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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 up II. (2/2)

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Date Tue, 28 Jan 2003 04:36:50 -0500 (EST)


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4. . . . and the movement of the wisdom: the space 
of the commons . . .
Commons are forms of direct access to social 
wealth, access that is not mediated by
competitive market relations. The fact that we can 
today pose the question of their
actualisation, that they enter the imagery space of 
modern political discourse, is due to the fact
that in last two decades we have witnessed and 
practiced numerous struggles against their
opposite, neoliberal capitalist enclosures.
Commons acquire many forms, and they often 
emerge out of struggles against their negation.
Thus, struggles against intellectual property rights 
opens up the questions of knowledge as
commons. Struggles against privatization of water, 
education and health, opens the question of
water, education and health as commons. Struggles 
against landlessness open up the question
of common land. Struggles against environmental 
destruction open up the question of
environmental commons.  In a word, struggle 
against actual or threatened enclosures opens
the question of commons. . . .
Note: they open the question of commons, they do 
not immediately and uniquely pose it.
Between the struggle against enclosure and the 
positing of commons there is a political space
in which co-optation  that is the acknowledgment of 
struggles in order to subsume them into
a new modality of capital accumulation  can still 
take place. Examples of this are endless
and our political discourse should be aware of this 
always-present danger. For example,
governments' practical solutions devised to deal 
with the struggles against the enclosures in
health and education as well as their crises, instead 
of fully recognizing them as commons,
deploy new forms of private participation in these 
sectors without formal privatization. This
formally acknowledges public entitlements, but at 
the same time shapes the nature of their
services in tune with the markets, by pitting nurses 
against nurses, teachers against teachers,
and "service consumers" against "service 
deliverers". At the same time, the exports of 
service
industries are promoted, thus threatening "service 
consumers" and "service deliverers" in other
localities. The way of cooptation is here the way of 
trans-local community destruction through
competition.
Another example is the acknowledgment of 
"commons" but without their link "to communities",
that is when commons are not referred to 
community practices for their access and
reproduction. For example, behind the emerging 
concept of "global commons" there is, at most,
an abstract concept of  "global community" but no 
concrete communities, no problematic of
their constitution, protection and empowerment, 
and articulation with each other. However, we
cannot have commons (not even "global") without 
community.
Another opening to co-optation may occur when, in 
pursuit of "legitimacy", the movement too
heavily relies on emerging critical voices from 
within the camp of international financial
institutions. For example, uncritically relying on 
economists like Joseph Stiglitz, thinking that he
could give us legitimacy because he acknowledges 
many of the movements' denunciation of
the IMF and the Washington consensus policies, 
could be a risky strategy. Behind these
denunciations there is no agenda that is alternative 
to competitive market interaction between
people on the planet and capital accumulation with 
all its consequences. There is no promotion
of "communities" at the basis of these criticisms, 
but an agenda that attempts to use our
struggles to push accumulation to a possibly new 
phase. If it does not succeed in pushing for
an autonomous discourse on alternatives, the 
movement risks to capitulate to an alternative
form of co-optation.
Having said this, this struggle for commons, even as 
the yet nebulous political space opened
with struggles against enclosures, have an 
immediate crucial effect: they contribute to bring
capital to crisis by posing the question of limit to 
capitalist accumulation. It is like this
movement, once taken as a whole, is drawing a line 
in the sand against growth for growth's
sake, against accumulation as a panacea for the 
solution of all the evils of the world. In the last
two decades, struggles around the world and 
through a process of political recomposition have
seen Seattle only as the media's tip of the iceberg. 
To downplay this emergent quality of the
movement is, in my opinion, a big mistake. It 
represents a big cultural shift in politics away from
the mythologies of socialist growth or other 
strategies of growth with a "human face". The
thinking of alternatives today cannot abstract from 
the widespread intolerance towards the
various forms of "economicism" that accompany 
capital's own alternatives.
Clearly, we have to acknowledge, there are many 
ambiguities and contradictions within the
movement. For example, those who ask for a fairer 
liberalization of trade to the advantage of
the South, are doing so to establish fair play in the 
competitive rules of the game, rather than
attacking the game itself. This may risk of being 
instrumental in the co-optation of poorer
communities to the logic of competitive markets, 
and thus contributes to their doom. Indeed,
declining terms of trade, both in primary products 
and manufacturing, are the recurring
emergent results of this competitive war among the 
poor. To take another example, there are
environmentalists who fetishise "place" as "locality" 
and insist that the latter is the only locus of
an environmentally sustainable community. They 
forget that the composition of large sections
of the global proletariat is  de facto today, in 
aspiration and composition, trans-local, and a
political discourse that identifies the "place" of 
social cooperation only with "locality" risks being
instrumental in the co-optation of "locality " against 
migratory flows.
As we have seen, it is despite  or perhaps because 
of    the ambiguities and contradictory
positions between its different components that the 
movement, taken as a whole, is able to
pose the question of a limit to capital 
accumulation. And this has an important 
consequence:
posing the question of the limit to capital means 
simultaneously posing the question of the limit
that capital places upon human free enterprise and 
vice versa. In other words, saying "no" to
further accumulation, means saying "yes" to a 
plurality of alternative  activities. This implies
reclaiming the discourse of freedom and taking it 
away from the hands of business and its
neoliberal political and cultural acolytes. Yes, this 
movement is the true and the only force for
"free enterprise" in the world today! We see it for 
example in the worldwide production of
indymedia, of that of social fora, in the assemblies 
in Argentinian barrios and in the networks of
production cooperatives in that country, in the 
practice of sharing knowledge and resources
while confronting Monsanto and the like by Indian 
farmers. Professor Hayek's followers, please
take note! Look at all these instances of human 
beings cooperating with each other with no
need of capitalist market to do the coordinating job 
for them! No market and no plan! Almost
magic, if seen through the eye of a politician who 
can only think in terms of false dichotomies
such as the market and the state.
And this is of course only the tip of the iceberg, the 
bit of social production that not only
practices non-market social cooperation, but is also 
self-aware of its stand vis--vis capital's
enclosures. Indeed, we are all aware of other huge 
yet invisible local and trans-local areas of
social cooperation that go on all the time, 
uncoordinated by the market: software production,
domestic work, transmission of historical memory, 
emotional work, community building, and so
on and on, and on.
The "free enterprise" posed by this movement can 
be understood in two senses. First, free from
the restrictions of property and rent positions in the 
capitalist market, as its struggles are
against enclosures and open the space of commons. 
This implies understanding "free
enterprise" as free flow of social cooperation, 
invention and innovation driven by need and
aspiration and not by profit. Free in the sense that 
the organisational means of this free social
cooperation is free from relations of domination, 
exclusion and oppression. In other words, this
"free enterprise" is recognizable in the form of a 
plurality of powers to, "potentia", that are
longing to get rid of all the powers over, or 
"potestas", that condition them. This second aspect
opens the question of definition and learning 
practices of communities.
5. . . . and the learning practices of communities.
Alternatives become actualised through the power 
of seizing control of our lives, of
transcending alienation beginning from our 
life-worlds and spheres of action. Our life-worlds
define communities we belong to immediately, and 
these are nothing other than networks of
real  individuals, living real conditions, having real 
needs and aspirations and enjoying real
relations among them. Seizing power over our lives 
implies therefore not only being able to
access resources and means of existence that 
enable us to organize social production, but
also getting on with defending, building and 
transforming our communities. Indeed, commons
and communities are two sides of the same coin.
In what follow we need to look at what are the 
communities we belong to, where is their "place"
and what is their transformative potential.
The communities we belong to.
Communities are social networks of mutual aid, 
solidarity, and practices of human exchange. In
this sense, communities are everywhere there are 
sustaining non-competitive relations among
human beings, and their potential existence is in 
every sphere of social action and, in today's
world, they are overlapping.
In common parlance however, we refer to the word 
"community" to refer to a group of people
who share something, and the nature of what they 
share is what characterizes the specific
nature of a determinate community. For example, 
the business community  a phrase that
make us shiver in its paradoxical association of 
community and business  refers to groups of
people who share the same profit-drive and has the 
power to act upon it. The academic
community, refer to all those people working in 
academia. The neighborhood community refers
to all those people sharing the same neighborhood. 
The house community refers to all the
people who share a same house. The mining 
community, refer to all those people living near a
mining establishment and whose livelihood depend, 
directly or indirectly, on those mines.
This definition of community necessitates the 
definition of what is common among them, yet, it
does not tell us anything about the relations among 
them. Certainly, we cannot talk about
business community when the daily business of 
individual people takes the form of cut-throat
competition against others. We cannot talk about 
the academic community when referring to
the competition among academic researchers 
competing for scarce resources or jobs.
Certainly we cannot talk about the community 
where we live, when we live in houses or
neighborhoods in which nobody knows anybody else; 
in which people die and nobody notice; in
which indifference, to a variety of degrees, seems to 
be the main mode of interaction between
people; in which people do not act in fear that 
action may lead to conflict, when in fact it is the
inability to deal constructively with the conflict in 
and outside our lives that paralyses our
actions. Certainly we cannot talk about the 
community of workers, when as workers we go into
job centers and compete against each-others for 
jobs. Or, once found a job, we work in ways
that are largely aimed at advancing our company 
and therefore, through competition,
undermining the livelihoods of the workers working 
for other companies.
For the definition of community therefore, we need 
something more than something shared
among a group of people. We need also to be aware 
that the kind of relations among those
people is crucial. Competitive relations, unless 
expressed as occasional convivial races or
football matches on the commons fields, cannot be 
the center of the production and
reproduction of our lives. When we compete in the 
fields, someone wins and someone loses,
but we all end up sharing food, drinks and jokes. 
When we compete in the global marketplace,
we destroy and accumulate, kill and invent, ruin 
and enrich, pollute and clean up, humiliate and
dignify and there are always very concrete people 
and very concrete places at both ends of
each dichotomy. Capitalism, is neither one nor the 
other side of the dichotomy, it is the endless
perpetuation of both, it is the rat-race as an end in 
itself. In this sense, to defend capitalism as
progress is as unwise as to condemn it as doom. 
Capital just is, and we need to focus on how
to transcend the oppositions at its core.
A political discourse that puts community-building 
at its core in the context of today's intra-local
forms of social cooperation for the production of 
goods, communication, dreams and life in
general, help us to identify opportunities and 
problems. There are opportunities, because today
the range of possible communities of mutual 
support and enrichment that we can invent are
potentially endless. Problems, because due to 
pervasive market relations, the existence of
communities is always intertwined with their 
negation, i.e. sustained competitive relations. Any
node of a social network of mutual aid and 
solidarity is also at the same time  whether we
like it or not  a node within a social network in 
competition with others. The aim of a new
political discourse based on commons and 
communities is in a sense to help disarticulate and
disentangle these two dimensions by first 
separating them analytically, and then elaborate 
the
next step for political strategies that aim at 
extending the space of commons and the practices
of communities within and among nodes vis--vis 
practices of competition.
The many places of community: local and 
trans-local communities
When we think in terms of communities we must 
make an effort not to idealize or romanticize
them. One of the most common ways to romanticize 
communities is to identify their "place"
exclusively with their "locality" and therefore build 
a political discourse that, in the face of the
many trans-local trends of "globalisation" aims at 
"going back to" the local. This romanticism is
highly problematic in that "going back to" means 
not only to go back to things that we may
miss, but also to things that we certainly do not 
miss. For example, to go back to the economy
of the local European village means not only to go 
back to its conviviality, its culinary traditions,
its wealth of embedded knowledge and skills. It 
also means "to go back to" its patriarchal
forms, the particular forms of its relations of 
oppression and exploitation, its closed cultural
environment, its relatively defensive and suspicious 
attitude to  those "others" who do not
belong to the community.
In practice, truly "going back to" the local is neither 
possible nor desirable. It is not possible,
because today any locality however localized and 
isolated, is at the same time a node within a
trans-local network of social relations. So it has to 
find ways to deal with its connections to the
whole. And it deals with its connections to the 
whole in whatever form it chooses to or is forced
to, whether in ways informed by mutual aid or by 
competitive forms. It is of course true that a
locality could certainly choose to reduce its 
dependence on the outside world, and much of this
dependence-reduction does indeed make a lot of 
sense both in environmental and social
terms. But while common sense is one thing; it is 
quite another to build discourses that think
that the needs of XXI century human beings can be 
squeezed into forms that are compatible
with complete independence of locality. No matter 
whether they are in the North or the South,
no matter whether we think of people living in a 
large metropolis or in a small jungles village.
Any discourse of alternative today must conceive a 
certain degree of intra-local
interdependence. If this is the case, our political 
discourse must be very clear in identifying the
general coordinates of how this interdependence 
can be played out without reproducing the
same problems of competitive modalities of 
intra-local interdependence.
In any case, it is only through connecting to the 
outside of locality that a social node in a
network can tap into the pool of human resources in 
general, making it possible to actualize
needs and desires emerging from a locality. It is 
only through connecting to the outside that a
locality can gain access to the full scale of human 
wealth necessary to produce and reproduce
life. Food, clothing, material goods, technology, 
know-how, innovation, problem solving, and
overall resources in general are today available to 
such a degree as to meet almost any needs,
aspiration, and desires, once we put a stop to a 
mode of social interaction that pits people
against people, networks against networks. It is 
only through connecting to the outside of
locality in non-competitive forms that major 
problems faced by any locality can be in principle
solvable.
"Going back to the local" is not desirable for two 
reasons. First, because proximity, locality, may
help cohesion, but also facilitate destruction and 
fragmentation. "Going back to the local" would
mean forcing emerging needs and aspirations into 
local rules and traditions reflecting needs,
aspirations  and power relations of another era. The 
clash between the authoritarian act
represented by the rigid upholding of rules vis--vis 
the aspirations and needs of the ruled, is
the internal opposition helping the disintegration of 
existing local communities, promoted, of
course, by the external force of capital's enclosures. 
Just think about the exodus from the
patriarchal, claustrophobic and authoritarian 
micro-communities that was the traditional nuclear
family, grounded on hierarchical relations of 
oppression within a locality. Or one has to reflect
upon the "pull factors" (as opposed to the "push 
factors" rooted in poverty and enclosures) at
the basis of migration from the village to the 
relative anonymity of the city, whether in the North
or the South. In this sense, trans-locality is, and has 
always been a safety valve allowing
exodus away from potentially claustrophobic, 
enclosing or oppressive communities. The
opposite is of course also true. Locality also may 
signify the refuge aspired to by social subjects
in exodus away from alienating and competitive 
trans-local relations.
Second, the trans-locality of our current condition 
allows us much more than "going back to"
locality: it allows us to invent ways forward that 
articulate the best of locality, those aspects that
we do not want to miss, together with the best of 
trans-locality, the world that we want to gain.
In fact, modern technology allows the creation of 
trans-local places in which communities can
operate to complement local places, and 
communities are everywhere and overlapping. In
today's world, whether we are aware of it or not, 
each individual is a node of a series of
competitive or communitarian networks, a locus 
either of cut-throat social relations or relations
which are mutually supportive and free. The space 
of a new politics today is precisely the
articulation of this overlapping, which is both  an 
individual and collective responsibility. It
implies the extension of the realm of community 
relations into spheres that are ruled by
competitive relations. It involves building and 
defending spaces and commons in which
communities can flourish. However, this also 
shields us from the nave idea that communities
flourish without the continuous learning practice of 
an art of social engagement with the other,
of taking individual responsibility, of direct action 
in any sphere of life.
In terms of the place of community, this new 
political discourse thus expresses a fundamental
aspiration. We want the wealth of localized 
knowledge and localized traditions to be available
to all. We seek patterns of trans-local human 
exchanges that enrich us all. We want ways that
allow anybody and any local or trans-local 
community to "draw credit" from the "bank" of 
human
ingenuity, paying back to the world the innovation 
that always accompanies the adaptation of
existing resources and knowledge to specific 
problems and circumstances. Of course, all this
with no enslaving interest charged on debt!
Community as learning practices of social relations
There is of course an opposite risk, an opposite 
romanticism and idealization. It is the risk that
sees COMMUNITY as a singular and written with 
capital letters. As with the idealized and
romanticized illusory community of the past, this 
one is also an illusory community. However,
instead of looking forward by projecting its illusions 
from the past, it looks below by projecting
its illusions from the top. I am talking of the 
illusory community that is the state, the idea that 
the
state, as a separate realm of social action, is 
somehow all-powerful, that the state is the
community of all its citizens, and is the only true 
agent that can make alternatives actual. And
so the corresponding laments follow: If only we 
could get the right candidate in, if only we could
influence the right policies, if only we could 
democratize it. And so we read the many proposals
and manifestos the language and rationale of which 
is to package a set of alternatives in ways
that can be ready for politicians to use. Let's help 
them make respectable arguments, they say,
in ways that can win crumbs of consensus, while at 
the same time leaving an opening for
cooptation.
There is of course some truth in the lament: we do 
want proper and honest people representing
us, even if we know that existing mechanisms of 
representations are disempowering. We do
want policies that help promote social justice, even 
if we know that competitive relations
defended and promoted by states perpetrate 
injustice. And we do want democratization, in fact,
lots of it, even if we know that this is not 
compatible with existing arrangements of "Western
democracies".
However, from the perspective of commons and 
communities, the "state" can either be a
"community of communities"  and therefore no 
longer the "state" as we know it  or an
illusionary community used to rule our lives. To be 
a community of communities it has to be the
horizontal articulation of communities. The more 
real are the abilities and powers of
communities to decide for themselves, the more 
real is the community that emerges out of their
articulation. But of course, these growing powers 
imply growing power over resources and the
goals of social production, something that actual 
states today are very careful to protect on
behalf of existing business interests and the 
perpetuation of capital accumulation. It is in this
sense, that the state is an "illusionary community". 
Instead of being the shadow of our social
cooperation, it is the divisive knife with which to 
enforce competition in every sphere of life, thus
breaking up communities.  Instead of being a 
simple tool to help, facilitate and promote people
to exercise their many powers, the state is the 
"power over" that channel these "powers to" into
forms compatible with capital accumulation.
We said that communities are relations of mutual 
aid and support, solidarity and concrete
practices of human exchange that are not reduced 
to the market form.  In this sense,
community is also an art of building what capital 
destroys. Because, despite the communitarian
rhetoric of many of the defenders of capital (of 
whom UK prime minister Tony Blair is the
champion) the endless competitive rat-race 
destroys communities, whatever they are. In
building and strengthening unions, in promoting 
campaigns, in networking across the globe, in
organizing in our neighborhoods, we are building 
communities whereas the forces of global
capital are destroying them. The recognition of this 
opposition between construction and
destruction of communities should focus our senses 
both on the risks of cooptation of this
community-building and its oppositional potential. 
Because community is social cooperation,
social fabric, and capital depends on this for its 
stability. Capital co-opts cooperation and
mutual support  community  by limiting the scope 
and power of communities, trying to define
the context and the forms of their interaction with 
each other.
Yet at the same time, capital's competitive drives 
are set against this social fabric, for its
perpetual destruction. So the question becomes: 
how can we build communities and
strengthen them vis--vis the anti-communitarian 
forces of global capital and its attempt to co-
opt them? I think that the answer rests on two main 
issues. First, just as commons are created
and sustained by communities, so networks of 
mutual aids and support (communities) can be
created and sustained through resources, commons.
Second, the relations within these networks must 
express needs that are frustrated within
capital relations because they cannot be actualized 
by capital. In this sense, community is the
art of building what capital cannot build, of 
practicing that freedom that cannot be delivered by
capitalist social relations, of dreaming those 
dreams that no Hollywood film can make us
dream, and acting upon those dreams in a way that 
no global commodity chain can do. Our
movement of movements, in the articulation of all 
its dimensions and the innovative
organizational forms it gives itself, has shown what 
these needs and aspirations are. These are
social relations that are horizontal instead of being 
vertical, that are inclusive, instead of being
exclusive, that promote empowered participation 
and dignity, instead of enforcing and
promoting exploitation, oppression, estrangement 
and competition. In a word, a different world
springs from a movement that practices what it 
preaches.


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