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(en) The Commoner #6 - Franco Barchiesi - Communities between Commons and Commodities

From <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Mon, 27 Jan 2003 09:16:33 -0500 (EST)

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

Subjectivity and Needs in the Definition of New
Social Movements1
The cycle of social movement mobilization that has
taken place following the 1999 anti-WTO
riots in Seattle, involving struggles and
organizational forms on a global scale, has highlighted
the central role of local dynamics of confrontation in
determining moments of disruption of
global capitalist command. As a result, the notion of
"community" has gained wide usage to
define political strategies, sites of mobilisation and
the repository of counter-hegemonic
discourses. The level of the community has been, in
particular, often celebrated by many "anti-
globalisation" theorists2 as providing the social
framework for, to use Mittelman's appropriate
characterisation3, the "infrapolitics" of resistance
embedded in "hidden transcript" of the
everyday life. It is at this level, that the structure of
capitalist domination and oppression
allegedly becomes immediately visible for the agency
of the subaltern groups and is re-
elaborated in patterns of collective construction of
meanings that are potentially conducive to
subversive forms of social identification. The
radicalism expressed in many and diverse
contexts on issues such as the privatisation of basic
services, the defence of common goods
against their commodification, resistance to
environmental destruction, the imposition of new
forms of gender inequality seems to provide cases to
support this argument. Such movements
are often characterised by a high level of
unpredictability linked to the fact that the
of the issues on which their identities are built
challenges the most established path of left
politics and organising, the prescription of rigid
stages of development of collective
consciousness and the existence of institutionalised
channels of mediation and negotiation with
the state.
Actually, state power and the associated need to be
represented at, or to "act" upon, that level
is quite often a relatively minor concern for such
movements4. Direct acts of reappropriation of
resources and the definition of radically autonomous
societal relations are paths that more
usually characterise the development and
entrenchment of practices of resistance of this kind.
For people living at this level, the intervention of
officials from the local municipality that have to
execute the eviction of residents that fail to pay for
the increased rates of newly-privatised
water and electricity utilities are much more
indicative of the nexus between state, markets and
global capital than sophisticated academic analyses
that still emphasize the relevance of the
state as a potential barrier against globalisation,
which would invite to moderate "extremist"
claims and behaviours. The fact that such an
"extremism" is, far from being a mere ideological
option, deeply intertwined in the extreme form of
brutality and deprivation inherent in policies of
integral commodification of life carries important
implications in clarifying issues surrounding
the "community" as a site of resistance to capitalist
globalisation. However, to avoid falling into
an unproblematic idealisation of the community as a
site where pure and authentic identities
are forged in the struggle against the impersonal
forces of global capital, it is crucial to
1 This is the edited version of a presentation
delivered at the European Social Forum, workshop
on Commons and Communities, Florence 7-10 November 2002.
2 For a recent example, see Naomi Klein (2002),
Fences and Windows (New York: Picador).
3 James H. Mittelman, The Globalization Syndrome
(Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 172-175.
4 A similar point has been forcefully made in John
Holloway (2002), Change the World without Taking
Power (London: Pluto Press).

underline Hardt and Negri's convincing criticism of
the concept5. Their cautionary note, in
particular, warns against the aspects of
authoritarianism, exclusivism and imposed
homogeneity that necessarily accompany any vision
of the "local" community fundamentally
defined as mere opposition/resistance to the
"global". This latter level, or the "Empire" in their
terminology, is not only the product of past, partially
successful efforts, to internationalise the
anti-capitalist struggle, breaking the boundaries of
pre-existing, variously coercive forms of
political community (chiefly the nation-state) and of
sovereignty built thereupon. More than that,
the Empire constitutes the new terrain of struggle
where local communities' forms of opposition
are required to "project" themselves, while
maintaining the specificity of their demands in order
to provide an effective response to the present forms
of capitalist domination.
>From this point of view, the ability of operating
such a projection, which fully accepts
globalisation as the necessary terrain for the
reproduction and circulation of struggles, can be a
first, useful approximation towards a definition of
"progressive" vis-à-vis "regressive" use of the
concept of community. Furthermore, the events that
have taken place in Seattle can be looked
at under a new light from this perspective. Seattle is
not, therefore, as it is often portrayed, the
act of birth of a "new global movement" where none
existed before, which would moreover run
counter the fact that important components of such
a "globality" as in the case of movements
from the South were not materially present in that
and many similar events thereafter. Rather,
the importance of Seattle consists essentially in
having provided new forms of globalised
political languages, imagery and symbolic
representations for movements that remain
predominantly linked to their global dimension. The
fact that this new discursive space has
been actually utilised in different ways and to
different extents by different social movements
confirms this definition.
At the same time, an evaluation of the diversified
ways in which local community struggles gain
new meanings from the existence of a globalised
discursive space for social movements
seems to indicate a more fruitful line of analysis
than trying to define abstract typologies that
encase "progressive" and "reactionary" meanings of
community. Therefore, the rest of this
presentation is primarily concerned with identifying
and discussing some factors that can
explain why and in which forms "community"
becomes a political concept that makes sense
within local mobilisations in their connection with
global opposition to the Empire. I will, in
particular, suggest three forms of projection of
community struggles into the global social
movement discursive arena. By projection I mean
here a process whereby the singularity of the
conditions facing specific communities in struggle
contains the universality of features that are
immediately connected with the logic and dynamics
of domination of global capital, defining
potential patterns for collective subjectivity
It is important to underline from the start that all
these three aspects of local-global projection
have to do with a profound dissatisfaction, or at least
a sense of indifference, that has been
voiced in many of these movements towards
established and mainstream left politics. To some
extent this echoes the rejection of the state-centred,
gender-biased, industrialist framework of
Western left parties by social movements emerged
between the 1960s and the 1970s from
women's struggles, environmental mobilisations and
working-class refusal of work. This
trajectory of rejection of established left policies has
been enriched in the South during the past
two decades of collapse of structural adjustment
policies by movements that have consciously
departed from left experiences that had in the past
closely identified themselves with (by now
5 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000), Empire
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press).
bankrupt) projects of "national liberation",
state-driven developmentalism or strategies based
on the centrality of state sovereignty.
A case particularly relevant emerged out of this
trajectory is that of South Africa. Here the past
five years have seen the beginning and the first
attempt at national forms of coordination of
various movements active on different issues related
to the commodification of basic
necessities. Land occupations, struggles against
urban evictions, illegal reconnections of water
and electricity for "rate defaulters" in privatised
utilities are witnessing the emergence of a new
style of social opposition that only to a limited
extent replicates the strategies of
"ungovernability" that anti-apartheid social
movements in the 1980s carried forward to further
national liberation politics. In fact, the new
movements in South Africa would not be
understandable apart from the absolutely innovative
feature provided by direct reappropriation
of resources and the way in which this nurtures a
complex texture of social and cultural
practices rooted in a strong sense of
extra-institutional autonomy. Surely these aspects
are far from being unproblematically assumed within 
the movements, and remains of old oppositional
left traditions (mainly orthodox Marxist) with their
conventional view of seizure of central power
and hierarchical encadrement of the grassroots are
still influential and control crucial
organisational assets. However the existence of this
contrast nonetheless illustrates a widening
gap between established left approaches and
emerging grassroots practices. This gap is
beautifully summarised in Ashwin Desai's important
account of new social movements in South
"There is agreement that while left values are still
important to us, the left project often took on
forms that became obstacles to realizing those
values. This was true at least to the extent that
left organizations are based on a mere philosophy of
domination that confines social subjects
to the role of either passive victims or card-carrying
members of the revolutionary party. The
left has been unable to recognize the teeming life in
between. Life! This is not just a theoretical
issue (...). If I was a traditional leftist, I would have
to spend all my time first engineering the
content of the life of people in these communities so
that it accorded with the insights of
socialism. That would be the struggle! But this is not
the way things are. There is a rich,
complex, imperfect, and sensuous collectivity
existing in the communities and their needs (...).
There are dangers of course. Talk of human rights
and citizenship often result in validation of
the social order (...). Parochialism too has to be
warded off and efforts made to be sensitive to
the struggles of other subaltern groups. But there is
no doubt for me that whatever the dangers,
there would be little civic resistance at all today in
South Africa if it was not for expectations of
dignity, human rights, and a dignified life".6
This argument is conducive to more general
conclusions that have a direct relevance on the
question of how community movements project their
struggles on a global dimension, and of
the extent to which the very concept of community
can still be a useful tool of analysis in spite
of all its limitations. In particular, Desai's analysis
encapsulates dynamics of community
mobilisation that illustrate the forms of projection of
communities into the global social
movement arena that I have previously mentioned.
These three forms can be summarised as,
respectively, the renewed relevance of what Foucault
termed "bare life" as a terrain of
contestation, the centrality of needs as a factor that
defines communities as insurgent practices
and projects, and a new approach to subjectivity in
relation to the unity of diverse struggles.
6 Ashwin Desai (2002), 'We Are the Poors'.
Community Movements in the New South Africa
(New York: Monthly
Review Press).

>From the first point of view, the emerging global
constitution of capitalism and of forms of
market-based regulation defines the very conditions
for the production and reproduction of life
as a central stake in social struggles.  The integral
commodification of life as a new frontier of
capitalist valorization requires a global regulatory
regime on property rights and guarantees for
private investors that underpins the privatisation of
what welfarist and developmentalist social
compromises still allowed to some extent to retain in
the form of "commons", as in the case of
communal land, municipal services, education. At
the same time, the commodification of the
commons responded to the rigidities imposed on
capitalist accumulation by the combined effect
of refusal of work in the North and resistance to
proletarianisation in the South. In this latter
case, in particular, the alternatives for relative
surplus-value extraction embodied in strategies
of export-orientated industrialisation and increased
marketisation of agriculture could not
overcome the limitation provided by a reality that
saw regular wage labour employing only a
declining fraction of the population. The existence of
broadening areas of poor, marginalised
population was at the same time an economic
constraint and a source of social conflicts for
local elites in charge with inserting their countries in
the global neoliberal order.
Commodification of basic necessities, and the
imposition of rigid market discipline of "cost-
recovery" to determine access in impoverished
communities allowed to define the poor entirely
outside the rhetoric of citizenship and fully within
the realm of consumption. The word
"rightsizing", used by South African local
policy-makers, adequately captures this strategy of
constraining individuals' and communities' access to
the elementary means of survival entirely
on the basis of their ability to pay for commodified
services7. At the same time this strategy is
highly unstable since, while it allegedly taps into
flexible and informal networks of survival,
activity and generation of resources, it nonetheless
reinforces the condition of deprivation for
those who do not have an adequate access to a
monetary income, or a wage. The declining
significance of the wage in the everyday life
strategies of the poor contrasts with a deepening
importance of the monetary form in defining life
chances. Under changed circumstances, this
contradiction resurrects the problem of a radical
separation between wage (as monetary
reward for the work effort) and income (as the
combination of monetary and non-monetary
resources required for the satisfaction of needs) that
had been at the centre of the whole
trajectory of twentieth-century working class
struggles against commodification.
The old solution to that separation, provided by
various welfare state experiments subsequently
defeated by the connection between working class
struggles and neoliberal response, is now
being radically rethought by capital. The
commodification of life and the imposition of a social
hierarchy based on access to market resources
gradually replaces previous social
compromises on which established left ideas of what
constitutes "progressive" politics continue
to be largely based. At the same time, while
eschewing national regulatory deals and
corporatist accommodations, these disciplining
strategies based on the commodity form
privilege the local terrain and the level of social
services for the communities as a terrain of
implementation and tentative definition of new
positive collective attitudes towards the market.
At the same time, the very definition of the concept
of "community" becomes a terrain of
contestation. To those views (widespread in
American "communitarian" rhetoric) emphasizing
collective responsibility and discipline as the basis
of successful "prosperity" (i.e. positioning on
the market), the new movements tend to oppose
alternative forms of identification based on
radical decommodification and reappropriation from
below. In this view, the construction of
organised forms, demands, even ways to relate to the
institutions is premised on practices that
implement in the everyday life a rupture of the
market paradigm and shift the claim for a
7 See David McDonald and John Pape, eds. (2002),
Cost Recovery and the Crisis of Service Delivery in
Africa (Cape Town: UCT Press).

collective income on a radically different terrain, as
exemplified in movements of land
occupations, reconnection of disconnected services,
resistance to evictions.
Second, and closely linked to the former point, the
theme of needs becomes decisive in the
definition of the community as a radical political
project of decommodification based on
insurgent everyday practices. In a context whereby
the very preconditions of life are once again
thrown in the Marxian "realm of necessity" and
market-based individual competition, the
existence of common needs whose fulfillment is
prevented by their translation into the
commodity form is what provides the immediate
element of recognition of social antagonism
embedded in individual and separate life
trajectories. Assuming communities as spaces of
needs where antagonist political projects are
nurtured ultimately allows social movements to
differentiate themselves from "essentialist"
understandings of community as based on inherent,
pre-existing, a-historical facts (territory, ethnicity,
language, etc.). It also allows a redefinition of
the meanings of life that becomes highly relevant to
sustain political opposition. The enclosure
and commodification of the commons defines life in
terms of mere biological necessity to be
satisfied along the mono-dimensional scale of
market-based access to resources. The
existence of needs that are diverse and yet
determined by general strategies of socio-
economic restructuring implemented at the level of
whole communities leads to the definition of
social relations, spaces of dialogue and cultural
practices where this connection takes shape in
the interaction of everyday experiences. The theme
of political mobilisation becomes therefore
inseparable from that of building community as
counterpower, or life forms that gradually
become autonomous from the state and capital8.
This notion of community goes back, following a
remarkable discussion of the concept provided
by Roberto Esposito9, to the very origins of the
concept. "Community" as based on the
combination "cum-munus" recalls the idea of
"sharing a gift". However, differently from other
meanings of the word that have to do with individual
reciprocity or donation, "munus" implies a
"gift" that exists only in the public sphere and for
collective access. As such it is also closely
related to the idea of the "commons" as opposed not
so much to "individual" (which participates
in the act of sharing) but to "proper" (and to
"property") as abdication/alienation from what is
common as in the case of market exchange.
Therefore, the question of needs becomes
particularly relevant in a context of global
commodification of life since it allows us to provide
the conceptual and political foundations for a
specific definition of community as necessarily
based on a public sphere that is inherent
antagonistic towards private appropriation.
Antagonism is not here a matter of different
ideological discourses through which specific
communities are constituted, but it goes at the heart
of the inevitably controversial meaning of
the very concept of community.
The third, and final, point of this presentation refers
to the implications of my definition of
political community for the conceptualisation of
social subjectivity. The definition I have
advanced implies a coexistence of singularity and
universality at least at two levels. First,
community is a space in which global capitalist
strategies become recognisable and intelligible
at the specific territorial level that today constitutes
their main terrain of implementation.
Second, community is a space of needs, counterpower
and elaboration of general collective
responses and strategies that are based on discursive
interactions that start from a plurality of
everyday situations. Both forms of relationships
between singularity and universality directly
contrast with traditional ways of dealing with this
issue in mainstream left politics. This latter
8 This point has been greatly clarified in discussions
held with comrades of the Colectivo Situaciones in
Aires in July 2002.
9 Roberto Esposito (2001), Communitas. Origine e
destino della comunita' (Turin: Einaudi).

was premised on an ontology of the revolutionary
subject (be it "the people", "the masses", "the
nation", "the class") starting from which single
experiences and contexts gained sense,
meaning and validation, as in the case of the old
distinction between "true" and "false" class
consciousness. A specialised layer (or vanguard) of
cadres and activists was usually in charge
of performing this validation on the basis of their
being the only repositories of a universal
"science" of liberation to which specificities had to
accorded and conformed.
Cases as diverse as South Africa, Chiapas, Argentina
and social movements in Italy have
shown, the development of social antagonism and the
production of the highest levels of
disruption for capitalist command has often not only
taken place independently from those
neatly defined trajectories of change, but has
generally left their organised proponents in the
mainstream left hopelessly behind, for example,
defending a mythical role of the state that has
been entirely sidestepped by the current features of
social confrontation. What those struggles
have shown, instead, is a rethinking of social
subjectivity not as subsumed under the image of
a necessary Subject, but as the encounter of a
multitude of partialities in search of some forms
of commonality. Fragmentation and precariousness
have not only been experienced as a
condition of powerlessness and marginality totally
determined by capitalist domination; they
have rather been used as assets to recompose
unpredictable configurations of practices of
insubordination. The emphasis on commonality as
opposed to organisationally mediated unity
has ultimately enabled the full citizenship within the
movements of subjects -- such as
unemployed, migrants, atypical workers -- whose
voice, due to its being excluded by traditional
forms of state-based societal bargaining, was either
silenced by the official left, or dismissed as
based on "lifestyles" or "single issues".  Defining
community as the repository of a potential
commonality of struggles based on the very public
nature of needs being commodified acts
therefore as a powerful critique of vanguardist forms
of left organising. Their search for unity
prioritizes not the terrain of material social practices
of formation of subjectivity but that of
representing an ontologically coherent and
immanent social subject. In order to, to paraphrase
Marx, put the movements' feet on the ground rather
than on the thin air of ontology, the
analysis therefore has to turn towards dynamics of
construction of subjectivity that proceed
through situational breaks10, localised points of
disruption in which new languages, imagery
and common sense creep in as potential and
generalisable foundations for societal autonomy.
Inhabiting these situations has much more to do with
Guattari's concept of "transversality" than
with left traditions of "organisation".
Of course, dangers of glorifying localism or turn
debates around community into unproblematic
conceptualisations of "civil society" that emasculate
the inherently conflictual nature of the
concept are always present in the attempt of
reinterpretation that these pages have tried to
advance. However, these are risks worth running for
an analysis and a style of political action
that wants to put, for once, real-life subjectivity at
its centre.
10 Colectivo Situaciones, 19 y 20. Apuntes sobre el
nuevo protagonismo social (Buenos Aires: Ediciones
Mano a

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