The Revolution of the commons

The common, the Commons, community, common goods… these concepts have put down fresh roots in our imaginary, and they seem to be here to stay.

First ascent of Piz Bernina.

First ascent of Piz Bernina.

In Common

The common, the Commons, community, common goods… these concepts have put down fresh roots in our imaginary, and they seem to be here to stay. Without going into much detail about the differences and similarities between them, we can say that these terms form a language that challenges the duality of the “public” and “private” realms – a paradigm that is suffocating, inflexible, and incapable of responding to the change of era in which we are living. The commons re-positions us, offers a vantage point from which to identify and act upon the constant expropriation of resources and ways of acting that many people think no longer belong to us. The commons picks up the struggles that have historically stood up to a regime that is based on the commercialisation of the social realm as a whole – a space of power, of defence and of reappropriation of collective wealth. The fraternal bonds between the public-governmental and the private-commercial spheres are crushing us. It is time to break up this perverse love story.

As David Harvey has pointed out, the history of capitalism is the history of constant dispossession, a regime based on continuously laying siege to social production. Without this non-stop accumulation by means of dispossession, without the decrees, institutional strategies and tactics designed to extract income from social production, it would be impossible for the capitalist accumulation regime to continue. Constant state interventionism, as well as robust institutions that turn life itself into a commodity, have been necessary to make us succumb to this logic of “the market as social regulator”. Natural and environmental resources, forms of knowledge, cultures, ways of life, and even forward-looking projects are consumed by the accumulation cycle of today’s financial capitalism – a regime that valorises and speculates with any social force. Citizen debt and the erosion of other possible ways of life are the genetic basis of a model that uses dispossession to perpetuate itself.

We have already discovered the limits of a social model based on public property and private property. Now the commons emerges as a new political hypothesis..

Thinking in common

The programme “En Comú”, which brought together various different reflections on this new state of things, was organised around the perspective of the commons. Overall, the participants encompassed a vast territory that focused on issues of varying scale, from individual subjects to the challenges that we are facing at the planetary level.

Josep Ramoneda chose to reflect on freedom – freedom as a base from which to imagine the emancipation of the individual subject, and freedom conquered through the community ties of individuals. Xavier Antich, Joan Margarit and Joan Nogué looked at the city as a space that has had its narrative usurped, where commercial urbanism has transformed what used to be a territory of coexistence and communal production into a context designed for consumption. Ulrich Beck set out the tensions that currently exist between the loss of the autonomy and legitimacy of the nation-state, and the capacity to decide and govern in common at the European level. Lydia Cacho gave an account of public-private alliances to block and attack human rights in a new version of the historical convergence between slavery and the capitalist regime. Through an analysis of the history of knowledge, Peter Burke discussed the new enclosures that are being applied to the collective production of knowledge – regulation and control measures that approach culture as a commodity rather than a right.  Zygmunt Bauman reflected on the worsening of the crisis that educational institutions have been suffering for decades, due to their articulation with control devices and their inability to connect with social innovation processes. Perejaume discussed the stimulus produced by different types of cultures, ways of doing and life cycles that are deeply rooted in the earth – agrarianism as a form of interaction and assemblage with nature. Ramón Andrés talked about the essence of musical experience and its inability to fit into the developmentalist and consumerist logic of the entertainment industries, and about how this mediation distances us from music’s capacity to produce communal spaces. Marina Garcés discussed the central role of commitment today – not as a contract or an individual decision to join a cause, but as a pre-established connection and a position from which to seize control of our lives.

Threats to the common and movements of reappropriation

All of the speakers explored the threats to the commons, but at the same time they offered a glimpse – or more – of the tendency towards the opposing movements. In The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi already described this “double movement” by which the constant expansion of the market is checked by the response of social protectionism. The liberal credo managed to penetrate into forms of social interaction, but the principles of economic liberalism went hand in hand with a complex institutional machinery. The market as social regulator was not by any means a space that came about in a “natural” way. The state intervened violently to impose laissez-faire.

The resources and potential that had been a space of social interaction were turned into “fictitious commodities”. Labour became wages, the earth became income. Now we are seeing knowledge turn into royalties and the body become a commodity. We see desires and life plans turn into debt, we see the rights that we had won being reduced to mere exchange value, used to legitimise an elite that lives off this process of dispossession. But during all this time, the double movement that Polanyi talked about has continued its struggle. The crisis constantly draws attention to the frictions and alternative movements that are an integral part of a social drive that has existed for thousands of years. This drive is now being reborn in movements such as the self-management of urban spaces, infrastructures and resources that had been consumed by property speculation; in processes that are reinstating city narratives that had been considered non-productive and made invisible in favour of the production of urban brands suitable for competitive markets; in movements for free culture and tools that surpass and challenge the indicators of excellence used at educational and cultural institutions; in social movements that reclaim basic rights such as housing, or that demand genuinely public management of essential resources like water.

The Revolution of the commons

The commons is emerging through active political communities, through spaces for the creation and defence of collective production, through movements that construct and recover omitted narratives, through the capacity for invention and mutual support, through grassroots institutions that are capable of reinventing themselves in order to continue to lead by obeying.

The Revolution of the Commons creates a space for reflection, suggestion and action. A base from which to imagine our media and institutions, our ways or relating, producing and consuming. A perspective from which to imagine the human community as a whole. But this revolution has to face up to the unpalatable forms of neoliberal government. It has to confront the institutional machinery that commodifies our community ties, the capitalist production regime that continues enclosing spaces in order to pillage them. This process may lead us to one social model or the other, and the outcome will depend on each and every one of us – on our actions in the spaces that we live in and move through, in the places where we produce or consume. This “opposing movement” must overcome the conditions of “homo economicus”, who blindly seeks to maximise his profits and only sees community as a means to reach his objectives. We humans are interdependent, we exist to the extent that we form communities, and no matter how hard we try to believe in the promised immunity under our individual properties, we are vulnerable. Accepting this vulnerability does not mean taking a servile position and licking our wounds. Instead, as Marina Garcés reminds us, when we accept our vulnerability our communal power bursts forth, and we become aware of our capacity to redefine and take back our wealth.

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The Revolution of the commons