Academic journal article New Formations

The Future of 'The Commons': Neoliberalism's 'Plan B' or the Original Disaccumulation of Capital?

Academic journal article New Formations

The Future of 'The Commons': Neoliberalism's 'Plan B' or the Original Disaccumulation of Capital?

Article excerpt

In the tale as told by Power, the happening that is worth something is the one that can be recorded on a spreadsheet that contains respectable indices of profit. Everything else is completely dispensable, especially if that everything else reduces profit.

Don Durito, Neoliberalism: History as a tale ... badly told. (Subcommandante Marcos 2005)

The 'commons' has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last fifteen years, from a word referring rather archaically to a grassy square in the centre of New England towns to one variously used by real estate developers, 'free software' programmers, ecological activists and peasant revolutionaries to describe very different, indeed conflicting, purposes and realities.

I believe that this resurgence of 'commons' thinking is due to a confluence of two streams coming from opposing perspectives.

The revival of the commons from a capitalist perspective comes in the 1980s and 1990s with the development of a related set of concepts like 'social capital,' 'civil society,' 'associational life' that were joined with the even vaguer and older all-pervading concepts like 'community,' 'culture,' and 'civilization'. A good index of this conceptual change can be noted in the substitution of the warm and fuzzy phrase 'business community' for the sharply delineated 'capitalist class' in the terminology of the social sciences.

The main aim of this change was to save capitalism from its self-destructive totalitarian tendencies unleashed by neoliberalism. For example, who would commit themselves to defend capitalist society 'to the death,' if everyone acted like a perfect neoliberal agent aiming to maximize his/her own private utility function? After all, such beings, in a pinch, would not rationally bargain away their own lives to 'save the system.' The commons from this perspective was an additional concept that made it possible both to criticise the theoretical pillars of neoliberal thought (Hardin's 'tragedy of the commons' and the so-called 'Coase Theorem') and to propose other models for participating in the market, beside individualism or corporatism.

The revival of the commons from an anti-capitalist perspective also develops in the 1980s and 1990s to deal with the crisis of socialism, communism and Third World nationalism. This crisis put into question the ideologies that claimed to provide an alternative to capitalism and/or imperialism through the use of the state and the expansion of state property.

For the crisis of the division between state and private property is reflected in the so-called 'collapse of communism' and the 'withering away of the nation state' in the face of neoliberal globalisation. Both the ideology of official socialism/communism and nationalism created the imaginary impression of a sharing and co-management of social wealth by the citizens. The reality, of course, was that most of the 'sharing and co-management' of these resources was done by a ruling class whose restricted membership was defined by either bureaucratic or capitalist criteria.

Critics of capitalism recognised that though communism (and nationalism) had little of the commons, they had much of the enclosures in them. In other words, history showed that the promise of communism--that 'economic' decisions would be made by a 'free association' of producers and reproducers--had not been fulfilled in actually existing states ruled by communist parties. On the contrary, though these states legitimised themselves on the basis of the sentiments and behaviour appropriate to the commons, they undermined the development of the humus of coordination that is absolutely essential for the functioning of a commons.

In response to this political crisis, the commons has been used by anticapitalists to show that collective non-capitalist forms of organizing material life are alive and struggling throughout the world in two senses: (1) the precapitalist commons still exist and the subsistence of billions of people depend on them (indeed the forms of social cooperation implicit in these commons make it possible for all those 'living' on $1 a day--a literal impossibility--to actually live); (2) the rise of a new commons, especially in ecological-energy spaces and in computational-informational manifolds. …

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