A review of Massimo De Angelis, Omnia Sunt Communia: On the Commons and the Transformation to Postcapitalism (Zed, 2017), £16.99
Omnia Sunt Communia forms part of a series envisioning a non-dystopian end to capitalism. Recent years have seen a number of books sketching out a post-capitalist future, some of which have been reviewed in this journal. What is particularly refreshing about Massimo De Angelis’s work though is his attempt to sketch out an unapologetically anti-capitalist view of post-capitalism. As he states in the intro: “My underlying conception of revolution is aligned to that of Marx which sees social revolution—that is, the growth of alternative modes of production—as the material conditions for any political change”.1 He steers clear of the kind of technological determinism, the idea of a conflict-free transition enabled through technology, seen in Paul Mason’s recent work on post-capitalism.2 So you will find many references to Capital but only one reference to the Grundrisse, and that it is not the much-cited “Fragment on Machines” that Mason appeals to.
Instead De Angelis bases his alternative on a study of the commons, which he defines very broadly (arguably excessively so). The commons is essentially a form of common ownership in which both producers and consumers cooperate in some way to produce a social good (or use value) in a reproducible and sustainable way. For De Angelis the commonwealth (the society in which capitalism is replaced by the commons) allows for a radically different relationship between humanity and nature to that permitted by capital (where nature is subsumed into the means of production as a resource to be exploited). This attempt to sketch out a materialist alternative to capitalism, without falling into utopianism or techno-determinism, is both a worthy exercise and difficult to realise. It deserves a serious appraisal.
The words “commons”, “community” and “communism” share the same Latin roots. De Angelis perhaps hints at this with the title of his book, but he does not care to remind us that the commons has long been a subject of study for Marxists who have understood the commons as a form of ownership (or right) that originated in pre-class societies, but remnants of which extended into feudalism and early capitalism. Rights to the commons included the right to harvest natural resources. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote extensively on this. In fact, Marx’s first article tackling economic issues was on attacks by land owners on the right of Rhineland peasants to harvest wood from the forest. Engels also used the term “primitive communism” to describe stateless, pre-class societies in which material resources (such as tools, fish, rivers, forests, cattle, grazing land and so on) were held in common by a particular community, so that all members of that community could access those resources.3
The commons should be familiar to us in another sense. The demand to decommoditise the essentials of life—including housing, education, healthcare, and childcare—in order to run these collectively and provide them as a social good, rather than for private profit, has been raised by socialists of all stripes throughout the centuries. Viewed this way, a discussion of the commons intersects with a lot of socialist thinking. Demands around the commons were partially realised with the creation of the welfare state, but De Angelis, again, overlooks this connection to socialism.
De Angelis reminds us that the commons is, or was, a common point of reference for the alter-globalist movement of the 1990s. It is again achieving contemporary relevance as a strategy to oppose neoliberalism and austerity. And he notes that defence of the commons has become a key plank of the political programme of Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common), the party of the city’s mayor Ada Colau.
De Angelis gives us a very contemporary account of the commons. As he informs us, the commons has been subject to critique and controversy among bourgeois economists for a number of decades, most famously in Garrett Hardin’s Malthusian 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons”. The unorthodox political economist and Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom refuted this thesis, although her work was premised on similar concepts, such as the rational choice theory so favoured by classical and neoliberal economists. Ostrom’s painstaking, almost anthropological, studies revealed the mechanisms by which communities are able to manage local resources sustainably. For example, one of her most cited case studies is of the collective practices developed by the lobster fishers of Maine, in the North East United States, in managing this resource.4 A key point to note here is that open access to resources is not the same as managed access to a common pool of resources (finite resources that can be damaged by over-exploitation). This situation contrasts with the unregulated open seas, where there is no mechanism for controlling the catch of each boat, so is vulnerable to over-fishing. Ostrom’s work has been favourably (and critically) appraised by a number of Marxists. De Angelis borrows heavily from these insights as he describes the principles of governance of the commons.5
The author uses the term “social labour” to describe all forms of cooperative labour, not just that appropriated by capital in the form of wage labour. He also correctly rejects the distinction between material and immaterial labour, pointing out that all labour contains elements of both. We are all familiar with social labour carried out inside the family in capitalist society. According to De Angelis this social labour is to be found everywhere; he sees it expended every time humans work with each other, including in the field of political activity. And, he observes: “Capital can mobilise social labour and subject it to its measure”. But the commons is found outside of the domain controlled by capital and so is the domain in which the production of use values for the benefit of a community of users holds primacy. Therefore, under a commons system, social relations would not be embedded in the exchange value of commodities in a market. De Angelis’s claim is that the commons can answer the questions as to the mechanisms of governance of such a system, such as the limits of the commons: Who is and who is not entitled to consume the resource? How are these rights policed? And what are the commoners’ obligations in terms of the requirement to reproduce and maintain the resource, or social good, in question?
Where De Angelis departs explicitly from Marx is in his understanding of two key theories developed in Capital: exploitation and primitive accumulation. De Angelis claims that Marx did not question what lies behind the reproduction of capital. Therefore he favours an approach based on social reproduction theory, where domestic labour is part of the production process, as developed by feminist scholars in the 1970s as an alternative to the theory of exploitation and primitive accumulation.
But cherry-picking bits of Marx and stitching the fragments back together does not provide the basis for developing a coherent theory of the political economy of the commons. For a start, it makes the new categories he develops to describe the commons very difficult to understand. Marxists have normally understood the commons as a historic form whose eradication, under a process of primitive accumulation, was the precondition for the development of wage labour under industrial capitalism. For De Angelis, enclosure and dispossession are the continuing processes—accentuated under neoliberalism—by which the expansion of the system is realised through the destruction of the commons. But extending the theory of primitive accumulation in this way is an area of controversy among Marxists. Silvia Federici developed the theory in order to sustain the notion of primitive accumulation occurring in the home, the reproduction of labour by this means being the precondition for wage labour. This is a departure from Marx because it ignores his key point: that the working class was created historically under capitalism. Extending the theory in this way robs it of its explanatory power. As Chris Harman pointed out in this journal, primitive accumulation: “permitted the development of a specifically capitalist way of expanding this wealth by creating a class of ‘free’ workers with no choice but to sell their labour power to those now in control of the means of production”.6
There are other problems with De Angelis’s book. He rejects what he terms the “classical narrative of Marxism” in which the working class abolishes capitalism through revolution and replaces it with socialism, “in which the state will direct all economic activity and regulate the market” and in which the “revolutionary workers would have some advantage in some aspect of social reproduction, but ultimately the elite would define the road to socialism” and the “old rebels would go back to work under the old discipline with ‘socialist spirit’” (p275). But this caricature of socialism weakens his analysis. In this way the working class is pushed to the back of the stage. The conflict between labour and capital is replaced by the conflict between capital and commoners.
De Angelis is well aware of the dangers of co-optation of the commons within capitalism and his claims are hedged with caveats. He is at pains to point out how co-optation can arise. But he is unable to resolve some of the problems he introduces when analysing social struggles through his conceptual prism. These problems become glaring when analysing public services, the “bureaucratic commons” as he terms it. Public libraries are an example of the intellectual commons analysed in this book. So the situation that arose in 2012, when Barnet Council in London announced the closure of a library with plans to sell the building, provides a concrete example of what’s at stake. The local community successfully occupied the building and now run it as a community library staffed mostly by volunteers, forcing the council to halt the sell-off. But when full-time professional library staff are substituted by volunteers, this is still austerity for the local community. Because he has nothing to say about working class agency, De Angelis’s theory cannot offer a convincing strategy to take this struggle forward.7
De Angelis does not claim the commons is emancipatory per se; it is only when it is harnessed to social movements and political struggle that it can achieve real gains and challenge the logic of capitalism. His best example of a commons struggle is the “water wars” that took place in Bolivia in the early 2000s. The government, under pressure from the IMF and the World Bank, announced the privatisation of Cochabamba’s water supply and the awarding of a contract to the giant US multinational Bechtel to control the water system. This is despite the fact that the water was not the government’s to sell. The water infrastructure in many parts of the system was built, owned and managed by the local community for use by the community—especially in the poorer parts of town. Following mass civil unrest, culminating in a general strike, the government was quickly forced to abandon its privatisation plans. This defeat was a signal point in the battle against neoliberalism not only in Bolivia, but across the whole of Latin America.
The problem here is that De Angelis’s lack of interest in class struggle in the workplace limits the scope of this work and causes him to overlook these important issues. This no mere academic question, but a vital question of anti-capitalist and revolutionary strategy. The Bolivian “water wars” are an example of this. He acknowledges that the resistance culminated in a general strike, which forced the government to change its plans, but he does not dwell on this fact, merely mentioning it in passing. But this is not a minor detail. Self-activity of workers is a crucial question for any serious strategy of resistance to capital.
I have focused in this review on the areas of the book that are problematic. However, there are interesting and useful insights, in particular the case studies. But I feel this book is a missed opportunity. There is no synthesis with the socialist tradition and the revolutionary approach to the commons. The author’s dismissal of revolution as the “classical narrative of Marxism” justifies his lack of interest in the historic experience of class struggle. Not only does he miss out the experience of the Russian Revolution but also the Spanish Civil War and their experiments with common ownership.
John Sinha is a climate justice activist, a member of Campaign against Climate Change steering committee and of the SWP.
1 De Angelis, 2017, p11.
2 See Mason, 2015, and Choonara, 2015, for a review in this journal.
3 A more recent treatment of this subject is given in Martin Empson’s Land and Labour—Empson, 2014. There is a wealth of Marxist writing on the commons, of which foremost are Engels, 1942, and chapter 27 of Marx’s Capital, volume 1—Marx, 1867. In Britain the Charter of The Forest of 1217 is an example of such a right granted to the peasantry.
4 This example was used to form the eight “design principles” of common people resource systems—Coombs, 2011.
5 There is not the space here to give an extensive appraisal of Ostrom’s work. However, Derek Wall, a Green Party supporter and ecological Marxist, has covered this subject in detail—Wall, 2014.
6 Harman, 2007. There is an active debate among Marxists on whether primitive accumulation was only a historical phenomenon—a one-off process—or whether contemporary phenomena of late capitalism such as urban gentrification can be understood in these terms. See, for example, Harman’s critique of David Harvey’s notion of “accumulation through dispossession” in Harman, 2007.
7 See Ward, 2012, for a report on the library occupation.