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New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

Revolutions Happen

April 25, 2014 By: NCVeditor Category: Community, Devon G. Pena, Ecology, Economy

On the Crisis of Neoliberalism and the Alternative of the Common

by Devon G. Peña

Revolutions happen. One has already started though many people are yet to recognize it. But they may already be participating in it and helping to bring alterNative[1] futures forward. The resurgence of the common is the revolution quietly unfolding around us and through each of our relations and actions.

Here, I explore the enactment of a new social revolution the multitude (a.k.a. the 99%) is creating to ‘sublate’ (aufheben)[2] neoliberal capitalism in the spaces of direct material production and bio-politics, qua reproduction. The resurgence of the common is the underlying force driving a largely subaltern and protean process of revolutionary change.

It is through the agency of collaborative networks and their spaces of autonomy that we are disrupting the empire of the commodity form and threatening the stability and long-term survival of the neoliberal state of economic exception (Negri 2008). Success sublating neoliberalism depends on our awareness and understanding of the subversive qualities of constituent power. Negri writes of constituent power as a movement that sublates the negative dialectic of constituted power (i.e., established hegemony):

…there is only the radical continuity of the discontinuous, the continual reappearance of the time of strength as alternative, but at the same time as resistance, to the “realistic” and “sovereign” dissipation of time (320). [See Chaput 2011]

Neoliberalism is the current form of this negative dialectic of constituted power and the revolution of the resurgent common is its feared nemesis.

The common[3]

What is the common? First, the common includes all the community-based institutions of collective action known as common property resources (CPRs). Hardt and Negri (2004) mistakenly confine this form of the common largely to the past and lament the tragic enclosure of these communal and ancestral homelands. It would be more accurate to recognize that hundreds of thousands of CPRs still exist across the planet primarily in places with multigenerational and millenary indigenous and militantly place-based communities including wide swaths of the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

People in cities are also producing the common by pursuing their mutual reliance interests and organizing on the basis of ancient cooperative labor norms that emphasize self-reliance, conviviality, autonomy, and new forms of direct action to reoccupy urban space through projects like urban farms and community gardens for food justice and housing cooperatives.

A second meaning of the common, more in line with what Hardt and Negri  (2004) describe as the ‘social common’, involves the entire web of social knowledge and relationships produced across the multitude of humanity, especially when people pursue — out of sheer metaphysical necessity — what Marx terms “species life”. This includes all the unique life-ways and right livelihoods of ethnic cultures, place-based communities, as well as the always shifting rhizome-like networks of subaltern affiliations of persons based on qualities related to shared trades and crafts or associations springing from the value persons agree to place on affective and artistic skills. I live and work on a common that is a CPR and a social common — the San Luis Peoples Ditch, Colorado’s oldest continuously operating community acequia irrigation association (est. 1852).

This knowledge-belief-practice common can be understood as the cumulative result of exchanges derived from an always culturally and historically specific ontology of labor.  Bruno Gulli (2005) calls this the “fierce creative fire” of labor, understood as the social activity of the inherently sensuous body in relation to others. For Marx, production and reproduction are always intertwined social affairs and the defining qualities of species being that render possible our becoming and enacting right livelihoods as practitioners of personal and collective social and biological activities passed on through the creative force of the common.

‘Rational’ subjects against the mutual reliance common

In local ethnic and indigenous communities — like our acequia farming villages in Colorado and New Mexico — we usually are able to enact and perform labor as a set of cultivated sensibilities and skills born of multigenerational experiences within the ecology of place. This does not always happen easily — especially without investment in keen interpersonal efforts to resolve daily disputes on our mother ditch or acequia madre.  It seems there is always a constant threat of defections from mutual reliance norms resulting in conflicts over governance among the members of our irrigation common.

Most of these conflicts have to do with the reign of the commodity form — i.e., the good old $ sign or as one parciante told me yesterday, “It is the debt-sucking bank I hate, not my neighbors,” when explaining recent conflicts on our acequia. The political economic conditions in this valley, like any other colonized zone, have for too long been defined by capitalist norms that enshroud antecedent autochthonous mutual reliance networks of the indigenous common — still more informally organized than formally constituted despite the 2009 Acequia Recognition Law.

The colonial conditions of external administration continue to impose a regime that demands acquiescence on the part of every irrigator before the presumed neutrality of prior appropriation and private property norms held by the defector minority (Hicks and Peña 2010). Since the common always faces this sort of internal threat, the reproduction of governance norms, including the ethics of fair and equitable appropriation of resource units, requires constant renewal through the social and ritual life of the common – in our case the acequiahood. Through a combination of loving conviviality and graduated sanctions defectors might be induced to rejoin the network and partake in its social and cultural capital, thereby contributing to the integrity and resilience of the watershed common.

In our Colorado watershed, one way this conflict unfolds is as a result of the effects of the hundred-plus year hegemony of the prior appropriation regime. This has led many of our farmers to forget or abandon the norms of acequia customary law (Hicks and Peña 2003). For example, in the prior appropriation regime the shareholder in a mutual ditch company “owns” water rights as a form of private property with value that can be sold to water markets and other users. Under customary acequia law, the irrigator, or parciante, does not “own” the water as private property but rather has a right to use adjudicated water rights as an asset-in-place and only under a farmer self-managed allotment scheme based on the equitable and fair distribution average of the net cubic feet per second (cfs) flows in the ditch proportionate to the size of the private land s/he irrigates.

In this sense, the acequia farmer benefits from a hybrid of common and private property rights that are subordinated to mutual reliance interests. The parciante does not own the water but rather participates in the ancient tradition of collective repartimiento de agua dedicated to be sure toward production on private farmland, albeit much of it used or worked in a communal fashion along with the sharing of farm machinery, implements, and labor.

The occupational vernacular of most Colorado and New Mexico acequiahoods involves the use of the terms parciante (water rights user) and socio (cooperative society member) but not dueño (owner) or entitulado en propiedad privada (private property owner or titleholder), although acequiera/os are clearly also both of the latter. Again, this is a matter of negotiating subjectivities caught between an indigenous cultural pole that favors mutual reliance interests and cooperative production and an intrusive capitalist juridical pole that seeks to privilege rational actor models of economic behavior that emphasize maximizing individual acquisitive utilities, i.e., use-values accruing only to the individual property owner without any value to the welfare of the community or environment.

In this context of the threat of defections commoners must decide whether or not to consciously enact a decolonial political project to contest hegemonic subjectivities as these are constructed and negotiated in different difficult contexts: In our case, parciantes on the Peoples Ditch wage a daily struggle to overcome myriad contradictions posed by a system in which defection to hegemonic fixed legal identities allows the takers to partake of the advantages of a juridical order designed to serve neoliberal capitalists in the unrelenting quest to privilege property rights over mutual reliance interests.

In the struggle for the revolution of the common, we can expect this to happen in all relationship domains wherever people actively seek a more democratic transformative set of cooperative relations to meet collective and personal needs and yet still are, for now, located within the gravitational pull of a predatory economy that forces producers and consumers alike to compete on the basis of selfish utilitarian interests, justified by what Michael Taylor (2006) wisely derides as an “ideology of disconnection.”

The revolutionary subjectivity of the common is the anti-thesis of neoliberal behavioral economics, particularly as constructed by the political project and neoliberal frame of methodological individualism. Hayek, von Mises, and the rest of the ‘ordo-liberals’ who inspired and mentored the Chicago School boys and their neoliberal collective (Milton Friedman, et al.) believed that the individual was not reducible to the whole and that collectivism of any type was a threat to freedom, liberty, and prosperity for the greatest number.

The radical behavioral economics of the neoliberal rational choice theorists proposes that greed is good and selfish pursuit of individual interest is the most natural and rational model for each of us to fulfill the demanding role of being economic actors. This sad ideology was a reaction against the specter of communism but in the end the flight from totalitarian states has led to the totalizing oppressiveness of the rule of the market and its investor-state formation as ultimate arbitrator of all human agency, and especially that related to the production and reproduction of life itself, what Foucault terms bio-power.

In contrast to a disconnected ontology of Homo economicus, the collaborative economics of the common posit that liberty and the general welfare are best grounded in the production of self-sacrificing ‘bread labor’ — Gandhi’s borrowed and extended concept from Tolstoy signifying for him a step towards social justice. Akulova (n.d.) notes:

Even if people perform manual labour unwillingly, mechanically and without deep understanding of the truth lying behind it, Gandhi was quite happy, because one day this constant practice should become their one nature and they will detect the spirit and beauty behind it. He emphasizes as Tolstoy did that only manual labour can make the best in intellectual pursuits. Even though Gandhi gives … importance to bread labour as such, he goes further and says that intelligent bread labour is the highest form of social service. Intelligent here means … labour which is done in [sic] the sake of the service to others.

Gandhi was happy because he understood that manual labor is not menial labor and when intelligence and service are involved it becomes a creative force for change and general well-being. I think of our work as acequia farmers as a form of intelligent bread labor. For example, acequiera/os provide a service to the community and larger society by preserving permaculture landscapes, relying on agroecological practices and methods that sustain agrobiodiversity, and producing vital ecosystem and economic base services among many other virtues. This intelligent bread labor strengthens the resilience, conviviality, and prosperity of the entire acequia watershed commonwealth and provides social, cultural, economic, and ecological values to the wider society (Peña 1999,2003).

To explore the revolution of the resurgent common, I am drawing from three decades of experience in an integrated system of CPR water and land domains tied to a deeply agroecological social knowledge common. I have devoted 25+ years to the study of the ethno-science and law of what are basically processes of interconnection, dynamic adaptation, and resilience through a balance of place obligations and personal economic needs.

The mobility of the place-based knowledge common

The fields of ethnobiology and ethnoecology — including especially agroecology — and their various branches represent one set of interdisciplinary ethno-scientific approaches to community-based and collaborative study, analysis, and development of the precious and subversive bodies of place-based knowledge.

For example, according to noted ethnobiology scholar Eugene Hunn (2008), by the age of ten, the average precociously learned Zapoteca child identifies and names hundreds of local plants used by her indigenous community for food, medicine, and ceremony. I would like to further observe that the practice of such place-based knowledge is actually quite disruptive of globalizing processes precisely because its practitioners do not consume products obtained from the capitalist commodity chains that encircle the globe and can displace these livelihood and place-making practices and knowledge bases.

The post-NAFTA Mesoamerican Diaspora — now numbering at least 2 million indigenous Mexican origin peoples — is an alterNative indigenous response to the neoliberal strategy and deployment of investor-state treaties. But the contradiction here is that the very same Zapoteca child Hunn celebrates in his ethnography may now be part of a trans-border community linking the origin places in Mexico with “transnational suburbs” along the entire West Coast from California to Alaska. Yet, she is still able to make use of the same plants from home that are obtained through the trans-border networks, grown in home kitchen or community gardens, or purchased and bartered for in local botánicas as well as learning about the useful [sic] plants in her new ‘northern’ home as part of the enlarged enacted environment of the Diaspora (Davis 2001; Peña 2005; Mares and Peña 20102011).

While the knowledge common exists in many locales, the form and substance and processes that shape and define these into the qualities that create self-organizing institutions of collective action are in fact gravely threatened today by the brutality of continued neoliberal empire-building regimes and, in an ironic twist, especially in those very communities with the deepest and most intractable attachments to place.

The recovery and focus of this type of local place-based common is the revolutionary struggle of our time because it is the one form of collective action for autonomy that directly negates neoliberal capitalist globalization and the advent of, lets be honest, fascist-corporatist thanatopolitics, including those hybrid forms that harbor hopes of détente between some future kinder gentler capitalism with “zero marginal costs” and the collaborative economy of the “commons”  [sic] (Rifkin 2014).

Zeroing out the obvious and hidden injuries?

Coming home and thinking about the past 30 years spent in the San Luis Valley is what inspired me to start developing these notes. I was especially anxious to revisit the topic of the common because I live it everyday in the acequiahood and because of the appearance of several books by influential progressive thinkers. I find some interesting contrasts and differences in two thinkers whose works remain central to my own thinking about the revolution of the common: Vandana Shiva’s book Earth Democracy (2005) and Jeremy Rifkin’s more recent tome The Zero Marginal Cost Society (2014). Both seek to move past neoliberal corporate capitalism for the sake of democracy, community building, and the fulfillment of personal freedom; and that is where the similarities end.

I want to explain their differences and clarify what I believe are the complementary possibilities in the Shiva-Rifkin discourse. The discourse on ecology, economy, and democracy is crucial and pithy. A simple straightforward clarification is in order and I believe we need to explore how structural violence continues to produce uneven geographies of opportunity and prosperity and allows capitalism to continue morphing into the rarified world of fictitious capital while it deploys the prison industrial and national security minimalist state to hold the multitude in check while pretending the free market and democracy nirvana of zero marginal cost has been attained.

In my next post in this series I will return to explore the Shiva-Rifkin discourse to initiate a strategic or political reading of their work to inform autonomy movements. I believe Rifkin fails to understand the role of structural violence as a ‘negative externality’ [sic] that makes it impossible for the “Internet of Things” and its “Collaborative Commons” [sic] to eclipse capitalism in any way. I also believe that Shiva fails to consider the state of economic exception and how precariousness in the ‘bare life’ shapes all politics, including struggles for the social-ecological common that is her topic in Earth Democracy.

I interject this issue because as long as structural violence is associated with the social process of production there can actually be no “zero marginal cost” for all the actors in an economy. The ability to ignore the law, to suspend the rule of law, is a major feature of the impunity with which corporations and capitalists operate today. This impunity is especially pronounced when we examine the consequences for individual capitalists when their corporate activities result in thousands and even millions of deaths and injuries. There are very few consequences for these criminals who are routinely left unpunished while their victims languish in sickness or induced poverty.

The biopolitical machine of the post-liberal capitalist formation does not imply that there is an absence of the rule of law; instead, the law is the law of the ironclad oligarchic capitalists who wish to decide on their own who lives and who dies and under what conditions. This twisted ideological formation derives directly from the long trajectory at the end of WWII involving the articulation of dominant capital-state interrelationships that must always aim to maintain a juridical order in which corporations can act like “people” and yet get away and indeed reap rewards for the direct and indirect murder of millions.  Fascist holocausts, out! Global neoliberal death machine, in!

Neoliberal capital is most absolutist in its desire to reshape the liberal democratic welfare state as economic government (see Foucault’s Collège de France lectures on neoliberal governmentality), and this is the basis for the reproduction of the structures of market-steered domination since there is no political sphere separate from economics because the market encompasses all politics (Hardt and Negri 2004). To understand the revolutionary possibilities embedded in the current crisis of neoliberal capitalism we must understand its ideological roots in the positive philosophy of methodological individualism also known as rational choice theory (RCT), which is rooted after all in the atomistic ontology of Democritus (see Fleetwood 1995).

Neoliberalism is really the end of classical liberalism, if we follow the path to methodological individualism envisioned by Hayek and his followers at the Mount Pèlerin Society (see Mirowski and Plehwe 2009). Damien Cahill (2014) of the University of Sidney  explains that the conceptual starting point for neoliberal theory is the rational, self-interested individual. From the position of this rational subject, Cahill argues, an entire philosophical and an economic defense of the free [sic] market system is constructed.

The crisis of neoliberalism: fictitious capital and the social common

Most current Left thinking on the crisis of neoliberalism focuses on an emerging market-state formation that is taken to be a response to the global financial crisis (GFC) that started in 2007-08 with the collapse of the subprime mortgage market and the entire class of so-called derivatives like credit default swaps.[4] From the point of view of the loyal or neo-Keynesian Left — represented here most clearly by Paul Krugman (2013) — the crisis is invariably attributed to a GFC that unleashed the destructive forces of massive unemployment (with the concomitant effect of under-consumption) and lack of competitive markets to stimulate capital re-investment (with the concomitant effect of over-accumulation).

The neo-Keynesian perspective endorses a hybrid strategy that seeks to respond to the GFC by melding state intervention via stimulus spending with enhanced, more efficient and innovative privatization and acquiescence to further expansion of neo-regulatory regimes to initiate a new cycle of accumulation with renewed investment in productive capital to make material things rather than just Internet Things. Note: Of course, the Internet of Things depends on the exploitation of labor in the post-Fordist assembly lines that make things with labels that read “Made in China” or “Made in Mexico”. The theorists of working-class autonomy do not wish for the crisis to be resolved and view the GFC as a multiphase ‘Derivatives Depression’ associated with two major structural contradictions:

(1)   The inability of capital to complete the phase of the realization of surplus value, which is necessary to make a transition to the circuit of the expanded reproduction of capital. The underlying form of the value crisis for capital is not the result of under-consumption or over-production but instead a crisis in the realization of value.[5]

(2)   The inability to engage in the expanded reproduction of productive capital leads capitalists to engage in a variety of activities including luxury consumption, wealth hoarding, investments in control of political parties (post-Citizens United), and speculative investments that are not directly productive of new capital.

Capitalist greed blocked realization and the expanded reproduction of capital, leading to the current phase of fictitious capital fleeing from the collapse and on the road toward the next catastrophe when the new cycle of post-2010 real estate, stock market, and derivatives market bubbles deflate. Sovereign debt in the EU and USA have been major global focal points of derivative action as hedge funds and private mega-wealthy investors play the risk market in credit default swaps to the tune of more than $600 trillion globally according to a 2009 report by the International Monetary Fund (see Singh 2009).

At its heart, the crisis of neoliberalism involves a rupture in the realization of surplus-value in which productive capital accumulated in the money-form has few socially productive outlets. The recent past and near-future second collapse of the derivatives market reflects dynamics associated with the financialization of capital (Marazzi 2011). As noted above, the derivatives market has surpassed $600 trillion in exposure globally and four megabanks (all considered too big to fail) control 70 percent of the risk market (Singh 2009). So much capital accumulation was created under the neoliberal policies of the past 34 years these greedy bastards could not think of anything better to do than invest it in the commodification of risk (Marazzi 2011), which is itself a form of what Marx calls fictitious capital in the section on credit in The Grundrisse (also cf. with Humphrey 2010) and in Chapter 25 of Volume III of Capital.

The critique of the “violence of financial capitalism” is the next step in this series of notes that present preliminary thoughts on an approach that integrates the work done by various autonomist Marxists with recent and separate theoretical interventions related to decolonial discourse and the problematic of precarity, hyperobjects, and resilience.

Revolutionary subjectivity, I will argue next, is perhaps best understood today as the radical embrace of the ‘bare life’ rather than as a retreat seeking admission into the politics of the citizen and state-recognized (and governmentalized) subject, but this also entails movement away from all statist forms of power as a political project in which precarity becomes the basis for an end to neoliberal capitalism through the strategy of the ‘great refusal’. The multitude has the possibility of becoming the ‘hyperobject’ that terminates the reign of the commodity form and finally opens the world to the revolution of the common.


[1] The meaning of the term alterNative as I am using it involves several elements that incorporate aspects of indigeneity and alterity: The Native part of this is somewhat self-evident. I am referring to indigenous knowledge systems, an epistemology that is place-based because it arises from the ontology of becoming in place through shared memories and the knowledge common. But dislocations alter this place-based being, rupturing generations of attachment to one’s homeland and ancestral common. So the Native is “altered.” But it does not end there, that is the anti-thesis; the synthesis, or rupture, is in the ability and strategy of the altered Native to alter the circumstances of the dislocation: Our “alterity” means that we have had to change our perspective to that of the Other, for e.g., the cosmopolitan city-dwelling Other. But this also means we alter these new spaces in order to re-inhabit place; to re-locate our being in place. But in the process, we also re-invent and adapt our sense of place and indigeneity as forms of oppositional consciousness.

[2] I first learned the concept of aufheben from Philosophy Professor Doug Kellner when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Texas and the idea stuck with me ever since. That introduction involved reading and musing over Karl Marx’s critique of Hegel in which he describes aufheben, per the translation, as closely bound up with Hegel’s idea of ‘sublation’ [aufheben]: to negate, and thereby to preserve the inner truth of something. See Ethical Politics.

[3] Note my use of the term ‘common’ rather than ‘commons’. I am following two traditions here: First, New England toponyms use the singular form as in, for e.g., Boston Common. This is true of Mexican Spanish place names for CPRs, they are named Ejido de… (singular). Second, Elinor Ostrom (1990) played a major role shaping the theory, method, and discourse of the study of common property resources and also adopted the singular form. The plural form is associated with Garrett Hardin’s tragically misconstrued theory of the commons [sic] and is a problematically loaded signifier.

[4] Credit default swaps are a type of ‘fictitious’ capital and involve a casino type of capitalism in which investors hedge their bets by playing the risk insurance market or by betting against someone else’s investments — both in effect a form of the commodification of risk. This form of capital is ‘fictitious’ because it does not exist in the money-form and  instead represents itself as a potential realizable gain only in the event of another capital’s investment failure or credit defaults. This produces profit out of thin air with no involvement of productive capital that might be transformed to social uses.

[5] On this, Rifkin is incorrect to make the argument that the blending of IT and the commons [sic] creates zero marginal cost, making it possible to produce things for free.

Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

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