The Thrivability of the Commons
Avoiding Eco-Fascism and Embracing Social Justice
There has lately been tension surrounding the P2P Foundation when a group of leftists exited, citing issues with the direction of curation and theory taken primarily by its founder, Michel Bauwens. Bauwens has increasingly sought to distance himself from "wokeness" and "identity politics", citing the imperative that the Commons Transition Movement, which the P2PF has had such a heavy hand in fomenting, be inclusive at all costs. But what does inclusion mean in this case – a case where a curator is perceived to be excluding those making the loudest calls for including and heeding marginalized voices and perspectives?
This is a strong signal, a stench, that something’s not quite right – as much in this case as in permaculture and intentional communities movements, in some environmental activist circles, and in the high towers and NGO boardrooms penning global strategies for carbon markets and sequestration schemes. The commons and other movements try to confront planetary boundaries verge on eco-fascism when they fail to recognize the role of human relationships between individuals (peer-to-peer relations), but also relations between social groups and their respective identities. This has always been a feature of left politics, with class relations taking a key role despite their eclipse by gender, racial, ethnic, and religious relations in popular mobilizations since the postwar consensus of the late 1940s and the weakening of labor and lib-lab politics in the United States.
It’s as good a time as ever to question the political / ontological status of the commons and the commons transition movement as a Western and Central European post-capitalist, leftist aspiration. In suggesting the commons is an economic “seed form”, it is clear that economic power is the target of commons-oriented intervention – to the behest of political, ideological, and military power, with the first two taking a backseat to economic power, with ideological efforts swimming against the tide of mainstream liberal and radical social justice movements, and the third, military power, almost entirely absent from literature on the commons1.
Yet, despite curiosity about how other forms of power – political, military, and ideological – would be seized, countered, or engaged by a commons orientation, we can take the p2p commons transition movement at face value. In this light it may be counted among so many small businesses, nonprofits, and online communities urging “business as usual” capitalism to trying to confront planetary boundaries (read: runaway climate change) as a totalizing platform. This is sometimes called a single-issue based politics, and has historically been carried out by business interests through a combination of struggle against the demands of labor in union politics, technological shifts in the modes and organization of production, and capital intensive lobbying.
Yet, the commons cannot grow from a seed form without the "partner state", and to be able to take on a common stewardship of pooled resources, this involves out-competing private enterprises and some regional/state agencies tasked with sustaining lots of crumbling infrastructure in the ability to create ecologically sound, redistributive provisioning systems. Because such systems will not simply be handed over to commoners without considerable social struggle, it seems that the only direction is for commoners take the dual tack of gaining and sharing the knowledge and technical aptitude for repair, as is the focus of most academic literature and curation on the commons, and also to participate in the existing left struggles for stewardship of water, forests, natural environments, etc.
This struggle is generally led by indigenous peoples who readily make alliances. Just because a piece of social justice discourse today is an obvious ploy to divide the precariat2, and identity politics at its origin can be understood as a pathetic compromise with power that sought to fend off redistributive and egalitarian rule, does not mean that commoners should reject all social justice efforts as "wokeism".
The problem is that, in their urgency, the commons movement appears to think very little about the type of persuasion involved in doing so. Neither does it consider the role and style of relationships necessary to do so. The purported Emma Goldman paraphrase “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution” readily comes to mind.
But another quote comes to mind, too. That’s one of Mussolini’s many musings on the nature of fascism:
“Fascism is not a doctrine, it’s a response to the need for action”.
Eco-fascism was defined by environmental historian Michael Zimmerman as “a totalitarian government that requires individuals to sacrifice their interests to the well-being of the ‘land’, understood as the splendid web of life, or the organic whole of nature, including peoples and their states”. While no state can yet be formally considered “eco-fascist” it stands that the term may be applied to forms of thought, especially political thought, provided sufficient clarification of the term. Interestingly, Garrett Hardin, who coined the notion of the “tragedy of the commons” against which the Commons Transition Movement positions itself, was an ecologist practicing what he called “lifeboat ethics” which garnered charges of white nationalism against him by the Southern Poverty Law Center. All this is to say that there is strong precedent for the notion of the commons to be co-opted, not only by capital, as is often discussed, but by a drift toward eco-fascism.
I wouldn’t call it eco-fascism per se, but the connection to a need for action suggests a worrisome drift. Even more germane to the Bauwens manifestation, though, might be his sorely one-dimensional view of peer relations. Many of the offending comments cited by the splinter group mostly rest on this bizarrely simplistic understanding of what a peer relation is. That may actually be the key. The importance of how “commoners” is defined in this context is not to be underestimated. It’s pretty safe to assume that it was phrases like “workers of the world unite” and “you have nothing to lose but your chains!” were more influential to the flavor of worker cohesion and the shop room floor agitating of the 19th and 20th century class struggles than Marx’s analyses of cross-sector commodity price structures or differential state-capital fusions in Britain, Italy, and the United States.
So, who is a commoner? Bauwens has taken care to describe commoners in as radically inclusive a way as possible (his words), and he does this through the maxim “I contribute, therefore I am”. There is a strong meritocratic undercurrent to this framing, not to mention a competitive action-orientation that says nothing about care of peers. This is a notable omission in the overarching emphasis on caring for the planet and “planetary survival”, a theme carrying titular weight across Commons Transition emanating from the P2P Foundation.
An initial draft of the Commons Economy textbook is riven with a history of modes of production rooted in the "thermodynamics of the universe". Whenever someone gives an overly physical account of how power structures are shaped, you know they are naturalizing and skirting something. I think there is no notion of care or working through in his p2p relations because they are overly focused on fetishizing the objects and objectives of a CPR. And it ties into the thermodynamic perspective because that gives the leader or whoever the optional mantle of sacrificing human needs in the name of biophysical imperatives.
From this one gleans that the preference is for subordinating care in the p2p context to the supposedly more noble goal of caring for the planet. Is caring for the planet the evolution of caring for one’s job, or the machine, or more “practical” and “survival critical” activities than straight up human to human attention? The clash between these two types of care is well-documented. I quote at length from a recent article by April Kaines3 to bring out the distinction between caring about and caring for. It is caring about that is the typical focus in economic thought and which is modeled in the way that the p2p literature advocates care about the planet:
Virtuous care, often gendered as male, orients concern to a theoretical set of universal rights and wrongs; whereas relational care, often depicted as female, is seen as more contingent, intimate, and situational. Virtuous care is a matter of acting out of a caring about general ideas or theories. Relational care, on the other hand, has concern for particular people, pets, spaces, places or other subjects and takes into account a network of various possible moral outcomes to work toward the best possible result for the subject of care. Caring about the idea of children’s well-being in a general or global sense, perhaps giving a donation or purchasing a particularly sponsored kind of product, is different than caring for a child of your own or even performing that care by volunteering to work with underprivileged children.
The difference between what this quote points out and the notion of planetary care is that care in its more abstracted form gets displaced, not from a child to a global children’s fund, but from peer relations to the planet, as a whole, in its “thingness”. As I see it, the problem is that in order for it to be possible for people to contribute in the first place, they must be able to recognize their uniqueness which cannot happen if one is agitated for lack of food, shelter, clean water, and a habitable environment4. So, ironically, a precursor to individual contribution freely given are the universal human basics that have been fought for on the same current of all rights which have emerged in the United States for almost a century now: social group identity.
Hints of misogyny notwithstanding, this points to one exemplary misnomer that I believe is more common in thinking about the relationship between climate change and habit change. The notion that the "people will have to suffer reducing consumption" owes nothing to the recognition that people consume excessively because of a lack of meaningful human relationships in their lives in the first place. In tandem with social justice movements aimed at securing universal human basics, then, the commons stands to mitigate the causes of conspicuous and excessive consumption through the forging of alliances with those already involved in this struggle. These include indigenous water protectors, labor struggling for raising of the minimum wage, urban efforts to achieve public housing, and federal-level, electoral politics aimed at achieving more sweeping legislation like Jobs Programs and Medicare for All (#ForceTheVote is alive and well!).
Another example: If we choose right relationships with each other first, alignment with carbon mandates will follow. If we focus on carbon mandates first, everyone will be trying to force and subject each other to a competitive purity. This purity might be considered the individualist/consumerist manifestation of the purity and naturalness discourse that has always emanated from the shadow of white supremacy – in the Russian tsarist intelligentsia prior to the Revolution, German Romanticism (and management of the Reich Ministry of Food and Agriculture), and, strangely, New Age eco-romanticism spanning permaculture groups, mom groups, and social exodus nihilists like Men Going their Own Way.
Nevertheless, a moment of power transfer is a moment of power transfer, and if this brief reprieve from ultra-right reactionary rule (in the U.S.) cannot be seized upon to further actually existing cases of commons governance, then there must be a form of idealism operating here that precludes a potential sprouting of commons as a legitimate form of production and governance. If this does not happen I believe the notion of the commons will fuse with forms of escapism and rural refuge that shore up "civilization decline" by refusing to fight for it, or it will continue to get swallowed up by green capitalism and systems of ultra-precarious labor.
For this reason, an ecosocial form of redistributive justice might look upon the era of climate disaster as a moment to level the playing field, gently rather than abstractly. While some injustices relate directly and explicitly to one’s social standing as designated by the typical categories of identity, not all of them do: keep your eyes out for ways you can support those in your social and geographical milieu, fight with and for your peers as actual people rather than categories, and stand for justice at a global scale when the opportunity arises, too. These are not mutually exclusive, nor paradoxical. They are in fact the very tensions we must hold, of our local and the global relations to the inhabitants of planet earth, in order for the thrivability of the commons to be a reality in the 21st century.
1 I rely here on Michael Mann’s comparative sociological “four factor model” of social power, which was developed in response to the shortcomings of Karl Marx and Max Weber in exhaustively theorizing the sources of social power.
2 The precariat is a term developed by Guy Standing and Alex Foti in the (2016) General Theory of the Precariat to designate an internally divided class-in-the-making that consists of insecure denizens with a limited range of social, cultural, political, and economic opportunities. The precariat live “bits and pieces of life”, moving in and out of short term jobs. They are sometimes young, often frustrated, and growing in number. They are commonly associated with digital labor or with labor changed beyond recognition by digital technologies.
4 See this interview with neuroscientist Peter Sterling for the full-length argument: https://www.madinamerica.com/2021/03/what-does-our-species-require-for-a-healthy-life-an-interview-with-peter-sterling/