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(en) The Commoner #6 - Olivier De Marcellus Commons, communities and Movements : inside, outside and against capital I. (1/2)

From <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Fri, 31 Jan 2003 05:52:38 -0500 (EST)

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

Three proverbs :
One for all of us : « Leave your village, but never let it
leave you ! » (Afghanistan)
One for Mr. Bush and friends : « He who has no enclosures
around his field, has no ennemies. » (Burundi)
And one for my generation : « Experience is the comb that
Nature offers us? as we grow bald. » (Belgium)

Seven points on commons and communities.

I would like to make seven points, some of which I will
develop in the other sections:
1) Commons and communities are central to the
« anti-globalisation » movement, in particular to its
anti-capitalist wing, although the term « commons » is not
very current.1
This is evident in the South, where the struggles of
indigenous and peasant communities to preserve common
lands and other commons still « outside » direct command
of capital, are the cornerstone of the movement. In the
North too, some of our leading movements, inherited from
the post 1968 struggles (ie. feminist, ecological and urban
struggles, squats and the « alternative » movement in
general), are also « outside » in that they are not
workplace struggles directly subjected to capitalist forms
of command. They have organised various sorts of
commons, material, social or political.
2) But of course, capital is everywhere and being
« outside » or « inside » capital is always a matter of
degree. Forms of capitalist command and domination
always affect and infiltrate our communities to some
degree, be they traditional indigenous communities,
communities of struggle or « alternatives ». Maintaining,
or re-defining, real commons and real community
anywhere is thus a constant struggle, including against our
own « colonised » personalities and conceptions of social
3) On the other hand, (as the ethnological studies of
Godbout2 and the MAUSS school have shown) despite two
centuries of capitalist rule and the infiltration of
commodification into all spheres of social life, essential
areas of the « social factory » only continue to function
thanks to another logic, the logic of community, free gifts
and solidarity. (At first sight, the exchange of gifts and
« commons » may seem different, but as we shall see later,
in the extreme case of gift exchange, « mutual positive
debt », the partners stop keeping accounts and thus de
facto create a commons3.) However, this reality is largely
unrecognised because, like the unpaid work of women for
example, it is « invisibilised » by the ideological
domination of capitalist categories.
Godbout makes us realise that we wouldn't need to create
a revolutionarily « New Man » in order to function outside
of the profit motive and commodity exchange. We all
function outside them every day, and even go to great
effort to create such spheres of activity when we are
without them. In fact, the most essential social relations
reside in them - outside both market and State.
4) Communities also play a vital role in the productive
activity of private enterprises and public services, where
communities of work and struggle constantly recreate
commons despite - in the teeth of - hierarchical chains of
command and the forms of work organisation that they
impose. In France, the field studies of Christophe Dejours
and others in the « psychodynamics of work » demonstrate
that these forms of organisation from below are actually
vital even to capital, since it is in fact impossible to
organise the essence of real work in a hierarchical
manner, from above. Real work is always social and always
implies more than just doing what you are told. In fact,
only doing what you are told to do is the definition of a
classic form of sabotage on the job : the slowdown.
Dejours details empirically what Marx meant about
capital depending upon living labour to reproduce itself. It
doesn't just depend on our obedient muscles, but on
cooperation and social creativity resolving the problems
of production and  organisation day in and day out. People
imagine that workers couldn't do without the bosses to
organise them, whereas its the contrary which is the case !
In fact, Dejours shows that the essential aspects of work
must remain hidden from the boss !
There are evident parallels with Holloway : « Exploitation
is not just the exploitation of labour but the simultaneous
transformation of doing into labour, the simultaneous
de-subjectification of the subject, the dehumanisation of
humanity.(?)The capitalist form (labour) is the mode of
existence of doing/creativity/subjectivity/humanity, but
that mode of existence is contradictory. To say that doing
exists as labour means that is exists also as anti-labour.
To say that humanity exists as subordination means that
it also exists as insubordination (?) Exploitation is the
suppression (-and-reproduction) of insubordinate
creativity. 4»

So if points 1) and 2) tell us something of who we are,
where we come from and what we are defending against
capitalist attack, 3) and 4) propose new visions of our real,
unconscious, collective strength, of how to go on the
offensive against the strongholds of capital. We may often
be much more organised than we think ! Maybe not in a
party or a union, but in the informal, horizontal,
tentacular networks of collective complicity and solidarity
that can become truly subversive if the quality of human
relations and community are taken seriously.

5) These perspectives, that start from the communities
that already and necessarily exist within capitalist
society, seem particularly timely, because the new wave of
capital's expansion has thrown them into crisis.
The increased pressure on society in general is evident.
Communities are torn apart by unemployment, forced
mobility, urban restructuring, austerity, delinquency and
its repression, the intensified commodification of culture
and freetime, etc., etc. The simplest and most basic
things - like good parties in our neighborhoods ! - have
become rare goods.
On the job, the new forms of work organisation imposed
by the pressure of globalised competition has wreaked
havoc communities of production world over, substituting
competition, harassment, suspicion and individualistic
misery for cooperation, trust and solidarity. This has
precipitated a veritable epidemic of work related
pathologies (officially plus 75% in Switzerland in the last
ten years, for example, despite the fact that many kinds
aren't recognised) that is just the tip of a huge iceberg of
« normal » misery and suffering at work.
Communities, humans with their stubborn need to have
halfway decent relations with one another, have more than
ever their backs to the wall.
 6) But both Dejours and Godbout have much more to
offer than consciousness of our hidden strengths. They
also offer sobering warnings. Gift exchange can develop
into the finest and freest of human relations. It can also
lead to domination. Marx was also right when he saw the
market as freeing men (and even more women !) from
often tyrannical community obligations. Similarly, the
study of workplaces reveals that communities of workers
in dangerous or frightening conditions develop anti-social
practices and norms, in particular « virile collective
defense mecanisms », which serve to deny suffering and
danger, for example on construction sites and other jobs
with security hasards.
Under the conditions of competition, precarisation and
fear instituted by néoliberal globalisation, many
workplaces have become what might better be called
« anti-communities », caracterised by individualism,
silence, betrayal and harassment of colleagues. In these
situations, the virile collective defense mecanism can
take an openly cynical and cruel form, for instance that of
the « job-killers » and other « collaborators »5 of middle
level management. Below them are all those who silently
accept the psychological destruction of colleagues because
they accept that in « economic war » there must
necessarily be « winners » and « losers ». Here, Dejours'
analysis rejoins feminist critiques of the violence of
patriarchy. Yes, « economic » war is very like real war, and
normally decent men (and even women) can be made to
condone - and commit - incredible violences, if such
violence on others has been instituted as a form of virile
« courage » by the group. (Dejours draws an analogy with
the mass rapes organised in Bosnia or the huge majority
of German soldiers who accepted to slaughter the jews of
Eastern Europe « because no one likes to appear a
coward. »6
Dejours also points out that over the last twenty-five
years this « defensive ideology of economic realism » has
seriously blunted sensitivity to human suffering in society
at large, by presenting it not as injustice but as a kind of
natural fatality. In the 1970ties, even right wing
governments considered an unemployment rate of 6% to
be politically intolerable. Today, masses of unemployed,
homeless and working poor have become part of the
scenery through a gradual « banalisation of social
injustice » (the subtitle of Dejours' most well known
book)7. His analysis of how normally decent people can be
transformed into accomplices of social injustice and
violence owes much to Hannah Arendt's analysis of
totalitarian mecanisms and the Eichmann case in
particular. The parallel with the more subtle and gradual
brutalization of our societies by neoliberal policies is as
compelling as disquieting.

As Morin8 and Holloway have shown, its time we all grew
up. There is no God or historical necessity or scientific
socialism or working class virtue that can garantee us a
happy end. And communities aren't automatically wise or
democratic either ! They are just the basic bricks of
society and close enough to control, to be responsible for
and critical of. The zapatistas, for example, also criticise
their communities: they want equal rights for women - and
washing machines. Communities aren't the new
revolutionary panacea, but they are a basic, organic level
of social organisation which activism has tended to
Perhaps most importantly for activists, both perspectives
should lead us not only to a renewed criticism of capitalist
organisation, but first of all to a deep questionning of the
dramatically similar way WE organise our own
communities of struggle. Of the amazingly little
« common » space we manage to create for collective
discussion of how we do our « work » of political
subversion, simply because our own communities remain
hierarchical and repressive for most (people are afraid to
« say something silly »). Of the way we constantly
neglected personal fulfillment, subjectivity, suffering and
the « celebration of life » for the sake of activist
productivity. Of the astonishing ease with which we avoid
serious engagement in our diverse professional work
situations, in favor of abstract, militant activity
« outside » practically everything.
6) Commons and community offer a new way to conceive
of « alternatives » to capital and State. To defend public
services, for example, is not to defend the State as such.
Public services are a form of commons (albeit a
bureaucratised one). And indeed, hospitals or schools, for
example, can only be defended and improved by the
struggles of communities of nurses or teachers, preferably
linked with the communities they serve. If these
communities whither, services become more and more
bureaucratic and unsatisfactory, because commons cannot
subsist without the communities that organise and defend
them. Especially today, when the upper reaches of the
bureaucracy are usually actively sabotaging services in the
interests of privatisers. Today public services must clearly
be defended against the State !
More generally, communities are usually already aware of
the alternatives to capitalist development that we are
supposedly lacking. Not the universalist technocratic,
utopian or revolutionary master plans which are not only
unnecessary, but which have also proved to be tyrannical
and disastrous from Stalin to IMF and WB. Just the first,
most urgent, evident steps in the right direction
(preguntando caminamos, asking we walk, as the
Zapatistas say) : water or a road or a seedbank for a
village ; shorter hours or less hierarchy for a community of
producers ; etc., etc. There's never been a lack of ideas
concerning alternatives. Communities worldover generally
have clear ideas about what they need or want. Its just
that for several centuries there have always been
policemen or soldiers or gunboats or financial warfare to
stop people from acting on their ideas !
7) Objections.
Of course one can ask, what's new about the ideas of
commons and communities with respect to the good old
discourse of autonomy, self-organisation, soviets, etc. ?
Probably not much with respect to the best experiences,
and obviously community implies struggle for autonomy,
self-organisation, etc., but a community is a more organic,
intuitive, lived-in concept. « Autonomy », in my
experience, often refered to people (mostly men)
organising in assemblies, voting on decisions after often
over-polarised debates? relatively abstract kinds of
organisation that still resemble traditional organisations
in many ways. In contrast, communities are typically
people who work or live or know each other already. Their
political aspect incorporates and takes seriously shared
tastes, knowledge of their environment, sensitivity to each
other (women will surely one day make us understand the
importance of this), implicit ways of doing things,
practices - like how one talks back to the boss, stealing in
supermarkets or sharing without counting.
There is also a problem to communities as alternatives.
Communities are typically defined as small and local, so
how for instance could the railways be in the hands of a
community ? Good question. One could decide that
communities can be bigger, translocal, on Internet, etc.,
but to avoid pulling the concept completely out of shape,
it might be better to speak of federations or networks of
communities discussing, negotiating and coordinating.

Well, those were my seven basic points ! Now I would like
just to develop some of them for those who aren't
convinced or who are interested enough to want some
details. At the risk of appearing trivial, I will try to talk as
much as possible from my own personal experience of
various sorts of communities, since rooting one's political
activity in community means precisely starting more from
one's personal social experience rather than from general
political discourses. Or at least having much more
interplay between the two.

Commons and communities as central to the movement.

Who have been the initiators and strongest forces in the
counterattack against globalising capital ? In the South,
indigenous and peasant communities. In the North, the
radicalised youth of the alternative movement whose
central figure is often the squatter, reclaiming free,
common space in cities. Or more generally, people who
have tried to organise new communities and physical,
social or political spaces (commons) outside commodity
and wage relations.
The media only noticed us in Seattle, but the birth of this
movement was undoubtedly the meeting between the
Zapatista rebels of Chiapas and the alternative youth
from across Europe who all met each other at the first two
Intergalactic Encuentros (Chiapas 96 and Spain 97) and
who created a  new activist international, the first on
Internet. Then, the idea of Peoples' Global Action (PGA),
an international network of organisations proposing to
scrap WTO, global governance and « free » trade, was
launched at the second Encuentro. Here, the Gandhian
farmers' movements of India brought a new, essential
element to the movement. Direct action and civil
disobedience to physically block summits, destroy GMO's,
etc., said to the world : this is a vital matter and we are
determined. PGA's immediate objective was to
delegitimise global governance summits by simultaneous,
decentralised action worldwide and, whenever possible, by
physically blocking the summits themselves. In May 1998,
the first International Day of Action (against the 2nd
summit of the WTO in Geneva) already involved some 65
demos all around the world. In many cities they were
organised by squatters and people of Zapatista support
groups, and the groups who would later organise the
events of June 18th (1999) in London, Seattle, Melbourne,
Davos, Quebec, Prague, etc. were already « reclaiming
their streets » in May '98.
In the South, the communal nature of the movement is
evident. It was the revoking of Article 26, garanteeing the
Mexican commons (ejidios) that provoked the Zapatista
rebellion. In the PGA network, other indigenous
movements for whom the commons are the cornerstone of
organisation, culture and identity have been leading
figures : the Kuna of Panama, Maori of « New Zealand »,
the Quechua and Aymara communities organised by the
cocaleros, the CONAIE and the CONFEUNASSC of
Ecuador, the network of afro-american communities, etc.
In India, apart from the obviously communal adhivasi,
peasant movements such as the KRRS, although holding
lands in extended families, have extremely strong
community links and the Gandhian ideal of the « village
republic ».
As early as 1990 our friends of Midnight Notes had
accurately characterised this whole period as one of
struggle against the « New Enclosures »9, by which
hundreds of millions of peasants were to be driven off
their lands on all the continents by WB and IMF policies.
The Plan Puebla Panama is perhaps the most explicit of
these « development » Plans, since it specifically forsees
driving all but 3% of the people of Central America off the
land (compared to 75 % on it now !)10. Ending communal
land and ressource ownership and evicting forest dwellers
is also a central goal of the WB in Africa, Asia, New
Guinea, and many other places. The second colonisation is
even more thorough than the first.

Many other struggles of the anti-globalisation movement
are against other types of « New Enclosures » : of water,
forests, seeds, traditional knowledge, oil or DNA.
Although some believe that these should be defended by
evoking « Global commons », this is a slightly suspect
claim, for it avoids recognising that these commons
actually belong to myriads of particular communities :
Uwa or Afro-americans of Colombia, Mayas of Guatemala,
Totzil of Chiapas, « tribal » adhivasi of India, etc., etc.
And then of course there are all the struggles against
privatisation of the « public service » forms of commons
all over the world : communication, transport, health,
education, etc.

In the North, commons as land or physical space is less
present, apart from squatted social centers or lodgings
and rural commune movements. However, since the
sixties the strongest and most innovative movements
(with the notable exception of Italy) have organised
« outside » the capitalist workplace and wage relation,
creating social, cultural or political commons.
These more « abstract » commons have actually often
involved struggles for physical spaces which symbolise
(perhaps sometimes fetishise) the real commons and
community that we seek to build. I remember the first
struggle in Geneva for a « Centre Autonome » (1970). We
fought the police for a whole season, seizing buildings in
which to develop our « alternative culture ». When we
finally got one, we mostly had totally boring political
arguments. There was actually almost no counter culture
to put in it, at the time ! Still today, the first thing
squatters do when they occupy a building is to turn the
basement into a common room and concert hall - but now
they have more things to do there ! And when Reclaim the
Streets started reclaiming common social spaces in
British cities it was fun - and people world-over wanted in.
Other significant details have changed over the years. In
the first Genevan communes, people wasted hours
calculating how much each of us had advanced for food,
etc. That was gradually just forgotten. Today, the squats
have a custom by which, one day a week, different squats
take turns organising a common dinner for all the others.
Normally there is a pot somewhere for financial
contributions, but the last time I went to one (which was
actually on a public square, and thus open to anyone), they
had decided that they didn't want to mar the thing by
having a money pot? As for concerts, the ones that make
the most money are those that leave the entry fee up to
the client. And in one of the old squats there is a bio food
shop that has operated without paid staff for a dozen
Gratuity isn't the only value that seems to have seaped
back up into this milieu. There is also an instinctive
disregard for « cost accounting » logic. For example, in the
first squats, we would generally wait to be sure of being
able to stay before working a lot on the place. Some time
in the late '80ties I remember being astounded to see a
brand new squat in my quarter where they were lavishing
hours of work to recreate a « zinc » (the traditional,
metal-covered Genevan bar). Their logic was different.
They wanted a place like that. And even if they were
evicted before it was finished, they would have worked
toward their real goal (not towards a « realistic » one) and
in the way they wanted. Finally, the place carried such
conviction that it is still there. Squatters regularly
surprise « reasonable » people with enterprises that make
little or no « economic » sense, because the monetary
aspect is secondary to them. Its the activity that is
important. Of course, in a sense they are « exploiting » or
even « over-exploiting » themselves, if you calculate their
hourly wage. But if, subjectively, this work is actually free
activity, or even play, then getting paid - in fact being
allowed to spend one's life like that at all - is pretty
amazing ! (Quite logically, the people who operate the
« zinc » in question closed the bar a couple of times when
it started to become too fashionable. Serving too many
yuppies was too much like alienated work.) There may be
more than wisdom there. It might be a new, deeply
anti-capitalist society trying to resurface.
It was also in the same quarter that I first noticed the
increasing fascination of young squatters for the
indigenous (mostly North American peoples at the time).
They visited with the Hopi, Apache or Dakota, and quoted
shamans or Chief Seattle. They also housed delegations of
indigenous at the UN who couldn't afford Genevan hotels.
Although I shared their interest, I must confess that at
the time (long before the Zapatistas) it didn't seem to me
« politically important ». The squatters didn't bother with
that question, since their criterion for involvement was
« le feeling ».
Of course, such an instinctive criterion can also be sloppy
and self-serving, but it does knock the bottom out of a lot
of the traditional, moralistic, boring and finally quite
unrevolutionary forms of activism. If it, or its « leaders »,
are boring, these people just desert. They have become
« unorganisable » in stable, traditional organisations. But
they constitute an organic network of individuals,
communities that are capable of amazing feats when they
« feel » that a proposition is sound (like organising a large
part of the first PGA conference - board and lodging for
300 delegates - for practically nothing, or occupying WTO
headquarters before Seattle, or driving the World
Economic Forum out of Davos.)
The « alternative » community has been putting down
roots (and being generally scoffed at by it's more
« political » cousins) since '68. Maybe its time to take it
seriously - politically.

The feminist movement has also been trying to bring us
new insights and practices for many years, although we
have generally managed to ignore them. One of their
uncomfortable insights was of course the fact that we were
not only living under capitalism but also in communities -
grossly patriarchal ones ! Communities in which one of the
« commons » shared by men is their control over women,
the fact that only men are free to wander anywhere at
night, etc. They also brought to light the huge mass of
unpaid labour done by women which sustains
communities. However, they didn't only denounce the
negative side of communities politically, they organised
them differently : self-help, women's clinics, sharing
childcare or housework so that everyone could participate
in politics or exercise a profession. And more traditionally
« political » struggles connected seamlessly to this
community organising : like struggling for reproductive
rights or « commons » of child care. Since leftist
organisations were incapable of hearing their demands or
changing their rather brutal style, they organised
separately, in new, more horizontal ways, for instance
using small groups that could better listen to all. And
they were probably the first to organise worldwide in
horizontal networks.
In today's movement, feminist organisations are less
noticeable than feminist women (although some of the
younger ones might not think of themselves as such) who
struggle again to make mixed organisations listen. The
southern part of PGA, for instance, regularly organises
mixed gender seminars. The peasant, indigenous and
other organisations generally recognise the need for
change and the contribution that the gender perspective
can offer. It remains to be seen too what extent the men,
North and South, can really learn to listen. What seems
sure is that since women are generally responsible for
maintaining social relations in communities, we won't get
far - or learn much about how to organise communities
better - if we don't.

As for the ecological movement, of course, huge parts of it
are specifically about defending commons : forests, land,
natural ressources, water, air, fish, world temperature,
biodiversity, DNA, etc., which capital would like to seize,
destroy, pollute and squander without thought for the
perenity of human communities locally or globally. More
fundymental is the rediscovery (the indigenous never
forgot this) that our natural « communities » include the
other forms of life around us and that natural commons
must necessarily also be for them - or be destroyed.
The ecological movement has typically organised local
communities against industries seeking to seize or destroy
commons. Some threats are much larger than
communities, like those of the nuclear industry, global
warming or the pollution of life forms by GMOs. They
certainly necessitate global struggle and organisation.
However, so far the most effective resistance to them has
been by networks of local struggles, fighting local nuclear
threats, burning GMOs, etc. Whereas the attempts to
administer « global commons » globally have generally
been sinister farces (see for example the way the
International Atomic Energy Association and WHO
whitewash Tchernobyl, « market solutions » to global
warming or WWF's rather infamous role as accomplice to
the World Bank in seizing indigenous peoples' commons
and habitat with so-called « debt for nature swaps »). And
things aren't getting better with Bush and Neskofi Annan.

The traditional marxist analysis saw the triumph of
capital and the destruction of all older social forms,
including commons, as a preparation for communism. In
that linear logic, hardline marxist-léninists consider
zapatistas as woolly headed romantics. The FARC of
Colombia, and other « revolutionary organisations »,
continue to see themselves as the sole sources of
(national, ie Statist) revolutionary projects. Consequently,
they oppose (including by violence) autonomous
indigenous, afro-american or other peasant communities'
political perspectives and practices. As George Caffentzis
points out, most revolutions and movements of national
liberation of the 20th century were made by alliances of
peasants and workers, the «sickle and the hammer »,
guided by revolutionary parties. However, invariably the
interests of the « sickle » were finally sacrificed to those
of the hammer (heavy industry, « national » priorities,
etc.) that for the most part mimicked capitalist
In the North too, communist trade unionists considered
anti-nuclear activists reactionary and even leftists first
considered feminism or the black liberation movement as
« dividing the working class ». Starting from networks of
existing communities, on whatever basis they constitute
themselves (one person of course usually belonging to
several different kinds), is a good insurance against being
made to march in step towards new disasters with the
next revolutionary subject or party.

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