Linking Labour and the Commons Internationally

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Peter Waterman:

"I suggest re-interpreting equality in terms of the old/new principle of the commons. This is an old space of sharing, subsistence and rights, a new space for popular encroachment on 1) a capitalism gone cancerous and of 2) inter/state regimes that are complicit with this and/or ineffective (Branford and Rocha 2002).

Appropriately, today, the commons are understood as simultaneously local, national, regional, global and extra-terrestrial. The sky here is not the limit. The tension between the capitalist political-economy (the state-capital, hierarchy-competition, power-exploitation syndrome) and the commons clearly now includes, alongside the oceans and the sea-bed, the electro-magnetic spectrum and cyberspace (CivSoc/CPSR website; Barbrook 2002). These provide an infinite terrain for disputation and, whilst capital and state have the economic, technical, institutional, legal and administrative means for their domination, the political and ethical principles of the hegemons are being increasingly exposed as both rigid and threadbare.

Labour – national and international, North and South, East and West - is now increasingly confronting the privatisation of everything (Martin 1993, 2002, Public Services International Research Unit website). The unions find themselves, in these often local, momentary or partial struggles, in alliance with urban dwellers, women’s movements, schoolteachers and parents, agricultural producers, indigenous peoples, the ecological and/or consumer movements, with gays, progessive professionals and technicians, with democratic cultural and communication activists. The struggle to defend and extend the commons, can combine these possible minorities into hypothetical majorities. It would obviously empower the labour movement if such separate, disparate, momentary, partial movements could be systematically linked by a political and ethical principle which has the function and appeal once provided by Communism, Anarchism, Social-Democracy, or Radical-Nationalism. These national-industrial socialisms/ radicalisms can now be seen to have been premature, simplifying, reductionist, universalistic – and utopian in the negative sense. Utopia, however, becomes less futuristic, more familiar, if and when we recognize that capitalism is not a unitary object but a complex and contradictory one, which does not – even under globalisation – occupy all social space (Gibson-Graham 1996).

Below I will discuss the relationship between labour and the commons primarily at the international/global level – remembering, of course, that ‘global’ also means holistic, and that any place, space or level must today be understood in a dialectical/dialogical relation with others.


The experience (of the commons) which has been universal amongst the poor as they have been confronted by, and resisted the imposition of, first, seigniorial/colonial types of enclosure, then the full capitalist onslaught – clock-time, work-discipline and industrial capitalism (Thompson 1974). Despite centuries of encroachment by capital and state (a nationalistic, elitist, bureaucratic surrogate for a ‘universal people’ that could have at those times only a notional existence), and despite the seductions of consumer capitalism, popular imagination can still be stirred both by the memory of the commons, and by contemporary expressions of resistance to such encroachment (indigenous peoples’ movements).

The revival of the notion of the commons, under globalisation, comes from at least two, inter-connected, directions:

  • decades of struggle by the environmental and related movements (often of middle-class origin) for defence or extension of the commons (in terms of space and resources, whether local, national, regional, global, whether subterranean, extra-terrestrial, cyberspatial);
  • increasing popular struggles (of labour, urban, rural, indigenous and other such communities) against the increasing aggression, despoliation and depredation of neo-liberal capitalist privatisation, concentration, speculation and corruption. And increasing socialist discussion of such.

Much of the first type of struggle, ‘for the common heritage of humankind’ (CHH), may take legalistic or bureaucratic forms. Labour/popular struggles may also still be expressed as resistance, opposition and a return to a golden (even tarnished) past of state-control. Yet discourses of the commons – and a consequent extension of all possible radical-democratic alternatives to ownership/control by capital/state – could strengthen traditional labour demands and enrich those of middle-class professionals, technicians and others.

The principle of the commons is subversive of the principles underlying 1) the modern nation-state (actually the state-defined nation) and 2) corporate capitalism. The state-nation depends on the principle of sovereignty, which implies state hegemony within geographical borders (and inter-state relations beyond these). It defines the human-being as a national, either as lowest common denominator or as highest common factor. Underlying corporate capitalism is the principle of private property (privatised consumption, privatised services) which, as extended to the human-being sees him/her as both individualised and property-owning – the ‘political theory of possessive individualism’ (Macpherson 1962). In its extreme contemporary forms, it turns even the national citizen into a cosmopolitan consumer, and literally brands this consumer with a corporate logo (Klein 2000). So extreme – so world-embracing and world-consuming – have become the old contradictions between production and consumption, the worker as producer and the worker as consumer, producing regions and consuming regions, that the movements around/against labour and consumption – even fashion/aesthetics – are now converging (Ross 1999). One US-based international solidarity movement is now producing its own anti-sweat (non-capitalist? post-capitalist?) sports clothes (No Sweat website).

My plea for the international labour movement to join its voice to both the discourse and the struggles concerning CHH, is intended to both broaden the horizons and the appeal of the former, and to give the latter an articulation with class/popular/democratic interests and identities that it might otherwise lack.

Broadening international labour’s horizons and appeal. Where, at present, the international trade union movement does fight privatisation, this is, customarily, in terms of harm-reduction or benefit-increase. Whilst reference may be made, on the one hand, to the damage done by corporate globalisation/privatisation, and, on the other hand, to a ‘social interest’ or ‘social aspect’, no challenge of principle is made to those of capital accumulation or state sovereignty. And, whilst I am unfamiliar with the full range of positions taken by the unions concerning ‘the common heritage’, it is customary for the international ones to tail-end projects of progressive technocrats and bureaucrats, and propose ‘social partnership’ solutions to problems that its ‘partners’ have created (‘Trade Unions OK…’ 1998; Unicorn Website).

Giving ‘the common heritage’ a class and popular colour. In so far as it has origins in the weaker Third World, during the Cold War, the CHH has always contained a subversive potential. The notion has many elements, including: non-appropriation, management by all peoples, international sharing of benefits, peaceful use, conservation for the future. It refers to an expanding range of overlapping areas and terrains of dispute: the oceans (surface and floor); the Antarctic; cultural artifacts and exceptional urban and natural sites; energy; food; science and technology; space, the atmosphere, the electro-magnetic spectrum, telecommunications, the Internet; genetic resources (Chemillier-Gendreau 2002; Souza Santos 1995). Given the statist origin of the CHH, we should not be surprised that defining and empowering the ‘community’ – to which this past, present and future heritage might belong – is problematic. Particularly when the community of states (the hegemonically-defined ‘international community’), is confronted by rich, powerful and – above all dynamic – corporations with which such states have been historically conjoined. Chemillier-Gendreau says the community to which this heritage belongs has to be invented, in terms of both its identity and its powers (which can include trusteeship alongside ownership). Her notion of a future ‘people of peoples’ echoes the Zapatista one of a ‘world that contains many worlds’, or the ‘community of communities’ of De Angelis (2001). At the level of principles, here, there is a pluralistic idea of overlapping communities/sovereignities. And, at least implicitly, of multiple socio-political levels, of places (geographic), spaces (socio-cultural), that exist in a dialectical and dialogical relationship with each other. Such a notion of community does not assume harmony, it simply invites us to enclose, and even foreclose on, the major sources of disharmony – capitalist accumulation and state hierarchy. But even if this is agreed, we still need to confront the problem of

Linking Labour and the Commons Internationally

Whatever the history, the memory or even the desire, we have to recognise the distance that today exists between labour struggles and those around the commons, nationally and internationally. It would be easy to blame this on any half-dozen of the socialist’s hand-me-down Others: the ‘labour bureaucracy’; ‘trade union reformism’, the ‘labour aristocracy’, the ‘Northern unions’, ‘trade union imperialism’. However, as US cartoon character, Pogo, once so notably said, ‘I have seen the enemy and he is us’. Working classes (no less than myself and my readers) have been profoundly socialised into not only working for wages but also privatised consumption, passive and vicarious entertainment, and the notion that freedom consists of choice between competing political elites, competing TV channels and annually-outdated audio-visual equipment. These desires are by no means confined to working classes that can presently afford such. They dangle in front of those who can only hope to obtain them by ‘proletarian shopping’, riot and theft. This is nothing to be afraid of, though it is something we should feel challenged by. We have to be able to offer models of private and social consumption that are more attractive and more achievable as well as more sustainable.

Where we do find the linkage between labour and the commons being made (implicitly more often than explicitly) may be mostly at the margins. This means at the margins of the trade union organisations (campaigns for defence/extension of social services; where unionists are sacked and/or denied wage labour; where the form of relationship to capital is most ambiguous); margins of the labour movement (amongst libertarian socialists, or those working in or on cooperatives, the social economy, solidarity economies), margins of the state-nation (indigenous peoples, rural labourers, the urban poor); margins of the capitalist world system (the national economies worst affected by unemployment).

It would be to repeat a long-standing error to divide up such initiatives and ideas into ‘reformist/palliative’ and ‘revolutionary/emancipatory’, particularly if the one is identified with virtue, the other with vice. This would be to understand these struggles and strategies ideologically (consistent with a theory/party/thinker claiming to embody truth) rather than in terms of self-education and self-empowerment (in which self-activating subjects demonstrate or determine outcomes). The relationship between reformism-within and emancipation-from, like that between labour and the commons, can and must today be understood in terms of experiment, critical self-reflection, dialectic and dialogue. Such an understanding also means that the recovery or re-invention of the commons does not depend on one world area, one type of worker, one type of organisation (the trade union, the labour or socialist party, the vanguard network).


This paper, like any set of initial reflections, raises as many questions as it answers (more answers may be suggested by the resources below). But they seem to me as good a way as any to start a global dialogue.

What, for example, does or should omnia sint communia actually mean? Which community? Ownership, usufruct, access, trusteeship?

How would we meaningfully internationalise equality?

All in common (my bicycle as well as my chains)?

What are we to call this new Utopia, if not Communism? Commonism? Commonerism? It cannot be called Communism any more, or not at present. That was a utopia of the national-industrial-capitalist era. Many people and peoples are alienated (pace Marx and Engels) from ‘Communism’. And the effect of its contemporary use – if not the intention of those who still use it – is to isolate them from those many others who are contributing to a reinvention of the commons.

In so far as we are talking of a process as much as a condition, a movement more than a state of affairs, why not call it by the name that preceded national industrial socialism, and call it the New Utopianism? Or the New Social Emancipation?

Maybe not the New Utopianism, given the negative connotation in the popular mind.

Maybe the New Social Emancipation, which contains historical and even contemporary echoes of movements against slavery (including the waged kind), racial discrimination and patriarchy?"