The anti-capitalist approach: commons as political activism

In 1994, Canada, Mexico and the United States signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in order to create a trilateral rules-based trade bloc in North America, by suppressing tariffs on specific industries like automobiles, computers, textile and agriculture (which would be extended to all kinds of products within 15 years) as well as protecting intellectual property rights on traded products. In order to achieve their goals, amongst other things NAFTA suspended article 27 of Mexico’s constitution by which Indian communal landholdings were protected from sale or privatisation. The cancellation of that historical article, one of the foundations of Emiliano Zapata’s revolution between 1910–1919, was considered by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) as a death sentence to Indian communities all over Mexico which would accentuate the already growing social inequalities in Chiapas, and because of that, they started a revolt and declared war against the neoliberal Mexican government on the very same day NAFTA came into force. So, on January 1st 1994, EZLN forces became worldwide known when they occupied and took over seven towns (being San Cristobal de las Casas, Las Margaritas, Altamirano and Ocosingo the most important ones) and read their proclamation broadcasting it to the world through the, by then brand-new, Internet.

Zapatistas’ uprisings became really important not only because of their principles (the defence of indigenous collective and individual rights; the construction of a network of resistance against globalization and neoliberalism; and the proposition of Politics based on the values of democracy, freedom and justice), the results they achieved (like the controversial San Andrés Accords1) or the means they used (like the aforementioned imaginative use of the latest technologies like the Internet or the iconic image of Subcomandante Marcos, which contributed in the spreading of their message worldwide): their ideology and the poetics of their anti-capitalist discourse, based on giving the power to the people and fighting for common lands and nature against privatization and capitalism, turned to be setting the foundations of anti-globalization movement, and thus transforming a local fight into a global one. To such an extent Zapatistas’ discourse turned to be a global claim that, according to some authors like José Seoane and Emilio Taddei (2001), the Zapatistas’ uprising and the First International Encounter for Humanity and against Neoliberalism organized by EZLN on July 27th - August 3rd 1996 in Chiapas can be considered as the genesis of the anti-globalization movements and other popular claims for collectively management of natural resources like the “Guerra del agua en Cochabamba”.

It is no wonder, then, that by the end of 1990s, the increasing number of protests against globalization that took place around the world, started to shape an anti-globalization movement which opposed to international trade agreements and deregulated financial markets that, according to them, provided transnational corporations with a significant amount of unregulated power and led the least favoured people unprotected and at their mercy. Although the germ of the activist discourse of the commons was already inoculated, it was not until Naomi Klein’s publication in 2001 of her article Reclaiming the commons motivated by the first anti-globalisation mobilisations in Seattle and Porto Alegre Social Forum that the term “Commons” would start to be used within this context. The introduction of the concept of the commons provided a new paradigm for both, the anti-globalisation movement and the commons discourse and linked their claims and enemies2 for good (at least for a certain group of commons’ proponents). Whereas the first would shift from mainly being an opposition movement (anti-globalization, anti-capitalist...) into social-justice movement that Naomi Klein pictured as a “movement of many movements […] against forces whose common thread is what might broadly be described as the privatization of every aspect of life, and the transformation of every activity and value into a commodity” (N. Klein, 2001, pp. 81-82) which share the spirit of a “radical reclaiming of the commons” (N. Klein, 2001, p. 82); the latter would get this picture of a past in which everyday life was shared3 as the foundations of a new imaginary of the commons threatened by a new set of enclosures4 perpetrated by Neo-liberal policies in the name of Capitalism, which is seen as the origin of all evil. Be it as it may, what both proponents share is the need of a new global order built upon principles that are not based on competency and profit but cooperation and sharing that eventually replaces capitalism.

Fig. 3.5: Several Zapatista’s signs on occupied zones displaying their political claims and ideology.

Capitalism, accumulation and commons

Capitalism introduced a private property-oriented perspective that resulted in a radical paradigm shift: whereas feudalism was based on acquiring goods in order to sell them in exchange for other goods, capitalism changes its purpose and means, resulting in an infinite loop based on having money in order to sell goods in order to get more money (surplus value). According to Adam Smith (17762007), the origins of this system, capable of continuously re-produce itself that destroyed and replaced feudalism, is based on an accumulation of stock which is prior to everything else (such as labour division)5. This idea is also shared by Karl Marx, who further developed it and named it as “primitive accumulation”, a concept that would become crucial for the advocates of the activist conception of the commons two centuries later.

Marx, who never talked about commons but communism, devoted most of his life to studying what he called the capitalist mode of production and, ultimately, to the construction of an alternative to its predatory nature: socialism (and later on, communism). According to him, and contrary to what Smith depicted as an innocuous and peaceful process, primitive accumulation entailed a series of violent mechanisms by which a reduced group of people obtained wealth at the expense of a numerous group of people through violence, enslavement, colonialism and enclosures, amongst others. For Marx, this massive expropriation made in the name of capitalism (in which enclosures are just a subset of that primitive accumulation) resulted in the lowering of labourers’ salaries, impoverishment of small owners and farmers, rural exodus, desertification of fields, breakdown between labour and property and, ultimately, the replacement of all previous social classes by only two possible ones: either bourgeoisie, (formed by those who possess the means of production) or proletariat (formed by those who do not have ownership of means of production and, thus, only possess their own working labour force which they can sell in exchange for a salary or wage in order to make a living). Previous social classes with privileges like craftsmen, clergy or nobility would not exist anymore. However, far from meaning that nobody would have privileges over somebody else (as defended by Hegel, who conceived contracts as egalitarian tools), not only the breach between the two classes was increased but, according to Marx, this accumulation in favour of a higher economic efficiency, was the origin of exploitation.

Rosa Luxemburg also shared this perspective and went further stating that “Capitalism needs non-capitalist social strata as a market for its surplus value, as a source of supply for its means of production and as a reservoir of labour power for its wage system. For all these purposes, forms of production based upon a natural economy are of no use to capital” (Luxemburg, 19132003, pp. 348-349). Or in other words: capitalism can’t grow only within the capitalist sphere, as it needs to extend outside and predate territories and social groups that are not under its logic to continuously reproduce itself. This is also shared by Massimo de Angelis, who stated that primitive accumulation creates the precondition of capitalist development by separating people from their means of production (de Angelis & Stavrides, 2010) and describes it as a “continuous process of capitalist development that is also necessary for the preservation of advanced forms of capitalism” (de Angelis & Stavrides, 2010) because of two reasons: “Firstly, because capital seeks boundless expansion, and therefore always needs new spheres and dimensions of life to turn into commodities. Secondly, because social conflict is at the heart of capitalist processes” (de Angelis & Stavrides, 2010).

These conceptions about the capitalist mode of production based on primitive accumulation and continuous expansion and exploitation (which inevitably result in class struggles), as well as Marx’s proposals for the communism based on equality, self-management and governance6, have become, centuries later, a reference for activists and scholars, who have given new meanings to the concepts of enclosures (now opened to any form of threat to the common good in favour of private interests) and commons.

A clear example of this can be seen in the work of Stuart Hodkinson (2012), who studied new types of enclosures in present time, and stated that urban commons are the only way to confront them and palliate their negative consequences. So, if capitalism has historically been developed and consolidated by enclosing and privatizing the commons, following a similar reasoning, and as Alvaro Sevilla-Buitrago (2013) pointed out while studying the enclosures in the pre-industrial England and their relation to capitalism, there are a number of new autonomists and anti-capitalist movements which propose to invert the dynamics by collectively re-appropriating and recovering spaces, resources and forms of life. Almost as an exercise of reverse engineering, and as pointed out by Laval and Dardot, the term “common” is now used to “translate fights, practises, rights and new forms of resistance opposed to privatization process and commercialization that have escalated since 1980” (Laval & Dardot, 20142015, p. 109, our translation).

Another scholar who has recently drawn attention to the commons phenomenon as a way to confront capitalism is David Harvey, who had previously translated the idea of primitive accumulation into the urban context and evolved the concept into what he called “accumulation by dispossession”7 which creates a new social class: the dispossessed. According to him, the revival of the rhetoric of the commons gets an added significance in a moment in which state-supplied goods have declined or have just become a mere vehicle for private accumulation. As he argues:

[Commons] are not a particular kind of thing, asset or even social process, but as an unstable and malleable social relation between a particular self-defined social group and those aspects of its actually existing or yet-to-be-created social and/or physical environment deemed crucial to its life and livelihood (Harvey, 2012, p. 73).

He also states that the relationship between social groups and those aspects or resources has to be collective and non-market oriented (excluding exchange or profit-oriented logics). As admitted by him, there is a porous difference between public goods and commons within this conception, to the point that public goods can (and often do) turn into commons: “While these public spaces and public goods contribute mightily to the qualities of the commons, it takes political action on the part of citizens and the people to appropriate them or to make them so” (Harvey, 2012, p. 73). As examples of those public goods that have turned into commons, Harvey mentions public education (“when social forces appropriate, protect, and enhance it for mutual benefit” –Harvey, 2012, p. 73), Syntagma Square in Athens, Tahrir Square in Cairo, Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona (which “became an urban commons as people assembled there to express their political views and make demands” –Harvey, 2012, p. 73) and streets (“a public space that has historically often been transformed by social action into the common of revolutionary movement, as well as into a site of bloody suppression” –Harvey, 2012, p. 73). For this reason, Harvey states that the neoliberal policies result in less public investment, which in turn results in the dramatic reduction of the available commons. Consequently, if the State withdraws from the provision of public goods, the only possible answer is that populations self-organize in order to produce their own commons, which leads to the following conclusion: “The political recognition that the commons can be produced, protected, and used for social benefit becomes a framework for resisting capitalist power and rethinking the politics of an anti-capitalist transition” (Harvey, 2012, pp. 86-87).

The biopolitics of the commons

Two other influential scholars who have updated Marx’s ideas to present times about the commons are Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, who focus their discourse on the commons into the social production sphere8. According to them, Marx’s theories need to be revisited and given a new approach, as the industry has lost its once hegemonic role in capitalism, not just because fewer people work in factories but also because the industry no longer imposes quality over other sectors of the economy (Hardt, 2010, p. 348). Hardt and Negri claim, then, that in the contemporary configuration of capitalism, the current hegemonic form of production is biopolitical and immaterial9, through the production of a coherent and recognisable set of ideas, affects, knowledges, codes and social relations. This new type of immaterial production is not characteristic of the factories but of the service sector and is being imposed to all levels of the economy, from the highest end to the lowest, and to society as a whole (Hardt, 2010, p. 349). This, in turn, has profound implications in the division of labour10 and ultimately leads to another of their fundamental premises: throughout the last part of 20th century, such production of affects and social relationships has been slowly replacing the sovereignty of nation-states by a new form of transnational biopolitical capitalism that they call “imperial sovereignty,” or Empire which they develop in the homonym book (Hardt & Negri, 2000).

This conception depicts a globalised scenario in which neoliberal policies are applied to all the society’s facets to, as stated by Laval and Dardot (20142015, p. 154), provide financial capital with bargain assets for the dominant classes, in which dispossession is just a piece of the whole picture. According to the same authors, the ultimate goal of neoliberalism is not to dispossess certain groups from any of their goods, rights or identity, but to transform all social relations and, hence, the relationship between humans and assets by systematically subduing social reproduction in all their dimensions (wages, families, politics, culture, subjectivity…) to capital’s extended reproduction (Laval & Dardot, 20142015, p. 154). However, as Hardt and Negri argue, this also results in the creation of a common world in which we all live in, for good or bad, and which leaves no space for other alternatives, just because there is no possible outside, as it has filled everything:

It seems to us, in fact, that today we participate in a more radical and profound commonality than has ever been experienced in the history of capitalism. The fact is that we participate in a productive world made up of communication and social networks, interactive services, and common languages. Our economic and social reality is defined less by the material objects that are made and consumed than by co-produced services and relationships. Producing increasingly means constructing cooperation and communicative commonalities (Hardt & Negri, 2000, pp. 301-302).

This new panorama does not invalidate Marx’s premises, nor does negate the action of capitalism nor the existence of manual labour and working class, but points out a single shared logic that applies to all social sectors which ultimately introduces a new type of struggle, not related to material property (either immobile property –such as land– or movable –such as material commodities) like in Marx’s time, but related to immaterial property. Since this new type of property is not tied to the logics of scarcity and is easier to share and reproduce, it is more difficult to control its ownership. Not only that, it is in its nature to be shared and to become part of the realm of the common, as the more it is shared, the more valuable they become (ideas, codes, languages or knowledges, in fact only make sense when they are shared). And here comes the paradox and one of the central ideas of Hardt and Negri’s discourse: it is within the creation of this immaterial and biopolitical common world created by capitalist expansion where lies the end of it, as by expanding beyond the production of material assets, capitalist is encouraging the creation of the commons which will, eventually, overcome it. Or, in Hardt’s own words:

Now we are in position to understand the point of recognizing the proximity between the idea of communism and contemporary capitalist production. It is not that capitalist development is creating communism or that biopolitical production immediately or directly brings liberation. Instead, through the increasing centrality of the common in capitalist production –the production of ideas, affects, social relations, and forms of life– are emerging the conditions and weapons for a communist project. Capital, in other words, is creating its own gravediggers (Hardt, 2010, p. 355).

In this context, Hardt and Negri describe the city and the metropolis as the new factories of the common which, as Harvey (2012, p. 67) outlines, become entry points of anti-capitalist critique and political activism. Hardt and Negri, hence, advocate for a democracy of the multitude pursuing a commonwealth based on the fact that we all share and participate in the common (in singular). They understand the common as a combination of two types: 1) the products of the nature (like the air, the water, the fruits of the soil, fisheries and so on11) and; 2) the results of social production (like knowledges, languages, codes, information, affects, and so forth) (Hardt & Negri, 2009, p. viii). As they both state, contrary to the environmental approach that we have developed in chapter 3.1, this notion of the common “does not position humanity separate from nature, as either its exploiter or its custodian, but focuses rather on the practices of interaction, care, and cohabitation in a common world, promoting the beneficial and limiting the detrimental forms of the common” (Hardt & Negri, 2009, p. viii). They argue that this dual dimension and emphasis on the social interaction practices is key in the era of globalization, as “issues of the maintenance, production, and distribution of the common in both these senses and in both ecological and socioeconomic frameworks become increasingly central” (Hardt & Negri, 2009, p. viii).

According to this new dimension of the common, and as we have previously developed, it is clear that they are present in almost all spheres of social life. However, as Hardt and Negri warn, contrary to this logical conclusion, the general perception is that the common is something rare, even it may be surrounding us. Neoliberal policies aimed to privatize the common in their most diverse forms in order to turn it into private property are to blame, but also the widespread and yet biased public opinion that the only possible alternative to the private is the public, or put into political terms, between capitalism and socialism: either private property regulated by the market or public property regulated through State policies12. This dichotomy clearly ignores the common as something irrelevant or as it never existed. “It is often assumed that the only cure for the ills of capitalist society is public regulation and Keynesian and/or socialist economic management; and, conversely, socialist maladies are presumed to be treatable only by private property and capitalist control. Socialism and capitalism, however, even though they have at times been mingled together and at others occasioned bitter conflicts, are both regimes of property that exclude the common” (Hardt & Negri, 2009, p. ix).

So, when Hardt and Negri advocate for instituting the common, they are referring to a political but also ethical project that poses a third way that is neither public nor private, neither socialist nor capitalist and. Their political philosophy “substitutes older categories like, ‘the people’ and ‘the state’, or ‘private’ and ‘public’, with new ones like ‘multitude’ and ‘commonwealth’ or ‘singularity’ and ‘common’” (Martin, 2013) and, as a result, opens a new space for politics13. It is for this reason that, as quoted by Laval and Dardot, Commonwealth “provided the first theory of the common, which had the historical merit of moving the reflection from the plane of specific experiences on the commons (in plural) to a more abstract and politically ambitious conception of the common (in singular)” (Laval & Dardot, 20142015, p. 22, our translation), which due to its ambiguity14 is yet to be explored and developed.

  1. One of their most celebrated achievements was the agreements reached with the Mexican government which resulted in the signing of San Andrés Accords in 1996, which granted autonomy, recognition, and rights to the indigenous population of Mexico and the preservation of the natural resources within the lands occupied by the indigenous population. However, at present day, and despite several modifications on the Mexican constitution regarding that matter, the spirit of the accord has not yet been translated into specific laws, although Chiapas’ Governor recently positioned himself for that matter (Tuxtla Gutiérrez, 2015).

  2. Being the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, along with transnational corporations, the most quoted ones.

  3. Something that according to Historian Leif Jerram (2015, p. 55) is a false premise, as he considers that it actually never happened.

  4. We have already warned that the concept of “enclosures” has also been miss-used as a synonym of “privatization”, which according to Hodkinson are just a part of the enclosure itself, along with “dispossession” and “capitalist subjectification” (Hodkinson, 2012, p. 515).

  5. “[…] when the division of labour has once been thoroughly introduced, the produce of a man’s own labour can supply but a very small part of his occasional wants. The far greater part of them are supplied by the produce of other men’s labour, which he purchases with the produce [...]. But this purchase cannot be made till such time as the produce of his own labour has not only been completed, but sold. A stock of goods of different kinds, therefore, must be stored up somewhere sufficient to maintain him, and to supply him with the materials and tools of his work till such time, at least, as both these events can be brought about. [...] This accumulation must, evidently, be previous to his applying his industry for so long a time to such a peculiar business. As the accumulation of stock must, in the nature of things, be previous to the division of labour, so labour can be more and more subdivided in proportion only as stock is previously more and more accumulated” (Smith, 17762007 chap. Introduction).

  6. As Lenin (19182009, chap. 3) pointed out, the events that took place in the Paris Commune in 1871 marked a turning point in Marx’s though and their governance model as well as its organization and claims served as an important inspiration for his communist project. Although he had previously stated in his 1848’s edition of the Communist Manifesto that the bourgeois State should be overcome by the Proletariat State which would eventually dissolve until its complete dissolution due to the lack of social classes, he had never explained how this transition from one State to another should take place. It was not after the Paris Commune that he started to have a clearer project and, thus, he made a prologue updating his original version (Marx & Engels, 18482001).

  7. Regarding this matter, Laval and Dardot pointed out the relationship between accumulation by disposession and the increasing number of new types of enclosures: “La desposesión no es un tipo de acumulación original superada históricamente, es una forma permanente de acumulación de capital que, en la época del capitalismo financiero, tiende a convertirse en el modo dominante y explica la nueva ‘explosión de cercamientos’” (Laval & Dardot, 20142015, p. 146).

  8. According to Laval and Dardot (20142015, p. 233) this apparently original conception that Hardt and Negri make about the commons as a result of immaterial labour has been influenced by Proudhon, to the point that they develop a comparison of both thoughts in several of their pages (233-243).

  9. Laval and Dardot call this new type of production as “cognitive capitalism”, the production of which is not industrial but immaterial and, hence, is no longer produced in factories but as a result of cooperation between brains (Laval and Dardot, Común, 226).

  10. For a deeper explanation about immaterial and biopolitical production and their implications of divisions of gender and geographical labour, visit Hardt and Negri (2009, chap. 3).

  11. There is an exact match of this type of commons with Elinor Ostrom’s conception of the commons as Common Pool Resources developed in chapter 3.1, although for Hardt and Negri are just a part of a broader spectrum of commons.

  12. As we have seen in chapter 3.1, this debate is not exclusive from this conception of the common, as Elinor Ostrom also got to the same conclusion, despite her conception of the common is completely different and her methodology, too.

  13. According to Aras Özgün (2010, p. 377): “By formulating the communist project around ‘common’ as such, as a ‘collective productive resource’ that is not ‘property’ (neither ‘private’ nor ‘public’), Hardt’s project breaks away from past interpellations of communism which prioritized the determination of a vanguard socialist state/public”.

  14. Harvey acknowledges that despite Hardt and Negri’s discourse may be as suggestive as Lefebvre’s right to the city, it is as ambiguous and slippery as the latter: “Like the right to the city, the idea sounds catchy and intriguing, but what could it possibly mean?” (Harvey, 2012, p. 67).