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Massimo De Angelis — Obama meets Lenin

Obama meets Lenin

Edited version of a talk delivered at the alternative g20 summit, University of East London – Dockland Campus Dead-Shell, April 1st 2009.

Obama (“at this defining moment in history”) meets Lenin (“what has to be done”?)

At this defining moment in history what has to be done? The many crises (poverty, debt, environmental chaos, stress, meaning, value, anxiety, war, happiness, . . .) that have hit the world in the last few decades, and have converged in the financial meltdown of the last year, require us to try to answer this question. How shall we answer it?

Shall we use the answer chosen by the management of this university? This is an answer that sees the managers of our institutions of knowledge production as oblivious to their responsibilities towards the victims of these crises, hence to the many movements that have been gathering for years in the streets around the world to struggle against the same policies that are at the roots of today’s crisis. They are oblivious to the many who are now gathering in London to demand a fundamental change in the ways we govern our world. They are even oblivious to a petition that in few hours collected more than 3000 signatures from around the world demanding that this university be open to welcome the alternative summit. Instead, this university’s management arrogantly promulgated its edicts, even closed the university for normal academic activity, and filled it with security guards. While we are standing here in defiance of these edicts, the empty buildings of this campus are now a warning to us all of the times that may come if we do not stand on the way of it, at every scale of social action. The answer based on “securitisation”, is an answer that delivers empty buildings, empty spaces, empty brains, empty souls. Bowing to this answer is giving up on any alternative project; it is being part of the problem and not the solution. Whatever solutions we seek in order to address the challenges of our times, we will have to need universities communities that are open to the world, not closed to it; who keep an open mind to the solutions, not restrains themselves to market principles; who welcome and nurture critical thinking and the participation of social movements, not discourage it; who regard campuses as living spaces, not empty shells.

Shall we instead answer it in the way Barak Obama seems to suggest? The newly elected US president is certainly a symbol of hope, because he delivers a message of empowerment. In speech after speech, he reminds us that we definitively can seize control on our lives; that we have power to shape the future by taking action today, that “yes we can!”. But in the policies that are taking shape under his watch, this message of empowerment is coupled with a blind faith in global capitalist markets that turn that empowerment into an instrument for undercutting others, for threatening other people’s livelihoods, for increasing anxiety and artificial scarcity, in a word, for market competition. We are within the premises of an educational establishment, hence let me exemplify with his stand on education. In speech after speech, he promises to increase funding on education, to give US students the best education they can get. But the rationale for this, he repeated several times, is so as the child in Chicago or Detroit can best compete with the child in Beijing and New Delhi. To frame education in terms of competition, is to frame it in the language that reproduces the hierarchies of power at the basis of today’s crisis, that rank the value of lives, livelihoods and dignities in terms of money. This is not the solution we seek, because it is part of the problem.

Shall we instead answer our question in the way Mark Thomas has so energetically put it in his otherwise brilliant intervention here, echoing so many others from within our movements: “kill laissez faire capitalism”? But this way to put it risk to channel the many alternatives into one: “substitute laissez faire capitalism with regulated capitalism.”

The last time we had “global regulated capitalism” was in the post-WWII years up until the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The last time we had “global regulated capitalism” we had high-speed factories and foremen breathing on the neck of workers seeking to accelerate the speed of assembly lines. We also had an explosion of workers movements in many parts of the world, against work intensification, better work conditions and better wages.

The last time we had “global regulated capitalism”, we also had the Vietnam war among others, millions of farmers bombed, a jungle napalmed, and many children born after the end of the war carrying mutilated bodies as birth mark of agent Orange sprayed by American helicopters which somehow found its way into the bodies of their mothers. There were also bitter struggles against this war, in the US, in Europe, in Vietnam, around the world.

The last time we had “global regulated capitalism” we also had a system of education that reproduced hierarchies and prepared the youth to serve as masters of privilege. We also had enormous student movements to democratise both the content of degrees, the arbitrariness of teachers’ judgment, the collusion of university with the military and corporate power, and the right to access education.

The last time we had “global regulated capitalism” we also had the largest development of nuclear power, and the beginning of the great nuclear scare, whether in terms of possible accidents in nuclear energy plants, or in terms of potential annihilation of humanity due to nuclear war. We also had an acceleration of greenhouse emissions that are putting climate change on today’s agenda, and mass development projects that turned rivers into flows of poisons. This is a period however that saw the birth and the consolidation of large new environmentalist and anti-nuclear movements.

The last time we had “global regulated capitalism” women were confined at home, and the home confined women to a subordinate role – as unwaged and invisible. This is a period however that saw the birth and development of women struggles and a revolution in the understanding of politics as pertinent even to the “private” sphere.

The last time we had “global regulated capitalism” we also had racial prejudice and ghettoes where Afro-Americans or the majority of South Africans were confined. We also had many struggles, from anti-apartheid in South Africa to the civil right movement, the Watt riots, and the Black Panther movement in the US. All these movements, among others, have put the question of race on the agenda of social justice, without which Barak Obama would never have become president.

The last time we had “global regulated capitalism” we still had colonies, and if not, the neo-colonial project of development, which impoverished farmers, bled natural resources from entire countries, and set up bloody dictatorial regimes. But colonies where wiped out by national liberation struggles, and neo-colonial projects were contrasted by vast movements that overthrew regimes, and defended their land and resources.

In a word, these many struggles of the excluded from the benefits of capitalist “regulation” have contributed to kill the regulated capitalism of the post war period. Could a new form of “regulated capitalism” for today really deliver us with the solution of social, economic and environmental crisis we face? Hardly so, because if we think carefully of the meaning of all these diverse struggles and movements that contributed to the collapse of “global regulated capitalism”, we can really think of them to fall into two main groups. The struggles that demanded a share of the wealth produced. And the struggles that demanded changes in the way that wealth was produced. In other words, these struggles were about “commons” and “commoning”, the same broad typology of struggles ? cast in new social forms ? we find today.

The key: our relation to the commons

I believe the key to the current crisis and the key to its solution is our relation to the commons. It is the key to the current crisis because the relation to the commons and to the “shared” that global elites have been promoting in the last thirty years is the main cause of the current crisis. Neoliberal capital has responded to the crisis of “regulated capitalism” through massive enclosures of the commons and the planetary intensification of a form of social production, of “commoning”, which is based on a civil war of all against all, what they call “competition”.

But after all, what would you expect from a set of policies that have found inspiration from an economic discourse that see the “shared” as a tragedy? This discourse is for example simply put in 1968 by Gareth Harding “tragedy of the commons” argument, which goes something like this. Imagine a group of producers, say of herders, who access the land held in common. In the fashion of economic assumptions, each of the herders is assumed to want to maximise its return with no regard for the “common good”. In this condition, each of the herders will try to get most pasture for their own cattle. But if all do this, the common will be depleted, hence the tragedy of environmental degradation, resource depletion and of poverty. From this simple parable, there are only two possible policy implications: either privatize the commons, build fences, and let the private producers take care of their own now privately owned resources. Or get the state to manage it. In other words, the commoners’ livelihoods will be preserved only through markets or through the state (or a combination of the two). And so, upon this principle, the last thirty years have seen privatization and enclosures of land, rivers, public services, water, education, and many other resources around the world. But with the enclosures of all forms of commons, and the heavy repression of movements that have raised in their defense, what was also engineered was the dependency of people to the market that increasingly became the only viable option to reproduce their own livelihoods. With increased worldwide competition, lowered access to common wealth as entitlements or community wealth, and new labor market laws that promoted “flexibility” and reduced workers rights everywhere, the result was the increase in poverty, precarity and debt. And the current crisis was triggered by debt!

There are two possible ways to confront the “tragedy of commons” parable, both of which offer us some important hints for the possible direction forward. On one hand, there is the one provided by new communities of commoners who through peer to peer networks, open sources programming or simply the sharing of music and videos on the internet in defiance of property right laws on knowledge and culture, have demonstrated to us how commons are not a dead residue of time past, but are at the basis of innovation and creativity into the XXIst century. On the other hand, there is the one provided by the communities of “traditional” commons themselves, by virtue of their simple presence, sustainability and renewal in spite of powerful social forces that have been demanding their annihilation. This is because there is a major fallacy in the “tragedy of the commons” argument. In this parable, the commons are understood as resources for which there is “free” and “unmanaged” access, resources for which there is no one responsible, there is no one who take care of them. By assuming that commons are a free for all space from which competing and atomized “economic men” take as much as they can, Hardin has engineered a justification for privatization of the commons space rooted in an alleged natural necessity. Hardin forgets that both historical and contemporary evidence show that there are no commons without communities within which the modalities of access to common resources are negotiated, as a previous speaker has abundantly illustrated drawing from his anthropological research. Incidentally, this implies that there is no enclosure of commons without at the same time the destruction and fragmentation of communities. Common resources and empowered communities are two sides of the same coin.

But if we instead choose to highlight the commoning that economic theory chooses to blur, the answer to the question “what has to be done”, is slightly clearer. Because commoning is nothing else than the activities of the community of commoners who decide for themselves what to produce, when to produce, how and how much to produce, when to produce and how to redistribute among themselves the products of labour and the tasks of social reproduction as a function of needs, desires and abilities rather than of money, managerial hierarchy and power. This is for us a defining moment of history then, because the crisis of capitalism coincides with a massive crisis of social reproduction at many levels, and the crisis of the capitalist form of commoning can give way to socially just and environmentally sustainable forms of commoning. But this only if we reclaim the commons, all of them, wherever we are, by reclaiming democratic forms of commoning. To raise to this challenge, the challenge of our times, there is only one thing to be done: we must claim ownership to the places and institutions we inhabit as workers, teachers, students, doctors, patients, producers and consumers, take responsibility for them and together reinvent our commoning, make it inclusive, healthy, and convivial, rather than competitive, unjust and blatantly stupid.