3. Defeating the Economy.

from Omnia Sunt Communia in To Our Friends — The Invisible Committee.

That the core of the commune is precisely what eludes it, what traverses it yet always remains beyond its appropriation, was already what characterized the res communes in Roman law. The “common things” were the ocean, the atmosphere, the temples, that which could not be appropriated as such. One could take possession of a few liters of water, or a strip of shore, or some temple stones, but not the sea as such, and not a sacred place. The res communes are paradoxically what resists reification, their transformation into res, into things. It’s the designation in public law of what falls outside of public law: what’s in common use is irreducible to juridical categories. Language is typically “the common”: while one can express oneself thanks to it, by means of it, it is also something which no one can possess as his own. One can only make use of it.

In recent years some economists have tried to develop a new theory of the “commons.” The “commons” are said to be the set of those things to which the market has a very hard time assigning a value, but without which it would not function: the environment, mental and physical health, the oceans, education, culture, the Great Lakes, etc., but also the great infrastructures (highways, the Internet, telephone or sanitation networks, etc.). According to those economists, who are both worried about the state of the planet and desirous of improving the operation of the market, there needs to be invented a new form of “governance” for these commons that wouldn’t depend on the market alone. Governing the Commons is the title of the recent bestseller by Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, who has defined eight principles for “managing the commons.” Understanding there is a place for them in an “administration of the commons” that remains to be invented, Negri and associates have embraced this theory, which is perfectly liberal at its core. They’ve even extended the notion of commons to include everything produced by capitalism, reasoning that all of it results in the last analysis from the productive collaboration between humans, who would only need to appropriate it through an uncommon “democracy of the commons.” The eternal militants, always short of ideas, have rushed into step behind them. They now find themselves claiming “health, housing, migration, social care, education, working conditions in the textile industry, etc.” as so many “commons” that must be appropriated. If they continue down this path, it won’t be long before they demand worker management of nuclear power plants and the same for the NSA, since the Internet should belong to everyone. For their part, more sophisticated theoreticians are inclined to make the “commons” into the latest metaphysical principle to come out of the West’s magical hat. An arche, they say, in the sense of that which “organizes, commands, and rules all political activity,” a new “beginning” that will give birth to new institutions and a new world government. What is ominous about all this is the evident inability to imagine any other form of revolution than the existing world flanked by an administration of men and things inspired by the ravings of Proudhon and the lackluster fantasies of the Second International. Contemporary communes don’t claim any access to, or aspire to the management of any “commons.” They immediately organize a shared form of life—that is, they develop a common relationship with what cannot be appropriated, beginning with the world.

If ever these “commons” were to pass into the hands of a new breed of bureaucrats, nothing about what is killing us would substantially change. The entire social life of the metropolises works like a gigantic demoralization enterprise. Everyone within it, in every aspect of their existence, is held captive by the general organization of the commodity system. One can very well be activist in one organization or another, go out with one’s group of “buddies,” but ultimately it’s everybody for themselves, each in his own skin, and there’s no reason to think it might be different. Every movement, however, every genuine encounter, every episode of revolt, every strike, every occupation, is a breach opened up in the false self-evidence of that life, attesting that a shared life is possible, desirable, potentially rich and joyful. It sometimes seems that everything is conspiring to prevent us from believing this, to obliterate every trace of other forms of life—of those that died out and those about to be eradicated. The desperate ones at the helm of the ship are most afraid of having passengers less nihilistic than they are. And indeed, the entire organization of this world, that is, of our strict dependence on it, is a daily denial of every other possible form of life.

As the social varnish cracks and peels, the urgency of forming into a force is spreading, under the surface but noticeably. Since the end of the movement of the squares, we have seen networks of mutual support cropping up in many cities to stop evictions, of strike committees and neighborhood assemblies, but also cooperatives, for everything and in every sense. Production co-ops, consumer co-ops, housing, education, and credit co-ops, and even “integral co-ops” that would deal with every aspect of life. With this proliferation, a welter of previously marginal practices is spreading far beyond the radical ghetto that had more or less reserved them for itself. In this way they’re acquiring a seriousness and effectiveness that wasn’t there before, and they themselves are easier to deal with. Not everyone is alike. People are facing the need for money together, they’re organizing to have some or do without. And yet, a cooperative wood shop or auto repair shop will be just as irksome as a paying job if they’re taken as the aim instead of the means that people have in common. Every economic entity is headed for oblivion, is oblivion already, if the commune doesn’t negate its claim to completeness. So the commune is what brings all the economic communities into communication with each other, what runs through and overflows them; it is the link that thwarts their self-centering tendency. The ethical fabric of the Barcelona workers’ movement at the beginning of the 20th century can serve as a guide for the experiments that are underway. What gave it its revolutionary character was not its libertarian schools or its small operators who printed contraband money stamped CNT-FAI, or its sectoral trade unions, or its workers’ co-ops, or its groups of pistoleros. It was the bond connecting all this, the life flourishing between all these activities and entities, and not assignable to any of them. This was its unassailable base. It’s noteworthy, moreover, that at the time of the insurrection of July 1936 the only ones capable of tying together all the components of the anarchist movement offensively was the group Nosotros: a marginal bunch whom the movement had suspected up to that point of “anarcho-Bolshevism,” and who a month earlier had undergone a public trial and a quasi-exclusion on the part of the FAI.

In several European countries hit by “crisis,” we’re seeing an emphatic return of the social and solidarity-based economy, and of the cooperativist and mutualist ideologies that accompany it. The idea is spreading that this might constitute an “alternative to capitalism.” We see it rather as an alternative to struggle, an alternative to the commune. To convince oneself of this, one only has to look at how the social and solidarity economy was utilized by the World Bank, particularly in South America, as a technique of political pacification over the last twenty years. It’s well known that the noble project of helping the “Third World” countries to develop was conceived in the 1960s in the notably counter-insurrectionary mind of Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968, the McNamara of Vietnam, Agent Orange, and Rolling Thunder. The essence of this economic project is not in any way economic: it’s purely political, and its principle is simple. To guarantee the “security” of the United States, that is, to defeat communist insurrections, one has to deprive them of their main cause: excessive poverty. No poverty, no insurrection. Pure Galula. “The security of the Republic,” wrote McNamara in 1968, “doesn’t depend exclusively, or even primarily, on its military might, but also on the creation of stable economic and political systems, as much here at home as in the developing countries all over the world.” From such a viewpoint, the fight against poverty has several things going for it: first, it makes it possible to hide the fact that the real problem is not poverty, but wealth—the fact that a few hold, together with their power, most of the means of production; further, it turns the problem into a question of social engineering and not a political issue. Those who make fun of the near-systematic failure of the World Bank’s interventions to reduce poverty, from 1970 on, would do well to note that for the most part they were clear successes in terms of their true goal: preventing insurrection. This excellent run was to last until 1994.

1994 was when the National Program of Solidarity (PRONOSOL) was launched in Mexico with the support of 170,000 local “solidarity committees” designed to soften the effects of brutal social destructuring that would logically be produced by the free-trade agreements with the United States. It led to the Zapatista insurrection. Since then, the World Bank is all about microcredit, “reinforcing the autonomy and empowerment of poor people” (World Development Report of 2001), cooperatives, mutual societies-in short: the social and solidarity economy. “Promote the mobilization of poor people into local organizations so they can act as a check on the state institutions, participate in the process of local decision-making, and thus collaborate to ensure the primacy of law in everyday life,” says the same report. Meaning: coopt the local leaders into our networks, neutralize the oppositional groups, enhance the value of “human capital,” bring into commodity circuits, even marginal ones, everything that escaped them previously. The integration of tens of thousands of cooperatives, even rehabilitated factories, into the program Argentina Trabaja, is the counter-insurrectionary masterwork of Cristina Kirchner, her calibrated response to the uprising of 2001. Not to be outdone, Brazil has its own National Secretariat of Solidarity Economy, which in 2005 already counted 15,000 businesses and is a fine addition to the success story of local capitalism. The “mobilization of civil society” and the development of a “different economy” are not an adjusted response to the “shock strategy,” as Naomi Klein naively thinks, but the other stroke of its mechanism. The enterprise-form, the alpha and omega of neoliberalism, spreads along with the cooperatives. One should not be overly pleased, as some Greek leftists are, that the number of self-managed co-ops has exploded in their country these last two years. Because the World Bank keeps exactly the same tallies, and with the same satisfaction. The existence of a responsive marginal economic sector of the social and solidarity type doesn’t pose any threat to the concentration of political, hence economic, power. It even protects it from every challenge. Behind such a defensive buffer, the Greek shipowners, the army, and the country’s large corporations can go on with their business as usual. A bit of nationalism, a touch of social and solidarity economy, and the insurrection will have to wait.

Before economics could claim the title of “the science of behaviours,” or even the status of “applied psychology,” the economic creature, the being of need, had to be made to proliferate on the surface of the Earth. This being of need, this needy toiler, is not a creation of nature. For a long time, there were only ways of living, and not needs. One inhabited a certain portion of this world and one knew how to feed oneself, clothe oneself, entertain oneself, and put a roof over one’s head there. Needs were historically produced, by tearing men and women away from their world. Whether this took took the form of raids, expropriation, enclosures, or colonization matters little in this context. Needs were what economy gave to man in return for the world it took away. We start from that premise, there’s no use denying it. But if the commune involves taking responsibility for needs, this is not out of a concern for autarky, but because economic dependence on this world is a political as much as existential cause of continual abasement. The commune addresses needs with a view to annihilating the being of need within us. Where a lack is felt, its elementary gesture is to find the means to make it disappear as often as it may present itself. There are those “in need of a house”? One doesn’t just build one for them; one sets up a workshop where anyone can quickly build a house for themselves. A place is needed for meeting, hanging-out, or partying? One is occupied or built and also made available to those who “don’t belong to the commune.” The question, as you can see, is not that of abundance, but of the disappearance of need, that is, participation in a collective power that can dispel the feeling of confronting the world alone. The intoxication of the movement is not enough for this; a profusion of means is required. So a distinction must be made between the recent restarting of the Vio.Me factory in Thessaloniki by its workers and a number of variously disastrous Argentine attempts at self-management which Vio.Me takes inspiration from nonetheless. What is different is that the resumption of factory production was conceived from the beginning as a political offensive supported by all the remaining elements of the Greek “movement,” and not merely as an attempt at alternative economy. Using the same machines, this factory producing tile-joint compounds was converted to the production of disinfectant gels that were supplied in particular to dispensaries operated by the “movement.” It’s the echo made here between several facets of the “movement,” which has a communelike character. If the commune “produces,” this can only be in an incidental way; if it satisfies our “needs,” this is something extra as it were, in addition to its desire for a shared life; and not by taking productions and needs as the object. It’s in the open offensive against this world that the commune will find the allies that its growth demands. The growth of communes is the real crisis of economy, and is the only serious degrowth.