Interview with Massimo De Angelis

Massimo De Angelis (Italy) is Professor of Political Economy at the University of East London. He is author, most recently, of The Beginning of History: Value Struggles and Global Capital, and editor of The Commoner web journal, at

CF – Throughout its evolution capital has developed elaborate processes of circulating / accumulating its social power. What could be the ways for commons’ communities to circulate / accumulate social counter – powers and challenge the domination of capital in the 21st century?

Massimo – This is a key issue, obviously. Capital has three key interrelated means to expand or at least maintain its social power: enclosures, the violent or devious expropriation of community resources; accumulation (based on abstract labour and exploitation) and governance, that pertains to the hierarchical managerial function of capital, whether in the sites of production or social production (the state). Correspondingly, the commons have also three main interrelated moments constituting its social power. The communalisation of resources and their turning into common wealth; commoning, or the autonomous social cooperation that strive to horizontality and auto determination of goals; and the collective democratic process of their governance.

Also, accumulation presuppose the commodification of goods and human capabilities and leads to processes of productions that are alienating and exploitative, also with the aid of competition across producers. It also involves profit maximising, or cost minimising strategies that produce social and environmental “externalities”: costs that are external to circuits of capital and that have a costs on environmental commons or social commons — not to talk about run down psychic systems involved in the capitalist production process or not involved because precarious or unemployed but fully dependent on it. So, accumulation implies a pile of commodities and shining commercial centres but at the same time accumulation of detritus.

So in the first place, through communalisation, commons communities reclaim detritus and turn it into a conditions of a different type of production process, production and reproduction. This is happening in already so many ways. Factories reclaimed from their closures, brown fields turned in to community gardens; marginalised subjectivities becoming the promoters of new innovative projects of transformation, derelict houses restructured by community activities and served for social housing or social centres, empty spaces saved from speculation and reclaimed for communal use. Of course not only “detritus” is communalised. But what it is important here for us to refer to detritus is that this is continuously produced by the production and financial circuits, both in terms of environmental impact, of psychological impact, of social impact or simply as a byproduct of economic, financial and speculative circuits. These resources are the one that are generally less protected by the state, and thus represent leverage points from which to start processes of social transformations in modes of production. I am also referring to beautiful places, becoming detritus from the point of view of capital. Detritus could be everywhere. Take some rural places, that modern accumulation force people to abandon, or devalue. There are plenty of space and opportunities to trigger virtuous commons circuits.

While communalisation allows a resource to become part of a common wealth of a particular commons, the process of commoning coincides with the social labour employed in a particular commons and thus the reproduction of the relations among the subjects involved in the commons, thus creating and recreating communities anew. Commoning is how everything get (re)produced, how the material and there immaterial outcome as well as the values are generated and reproduced. But these values are also discussed, fought over, agreed or disagreed, together with all other aspects of the commons life, in moments of collective governance, vernacularly democratic and filtering inclusion at boundaries that need continuously to be problematised.

There is a lot of talk on intellectual commons and their modes of intellectual production / distribution but a relative failure to articulate how these or other modes could be implemented in the [re]production of basic material goods. Do you think that commons’ communities can spread in the production of material goods, which have characteristics of rivalry?

Your question is loaded with “goods fetishism”, if you allow me the metaphor. Intellectual commoners, and their p2p cousins in cyberspace, may not be producing “rival goods”, but are eating rival “food stuff”, employing “rival energy sources” and “rival electronic materials” and possibly sleeping in “rival houses”. Indeed, the law can be twisted in such a way that they non-rival products could be enclosed by property rights so as they can pay their expenses through the sale of “made rival intellectual goods”. p2p commoners own good commoning practices — as yours and mine — is thus predicated on a deep stratification of horrific economic activities, delivering energy, electronic devises and global food. Obviously, this also depends on how individual cyber-commoners are connected/participating to other commons. But the point I am making is this: you are asking how the good practice of intellectual commons can be passed into the reproduction of basic goods in commons. I don’t know! I know though that any material commons production requires intellectual contents in the form of planning, curiosity, distributed leadership, finding ways to share knowledge that does not hurt pride, and ways to promote collective forms of daily research and experimentation without which the commons will not evolve or adapt. Many of these are already acquired feature of p2p and knowledge production in the “intellectual commons”. But what is also true is that the latter presuppose the exploitation of people and nature which many material commons are trying to overcome within a much difficult context. So to answer your question, perhaps one way is to get “immaterial commoners” (how much I hate this expression) involved in “material commons” to favour contamination, reflexivity and all that is required articulate the “material” and the “immaterial” and build a political project that communalise resources that are necessary for the reproduction of our lives so as we are less dependent on capital to survive whether we are p2peerers, artists, waged workers, or precarious workers.

According to our views solidarity economy projects and reclaimed companies do not share the same characteristics with the commons but, when connected with the wider anticapitalist movements, are also invaluable for the transition beyond the world of the capital and the commodity. How could these two alternative modes of social [re]production interconnect to provide tangible alternatives?

I have a different view. What distinguishes the commons from capital is the objective — social reproduction vs profit and accumulation — and the mode of the production. A reclaimed factory that struggles to create its own market say in solidarity circuits within social movements, is a particular type of commons, where its workers pay themselves a wage while at the same time open space for neighbours and broader communities to use its premises. A self-organised social centre is a commons, and yet it has to pay for some of its material, and thus it has to sell something or pool resources through donation from other commoners who in turn have sold something — even if only their labour power. The point is that there are no blueprint for commons, and that they are of many types, which is good, so as we can talk about an ecology of commons. Diversity is strength! The fact that there are of many types, it means that some of them depends on money, because their environment is so much money dependent. So also commons need to acquire money, but this does not mean that their reason of being is accumulation of money. We have to be able to draw distinctions, have a sense of degrees, and abandon ideologically based pure blueprint that divide rather than bring commoner together. So, what you say are not commons — say reclaimed factories — are commons to me, to the extent and in the measure of changing the ultimate rationale, methods and mode of production.

Of course they need to sell stuff. So, here is the bit you call solidarity economy. An “economy” because something circulates, connects and here different commons are exchanging products and services via money — often — or through gift exchange. But why it is called solidarity? My take is that it has to do with the actors doing buying and selling (or simply circulating gifts). But these actors do not behave like private actors in capitalist markets, self-interested amoeba who see nothing else but their belly button — nor they will be able to act like an exchange between commoners and capital (like in the labour markets), where organised conflict for a wage (or for cutting it) is a key element. And there are two reasons why it is different. The first one is that some form of commoning circulates also through some form of symbolic value — and that is because different commoners in the different sides of the transaction feel they are kind on the same side. I see here in my kitchen, the Zapatistas coffee, and I hear that soon I will be able to get some Viome natural cleaning product. I know that in these and many other cases, my purchase will guarantee a modest leaving to people and communities in great difficulty and at the frontline of struggle. Useful certainly, but what a comfortable solidarity is this! In any case, here my household commons has entered in solidarity via a particular type of market, a non capitalist market certainly, where echoes of struggles and of different futures circulates in different kitchens and workshops. This solidarity economy is thus the non-capitalist market interrelation among two commons, the fruit of a chain of boundary commoning that has reached me in a rural place in Italy. But then, there is a different type of solidarity economy. Take the case of participatory certification, the practice used by many associations of consumers and producers taking it on themselves to control for quality and even price. One of the cases that most fascinate me is the case of Genuino Clandestino in Italy, a networks of small farms and producers that put up markets in different localities. In Bologna, where Campi Aperti, the association who originated this movement, operates, there are now 5 weekly markets one of which was recently opened in a public space in the centre of town. Now you think that a market is different than a commons. But this market requires community defined rules to be defined, prices that allows farmers to live, while at the same time consumers being able to buy good biological produce without paying high prices. It requires consumers and producers (I mean, buyers and sellers!) meeting monthly in assemblies to establish prices, quality of produce, to filter new members in terms of quality and commitment, to develop trust, and develop campaigns, check the finances, participate in social movements squatting state land or linking up with self-organised social centres and reclaimed factories. Of course these markets are commons! They are not plastic places in which alien corporations play their fanfare with screaming colours to make us buying for buying sake. These markets are constructed horizontally step by step, consumers and producers become both activists, each intermittently transforming into the other. In assemblies consumers filter the choices and constraints of the producers, and the latter open the farm for consumers to become producers, while in the market they often celebrate with big .

Commons’ communities have constituent characteristics, which can also be imagined at the macro – social level. Are such polities of the commons conceivable and what could be their properties and processes?

If we are talking about blueprints — which I generally do not like doing — any commons has the elements that can be scaled up to organise a greater polity. Resources administered at three levels of power: the constitutional level (where decisions are made regarding the foundation and general reasons of being of the commons), the collective action level (the broader operational rules and those governing the boundaries) and “rules in use”, what is continuously modified by the community in the everyday commoning. We could think about all best ethical way to integrate these, through federation, through decentralisation, through direct democracy by assemblies in the smallest units, by using all new new web tools that have become available in the last 20 years for the largest macro decisions. Then we could consult old Anarchist, Autonomists, libertarian or utopian communists books, marxist feminists and even radical catholic books and find recipes to rotate representatives, to de-schooling society, to de-medicalise our lives, collectivise children and elders care, socialise wealth through basic income, ….and there we continue the wish list until we reach the end of history imagining we all agree on the successive blue prints. No, Adam Smith, the classic much quoted promoter of liberal capitalism, would not have ever imagined how capitalism would have evolved. The early imperial companies of the XVI and XVII centuries did not know how far their own relatively small colonial enclaves would have developed, and how much devastation they would have caused marching into the mission of “capitalist/imperial civilisation”. We need blueprints to the extent we are in a particular situation and need to move forwards. But not for imagining an evolved situation in the future. The only thing that we know now is that we need to get unstack from where we are, a situation of deep and devastating multiple crises (economic, social, environmental) in which the commons have not yet reached a level of political recomposition that can effectively contrast the use that capital is already planning for us of the crisis, through TTIP for example. So if I can imagine a macro polity now, it is a polity in movement, both in the sense that is forming through political recomposition across ecologies of commons that exists even in places where radical activists don’t even imagine they exist. A polity that is developing rhizomatically, moved by the double movement (not the Polanyi type) of the expansion of (re)production commons (both material and immaterial) and the intensification of linkages among them, and guarding against the strategies of enclosures and co – optation by capital. This polity may at times make deals with the state (a rhizomatical development also implies states node being part, at least temporarily, of our polity, say local administrations, state clinics or schools, periods of left wing government we can push in certain directions, say to communalise state land or public schools) but always prudently, and never thinking we can abandon our polity to embrace the “reason of the state”. Ideally, we want to reach a point where the commons are so developed as both a productive and political force that we effectively push capital to the brink, while giving the Anthropocene a new colour: no longer the dark epoch in which humans have changed loads of bio-physical conditions on hearth as a results of capital’s “externalities”, but the epoch in which cooperating human beings act as what they are, as internal to the earthly eco-systems, and they common not only with one another to seek their own flourishing and reproduction, but also with the earth as their own condition of existence. Who knows, Anthropocene will then paradoxically be the epoch in which communalised human being recognise — for once — the limit of their own powers, with respect of one another and collectively with respect to the Earth. And that will be the moment in which we able to ban capitalism as an aberration of human societies and nature, but that in retrospect has given us some quite useful gear.

Commons do not develop as supplementary with the capitalist market but dialectically contest it. Which, in your opinion, are the dangers in this contested relationship and which strategies should be employed to avoid their subsumption by capital?

Not all commons contests at the same time, and not all commons contests. But yes, this is correct, sooner or later we can see the relation between commons and capital as conflictual one. Either capital enclose, or commons communalise, in both cases we reach a frontline, although, as I said earlier, there is also the space of detritus that offer us a leverage, a space of development. As a whole, the problem is not that capital encloses — this we know, we do not accept it ethically, but we must account it strategically. Also, keep in mind that capital enclosures in turn open up spaces for commons of new type that we cannot anticipate. Take for example self-organised social centres in Italy. They developed also as a result of the cooptation of trade unions into institutions of mediation with capital that did not represent large strata of the youth and precarious work in the 1970s and 1980s till now. In any case, as a whole, the danger is whether capital encloses at a greater rate that commons communalise. The danger is also in the quality and the sector of communalisation. The recent economic crisis has reminded us the great dependency that households of all types have on capital. When this for any reason stops …. then what? The crisis has also shown that protesting may serve to slow, to change discourse, even to put “radical” socialists in power, not to change the social relations of production. But when people organise potato markets bypassing large distributions, when they reclaim factories, when they turn parkings into parks, when they develop peoples’ clinics and so on, they do make a change in social relation of production, even if only a small one. The danger is to see all these emergent social institutions of the commons as temporary, as fixing a problem that will be sorted out once capital start to grow again. This is a way for capital to co-opt the commons. In the early ‘80s, in the midst of the crisis, in the UK, there was a lot of growth of local currencies and time banks schemes. They disappeared after the financial boom. The problem with all these schemes is their voluntaristic nature, serving mostly a network of politically converted. What instead we need to develop is forms of commons that are there to stay. Farmers’ institutions like Genuino Clandestino mentioned above; reclaimed factories networked with many other institutions in virtuous economic, reproduction and cultural exchanges; self-organised social centres that not only become buzzing with laboratories of all kind, but also centres of new poly-centric cultures of the commons, opening up their boundaries to neighbourhoods and across commons networks; centres of care, multifunctional and multi-paradigmatic cooperative clinics and so on. But also, and often at the same times, processes that begin to communalise state services (health, education, police, and the governing institutions) first by pushing for a deep democratisation, and transparency, and then think through the strategies of communalisation.

But then, even in the best case scenario, in which commons develop virtuously, capital can always find a way to co-opt. The commons means that a variety of cost of reproduction are internalised by it, and thus capital does not have to pay for it. Capital thus can thus further reduce the social wage, i.e. the total amount of wage made of the one payed by the private capitalist and the one part payed by the state through public services. And here the commons must rediscover that in certain situations they are class, that a certain degree of development, the wage is one of the resources that commons use to sustain themselves and to develop, hence in certain conditions, the battle for the social wage is still central.

A talk about the Commons is a talk about the public, not as state or privately managed but as what we share, self – govern and cooperatively [re]produce. Such a notion about the public is not compatible with the statist notion of the public embraced by the systemic or leninist Left. Are you optimistic that dual powers between commons’ movements and leftist governments might emerge in the future?

I disagree with the first part. Talking about the commons is not to talk about the public. The first is self-governed, the second is managed by the state. That does not mean that the public is not, in certain conditions, a good thing to have. There are beautiful public parks in London. Sure, I cannot camp or lit barbecue fires, but I can discount them away — camping is still possible if you are shrewd, and forbidding barbecues may have a sense. But as soon as you step out of the nice public park, the public road is a nightmare. Cyclist and pedestrians are thus sacrificed to publicly managed viability, aimed at getting London commercially run and open for business every damned day of the year (or almost). Now, let us say that we organise a mega guerrilla gardening campaign. Both the park and the roads are taken up by self managing group of commoners: the public space is turned into a commons — temporarily sure, but then what? In our own lived every day, we most likely shift roles continuously : commoner in the social centre or the neighbour, worker in the factory or office, and commoner of a particular nature in the household (son, daughter, father, sisters, mother, brothers, friend, partner, etc.), citizen at the tax office, costumer at the supermarket. So, a space, can shift its being as well, depending on the social relations existing there. So it happens of a school, a hospital, a parliament square.

Having said this, a radical leftist politics could certainly be instrumental to prevent further enclosures and instead push for communalisation of public services, but I am not sure whether I am optimistic…let us say that inside me there is some hope that we are able to build a commons paradigm/praxis that will be able to influence radical leftists politics. But also, inside me, there is a deep suspicion that radical leftist politics in a political and economics context dominated by capitalist sharks, will end up with very bad deals. There are many questions to consider that I cannot do really here. First what is the level of development of the commons and of a political paradigm to gain broad supports and that see the commons as a central transformative force? Second, what is the level of political recomposition of the commons enabling the commons to act as a social force in time of crisis and push for communalisation of many of the public services/resources? Unlike the “public” the commons require people taking responsibility for the resource/space/relations. But nevertheless, we need public resources now to relief from poverty many sections of the population but this, unfortunately, does not seem it is going to happen in Europe. So third, what are the relative “passions” for authority, representation and direct democracies among the “multitudes”. Whatever will be, will be. The key questions is whether those who want to promote commons are ready to seize the many opportunities that the crises open for us.