the motivation to be involved in these new forms of self-organisation, often criticised as “first world problems”38 (as it is not necessarily motivated by immediate poverty, at least in industrial nations): next to personal needs and the desire for self-fulfilment, societal transformation stands at the core of these movements – not necessarily through political demands, but through the creation of “spaces, where a different logic prevails, where people interact with each other in different ways and have the possibility to become active themselves”.39 These “spaces of learning, experimenting, and experiencing” have the potential for a shift of paradigms towards a future society, where “joy and necessity, freedom and dependency, self-fulfilment and mutual support, individual and society, human and nature are no contradictions any more”40 – as long as all areas of society are included."