The Commons: From Primitive Accumulation to Communism (Swyngedouw, Prodnik, Medak)

It is impossible to talk about primitive accumulation without talking about commons. On the other hand, the reverse is not just possible but seems to be the norm, at least since commons began to gain general public currency after Ostrom’s Nobel prize and Hardt and Negri’s popularisations. Relieved from their role in specialist historiographical discussion about the transition to communism, commons nowadays seem to be on everyone’s lips. But the upsurge of the popularity of the commons, both as a theoretical concept and as a political idea, comes at a price. At least locally, commons seem to gain popularity in inverse proportion to the concept of primitive accumulation.

Thus liberated from their anti-capitalist (or, at the very least, pre-capitalist) charge, commons began to function as a projection screen for the same old weary left-liberal political fantasies and to take up space abandoned by the notion of civil society. Neither state nor market – so it must be civil society, or, in a somewhat modernised left liberal speak, the community. Safe and responsible enough to be included in ‘sustainable development’ agendas, but still appearing fresh and radical, commons seem like a godsend to exhausted left liberal political imaginary.

But there is another trajectory of thinking about the commons, one that doesn’t see them as community ghettos but as a way to transform (and, in a long term, transcend) the existing society. This involves taking the struggles to the workplace, social services, political and financial institutions, and breaking with the reductionist view of the commons as involving only natural resources and selected goods (like health or knowledge). Why shouldn’t money, state budget, public utilities and means of productions be common?

Potential topics of discussion include:

  • a critique of reductionist/liberal theory of the commons;
  • the commons in historical perspective;
  • material and immaterial commons;
  • public (goods, services, utilities) and/versus common;
  • commons and communism (socialised production, withering away of the state, abolishment of wage labour).

Erik Swyngedouw – Being-in-Common and the Commons: Exploring the ‘Idea of Communism’ for the Twenty-first Century

I start from the assumption that ‘the communist hypothesis’ is still a good one, but argue that the idea of communism requires urgent re-thinking in light of the ‘obscure’ disaster that was the twentieth-century really existing socialism as well as of the specific conditions of twenty-first century capitalism. I explore the contours of the communist hypothesis, chart the characteristics of the revolutionary capitalism of the twenty-first century and consider how our present predicament relates to the urgency of rethinking and reviving the communist hypothesis. Throughout, I tentatively suggest a number of avenues that require urgent theoretical attention, and interrogate the present condition in light of the possibilities for creating new democratic, equa-libertarian and solidarity-based space for the twenty-first century.

Jernej A. Prodnik – The Rise of the ‘Information Society’ as the New Phase of Enclosing the Commons

The paper addresses the enormous qualitative transformation in the process of commodification that in the recent decades expanded to almost all areas of social life. Recently, this qualitative leap has been due to the overwhelming capitalist enclosure of the wider communicative field (information, knowledge, language and culture). Historically, the emergence of these processes accompanied the expansion of historical capitalism several centuries ago. However, they gathered pace in the nineteenth century with the increasing influence of advertising and industrial production, which finally led to the development of the full-blown (industrialised) mass media and (mostly US) media-cultural conglomerates in the early twentieth century. Since the mid-twentieth century, there has been an ongoing explosion of commodification in the wider field of communication, which now goes far beyond culture and media. In the words of Herbert I. Schiller, this has been a ‘total absorption in commercial translations that permeates the tightest echelons of the social order filters down to all levels’.

The paper proceeds from the epistemological perspective of historical materialism, understood in Werner Bonefeld’s sense as ‘the critique of things understood as dogmatic. It melts and dissolves all that appears solid’. Its subject matter forms a constitutive part of the field of political economy of communication. The analysis follows the Braudelian ‘longue durée’ approach of analysing long-term changes in social structures.

Jernej A. Prodnik is Junior Researcher in Media and Communication Studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences in Ljubljana. His research focus is the political economy of communication.

Tomislav Medak – Reconsidering Economics, Struggles and Autonomy in the Digital Commons

In my talk, I will discuss three arguments. First, I will show how the arguments around the political economy of digital commons have run into the trap of economics, framing the debate around commons and production in terms of efficient market, transaction costs and price signals arguments. It is probably no surprise that a field studying information should conflate the object of its study – information economy – with the dominant orientation in economic science – information economics. But this focus has lead these arguments to take for granted the assumptions of information economics, including its agnosticism towards the limits to growth and the availability of resources. This in turn has resulted in a blind spot where the debate has ignored the issue of the cost of reproduction of labour that goes into the production of commons and the necessity of reframing the commons-based peer-production (Benkler) as a complement to public provisioning rather than surrendering it into the hands of free-riding markets.

Second, I will look back at the expansion of intellectual property rights over medicines, knowledge and culture, and the drive towards international harmonisation of legal regulation and imposition of strict IPRs on less developed parts of the world that we have witnessed over the last decade and a half as a telltale example of how expanding circuits of property entitlements, commodification and legal regulation serve to establish markets first as a disciplining mechanism and only later as an economic mechanism. The strategy of prospecting and its disciplining effects can be well exemplified if we look at the case of proprietary software, where piracy – as the primary object of global IPR policing – has been at the same time tolerated by copyright holders as a strategy to establish de facto monopolies in operating systems, standards and applications across the globe, including the countries where the purchasing power of local markets does not justify the need for expansion, and hence to establish forms of market concentration that help them make a killing in profits. The imperialist expansion of markets in IPRs has many analogies in the forms of political legitimation with the forms of forceful expansion of markets into the public services we see today in the aftermath of austerity policies.  I will raise the question of the lessons we can take away from the cycles of struggles the alliances of governments of the south and the activists have mounted against the IPR offensive and ever forceful attempts of international policing that have come as a reaction to their opposition. Given time, I will expand that case with another example relating to how capital uses intense spaces of sociality and public hand in urban development to create profits by expropriation of the social and appropriation of the public.

Finally, I will discuss the significance and limitations of decommodified spheres of production in a capitalist system. Given the amenability of free software, open access or, for that matter, public education and other public services to capitalist valorisation process, the fact that they can easily be integrated as externalities, complements or free inputs into the commodified production process, their anti-systemic, disruptive and transformative potential remains limited. However, in a capitalist society they still espouse and achieve a degree of remove from the monetary economy and constitute an autonomous sphere of collective production. To understand what constitutes these spheres of autonomy, I will discuss briefly the example of free software and the GNU General Public License, whose history is entangled with a struggle against a process of commodification of a formerly non-commodified field of co-operative production. Then, going back to where I left off with the first argument, I will try to discuss how forms of co-operative production could be nestled in a system of centralised and planned public provisioning.

Leave a Reply