Review: Omnia Sunt Communia, by Massimo De Angelis

Massimo De Angelis. Omnia Sunt Communia: On the Commons and the Transformation to Postcapitalism (London: Zed Books, 2017).

Massimo De Angelis is a thinker very much in the autonomist tradition; he mentions being a student of Harry Cleaver. This comes through loud and clear in his focus on the self-activity of ordinary people, and on the centrality of their self-created and -governed institutions as the kernel of a postcapitalist successor society.

For De Angelis, the defining feature of common goods is not any inherent quality of the goods in question. It is the objective fact of commoning, that is being currently governed as a commons by its members.

By and large, the commons imply a plurality of people (a community) sharing resources and governing them and their own relations and (re)productive processes through horizontal doing in common, commoning…. [I]n the last few years we have witnessed several cases of alignment of social movements to the commons, a commons which offers great potential….

…I believe there is a social revolution in the making that, if recognised and able to attract more energies from people around the world, could give us a chance to embark on a process of transformation towards postcapitalist society. My underlying conception of revolution is aligned to that of Marx which sees social revolutions — that is, the growth of alternative modes of production — as the material condition for any political revolution. A radical transformation of our world implies that people come together into communities that develop these alternatives to the logic of capitalism, multiply them and interconnect them: I understand commons to be such alternatives.

A huge portion of our lives takes place within the commons, particularly those social functions involving the reproduction of labor power and of the larger social fabric.

We are generally born into a commons, even if it only consists of interactions with our parents or carers, siblings and friends…. Values practices, such as loyalty to friends, conviviality, mutual aid, care, and even struggles, are developed in the commons.

As soon as these networks of social cooperation develop into systemic patterns in neighborhood associations, cooperatives, social centres, food networks and social movements(and given the development of communication and information technologies), these commons-based forms of social cooperation have the potential to expand and reshape their boundaries, renew their social compositions, develop multicultures of horizontality, destabilise official science… and give rise to commons ecologies, that is, plural and cooperating commons with institutions and arrangements we cannot predict.

As George Caffentzis writes in his cover blurb, De Angelis does for the commons what Marx did for capital. He posits the commons circuit (C-M-C) alongside Marx’s circuit of capital (M-C-M).

While for Marx the commodity is the elementary form of capitalist wealth, so for me common goods are the elementary form of wealth of a postcapitalist world.

De Angelis criticizes Marx for largely focusing on capital, to the neglect of the role that the commons play in social reproduction under capitalism.

The commons circuit, C-M-C, is a “selling-in-order-to-buy circuit.” The difference between the two circuits is that “[t]he first has at [sic] its goals the satisfaction of needs, and money here is a mere means for the satisfaction of these needs. The second has as its goal the realization of money: the means becomes here the end.”

This selling-in-order-to-buy circuit is nothing more than a membrane of exchange between commons and capital systems, the boundary separating commons from capital. As a subset of a larger commons circuit, the simple selling-in-order-to-buy circuit only appears as contingently necessary, and different commons may be distinguished by the degree of their dependence on capital’s monetary circuits.

* * *

The point is that unlike the capital circuit, the simple commodity circuit is just a means, hence scalable, depending on the external context, to the structure of needs and desires and the resources that can be mobilised in non-commoditised forms (through for example pooling, gift circuits or administrative transfers).

Hence the commons, by growth, can reduce its need for interaction with the circuit of capital via the cash nexus, and incorporate more and more basic functions of life into itself.

The commons are constrained by the fact that they coexist with capital and the state.

It is up to the commons, therefore, to develop their own politics to attempt to shift these constraints….

The commons and capital circuits have coexisted since the beginning of capitalism, with the boundary and correlation of forces between them constantly shifting. The “structural coupling” between the two circuits “allows one system to access and use the complexity of other systems.” The correlation of forces at any given time determines the comparative power of the commons circuit and capital circuit in setting the terms of their mutual interface through the cash nexus, and whether the boundary between them is such that capital on net uses the commons as a means to its own ends more than the commons uses capital, or vice versa.

…even if it is true that capital can co-opt commons, the opposite is also true: the commons can access the complexity of capital systems for their own development.

* * *

Commons and capital are two distinct, autonomous social systems; that is, they both struggle to ‘take things into their own hands’ and self-govern on the basis of their different and often clashing, internally generated codes, measures and values. They also struggle to be distinct autopoietic social systems, in that they aim to reproduce not only their interrelations but also the preproduction of their components through their internally generated codes and values. They do this of course, in a clear, distinctive way. Capital can reproduce itself only through profit and its accumulation, which ultimately imply the exploitation of labour, the creation of divisions among the working class, and the trashing of nature. Commons can reproduce through commoning, doing in common, which is a social process embedded in particular values that defines a sharing culture in a given time and context, through which they reproduce resources and the community that comprises them…. Commons are generated in so far as subjects become commoners, in so far as their social being is enacted with others, at different levels of social organization, through a social practice, commoning, that is essentially horizontal and may embrace a variety of forms depending on circumstances…, but ultimately is grounded in community sharing. Capital, by contrast, tends to objectify, instrumentalize and impose hierarchical order….

…[T]he commons and capital/state are often linked, coupled through the buying-and-selling site of the market, that is, the ‘economy’. Both capital and the commons buy and sell, although with different priorities and as parts of different movements…. Capital buys in order to sell at a profit… or as means of production, to turn resources into commodities…. Commons, on the other hand, tend to sell commodities in order to buy means of sustenance and reproduction. For example, some members of a household sell their labour power to gain an income in order to be able to purchase the goods necessary for reproduction of the household; or an association engages in petty trade to fund itself; or a social centre sells beer at a concert to purchase the materials to build a kitchen. Buying in order to sell and selling in order to buy are two opposite praxes…, the former governed by a life activity ultimately wasted in accumulation and the latter governed by the needs and desires of reproduction…. In other words…, while reproduction of labour power is a feature of the commons production of the commodity labour-power sold to capital, capital does not necessarily control (or controls only in part through the state and the education system) the labour of reproduction which is fundamental to the commons.

…Furthermore, the environment of present-day commons is dominated by capital loops, the circuits of capital that all wish to enclose and all wish to turn into a profitable enterprise and overwork or destitution for others. If we were to take the large, bird’s-eye view of history, of the original accumulations of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries in South America, Africa, Asia and Europe up to the most recent transition from the post-1945 Keynesian deal to neoliberal, several books could be written about the co-evolution of capital and the commons, about how commons sustained the enclosures of the former by regenerating newer forms in different areas, and how capital has regenerated itself under the impulse of commoner struggles on the shop floor, in neighbourhoods, in bread or antiracist riots or women’s struggles.

I would add that books could be written — and I think a couple actually have been by Kropotkin at least — on how the commons was the fundamental basis of human society from the first neolithic open field villages until the rise of class differentiation and the state, and that successive systems of class exploitation and class states since then have been parasitic layers extracting surpluses from the commons.

With the rise of hyper-efficient small-scale means of production not amenable to centralized capitalist control, and the revolution in networked many-to-many communications, we’re entering a new transition period in which the productivity of the commons is becoming too great for capital to successfully enclose or parasitize upon, and in which the commons will ultimately reabsorb the whole of life and leave the parasitic economic classes and their state to starve.

De Angelis refers to the stocks of common goods that accumulate within commons systems and are available to them for internal use as “commonwealth.”

Like capital, commonwealth is thus a stock, but unlike capital the flows it generates possess different goals and it is enacted through different practices. However, like any other systems including capital, its flows aim at going back to stocks, reproduce them, replenish them and enrich them…

He advocates a synergy between the commons and the new social movements, such that

…they are weaved [sic] in virtuous cycles with their own task: the social movement to shift the subjective and objective constraints set in place by state and capital, and the commons to expand in this new space with new commons-based modes of production.

* * *

The strategic problem faced by postcapitalist commons is here how to extend the boundaries of their operations, through development, boundary commons and commons ecologies [i.e. uniting different commons into larger interconnected systems], to include the ecological and capitalist systems with which they interrelate.

He argues that the most critical area of expansion of the commons is “all those activities that serve the immediate purpose of reproducing life….” like “accessing healthy food, housing, water, social care and education.”

How can commonwealth be used to create a new commons system, one that increases the incidence of alternative modes of production, and increases the independence of commoners from capitalist systems…? How can commonwealth be used in order to increase the power of the commons vis-a-vis capital?… Capital can reproduce itself only by putting to work the physical, mental, and affective energies of people for its own purpose: accumulation…. Capital can mobilise social labour and subject it to its measure, to its valuing of things, through different means…. But the one thing upon which the power of capital is ultimately based, the one thing that enables it to deploy all the other means of its power, is its withdrawal of the means of existence, its ability to control, manage, distribute and shape the meaning of resources that are directly responsible for sustaining human and social life: water, land, food, energy, health, housing, care and education and their interrelated cultures in the first place. An increased ability to govern collectively these resources, to democratise their reproduction, to commonalise them by keeping state and market at bay, are conditions for emancipation for all in all other spheres of life and for make [sic] these spheres of life into a type of commonwealth that is enabled to feel a distance from capital…. To have access to these resources would allow people and communities not only to grow more resilient, to share conviviality and enjoy life, but to build a common social force to expand their power vis-a-vis capital….

In summary, commons that make use of the commonwealth more directly linked to (re)production of bodies and the earth is a condition for the expansion of commoners’ empowerment vis-a-vis capital, and a condition of the reduction of the degree of dependence on capital markets…. It corresponds to the development of a sphere of autonomy from capital…, that allows movements to construct a powerful ground upon which all other struggles can be waged for all sorts of other commonwealth uses.

And the intensification of capitalist crisis and further proletarization “creates the conditions for the flourishing of reproduction commons….”

This fundamental stratum of commons would, in turn,

be such a crucial strategic asset that they would form the material basis of a new commons renaissance in many spheres, building its foundation on these reproductive commons. This is because not only would they give us the benefit of new communities, new cultures, and new methods of establishing wellbeing, security and trust within complex organisation, they would also protect us from the whims of financial markets, and especially, increase our security and power to refuse the exploitation of capitalist markets. The more that capital can blackmail us into poorer conditions, higher insecurity and ever-more gruelling work rhythms, the less we have the power to refuse its logic. Conversely, this power grows the more we have alternative means for our reproduction.

The Parliamentary Enclosures of common pasture, wood, and waste in the UK were carried out to facilitate the kind of blackmail De Angelis writes of; they were motivated by the fact that independent access to the means of subsistence enabled labor to accept or refuse wage labor on its own terms. In the propertied classes’ press of the late 18th century capitalist farmers complained that, because of access to subsistence from pasturing livestock on the commons, gathering food and firewood from common woodland, and the possibility of the landless cottaging on the waste, the rural laboring classes only felt the need to work for wages intermittently. Because of their ability to fall back on the commons, they could not be forced to work as long or as hard as their employers wished.

The commons circuit’s analog to capital’s expansionary circuit is “boundary commoning.” As more activities and sources of sustenance are incorporated into the commons on a non-commodity basis, and the necessary inputs of those activities in turn are recursively incorporated, the boundary between circuits shifts in favor of the commons circuit and incorporates a larger share of society, the balance of power shifts from the capital circuit to the commons circuit and the commons has increasing say over the terms on which it interfaces with the capital circuit.

This parallels the writing of Jane Jacobs and Karl Hess on import substitution — in both cases starting with repair, gradually expanding piecemeal via the production of selected spare parts, and culminating in the production of entire ecosystems of goods — as a way of achieving community

Through commoning, the commons not only can develop new forms of social cooperation with other commons to meet new needs, or increase the non-commodity… diversity of its resources…, it can also establish new markets (such as participatory guarantees or some aspects of fair trade), and bring to the markets goods that fill an old need in new ways, with attention to environmental issues, producer ][pay, quality or minimisation of distance travelled of goods. Commoning also produces local supply chains to reduce the dependence of an area on capitalist commodities and revitalise a local economy. Commoning can thus organically articulate existing skills and resources over a territory, helping a depressed region to realise the wealth that resides hidden with it.

De Angelis denounces the “fallacy of the political,” which sees radical change as an abrupt process brought about through the seizure of political power. Rather, it is a long-term process that involves “the actual production of another form of power” by building commonwealth over time and expanding it at the expense of the capital circuit. He quotes Marx on the “beginning” of “the epoch of social revolution.”

This conception obviously implies that for a historically defined period, both commons and capital/state cohabit the social space, their struggles and relative powers giving shape to it, with the result that unevenness and contradictions are many, as well as strategic games to colonise the other’s space with one’s own values and decolonise one’s own space from the other’s values. The struggle is therefore continuous.

He calls for a social revolution based on the “multiplication of existing commons,” and “coming together and interlacing of the different commons so as to leverage social powers and constitute ecology and scale” and “growing commons powers vis-a-vis capital and the state.

The process of social revolution is ultimately a process of finding solutions to the problems that capital systems cannot solve…. This implies the establishment of multi-scalar systems of social action that reproduce life in modes, systemic processes, social relations and value practices that seek an alternative path from the dominant ones and that are able to reproduce at greater scale through networking and coordination….

* * *

The effect of a significant number of commons ecologies in a single area is intense: it produces a new culture, norms, networks of support and mutual aid, virtuous neighborhoods and villages. For sustained social change to occur, commons ecologies need to develop and intensify their presence in social space up to a point where they present a viable alternative for most people. This point is the point of critical mass.

“Territorialisation” — building up an interlinked ecology of commons, and particularly those involving survival and subsistence, in recuperated areas — is especially important.

I suggest we should take Marx’s warning about radical transformation beyond capitalism seriously, when he says in Grundrisse that if we do not find concealed in society as it is the material conditions of production and the corresponding relations prerequisite for a classless society, then all attempts to explode it would be quixotic.

The corollary is that the formation of the successor society will be an open-ended process, not the blueprint of any vanguard leadership, and its form will emerge from the self-creation of the commoners as creative subject.

It is only when a class of social subjects emerges out of a new mode of production that they helped to shape, sustain and develop that there emerges a new social force to contrast with capital and the state, to deeply transform them, even to commonise them and abolish their worst aspects.* Thus the class for itself that Marx contrasts with the class in itself defined by capitalist exploitation, is the class of struggling commoners, the new subjectivity empowered by the new ecology of social systems they have set in place and intertwined: the commons.

His mention of abolishing the worst aspects of capital and state echoes ideas found in similar thinkers of shifting the nature of states (ranging from Saint-Simon’s substitution of “administration of things” for “governance of people” to Proudhon’s “dissolving the state in society” to Orsi’s and Bauwens’s Partner State) and corporations (experiments in self-management, open-sourcing IP, etc.) even under the existing system, in order to make them somewhat less extractive and hierarchical, and lay the groundwork for a fundamental alteration in their character when the larger system they are a part of reaches its tipping point. The nature of the corporation or state agency is determined by the nature of the larger system of which it is a part (e.g. the evolution of craft guilds from a cooperative ethos at the height of the Middle Ages to an essentially corporate capitalist model dominated by large masters engaged in the export trade in early modern times). The legacy institutions that are able to negotiate the transition process and survive with some degree of organizational continuity in the successor society may still have the same names, but they will be largely different in substance.

A commons movement is not simply a movement against the valuation processes and injustices of capital as well as the hierarchies of the state, but a movement that seek [sic] to commonalize many functions now both in private and state hands, especially those functions that have to do with social reproduction, and that define the quality and the quality of services available….

Aside from the strategy of creating commons from the ground up…, another strategy is to commonalize its existing private or public systems and transform them into resilient organisations, which in turn imply [sic], much deeper democratisation and cooperation, namely basic commons coordinates.

The objective to turn more and more spheres of societies into sustainable and resilient spheres thus coincides with that of adopting commons as a central kernel of the architecture of a new mode of production integrating many types of modes of production….

Commonalisation means to shift a public or private organisation into a commons or, more likely, into a web of interconnected and nested commons giving shape to metacommonality, with the overarching goal of resilience….

For a public institution or private corporation, commonalisation does not mean that a given final result is optimal, but that a process has begun along which there is a collective effort, through the commoners’ democratic management of constraints, costs, and rewards, to increase all sorts of commoning across different social actors involved in the corporation or public service….

  1. the parameter of democracy: democratisation of a state service or a corporation along a scale that has as its two opposite poles management versus direct democracy…;
  2. maximum accountability and transparency and the ability to recall every public servant… and other stakeholder involved in the production of the service;
  3. opening the boundaries between different types of practices and subjects thus allowing maximum cognitive diversity as well as increasing the porosity of the system boundaries to a variety of subjects, knowledges and practices….

He mentions Barcelona en Comu as an example, with such experiments in direct democracy and transparency as participatory budgeting, open policy proposal wikis, etc.

Likewise, he refers to the commons being able to make use of capital on favorable terms “because there is an echo of the commons inside capital or state systems, and thus it is possible to define meta-commonal relations across capital, state and commons.” It is important to remember that state agencies and capitalist corporations are not monoliths; they are governed by hierarchies precisely because the individuals and social groups within them all have interests that may not coincide with the official goals of the organization or the interests of its leadership, so that it becomes necessary to resort to power relations in order to enclose their cooperative interactions — interactions that may function, internally, on the basis of something like Graeber’s “everyday communism” — as sources of value for the organization.  Authoritarian institutions are always subject to concupiscence, the kind of “war within their members” that St. Paul described in the individual. The commons sector can often hope to find friendly individuals and subcultures within the “Belly of the Beast.”

De Angelis sees a cybernetic principle called Ashby’s Law, or the Law of Requisite Variety (“in order to have a system under the control of a regulator, the variety of the regulator must match the variety of the system”; “the greater the variety of the system in relation to the regulator, the greater is the need of the regulator to reduce the system’s variety or increase its own variety”) as both a source of hope and a strategy for victory.

State regulations like health and safety rules are often a means by which capital artificially simplifies society by suppressing the commons, either by imposing administrative costs on the commons that small-scale production cannot absorb, or forcing it into illegality and thereby marginalizing it. For example: “Different households are discouraged from trusting each other when they cannot share at a school party their cakes and biscuits made at home, but instead have to show that they have purchased the product.” Likewise organic certification regimes with such high costs that only relatively large producers can afford them, effectively keeping small producers from legally using the “organic” label. The commons sector has in some cases responded by devising its own certification regimes enforced along Ostromite lines by the participants themselves, although the formal legality of such practices varies from location to location and the attitudes of local political authorities.

To achieve victory the commons sector must increase its internal capacity to self-regulate, while overloading its variety relative to the regulator in order to overload the latter with information.

Here a sub-system of society is comprising a set of self-regulation of the commons…. This wider commons ecology, defended and enlarged by social movements, reduces the power to regulate complexity of the state/capital regulator, who is left with the increasingly impossible task of matching society’s variety in order to regulate. This is the case when commons movements outflank the state and capital.

I would note here that a self-governed system’s regulatory capacity is inherently greater in variety relative to the internal matter to be regulated because the complexity and enforcement costs of regulation are directly proportional to the conflict of interest between regulators and regulated. This is even more so if the self-governed system is largely stigmergic or permissionless, on the model of Wikipedia or open-source software design. A commons ecology that decentralizes and modularizes the complex subsistence and reproduction activities of the spheres of capital and state, and reorganizes them on a permissionless basis, will render them far less complicated than their authoritarian counterparts.

In addition, new technologies of decentralized and small-scale production that make the commons increasingly efficient relative to state and capital also have the effect of increasing the complexity of the commons relative to state regulators. For example, the enforcement of industrial patents traditionally assumed very low transaction costs because most production was carried out by a few large manufacturing corporations, consisted of a few major variations in product design, and was marketed through a handful of major retail chains served by a centralized distribution network. When the product ecology expands by orders of magnitude to include a whole host of open-source designs or pirated proprietary ones available as CAD-CAM files on a micro-manufacturing version of The Pirate Bay, and they’re produced for neighborhood consumption by hundreds of thousands of garage factories run by workers cooperatives of a few people each, the transaction costs of enforcement become astronomical.

Finally, in the event that state and corporation attempt to render the commons more governable by forcibly simplifying them (making them more legible, in James Scott’s terminology), the enforcement of such measures is itself a form of regulation that can be thwarted by making the task of enforcement more complicated than the regulators can cope with (in particular, technologies of evasion or circumvention like encryption).

The disruptive effect on the regulator’s ability to cope with complexity can be greatly intensified, as well, when commons-based social movements engage in the kinds of leaderless swarming or saturation attacks described by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt.

If commons movements become the expression of a political recomposition that is one with a mode of production to expand, to develop and to set against the dominant mode of production, then we have acquired a common sense-horizon, not one that establishes a future model, but a present organisational unit that seeks to evolve and have a place in the contemporary cosmopolitan and globalised world because its power resides in diversity, variety and complexity….

A society is in movement because a large part of it is constituting itself in terms of a growing web of interactive commons, capable of sustaining livelihoods… and of deploying its social force not only to resist enclosures but to sustain and expand its commons. In short, emancipatory social transportation is predicated not only on increasing complexity, but also on the multiplication of commons governing such a complexity.

Somewhat similar to Negri’s and Hardt’s choice of “multitude,” De Angelis prefers “commoners” to “workers” as a name for the subject engaged in constructing a postcapitalist society, because it includes “the self-activity of this class in so far as the many-faceted (re)production of livelihoods outside capital,” and “captures both an underpinning relation to capital and a quest for the production of alternatives.” And, I would add, Marx saw the working class’s ultimate task as abolition of itself as a class; this is an ongoing task at present under capitalism, as part of the construction of the successor society here and now.

He identifies, as one of the ideological barriers to the emergence of commoners as a growing class subjectivity, the idea of the “middle class.”

…which I define not as a homogeneous social group, with a given level of income, but as a stratified field of subjectivity disciplined to a large degree to the norms of behaviour of a modern society in which capital has a fundamental role in organising social production through disciplinary markets, enclosures, governance and its profit-seeking enterprises. In other words, ‘middle-classness’ is constituted through an idea of the betterment and order achieved within the boundaries of the capitalist system.

This is especially true, I think, of the United States, which in many ways as a settler society on the frontier of Western capitalism has become simultaneously the savior of old-world capitalism and — with such components of the American ideology as “American Exceptionalism” and “the American Dream” — an intensification of its most toxic tendencies. Building class consciousness against exploitation is probably harder in America than anywhere else in the developed capitalist world because of this internalized tendency of ordinary people to see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” To see this, one need only go to any tweet or Facebook post critical of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, and look at the dozens of replies from sycophantic dudebros outraged at the blot to their escutcheon.

Among other important points, finally, De Angelis stresses the need for intersectionality within the commons as a source of unity.

The significance of De Angelis’s framing of the commons as a circuit in parallel to Marx’s circuit of capital, the mutual interaction and shifting correlation of forces between them over time, and the implications for postcapitalist strategy and praxis, in my opinion, cannot possibly be exaggerated. This is a must read.

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