Strategizing the commons (1): Introduction

Darren mail at
Sat Apr 27 06:34:53 BST 2013

* Article: Massimo de Angelis, Crises, Movements and Commons. 
Borderlands e-journal, VOLUME 11 NUMBER 2, 2012.

Massimo de Angelis has written an interesting essay on how to correlate 
the growth and re-emergence of the commons, with the rythms of the rise 
and fall of social and political movements, with a few on the 
transformation of the present society.

We’ll present it in five installments as a necessary thinkpiece for 
transformation-oriented commoners.


“Commons movements’ first goal is addressing directly different needs of 
reproduction by mobilising the natural and creative resources at their 
disposal. On the other hand, movements of protest mobilise these 
resources to put forward claims to the state so as to prevent the cut in 
these resources or their extension.

For this reason, it is possible to find ideological and class divisions 
between commons movements and protest movements, which provide a fertile 
ground for capital to use these divisions and further its livelihood and 
ecological, crisis-ridden agenda. It is therefore becoming a vital 
necessity to develop paradigmatic horizons that favour an epistemic 
decoupling from capital, and a sense of how it is possible to link the 
formation of resilient alternatives that address the problems of ecology 
and livelihood posed by these crises, while at the same time building 
social movements that favour these alternatives and open more spaces for 
their development. We therefore face the double problem of how to link 
together the positive movement for commons to the negative movement of 
class. This paper seeks to shed some light on the relation between 
commons and capital today in the context of current crises, the patterns 
and risks of commons ‘cooptation’ by market mechanisms, and the 
potentials and opportunities for decoupling from capital.” 

Introductory Discussion

Excerpted from the introduction to the essay, by Massimo de Angelis:

“We can postulate the development of four phenomena.

First, the growth of struggles of different sectors within the global 
society throwing a spanner in the wheel and resisting the reduction in 
rights and entitlements necessary for further neoliberal governance of 
the crisis, against debt and demanding some form of re-distributive 
justice to the state. This is what we will refer to as social movements.

Second, the growth of collective self-help solutions to the problems of 
social reproduction faced by communities. This corresponds to what we 
call the development of the commons.

Third, the development and refinement of capital’s commons cooptation 
strategies, or what I have elsewhere (De Angelis 2012) called commons fix.

Fourth, the development and refinement of strategies of repression of 
struggles and enclosures of commons.

In this paper I will not discuss in detail these four postulated 
developments, but problematise the interrelation among the first three 
for the purpose of contributing to the debate over the establishment of 
alternatives to capitalism.

Indeed, what underpins this analysis is an attempt to answer, or at 
least develop a framework with which to start to answer an important 
naïve question. The role of naïve questions, Socrates taught us, is to 
problematise the systems of knowledge at the basis of our certainties, 
of our mental schemes through which we give meaning to the world around 
us and thus intervene in it. In this paper I want to address very big 
and naïve questions, in fact, meta-questions at the basis of what we may 
call a critical theory of the commons. How can social movements and 
struggles change the world? And how can they do it in the direction of a 
far better place for all (or at least the ‘99%’), more convivial and 
cohesive, socially economically and environmentally just, where dignity, 
peace, freedom, autonomy, solidarity, conviviality, equality are not so 
much articles of faith, but guiding values of an orienting compass of 
ongoing social transformation? I do not intend nor aspire to provide a 
firm answer, as this can really be generated through praxis.

Here I only want to discuss few points that I believe must be considered 
as part of the answer.

I begin by arguing that first, in order to ground this question in the 
broad field of power relations, we must have an understanding of the 
systemic forces we are up against. Second, the fact that these are 
systemic forces implies that struggles—even if they seek a radical 
transformation of the system and even when ‘victorious’—can be absorbed 
and become part of the system (co-opted), thus renewing it and 
sustaining it. This gives rise to the first fallacy we have to guard 
from, what I term the fallacy of the political. This is the belief that 
a political recomposition following sustained social movements could 
generate and sustain, through any sort of political representation, a 
radical change in social relations and systems of social reproduction. I 
argue this is not possible given the (adaptive) nature of capitalist 
system. Together with two other fallacies that I briefly discuss (of the 
model and of the subject) the fallacy of the political points crucially 
at the need to distinguish between social and political revolution or, 
in terms of the systems that need to underpin these in order to sustain 
social and political revolution, between commons and movements.

This paper thus discusses the relation between these two (correspondent 
to the first two contemporary development I have identified above).

Commons have as a first goal that of addressing directly the various 
needs of reproduction of different communities by mobilising the natural 
and creative resources at their disposal or that they are able to 
identify and reclaim from other social forces. Often these resources may 
be pooled across a community (an association for example), but they can 
also be reclaimed from the detritus left by capital’s accumulation (such 
as Argentinean cooperatives in factories abandoned by their owners, or 
empty buildings or land left aside for speculative purposes) or by mass 
movements against their privatisation (like the Bolivian ‘water war’ in 
2001 that saw the mobilisation of grassroots water associations 
initiating a mass movement). If commons have a long tradition of turning 
into movements, on the other hand social movements of protest mobilise 
resources to put forward claims to the state so as to prevent cut in 
entitlements or demand their extension. Recent movements such as the 
Arab Spring in 2011 and the Occupy movement in 2011-2012 showed that 
movements do this by pooling resources and coordinating actions and 
decisions through inclusive and horizontal decision making processes. 
Movements therefore are based on commons—without which they could not 
have materiality—and commons require movements to keep capital’s claims 
at bay and extend their organisational and productive reach.

In the literature on social movements or commons this broad relationship 
between commons and movements is insufficiently problematised and 
theorised. To offer an example from the literature on commons, the 
seminal extensive work of Elinor Ostrom so much focused on the 
sustainability of commons, offers little guidance on the need for 
commons to organize vis-à-vis external social forces such as capital in 
order to be sustainable.

In what follows, by discussing some relations between commons, 
movements, and capital, I aim at a first tentative answer to the 
meta-question: our world can be changed by developing a new mode of 
production (social revolution through commons) while keeping at bay the 
old one and reclaiming resources from it (political revolution, through 

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