Archive for the 'political recomposition' Category

Granting vs confirming rights; commons and commoning; invisibility.

Friday, May 8th, 2009

Few days ago I posted I video of Louis Wolcher’s talk on the meaning of the commons, a discussion that find inspiration from The Charters of Liberty as studied by Peter Linebough in his book The Magna Carta Manifesto. I have extracted here the central part. This extract develops four points. 1) The importance of seeing the state not simply as “granting” rights, but as confirming rights; b) For the state (king) to reach a point of confirming commoners’ rights, implies the commoners were already commoning , i.e. took their own life into their own hands: “”to common was to engage in a form of life in which you took your life, your subsistence, into your own hands and you did not wait at the table for crumbs to drop from the powerful”; 3) commoning or the memory of commoning as a different life was central in building resistence to the later enclosures; 4) the problem is today that — in “ordinary people” at least in the US — there is much little memory of commoning, hence people instinctual reaction to “market failure” and crisis is “the market, more markets, different markets.”

Point 1, 2 and 3 are brilliant and simple points that could be put in the first pages of any handbooks on “how to change the world” if there was such a thing. I think that point 4 is problematic. Not in the sense that it does not reflect some true. It certainly does. But because the commoning is not lost in our lives: it permeates them to a variety of degrees as much as it is “invisible”. There is commoning among workers in offices and factories. There is commoning in schools and hospitals. In neighbourhoods, in social movements milieus, in domestic spheres and there is definitively both commoning and a memory of commoning among the indigenous people, the migrants from the global south and in their original communities. How can we recognise it, how can we reclaim it, how can we “own it” and how can we turn it into a social force?

Anyway, here is the text on “The meaning of the commons” by Louis Walker.

“The notion of the commons in the Anglophone legal tradition is rooted in the a particular kind of historical memory ⎯ one that goes back to the fuedual era and that took institutional form in two founding documents of the english constitution: Magna Carta in 1215 and the great charter of the forest in 1225. Now, these so called charters of liberty are widely remembered today, but they are remembered primarily in only one of their aspects. The aspect I am referring to that most lawyers are familiar with in this country is the one that drew the attention of the founders of our constitution. It is the idea that the king, the sovereign, grants people certain rights and put certain limits on his power ⎯ and so in the famous article 39 of the Magna Carta we find the origin of the due process of low for example and the idea of habeas corpus. So what we have there is the idea of the king, anointed by god, putting limit on himself, restraining himself, and granting you rights. Forgotten or, I should say, barely remembered, is the other aspect of the charter of liberty. It is the notion that the king did not grant but confirmed certain customary practices that people have been engaging in for hundreds of years and which were under threat. I am referring in particular to the right of the people in common to make use of the forests and the rivers for grazing, for firewood, for basic economic needs in common with other in the community.”

“It seems to me that it is extremely important to draw the distinction that I have just drawn between the state, or the sovereign, or the king granting people rights, and confirming rights that people themselves take. In the XXI century, certainly in America, we have been beaten up so much by a positivistic conception of the law and of the state that it is hard for us to think of “rights” as anything other than creation of people that are more powerful than us, creation that are given to us by the powerful. But the customary rights that were confirmed in Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, were not given by anyone. They were taken by the people, and they forced the king to confirm what they had already taken. The commons, in this sense, as Peter Linebough so eloquently put in his book, is best expressed as commoning, not a noun, but a verb. People actually expressing not a set of property relationships, but rather a form of life in which autonomy and the ability to meet basic subsistence needs, was something that was in the grasp of the commoners themselves, not something that had to be given to them by a superior authority. Compare that for example to the widespread idea that “welfare” in our society is something that is given by the state, controlled by the state, and that can be taken away by the state. Now, the common in this sense ⎯ and I want to stress this as a matter of law, or rather of legal theory ⎯ was not property held in common. This is an important point. The commons in this original sense was not a tract of land or a forest that the king granted a deed to a group of people, villagers for example, to go in and root around and satisfy their basic subsistence needs. It was not held in common because the very notion of property, of private property is what must be put in opposition to the commons in its original sense, in its original historical memory sense. So, commoning, as a verb ⎯ I guess is a gerund ⎯ to common, how is that? ⎯ to common was to engage in a form of life in which you took your life, your subsistence, into your own hands and you did not wait at the table for crumbs to drop from the powerful. This was what was conferred in the charter of the forests and the Magna Carta in their forgotten or nearly forgotten dimensions.”

“Now the point about this . . .is that the people that commoned and that in some sense were confirmed in their commoning in these charters in the XIII century, their joined cultural memory enabled them to form a point of resistance to effort to extinguish what they have done, to estinguish their form of life. And when the landed nobility in England engaged upon the process known as the enclosures, which in our terminology would be the creation of private property rights owning their ultimate force to a grant from the king, there was a resistance possible precisely because people could remember in their life-time, or in the life time of their parents and grand parents, a different form of living.”

“ . . .Now I think that the distinction I have drawn between the commons and commoning goes to the very hart, in my interpretation at least, of the meaning of the commons. And its most important salience for us today in a world that is melting, is its political importance. If we think of the commons as commonly owned resources then we imagine begging government, the powerful, the technocrats, for a solution to our problems, as we cowar in our homes waiting for the floods to raise. On the other hand, if we think of commoning in its original sense of an ungranted, unscripted form of life, then the possibility just begins to open itself. For us to freely create the future in common with one another . . .”

“There is however a very grave problem with this distinction that I have drawn between commons and commoning, the commons as some sort of property concept and commoning as a form of life. In the XIII century in Europe commoning as a social practice was bread into the bones of the people, it was one of the elements of social construction of reality that people did common. They accepted it as normal, as part of life. And so when a threat came to it, they had a memory, something to fall back on. We are in a less fortunate position. Because the enclosures, the marketisation and globalisation of this world with the notion of private property and global capitalism has eclipsed the commons imagination to such a degree that we have lost contact with this earlier memory if ever we had it . There is nothing for us to fall back on, or, to put it differently, for most people, ordinary people, the only solution they can think of to the failures of the markets that are rawling us right now in so many different ways is the market, more market, different markets. And so, unlike the medieval peasants or the medieval commoners we do not have this cultural memory of a different way of being, or at least the average person does not in the United States. And that present a problem”.

meltdown management

Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

there is a a lot going on definitively in the current financial crisis, and events are moving very fast. Hence, let me try to put some order to some untidy thoughts with the disclaimer that I am commenting on a fluid situation and hence I am not 100% committed to what I am saying

* neoliberlism as we know it, is obviously finished. But this was true also before the recent g8 in Japan. The current crisis/meltdown of finance raises the *urgency* of dealing with the impasse they have been facing for some time now. This moment of crisis we are living is where the different positions and strategic horizons are forced to distinguish themselves and/or find a common ground. This is a challenge for both the ruling classes and for the “commmoners”.

* For capital’s *in general* perspective (that is the perspective of the “system that any government must try to the save whatever means necessary” to paraphrase today’s interview to Tory leader Cameroon who had a sudden taste for bipartisanship in the midst of the Tory conference) the impasse must be solved in a way or in another. Whatever way, it must provide the material conditions to launch a new phase of accumulation. This is obvious, even if it may sound a platitude. But it is a platitude that does constitute the strategic horizons within which the current debates are plaid out.

* what way is of course important. We have at play two broad strategies within this horizon. One, which brings together the panicking US administration (Bush and Paulson) with “responsible” democrats who, pace some populism in their interventions that have realised some fine tuning to the robbery of the $700b, thought to go along with the bailout of Wall Street. I agree with Naomi Klein here. The shock is here delayed. The cost of this bailout (on top of skyrocketing military expenditures), would in the near future tie the hands of any US administration and be the basis of more typical neoliberal policies (cut in spending, re-privatisation of nationalised banks during the crisis, etc.) The infrastructure and energy investment promised by Obama will take place if he is elected, but in a context of populist austerity (in which the cuts necessary to fund these investment are distributed “fairly”). If instead McCain goes to the White House, austerity is already embedded in his agenda even without the $700b constraint. In either case, this bailout scenario is relying on the idea that the system could go on more or less as it did so far, a part for some buffering during this crisis. The difference between an Obama and a McCain administration here would be the difference of degree of governance: obama would manage the flow of domestic and international conflict in a more deal prone way and McCain would replay Bush’s script despite his annoying conciliatory tone he uses to dress the substance of his speech. Obviously, financial capital seem to want the bailout, as it save their skins and, potentially, at least part of their bonuses.

* if the rescue plan goes ahead (there is a vote on Wednesday, we will find in a situation in which public money has been used at a massive scale to buy assets above the value they would have had if the market were left to operate as in textbooks. This is not only something that enrages many people, it is also something that opens to a degree the socialisation of finance used, in this case, in order to save the system itself. Here the US “Middle Classes” are really caught in between a rock and a hard place. Bail them out, and swallow the anger that your money goes to save their neck and more sacrifices will be demanded from you tomorrow to pay for the bailout. Don’t bail them out, and face the prospect that your pensions, your access to credit, your job, your children college, your cars, your way of life is ultimately threaten by financial meltdown (see the amazing Bush’s speech) the other day). In this sense, the Middle Class as Middle Class will not get us out of this mess. The Middle Class must accept its end in order to aspire for a truly new beginning.

* now, the failure to pass the $700b plan (so far, don’t forget they are still trying to patch this up) is really interesting. There is obviously a lot of opposition to this bail out, bringing together hard core republicans and radical left types from the street. From a left-populist perspective, the argument has been made that instead of paying “greedy” Wall Street, money should be put towards funding home owners and the recovering of main street. Some versions of latter-day Keynesianism here are always at play. Saskia Sassen for example has made an argument along these lines in “open democracy”. (see also other examples cited in my blog post few days ago) Some of the arguments will be taken on board by McCain and, especially, Obama even if the $700b passes. But the real interesting perspective here is that this crisis is opening up an opportunity for true “market fundamentalists” to step in (even while they are riding as in the late 1970s a populist rhetoric): don’t bail out the suckers of Wall Street, let them face the risk they have incurred. This is the “moral hazard” argument, with which committed marketeers hammer in their sense of value and justice any time they are in front of a crisis. Crises, even big one, have a disciplinary role to play, to brig about needed restructuring. Let them play it. And since they are the true believer in the end of history (that is, really, that market capitalism is the bliss point of human evolution), they are confident that even a crisis of this proportion can be the basis of a new round of accumulation. Obviously, to the limit this stance could threaten the system itself, *if* the “commoners” had gone through a process of powerful enough political recomposition not only in the US, but across borders. Lacking this, lacking this “explosion of the middle class” and its recomposition into commoners and commoning predicated on new values, this stance offers also a great opportunity for truly massive and major restructuring of the economy and livelihoods at a planetary level in capital’s favour. This stance could even open to a period of the US state taking over of Wall Street devalued financial firms at a bargain, hence the creation of a US Sovereign Wealth Fund that would recapitalise in value in proportion to the global restructuring it is able to implement, and of the expectation of world growth it is able to elicit that would be reflected in the value of those nationalised financial firms. This of course could be in “partnership” with other sovereign wealth funds around the globe, a sort of “productivity deal” at governance level. Here we would have a situation in which the Middle Class would be tied to the neck to accumulation prospects (and its enclosures), around the planet not longer simply because of their pensions, but also for anything the state would provide for their reproduction. We can even imagine a situation in which in few years a Milton Fridman’s type of basic income is introduced together with a tax flat rate, grossly reducing tax revenue, but replaced by the revenue of the US people Sovereign Wealth Fund, capitalising itself in direct proportion to prospects of world accumulation (you can imagine the role of the US military then!!).

The main difference between this strategic course of action and the bailout will be in the intensity of the restructuring needed and its time frame. In either case, and whatever the scenarios ahead, it is certain that after the period of financialisation of society we are entering now the period of socialisation of finance. This has been recognised widely, even by mainstream press. The end of neoliberalism as we know it however, is not the end of capitalist enclosures, disciplinary and governance processes. It is the strategic reconfiguration of the social force we call capital on a new plane.

The question for us is how do we intervene in this new context. The question we should raise and problematise is “what socialised finance” — that is, in our terms, when we strip from money and finance its capitalist form and recognise its “rational kernel” as a conduit for the distribution and allocation of social powers — what decisions of social investments, for what priority, for what needs, through what mechanism of commoning, the fucked up commoning of capitalist enclosures and discipline, or others ones, which one?

Recuperating the Political

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

I post below a recent intervention by Gustavo Esteva appeared in La Jornada, Thursday 4 June 2007. (translated by C. Herold). Commenting on the recent movement in Oaxaca it poses the question of another “politics” based on dignity and presence rather than political “lines” and representation.

“Choose your enemy carefully,” warns an old Arab proverb, “because you will become like your enemy.” If your enemy is an army, you will need to create another to confront it; if your enemy is the mafia, you will become a mafia.

“We cannot involve the army of the United States in the fight against illegal drug trafficking,” said the U.S. anti-drug czar some years ago, “it would create a national security problem.” He was recognizing the risk involved, the risk of the dissolution of the armed forces if they are used for that purpose. His statement was entirely cynical–he had just returned from a tour of Latin America where he pressured every government he met to do exactly that. He didn’t care that those armies would dissolve. The army of the U.S. would remain standing, in case an army was called for. (more…)

Foucault, “specific intellectuals” and the university

Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

foucault.jpgFoucault distinguishes between two figures of intellectuals, correspondent to an historical rupture. The one, is the spokesman of the universal, in the capacity of “master of truth and justice”. The other, a “specific” intellectual emerging after WWII, one who has learned to combine theory and practice, the expert situated in specific contexts, and therefore aware of specific struggles (all quotes below from M. Foucault, Truth and Power. In Paul Rabinow (ed) 1984. Foucault reader. New York: Pantheon Book).

On the “universal intellectual

(67) “For a long period, the “left” intellectual spoke and was acknowledged the right of speaking in the capacity of master of truth and justice. He was heard, or purported to make himself heard, as the spokesman of the universal. To be an intellectual meant something like being the consciousness/conscience of us all.”

In traditional Marxism,

“Just as the proletariat, by the necessity of its historical situation, is the bearer of the universal (but its immediate, unreflected bearer, barely conscious of itself as such), so the intellectual, through his moral, theoretical, and political choice, aspires to be the bearer of this universality in its conscious, elaborated form. The intellectual is thus taken as (68) the clear, individual figure of a universality whose obscure, collective form is embodied in the proletariat.”

This figure, has been supplanted by another one, the “specific” intellectual as opposed to the “universal” intellectual. This, according to Foucault, has emerged since the Second World War, but intuitively, I would suggest, has found much development from the 1970s. (more…)

Thoughts on Workerism after Mario Tronti’s talk

Monday, December 11th, 2006

lenin-in-inghilterra2.jpgIt has been suggested to me, in the corridors of the Historical Materialism conference held over the week end, that what distinguishes what we may call, broadly speaking, autonomist marxism with other marxist approaches is the argument that the “working class” is the agent of transformation that pushes capital on the defence and forces its “economic” development rather then, on the contrary, being capital that “overdetermines” the rest by means of its agency. This suggestion furthermore is accompanied by the claim that this view is false, since capital has “more power”. In my view, the insight of 1960s operaismo with respect to working class agency were not falsified in light of 1980s capital’s agency, they were simply temporally bounded. Class struggle, in a process-like manner, have at least two broad actors, not one, and their tragic-comic struggle develop through highs and lows for both sides, “scoring points” for both sides. The process of this historical development of struggle, this very process of “point scoring” for one or the other, is the stuff of capitalist development. The problem is that acknowledging this does not give us any hint of how to go beyond capital and the very specific form of struggle shaping its development.

And I think it is at this point that it is important to underline that what distinguishes “autonomist marxism” in its operaiste roots to other forms of marxism, is a specific theoretical attitude, one that takes the processes that traditionally we understand as “political” and “economic”, as one. Its unique political methodology is one that allows to ask research questions as part of a heretic research program, (more…)

rough notes on a point of division: Durban, South Africa

Wednesday, March 1st, 2006

rough notes on a point of division: => I learn that a community is divided on a question of the damp and project of incinerator. Near the Kennedy road, where the poorerst dwellers live in shacks, there is an old dump in a valley being filled for years . . .contradiction between the poorest communities (kennedy road) and the less poor, in a different housing estate, a bit higher up, people living in solid houses and not shacks . . .the latter is a bit further away from the dump. The latter wanted the dump to be removed, while the council wanted to put an incinirator to earn some brownie carbon credit points to contribute to the neoliberal way of dealing with global warning (sic!) . . .the poorest communities wanted the dump out, but the council started to promise house regeneration and other services, a very attractive prospect . . .hence there is here a line of division between the two communities . . .of course the council promises are empty, but is it better to believe empty promises or no promises at all? Will a common be found among the two communities to go beyond a point of division?