[Debate] Commons Not Capitalism?
peterwaterman1936 at gmail.com
Fri Jul 13 10:48:21 BST 2012
Reflections on the Slogan, “Commons, Not Capitalism”
Written by *Chris Taylor*
“Commons Not Capitalism.” So read a banner hanging prominently at Dilworth
Plaza on day one of Occupy Philly. Like most banners, it was unsigned, it
had no author, and thus I did not know whom to thank for relieving me of my
hesitations regarding Occupy.
I was hesitant to support Occupy due to the early rhetoric by which it
gained national attention. The movement’s critical targeting of corporate
capitalism, finance capital, and “money in politics” implied a reformist
politics that refused to un-think the organizing suppositions of
(neo)liberal parliamentary capitalism. But, as is well known now, Occupy
has always been far more radical in what it *does* than in what it *says*.
The actions that characterize Occupy (e.g., seizing land, generating forms
of participatory democracy, securing subsistence needs) draw on a
repertoire of practices that, developed across large swaths of time and
space, has become the historical commons of anti-capitalist movements.
By giving a name to what we were doing, the anonymously-authored banner
declared that our mode of being-together had a more radical positivity than
our reformist critiques would lead one to believe. It achieved this
positivity by citation, by revealing Occupy’s indebtedness to and
involvement in a common history of the commons, a history without proper
names that is eminently difficult to cite.
That the slogan “Commons, Not Capitalism” cites an entire history of the
commons is worth keeping in mind, for focusing on the history of the
commons should make us more careful and cautious about our contemporary
investments in the commons. I focus on the historical dimensions of the
commons for two reasons. First, contemporary commons theory tends to be
presentist, insofar as particular aspects of our historical conjunction
explicitly and implicitly function as the condition of possibility for
neo-commoning efforts. One implicit condition for the eruption of commons
theory is the historical and ideological collapse of the Communist project.
On one hand, the collapse of the USSR led to
the untrammeled financialization and neoliberal privatization of the globe;
we began thinking of the commons at a moment when they began (once more)
disappearing. On the other hand, the collapse of the ideological project of
Communism (and, for many, Marxism) required anti-capitalist activists to
find a new grammar of revolt. Our new commons theory is post-Communist and
mostly post-Marxist—and we must consider whether our investment in the
commons is not implicitly a concession to the neoliberal order of things.
(The phrase, “*Private enterprise can flourish alongside a healthy commons
sector* <http://thefutureofoccupy.org/2012/01/12/1533/>” suggests as much….)
Here, the technological production of a post-Fordist “general
(more Marx) means that capitalism is actually producing a neo-commons. The
commons are actually immanent *to* capitalism; intellectual, social, and
technological commons serve as the substrate of the capitalist valorization
processes. We see, then, that the binary opposition established by the
slogan “Commons, Not Capitalism” is a bit flat-footed. Commoning might not
get us out of capitalism—it might entrench us more firmly within it.
My second reason for wanting to attend to the historical dimensions of the
commons relates to the uneasy relationship between commons and capitalism.
As a slogan, “Commons, Not Capitalism” implies not simply an orientation
toward the future but an approach to the past. It assembles history as a
struggle between these two isolated characters, Commons and Capitalism. The
utopian desire of such historiography is one of transcendence, where the
Commons finally negates the Goliath of Capitalism. This mode of narration
the commons have indeed been exhilarating romances. In itself, romance is
not bad, and I’ll take a romance of the commons over a tragedy of the
commons every time.
But to ascribe an overwhelming politico-ethical value to the commons—as
romantic narrations will—is to elide the fact that “the commons” does not
imply a single ethic or a single politics, and that, indeed, the commons as
such can proliferate and promote unethical and anti-political activities.
The commons, commoning: these do not name politico-ethical practices that
are overwhelmingly and obviously good, so much as they name new sites and
scenes in which novel ethico-political problems will emerge and for which a
new ethics and a new politics needs to be articulated. Attending to the
gendered, heterosexist, and racist functioning of actually-existent commons
should help us critically engage with our own utopian desires, and
demonstrate that nothing ensures, in advance, that we will have developed
ethico-political dispositions adequate to our being-in-common. As we suture
our own post-Fordist practices of neo-commoning to archaic histories of
anticapitalist commons, we need to be responsible for the fact that the
history of the commons has in fact been tragic—not because liberal
subjectivity is an ontological condition of humanity, but because we in
common have failed to address the ethico-political problem of
The commons intensifies ethico-political questions that arise from being
with others. It names a problem, not a cure-all. We need to submit
ourselves to the demands of these questions, to consider carefully how
varied modalities of being-in-common contain the possibility of perverse
tragedy. Capitalism is itself not not being-in-common, but one of the
tragic potentialities of the commons. Occupy is an attempt to reverse the
tragic destiny that has befallen being-in-common. As we attempt this
reversal, we need to keep the question of the commons alive, to not take
“the commons” as implying any necessary ethical or political dispositions.
The binary opposition implicit in the slogan “Commons, Not Capitalism” will
only make sense if we—unlike the irresponsible, unaccountable structures of
capitalism—take responsibility for the ethical challenge of being-in-common.
*1.* Contribute to Journal Special on 'New Worker
*2. Blog:* http://www.unionbook.org/profile/peterwaterman
*3. EBook 2011, 'Under, Against, Beyond - Essays 1980s-
1990s* s <http://www.into-ebooks.com/book/under-against-beyond/>
*4.* WorkingPaper *2012*: 'Emancipatory Labour
*5.* Draft EBook 2012: 'Recovering Internationalism - Essays 2000-10'
*6. *Essay 2012: 'The 2nd Coming of the World Federation of Trade
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