As we start a slow, although not guaranteed return to life as the pandemic recedes (in the UK at least), I thought I would start connecting some dots in my research interests with what I started in the last blog post. Following on from that one, which was back in June, nearly a year ago now, it seems important to mark what might be learned from the pandemic, even if there is a desire to get back to ‘normal’ as quickly as possible. Of course, this depends how crises and disasters are viewed in relation to the ‘normallity’ of neoliberal capitalism, but I will therefore try and use the next few blog posts to include ideas which might help to think about how we might use the opportunities and struggles presented by the pandemic in relation to organisations and organising practices.
I have a short book review in the forthcoming issue of New Formations, so for this blog post, I thought I would write about this and some of the ideas that come from it. The book is The Common and Counter-Hegemonic Politics: Rethinking Social Change, by Alexandros Kioupkiolis. You can find the full review here.
Kioupkiolis’ book is ostensibly a theoretical exploration in which he brings together work on the commons and commoning with post-hegemonic political theory. The stakes in doing this revolve around the question of how disparate, horizontally organised social movements and grassroots initiatives might produce widespread, sustainable and long lasting social and political change. This has been a key question for many social movements particularly since the alter-globalisation movement in the 90s and in relation to movements like Occupy and 15M that emerged in response to the 2008 financial crash. One of the fundamental features of the social and political movements since the 90s has been a move away from state power as a focus. Theorist and philosopher John Holloway has characterised this perspective, that ‘the attempts to transform society through the state have not just failed to achieve that end. The fixation on the state has tended to destroy the movements pushing for radical change’[i].
A general critique of these movements is that while they may have worked on the level of tactics they have left a strategic gap. Kioupkiolis tries to address this gap by bringing together two theoretical strands of what can be said to be broadly speaking post-Marxist theory: theories of the commons, the common and commoning and post-hegemonic political theory. Both of these strands of thought have been very influential in the political landscape over the last 20 years, particularly in terms of grassroots social movements and their relationship to mainstream politics. Kioupkiolis mostly concentrates on Hardt and Negri’s work in terms of work on the idea of the common, although other theorists and aspects of this idea are explored at the beginning of the book, and in terms of post-hegemonic political theory, Mouffe and Laclau’s work is mostly focussed on, although Gramsci is also cited.
Kioupkiolis’ main proposal is for a tentative, careful or qualified combination of the politics of hegemony which includes ideas of representation, the aggregation of forces and collective convergence, with the more horizontal politics of the alternative commons which includes self-organisation, openness and diversity. Kioupkiolis argues that whilst recent thinking on the common has offered much, it has failed to think through power relations and conflict as well as how collective subjects and communities of struggle might be created.
It is perhaps worth here just spelling out what Kioupkiolis and others mean by the common and how organisations run on these principles might operate. Kioupkiolis uses the common as a kind of shorthand for different definitions and terms such as the commons, common pool resources, commons-based peer production and others. Historically, the term commons has its roots land set aside for common use which were destroyed through processes of enclosure that started in the 17th Century. More recently however, the term has been used as a way to challenge the logic of both private and state public property. While it encompasses resources that are collectively owned and/or collectively produced, the common should not be confused with just shared resources per se. The common or commons also encompass the community of people who share that resource and the way it is managed and distributed through collective and egalitarian participation. Governance is therefore particularly important. In her ground breaking work on the commons, Elinor Ostrom asserted that commons always implies some form of communal governance. In addition, historian Peter Linebaugh coined the term ‘commoning,’ turning the noun into a verb and therefore emphasising it as a practice.[ii] Rather than merely being a fixed resource, the common therefore also includes the practice of commoning, as the collective care of that resource by the community that uses it.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a short proposal for a cultural think tank on how the commons could relate to cultural organisations and I used the idea of the fallow year (a concept drawn from medieval rural common land ownership), as a metaphor for an ‘unproductive’ period that could be used as time for social maintenance. This was before the term furlough came into public parlance, and of course, while a lot of organisations have found themselves having to have a forced hiatus in response to the pandemic, the reality is that many organisations are facing huge cuts and difficulties as they come back to life.
Kioupkiolis’ focus in terms of these ideas, is on Hardt and Negri’s use of the concept. For Hardt and Negri, the common is the central concept of the organisation of society and a political strategy that extends collective self-management and commoning across society. The common is interlinked with their concept of the multitude, their term for an immanent or latent, if submerged, collective subject of democratic struggle against the neoliberal ‘empire’. For Hardt and Negri, ‘the multitude is grounded in the common and gives rise to the common’[iii]. I will go into this and the autonomist Marxist tradition of which Negri is part, in a future blog post.
While Kioupkiolis’ book is ostensibly a theoretical exploration of strands of post-Marxist thinking and how they might be combined to create a hegemonic bloc to affect change, there are also some specific concrete proposals. Kioupkiolis’ critique of commons-based initiatives is that most horizontalist initiatives and mobilisations remain weak, tentative and dispersed, and when confronted with entrenched state institutions or other systemic centres of power they can easily be overwhelmed or be co-opted. Nevertheless, Kioupkiolis proposes a major social transition through a process of commoning. Social self-governance, he suggests, could issue mainly from the bottom up through civic initiatives such as a social economy of collectively self-managed enterprises and community services, or the lowest tier of state administrations on the local level.
This idea of transition to a commons based society, echoes that which has been suggested by the P2P Foundation. Over 10 years ago, I wrote about the P2P Foundation and what was termed the contribution economy. At that time, web 2.0 was relatively new and there was an emphasis on the much vaunted changes that peer production and digital participation might produce. Now, while peer production and platform technology have been absorbed into the mainstream, the P2P Foundation has broadened its remit, and embraced the concept of the commons. It has developed a program for what it calls a commons transition and now has also embraced cooperatives as playing a role in their vision for a commons-based society.
Kioupkiolis’ vision of transition is of the development of polycentric social governance which would include a complex mix of multiple levels and scales of diverse types of organisations and governing authorities. He suggests that alongside new organisational and institutional spaces, state apparatuses would also need to be engaged with in some way, through for example, a process of ‘colonisation’ rather than pure withdrawal (which is generally the position of social movement activists and theorists such as Holloway and Hardt and Negri). Kioupkiolis also posits the possibilities technology for civic engagement. While I find Kioupkiolis’s vision a really interesting and appealing one to think about, the suggestion of engagement with the state is more difficult. For many grassroots movements, their absorption into more mainstream political forms or governance structures has been quite problematic, for example, with Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece or even in relation to how grassroots Covid related mutual aid has purportedly been treated by local government [iv]. Kioupkiolis, however, does temper this call with the necessity to skew relations against hierarchical centralisation. He suggests that this could be done through hybrid forms such as participatory budgets, local assemblies, mechanisms of rotation and alternative kinds of leadership.
In terms of organisational forms and modes of operating, Kioupkiolis suggests that they should include collective ownership and local participative democracy. For organisations to operate as anti-authoritarian, they would need to lay down rules roles and processes through which they seek to promote collective and consensual decision-making, in order to reduce asymmetries of power. Tasks could be rotated in order to transform them into power and knowledge sharing experiences, and leadership could be cultivated in a way that takes as its ethos the Zapatista formula of ‘leading we obey’.
There are existing organisations which do these things, including some co-ops, but it is certainly not easy. As well as formal mechanisms to promote collective and consensual decision-making, cooperative and collaborative cultures also need to be nurtured and maintained. If we are to expand our democratic culture from the bottom up, there are many places, such as most workplaces, in which democracy does not currently thrive, which will need radical change. And as Kioupkiolis has suggested, tensions are also likely to break out between top-down and bottom-up power and decision-making. Processes of transition and emergence can be messy. Indeed, many radical activists are of the opinion that top-down power will always either repress or recuperate any bottom-up initiatives.
As I wrote in my last blog post, Covid-19 might offer an opportunity to rethink how we are organised, to rethink our interconnectedness with each other and the nonhuman world, and to place care and the common good more centrally. Covid-19 Mutual Aid Groups could encourage further ‘micro-democratic organising’, or the development of other local structures such as community councils. However, we have also seen a tendency for the pandemic and the measures put in by government to protect people, to take on an authoritarian and controlling nature that may well continue afterwards. There is therefore plenty to do, and plenty to struggle against, through and beyond. Visions for how social change might occur are therefore needed more than ever.
[i] John Holloway, The Concept of Power and the Zapatistas, [https://libcom.org/library/concept-power-zapatistas-john-holloway]
[ii] Peter Linebaugh, 2009, The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All, Berkeley, Calif.; London: University of California Press.
[iii] Alexandros Kioupkiolis, 2019, The Common and Counter-Hegemonic Politics: Rethinking Social Change, Edinburgh, UK, Edinburgh University Press, p. 78
[iv] Rhiannon Firth, 2020, ‘Mutual Aid, Anarchist Preparedness and Covid-19’, in Preston & Firth, Coronavirus, Class and Mutual Aid in the United Kingdom, London: Palgrave Macmillan