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Introduction to the Commons: Conceptual Foundations and Post-Capitalist[i] Potential

The Commons is celebrated for its role in linking anti-capitalist struggles across the world, as demonstrated by the growing number of local and regional attempts to reclaim shared access and decision-making over collective resources, spaces, and knowledge. Examples include the reinstatement of customary territorial practices in eastern Africa and the Andes, peer-to-peer software production via the Internet, and the efforts of autonomous movements like the Zapatistas to achieve material self-sufficiency and political independence. The rise of popular initiatives around the Commons has been accompanied by a resurgence from the intellectual left of theorizing and engaging the more recent, radical offshoots of the Commons, resulting in a mix of critique and acclaim.  Because of the evolution of divergent currents in Commons thinking and practice since Ostrom's[ii] original conceptualization of the Commons as a political economic theory of collective action, it has become necessary to demarcate between the different approaches. This demarcation is one of the main objectives of this paper, as it will allow the left to rescue important insights that radical Commons initiatives offer to anti-capitalist struggles, without their being overshadowed or absorbed by non-transformative or pro-capitalist variants of the Commons.

The popularity of the Commons lies, in part, in the strong conceptual foundations it provides to struggles that aim to achieve universal material sufficiency within a context of ecological sustainability. All Commons struggles are broadly centered on three basic elements: reclaiming common goods, building communal relationships, and democratizing political processes. The act of coming together to redefine relationships and practices around the collective stewardship of common goods opens concrete possibilities for moving beyond the dominating capitalist logic of growth without limits.  The processes of experimentation that Commons communities undergo as they build the necessary organizational, social, economic, political, and legal forms that make sharing the Commons possible, often give rise to new forms of inclusive, autonomous, and collective governance. Consciously or unconsciously, this involves undoing the norms and structures that impede the joint management of the Commons and building alternatives to the liberal, neoliberal, consumerist, and individualizing tendencies of capitalism. In addition, since the Commons is not defined by singular outcomes, socioeconomic paradigms, or political processes, no two Commons initiatives will be exactly the same, a notion that challenges and opposes the linear, outcome-oriented planning that is inherent to capitalist projects. Instead, the Commons framework allows struggles from diverse geographies (North and South), political ideologies (pro and anti-state), and scales (local to international) to come together, thereby expanding inclusive and collective efforts at transformation. By aligning around principles and practices including open-endedness[iii], pluriversality[iv], and prefigurative politics[v] the Commons becomes both a means and an end for building alternatives to capitalism, one possibility of many.

As a framework for situating and orienting efforts to build alternatives to capitalism, the Commons has exciting potential. However, in order to defend this potential, it is necessary to correct the current, problematic employment of the Commons as a single category, which results in an inaccurate homogenization and concealing of differences between transformational and non-transformational approaches. Two critiques of the Commons that exist within the anti-capitalist left illustrate the need to specify which type of Commons contributes to anti-capitalist efforts. The first critique is based on the concern that Commons initiatives are vulnerable to cooptation by capitalism's pervasive political forms and do not impede its continued expansion. Evidence of cooptation of Commons experiments reflects the validity of cooptation concerns, as will be seen below in examples from indigenous and traditional communal practices, Participatory Budgeting, and the Social Solidarity Economy. The second critique raises doubt as to whether the radical political principles and practices embraced by Commons movements are sufficient for spurring system change. This concern is exemplified by the challenges faced by radical movements to build internal solidarity, horizontality, and democracy, while simultaneously engaging in large-scale and long-term antagonistic practices to strategically dismantle dominant systems.  

In order to respond to these critiques and emphasize the Commons' potential it is essential to distinguish between non-transformative and transformative variants. Two ideal-typical variants of Commons approaches will be delineated below. The first variant, a "politics of the commons," includes initiatives that bring people together to build collective forms for sharing resources, spaces, and knowledge, in response to situational threats to survival or well-being. This non-transformational variant faces temporal and geographical limitations and is vulnerable to cooptation because it does not confront structural, long-term, and systemic causes of enclosure and expropriation.  In contrast, in the second variant, "commoning the political," what is held in common is the anti-capitalist political processes itself. This second approach goes beyond traditional state-based, Euro-centric, or universalistic leftist models to allow for a pluriversal and long-term transformation by combining radical political practices with antagonistic strategies for confronting capitalist domination.

Theoretical and Practical Objections to the Commons by the Intellectual Left

During the early 2000s, the Commons began to grow beyond the circles where it originally found popularity, namely among environmental circles and public institutions for natural resource management[vi]. The evolution of today's far-reaching Commons framework was spurred largely by the application of collective and communal principles to theorize new forms of access and decision-making in urban spaces.[vii] Since then the Commons has been applied to conceptualize myriad examples of communal resources, spaces, knowledge, and practices and offer alternative practices for managing these Commons. As a result, the Commons frameworks has been applied to money, the internet, policy making, education, social reproduction, health care, the atmosphere, territory, the media, and forms of economic and material production.[viii]

Alongside the evolution of new spaces and practices of the Commons, there has been a renewed interest from within the intellectual left to examine the emergence of the actors and practices that have contributed to its expansion. Some of the new integrants include radical voices from indigenous movements, social movements of the Global South, and other anti- and de-colonial struggles while others include representatives of capitalist establishments including the World Bank and private corporations, and state-based institutions from municipal to national levels.[ix] The discovery of right-wing, capitalist, and public institutional actors employing the concept of the Commons to gain support for their political agendas sounded warning bells for leftist theorists.[x] In addition, increasing evidence began to surface about the failure of many Commons initiatives to effect lasting transformation.  These observations and others gave way to the emergence of critiques and objections from within the left questioning whether the Commons can be an effective approach for post-capitalist transformation.

Leftist critiques of the Commons range from overarching to detailed; some are calls for reflection and caution, while others argue for rejecting the framework entirely. Since it is not possible to capture every nuance and variation within this paper, attention will focus on those critiques most directly related to the inability of the Commons to impede capitalist expansion and contribute to building alternatives. Although one might approach the classification of these critiques and objections according to historical schisms such as state vs. non-state and reform vs. revolution, doing so would undermine the cross-cutting implications of the critiques themselves and underestimate the possibility of the Commons to transcend these divides. Instead, the objections will be grouped within two categories of concern that have traditionally been shared across the left: the risk of cooptation and failure to engage in sufficient systemic antagonism.

Obstacle 1: Risk and evidence of cooptation

Cooptation of non-capitalist experiments by capitalism is one of the longstanding, unresolved concerns of the left, and has been used to explain the failure of many radical projects over time. For example, the cooptation of organic and fair-exchange movements by capitalist interests has resulted in the for-profit commercialization of organic and fair-exchange products, as well as the assimilation of the symbols and practices of the radical movement into mainstream capitalist norms in order to promote consumeristic behaviors, thus diluting the original radical principles.[xi] The concern with cooptation is echoed by contemporary leftist scholars who argue that Commons initiatives are vulnerable to cooptation by capitalism's pervasive forms, putting at risk its ability to transform and transcend capitalism.[xii]

A number of theorists have put forth concepts to explain the forces and mechanisms by which capitalism coopts non-capitalist sites and practices. Among these are the processes of subsumption and commodification, which respectively incorporate non-wage labor and non-monetarily valued goods, services, spaces, and knowledge into the capitalist market economy.[xiii] [xiv] Another way of understanding the processes of subsumption and commodification is the incorporation by capitalism of new means for creating and accumulating value, thereby allowing for its continued expansion. Subsumption and commodification may overlap with and form part of the process of co-optation, which involves the assimilation of anti-capitalist symbols, practices, and norms into the service of capitalist expansion. The cooptation of anti-capitalist experiments renders impossible or contradictory the continued existence of these projects, as they become vital elements in upholding capitalism. According to traditional leftist theory, subsumption, commodification, and cooptation are driven by primitive accumulation[xv]  and its modern day form of accumulation by dispossession[xvi], which are two of the strategies used by capitalism to continue expanding and asserting its control over non-capitalist sites, such as the Commons. Current examples of accumulation by dispossession include the privatization of communal, untitled, and public land, natural resources, and ecological services in the Global South, via land grabbing, Green Economy[xvii] market mechanisms, and the expansion of the extractive development model.[xviii]

The starting point of contemporary efforts to reclaim the Commons is the rejection and reaction to these capitalist processes of enclosure, privatization, and dispossession. In order to reverse these policies and projects that block access of people and communities to the land, spaces, knowledge, and resources that they depend on, the Commons creates processes and structures for allowing decisions related to access, ownership, and management to be made at the most local level possible. Initially, such efforts have proven to result in greater security by communities to their lands and resources, and increased participation and decision-making over shared goods, services, and spaces.[xix] However, the concern by leftist scholars is based on a belief that as long as Commons experiments are carried forth within a prevailing capitalist context, their eventual cooptation is inevitable. Scholars point to a number of contemporary examples of Commons initiatives whose success was short lived, due to their cooptation and rendering to serve capitalist goals (See section III).

Leftist scholars also point out how capitalist institutions have begun to employ partial discourses and practices of the Commons to bolster efforts they claim will fix the social and environmental problems created by capitalism without addressing the systemic roots of these problems. In doing so, they coopt the legal tools, language, and guiding principles of the Commons in order to justify projects that result in subsumption, commodification, and accumulation by dispossession.[xx] A clear example is the growing appropriation of communal lands in a number of eastern African countries, promoted by the World Bank as a way of preserving the Commons for future use.[xxi] Using the language of the Commons in order to legitimize the privatization of traditional land, a legal property form which is made vulnerable through the colonial legacy of blurry and paternalistic land tenure structures, the World Bank is carrying out a new wave of enclosures in the name of conservation.  In addition, from 2008-2009 over 56 million hectares of land were either sold or rented in countries of the Global South[xxii], a process that involved legal agreements between states and private actors, in the name of conserving strategic natural resources of the "Global Commons" for the future.[xxiii] As a result, hundreds of communities have been dispossessed from their land and resources and the future availability of strategic resources by Southern countries is uncertain. These pro-capitalist uses of the Commons framework tarnish the reputation of legitimate Commons practices of restoring traditional communal land tenure practices in Africa that go beyond oppressive, pre-colonial models to include access, tenure rights, and decision-making ability for women.[xxiv] [xxv] This grave discrepancy demonstrates the need to distinguish between the two main variants of the Commons.

Obstacle 2: Inward solidarity versus outward antagonism

The second objection put forth by the left that questions the Commons' ability to make an important contribution to post-capitalist transformation points out the limitations of the radical political forms espoused by the Commons, namely open-endedness, pluriversality, and prefigurative politics. The skepticism by the left isn't due to a disagreement with the use of these forms, but a concern that they are not sufficiently accompanied with strategic practices for confronting issues of scale and the pervasive domination of capitalism's structures and norms. In other words, this critique calls into question the potential for Commons movements to sufficiently combine radical democratic practices with an antagonistic confrontation of the dominant structures and relationships that underlie capitalism.

One of the roots of this concern can be traced to longstanding observations by the left of the success with which capitalism erodes and overtakes democracy, posing obstacles to developing political processes that attempt to challenge capitalism. Known as the legitimation crisis, this theory argues that capitalism contains a number of mechanisms that allow it to continually subvert and dominate legitimate democratic processes in order to obtain certain conditions from the public sphere. Habermas[xxvi] offers three examples: (1) the political realm of the state is taken over by economic interests so that the political system cannot fulfill the needs of the public; (2) economic interests are taken over by self-interested politicians; and (3) the state becomes structurally dependent on capital in order to fulfill its public functions and thereby dependent on maintaining the primacy of economic priorities. In all cases, the economy becomes its own political subject whose needs take precedence over the needs and desires of the public, a direct subversion of democracy.  

Alongside the erosion of the political sphere, the simultaneous pervasion of liberal and neoliberal economic values into social and cultural behaviors, values, and attitudes degrades the cohesion of citizen responses to the legitimacy crisis, as collective values are replaced by individualizing logics of consumption, prosperity, and debt.[xxvii] This societal permeation of capitalist norms has made it historically challenging for the anti-capitalist left to reach the necessary scale for tipping the balance of capitalist domination that allow alternatives to prosper and expand. A number of theorists have pointed out that unless radical movements can reach critical masses, they risk becoming islands of happiness for a happy few.[xxviii] The inability of movements to increase size and participation has been explained by three main critiques: (1) the potentially alienating aspects of radical theories and practices for populations which are historically embedded into capitalist norms, processes, and structures[xxix], (2) the limits of time, resources, access, prioritization, and desirability of participating in transformational initiatives[xxx], and (3) the failure (often deliberate)[xxxi] of anti-capitalist movements to put forth a clear process and end vision for transformation, which challenges the linear, goal-oriented theories of change that prevail in capitalist societies.

As a first step in attempting to overcome the formidable obstacles of legitimation crisis and societal permeation of capitalist norms, the Commons seeks to build bottom-up political processes that can reestablish and expand democratic decision-making according to collective values. The use of radical democratic principles and practices such as open-endedness, pluriversality, and prefigurative politics by some Commons groups creates political spheres that are hospitable to the coexistence of diverse forms of socioeconomic and political organization, and social normative structures.[xxxii] In other words, Commons political processes strive to embody their end goal, resulting in the co-evolution of means and ends. They also minimize the divide between the means and the ends by which goals are met, reducing the need for exclusionary blueprints or models, and allowing multiple, parallel processes to arise, collaborate, and coexist.

However, the Commons is not the first radical movement to embrace inclusive and horizontal political forms. Despite the strength of the inward looking radical democratic practices of diverse movements from 1960s radical feminists, to the modern-day climate and Occupy movements, these groups struggle(d) with dispersion, dissolution, and debilitating interruptions. When confronted by the dominant legal, economic, socio-normative, and political structures of capitalism, they demonstrated an inability to continuously engage in antagonistic, anti-systemic practices without being eventually engulfed or broken up. These experiences reveal that living by radical democratic principles alone is not enough, a critique which extends to Commons movements as they confront the tricky balance between being inwardly solidaristic and outwardly antagonistic. The concern of the left is that the strategic, anti-capitalist practices of Commons movements will be abandoned, overshadowed, or underdeveloped by an overemphasis open-endedness, pluriversality, and prefigurative politics.

Distinguishing Between Non-Transformational and Transformational Variants of the Commons

The concerns of the anti-capitalist left about the potential of the Commons to be a means for moving beyond capitalism are justified, as revealed by the examples above. The critiques are comprised of insight accumulated over more than a century of struggle, offering astute feedback to an aspiring movement. However, they assume the Commons to be a universal category of initiatives with equal vulnerability and incompetence in the face of capitalism. In actuality, Commons responses to capitalist enclosure stem from vastly diverse experiences of capitalism. They range from affluent communities in advanced capitalist societies who wish to create communal land trusts for the preservation of ecosystems[xxxiii] to indigenous communities who are only partially subsumed by capitalist systems and struggling to revive communal elements in the face of changing socioeconomic contexts, such as the Zapatistas.[xxxiv] [xxxv] The inclusion of these disparate groups under a universal heading is problematic because it includes reform-based initiatives together with struggles that simultaneously demand and enable non-capitalist alternatives. In order to reconcile this problem, two distinct variants of the Commons, non-transformational and transformational, will be outlined here.

The non-transformational variant includes groups or communities that employ a "politics of the Commons," in order to achieve the basic elements of the Commons (reclaiming common goods, building communal relationships, and democratizing political processes). In other words, they use the Commons framework as a political tool in order to argue first, for the clear delineation of collective spaces, resources, and knowledge; and second, that these common goods be jointly managed or governed, starting at the most local level possible. In this variant what is held in common are the collective goods and associated relationships and decision-making processes. However, beyond using the Commons framework as a political tool for achieving these basic elements, non-transformational Commons initiatives are not deliberately committed to, identified or engaged with longer-term or anti-capitalist means and ends.

On the other hand, the transformational Commons variant includes groups that also strive for the basic elements of the Commons framework, but as part of a deliberate, long-term strategy of anti-capitalist resistance. In this variant, or "commoning the political," what is held in common is the political process itself, or the means by which shared aspirations are pursued. Beyond delineating common goods and democratically sharing in their stewardship, the transformational Commons requires continuous evolution and reinvention until post-capitalist future(s) has(ve) been reached. This involves ongoing, bottom-up collaboration and cooperation of diverse groups in open-ended, pluriversal, and prefigurative processes towards loosely defined, dynamic end goals.

The series of examples below, grouped according to the three basic elements of the Commons, are useful for understanding the limitations of the non-transformational Commons variant versus the potential of the transformational variant as a means for reaching post-capitalist futures. First, the examples reveal the vulnerability of the non-transformational Commons to cooptation and its failure to engage in sufficient (if any) antagonistic practices against capitalism, per the major concerns of the left. Second, they reveal how the transformative variant, "commoning the political," potentiates the avoidance of cooptation through deliberate resistance and how its continuous employment of radical democratic practices, which are intrinsically antagonistic to capitalism's erosion of the political, social, and economic spheres, opens spaces for the emergence of non-capitalist alternatives. Third, the examples introduce how the transformational Commons offers valuable insights to anti-capitalist groups, making possible the transcendence of traditional dichotomies, divisions, and oppressive structures within the left.

Non-Transformational vs Transformational Commons in Reclaiming Common Goods

Bringing people together around collectively defined resources, spaces, and knowledge does not necessarily require or imply continuous, long-term, or transformational responses. Commons groups that come together to fight momentary threats of enclosure of shared land, resources, spaces, services, knowledge, etc. without deliberately locating their struggle within a long-term, anti-capitalist agenda do not directly contribute to post-capitalist futures and are susceptible to leftist concerns. When groups employ the Commons framework as a foundation for efforts that are limited to halting enclosure or reforming the legal and political forms of property ownership and management within liberal states without challenging underlying capitalist structures, their efforts are vulnerable to eventual cooptation. For example, the legal positioning of the Commons as a third space alongside the state and market, as it was originally envisioned by Ostrom[xxxvi] and put into practice by a number of Commons groups, does not guarantee a move beyond capitalism, nor does it necessarily entail practices that are antagonistic to capitalism. Unless Commons practices form part of deliberate, long-term, anti-capitalist strategies, they are at greater risk of being coopted (see section II). Some mechanisms that put the non-transformational Commons at risk for cooptation include: top-down structures that replicate hierarchy and oppression; the association of common goods with public goods and services, rights or entitlements, when they are actually bottom-up, collaborative constructions that cannot be given, only produced; and the danger of the State shaping or coercing participation, when it must be a collective process of construction.[xxxvii] [xxxviii]  

Not only do transformational Commons initiatives shun the practices and structures associated with cooptation, they situate practices of reclaiming common goods within a larger strategy to construct non-capitalist alternatives. This necessarily involves identifying and breaking down processes that are essential for upholding capitalism, but which make the construction of alternatives impossible, such as the pervasion of individualization across political, economic, and social spheres and the perpetuation of the human-nature divide, (etc.).[xxxix] As an example, Bond[xl] shows how South African Commons movements have incorporated traditional values and practices for sharing water resources, stemming from indigenous concepts like Ubuntu, into their struggles to resist urban water privatization. This antagonistic approach of the transformational Commons has proven more effective than using legal rights-based claims to water, which minimizes the importance of water to individual consumption rights. Beyond South Africa, the Commons framework has given birth to a new generation of rights (among other conceptual frameworks and cosmovisions), such as the "rights of nature," which transcend individualizing, consumeristic, and legalistic conceptualizations by including communal values, processes, and relationships, including traditional views of human-nature interrelationships in a way that is not possible within capitalism.

Non-Transformational vs Transformational Commons in Building Communal Relationships

While anti-capitalist relationships and processes are certainly possible within the Commons framework, they are not an inherent feature or outcome. For example, struggles to fight privatization of water or education, gain collective ownership or management privileges for shared territory or resources, or gain free access to the internet may take place as isolated cases that do not involve any agendas for system change, resulting in the dissipation of collaborative relationships and processes upon their resolution. These momentary gains do not pose any obstacle to the continued expansion of capitalism unless they are given continuity.   

Mignolo illustrates how non-transformative Commons frameworks might mask processes and relationships that do not necessarily involve deeper transformations of relationships, processes, or socioeconomic systems, but are only superficial reconfigurations of power and wealth within capitalism. [xli]  He provides the example of operational versus structural coupling in the case of the revalorization of indigenous culture in some countries in Latin America, such as Bolivia. Mignolo explains that when operational coupling takes place between two systems, for example capitalist and non-capitalist, one system can appropriate elements from the other without actually changing the character of the system. For example, indigenous apparel, language, and rituals may be taken up by individuals without them pertaining to alternative, non-capitalist political and economic organizational forms, just as cell phones can be used to serve communal or non-capitalist forms. A striking example of organizational coupling can be seen by the incorporation of indigenous concepts, styles of dress, rituals, and language into the governments of Bolivia and Ecuador in the promotion and celebration of new extractive industry processes. The use of traditional symbols and relationships in combination with a political discourse that employs indigenous principles of reciprocity and Buen Vivir[xlii] represents a cooptive strategy by these governments to justify the expansion of the capitalist, extractive development model.[xliii] It also presents a useful parallel for thinking about the cooptation of the Commons language and tools by capitalist institutions such as the World Bank, as seen in examples of the non-transformative Commons. In both cases, the historically marginalized symbols and practices associated with reclaiming Andean indigenous communal structures and African territorial Commons are assimilated into the political mainstream in a way that converts radical ideology into capitalist propaganda.

On the contrary, the true revalorization and revitalization of pre-capitalist communal structures by traditional societies requires deliberate, antagonistic strategies for overcoming the individualizing logic of capitalism and rebuilding the human-nature divide. By combining tools and practices of the Commons framework with traditional organizational structures and communal values, Southern transformational Commons groups have begun to confront oppressive relationships that remain as pre-capitalist legacies or that have been introduced through experiences with colonization, development, and globalization. One achievement is the recent inclusion of women in traditional land tenure in eastern Africa, as outlined above.[xliv] Beyond the Global South, transformative Commons initiatives in the North have also used the practice of building communal relationships to confront oppressive gender, race, class, ethnic, and other anti-emancipatory divisions, many of which persist even within the anti-capitalist left. These practices are instrumental, not only for building internal solidarity and equality within the Commons movement, but for identifying and targeting the external sites where oppressive relationships are upheld by capitalism.

Non-Transformational vs Transformational Commons in Democratizing Political Processes

Even when Commons initiatives incorporate political processes for extending democratic practices and changing power relations, the failure of non-transformational approaches to take root in long-term, anti-capitalist processes ultimately results in its cooptation by capitalist forces. The examples of Participatory Budgeting (PB) and the Social and Solidarity Economy are useful for demarcating the non-transformational Commons variant and revealing the potential of the transformational variant.

Participatory Budgeting

Born in Puerto Alegre, Brazil in the 1970's as a strategy aiming at "advancing rational decision making and learning as well as strengthening a counter-hegemonic strategy to overcome capitalism," Participatory Budgeting created mechanisms and institutions that allowed volunteer community and civil society groups, along with ordinary citizens, to control the city budget, making decisions about everything from spending priorities to distribution of funds.[xlv] Like many experiments with radical democratic and autonomous political forms, PB was an ongoing process that evolved over time, in this case together with the state's involvement and leadership of the program. It resulted in important gains in terms of material well-being and equality within the city, as well as growth in citizen empowerment, inclusion, and political participation, city-wide solidarity by understanding the needs of others, and collective decision making processes.[xlvi] However, as neoliberal capitalist processes and norms permeated Brazilian macroeconomic policy and social norms, the enthusiasm and openness in PB declined. Although aspects of collective values and participation remain, the values that originally guided the processes now compete with another discourse, "within which participation is less about feeling like a member of a community or taking pleasure in public deliberation than about acquiring marketable training..."[xlvii]  Although it represents an important attempt at reclaiming the Commons (in this case the city, its resources, and its political processes), the failure of PB to root itself in a long-term, anti-capitalist political project, ultimately resulted in its cooptation by capitalist forces. A transformational Common radical political agenda, or "commoning the political" would have been necessary to systematically harness the impressive political achievements of PB in terms of social relationships and improvements in quality of life, and mobilize them along the long path to socioeconomic change.

Social and Solidarity Economy

The Social Solidarity Economy (SSE) was originally defined as "all economic activities and practices with a social finality, which contribute to building a new economic paradigm."[xlviii]  Examples of SSE can be found in most countries of the world, and include communal resource management, local/regional food systems, fair trade, renewable energies, the revaluation and use of traditional and ancestral knowledge, non-monetary barter, mutual support networks for the provision of basic services (education, health, childcare, domestic work, financial, etc.), community and worker cooperatives, etc.[xlix] The SSE represents a diverse aggrupation of transformational and non-transformational Commons initiatives in which certain economic activities are collectively carried-out and managed, resulting in diverse relationships among and between providers and consumers. Hence, the SSE is not inherently anti-capitalist, and many SSE projects sacrifice core values of reciprocity, redistribution, and sustainability for capital accumulation. Non-transformative SSE projects do not impede capitalism, but uphold neoliberal market mechanisms as well as top-down, individualistic, and paternal political processes. Other initiatives have been coopted to undermine SSE principles and reoriented to fulfilling capitalist objectives of accumulation, profit, and growth. Examples include solidarity markets and fair trade, which contribute to a form of feel-good capitalism, based on a more equitable price relationship between producer and consumer without targeting systematic inequalities.

In contrast, SSE initiatives that are anchored in wider anti-capitalist agendas aim at undoing the superficial capitalist divisions between economy, society, culture, and politics and contribute to securing social reproduction and an increasing quality of life for everyone, regardless of class. Corragio argues that by treating the economy as a commons, the SSE can recuperate resources from capitalism, not via market interactions, but through pressure, force, reclaiming collective goods, redistribution, and sharing.[l] This requires moving beyond capitalist constructions of needs, desires, and work, to collaboratively redefine what is necessary, enough, useful, and appropriate in terms of consumption and production, so that universal material needs can be met without simply replacing one group of economic elite with another. Coraggio's proposal for the SSE fits into a wider "commoning of the political" framework, in which the political process for post-capitalist change becomes the site where both the ends and means of broader movements and struggles can join together. In addition, the production and consumption of goods and services within a transformational Commons framework is blatantly antagonistic to capitalism, first, by gradually replacing and rendering obsolete certain capitalist economic activities in the long term; and second, by systematically undoing and building alternatives to many of the normative and relational structures and divisions that are requisite to capitalism's survival.

In Defense of the Commons – A Case for Commoning the Political

The risk of employing the Commons as a single category or label is that this will result in the inaccurate homogenization of diverse initiatives or the concealing of differences between transformational and non-transformational approaches. Doing this could be detrimental to groups with deep and lasting anti-capitalist agendas. The limitations of the non-transformational Commons, outlined above, exemplify the concerns of the anti-capitalist left about the potential of the Commons as a means for moving beyond capitalism. The examples reveal that it is not enough to politicize social and economic problems under the guise of the Commons within capitalism, but necessary to identify and problematize capitalism's underlying structures, and address these structures through a combination of antagonistic confrontation and building alternatives. This argument is not uniquely relevant to the Commons, but echoed by many scholars who encourage radical movements to take up a clear anti-capitalist political agenda.[li]

The deliberate commitment to engage collaboratively in long-term, anti-capitalist processes of "commoning the political" marks the defining feature of the transformational Commons. While other Commons forms may make important contributions to the transformational agenda, they are more susceptible to cooptation or eventual dissolution. The challenges of building non-capitalist alternatives from within capitalism are widely recognized, hence the emphasis by the transformational Commons to develop resilient processes and mechanisms. This is facilitated by the adherence to radical democratic principles like open-endedness, pluriversality, and prefigurative politics. In addition to being indispensable for constructing internal solidarity and non-capitalist practices and relationships, the exercise of these principles prevents cooptation and is directly antagonistic to capitalism, thereby addressing the two main concerns of the left. First, although it is impossible to preclude cooptation, the long-term commitment of the transformative Commons to engaging in anti-capitalist resistance guarantees that the movement will not be abandoned or dissolved upon isolated occurrences of cooptation. Second, open-endedness challenges and creates an alternative to the top-down, goal oriented, linear processes of capitalism and liberal democracy, which are built on the assumption that capitalism is the only possibility. This principle also recognizes that the priorities of transformational movements will change over time and allows them to evolve and adapt according to the obstacles and opportunities that arise. Third, pluriversality also challenges the singularity of capitalism and liberal democracy and the privatization of the public sphere. By fostering the parallel emergence of multiple, non-capitalist alternatives, pluriversality creates resilience to interruptions in the movements' continuity that may result from capitalist cooptation or repression. Finally, prefigurative politics makes non-capitalist alternatives immediately possible, even within a context of capitalist hegemony, making it possible to gradually reverse trends of individualization, dependency on capital, privatization across spheres, and the erosion of political processes.

In addition to the strong potential of the transformational Commons variant for overcoming the obstacles posed by the left, it offers possibilities to the left for transcending historical schisms, including the persistence of oppressive relational forms, Eurocentric universalism, and the state versus non-state debate. The radical democratic processes of the transformational Commons have exposed underlying race, class, ethnic, and other anti-emancipatory divisions within the movement. This first step is critical, not only for overcoming internal divisions, but for identifying and targeting the replication of oppressive hierarchies by capitalism. In addition, the inclusion of movement-theories from indigenous, Southern, and other anti- and de-colonial struggles first, as self-identified participants in transformational Commons struggles, and second, into the analysis and conversations by activists and scholars offers possibilities for transcending Eurocentric leftism. However, decolonial theorists warn that this inclusion alone is insufficient for overcoming Eurocentric domination from within the left. Mignolo cautions leftist theorists not to impose the Commons as a universal category to inappropriately group the plurality of struggles for reviving communal organizational forms or to enlist nonconsensual struggles into a hegemonic post-capitalist project.[lii]

The impasse between opposing sides of the state vs. non-state debate has been a long-standing obstacle in the organization of scaled-up, anti-capitalist initiatives. While it is possible to identify both pro and anti-state voices within the transformational Commons, a third voice recognizes the value of both approaches to change. "Either can happen anywhere, just as Commons can be maintained or created anywhere. The two aspects can be complementary or contradictory."[liii] This approach acknowledges both the inevitability and the value of the persistence of both state and non-state approaches to anti-capitalist transformation.  Just as state-focused efforts are seen to be at risk for cooptation, they are also viewed as offering real possibilities for creating alternatives. Similarly, while the anti-state focus may be admired for ideological force, such initiatives don't guarantee the widespread participation necessary for society-wide transformation. In addition, any attempt to be totalizing in strategy, regardless of whether it favors state or non-state approaches, threatens to be a limitation to "Commoning the political," at least until the future becomes clearer.

The insights gained from transformational Commons initiatives are invaluable to anti-capitalist struggles, and offer possibilities for transcending persistent limitations and divisions within the left. The transformational variant offers concrete alternatives to the subordination of people and ecosystems to the logic of growth without limits. In addition, its success is prerequisite on the establishment of relationships, processes, and organizational forms that make collective or communal stewardship of the Commons possible. Doing so requires the employment of alternatives to capitalism's liberal, neoliberal, consumerist, and individualistic logics that subvert democratic processes and permeate social and cultural behaviors, norms, and attitudes. By aligning struggles around radical democratic principles, "Commoning the political" becomes a means and an end for contributing to the growing global movement towards post-capitalist futures.

Notes


[i] Throughout this paper, "anti-capitalism" refers to active efforts to dismantle capitalism and replace it with one or more systemic alternatives.  "Alternatives to capitalism" and "non-capitalist alternatives" are used interchangeably to represent the possible alternatives.  "Post-capitalism" and "post-capitalist futures" refer to hypothetical future moments and/or places where capitalism is no longer the dominant system.

[ii] Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[iii] Open-endedness refers to a notion of success that is not anchored in concrete end goals, but rather open ideals of social emancipation and environmental sustainability. It simultaneously challenges and creates an alternative to the top-down, goal oriented, and linear processes and it recognizes that the priorities of transformational struggles will change over time, allowing them to evolve and adapt according to the obstacles and opportunities that arise.

[iv] Pluriversality embraces the parallel emergence of multiple, anti-systemic alternatives, exemplified by the Zapatista ideal of "creating a world where many worlds fit" (Esteva 2012).  Pluriversal processes are compatible with divergent, undefined, or evolving end goals, as well as different means of change.  They are grounded in the belief that diversity is essential for building ethically appropriate and technically viable alternatives (Cameron and Gibson-Graham 2003; Gibson-Graham 2006; Escobar 2010).  For example, since the crux of anti-systemic struggles is to overthrow domination, it would be contradictory for some visions and processes to dominate over others.  In addition, just as natural diversity is essential for healthy, and resilient ecosystems (Folke et. al., 2010), pluriversality harnesses the strength of different groups working together to create resilience in the face of cooptation or repression.

[v] Prefigurative politics blends the means and ends of change through the direct exercise or embodiment of the desired change.  Long referred to as making the "personal political" in feminist literature and activism, prefigurative politics takes on meaning through practice, reversing the typical order of knowing in dominant global systems, making room for other ways of being.  In addition, it requires that change happen immediately, through changes in behaviors, attitudes, and practices.  As groups of people join together to become the change they wish to see, they are simultaneously learning, creating, and replacing the capitalist structures and values they reject.  This enables the evolution of 'alternatives to-' forms of decision-making, relationships, communities, and eventually, systems.

[vi] Bollier, David, and Silke Helfrich, eds. The wealth of the commons: A world beyond market and state. Levellers Press, 2014.

Ostrom, Elinor, Joanna Burger, Christopher B. Field, Richard B. Norgaard, and David Policansky. "Revisiting the commons: local lessons, global challenges." science 284, no. 5412 (1999): 278-282.

Weston, Burns H., and David Bollier. Green governance: ecological survival, human rights, and the law of the commons. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[vii] Harvey, David. The new imperialism. OUP Oxford, 2003. And Harvey, David. "The right to the city." (2008): 23-40.

[viii] For an extensive list of articles on diverse applications of the Commons, see Bollier's "Commons Bibliography," available from http://bollier.org/commons-resources/commons-bibliography

[ix] See for example: Alden Wiley 2001; Algranati 2012; Bond 2012; Esteva 2014; Mignolo 2010 and 2011; Lang and Mokrani 2012; Zibechi 2012; etc.

[x] Federici, Silvia, and George Caffentzis. "Commons against and beyond capitalism." Upping the Anti: a journal of theory and action 15 (2013): 83-97. And Federici, Silvia. "Women, land struggles, and the reconstruction of the commons." WorkingUSA 14, no. 1 (2011): 41-56. And De Angelis, Massimo. "Crises, Capital, and Cooptation: Does Capital Need a Commons Fix?." In Bollier, David, and Silke Helfrich, eds. The wealth of the commons: A world beyond market and state. Levellers Press, 2014. 

[xi] Thompson, Craig J., and Gokcen Coskuner-Balli. "Countervailing market responses to corporate co-optation and the ideological recruitment of consumption communities." Journal of Consumer Research 34, no. 2 (2007): 135-152.

[xii] Bjork-James, Carwil. Claiming space, redefining politics: Urban protest and grassroots power in Bolivia. CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK, 2013. And Esteva, Gustavo. "Hope from the Margins." The wealth of the commons: A world beyond market and state. Levellers Press, 2014. And Hollender, Rebecca. "Post-Growth in the Global South: The Emergence of Alternatives to Development in Latin America." Socialism and Democracy 29, no. 1 (2015): 73-101. And De Angelis, Massimo. "Crises, Capital, and Cooptation: Does Capital Need a Commons Fix?." The wealth of the commons: A world beyond market and state. Levellers Press, 2014.  And Mignolo, Walter. "The communal and the decolonial." Rethinking Intellectuals in Latin America (2010): 245-261. And Mignolo, Walter. The darker side of western modernity: Global futures, decolonial options. Duke University Press, 2011. And Novy, Andreas, and Bernhard Leubolt. "Participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre: social innovation and the dialectical relationship of state and civil society." Urban Studies 42, no. 11 (2005): 2023-2036. And Vrasti, Wanda. "" Caring" Capitalism and the Duplicity of Critique." Theory & Event 14, no. 4 (2011).

[xiii] Marx, Karl, Capital, New York: Vintage, 1967.  And Polanyi, Karl. The great transformation: The political and economic origins of our time. Beacon Press, 1944.

[xiv] Polayni's (Ibid.) fictitious commodities are an example of how capitalist markets incorporate historically non-valued inputs to production, such as labor, land, and money in its quest for limitless growth.

[xv] Marx, Karl, Capital, New York: Vintage, 1967.

[xvi] Harvey, David. The new imperialism. OUP Oxford, 2003

[xvii] A series of development institutions and international treaties like the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and UN Conference on Sustainable Development promote the commercialization and control of natural resources and ecosystem services via their backing of Green Economy, carbon markets, carbon offsetting, biofuels, and other market based-proposals (Langer 2011; Moreno 2012; Algranati 2012; Svampa 2012; etc.).

[xviii] Seoane, José, and Clara Algranati. "La ofensiva extractivista en América Latina. Crisis global y alternativas." Herramienta 50 (2012). And Hollender, Rebecca. "Post-Growth in the Global South: The Emergence of Alternatives to Development in Latin America." Socialism and Democracy 29, no. 1 (2015): 73-101. And Lander, Edgardo. "The green economy: the wolf in sheep's clothing."Amsterdam: Transnational Institute 6 (2011). And Moreno, Camila. "Las ropas verdes del rey: La economa verde: una nueva fuente de acumulacion primitiva." Beyond Development: Alternative Visions from Latin America (2013): 117-143. And Svampa, Maristella. "Resource extractivism and alternatives: Latin American perspectives on development." Beyond Development: Alternative Visions from Latin America (2013): 117-143.

[xix] Examples include restoring traditional communal land tenure practices in Africa (Alden Wiley 2001, Federici 2011) and organizing around the Commons for the provision of public water services in South African cities (Bond 2012).

[xx] De Angelis, Massimo. "Crises, Capital, and Cooptation: Does Capital Need a Commons Fix?." The wealth of the commons: A world beyond market and state. Levellers Press, 2014.

[xxi] Federici, Silvia. "Women, land struggles, and the reconstruction of the commons." WorkingUSA 14, no. 1 (2011): 41-56.

[xxii] Global South, for the purposes of this statistic, refers to developing countries (according to United Nations categorization), which are primarily located in the Southern hemisphere.

[xxiii] Seoane, José, and Clara Algranati. "La ofensiva extractivista en América Latina. Crisis global y alternativas." Herramienta 50 (2012).

[xxiv] Wily, Liz Alden. "Reconstructing the African commons." Africa Today 48, no. 1 (2001): 76-99. And Federici, Silvia. "Women, land struggles, and the reconstruction of the commons." WorkingUSA 14, no. 1 (2011): 41-56.

[xxv] Alden Wiley (Ibid.) shows how it is possible to transform legal structures to be more favorable to collective treatment of the Commons.  She looks at how land tenure structures in some eastern African countries have been modified to incorporate traditional, pre-capitalist practices including collective ownership, customary practices, and verbal agreements.  This legal "modernization of communal tenure" has resulted in greater security by communities to their lands and resources, the reconstruction of traditional norms, gains for women, etc. (Ibid., Federici 2011).

[xxvi] Habermas, Jürgen. "Legitimization crisis." Boston: Beacon (1975).

[xxvii] Streeck, Wolfgang. "The crises of democratic capitalism." New left review 71 (2011): 5-29.

[xxviii] Harvey, David. "The right to the city." (2008): 23-40. And Marx, Karl, Capital, New York: Vintage, 1967. And Nordhoff, Charles. The Communistic societies of the United States, from personal visit and observation. Courier Corporation, 1966.

[xxix] Skinner, Quentin. Liberty before liberalism. Vol. 11. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[xxx] Vrasti, Wanda. "" Caring" Capitalism and the Duplicity of Critique." Theory & Event 14, no. 4 (2011).

[xxxi] For example, the Occupy Movement deliberately keeps an open-ended agenda, recognizing that clearly defined, universal end-goals are exclusionary, as they inevitably privilege some models over others.  Instead, the movement prioritizes the means rather than the ends.  Members experiment with democratic organizing forms, arguing that effective socioeconomic alternatives can only arise out of democratic processes. (Hardt and Negri 2011; Sitrin and Azzellini 2014).

[xxxii] These types of open, participatory processes have shown to increase participation across traditional societal divisions, and facilitate the linking of diverse groups (Corragio 2011, Junge 2012, Novy and Leubolt 2005, Reitan 2012, Zibichi 2012).

[xxxiii] Kratzwald, Brigitte. "Rethinking the Social Welfare State in Light of the Commons." The wealth of the commons: A world beyond market and state. Levellers Press, 2014. And Quilligan, James B. "Why distinguish common goods from pubic goods?" The wealth of the commons: A world beyond market and state. Levellers Press, 2014.

[xxxiv] Esteva, Gustavo. "Hope from the Margins." The wealth of the commons: A world beyond market and state. Levellers Press, 2014. And Mignolo, Walter. "The communal and the decolonial." Rethinking Intellectuals in Latin America (2010): 245-261.

Mignolo, Walter. The darker side of western modernity: Global futures, decolonial options. Duke University Press, 2011.

[xxxv] While many Southern and indigenous groups self-identify with the Commons framework, the Commons is not sufficient for representing the plurality of struggles to revive communal forms of socioeconomic and political organization.  Mignolo (2010, 2011) argues that any attempt to do so represents an inappropriate and inaccurate attempt to universalize diverse struggles within a Eurocentric, leftist framework.

[xxxvi] Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[xxxvii] Federici, Silvia, and George Caffentzis. "Commons against and beyond capitalism." Upping the Anti: a journal of theory and action 15 (2013): 83-97.

[xxxviii] The heavy state involvement in widely celebrated Commons experiments such as Commons Trusts in the US, Participatory Budgeting in Brazil and elsewhere, and communal-councils in Venezuela make such projects controversial to members of the left who fear cooption by states that are ultimately accountable to serving capitalist interests.

[xxxix] The constituent structures, forces, and underlying divisions of capitalism are widely debated and include many more examples than the two mentioned here.

[xl] Bond, Patrick. "The right to the city and the eco-social commoning of water: Discursive and political lessons from South Africa." The Right to Water (2012): 190-205.

[xli] Mignolo, Walter. "The communal and the decolonial." Rethinking Intellectuals in Latin America (2010): 245-261.

[xlii] The literal translation of Buen Vivir is "Good life." It was originally made popular by Kichwa, Quechua, and Aymara populations in the Andes, but similar concepts can be found in diverse indigenous cosmovisions around the world, for example Ubuntu in south eastern Africa.  Buen Vivir incorporates a plurality of concepts, allowing for an intersection of indigenous and occidental knowledge, focusing on human well-being, the "fullness of life," the need to coexist with Nature, recognize its intrinsic value, and respect its physical limitations. Buen Vivir also focuses on the need to change the market's role, position, and mechanisms, and the way in which humans relate to each other economically (Hollender 2015).

[xliii] Bjork-James, Carwil. Claiming space, redefining politics: Urban protest and grassroots power in Bolivia. CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK, 2013. And Hollender, Rebecca. "Post-Growth in the Global South: The Emergence of Alternatives to Development in Latin America." Socialism and Democracy 29, no. 1 (2015): 73-101. And Hollender, Rebecca. "Capitalizing on Public Discourse in Bolivia – Evo Morales and Twenty-first Century Capitalism." Consilience: The Journal of Sustainable Development 15, no. 1(2016): 50-76.

[xliv] Wily, Liz Alden. "Reconstructing the African commons." Africa Today 48, no. 1 (2001): 76-99. And Federici, Silvia. "Women, land struggles, and the reconstruction of the commons." WorkingUSA 14, no. 1 (2011): 41-56.

[xlv] Novy, Andreas, and Bernhard Leubolt. "Participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre: social innovation and the dialectical relationship of state and civil society." Urban Studies 42, no. 11 (2005): 2023-2036. And Junge, Benjamin. "NGOs as shadow pseudopublics: Grassroots community leaders' perceptions of change and continuity in Porto Alegre, Brazil."American Ethnologist 39, no. 2 (2012): 407-424.

[xlvi] Ibid.

[xlvii] Junge, Benjamin. "NGOs as shadow pseudopublics: Grassroots community leaders' perceptions of change and continuity in Porto Alegre, Brazil."American Ethnologist 39, no. 2 (2012): 491.

[xlviii] RIPESS, 2013, International Network for the Promotion of Social Solidarity Economy, http://www.ripess.org/about-us/?lang=en.

[xlix] Perkins, Patricia E. "Feminist ecological economics and sustainability."Journal of Bioeconomics 9, no. 3 (2007): 227-244.

[l] Coraggio, José Luis. "Economía social y solidaria." El trabajo antes que el capital 1 (2011):p133.

[li] Ibid. And Federici, Silvia, and George Caffentzis. "Commons against and beyond capitalism." Upping the Anti: a journal of theory and action 15 (2013): 83-97.  And Federici, Silvia. "Women, land struggles, and the reconstruction of the commons." WorkingUSA 14, no. 1 (2011): 41-56.

[lii] Mignolo, Walter. "The communal and the decolonial." Rethinking Intellectuals in Latin America (2010): 245-261. And Mignolo, Walter. The darker side of western modernity: Global futures, decolonial options. Duke University Press, 2011.

[liii] Collective, Midnight Notes. "Friends. Promissory Notes: From Crisis to Commons." Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution (2009): 13.