Talk at the University of Minnesota, April 2009

Nick Dyer-Witheford: the Circulation of the Common

3 / 5 / 2010

1)    It is a pleasure to be participating in a series whose topic is so important and so timely. Talk of commons has become, well, common on the left in recent years. Today, that talk is being tested in crisis-an economic crisis, yes, but one in which the immediate pain of job losses and housing foreclosures and in global wars. This therefore is a prime time to review what the concept of the commons has so far meant for contemporary radicalism, its strengths, its limitations, and its possible development. I will attempt this review largely by a critical look at some of my own work on the topic, recognizing that this work is on the commons entirely part of collective, common, intellectual project: the talk is entitled “The Circulation of the Common.”

2)     The concept is old, going back to the common lands of feudal Europe enclosed in primitive accumulation from the 15th to the 18th centuries, a process then exported around the planet by colonialism. But its revived usage dates back about a decade now to the anti-or alter-globalization movements at the turn of the millennium. Faced by the onrush of privatizing, deregulating and expropriating planetary capital, activists and theoreticians in an array of struggles found in image of the common a point of intellectual and affective inspiration. From land wars in Mexico or India to ‘creative commons’ initiatives of digital culture to attempts to avert ecological calamity, on the streets of Seattle, Quebec, Genoa, resistance to the second enclosures of neoliberalism spoke of itself as a defense of the commons. 

3)    This rediscovery of the commons  was important to activists because it provided a way of speaking about collective ownership without invoking a bad history—that is, without immediately conjuring up, and then explaining (away) ‘communism’ conventionally understood as command economy plus a repressive state. If Lenin was out of favor Gerald Wynstanley, leader of the quintessential commoners’ movement, the Diggers, was in.

4)    Perhaps another reason for the importance of the commons concept to turn of the century radicalism ,was its plasticity, that is to say the number of issues it seemed to cover. One of the most influential historical writings on the commons was  Peter Linebaugh and Maurice Rediker's secret history of the revolutionary Atlantic, which showed how  the confluence between anti-enclosure and anti-slavery radicals created a hydra-headed insurgency that seemed to the ruling class of the day to spring up everywhere. This was an attractive trope for a counter-globalization movement that brought together many different groups, with many different political inflections. Commons covers a variety of proposals for collective management of various resources, some radical, and some reformist. The commonness of commons discourse, the fact that it could be shared by activists of different stripes, was useful for movement of movements whose strength was its diversity.

5)    It was, however, also a weakness. The subsiding of alter-globalization activism was due to 9/11. But before that there was a problem of direction. The difficulty was to think not just what we were fight against, or that we are fighting, but what we were fighting for. Another world might be possible, indeed necessary, but which other world? Was the movement of movements anti-corporate, or anti-capitalist? If it was anti-capitalist, what was its vision of post-capitalism?

6)    This vagueness afflicted the notion of commons. In a telling critique, George Caffentzis pointed out, neoliberal capital, confronting the mounting debacle of free market policies, is could turn to a ‘Plan B’, in which limited versions of commons, pollution trading schemes, community development and open-source and file sharing practices are introduced as subordinate aspects of a capitalist economy, where voluntary cooperation subsidizes profit. One can thank here of how Web 2.0 reappropriates many of the innovations of radical digital activists, converts them into a source of rent. There are, again, historical parallels. In romantic accounts of the historical commons it is often forgotten that commons were a supplement to a fiercely coercive feudalism; contemporary commons have  the potential to be no more than a marginal, and useful add-on to global capital.

7)    Confronting the huge demobilization of anti-capitalist activism that set in round 2004, one  question therefore was whether there was a way to preserve the radical potential of the commons concept, not just as isolated collective islands in a sea of commodification, but as a promise of a world beyond capital, a component of a different mode of production. This is an issue—of life after capitalism—that preoccupied many activist intellectuals Hardt, Negri Albert& Hahnel, JK Gibson Graham)

8)    In my own work, I was inspired by  tried to add to this current by a tantalizing phrase coined by the feminist-socialist Diane Elson-- “the circulation of the common.” The term, which Elson used in an essay in the journal Socialist Register but never really elaborated, suggested to me the possibility that connecting commons to two concepts already in the theoretical tool box of the movement—the circulation of capital, and the circulation of struggle might give a forward looking, strategic analysis of common struggles. At this point, I should warn you, this paper takes a theoretical and abstract turn, from which  however, we will eventually emerge.

9)    So: Marx deemed the cell form of capitalism to be the commodity, a good produced for exchange between private owners.

10) His concept of the circuit of capital traces the metamorphosis of the commodity into money, which commands the acquisition of further resources to be transformed into more commodities. This cycle of capital is expressed in the formulae M ─ C –. . . P . . .C' ─ M'. Money (M) is used to purchase as commodities (C) labor, machinery and raw materials that are thrown into production (P) to create new commodities (C') that are sold for more money (M'), part of which is retained as profit, part of which is used to purchase more means of production to make more commodities; rinse and repeat.

11) Within this circuit, Marx identified different kinds of capital—mercantile, industrial and financial. So, for example, the transformation of commodities into money (C-M) is the role of mercantile capital; that of the production of commodities by means of commodities (P) is conducted by industrial capital, and the conversion of money capital into productive capital is the ostensible task of financial capital (M-C).

12) There is one other factor which Marx did not explicitly include in his map of the  circulation of capital, but which I think today we must include. At the centre of the circuit of capital, like hub connected by spokes to a wheel, is the state apparatus. It protects private property and defends it with coercive force; provides the judicial framework for the sale of labour power, in communication the intellectual property laws, and, has we have seen recently, when the  circuit fails steps in promptly to the rescue . . .

13) Simple version. The elaborations of this model by other theorists have resulted in diagrams of great entanglement. But if we think of a rotating sphere not only accelerating in velocity as its speeds its circulatory processes but expanding in diameter as it fills more and more social and geographic space, we have the image of global capital.

14) The main point circulation of capital becomes an auto-catalytic, self-generating, boot-strapping process, a “constantly revolving circle” in which every point is simultaneously one of departure and return.” This dynamic is the growth mechanism that converts the cell form of the commodity into what Marx termed more “complex and composite” forms, an entire capitalist metabolism. It is the path from capital’s molecular level to its molar manifestation.

15) It was the discovery of autonomist theory to show that the circulation of capital was also a circulation of struggles. Each moment in the circuit of capital is a potential moment of conflict. Thus the attempt to purchase the commodity labor (M-C) could be interrupted by struggles over dispossession of populations from the land necessary to create disposed proletarians; the moment of production (P) was the site of classic work place resistance; the conversion of C-M was liable to dangers from theft to public reappropriation.

16) Each of these flashpoints might ignite others, and then be connected to one another. This de-centered the classic Marxian focus on the immediate point of production, without relinquishing—indeed expanding—the concept of anti-capital struggle. It view of a widening orbit of potentially interlinked struggles is at the root of the idea—however imperfectly developed-- of the multitude.

17) But the theory of the circulation of struggles, in a very classically Marxian way, has little to say about what lay beyond these struggles, about life after capitalism.

18)   So we must postulate another step, from the circulation of struggles to the circulation of the common.

19) If the cellular form of capitalism is the commodity, the cellular form of society beyond capital is the common. A commodity is a good produced for exchanged, a common a good produced to be shared. A commodity, a good produced for exchange, presupposes private owners between whom this exchange occurs. The notion of the common presupposes collectivities within which sharing occurs.

20) These collectivities I term Associations. What is Association? It is cooperative organization. It replaces Exchange—the swap of commodities for money—as the basic mechanism or process in the capitalist circuit. In the capitalist circuit, exchange—the money-goods swap occurs in different registers and with different instruments: think of the difference between buying milk at the corner grocery store, electronic purchase of derivatives on the stock market, and getting your pay cheque for a week’s work.

21) Similarly Association can take  different forms and registers. Here the work of new institutionalists such as the recent Nobel Prize winner Elenor Ostrom, is  truly valuable. Her investigations into the rules, skills, knowledges and information flows, monitoring and enforcement practices is successful regimes managing common pool resources—from agrarian irrigation and grazing systems to the World Wide Web are anatomies of the art of Association, as realized at different scales and historical conditions—studies that, despite their different political tone, bear directly on the model we are exploring hear.

22) The circuit of the common traces how these collectivities—which I term Associations—organized shared, common resources including creativity, machinery and resources into productive ensembles that create more commons which in turn provide the basis for new associations.

23) So in a rewritten circulation formula, C represents not a Commodity but Commons, and the transformation is not into Money but Association. The basic formula is therefore: A ─ C ─ A'. This can then be elaborated into A ─ C . . .P . . . C' ─ A'.

24) Just as the circulation of capital subdivides into different types of capital—mercantile, industrial, financial-- we should recognize differing moments in the circuit of the common. Let’s call them eco-social, labour and networked commons.

25) Eco-social commons would be planning institutions or planetary climate control, fishery reserves, protection of watersheds, and prevention of pollution. Naming these eco-social commons indicates that the same planning logic also encompasses epidemiological and public health care provisions, regulation of food chain, biotechnological monitoring understood, again, not as strategic opportunities for commercial exploitation of species life.

26) By labour commons we mean the democratized organization of productive and reproductive work. This would include worker cooperatives, and co-managed public enterprises, in rural societies land redistribution. But it should also be conceived more widely to include measures such as the introduction of a basic income or guaranteed wage..

27)  By networked commons we mean be termed open source -- using this term, however, to designate not just the innovations such as Linux, but the whole array of formal and informal de-struggles that reconfigure networks not as commodities but as an collective infrastructure. We are talking not just of creative commons; but of large scale adoption in public institutions of open source practices; the remuneration of cultural producers in ways that allow the relaxation of commercial IP rights; plus the education and infrastructures that make access to peer to peer systems a public utility as common as the telephone.

28) To speak of the circulation of the commons is to propose process in which eco-social labour and networked commons each reinforce and enable the other: in which the common goods and services generated by associations at one point in the circuit provide inputs and resources for associations at another.

29) So, for example, we can envisage a process in which large scale eco-social planning seeds various labour commons, worker cooperatives and associative enterprises, which then in turn generate the goods and services required for ecological and public health and welfare planning. Amongst these goods and services would be the non-rivalrous software goods of the networked commons, a pool of free knowledge & innovation to be used in turn in the planning and production of the eco-social and labour commons, for example free applications for labour cooperatives and associated enterprises, for everything from micro-fabrication tools to inventory control to coordinated micro-grid systems of household generated solar and wind energy supply.

30)  ‘Commonism’ would thus be a social order assembled from a connection or circulation of different commons, preventing the capitalist cooption and subsumption of current and new commons by linking them up, attaining a critical mass that counters the weight of established relations. If capital is an immense heap of commodities, commonism will be a multiplication of commons—what I, and Hardt & Negri call “commonwealth.”

31) Where one can see elements of this type of project in action is in some of the ‘solidarity economics’ of the Latin American left, in Brazil but also in Venezuela, Ecuador, El Salvador. Here we see models of social change that works on the basis of a ‘quilt’ or ‘patchwork’ of decommodified activity includes interaction between central state planning and a decentralized network of worker cooperatives, self-management projects, nuclei of development, and so on. In the work of solidarity economists such as Euclides Mance, the units of these networks are conceived not just as individually following principles of social and environmental justice, but as providing inputs for each other, to create an autopoeitic, self-boosting system whose logic is similar to that outlined here. What is being increasingly thrown into the mix in Venezuela, Brazil is now publically sponsored use of open source systems—networked commons. So the recipes are being tested.

32) Let me now very quickly draw out some of the implications of this way of thinking. First, it is against the grain of postmodern thought in so far as it proposes a model of a totality, counter-totality against capital.

33)  But, second, it suggests a multiplicitous totality. Speaking of a complex, composite non-capitalist society composed by an interaction of different kinds of commons—eco-social, labour, networked— each with distinct, specific logics. This isn’t a  top down uniform socialist utopia, and of a capitalism to which there is no alternative, in favor of a new potential assembled from multiple forms of common logic.

34) Third, it starts scales. By moving from a cellular model of commons and association that is simple, even rudimentary, this paper has aimed to suggest a process thinkable at levels from the domestic to municipal to the planetary and implementable at both modest and large levels.

35) Fourth, we can start to build it now. Such a project need not predicate an instant abolition of the market, only the transformation from central system to a sub-system, surrounded by, and subordinated to  a more powerful ‘commons’ dynamics.  It is process of what Christopher Spher describes as ‘out-cooperating Empire.’ This  does not preclude a punctual moment or moments of radical crisis. It suggests that the circulation of the commons have to precede such a moment, to establish its preconditions, and extend beyond it, to actualize its potential.

36) It is worth emphasizing (if only to excite some controversy)  that in this map of circulating commons the state apparatus has a place, an important place. I mentioned at the beginning that one of the important things about commons for the movement of movements was that it provided a non-statist model of social change, thereby freed it from the historical shadow of authoritarianism. But this does not mean that we dodge the issue of the state

37) I mentioned earlier the relation of this model of the circulation of the commons relates to the various forms of solidarity economics in Latin America. The moment in which the commons appeared as a theme was very much that of the Zapatista’s, whose 1994 revolt-a protection of indigenous collective lands—was a commons struggle. And the Zapatista’s also offered a model of what John Holloway termed “changing the world without seizing power” which was very acceptable to anarchist and decentralized left.  Since then, however, we have seen other examples of left Latin American movements which have seized—democratically—power: Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia. These are offering interesting and important laboratories in what a state can do. The experiment in twenty-first century socialism, shaped by local conditions (oil revenues) is offering a case study of interacting between the state and commons institutions—for example, the seeding of cooperatives.

38) Zizek is correct when he says the true task is neither to take over the state, nor to smash the state, but to “make the state itself work in a non-statal mode”—as a machine for incubating and growing commons. For that reason I have recently started, provocatively, to talk not so much of commonism or commonwealth but about biocommunism. 

39) Commons projects are projects of planning; regulation of carbon emissions (or other ecological pollutants); the distribution of a basic income (or of public health or education) programs, the establishment of networked infrastructures are extremely difficult of any large scale without the exercise of governmental power.

40) To speak of the circulation of the common is also to think both how large scale molar governmental planning creates the conditions for autonomous projects—by funding coops or adopting open source and peer to peer standards-- and, in turn, how these autonomous molecular units in turn guaranteed innovation, variegated input and dissent against the dangers of bureaucratization, rigidity, and sectional interest.

41)The movements of movements has   been tacitly split between autonomist and anarchist groups with strong anti-statist perspectives and socialist and social democratic movements committed to governmental planning and welfare functions. It may be both more valuable to think about the potential interplay of these two poles. Thus circulation of the common requires pluralistic planning  and the cultivation of the conditions in which autonomous assemblies can emerge to countervail against bureaucracy and despotism, and provide diversity and innovation in planning ideas. Planning and anti-planning have to be built into each other: there should always be, to quote Raymond Williams, at least two plans.

42) Let us extricate ourselves from pure theory and neat diagrams. It is proper to suspicious of abstract utopias—of what Marx and Engels called “cook books for the future.”  Some of you will think the cookery class has been long enough.  The circulation of the commons arises from the circulation of struggle. Fights for commons--terrestrial, planned and networked-- are happening, now, even in the teeth of mounting war danger.

43) At the start of this talk I mentioned the economic crisis, overlapping with ecological, military crises.  We know that when  the circulation of capital threatens to implode, the state acts to restore it with bailouts and stimulus packages , mobilized with a speed and magnitude makes the provision to save the victims of the food crisis or HIV/AIDS crisis seem (as they are) paltry and lethargic.

44) What would a commonist or commonwealth response to the crisis be?

45) It would not just be a neo-Keynesian stimulus package. It would be a set of demands that the massive state expenditures be directed towards building and connecting commons, collective resources, with associative self-management by those concerned. It would involve a regulation of the financial system that requires investment in community and worker owned enterprises—in constructing a labor commons.

46) . Company’s that are bailed out should become public/worker owned, and be administered as such. Financial enterprises that are bailed out should have a requirement to assist in saving jeopardized homes and in the reconstruction of shattered urban centers. We should make demand for participatory budgeting at local and state levels for all of that money.  The stimulus package should indeed be an occasion for a green deal, but for a deal not run by the private sector, but by schemes for local energy grids, recycling plants and urban agriculture that build collective self-organizing capacity. Networked commons. A response to the crisis of the conventional media that answers to the collapse of news reporting by supporting new cooperative and public sector media.

47) “ Can we start taking land over, developing productive capacity and start thinking about what a creative self-determined economy could be? Gihan Perera is the Executive Director of the Miami Workers Center(1)

48) The circulation of the commons  is a forward projection of these struggles. It is an emergency concept – a concept of emergence.

49) This emergence, however, requires coordination. The future of the commons is an issue of organization. I said at the start that the recovery of the commons was the product  post-1989 left that wanted to shake off the specter of state socialism, to a rhizomatic, networked, multiplicitous and spontaneous and self-organizing left. It has resulted in a new idea of the collective. The question is whether the forms of organization are adequate to connect these initiatives, transversally, and also to link capture portions of the state apparatus that can serve not to enclose commons but disclose them.

50)  What interested Marx about human species being was not just its capacity to alter itself, but its capacity  to select differing options. Famously, he contrasted the worst of architects with the best of bees: both built, but the former planned in imagination, the latter did not. Today, we know more about bees than Marx did; they do plan, not with blueprints but  elaborate bee dances; they suffer from colony collapse, as perhaps we too already suffer; we also know they can evade this fate by adaptation to alien environments—urban bees don’t suffer from colony collapse like rural bees; let us then situate our the project, not of architects versus bees, but of bees and architects, and together plan to ensure that there is indeed a future for the common life.

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