Federici and De Angelis on the political ecology of the commons

by Melissa Garcia Lamarca

As part of a recent tour across Spain promoting her book Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle (in Spanish here, thanks to the political communication and production project Traficantes de Sueños), the feminist autonomist Marxist Silvia Federici was joined by fellow autonomist Massimo De Angelis for a talk on the political ecology of the commons in a packed room at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.Foto-Federici-De-Angelis-UAB-Gus

In an attempt to embed the idea of the commons in political ecology, both Silvia and Massimo were asked to answer three questions: 1) What do commons mean from a leftist feminist perspective? 2) How can we clarify the definition of commons in order to not be coopted by mainstream discourses on commons? and 3) How can this definition be linked to ecology?

This post shares their insights on these questions, and reflects on what such readings mean for a critical consideration of the commons in political ecology.

Massimo De Angelis: Sustaining alternatives through connecting commoning struggles

Massimo began by locating the first question posed to the speakers in the present, towards his proposal of Plan C (commons) in the context of the crisis. Many different theories view commons as a simple entity or organisation in itself, not located within a field of power relations or larger social forces that seek to coopt and destroy commons. Rather, Massimo argued for a systemic view as a first condition to understand what commons are in the current political economic field. Commons are thus a social system within an environment that includes social processes and other systems. In other words, they have to have a particular relation to a community who claims them as commons, and then reproduces them as a social relation. The generative process of commoning – doing in common, making in common – reiterates and reproduces relations. While this can be considered autopoiesis, that is, as a system reproducing itself through its own resources, the reality of capital’s inherent characteristic that views commons as a resource to take, expropriate and enclose must always be a part of how we understand commons as a political project.

As we find ourselves today in an intensified crisis that is continuously exploiting social and environmental elements – such as enclosures of land and the seizure of water by corporate capital – we face a range of possibilities from social forces in today’s political economy to deal with the crisis. The dominant answer in society today is Plan A: neoliberalism. While one might think we learned the need to be more redistributive with the implosion of neoliberal policies due to financialisation and other processes that spurred the current crisis, we have instead seen an intensification of neoliberal strategies. An ingrained consensus in the global elite, this plan involves a massive devaluation of labour and of capital, creating mass impoverishment as a basis upon which to trigger growth.

Plan B is a revival of Keynesianism: greater state management of the market, redistribution and purchasing power to people. Yet this plan shares the same horizon with the previous plan, the horizon of capital, although each aim at different points: Plan B’s point on the horizon is interventionism, whereas Plan A’s is the unfettered free market. Massimo highlighted that Plan B is rooted in institutions to govern a deal between capital and labour, to regulate social conflict, but questioned what institutions we have today to guarantee this deal.

In the face of these two plans – alongside Plan E (exclusion) and Plan F (Fascism) – we arrive at Plan C, commons. As Marx noted, social revolutions occur when a new social system emerges that finds solutions to problem generated by another social system. Massimo pointed to the explosion we see throughout the world to solve the problems created by the capitalist system as people organise healthcare, gardens, education and other new forms of social systems. What is missing, however, is cohesion among these systems through a coherent discourse, to allow a diversity of alternatives to proclaim themselves as alternatives. In this light, there is not a lack of commons but rather the need for a critical mass to form through concatenations – that is, creating interdependent chain links – into a commons movement, one that is different from a social movement, because commons enable reproduction. Massimo posed some critical questions: How can we concatenate different commoning? How do we create a social fabric and discourse to generate and sustain alternatives? He highlighted the need to think strategically in terms of what domains are important for commons to be developed in a form delinked from capital, and to problematise their defense.

Silvia Federici: transformative potential of anti-capitalist commons

Silvia began by noting that one of the problems we face today is not only increasing privatisation in the current neoliberal phase of capitalism, but also the growing popularity of the commons. The term is used by organisations like the World Bank as a way to in essence privatise forests, seas and other spheres whereby these “global commons” risk becoming a safety valve for capitalism. Another danger is the way in which neoliberalism and capitalism are moving into all spheres of life, and even into our bodies. Now there are increasing numbers of people who do not have an anti-capitalist agenda but rather make a little island or “commons” for themselves – such as gated neighbourhoods – which are built on the principle of exclusion, cooperating only with people that hold their same interests.

So one of the first things we need to do when talking about commons is to look at their anti-capitalist potential, and to understand them as a prefiguration for new types of non-hierarchical social relations. Silvia schematically outlined several principles in response to the following question: How do we know our projects will not create a safety valve for capitalism but have a transformative potential?

First, commons are not only material goods or assets, but relations of solidarity and cooperation; in other words the opposite of the relations that capitalism poses today. This material element of commons is fundamental: there is a lot of talk today around digital commons, but the Internet does not necessarily contain a reproductive element.

Second, there are no commons without a community. Commons are not “free-for-alls” but involve particular commitments and engagement, as commons are not only systems from which we take, but also places where we have to give back, take care and regenerate the wealth that is shared. The relationship is not only about rights but also obligations and reciprocity, within some type of (porous) boundaries yet programmatically against exclusion.

Third, commons have to involve common interest. These two processes are intertwined, in that one of the key objectives of commons must be overcoming the division that capitalism has created in terms of gender, race, nationality and other forms of difference that are obstacles to building a movement. This is crucial because we are at a particular moment today where there is increasing consciousness that capitalism is a non-viable system, as destruction and extinction become more common in political discourse and the evidence is visible in our everyday lives. But divisions – such as the continuous recreation of racism and sexism – prevent unified movements from pushing against the system; thus through commons we need to engage in our struggle with a perspective to overcome these relations. Silvia underlined that this objective has tremendous implications. For example, many celebrate the Internet as a commons, but the technology and resources required to produce the Internet – which include its associated materiality like computers and other infrastructure – is based in land destruction, mineral extraction and other processes. One common is being created at the expense of other.

Finally, the commons are not gender neutral. Society is profoundly divided, and the discourse of the commons cannot be based on a universal subject. Women have historically been extremely involved in the defense and construction of the commons, reflected in the fact that 80% of subsistence farmers in world today are women. Many feminist thinkers today connect the land and the body through mechanisms of privatisation and control: “just as I don’t want to poison myself, I don’t want to poison the land.” The importance of this understanding is rooted in territory, which is why reconstructing the histories of struggles in territory is part of a process of creating a political subject – it helps one see oneself as part of something bigger. If we look at capitalism as from the perspective of the self, we are defeated before we begin; but when we are part of a larger body, we can see other possibilities.

Process, reproduction and political struggle: towards a critical political ecology of the commons

Silvia and Massimo’s insights, alongside the rich interchange of thoughts and questions in the remainder of the session, provided us with many fundamental starting points to embark on a critical political ecology of the commons. First, explorations of commons must be located and contextualised within their existing political economic dynamics, including more broadly in the regional/global context. Understanding a particular commons cannot be based on a predetermined vision or theory – or idealisation/vilification of socio-ecological relations – but rather must be unpacked in its particular space, time and history of struggle, at the same time recognising that this struggle itself changes society and the imaginary. Inherent in this approach is a view of commons not as a thing or object – as they are often seen in ecological and “natural resource” commons studies that have a disproportionately insular focus on the dynamics of commons – but as relational, unfolding as a processwithin larger political, social and ecological systems.

Second, Silvia’s extensive work on social reproduction brings an often-absent feminist perspective to this relational element of commons. Reproduction is central because without reproduction there is no life, making it a terrain for one of humankind’s most fundamental battles. During her talk, Silvia explained how capitalism divided production and reproduction, with production becoming waged labour and reproductive and sexual work as unwaged. This occurred despite the fact that the family is part of the factory, because without new life – reproducing and nurturing the young who eventually enter into the market wage-relations for survival – capitalism cannot survive. The social consequences of unwaged reproductive work has in essence naturalised exploitation: women are seen as bad when they do not comply or refuse their social role in reproduction, labeled as “not real women.” Silvia notes that when we recognise this dynamic we can see the machine of exploitation and begin to see how to subvert it – of course not immediately creating a “good society”, but at least beginning to shift/subvert the terrain of power relations. Thus, considering reproduction is fundamental in building a critical political ecology of the commons, as is unpacking other non-universal subject positions; that is, not only gender and reproduction, but also other subject-positions related to class, race, nationality and other forms of difference.

First, let’s acknowledge the inherent nature of capital as growth inevitably occurring through appropriation and enclosure of other spheres of life. Then, let’s see commons as continuous processes of forging new self-collective socio-political relations in their complexity and multitude of differences. We can, therefore, recognise that commons are clearly not neutral or natural but rather a battleground to re-appropriate key elements of life and reproduction from which the 99% are being dispossessed.

In other words, commons are ultimately and above all a political struggle between those who seek to appropriate and those fighting against the expropriators. The reality that this is a dialectical struggle was underlined by Massimo, who noted that the opportunity and provocation to expand commons often comes from the growth of capital itself. The political question underlying the commons thus emerges: Do we want to expand the wealth we, the 99%, produce, or do we want to expand capitalist expropriation?

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