Written by Chris Taylor
“Commons Not Capitalism.” So read a banner hanging prominently at Dilworth Plaza on day one of Occupy Philly. Like most banners, it was unsigned, it had no author, and thus I did not know whom to thank for relieving me of my hesitations regarding Occupy.
I was hesitant to support Occupy due to the early rhetoric by which it gained national attention. The movement’s critical targeting of corporate capitalism, finance capital, and “money in politics” implied a reformist politics that refused to un-think the organizing suppositions of (neo)liberal parliamentary capitalism. But, as is well known now, Occupy has always been far more radical in what it does than in what it says. The actions that characterize Occupy (e.g., seizing land, generating forms of participatory democracy, securing subsistence needs) draw on a repertoire of practices that, developed across large swaths of time and space, has become the historical commons of anti-capitalist movements.
By giving a name to what we were doing, the anonymously-authored banner declared that our mode of being-together had a more radical positivity than our reformist critiques would lead one to believe. It achieved this positivity by citation, by revealing Occupy’s indebtedness to and involvement in a common history of the commons, a history without proper names that is eminently difficult to cite.
That the slogan “Commons, Not Capitalism” cites an entire history of the commons is worth keeping in mind, for focusing on the history of the commons should make us more careful and cautious about our contemporary investments in the commons. I focus on the historical dimensions of the commons for two reasons. First, contemporary commons theory tends to be presentist, insofar as particular aspects of our historical conjunction explicitly and implicitly function as the condition of possibility for neo-commoning efforts. One implicit condition for the eruption of commons theory is the historical and ideological collapse of the Communist project. On one hand, the collapse of the USSR led to the untrammeled financialization and neoliberal privatization of the globe; we began thinking of the commons at a moment when they began (once more) disappearing. On the other hand, the collapse of the ideological project of Communism (and, for many, Marxism) required anti-capitalist activists to find a new grammar of revolt. Our new commons theory is post-Communist and mostly post-Marxist—and we must consider whether our investment in the commons is not implicitly a concession to the neoliberal order of things. (The phrase, “Private enterprise can flourish alongside a healthy commons sector” suggests as much….)
Here, the technological production of a post-Fordist “general intellect” (more Marx) means that capitalism is actually producing a neo-commons. The commons are actually immanent to capitalism; intellectual, social, and technological commons serve as the substrate of the capitalist valorization processes. We see, then, that the binary opposition established by the slogan “Commons, Not Capitalism” is a bit flat-footed. Commoning might not get us out of capitalism—it might entrench us more firmly within it.
My second reason for wanting to attend to the historical dimensions of the commons relates to the uneasy relationship between commons and capitalism. As a slogan, “Commons, Not Capitalism” implies not simply an orientation toward the future but an approach to the past. It assembles history as a struggle between these two isolated characters, Commons and Capitalism. The utopian desire of such historiography is one of transcendence, where the Commons finally negates the Goliath of Capitalism. This mode of narration is romantic—and many social histories of the commons have indeed been exhilarating romances. In itself, romance is not bad, and I’ll take a romance of the commons over a tragedy of the commons every time.
But to ascribe an overwhelming politico-ethical value to the commons—as romantic narrations will—is to elide the fact that “the commons” does not imply a single ethic or a single politics, and that, indeed, the commons as such can proliferate and promote unethical and anti-political activities. The commons, commoning: these do not name politico-ethical practices that are overwhelmingly and obviously good, so much as they name new sites and scenes in which novel ethico-political problems will emerge and for which a new ethics and a new politics needs to be articulated. Attending to the gendered, heterosexist, and racist functioning of actually-existent commons should help us critically engage with our own utopian desires, and demonstrate that nothing ensures, in advance, that we will have developed ethico-political dispositions adequate to our being-in-common. As we suture our own post-Fordist practices of neo-commoning to archaic histories of anticapitalist commons, we need to be responsible for the fact that the history of the commons has in fact been tragic—not because liberal subjectivity is an ontological condition of humanity, but because we in common have failed to address the ethico-political problem of being-in-common.
The commons intensifies ethico-political questions that arise from being with others. It names a problem, not a cure-all. We need to submit ourselves to the demands of these questions, to consider carefully how varied modalities of being-in-common contain the possibility of perverse tragedy. Capitalism is itself not not being-in-common, but one of the tragic potentialities of the commons. Occupy is an attempt to reverse the tragic destiny that has befallen being-in-common. As we attempt this reversal, we need to keep the question of the commons alive, to not take “the commons” as implying any necessary ethical or political dispositions. The binary opposition implicit in the slogan “Commons, Not Capitalism” will only make sense if we—unlike the irresponsible, unaccountable structures of capitalism—take responsibility for the ethical challenge of being-in-common.