The Grammar and Politics of Commoning – Suzana Milevska

There is a crucial grammatical difference between the words `commons` and `commoning`. The grammar clearly distinguishes between the passive commons (noun) and the active commoning (verb or gerund, depending on its use). However, there is much more to it: the differentiation goes far beyond the realm of language niceties, metaphors, and obvious grammatical rules. Most importantly, the difference calls for clarification and reflection on economic and political ramifications when focussing on either of these concepts.The necessity of making an important distinction between the noun commons, as passive resource or property, and the active relations assumed by commoning has been explained clearly by Peter Linebaugh who was among the first theorists to have used the latter term:

To speak of the commons as if it were a natural resource is misleading at best and dangerous at worst – the commons is an activity and, if anything, it expresses relationships in society that are inseparable from relations to nature. It might be better to keep the word as a verb, an activity, rather than as a noun, a substantive.1

It all depends on the decision whether one focuses on the existing understanding of property, object-hood and materiality of resources (and therefore on passive acceptance of the existing institutional definitions, frameworks, and assumed meanings or governing laws and rules of ownership), or, as suggested by Linebaugh, one focuses on the shift towards a more active stance. This implies either acceptance of the assigned access to and distribution of the commons or a call for redefinition and redistribution of it through commoning.
The shift towards active community struggles implies challenging who has the right to control common property and the ownership of the commons, and therefore a change of the paradigm of commons from its outset. The latter, commoning, means calling for a retroactive redefinition of the existing systemic concepts and legally approved relations and modes of (re)production, as well as taking ownership of the means of production and surplus of value.

The most challenging aspect of this is the call for redistribution of common wealth from the new to the old owners, from the alleged unjust rich to the poor.2  Restitution, repatriation and decolonisation of institutions are only some of the examples of recent movements in rethinking the relation between subjects, resources, and common property from the past that have not proved easy tasks.

One of the main problems regarding the principle of commoning stems from the difficulty in questioning and challenging inherited societal concepts – inequalities – as the basis for the unjust acquisition of the property. The issue of commoning is inevitably linked to worldwide protests against social inequality and also to early ideas about class struggle and egalitarian society (for instance during the Paris Commune, if not even to some earlier more or less successful fights for equal relations). However, the global postcolonial has called for a redistribution of wealth as well as decolonisation of unjustly acquired goods and appropriated territories (often affected by local legal obstacles). As David Bollier has stated:

Even in the best circumstances, conventional policy systems tend to be legalistic, expensive, expert-driven, bureaucratically inflexible, and politically corruptible, which make them a hostile vehicle for serious change “from the bottom.”

Furthermore, one is compelled to ask how to proceed with the delinking of property and production relations from their historic and ideological pre-determination. Or, to ask it more precisely, what positions are available to discuss and deal with embedded and inherited aggression in these dispossessions from the pre-modern or modernist past? How to avoid new aggression and how to protect the vulnerability of newly constructed subjectivity? By comparing Marxist and Foucauldian interpretations of economic, societal and political structures and relations, Wendy Brown has warned of a whole new level of surveillance, control, exploitation, and aggression that emerges with neoliberalism. It surpasses the human and class hierarchies known from late capitalism. According to her observations, relations produced during anti-capitalist movements and struggles are not immune to producing new hierarchies and violent and aggressive instruments and relations.4 

Most importantly, the question of how to introduce and develop commoning struggles without replicating and reproducing the very conditions that originally lead to the establishment of the inequality of rights to common wealth, and to the unequal relations of production, is linked to the question of how one should rethink society in general. Similar to Castoriadis’ proposition, the most pertinent question today is how to radicalise the instituting of the imaginary through commoning by discontinuing existing power relations.5 Many of the modes and relations of production, as well as concepts of property and ownership, are, unfortunately, long internalised and thus assumed normal. They have been systemically justified by the ideological and institutionalised arguments that haven’t been sufficiently questioned and criticised. This does not come as a surprise given the excessive importance attached to individual and private property and interest in capitalist societies. Thus, it is necessary to address commoning in the context of history of the provenance of the concept of production, surplus value, and ownership, and to link it to the remnants of the local and global colonial systems.

Additionally, one has to acknowledge that, recently, some widely accepted preconceptions about early egalitarian and self-sustainable structures (spread across small-scale communities, cities, and societies) have been challenged and even shattered by break-through analyses of several ancient archaeological sites. In this respect one should look at a variety of commoning practices and not just those in the present and in isolated cases in small communities. For example, the recent cross-regional and cross-disciplinary comparative analyses of Graeber and Wengrow brought to light some new and relevant results, as well as different models of equality and commoning in larger urban structures – in contrast to stricter hierarchies in smaller settlements and communities.6 

It is important to acknowledge here that there are concrete systemic structures that in the past have permitted and enabled improper ways of acquiring property (colonial capitalist appropriation, looting, expropriation, nationalisation and other discriminatory laws based on ethnicity, gender, class, race, sex, religion, politics, and other differences). Moreover, it is urgent to pin down some of the existing societal structures and mechanisms (for instance Anti-Semitism or Anti-Romaism) that ultimately lead to severe capitalist and neoliberal dissolution of common wealth by ostracising or prosecuting individuals or whole communities. The strategy of `accumulation by dispossession`, and other interrelated policies that unjustly disenfranchised individuals, groups and communities in the past, continues to be intstrumental in this.7 

Obviously, it is difficult to imagine that any redistribution of wealth acquired in such a way could take place without a struggle.

The struggle of commoning needs before all continuity.8 Consequently this clearly complicates the discussion by transforming it from a deliberation about local and municipal communal interests and day-to-day ethical decisions over small parking lots or biking tracks (important for the current neoliberal societal context) into a need for a more radical and continuous debate about inequality regardless the change of different political systems, political economies, civil rights, and liberties.

The relation of the general discussion of commoning to research on the shared use of natural resources is mainly connected to the work of the economist Elinor Ostrom.9 Ostrom has collected examples of best-practices of long-lasting, self-organised and self-governed institutions. She has described different self-chosen regulations and locally-adapted conflict resolution strategies that she has called `polyarchy` (e.g. the gardens of Can Masdeu, or the public space of La Tabacalera, and Woodward neighbourhood in Vancouver).10

However, according to Gauditz and Euler,  some authors, following predominantly autonomist assumptions (e.g. Hardt and Negri, Silvia Federici, George Caffentzis), have correctly suggested that sharing strategies should be pursued elsewhere, in social relations and arrangements and in the production of new relations and knowledge, rather than in sticking to existing institutions and regulations.11 Examples of such struggles include the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico; Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST); and the Chipko movement in India – these are just a few of many similar attempts to maintain rights of control, sharing common resources, land, or governance itself.

The struggle of the Sámi Reindeer herders in Norway is a lesser-known but relevant example. Sámi people have lived and worked, within a designated Norwegian area, in reindeer herding groups (so-called “siiddat”) that have used reindeer for transport, milk and meat production. The Siida is an ancient community based on a self-organised system. This Sámi community can be defined as a working partnership between the community members who also have individual rights to the land and natural resources. Recently-introduced regulations by the Norwegian government’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food on the slaughter of reindeer have interfered in the issue of land rights, often using ecological arguments (for alleged fear of overgrazing) to manipulate public opinion.12 In this context it is worth looking at the clash between the old and recently enforced regulations that have affected self-organised and self-sustainable communities of reindeer herders. This case should be contextualised within a framework of commoning and the struggle of small communities against various strategies that have been created to reduce the rights of Sámi Reindeer herders and to impose stricter control of the land belonging to Sámi people.

Clearly, any state-enforced regulations resonate with economic concepts that justify and advocate for the primacy of private property. What such imposed decisions actually do is yet another example of establishing hegemonic dominance (in this case of the Norwegian state) over the long struggle of people against appropriation and control. In the long-run, not only does this affect control over common property but it also intrudes on otherwise long-lasting, self-organised and self-sustainable environments. Biodiversity is often endangered due to global climate change. So, overall the case of Sámi Reindeer herders reveals how colonial (bio)power can overwrite local commoning and it reveals the difficulties faced in the struggle of the commoners which can suffer if it is not constantly updated on different levels and pushed forward in many directions.

The critical voices of Federici and Caffentzis, while calling for `anti-capitalist` commons, have warned of certain dangers of appropriation of the commoning struggles’ strategies and relations across the globe.13 Furthermore, they have called for: “a society made of ‘free associations of producers’, self-governed and organized to ensure not an abstract equality but the satisfaction of people’s needs and desires.”14 Massimo De Angelis has also pointed out an urgency in the conceptualisation of the commons, not just as common goods but as a set of social systems and values; as a shift towards a world of social justice, inclusion and environmental sustainability. According to De Angelis one of the main things that hinders the potentiality for solidarity and unity is the division of the struggle of commoning across the wage hierarchy

But commoning is not only based on pre-existent values, pre-existent “ethical” choices. The commoning we seek is also and most importantly a field of production of values, and the precondition for this production is that a wide range of different ethics, different cultures, different life-styles, and, as we will see, different power positions within the planetary wage hierarchy participate in the co-production of new systems of values, of producing what is of common value together.15 

Particularly important here is De Angelis’ and Harvie’s critique of Ostrom’s understanding of the struggle within the commons only as a competition between users, conceptualised as ‘appropriators’ rather than as a `struggle of the commons vis-à-vis an outside social force – capital`.16 The ultimate goal of commoning is often to make the common resources inalienable, so the main struggle is how to achieve this in the context of dominant global and state economic rules.17 Some of the more ironic and even cynical voices regarding the potentiality of commoning were welcomed and fully embraced by the neoliberal sceptics in an attempt to `resuscitate` the constantly criticised private ownership, as well as to rescue it from its challenges.18

The pessimistic and even cynical assumptions of Hardin and his neoliberal supporters that the struggle is always already doomed to fail (because of the individuals who supposedly only aspire to selfishly plunder the commons and are not motivated to contribute to common efforts) often served as an ideological argument. This argument is predictable and is often supplemented with the promise that privatisation or state control `would provide for a more effective and sustainable way of managing resources` and protect the commons from greed and devastation.19

Any discussion about commoning inevitably leads towards the genealogy of the term commoning that is directly linked to the Latin com, a prefix meaning `with`.
Just as a reminder: for Jean-Luc Nancy the concept of `being` always entails being `with` as an inevitable conjunction that links different singularities.20 When he claimed that `sharing of the world` is a co-implication of existence, he was referring to the problem that at this moment we cannot truly say `we`; that we have forgotten the importance of `being-together`, `being-in-common`, and `belonging`; that we live `without relations`.21  He points out the impossibility to pin down some universal `we` that consists of always the same components.22

The usual problem with the imaginary `we` is that it mostly exists only during the period of a particular ad hoc event – an insurgency, a revolutionary protest or a milder public revolt – with rare examples where communities create self-sustainable projects that continue even after the end of the class or other conflicts. Thus, it is a prerequisite to understand the aporia of the `we`, the changing of its `components` and to differently reassemble this `assemblage` in a kind of “Deleuzian ‘line of flight’ by rupturing the system”, if one wants to proceed with a successful pursuit of the issues of the right to redistribution of common property and equality.23

Such understanding of rights resonates with Lefebvre’s concept of the `right to the city` that was later re-contextualised by David Harvey in the light of the more recent rampant neoliberal urban developments and dispossessions.24 What one could learn from the original Lefebvrean concept was that the `right to the city` should involve participation in decision making regarding public space, and prioritise appropriation and production (access and use value) over exchange value and commodification.25 All these commoning elements assume a certain activity and performativity in political consciousness. It makes it clear that the commoning of the public space is not only about the commons as resources, but rather about access to a common social space that enables and embraces the process of its creative production, `a materialisation of social being`.26 Rights to the city, however, are not inherited and unhindered: they have to be earned by inhabiting and `by living-out the routines of everyday life in the space of the city`.27

The difficulties and potentialities of negotiating communities’ interests with state powers and private capital regarding the right to housing of marginalised and vulnerable communities, e.g. Romani communities, is at the core of several projects of the artists Vladan Jeremić and Rena Raedle. Their long-term project World Communal Heritage includes various actions, as well as a manifesto.28

On their project’s web-site they call on everybody to `join in the World Communal Heritage Campaign`! According to the manifesto, and an ironic call that resembles that of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre portal (https://whc.unesco.org/), `any communal, open space can be nominated by citizens, individuals, groups or communities as World Communal Heritage`. From the manifesto’s call one easily follows the logic that, instead of an appeal for declaring and protecting monuments, cultural objects, or natural resorts as cultural heritage, the artists focus on social housing and other form of communal habitats.                                                 

According to Jeremić and Raedle, public spaces are endangered as a result of the constant need of the neoliberal economy for expansion and thus requirement for new spaces for building objects with commercial and exchange value. The Helsinki Housing Manifesto29 was conceived after a public event, The Housing Agenda (2011), during which they invited various Finnish Roma30 activists and professionals to discuss social housing for Roma. The manifesto’s text calls for an understanding that this struggle for the right to use public space is not only about creative production in/of the city in Lefebvre’s terms, but also about a basic human right – the right to a roof over one’s head. It should be our priority to rethink access and right to use common space in a contemporary political context, particularly during employment, refugee, homelessness and other crises. The housing issue of the Roma families, their forced nomadism and their repudiation from long-inhabited areas due to restrictive and discriminatory urban laws in many EU countries (e.g. regarding temporary housing), is one of the most severe examples of why the struggle for communal housing is so urgent.

To conclude, central to the battle of the protesters around existing commons and fighting for commoning, is a need to deinstitutionalise the commons, or `to propose a different understanding of ownership to the one usually recognised and claimed by private owners`, and to ‘reclaim their commons’ because they claim that `commons are produced rather than just found by local communities`.31 Furthermore, one could argue that existing institutions and organisations, even when they are well-intended or based on certain commoning principles, need to be dismantled if they prove incapable and futile during commoning struggles. Also, they need to offer necessary reorganisation and re-imagination of community institutions and societal structures.

Different communities, including researchers and artists who act in solidarity, continue their active pursuit for societal and political models of commoning. These different groups that are invested in similar aims to support commoning struggles learn from each other. This is particularly the case for artists who collaborate on long-term commoning projects that aim to undo existing socio-political structures and hegemonic relations based on hierarchies and disrespect for basic human rights and needs, and who aim to dismantle existing hierarchical structures within the art world.

Commoning runs counter to the long reign of modernist myths of genius and individual art production for art’s sake as well, of course, for profit. However, the neoliberal commercial art world often resists and opposes commoning and collective production, collaboration, cooperation, and other forms of community-based art. These are not yet equally represented in the international art context and there are all sorts of new hierarchies to be negotiated on the way to the art scene. The commoning struggle is thus also relevant within art communities in their ongoing struggles with holograph-like replication of societal structures, and in a context of regeneration of urban space, appropriation of space for public art, colonial looting and cultural appropriation based on hierarchies and inequalities in the pursuit of profit.                                             

 


Rena Raedle og Vladan Jeremić, World Communal Heritage Campaign. Postcards for the “The Housing Agenda”, Helsinki, 2011

 

NOTES
All links last accessed on 27.03.2018.

P. Linebough, The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009, p. 279.
According to Linebaugh “The Magna Carta” – the founding document of Anglo-American democracy – already affirmed people’s right to use the commons in order to fulfil their basic needs. Linebourgh, p.279.
D. Bollier, ‘Commoning as a Transformative Social Paradigm,’ The Next System Project, 28 April 2016, p.3. https://thenextsystem.org/commoning-as-a-transformative-social-paradigm
W. Brown, States of Injury Power and Freedom in Late Modernity, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 10.
C. Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, London: Polity Press, 1987, p. 373; C. Cornelius, Radical Imagination and the Social Instituting Imaginary,’ G. Robinson & J. F. Rundell (eds.), Rethinking Imagination: Culture and Creativity. Routledge, 1994, pp. 136-54.
6
 The newly discovered details of governance and housing call for retrospective critique of the stereotypical assumption that smaller communities and family groups are more susceptible to self-governance and commoning than larger urban structures. See: D. Graeber, and D. Wengrow, ‘How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened),’ eurozine, 2 March 2018, https://www.eurozine.com/change-course-human-history/
For more information on how the colonial regimes use the strategy of“accumulation by dispossession` in order to impoverish whole regions and appropriate wealth belonging to various communities and peoples see: M. Hardt & A. Negri, Commonwealth, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009; D. Harvey, The New Imperialism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
V. Fournier, ‘Commoning: on the social organisation of the commons,’ M@n@gement 
2013/4 (Vol. 16), pp. 433-53, https://www.cairn.info/revue-management-2013-4-page-433.htm
In 2009 professor Elinor Ostrom received the Nobel Prize for economics for her long-term research on different institutional self-governed economical structures that manage commons (at the International Association for the Study of Commons (IASC). See: E. Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 42.
10 Ostrom, p. 42.
11 L. Gauditz, and J. Euler, ‘Commoning: A Different Way of Living and Acting Together,’ Originally published in Degrowth.de, 6 March 2017, http://www.resilience.org/stories/2017-03-06/commoning-a-different-way-of-living-and-acting-together/
12 The organisation and process of decision-making concerning reindeer husbandry on the national level are still delegated to the Norwegian Reindeer Husbandry Board (which consists of four members appointed by the Ministry and three appointed by the Sámi Parliament), but the daily responsibility to implement the State’s reindeer husbandry policy lies with the Norwegian Reindeer Husbandry Administration. http://reindeerherding.org/herders/sami-norway/
13 G. Caffentzis and S. Federici, ‘Commons against and beyond Capitalism,’ Community Development Journal Vol 49 No S1 January 2014 pp. i92– i105, i100, https://academic.oup.com/cdj/article-pdf/49/suppl_1/i92/872260/bsu006.pdf; S. Federici, ‘Feminism And the Politics of the Commons,’ The Commoner, 24 January 2011, (accessed 20 March 2013), available at: http://www.commoner.org.uk/?p=113;
14 Caffentzis and Federici, p. i101.
15 M. De Angelis, ‘The Production of Commons and the “Explosion” of the Middle Class,’ Antipode Volume 42, Issue 4, pp. 954–977, September 2010, p. 958. https://www.academia.edu/3132421/The_Production_of_Commons_and_the_Explosion_of_the_Middle_Class
16 De Angelis, M. & D. Harvie, “The Commons,” eds. M. Parker, G. Cheney, V. Fournier & C. Land (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Alternative Organisation, London: Routledge, 2013, pp. 280-294.
17 D. Bollier, p. 3.
18 G. Hardin, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons,’ Science 162, no. 3859 (December 1968), pp. 1243–1248, p. 1243.
19 Fournier, p. 439.
20 J.-L. Nancy, Being Singular Plural. Trans. R. D. Richardson and A. O’Byrne. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000, pp. 28-31.
21 Nancy, p. 75
22 Nancy, p. 75
23 De Angelis, p. 957.
24 H. Lefebvre, Writings on Cities. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996; Harvey, ‘The Right to the City,’ New Left Review, 53 (Sep/Oct), 2008, pp. 23-40.
25 Fournier, p. 440.
26 H. Lefebvre, The Production of Space. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991 [1974], p. 62, pp. 101-102.
27 Fournier, p. 441.
28 For more information on the project World Communal Heritage see:
https://communalheritage.wordpress.com/about/; http://raedle-jeremic.net/communal_heritage.html;
http://raedle-jeremic.net/spatial_justice.html
29 https://issuu.com/vladanrena/docs/helsinki_housing_manifesto
30 http://raedle-jeremic.net/pdfs/about_the_housing_question_full.pdf
31 Fournier, p. 440.

 

Suzana Milevska is a visual culture theorist and curator. Her theoretical and curatorial interests include postcolonial critique of the hegemonic power regimes of representation, gender theory and feminism, participatory art, and collaborative research-based art practices. Currently she is Principal Investigator at the Politecnico di Milano (Transmitting Contentious Cultural Heritages through the Arts: From Intervention to Coproduction (TRACES), Horizon 2020). From 2013 to 2015 she was the Endowed Professor for Central and South European Art Histories at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and she taught at the Visual Culture Unit at the Technological University in Vienna. Milevska was Fulbright Senior Research Scholar (2004) and received a PhD in Visual Cultures from Goldsmiths College – University of London (2006). In 2012, Milevska won the Igor Zabel Award for Culture and Theory.