Posts Tagged ‘commons’

This is a brief write-up of a talk I gave at the Cube Microplex last night as part of a night co-organised by Permanent Culture Now, Bristol Indymedia and Bristol Radical Film Festival. The night itself was an interesting mix, with the film This Land is Our Land kicking things off, followed by my inchoate ramblings, and Mike from PCN reading a text about commons, sustainability and land.

Whilst This Land is Our Land presents a really useful introduction to the notion of the commons, demarcating a range of types of commons ranging from communally managed land, through to ‘natural resources’ such as air and water, to public services and the Internet – I think that it’s worth taking a step back and considering whether or not classifying these phenomena as the same thing is really all that useful. Whilst they all are not forms of private property, they do exhibit some differing characteristics that are worth further explication.

The first mode of commons I’d like to discuss is the model of common land – what we could think of as a pre-industrial mode of commons, albeit one which still exists today through our shared ownership and access to things like air. Land which was accessible for commoners to graze cattle or sheep, or to collect firewood or cut turf for fuel. Anyone had access to this communal resource and there was no formal hierarchical management of the common land – no manager or boss who ensured that no one took too much wood or had too many sheep grazing on the land (although there did exist arable commons where lots were allocated on an annual basis). So access and ownership of this communal resource was distributed, management was horizontal rather than hierarchical, but access effectively depended upon geographical proximity to the site in question.

A second mode of commons is that of the public service, which we could conceptualise as an industrial model of commonwealth. For example consider the example of the National Health Service in the UK: unlike common land, this was a public service designed to operate on a national scale, for the common good of the approximately 50 million inhabitants of the UK. In order to manage such a large scale, industrial operation, logic dictated that a strict chain of managerial hierarchy be established to run and maintain the health service – simply leaving the British population to self-organise the health service would undoubtedly have been disastrous.

This appear to be a case which supports the logic later espoused by Garret Hardin in his famed 1968 essay the Tragedy of the Commons, whereby Hardin, an American ecologist forcefully argued that the model of the commons could only be successful in relatively small-scale endeavours, and that within industrial society this would inevitably lead to ruin, as individuals sought to maximise their own benefit, whilst overburdening the communal resource. Interestingly, Hardin’s central concern was actually overpopulation, and he argued in the essay that ‘The only way we can preserver and nurture other, more precious freedoms, is by relinquishing the freedom to breed.’ Years later he would suggest that it morally wrong to give aid to famine victims in Ethopia as this simply encouraged overpopulation.

More recent developments, however, have shown quite conclusively that Hardin was wrong: the model of the commons is not doomed to failure in large-scale projects. In part this is due to the fact that Hardin’s model of the commons was predicated on a complete absence of rules – it was not a communally managed asset, but a free-for-all, and partially this can be understood as a result of the evolution of information processing technologies which have revolutionised the ways in which distributed access, project management and self-organisation can occur. This contemporary mode of the commons, described by Yochai Benler and others as commons-led peer production, or by other proponents simply as peer-to-peer(P2P) resembles aspects of the distributed and horizontal access characteristic of pre-modern commons, but allows access to these projects on a nonlocal scale.

Emblematic of P2P process has been the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and Creative Commons movement. FOSS projects often include thousands of workers who cooperate on making a piece of software which is then made readily available as a form of digital commons, unlike proprietary software which seeks to reduce access to a good whose cost of reproduction is effectively zero. In addition to the software itself, the source code of the program is made available, crucially meaning that other can examine, explore, alter and improve upon existing versions of FOSS. Popular examples of FOSS include WordPress – which is now used to create most new websites as it allows users with little technical coding ability to create complex and stylish participatory websites – the web browsers Firefox and Chrome, and the combination of Apache (web server software) and Linux (operating system) which together form the back end for most of the servers which host World Wide Web content.

What is really interesting, is that in each of these cases, a commons-led approach has been able to economically outcompete proprietary alternatives – which in each case have had huge sums of money invested into them. The prevailing economic logic throughout industrial culture – that hierarchically organised private companies were most effective and efficient at generating reliable and functional goods was shown to be wrong. A further example which highlights this is Wikipedia, the online open-access encyclopaedia which according to research is not only the largest repository of encyclopaedic knowledge, but for scientific and mathematical subjects is the most detailed and accurate. Had you said 15 years ago that a disparate group of individuals who freely cooperated in their free time over the Internet and evolved community guidelines for moderating content which anyone could alter, would be able to create a more accurate and detailed informational resource than a well-funded established professional company (say Encyclopaedia Brittanica) most economists would have laughed. But again, the ability of people to self-organise over the Internet based on their own understanding of their interests and competencies has been shown to be a tremendously powerful way of organising.

Of course there are various attempts to integrate this type of crowd-sourced P2P model into new forms of capitalism – it would be foolish to think that powerful economic actors would simply ignore the hyper-productive aspects of P2P. But for people interested in commons and alternative ways of organising, a lot can be taken from the successes of FOSS and creative commons.

Now where some this gets really interesting, is in the current moves towards Open Source Hardware (OSH), what is sometimes referred to as maker culture, where we move from simply talking about software, or digital content which can be entirely shared over telecommunications networks. OSH is where the design information for various kinds of device are shared. Key amongst these are 3D printers, things like RepRap, an OSH project to design a machine allowing individuals to print their own 3D objects. Users simply download 3D Computer-Assisted-Design (CAD) files, which they can then customise if they wish, before hitting a print button – just as would print a word document, but the information is sent to a 3D rather than 2D printer. Rather than relying on a complex globalised network whereby manufacturing largely occurs in China, this empowers people to start making a great deal of things themselves. It reduces reliance on big companies to provide the products that people require in day-to-day life and so presents a glimpse of a nascent future in which most things are made locally, using a freely available design commons. Rather than relying on economies of scale, this postulates a system of self-production which could offer a functional alternative which would have notable positive social and ecological ramifications.

Under the current economic situation though, people who contribute to these communities alongside other forms of commons are often not rewarded for the work they put into things, and so have to sell their labour power elsewhere in order to make ends meet financially. Indeed, this isn’t new, capitalism has always been especially bad at remunerating people who do various kinds of work which is absolutely crucial the the functioning of a society – with domestic work and raising children being the prime example. So the question is, how could this be changed so as to reward people for contributing to cultural, digital and other forms of commons?

One possible answer which has attracted a lot of commentary is the notion of a universal basic income. Here the idea is that as all citizens are understood to actively contribute to society via their participation in the commons, everyone should receive sufficient income to subsist – to pay rent, bills, feed themselves and their dependants, alongside having access to education, health care and some form of information technology. This basic income could be supplemented through additional work – and it is likely that most people would choose to do this (not many people enjoy scraping by with the bare minimum) – however, if individuals wanted to focus on assisting sick relatives, contributing to FOSS projects or helping out at a local food growing cooperative they would be empowered to do so without the fear of financial ruin. As an idea it’s something that has attracted interest and support from a spectrum including post-Marxists such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri through to liberals such as British Green Party. It certainly seems an idea worth considering, albeit one which is miles away from the Tory rhetoric of Strivers and Skivers.

For more details on P2P check out the Peer to Peer Foundation which hosts a broad array of excellent articles on the subject.

Read Full Post »

Commonwealth is the third in the series of socio-political analyses from Hardt and Negri which began with Empire (2000) and continued with Multitude (2004). To briefly summarise the series so far; Empire provided an overview of the changes to the structures of power and economic forces from the 1980’s onwards which Hardt and Negri characterise as moving from a nation state dominated imperial system to a globalised networked imperialist power and Multitude subsequently elucidated the emerging forms of networked resistance to the newfound global hegemonic forces of Empire.

Commonwealth seeks to further build upon the work laid out in the first two books through a deeper and more sustained engagement with some of the key concepts originally presented in the first two books, while dealing with some of the most pertinent criticisms leveled at the theoretical frameworks of Empire and the Multitude by other leading left-wing academics and theorists (a point which I will return to later).

Consequently while the book can be read as a stand-alone piece, it certainly helps to have read the prequels which give a thorough contextualisation of where Hardt and Negri are coming from, and also provide far more detailed analyses of the economic background from which they draw the conclusion that since the early 1980’s there has been the beginning of a paradigm shift away from industrial production and towards a form of information-led production which Hardt and Negri argue requires a revised understanding of both power and contemporary forms of resistance.

While throughout the series Hardt and Negri have referred to this newfound mode of production (amongst other things) as biopolitical production – using a term first developed by Foucault – both the Foucaultian orgins of the term and the differences between Foucault and Hardt & Negri’s usages are proscribed in far greater detail in Commonwealth.

Our reading not only identifies biopolitics with the localised productive powers of life – that is, the production of affects and languages through social cooperation and the interaction of bodies and desires, the invention of new forms of the relation to the self and others, and so forth – but also affirms biopolitics as the creation of new sunjectivities that are presented at once as resistance and de-subjectification. If we remain too closely tied to a philological analysis of Foucault’s texts, we might miss this central point: his analysis of biopower are aimed not merely at an empirical description of how power works for and through subjects but also at the potential for the production of alternative subjectivities, thus designating a distinction between qualitatively different forms of power. p59

Crucial to this reading and Hardt and Negri’s reading of biopolitics then is that as a emerging hegemonic form of power in the globalised world, biopolitical production is constantly producing new subjectivities and affects which escape and exceed the capitalist form of value extraction and thus produces newfound alternatives to global capitalism. While they are at pains to stress that this in itself does nothing to guarantee any kind of crisis for capitalism, or that capitalist contradictions and crises necessarily lead to revolution, they do argue forcefully that this opens up new spaces of conflict and resistance and produces alternative possibilities to the current status quo.

As the book’s title suggest, one of the primary focuses of the book is on common wealth, or the commons, again a concept which Hardt and Negri use in Empire and Multitude, but which is explored in far more depth in Commonwealth. Hardt and Negri employ a Deleuzian ontology which combines two traditionally distinct usages of the common, firstly the demarcation of a non-human commons in terms of the ‘natural world’ which is posited as an outside set of resources ripe for expropriation, and also the socially constructed commons, such as language, social bonds, affects, thoughts, and ideas

Wheras the tradition notion poses the common as a natural world outside of society, the biopolitical conception of the common permeates equally all spheres of life referring not only to the earth, the air, the elements, or even plane and animal life but also to the constitutive elements of human society, such as common languages, habits, gestures, affects, codes, and so forth. Whereas for traditional thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau, the formation of society and progress of history inevitably destroy the common, fencing it off as private property, the biopolitical conception emphasises not only preserving the common but also struggling over the conditions of producing it, as well as selecting among its qualities, promoting its beneficial forms, and fleeing its detrimental corrupt forms. We might call this an ecology of the common – an ecology focused equally on nature and society, on humans and the nonhuman world in a dynamic of interdependence, care and mutual transformation. p171

One important way in which Hardt and Negri extend their conception of commonwealth is the caveat that not all common forms of wealth are liberatory and positive. Indeed they contend that many of the ways in which the commons is currently experienced is through what they deem corrupted forms in which commonwealth is partially constrained and thus creates not a resource for all, but a means of exclusion and expropriation which striates the social field and creates hierarchies. Chief among these corrupted forms of the common identified by Hardt and Negri are the nation state, the corporation and the family.

H&N go on to contend that whereas the common is produced through love, which they trace conceptually back to Spinoza’s writings on love and joy arguing that love is what produces cultural forms of commonwealth ‘Every act of love is an ontological event in that it marks a rupture with existing being and creates new being…To say that love is ontologically constitutive then, simply means that it produces the common.’ (p181) However Hardt and Negri go on to warn that

Just like the common itself, love is deeply ambivalent and susceptible to corruption. In fact what passes for love in ordinary discourse and popular culture is predominantly is corrupt forms. The primary locus of this corruption is the shift in love from the common to the same, that is, from the production of the common to the same or a process of unification. p182

As such the identitarian forms of love such as patriotism, racism and certain religious fundamentalisms which are grounded on a love of the same and seek to impose that sameness or unity upon heterogeneous elements they classify as ‘outside’ of their identity. Thus Hardt and Negri characterise these belief systems and structures not as grounded in hatred, but in a form of love, albeit a corrupted form which seeks to reproduce unity and homogeneity rather than the diverse and heterogeneous positive forms of the common. This they define as evil; not evil as in the traditionally transcendent binary which stands diametrically opposed to the category of good, but as instantiations of particular forms of love and the common gone bad. This theortisation of evil,

Gives us a Spinozan explanation for why at times people fight for their servitude as though it were their salvation, why the poor sometimes support dictators, the working classes vote for right wing parties, and abused spouses and children protect their abusers. Such situations are obviously the result of ignorance, fear and superstition, but calling it false consciousness provides meager tools for transformation. Providing the oppressed with the truth and instructing them in their interests does little to change things. People fighting for their servitude is understood better as the result of love and community gone bad, failed and distorted. The first question when confronting evil then, is, what specific love went bad here? What instance of the common has been corrupted? p194

Whilst this does provide a novel approach for understanding why people fight for their servitude as though it were their salvation, one criticism to be made here is that Hardt and Negri are vague as to what kind of social forms they envision replacing ‘corrupted’ forms such as the family and the state, contending instead that these forms are currently unimaginable and must arise out out of the practical experimentation and experience of the multitude. While there is a logic which reflects their political position in refusing to project a teleology of the multitude, the failure to provide alternatives to contemporary corrupt forms of the common is somewhat unnerving, the lack of propositions for constructive alternatives to current systems makes the focus of Hardt and Negri’s theorising primarily negative, seemingly aimed at combating corrupt forms of the common without really suggesting the kind of positive alternatives they wish to see created. Where I found Commonwelath far stronger, was where Hardt and Neri reiterated some of the concrete proposals they first outlined in Empire with the addition of far more nuanced details in arguing for a living wage for all, the removal of the restriction on human movements imposed by state borders and universal open access to the commons in order to

Develop fully and put into practice the multitude’s abilities to think and cooperate with others. Such an infrastructure must include an open physical layer (including access to wires and wireless communications networks), an open logical layer (for instance, code and protocols) and an open content layer (such as cultural, intellectual and scientific works). p308

The criticism of the lack of concrete progressive forms for the multitude with respects to the family and the state feed into the second major current of criticism of their earlier works which Hardt and Negri seek to contest in Commonwealth. The first strand of critique, as advanced by the likes of Pierre Machery and Ernesto Laclau, is the argument that a plural and polyphonic choir such as Hardt and Negri’s conception of the multitude cannot function as a coherent political actor due to its heterogeneous composition. Whereas in the past the figure of the party, the people, or even the state and the nation have functioned in a way to unify differences and mobilise populations to create social transformation, and certain critics have argues that without a similar point of unification the multitude can act only as a cacophony of contradictory voices which cannot act commonly. Hardt and Negri’s retort to this is that

It is true that the organisation of singularities and decision making is not immediate and spontaneous, but that does not mean that hegemony and unification, the formation of a sovereign and unified power – whether it be a state a party or a people – is the necessary precondition for politics. Spontaneity and hegemony are not the only alternatives. The multitude can develop the power to organise itself through the conflictual and cooperative interactions of singularities in the common. p175

The second main line of critique which Hardt and Negri respond to are the arguments brought forth by Paolo Virno, Etienne Balibar, Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou, that whilst the multitude may be capable of acting as a political actor – albeit one which substantially differs from traditional forms based around unity – there is no guarantee that the consequences of such a political form would be liberatory and progressive. The actual contents of these critiques of the multitude vary widely, from Virno’s realist position which acknowledges that the formal structure of the muiltitude in now way guarantees the contents of its politics, to Zizek and Badiou’s positions which effectively argue that the multitude is merely an oppositional figure to contemporary character, and that this oppositional resistance can never be more than a mere component of that power from whence it derives, and I find myself giving more credence to Virno’s line of thought than Zizek/Badiou’s.This line of critique is dealt with far less effectively, and while Hardt and Negri do outline some very useful protocols for a liberatory or progressive politics of the multitude, and trace a genealogy of progressive political groups and movements, Virno’s critique in particular seems valid when assessing forms of contemporary networked radical Islamist groups, which exhibit many¬† structural properties similar to the composition of the multitude, however their ideology exhibits extreme forms of what Hardt and Negri descibe as corrupt forms of love and the common.

On the whole then, Commonwealth provides a useful exploration and expansion of a number of key concepts previously presented by Hardt and Negri, while partially addressing some of the most pertinent criticisms directed at their earlier works. As such it certainly provides interesting points for discussion and reflection for people involved in the various social and ecological movements which have grown out of the alternative globalisation movement, and provides some concrete proposals for an alternative to the current global system alongside some detailed analysis of geo-political and economic developments over the last few years. Personally though, I would recommend most readers new to Hardt and Negri’s work to start with their earlier writings, in particular Multitude, which provides a more accessible point of entry to the writings of two of the contemporary left’s most exciting political theorists.

Read Full Post »