Afterword

After the commons—commoning!

in Focaal
Author: Don Kalb 1
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  • 1 University of Bergen donkalb@gmail.com

Abstract

Commoning over time generates customs in common and therefore commonalities. The political mobilizations of the past years may well be understood as a form of urban commoning. However, while such mobilizations may sometimes understand themselves as anticapitalist, one should resist the apparently logical idea (1) that the use values offered by an urban commons are inevitably the opposite of surplus value, (2) that the urban commons will not just in theory but in practice be “open for everyone,” (3) and that such commons are necessarily horizontalist and universalist, as the Left might claim. Historical fascism and the rise of the new Right in Europe and the United States show that there is an exclusivist and hierarchical commons against the market too.

The big story is straightforward, though not necessarily correct in all its details, and certainly not for each and every place. It remains useful to spell it out: Once, before capitalism, before population pressure, before urbanism as the default mode of social existence for a majority of mankind, humans in rural communities tended to have access to a commons of land, water, forest, game, and pasture, as well as a commons of sharing and collaboration. This was not primitive communism without any private property à la Marx, nor generalized horizontalism à la the anarchists, but it was a world where members of human communities enjoyed access to an array of common resources that were essential for their social survival. And they could claim such access because they were both humans and members of a local or a kinship group, and because they were generally aware, or made aware, of both their rights and their duties in relation to such commons.

In the next stage, the story goes, primitive accumulation arrived, driven by capitalists and states that were becoming ever more capitalist. It dispossessed communities of those common resources, gradually or overnight. This account remains valid in general, even when anthropologists and historians have shown that during that long transition toward a regime of capital accumulation and its associated enclosures, privatization of assets, marketization, and proletarianization, some local assets in some places could certainly continue to be managed and even owned in common. Granted, these were generally on a small scale, and they were not supposed to become antagonistic to the overall project of capitalization. Also, during that transition, common people would make claims against the regime of property through low-level “commoning” practices such as poaching and foraging—weapons of the weak—but that might, under conditions of crisis or price shocks, sometimes involve outright popular rebellions. Grain, bread, and fish riots are perhaps the best examples. Such practices and events served to sustain what E. P. Thompson (1993) called “customs in common.”

Such customs in common would then feed into some of the popular and practical bases of an imagined community of rights that would subsequently serve to subvert and limit the rise of capital—even if, or perhaps particularly if, these were in fact rights under assault. Commoning over time, thus, tends to create commonalities and customs in common. That is one reason why one should be ferociously in favor of bringing the idea of commoning, the verb, back—to refer to the question posed by Ida Susser in the title of this theme section. One would want to do so at this moment in time in order to set the historical production of popular reason, common sense, and good sense in the Gramscian meanings of those words, in a dynamic and dialectical relation to the making, sustaining, and managing of urban assets that are held in common—that is, we need commoning as a verb on behalf of getting some intellectual leverage on the making of a practical, factual, and popularly imagined commons. Over time, there will be no commons without commoning.

The transition toward an urban industrial society—the next phase of this big story—then produced a paradox: the society of capital, now firmly ruled by private property and markets, and ever more urban, tended, against the fears of the early commentators, to generate robust social and civic action on behalf of the construction of an urban commons: a commons for housing, for utilities, for education, for health, for funerals, for playgrounds, for parks, and indeed even for work. Thompson’s oeuvre suggests that the first mass-scale working-class movement, the Chartists, made itself partly out of the customs in common of an earlier age, and not merely out of similar “structural” positions. Commonality, by this count, is a social artifact, not a mere fact, a collective achievement, as the article by Sandra Morgen and Jennifer Erickson suggests for a later age and another place. That is so for classes as much as for nations. For a multitude of people with a wide array of different occupations and significant mutual differences of status and prestige to call itself “a working class” is an achievement. The popular will and capacity for commoning was always a necessary precondition. The making of the working class contributed powerfully to the rise and elaboration of the idea of the urban commons.

The later labor movements, it is nowadays easily forgotten, were also in important ways urban movements: workers combined and made claims on capital and the state on behalf of their social reproduction, with housing, health, education, and pensions as the key issues, next to the regulation of work and hiring. Local bourgeoisies combined too and claimed slightly different but sometimes overlapping things, such as sewerage, running water, libraries, and public space. Both the working class and the middle class proposed that they could be taxed in order to finance this. And together they claimed the possibility of leisure; sometimes more and sometimes less class segregated. After 1850, the liberal professions generally supported this urban agenda. And after 1900, the enlightened parts of capital became interested as well, as they were seeking ways to stabilize and elevate the quality of their work forces to match the ongoing upgrading of their production processes (for a summary, see Kalb 2014b).

The sums, skills, and organizational capacities involved in the running of such urban commons were soon unprecedented. It came, therefore, as no surprise that the state, fiscality, and formal legality would over time become the essential organizers, providers, and guarantors of these rights and thus lift the emerging urban commons out of the immediate scope of popular commoning practices. The ontological divides between the commons, the state, and the market merit steady reflection, as all contributors to this theme section note. The commons, let alone commoning, is ontologically separate and different, even opposite in spirit and practice, from institutional entities such as the state and the bureaucracy. The rule of law that governs such entities, so cherished by the liberals, has never been set up as a friend of commoning, not even of the perfectly democratic kind of commoning. The state, the bureaucracy, and the rule of law turn a common good into a public good, ruled by public or civil law. Jeff Maskovsky’s ruminations on “synoptic” policing practices in inner cities in the United States show the extent to which the latter has de facto become a vehicle for direct repression of any popular commoning activities in US inner cities—particularly by black youth. This is in principle nothing new, even when the extent, the sophistication, and the implied cynicism must come as a shock. But despite these basic conceptual distinctions, it is useful to recall that the urban commons in its initial phases was a project of urban commoning, including the implied mobilizations, the active democratic claim making, and the resultant proliferation of aspirations and visions for a common urban modernity, indeed for urban modernity as a potential and factual commons. A right to the city was indeed a right potentially given to all, at least in rhetoric and ideology, in contrast to the programmatically restricted rights of access to the rural commons, as Don Nonini notes—even though reality was never really so, as unskilled workers of any color, and colored workers of any skill have always known, and as women have experienced. Universalism in ideology does in itself not prevent hierarchy and domination in its execution, and indeed in its very functioning from within.

But overall, this was Göran Therborn’s (1995) twentieth-century “European modernity”: the modernity of the social democratic state-organized urban commons. That modernity is now definitely over, even while some of its remnants will be lingering for a long while and might even sometimes be cherished as practical solutions for problems of urban administration and management. Now that the whole planet has finally become urban and industrial, and has been solidly set up as a hypercompetitive global field by the neoliberal globalizers, the high-cost urban commons of “the West,” as Susser notes in her introduction, is under assault, just like the rural commons once was at the hand of the early capitalists. Primitive accumulation is back. States are deeply indebted and in the process of becoming overall rent takers over their infrastructural urban legacies. The assault takes the form of enclosure, privatization, gentrification, financialization, precariatization, and other “–izations” associated with the capitalist restoration of the past 40 years, including of course securitization in all its proliferating and interconnected meanings.

Susser’s argument is that the mass mobilizations of “the movement of the squares”—Occupy, Indignados, Nuit Debout, and others—should be seen as a new form of commoning: a commoning after the commons. They are claiming the right to occupy public spaces via direct action for longer periods, turning them into a commons against the security mania of local state and police. But they do so without seeking to make any concrete political claims—yet. The goal is, as Susser shows, to help explore the possible commonalities among citizens who sense their gradual dispossession of a once accessible commons, and to bring together activists from different fields in a common urban project. Susser’s subjects are discovering and trying out new common languages of the commons, vocabularies that seek a revaluation of the urban commons in the context of the post-1989 global value regime of capital and its systemic attack on the remnants of popular sovereignty and the social democratic urban commons with which it was associated.

There are many things to say about the exciting articles in this section, but I will limit myself to three general points. The first is about the commons, the state, and “the economy,” the ontological distinctions mentioned above—in other words, about the commons, commoning, and accumulation. Don Nonini, in his excellent article on squatting and the housing commons of Amsterdam (in the 1970s and 1980s), offers the important definitional point that the urban commons is defined by use values versus exchange values. This seems to make perfect sense but only in the most immediate meaning of the term. His complex analysis shows brilliantly that this is a relational and dialectic difference within a field of intense junctions rather than a clear empirical separation of spheres. First, he recognizes how crucial social housing was for keeping the local reproduction costs of labor down under the industrial capitalist regime of a trade-dependent small country such as the Netherlands (see Kalb 1997 for a richly researched case). Jason Moore (2015) has recently pointed to the absolute necessity of cheap food for global urbanism to work. Cheap housing is another such necessity. Big capitalists, such as the Philips brothers or the owners of the Dutch steel industry, were all in favor of state-enabled social housing and were ready to put some of their money where their mouths were, for good reasons of surplus value. The Netherlands by 1980 had consequently one of the largest social housing sectors in the world. But Nonini also notes how financial capital in the postindustrial epoch, even though obviously interested in a privately owned real estate sector and the associated privatizations and ensuing gentrifications, also reaps profits from the large and flexibly employable pool of creative labor in Amsterdam whose reproduction costs in the 1990s remained comparatively low because of the Amsterdam housing commons (I would claim that that era has passed). In this sense, little had changed. In other words, there is exchange value in use value, and indeed ultimately surplus value. It is not even entirely nonsensical to argue that part of that collective surplus value is nowadays shared among renters, the city, the state, and capital.

I derive from this a general point: the urban commons, including the future urban commons, must be seen in its close articulations with capital and the state. Critical junctions among these different institutional fields, as Nonini rightly remarks. Ergo, different trajectories of the urban commons based on different compositions of capital, carried by variable class and popular alliances that are both antagonistic and collusive, are a contemporary possibility and were a regular historical reality. This is where the programmatic horizontalism of the movement of the squares is ultimately misguided (see also Kalb 2014a for a critique of David Graeber). It is also where the gift, the commons, and accumulation touch. Nonini also notes, correctly, the role of political parties, in the Dutch case the Social Democrats run by the New Left, in enabling the emergence of the squatters’ movement in the 1970s in the first place. Susser similarly talks about the direct political effects of Occupy and 15M on elections and housing policies in New York and Barcelona, respectively, despite her overall emphasis on those emergent vocabularies of commoning. Once more, commoning is deeply entangled historically and in the present with formal politics, the state, and capital, in antagonistic as well as collusive ways. Denial of this by participants and theorists on behalf of a fake innocence, except perhaps for narrowly tactical and temporary purposes, does not help the idea of the commons, nor the coming of a new commons. The urban commons must obviously be an object of anticapitalist commoning; it must be fought in anticapitalist confrontation, as both Susser and Nonini show. But those anticapitalist use values will not be realized on a substantial scale without the state present at various levels and capital getting, restlessly no doubt, at some peace with that. In fact, all four articles serve to underline this.

Second, and closely connected, is the merciless issue of class and difference. These articles teach us a lot. Morgen and Erickson show us in a Thompsonian vein how an “incipient popular class”—these are my words based on their words—was discursively created in Oregon around notions of “hardworking people, caring for each other and for the poor.” This was the result of concerted efforts by labor unions and the local democrats since the late 1970s to counter the individualized “I want my tax dollars back” rhetoric of Republican discourse. The institutionalized Left over time convinced many that paying taxes was the right thing to do. Commonalities in Oregon were an achievement, not at all a straightforward “social structural” outcome. Difference and commonality are not each other’s logical opposites, despite prevailing identarian language fashions on both the Right and the Left in the United States that time and again suggest so. Alliance formation is first of all about the possibility of a situated and always conditional “we” to emerge across thresholds of ongoing difference. We also learn that after 2008, a more explicit class vocabulary became possible in Oregon. Political confrontation needs enemies, as we know thanks to Carl Schmitt and his contemporary left-wing heirs. The existence of such public enemies will contribute to the possibility that the “we” of commoning might grow more relevant in the political field than the “I” of difference over time. Class vocabulary powerfully helps to picture significant common enemies.

There is much to admire in Maskovsky’s compressed theoretical statements, such as this one where he elaborates on Gavin Smith’s association of the era of financial accumulation after Fordism with the prevalence of “selective hegemony” as a form of rule: “One obvious consequence (of this selective hegemony) is an increasingly large absolute surplus population sorted into new fragmented and hierarchalized groups within the general category of the expelled, and a growing group who are trying desperately to hang on and prevent their own expulsion. Importantly, expulsion and precaritization are not in themselves politically unifying developments.” Maskovsky reconfirms that “political unification” can only happen as an achievement, but he also makes the very important point that the new financialized global capitalism continually produces drives toward hierarchy and differentiation, drives that emerge both from above and from below. We may be in a phase of new commoning, he rightly says, but we are also in a conjuncture of intense political competition around hierarchy and “deservingness” amid an acute simmering of cultural differentiation on moral grounds. The Tea Party emerged in 2008–2009 out of white anger with the possibility that supposedly undeserving blacks could ultimately be forgiven their mortgage debt. It laid the groundwork for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The Indignados in Barcelona in contrast actively sought to incorporate immigrant Latin Americans in their anti-foreclosure actions and thereby helped create an integrative and universalist urban commoning that became politically vibrant and effective, as Maka Suarez (2017) has recently shown. Roma, then again, became for many of the working poor of Magyar stock in eastern and southern provincial Hungary what the blacks were for the Tea Party: undeserving and criminal, thus forming the symbolic leverage for the Jobbik party to arise and help to pull the whole of the Hungarian state drastically to the Right, as Kristof Szombati (2017) has explained to us.

Maskovsky is correct: Older histories matter, as do current practices and relationships. The social field is not a tabula rasa where everything is possible, but nor is it fully overdetermined by history. Ida Susser’s “cognitariate” of the Parisian Nuit Debout seems to align consciously with refugees, immigrants, the “banlieues,” and “the destitute,” as well as with labor, thus engaging in a very inclusive commoning, and confronting consciously France’s colonial and racist pasts. But Susser talks about a relatively small number of activists, and we do not know how the wider Parisian population relates to those inclusivist gestures, despite, on 14 July 2017, the largest demonstration since 1968. We need a more sophisticated and dynamic anthropological class analysis for this (see Kalb 2015). Don Nonini, who is so good at analyzing the emergence of the alliances around squatting and the New Left in Amsterdam in the 1970s, may similarly overestimate the support for the housing commons in Amsterdam. He misses perhaps, when it comes to differentiations and class formations in the financialized neoliberal era, the ways in which many among the former and now regularized squatting population in the inner city over time gentrified themselves into a petty-entrepreneurial or creative class and put themselves willingly up as post-squatters within an inevitably compromised Left that was concertedly turning a commons into a bureaucratically managed public good. What happened to those squatters was often a mirror of what happened to some of Nonini’s New Left activists of the 1970s who became bureaucrats in the local machinery of the rental sector in the 1980s and 1990s. Professionalization, gentrification, and creative class formation in the broad sense of the term played an important role in the gradual collapse of the squatting commons. He may also underestimate the ways in which what is left of an apparent housing commons in the inner city of Amsterdam has de facto become a low cost base for long-term insiders, some of them former squatters, and therefore more of a subsidy/rent for established urban middle classes, than a genuine commons that offers use values to everyone. Literally the entire population of Amsterdam changes every 10 years. This is not because the supposed urban housing commons is so open to newcomers but because it is for all practical purposes closed to them. Research on the commons, I emphasize once more, calls for sharp attention to class, differentiation, and alliances over time lest we fall for self-advertising. It also throws up the important issue of whether the urban commons can ever be “accessible to all,” however important that is as an ambition and an ideological statement. Cities have become rent-making machines for owners, bureaucracies, and entrenched classes: citadels. That makes the incentive to advertise openness while practicing closure very appealing. Nonini’s “access to all” is part of his definition of the commons. Perhaps it should be part of the definition of the Left-liberal ideology of the commons?

This brings me to my last point. Susser writes about “progressive” commoning, which is horizontalist and universalist, a commoning that leads to Nonini’s urban commons, which is defined as offering use values that are available for everyone. But what about Maskovsky’s “growing group who are trying desperately to hang on and prevent their own expulsion”? What if this group begins to emphasize their deservingness vis-à-vis others, blacks, Jews, gypsies, and refugees, and join in commoning exercises under the sign of the new Right? I guess for many progressives in the United States, this is not a logical possibility because the Right is not about commoning or the commons but about privatizations and dispossessions. They are lucky that Trump is proving them right, despite his dance around the white working classes and industrial jobs. But what about Marine Le Pen’s radical Right? What about Victor Orban and Jaroslaw Kaszynski? Even part of Theresa May’s program and constituency. Active commoning there, in imagination and practice, with confrontational claims for a new commons against the dispossessors of cosmopolitan neoliberal globalism. That new commons of the Right does not conceive itself as Nonini’s “accessible for all.” It will only be accessible for the deserving members of national stock, with all the relevant hierarchical distinctions, while identified others are singled out for various punishments. But this right-wing commons is, in rhetoric at least, about use values for the deserving, and about the making of community and commonality within a world where deserving people—Morgen and Erickson’s “hardworking people”—are threatened with dispossession. European fascism and right-wing corporatism have a long history of claiming a particular sort of commons against the rights of transnational capital and against the practices of the liberal state. The Left has never been good at analyzing it, mainly because it always reckoned historical fascism to emerge out of an alliance with capital rather than in confrontation with it, which is only part of the story. Ida Susser in her introduction mentions emerging nationalism and the new Right. Since 2011, those forces have obviously become more powerful and in a sense more popular than the groups on the left cherished by anthropologists. Should we exclude the groups on the right from an analysis of the commons and commoning, or should we concede that theirs is a commoning project too? Even though it is one that we do not like. One that is not universalist. One that rejects the feminists, the LGBTs, the blacks, the Roma, the refugees, the Muslims, and so on. What changes in our perception of the commons and commoning if we concede that the Right is commoning too? And what sort of urban class analysis are we required to make to explain the Right’s dynamics and contents?

References

  • Kalb, Don. 1997. Expanding class: Power and everyday politics in industrial communities, the Netherlands, 1850–1950. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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  • Kalb, Don. 2014a. Mavericks: Harvey, Graeber, and the reunification of anarchism and Marxism in world anthropology. Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 69: 113134.

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  • Kalb, Don. 2014b. Class: The “empty sign” of the middle class—Class and the urban commons in the 21st century. In The Blackwell companion in urban anthropology, ed. Don Nonini, 157177 Oxford: Blackwell.

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  • Kalb, Don. 2015. Introduction: Class and the new anthropological holism. In Anthropologies of class, ed. James Carrier and Don Kalb, 127 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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  • Moore, Jason. 2015. Capitalism in the web of life: Ecology and the accumulation of capital. London: Verso

  • Suarez, Maka. 2017. The subprime middle class. Precarious labor, mortgage default, and activism among Ecuadorian migrants in Barcelona. PhD diss., Goldsmiths, University of London.

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  • Szombati, Kristof. 2017. The revolt of the provinces: Anti-Gypsism and right-wing politics in Hungary. PhD diss., Central European University

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  • Thompson, E. 1993. Customs in common: Studies in traditional popular culture. New York: New Press.

  • Therborn, Göran. 1995. European modernity and beyond: The trajectory of European societies, 1945–2000. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishers.

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Contributor Notes

Don Kalb is Founding Editor of Focaal. He is Professor of social anthropology at the University of Bergen, where he leads the project “Frontlines of Value: Class and Social Transformation in 21st Century Capitalism.” He is also a senior researcher at Utrecht University. With Chris Hann, he codirects the “Financialization Project” at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. His work has consistently focused on class approaches in anthropology and history, and his books include Expanding Class: Power and Everyday Politics in Dutch Industrial Communities, 18501950 (1997); Critical Junctions: Anthropology and History beyond the Cultural Turn, with Herman Tak (2005); Headlines of Nation, Subtexts of Class: Working Class Populism and the Return of the Repressed in Neoliberal Europe, with Gabor Halmai (2011); and Anthropologies of Class (2015), with James Carrier. E-mail: donkalb@gmail.com

Focaal

Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology

  • Kalb, Don. 1997. Expanding class: Power and everyday politics in industrial communities, the Netherlands, 1850–1950. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kalb, Don. 2014a. Mavericks: Harvey, Graeber, and the reunification of anarchism and Marxism in world anthropology. Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 69: 113134.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kalb, Don. 2014b. Class: The “empty sign” of the middle class—Class and the urban commons in the 21st century. In The Blackwell companion in urban anthropology, ed. Don Nonini, 157177 Oxford: Blackwell.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kalb, Don. 2015. Introduction: Class and the new anthropological holism. In Anthropologies of class, ed. James Carrier and Don Kalb, 127 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Moore, Jason. 2015. Capitalism in the web of life: Ecology and the accumulation of capital. London: Verso

  • Suarez, Maka. 2017. The subprime middle class. Precarious labor, mortgage default, and activism among Ecuadorian migrants in Barcelona. PhD diss., Goldsmiths, University of London.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Szombati, Kristof. 2017. The revolt of the provinces: Anti-Gypsism and right-wing politics in Hungary. PhD diss., Central European University

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Thompson, E. 1993. Customs in common: Studies in traditional popular culture. New York: New Press.

  • Therborn, Göran. 1995. European modernity and beyond: The trajectory of European societies, 1945–2000. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishers.

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