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Claiming The Commons That Capital Consumes

By Farooque Chowdhury

07 August, 2012

By annexing the inviolable commons capital unfurls its flag of democracy, which is dictatorship over all its hostiles. It’s the commons robbery by the lords of capital, and reiteration of capital’s ever expansionary accumulating totalitarian character: Appropriate everything – from alpha to omega, all labor and all the nature – and turn these into private property and commodity.

Country and democracy, although not property, are commons, and at times, country, all its resources, and democracy are virtually encroached by capitals. At times, it’s individual or individuals, members of a class or classes, at times, it’s their organizations and institutions, at times, multinational organizations – corporations, banks, regime for free market, programs and projects – appropriate all and everything people own. Enclosure of democratic space turns a stepping stone for enclosure of other commons. Encroachment of the commons ultimately turns political, and at times, questions of national and people’s sovereignty and dignity emerge.

Usurpation of the commons – an act of dispossessing people – is being done by capital with desperate vigor as subjugating the Earth, from Africa to the Andes, from Albania to Australia, has almost been completed by capital. In societies, the pie for plunder is either comparatively smaller or competing sections of dominating capital find encroachment of the commons one of the easier ways to accumulate. This “accumulation by dispossession”, David Harvey tells in his A Brief History of Neoliberalism, gains assets at very low or zero cost, allowing immediate profitability.

In a society, state of the commons tells the power equation in the society as forces of production and social relations get reflected in the state of the commons. Encroachment of the commons in a society signifies orientation, type, level and state of domination in the society. Relation between the commons and people are distorted in favor of dominating capital as dominating capital gets the mastery of the commons. Capital with its allegiance only to its interests has a free hand in occupying and ravaging the commons, and its power is promulgated as it encroach the commons.

Encroached and stolen commons are turned into private property while private property is sanctified and protected, and thus encroachment echoes Proudhon’s pronouncement: La propriété, c'est le vol!, Property, it is robbery! (What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government, 1840) Engels wrote while discussing Mark, an old German institution: “[E]ven the royal lands, were named, without distinction, almänningar, common land.” (The Mark) And, “all the land that had at any time belonged to the noble lord was nothing but land stolen from the peasants.” (ibid.)

Neoliberalism lends its muscles to the commons robbers and directly and openly stands against the commons as physical invasion of the commons by capital cheaply fills its crave. States provide greater independence to the commons encroachers by snatching away commoners’ democratic rights and by protecting the acts of encroachment.

In societies, usurpers of the commons are helped by section of law enforcers and section of jurists, by section of media and section of political leadership. In societies, legislation, administration and jurisdiction turn servile to the commons robbers, and long hand of law “fails” to catch neck of the commons thieves. The entire act turns out as “[t]he parliamentary form of robbery […] decrees of expropriation of the people.” (Marx, Capital)

It’s a process, and in the process, quoting Engels as he wrote about the old day German peasantry, “the lord always won and the peasant always lost. The spiritual lords helped themselves in a more simple way. They forged documents, by which the rights of the peasants were curtailed and their duties increased.” (The Mark)

Facts about the old days-poor peasantry in Germany, enclosures in England, turning of community property into king’s property in India are facts of the past. Now, it’s the entire citizenry in societies, whose rights, spaces, access, opportunities are enclosed by the commons robbers embellished with forgery, falsification, fake litigation, misinterpretation and confiscation of laws, execution of threat, coercion, rape, murder and politics, and the robbery is legitimized. These robbers don’t have to face inquiries and inquisitions. Rather, it turns out, as Marx wrote, “the law itself becomes now the instrument of the theft of the people’s land […]” (op. cit.)

Relation between the commons and private capital is antagonistic. Conflicting interests – of people and of the commons-occupying-capitals – stand face to face. The contradiction is between encroachers and commoners.

In societies, confiscation of the commons turns out as the shortest road to wealth as the robbery is a part of the whole system. Encroachment and privatization of the commons, David Bollier writes in Silent Theft: the Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth, limit social investment and environmental protection, encourage short-term profits, and “threatens to sacrifice the environmental, political, cultural, and information commons that communities rely on for their long-term health and prosperity.” Silent Theft cites laws related to copyrights of digital files that empower private capital and its ruling machine – state – with Orwellian power, and that encroach peoples’ rights over the commons.

Appropriating the commons and turning these into private property of appropriators, frauds, thieves, is part of the brutal class war, direct and formal, indirect and informal, capital wages constantly. Virtually absolute arbitrary power – legislative, administrative and judicial – of the commons robbers takes away democratic space of people, disenfranchises people, and commoners dispossessed of rights are sent to the ghetto of sufferings, hardship, pauperization, destitution, debt-servitude. Thus the issue of the commons turns political, turns into an issue related to democracy. Through overwhelming and all encompassing act of appropriation commoners are led to forget almost absolutely the axiom that the commons belong to them.

By violation of the commons, a shared resource of people, capital violates the principles of equity, equality and equal rights, freedoms of assembly and association, freedom from discrimination and torture, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, and denies the rights to food, clothing, health, housing, education, work, rest, creative work, information, culture, security and safety, participation, and to democracy.

Robbery of the commons strengthens and intensifies de-democratization process as it mars citizens. Neoliberal measures including selling out/privatizing the commons undermine the intrinsic value of the commons and democracy. In societies, denying democratic rights facilitates robbery of the commons.

Not only the marketable commons, but social and cultural spaces, resources, institutions and traditions that help define people’s life are being usurped in countries. Democratic commonwealth, public lands, natural systems and resources including atmosphere, scientific and academic research carried on in public institutions and paid by taxpayers, the information and knowledge commons including indigenous, local, folk, traditional and scientific knowledge and wisdom, the global commons including climate, environment and gift economies are not safe from enclosure. The list of the commons systematically vandalized, trespassed, enclosed, confiscated, occupied, appropriated, privatized and traded is long, yet incomplete: water resources including oceans, seas, rivers, canals, water bodies, lakes, river banks, sea shores, forest resources, wildlife, agriculture and fisheries including seed-lines, irrigation systems and agro-technology, fallows, heaths, moors, meadows, grazing lands, hunting grounds, deserts, glaciers, mountains, oil, minerals, non-renewable energy, nontraditional commons including urban commons (sidewalks, playgrounds, parks, urban green space, urban forestry, parking spaces), industrial areas, roads, bridges, air, wind, sunlight, rain water, sky, outer space, ecosystems, biodiversity, budgets, language, education, ideas, creativity, innovation, history, sports, games, folklore, fairy tales, song, New Commons including electro-magnetic spectrum, genetic data, and “frontier commons”, “the natural world that have historically been too large, too small, or too elusive for any market regime to capture and that have often been regarded as parts of a common human heritage” but now being planned to market.

This reality leads Jonathan Rowe, fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute and a contributing editor of Washington Monthly, to question: “Who owns the genetic materials that pharmaceutical companies are taking and patenting from native cultures? Who owns the atmosphere that polluters use as a dump? Who owns the quiet that cell phones take from us on the subways, or the civic spaces that get branded with corporate names? (“The Majesty of the Commons”, A review of David Bollier’s Silent Theft, Washington Monthly, April, 2002)

To demolish commoners’ power to claim enclosed commons, commoners are demobilized, deactivated, depoliticized; their organizations and determining section of leadership of these organizations are purchased and co-opted and the committed section of the leadership is made isolated; the vacuum in the areas of commoners’ politics and resistance thus created are stuffed with slogan mongering pseudo- , ultra- and philistine-fighters, and all out efforts are made to perpetuate ignorance, confusion and indiscipline.

Within a generation, the commons robbers turn elites, aristocrats and nobles donating to charities and orphanages, patronizing arts, culture and education, mastering all acts of arts and culture including the fine art of propagating lies, practicing robbery and deception, sending records and memories of their “gallant” acts of robbery to the chambers of amnesia and silence, and their property gained through such “gallantry” gets the unmistakable regal seal of “fruit of hard labor, innovation, courage, venture, entrepreneurship, calculated risk taking, sacrificing significant portion of life”. By the grace of propaganda power and with the legitimating seal it owns by political clout the avaricious character of the commons robbers is ennobled with the “attributes” of “benevolence and social service, love for humanity and kindness to the downtrodden”. Multilateral masters and lenders, corporations and private banks appear guardians and preachers of “transparency, accountability and democracy” while they keep their coins of corruption under their carpet. Hypocrisy and immorality stands as the moral standard of robbing the commons.

Section of theoreticians is there to uphold the commons robbers’ cause. So, “The Tragedy of the Commons” (Science, 162, 1968) by Garrett Hardin, a biology professor and author of a biology text book, turns into a sacred script to the mainstream intellectuals bent on denying commoners’ rights on the commons although the professor wrongly refers to an article on nuclear war to put his conclusion on false premise, stuff the article with incomplete “facts” and inconsistent arguments: “Every new enclosure of the commons involves the infringement of somebody’s personal liberty.” After expressing this “innovative” analysis that confuses the commons and personal liberty the professor recites Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, Who shall watch the watchers themselves?, but fails to watch the comedy his sham arguments present.

The professor once proposed, like the Nazis, “control of breeding” of “genetically defective” people (Biology: Its Principles and Implications, 1966).

However, forces and institutions standing against commoners embrace the professor’s article. Ian Angus observes: “Since publication of The Tragedy of the Commons in Science it has been anthologized in at least 111 books, making it one of the most-reprinted articles ever to appear in any scientific journal. […] Like most sacred texts, The Tragedy of the Commons is more often cited than read. As we will see, although its title sounds authoritative and scientific, it fell far short of science.” (“The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons”)

Citing “The Management of Common Property Natural Resources: Some Conceptual and Operational Fallacies”, a World Bank Discussion Paper, Ian writes: “For 40 years [the article] has been […] ‘the dominant paradigm within which social scientists assess natural resource issues’. [The article] has been used time and again to justify stealing indigenous peoples’ lands, privatizing health care and other social services, giving corporations ‘tradable permits’ to pollute the air and water, and much more.” (ibid.)

“The tragedy thesis”, Jonathan Rowe writes, “is rote to first-year economics students. […] The theory has no relevance at all to commons that are without boundaries or limits, such as language, knowledge, and networks such as the Internet. (op. cit.)

Quoting Iain Boal’s essay “Interview: Specters of Malthus: Scarcity, Poverty, Apocalypse” Ian tells more bitter facts: “What’s shocking is the fact that this piece of reactionary nonsense has been hailed as a brilliant analysis of the causes of human suffering and environmental destruction, and adopted as a basis for social policy by supposed experts ranging from economists and environmentalists to governments and United Nations agencies. Hardin’s fable was taken up by the gathering forces of neo-liberal reaction in the 1970s, and his essay became the ‘scientific’ foundation of World Bank and IMF policies, viz. enclosure of commons and privatization of public property. . . . The message is clear: we must never treat the earth as a ‘common treasury.’ We must be ruthless and greedy or else we will perish.” (op. cit.)

But commoners don’t always accept tyranny of the commons robbers. Engels pointed out in The Mark: “Against these robberies by the landlords, the peasants, from the end of the fifteenth century, frequently rose in isolated insurrections …” Naomi Klein in her talk “Reclaiming the commons”, delivered at the Centre for Social Theory and Comparative History, UCLA in April 2001, finds: “[A] spirit of resistance is taking hold around the world. People are reclaiming bits of nature and of culture, and saying ‘this is going to be public space’.” Jonathan tells: “Enclosure is complete when we no longer are aware of it. The lingering memory of life outside the fences means there’s still hope of tearing them down.” (op. cit.)

The twenty-first century finds there are public responses to the commons robberies with rebellion and resistance. At moments, these carry and express unimaginable power, force and velocity. Now, the number of these resistances and rebellions is near to innumerable around the globe, almost worldwide – from Ukraine to the US, from Tunisia to the UK, from China to Canada, from Japan to India, from Belgium to Bahrain, a globalization of protest and resistance, a complex chess board, an achievement in this phase of the planet’s history, unimaginable only a few years back.

In countries, los indignados, the indignant, and the Occupiers hold high the standard of commoners, also termed as 99% or We Are the 99%. They are occupying factories to schools to auction houses to company share holders meetings to city squares and parks. These are initiatives, movements, protests, resistances; these are claims to the commons, public spaces [a number of nouveau columnists in some poor societies perceive, as they “wisely” express, public space in only physical terms], to democratic spaces.

There in the map of resistance appear names from the forests in India. There in Brazil, the Landless Workers’ Movement, in Chile and other countries, the student movements against privatization of education, in the US, Take Back the Land, in the UK, The Land is Ours raise. There artists with chalk draw protest line on footpath in Los Angeles.

To claim the commons, farmers and farm workers, human rights and environment activists fight oil giants, hungry fast-food chains, monstrous for-profit entities, radiation traders, waste and toxic business magnates, pharmaceutical demons facilitating deaths by corrupting drugs production and marketing, mischievous multilateral banks and donors, and they all provide justification to resistance.

It will be a meaningless and infantile exercise to expect and search immediate success of all these resistances and rebellions, confine inquiry into immediate achievement of these initiatives as dynamics of history doesn’t engage in childish game. To learn, mechanical “mind” should look at any singular or a number of slave rebellions or some other single rebellion. But all rebellions, singular or series, are part of history’s forward movement, which at those moments of history were not perceived by many. Instead, far reaching implications of today’s risings and resistances, significant in terms of claiming the commons, should be searched.

Other than country- , society- and city-wide activities for claiming the commons there are activities that include, as Naomi Klein tells, kicking ads out of classrooms, organizing parties at busy intersections, planting organic vegetables on over-irrigated golf courses, reversing the privatization of water supply, creating commons on the internet for swapping music instead of buying it from multinational record companies, liberating billboards, setting up independent media networks, destroying hectares of genetically modified soy beans in Monsanto test site, planting organic crops on land after occupying it and making efforts to turn the farm into a model of sustainable agriculture. “In short, activists aren’t waiting for the revolution, they are acting right now, where they live, where they study, where they work, where they farm.” According to Jonathan, parents are rising up against the commercial invasion of their kids’ classrooms. The New Urbanism is advancing ways to reclaim the civic commons of street life and traditional Main Streets. (op. cit.)

Earthcide, declining democratic space, dispossession and debt confront people across the world. “It’s time to stop granting private entities free access to and use of public resources. […I]t presents a large political challenge. […R]eckless privatization of public resources has resulted in demonstrable harm to taxpayers, consumers, and the environment.” (David Bollier, “Why we need to protect our public resources from private encroachment”, Boston Review, Summer issue, 2002) The amount of money in coffers of the commons robbers is not a petty one. Citing an estimate referred by Bollier Jonathan writes: “the resources of nature – air, water, forests and the rest – are worth more than the GDP of the entire world. That’s not even counting the services of the many forms of social commons, from universities and libraries to languages and Main Streets.” (op. cit.)

For peoples in countries safe food, water and air are difficult to find, affordable healthcare and education are absent, decent shelter is somewhere in imagination, hours for sleep, rest and creative activities are being squeezed down, information highway is being obstructed by capital.

One of the ways for a stable and peaceful society is to restore the abused commons to its owners – commoners, people. James Harrington, the author of Oceana, said the worst possible situation is one in which the commoners have half a nation’s property, with crown and nobility holding the rest — a circumstance fraught with instability and violence. A much better situation (a stable republic) will exist once the commoners own most property, he suggested.

Along with studying the political power of the commons robbers forging coalition and organizing movement of political parties, peasants, labor, women, consumers, students, rights and environment activists at local and national levels are the need. Alliance at international level is also possible. Society-wide protracted, consistent campaign and publicity is the immediate need. To resist confiscation of the commons by capital, to protect and share all the commons, spreading word – disseminate information among people – that expose encroachment and its perpetrators is one of the primary steps.

Resistance and rebellion shouldn’t get confined only into street marches, agitation, etc. Along with asserting rights to the commons and getting engaged politically there should be initiatives of commoners, not of donors, that organize consumers for safe food, safe water, democratic public education, health care, fair price shop, cooperative, media shunning big capital advertisement, proper waste management, compost preparation, safeguarding water bodies, etc.

Encountering the commons robbers, national and international, is a political fight. A cultural fight also. An informed, aware, organized and politically active people, the owners of the commons, can successfully claim the commons.

The article was published in the New Age, a Bangladesh national daily from Dhaka, in its 9th anniversary special issue on July 25, 2012. Farooque Chowdhury from Dhaka is a free lancer.



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