This episode is an extended discussion of the Commons, with contributions from David Bollier, George Caffentzis, Massimo de Angelis, Peter Linebaugh, and our own Dr. Bones. Thanks to The Droimlins — Eddy Dyer on guitar and Jimmy Otis on accordion — with their songs “Horse Hooves on the Steppes of Eurasia (765 AD)” and “Tenement Polka.” Also thanks to Eddy Dyer for his vocals and Ethan Winer for his bass on our punk-tinged cover of “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got” by Ral Donner. Above all, thanks to the birds in the forest for allowing me to record their conversations one morning.
The commons, as I would call it today, is those social systems in which people create their own alternatives to capital, where they reproduce their own values and value practices which are completely different to that of capital. The commons empower us, essentially. It empowers us not only to define our own way of doing things collectively, together, but also to make us more powerful to sustain the attack of capital, IF we are organized.
–Massimo de Angelis
To speak of the commons in the 21st century requires long memory and fierce forgetfulness. For not only has the commons been fenced off from memory, but we must also overcome a few hundred years of capitalism’s deep magic, ensorcelling us to not even be able to recognize, much less formulate and articulate, the commons.
The magic of capitalism runs deep.
There’s a sort of intellectual violence that has brought us to repress our understanding of the commons, and there’s also been a raw military and political violence that made it, for a period of time, dangerous to talk about it.
Capitalism is perhaps the most powerful sorcery in human history, just in terms of its ability to get shit done. It is a brutally efficient organizing principle, since it can quantify and commodify virtually everything it encounters. A few centuries after its rise, capitalism is by far the most dominant form of social relation in the world. This is not because capitalism somehow benignly ascended to this position through its merit, because people willingly chose it, or even because people accept it as the “least evil” economic system among a litany of poor choices. We must never forget that capital is always imposed by force, by violence if necessary (and it is always necessary, even if the violence is out of sight for those who benefit most from capitalism).
The world as we know it is wrapped up in fences and borders because we allowed others to rule us, to tell us it was their property. Don’t touch this! Don’t do that! This belongs to someone! Well, why? Why does it belong to them? Don’t you see the laws of property are nothing more than a way to get you to obey? What right does someone have, other than an illusion created by the state to buy a building of hundreds of people and increase their rent for no reason? What right does anyone have to take a forest that is sacred to me and my allies? Why am I not consulted? Ah, because I don’t have that falsehood, that lie, called property.
Deep Magic Speaks: ‘There is no alternative’
We are taught to believe that there is no alternative to capitalism, and to see the world in a way that reflects this idea. Or if people can imagine an alternative, it’s a free-for-all resource grab with no rules except might makes right. Eventually, we forget that we can have any other kind of social relation than capitalism or chaos. We repeat its incantation —“there is no alternative”—to ourselves and one another, and we deepen our enchantment. And in a strange way, we are unified by our enchantment, because we can always perceive others—both people and resources—in terms of the capitalist vision. And this vision requires that we look at it selfishly—what can I get from this person? How can I profit from this commodity? The deep magic of capitalism entails an indifference to the suffering of others, which makes it sociopathic, and on those occasions when we realize we are a society of sociopaths, we accept it because we have become convinced that there is no alternative.
I’ve long been interested in the history of crime — and here I don’t mean the thieving that is at the base of capitalism, when our subsistence is taken away — instead I mean that thieving for subsistence, which poor people have always been forced to do when their own means of subsistence, namely the land, was taken away. So my first study had to do with the history of crime, which I rapidly learned was the history of people trying to obtain subsistence in a regime of privatization…. Labor history is the history of life, and the history of life can’t be written without the commons.
Except, it’s a lie. There are many alternatives, including the older, deeper magic of the commons. The deeper magic that capitalism knew from Day One it would have to bury, to eradicate from peoples’ minds.
The signifier of deep magic is participation and complicity. For instance, when our full participation in capitalism is expected, automatic, and unquestioned, then we are under its enchantment. And we all are, to some extent. The poor kid who enlists and finds himself shooting at strangers in the desert participates. The low level cubicle-dweller with a 401k participates. The single mother buying food for her family at WalMart, having had any other mode of social reproduction stolen from her, participates. Every non-cash transaction, using credit or debit cards, Paypal and similar services gives the wizards of financial capital 3-5% right off the top, which doesn’t even include the draconian interest rates, sometimes more than 20% annually if you are really poor, that they charge for the privilege of using their payment system. Paying cash is one step better, since there is no percentage off the top that goes to capital. Yet, even cash is fiat currency: In the US, the Fed invokes a dollar into being, with a mere word that no longer requires breath behind it. Instead, there is debt behind each dollar from its inception (capitalists never create money for nothing). People take those dollars and circulate them, everyone behaves as if they are real, more real than the homeless camp hidden at the edge of town. These wizards’ tendrils dig in to nearly every transaction most of us do. So we participate. All of us do.
The magic of capitalism runs deep.
Actual commoning is generally only recognized when it’s taken away. When you lose the sidewalk in the suburban development, or when you lose the water fountain in the school you attend, you realize that, oh, I had part of the land where I could walk. I had water that was healthy that I could drink for free. So this expropriation or removal of the commons is often the first time that we get to see that such a thing ever existed.