The ‘Capitalist’ Commons as Plan B to save the system from fundamentalist neoliberalism?

Darren Hill mail at
Sat Nov 27 13:48:30 GMT 2010

In an extensive essay, George Caffentzis thinks we must be weary of 
commons that are conceived as saving the system of capital from 
fundamentalist neoliberalism, and believes we must learn to distinguish 
between ‘capitalist commons’ and ‘anti-capitalist commons’. The essay 
examines the Zapatistas, Live8 and the Hobohemia Commons of the 30?s as 
case studies helping us distinguish one from the other.

** Source: The Future of ‘The Commons’: Neoliberalism’s ‘Plan B’ or the 
Original Disaccumulation of Capital 
George Caffentzis*

Excerpted from *George Caffentzis*:

*Part 1: The Capitalist Commons:*

/“Ostrom’s reliance on social capital (the commonism in capitalism) to 
explain commons behaviour is part of a tendency among capitalist 
intellectuals that developed as a complement to neoliberalism./

/The apparent triumph of neoliberalism with its aim to totalise the 
reign of capital has created its own reaction, that is, the conviction 
that there is a necessary ‘commons’ to capitalism itself. Thus the 
notion of ‘social capital’ and the importance of ‘community’ and ‘trust’ 
have been brought to the fore at the very moment of the so-called 
triumph of the market.28 In fact, this led to a re-recognition of a 
social ur-level before contract and ‘the market’ that structures them 
(which had been discussed for the first time by David Hume in Scotland 
during the eighteenth century) and is a sine qua non of capitalist 

/These friends of capitalism revealed that neoliberalism was 
capitalism’s own worst enemy, especially when not controlled by the 
threat of an alternative. For capitalism can reach, both theoretically 
and practically, what I call the ‘Midas Limit’ (when all transactions 
are based on pure utility maximising without any concern for the poorly 
sanctioned rules of fair exchange, and hence are surfeited with fraud 
and deception, or in other words, individualism gone wild). Such a 
generalised condition threatens the system’s own survival as illustrated 
by the periodic crises produced by a generalised ‘lack of trust’ from 
the days of the burst of the South Sea Bubble when the system reached 
one of the first Midas limits. Some have speculated that this limit was 
again reached in the so-called ‘’ era of the late 1990s when 
Enron and Tyco executives (among thousands of others) were largely 
looking to the value of their own stock portfolios rather than the 
long-term health of the corporations they were running. There is little 
doubt that an even more dangerous Midas limit was reached once more in 
the ‘subprime’ mortgage crisis of 2007 that has led to the freezing of 
credit and a worldwide recession in 2009. This era has given what might 
be thought to be oxymoronic creatures, capitalist moralists or business 
ethicists, a new burst of employment in lamenting the ‘state of the 
world’ and drawing up new rules to generate trust in the executors of 
capital’s will./


/Once this productivity of the commons qua firm is recognised, planning 
can begin to determine its greatest capitalist potential. This is 
exactly what the World Bank sees as the purpose of its support for 
‘community resource management’ (while still firmly holding on to the 
overall neoliberal model on the macro-level). Indeed, the World Bank now 
regularly includes ‘common property management groups’ among the ‘civil 
society’ institutions it is increasingly interested in supporting. Of 
course, these commons organisations are to be integrated into the larger 
project of making the world safe for neoliberalism. Indeed, the World 
Bank’s integration of common property into its domain has been gathering 
momentum since 1992. In 1995 it founded the ‘Common Property Resource 
Management Group’./


/Sachs has become one of the articulators (along with researchers like 
Ostrom and Binswanger) of a neoliberal ‘Plan B’ meant to use the ‘social 
capital’ appropriate to the commons to counter the threat to capitalism 
posed by ‘the Poors’. The question for them is, ‘how can a commons 
and/or public good become useful for capital accumulation?’ They do not 
assume, as the doctrinaire neoliberals do, that these products of 
collective choice and rule-making inevitably imply a reduction of 
accumulation. Sachs went on to ally himself with Blair’s electoral 
machine, and with Bono and Live8 he devised a successful strategy of 
confusing the anti-globalisation movement. In retrospect, I see that the 
key to this strategy was the confusion between capitalist and 
anti-capitalist commons. This confusion intensified with the beginning 
of the Obama campaign for the US Presidency that began a year later. As 
he wrote in his campaign book, The Audacity of Hope in 2006, 
neoliberalism (what the Bush Administration ideologues called ‘the 
Ownership Society’) was leading to a political catastrophe for 
capitalism in the US by creating harsh class divisions, an uncompetitive 
working class, and a corrupt and irresponsible capitalist class. Obama’s 
answer to US capitalism’s ills was and is similar to Sach’s answer for 
Africa: communal actions and institutions must be tolerated in order to 
make a functioning capitalism possible./


/Obama, on becoming President, has fashioned an Administration willing 
to apply this maxim using trillions of dollars of government funds to 
undertake a wide spectrum of actions that appear ‘collectivist,’ 
‘socialist’ and ‘commonist’ to a doctrinaire neoliberal, from taking 
control of the banking sector to demanding a specific restructuring of 
the auto industry. But the aim of these actions is to return the economy 
back to its pre-crisis state of minimal state intervention not to 
proliferate permanent commons. Consequently, unless we are clear about 
the conflicting uses of the notion of the commons, everything fuzzily 
congeals so that Live8, ‘end poverty’ campaigners and President Obama 
can appear to be allies of the Zapatista movement! The political 
conflicts (and hesitations) during the G8 meetings can be understood as 
a clash (and a merging) between politics motivated by these two 
conflicting (but confused) conceptions of the commons. A similar point 
can be made about the Obama campaign and his Administration. Most 
important for anti-capitalists is the future of the commons, or in other 
words, whether ‘the commons’ will be ceded to those who want to enclose 
it semantically and use it to further neoliberal capitalism’s ends or 
whether we will continue to infuse in ‘the commons’ our struggle for 
another form of social life beyond the coordination of capital? In a 
sense, however, the future outside of capital’s time is created by 
commoning, so the question we posed at the beginning – ‘does the commons 
have a future?’ – is a malapropism; the real question is: ‘can there be 
a future without the commons?’” /

*Part 2: The Anticapitalist Commons:*

/“There is another concept of the commons that is in opposition to 
capitalist accumulation. In fact, these anti-capitalist commons must be 
enclosed in order to separate the producers from the means of production 
and subsistence to sustain the accumulation process. These 
anti-capitalist areas have their basis in both pre-capitalist and 
post-capitalist time and their action congeals a process of 


/In fact, at every point in the history of capitalism new commons are 
formed (and are almost invariably criminalized in due course). Many of 
these commons arise from the appropriation of new technologies by 
workers and refer to a future form of production and reproduction. Three 
examples of such ‘post-capitalist’ commons are those created by the 
eighteenth-century Atlantic pirates, the late nineteenth- and early 
twentieth-century hobos of US Hobohemia, and the late twentieth- and 
early twenty-first century programmers and hackers of the free software 
movement throughout the planet.34 After all, the pirates expropriated 
the most advanced machine of their period, the ocean-going ship, ran it 
on new communalist rules and used it to plunder the plunders of American 
wealth. The hoboes similarly expropriated the railroads and railroad 
land for their own purposes, and developed new codes for appropriating 
these machines and land. Finally, the programmers and hackers of the 
free software movement are expropriating the most sophisticated 
technology of the age, creating new rules for sharing it (such as the 
‘creative commons license’), and using it to undermine the power of the 
large software monopolists like Microsoft, Inc. They all have a rather 
limited class composition, it is true; its activists being mostly male 
and white. But these are far from the only examples of the creation of 
new commons in the heart of capitalism and we have many examples of 
Africans, indigenous Americans and women establishing commons that 
presupposed the existence of capitalism./

/There are a large number of examples of the creation of a commons out 
of capitalist terrain where time future becomes time present.” /

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