Talk at the Asia-Europe People’s Forum and transform! conference "Our Common Social Future," Barcelona, June 8-10, 2018 - 10 juni 2018

Commons and Conflict

Today, everyone is speaking about commons and ‘commoning’, everyone wants to build commons. The World Bank has a group which is supposedly ‘protecting and improving the global commons’ and it reaches out to the private sector to ‘advance common goods’. You can find texts on commons on the website of the European Union, banks organize seminars on the commons. Transnational companies tell us they are building the commons, big magazines declare that Uber is commoning cars, and that the “sharing economy” is a form of commoning.

I think we have to be very clear about what the commons are. Or at least what they are structurally. It does not mean that we can define in every detail what the commons are or what they will be. The commons and the activity of commoning are nowadays brought forward by many social, political and even economic actors. Mainstream research suggests that commons and capitalism can peacefully co-exist. It speaks about the absence of conflict and that the rights of the commoners to decide and manage their own commons are neither questioned nor challenged by external authorities, are at the centre of successful commoning.

But if we look at history it is important to remember one thing: The commons are not a gift. And even if many researchers tend to describe the commons as working best if there is harmony, there is this big desire for harmony in many alternative circles mentioning the commons, this is not the case. Commons are most likely to be achieved  and/or to be preserved in time if we organize and are ready for constant conflict because the history of capitalism is a history of enclosure of the commons.  The commons preceded private property and capitalism. Capital needs the commons for the ongoing accumulation by dispossession. A capitalist system will therefore always prey on the commons and at the same time destroy the fundaments for sustainable social practices and ultimately the fundaments of life itself.

Especially in the global south, where we have much more traditional commons that have survived, or have been preserved over time, people have the experience how capital, transnational companies, etc. grab the commons and incorporate them whenever they need them. Even if there was some kind of official recognition of the commons earlier or if you had some kind of supposed harmony, it does not matter anymore once capital wants to appropriate the commons. And it will at some point, always. Because the law of capitalism is expansion, it has to expand. In a limited world expansion means to take away from others. The history of capitalism shows how it is incorporating, coopting, what is socially produced by the people. Capital is totally unable to develop anything for humanity. We see all these tales about the free floating creativity of capital making all the inventions possible. But this is not true. Capitalism is blocking progress, for example with patent rights and things like that, which make it for example, impossible to develop new cancer medicine because most of the elements are already patented by a different company, so it is not worth anymore for a company to develop a cancer medicine if they have to pay patent rights to other companies.

We can see that neither are the commons a result of any harmony between the state, the private and the people, nor can they be preserved any better if there is this supposed harmony.  The commons, like everything else people have won over the course of the past hundreds of years, are a result of struggles of the people. Moreover, there is an important change over the past decades to take into account. Many got to believe that liberal democracy is granting rights. This is a big misunderstanding. Over a few decades liberal democracy was the frame in which rights could be expanded, always through struggles, there were no rights given for free… they were all won in struggles by huge movements, women’s movements, workers’ movements etc. They were a result of struggles. But this worked only as long as liberal democracy was the frame for modern industrial capitalism to develop. We have seen over the past 2-3 decades that liberal democracy is not anymore the political model corresponding to capital’s development today. That is why we experience the authoritarian tendencies all over. That is why in so many struggles we have been barely able to preserve the status quo, but not anymore to achieve any progress. The liberal democratic frame is not anymore a frame for expanding rights. It turned into a frame of reducing rights, of making them invisible, of creating structures in which people don’t have a say anymore even if people are told that they have. And we can see very well that people are not satisfied. All the “anti-representative” revolts of the past decade were a result of people feeling – in representative democracies as well as in authoritarian regimes felt that the proposed model of representation is not democratic. It does not represent them, they do not have a say, they cannot decide on their future. In an interview during my research on the 15-M movement a few years ago, an interview partner said: “It’s like a big storm is coming over you and you don’t have any means to influence the situation.”'

The hope that we will win because we have the better arguments, the better reason, is a lost hope. We have to organize struggles from the bottom up to preserve commons that exist, to achieve commons that do not exist, and to keep us as communities, as people, in a position where we decide, we take the decisions and are constantly involved in decisions that are made, if we do not achieve that, if we leave it to the state to preserve the commons, we will neither preserve them nor achieve them. Because the times the expansion of rights corresponded to the production model are over. The function is not anymore to preserve or to create any rights anymore.

When we are formulating the strategies to achieve commons it is also very important to look at what kind of commons we want to achieve and how we think about them. Because there are also commons that are functional for capitalism. I am, for example, totally in favour of having free internet access for all, but it is also something that is completely functional to capitalism. It is not the case that every commons is automatically an emancipatory idea.

We also have to think about – and it has been part of the past seminars we organized – reproduction. That is very central. The commons cannot be something that is, once again as other production models and especially Fordism, based on gendered labour and the reproduction of labour by women. The danger is always present, especially when times get more precarious, it is often easier to externalize certain amount of work and make it invisible. To achieve and preserve the commons we have the outer dimension of struggle, which is not based on harmony, and we have also an internal struggle to think and act differently regarding reproduction.

* Dario Azzellini is an academic and activist. His work focuses on democracy, workers’ and local self-management and social movements. He co-authored They Can’t Represent Us. Reinventing Democracy From Greece to Occupy (Verso 2014)

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