In recent years in the field of social sciences, and the arts as well as politics, debates on the commons have claimed new entry points for a radical repudiation of neoliberalism; they have inspired the envisioning of alternatives beyond capitalism and other forms of domination. The insights and energies developed in and around the debates often promise to provide perspectives for a new economic, political, and social discourse and of practices that help articulate and build on the many existing struggles challenging the politics of accumulation and exclusion (Stavrides 2016).
Historically, the labour – and also the conflicts – involved in the making of the commons has chafed against a Western utopian understanding of coming together as a social congregation, or gathering, free of friction. As such, the commons are discussed as to be simultaneously made against, as well as within, existing fields of power to negotiate their manifestations, not to reproduce them. As different dimensions of power organize the overdetermined terrain of the social, social movements are often caught between competing agendas, as well as in the gap between their declared aims and the actual complexity of everyday life. This struggle has been called commoning (see Federici 2011). The term “commoning” allows for a recognition of the different struggles for the commons as both the claims for the sustenance of shared resources, and as a struggle for different forms of relating and belonging. Finally, the concept of commoning also suggests taking seriously a community of commoners who are actively engaged in negotiating rules of access, use and maintenance of the shared resources (De Angelis and Stravrides 2010). According to Peter Linebaugh, commoning is a verb, in other words, it is a social practice. Commons are not yet made but always in the making; they are a product of continuous negotiations and reclaiming (Linebaugh 2008).
Within the Western framework, this approach is often associated with Marx’s account of primitive accumulation, describing the massive waves of enclosure in the woods of London, and its more contemporary articulation in David Harvey’s critique of “accumulation through dispossession” (Harvey 2004). Already in the 1970s Silvia Federici’s manifesto “Wages Against Housework. They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work” questioned the Marxist basis of political economy; her work has since insisted on the necessity to expand the concept of primitive accumulation to include not just the appropriation of land but also of women’s bodies and their reproductive labor (Federici 2004).
While the concept of the commons as a thriving alternative to aggressive enclosure is vividly discussed in different Marxist and Post-Marxist contexts, scholars of indigenous and postcolonial studies have levelled their uncompromising criticisms not so much at the term commons, but more at its particular framing within leftist Marxist politics. Sandy Grande, Eve Tuck, K. Wayne Yang, and Glen Coulthard, to name a few, argue that Marxist frameworks, and along with them, the so-called “return of the commons” (Coulthard 2014, 12) continue to place land as property, and therefore never leaves the very ground of dispossession. As a consequence, they ask, what do the claims for the commons and the practices of commoning mean on land that is stolen; moreover, what do these claims obscure in the context of settler colonial nation states?
This tension, Greg Fortier argues, becomes most obvious in the particular framing of the commons in the context of e.g. the Occupy Movement. For Fortier “the problem with the idea of the commons in settler states is that it evades the question of ongoing settler complicity in the project of genocide, land theft, assimilation, and occupation” (Fortier 2017, 30). In the wake of these arguments, the critiques of indigenous and postcolonial scholars raise the disturbing question of how to think of commons in the very centre of Europe, built on and sustained by dispossession and colonialism, as well as in the light of on-going racist wars at Europe’s outer borders.
Complementing the critique of settler colonialism put forth by indigenous scholars, postcolonial scholars have confronted the concept of the commons with the history of colonialism as a violent history of dispossession of land, bodies and the social. Following Franz Fanon, postcolonial theorists insist that in Europe primitive accumulation initiated the devastating long-term effects of proletarization, whereas in the colonies, it manifested itself in the dispossession of land. Synthesizing these two trajectories of critique, Peter Kulchyski argues in his study on indigenous cultural politics, “what distinguishes anti-colonial struggles from the classic Marxist accounts of the working class is that oppression for the colonized is registered in the spatial dimension—as dispossession—whereas for workers, oppression is measured as exploitation, as the theft of time” (Kulchyski 2005, 88).
With a few exceptions – e.g. Silvia Federici, whose work has continuously tried to think of women’s investment in the commons beyond Europe and the Western idea of land enclosure (Federici 2011, 1) – the political claims for the commons often neglect to address the continuities of the colonial condition. Key questions, such as on whose land are the commons supposed to take place, whose resources are meant to be redistributed through commoning practices, who conceptualizes the political utopias that enter the academic field, and who profits by this entry, remain unaddressed.
Finally, indigenous accounts of land challenge the Marxist critique of primitive accumulation and accumulation through dispossession on another level: built on deep relationalities, these accounts assert continuity, sustainability, reciprocity, and care. Indigenous cosmologies rely on an understanding of land that goes far beyond the concept of property – land cannot be owned; humans and non-humans, including land, animals, spirits, share an ecological connection: “We are this land, and this land is us”, describes Gregory Cajete (1994, 90). This indigenous place-thought entails a profound critique of the concept of the commons with regards to their complicity in the anthropocentric notion of both Marxists’ and capitalists’ views on land and natural resources. This critique is most poignantly posed by Sandy Grande, when she points at the “commodities to be exploited, in the first instances, by capitalists for personal gain, and in the second, by Marxists for the good of all” (Grande 2015, 31).
Commoners, who aim to relate their commoning practices for working against such exploitations on a material as well as on a symbolic level, are left with what Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang calls the necessary “attending to what is irreconcilable within settler colonial relations and what is incommensurable between decolonizing projects”(Tuck and Yang 2012). Simultaneously, they, and respectively us, need to work on acknowledging the significant absences within Western accounts of the commons, in order to reveal the connection between the commons and the history of empire.