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(en) The Commoner #6 - Massimo De Angelis - Reflections on alternatives, commons and communities or building a new world from the bottom up1 I (1/2)

From <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Tue, 28 Jan 2003 04:36:44 -0500 (EST)

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1. "Another world is possible": yes, but we need a 
new political discourse................ 2
2. The need for a new political discourse: an 
illustration. ........................................... 3
3. The wisdom emerging from the movement . . 
......................................................... 4
4. . . . and the movement of the wisdom: the space 
of the commons . . ...................... 7
5. . . . and the learning practices of 
communities...................................................... 10
The communities we belong to. 
............................................................................... 10
The many places of community: local and 
trans-local communities ............................. 11
Community as learning practices of social 
relations................................................... 13

This piece proposes an argument for the 
development of a new political discourse based on
two main coordinates, commons and communities. 
Commons suggest alternative, non-
commodified means to fulfill social needs, e.g. to 
obtain social wealth and to organise social
production.  Commons are necessarily created and 
sustained by communities, i.e. by social
networks of mutual aid, solidarity, and practices of 
human exchange that are not reduced to the
market form. The "place" of these networks does 
not need to be tied to locality, but
communities can operate both in local and through 
trans-local places. Also, as our movements
have shown, communities cannot be separated from 
the learning practices of direct
democracy, horizontality, participation and 
inclusiveness that are the power to decide what are
the goals and modalities of social production. It is 
argued that the identification of commons
and communities as the main strategic horizon for a 
new political discourse emerge out of the
practices of the current transnational movement for 
global justice and solidarity taken as a
There are two main reasons why it is important to 
become aware of these practices and turn
them into founding elements of a new political 
discourse. First, because this opens up the
space to develop strategic perspectives to win 
commons and strengthen communities, as they
apply in whatever concrete situations. Second, 
because they make it possible to raise debates
1 This is the edited version of a paper presented at 
the European Social Forum, workshop on
commons and communities, Florence 7-10 
November 2002. I wish to thank David Havrey,
John Holloway and Cyril Smith for their useful 
comments. The usual caveats apply.

not only about the aims of the different concrete 
struggles, but especially how to articulate
these aims across different issues and subjects.
1. "Another world is possible": yes, but we need a 
new political discourse.
The following reflections emerge out of the 
overlapping between a two lines of enquiry that I
have been pursuing in the last few years. One is 
drawn from what we may call the critical
political economy of globalization, that is the study 
of trends, processes and the strategies of
capital over the last "neoliberal" period. The other 
is drawn from the participation and, therefore,
(self) reflection within the constellation of 
movements forming the global justice and solidarity
This movement has posed the question of a 
plurality of "alternatives" to the social processes
and arrangements that produce the horrors of 
modern global capital. In order to take the many
calls for and practices of alternatives seriously, we 
have to make them relevant to the real
people at the fringe or outside the movement. In 
other words, we want to move from movement
to society not so much by persuading people to 
"join" our movement, but through a language
and a political practice that by tracing the 
connections between diverse practices attempts to
dissolve the distinctions between inside and outside 
the movement, i.e., actually moves `from
movement to society'. To make the possibility of a 
new world that contains many worlds an
actuality, we have to be able to shape our own 
discourse in such a way as to echo the needs
and aspirations coming from below. We have to give 
coherence to their plurality, without
imposing a model or reiterating dead ideologies.
We need a discourse that helps to articulate the 
many alternatives that spring out of the points
of crises of neoliberal capital, which seriously 
threaten to dispossess people of their livelihood
and impose on them new or more intensified 
commodified patterns of life. We need a discourse
that builds on the plurality of the many concrete 
struggles and their methods and help us to
articulate a vision ­ not a plan ­ of the whole. Then 
we can better evaluate what are the global
implications of our local struggles, as well as the 
local implications of global struggles for the
building of a world that contains many worlds.
But most of all, we need a discourse that recognizes 
the power we have to shape alternatives,
at every level in society, that sets out from the 
simple fact that, contrarily to common belief,
alternatives do exist, are everywhere and  plural. To 
clarify, I think that every social node, that
is every individual or network of individuals is a 
bearer of alternatives. This is evident not only
when struggles erupt in any of the waged or 
unwaged local and trans-local nodes of social
production. We just need to look around in the 
relative normality of daily routines to see that
every social node "knows" of different ways to do 
things within its life-world and sphere of
action longs for a different space in which things 
can be done in different ways. Each social
2 I must make clear here that whenever I refer to 
this movement, I mean a galaxy of practices
and subjects, a heterogeneous world-wide multitude 
that comes together as a movement of
movements. The aspirational horizons that emerge 
out of this movement, embedded for
example in its organizational network forms (that 
carry the principles of horizontality,
inclusiveness, participation, democracy) and its 
broad vision for a world that contains many
worlds, are an indication that the practices of the 
multitude include the practices aimed at
transcending itself as multitude.

node expresses needs and aspirations that are the 
basis of alternatives. For example: the
alternative to working 10 hours a day is working 6; 
the alternative to poverty is access to the
means of existence; the alternative to indignity is 
dignity; the alternative to building that dam
and uprooting communities is not building that dam 
and leaving communities where they are;
the alternative to tomatoes going rotten while 
transported on the back of an old woman for 20
miles is not GM tomatoes that do not rot, but 
access to land near home, or a home, or a road
and a truck.
Since every social node is aware of a spectrum of 
alternatives, the problem is simply how to
make these alternatives actual? What resources are 
needed? How to coordinate alternatives in
such a way that they are not pitted against each 
other as is the case of the competitive
markets' understanding of alternatives? How to 
solve the many existing problems without
relying on the alienating coordinating mechanism of 
the market and creating instead social
relations of mutual enrichment, dignity, and 
respect? These are I believe the bottom line
questions on which a new political discourse must 
be based.
Once we acknowledge the existence  of the galaxy of 
alternatives as they emerge from
concrete needs and aspirations, we can ground 
today's new political discourse in the thinking
and practice of the actualization and the 
coordination of alternatives, so as each social node
and each individual within it has the power to 
decide and take control over their lives. It is this
actualization and this coordination that rescues 
existing alternatives from the cloud of their
invisibility, because alternatives, as with any 
human product, are social products, and they
need to be recognized and validated socially. Our 
political projects must push their way through
beyond the existing forms of coordination, beyond 
the visible fist of the state, beyond the
invisible hand of competitive markets, and beyond 
the hard realities of their interconnections
that express themselves in today forms of 
neoliberal governance, promoting cooperation
through competition and community through 
disempowerment. As I will argue, this new political
discourse is based on the project of defending and 
extending the space of commons, at the
same time building and strengthening communities 
through the social fields.
2. The need for a new political discourse: an 
To clarify why we need a new discourse, let us take 
an example illustrating the limitations of
current discourses in the face of a very concrete 
crisis. As recently as last mid-October, the
news that FIAT was in trouble hit the headlines of 
Italian and international newspapers. This
was followed by a typical vociferous debate, in 
which the different positions were outlined.
Very schematically, at the point of the emergence 
of the crisis, on one side there was the
official FIAT line, seeking to sell the lot to GM, 
with the prospect of closing several plants and
turning the plants in Mirafiori into a maquiladora 
factory. On the other side there was the trade
union FIOM and Communist Refoundation who, 
asking for renationalisation, looked forward to
large investments, innovation, safeguard of 
employment and a strong emphasis on research
and development. Clearly, if you are a FIAT worker 
you know which side you are on.
In my lecturers' union in the UK we play this game 
all the time. We always choose to safeguard
jobs and livelihood and rationalize them to the 
public with stories of regeneration and
innovation, even if the implication of our discourse 
is to accept playing the game of pitting
college against college, university against 
university, teacher against teacher. The point is 
from a broader political perspective, one that takes 
the issue of car production in one particular
place within the context of global production of cars 
and, even more broadly, of competitive
market interactions and global warming, both of 
these alternatives are quite problematic for
complementary reasons. They both represent 
different strategies to survive and indeed, fight
for domination in the competitive market, 
measured by profits, rates of growth and market
shares. They both imply a competitive relation to 
the "other". (Here the other can be understood
as Renault workers, BMW workers, Ford workers, 
etc.). Ultimately, anything that "good
management"  so much hoped for even by the left in 
the case of FIAT ­ can do is will
contribute to the bankruptcy of Renault, BMW or 
Ford workers. Until of course it is their turn to
restructure and pose with similar urgency the 
question of new and innovative strategies.
Not to talk of the fact that, in this endless 
competitive game, the productive effort wasted on
global car production is immense, that transport 
takes on an increasing individualized form, that
CO2 emissions grow exponentially. Before all this, 
we will meet again next time in Porto Alegre
or anywhere else and again demand a different 
world. However, we will never make a different
world if we are not able to acknowledge the needs, 
aspirations and demands for dignity of, say,
the 200,000 FIAT workers across the world together 
with the needs of different, non-
competitive, inclusive relations expressed by our 
movement, together with the many demands
for participation and empowerment and control 
over our lives, together with the control over our
ecosystems. In other words, we will never make a 
different world if we are not able to
acknowledge all this with a new political discourse 
that makes sense to a multitude that is
searching for ways to build bridges with each others 
and take control of the aims and forms of
social production.
How are we to acknowledge this concretely? I do 
not know. It depends on the context of
concrete situations. However I suspect that by 
posing the question and replicating it for the
many instances of crises of social production and 
reproduction, we are already on the right
track, especially if we frame the questions in terms 
of commons and communities.
3. The wisdom emerging from the movement . . .
As "coordinates" of a new political discourse, 
commons and communities can help us organize
our thinking and practices of alternatives as 
enclosures and competitive relations are
organizing the thinking of our masters. They are not 
elements of a fixed ideology, a dogma that
we have to subscribe to. They provide both an 
intellectual and political horizon that we can
enrich through our practices and thinking in the 
context of concretes struggles. Thus, the
political discourse I am talking about is one that is 
not posed from the outside, it is not
something that this or that intellectual can "invent" 
for us all, and then we go out and apply it to
our concrete cases. Our new political discourse is 
one that must acknowledge that the process
of creating a new world, as any process of human 
production, is a praxis, a circular process,
from cognition, reflection and imagination to 
practical intervention in the world making use of
some kind of resources, and back to cognition, 
reflection and imagination. Intellectuals ­ that is
anybody who practices the first moment of this 
loop, direct action in the field of thought,
communication and reflection ­ can look at their 
objects, for example a movement, and distill
elements of a discourse. The return of these back to 
the movement may help the process of a
collective self-reflection, coordinate praxis, define 
strategies and sharpen visions. Then, of
course, this will reflect back on the need for direct 
action in the field of thought, communication
and reflection.
Thus my perception is that the aspirations and 
organizational forms that this movement gives
itself reveal a field of action grounded upon two 
main practices: the seizure and/or demands for
commons and the (learning) practice of 
communities. In a nutshell, commons suggest
alternative, non-commodified means to fulfill social 
needs, e.g. to obtain social wealth and to
organise social production.  Commons are 
necessarily created and sustained by communities,
i.e. by social networks of mutual aid, solidarity, and 
practices of human exchange that are not
reduced to the market form. As we will see, the 
"place" of these networks does not need to be
tied to locality. In fact, the many social practices 
using modern communication technologies
create trans-local places in which communities 
operate to complement local places. Also, as
our movements have shown through the 
organizational forms it practices, communities 
be separated from the learning practices of direct 
democracy, horizontality, participation, and
inclusiveness. If only we could organize the vast 
majority of social production along the same
Commons and communities thus represent the two 
coordinates of a grounded vision, that is a
vision that emerges out of the practices of this 
movement for global justice and solidarity once
this movement is taken as a whole. What does it 
mean to take this movement as a whole? It
means that no matter whether we think that 
particular positions within it could be politically
dangerous, contradictory, naïve, insufficient, "right", 
"wrong", romantic or idealizing (and each
of us make these judgments all the times), the 
articulation of the various practices of the
movement is giving rise to something greater than 
the sum of particular positions. Through a
multitude of encounters among different 
aspirational standpoints rooted in a plurality of
struggles, grand narratives about the world or 
answers to the question of "what is to be done?"
are not necessarily getting more coherent. However, 
two fundamental things are happening.
First, mutual understanding of subject-positions 
within the networks of social production making
up the global factory is developing and intensifying. 
Cross-pollination not just of struggles but
also among "life-worlds" and systems of 
significations, implies that we are remaking 
as social subjects with a sensibility towards the 
"other" which is not just ideological or ethical,
but rooted in some experience of communication 
across life-worlds and subject-positions.
Thanks to the struggles of all the invisible people, 
their refusal to embrace discourses, goals,
and worldviews that was not theirs, their rejection 
of subordination to promises that everything
will be OK if only they conformed, we now have to 
deal with difference and we can deal with
difference by exercising the power of the 
recognition of  "the other" qua dignified and free 
Second, the continuous practice of `encountering' 
leads to the consequent "normalization" of
the principles of democracy, inclusiveness and 
horizontality. Those who lament confusion in
the movement underestimate the importance of the 
novel forms through which this confusion is
exercised, a creative chaos allowing planting and 
disseminating seeds of democracy through
the social body. The social DNA of a new epoch is 
possibly now emerging, sanctioning a point
of no return to forms of politics in which political 
parties could grant for themselves the
knowledge of what is the alternative. Alternatives 
are themselves processes of self-creation of
the multitude, and therefore cannot be monopolized 
by parties or by anybody else. Current
parties and political forces, as well as forms of 
thought still rooted in the belief that they
monopolize the true vision of the alternatives 
(whether "socialism" or any other "ism"), can only
try to delay the only inevitable thing: their demise.
These seeds of democracy and conviviality are 
unstoppable for very simple reasons. The only
thing that cannot be fully enclosed is human 
communication. We are social beings, so how can
we enclose our sociality? At most the means of our 
sociality such as land, water, food, tools,
and so on can be enclosed. And when the space of 
communication is 6 billion human beings,
the possible communicative permutations are . . 
.out of the range of any pocket calculator. If
communication is channeled into certain directions, 
it will then emerge unpredictably in others.
Maybe it can be silenced in certain localities, but it 
pops up in others.
The first immediate impact of this grounded vision 
is the identification of the state-market nexus
as the limit set upon the building of concrete 
alternatives springing from the grassroots. This
nexus that all want to channel, control and 
discipline in pre-established competitive modes of
social interaction expresses the terror of economic, 
financial and political elites for anything
alive and free. In front of this barrier to our 
freedom to interact and develop local and 
communities of social production and mutual aid, 
this movement is developing instead strategic
alternatives which extend new types of commons 
and strengthen communities.
Also, this grounded vision underlines a tacit (and in 
the case of Argentina, not so tacit) call for
systematic "removal policies" to dispose of, bit by 
bit, all the crap of traditional politics, left or
right, socialist or conservative, all forms of 
hopelessness, of the "there is no alternative" kind 
"the alternative begins after we take power". It is a 
disenchanted wisdom that recognizes the
power-seeking and manipulating practices of 
traditional politics for what they are. It is totally
cynical towards testimonial campaigning and brand 
politics. It is outraged at the politicians'
seeming to address needs before a vote and spitting 
out the emptied shells of bodies after
elections. Increasingly, the wisdom emerging is that 
this is the case not just because individual
politicians are corrupted ­ and, of course, many are 
­  but because the system of global
corruption is more powerful than well-intentioned 
politicians. Thus, the wisdom of this
movement is a demand, first of all, for respect!
Does this mean that the movement is demanding 
withdrawal from engagement with the state?
No, it means that it increasingly regards the 
articulation of our communities as "the state", and
the existing state bureaucracy as a nuisance we 
inherit from another era in which we thought
that power was "up there". A nuisance that we have 
to push back from our lives inch by inch,
while at the same time using it to suit our purposes 
where the articulation of our communities
cannot yet reach.
But the opportunities to build communities on the 
basis of commons are everywhere, whether
within the bellies of transnational corporations or 
outside, in fields or in the streets of our cities.
The goals and aspirations of these communities are 
as diverse as the recognition of union
rights with which to fight battles for the reduction 
of working rhythms and increase in wages, or
win individual and communities' access to land, 
social knowledge, transports health, education,
communication and means of existence.
Articulation of communities on the basis of 
commons means regarding the interactions among
individuals and communities as human interactions 
that give rise to many different kinds of
exchanges. These human exchanges on the basis of 
commons are different from the current
market exchanges grounded on enclosures that have 
come to dominate our lives. This latter
form of human exchange, the forms it takes, the 
concentration of power over resources behind
it, and its drive to dominate every other human 
exchange, make poverty and plenty two sides of
the same coin and make us run like rats no matter 
how much we produce. Scarcity is the
ongoing  result of our competitive participation in 
this market. The seizure and demands for
commons put an end to this by ending the specific 
"lack" that is its foundation: the artificial lack
of access to the plentiful means for producing our 
Again, bit by bit, wherever it can reach, this 
movement seems to identify the lacks that stand in
the way of our very concrete empowerments. It 
points at this or that barrier, at this or that
property concentrated in the hand of modern 
rentiers, at this or that accumulation of social
wealth detached from its common-sense human 
purpose, at this or that corporate monopoly
over social knowledge. Some sections of the 
movement at times identify a barrier and decide to
overcome it, by seizing property as in the case of 
the landless brothers and sisters in Brazil, the
millions on the internet who defy corporate 
enclosures of music. Sometimes other extensions of
the movement identify needs that are not met, and 
campaign demanding commons to make it
possible to meet them thus releasing resources for 
social reproduction. This is what we do
when we fight for entitlements in health and 
education, and against privatization. Sometimes
there are movements to limit the activities of 
major transnational corporations, by building
barriers to their private cost-minimizing dumping 
of waste, or exposing for everybody to see
their profit-maximizing use of child labour in the 
sweatshops of the worlds.
However, other times the movement appears 
unable to reach its object, not even with words,
as if paralyzed by the task at hand. Looking at 
those global production chains, large
transnational corporations mobilizing an immense 
amount of social resources, we try to build
our struggles for jobs, working conditions, wages, or 
for responsible environmental practices,
often afraid to think about the broader implications 
of our struggles when taken as a whole.
Thus, we seldom construct political discourses that 
directly challenge corporate's property of
the means of existence, almost in fear we could be 
damned by the wrath of the money-god that
rules our lives and makes us relate to each other 
competitively. We are afraid that the
experience of past alternatives  bureaucratic state 
property which was as exploitative and
oppressive as corporate property  demonstrate that 
maybe actually there is no alternative.
Ultimately however, the movements will have to 
face this impasse. If we keep setting limits to
capital in every sphere of social life, saying no to 
war and enclosures, environmental
destruction and indignity, growth for growth sake 
and exploitation, human relations based on
competition or despotism, and if we are effective in 
doing so, there will be nothing else left that
the beast can feed upon. Capital, that depends on 
growth for growth's sake, barrier overcoming
and colonization of life, collapses if it is unable to 
overcome the barrier posed by socialized
humanity. We will have to take responsibility and 
say what must be said: the expropriators must
be expropriated so that we can rebuild our lives 
through new forms of sociality. We will have to
take responsibility and find ways to go beyond the 
invisible hand of the market and the visible
fist of the state to coordinate our social practices. 
Ironically, that would imply looking at the
equipment and machines of the most efficiently 
integrated transnational corporation and say:
"What a waste of social wealth!"

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