The Journal of Peer Production - New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change
ephemera – The commons and their im/possibilities image

Article and rationale:

Casper Hoedemækers, Bernadette Loacker and Michael Pedersen (2012) The commons and their im/possibilities, ephemera: theory & politics in organization, 12(4): 378-385.

Chris Giotitsas: I have selected the editorial of a special issue which examines the various manifestations of the commons in society and their incompatibility with the capitalist system. Given the nature of this initiative I find that it encapsulates ephemera’s concerns regarding openness but also provides the link to an issue which broadens the discussion beyond open access to knowledge.

Download PDF: OAB ephemera_The commons and their impossibilities


In recent years a familiar mantra has been recited through media channels, government reports and related sources, namely that of austerity. By now, the images of protest movements of various stripes have been well-documented, which has given the Left a renewed notion of opposition and resistance to a seemingly unperturbed neoliberal encroachment on almost all areas of life (e.g. Bonefeld, 2012, this issue; also Hamann, 2009; Read, 2009).

Consequences of the neoliberal transformation of society range from governmental policy-making along the lines of private corporate and industry interests, to the privatisation of public goods and public institutions – amongst others, hospitals, prisons, universities, schools and cultural organizations – to the self-responsibilisation of individuals for their employment, careers, welfare and health. Within neoliberal governmentality many areas and aspects that were once understood as social and political are thus repositioned within the domain of individual and collective self-government and self-management (Hamann, 2009: 40; Lodrup-Hjorth et al., 2011). Yet, this re-positioning is generally presented as an increase in autonomies and choices of individuals and groups of individuals (Vandenberghe, 2008).

However, as public services and properties in western countries become increasingly privatised, or disappear altogether, the pendulum of public attention has firmly swung towards the social relations within society that appear to withstand the calculus of neoliberal transaction. For ideologies of neoliberalism, such areas of society provide a convenient support for a shrinking of the state. This can be seen for example in the notion of the Big Society, in the way that it functions as an ideological totem in David Cameron’s conservative coalition government. Here, the charitable becomes an ersatz policy of public service provision, albeit one that functions without state funding and operates merely on philanthropy and a ‘spirit of voluntarism’ (e.g. Caffentzis, 2010). Aspects of society such as the arts, education, health care or nursing, which do not primarily operate on exchange value and can, thus, not clearly prove value and usefulness become a justification for a state withdrawal of services and support (also Böhm and Land, 2009). Within the cracks, private operators scramble to commodify and individualise what was previously a state affair.

Yet we should be careful to view such developments merely in the light of curbing public spending. Contemporary Marxist and post-Marxist work on the Left (e.g. Adler, 2007; De Angelis, 2007; Hardt and Negri, 2000, 2009; Virno, 2004) has long theorised that capital sustains itself by gradually encroaching on the networks of non-transactional value that are cultivated within shared social settings. For this, Marxists have developed the notion of the, anti-capitalist, ‘commons’ (Caffentzis, 2010: 23f.). These commons provide spaces in which labour and its organization take place in greater mutuality and solidarity than that afforded by capitalist conditions of production, and common goods are produced here whose value is not parasitically creamed off through ordinary mechanisms of exchange, valorisation and surplus value extraction (Hardt and Negri, 2009).

Capital, however, relies on enclosure of both pre-capitalist and new commons and the social goods that are produced in them for its own accumulative drive (De Angelis, 2007: 133ff.). For this reason, commons are not merely social spaces in which work and life might unfold in richer, more autonomous and sustainable ways beyond the scope of capital; the commons are also sites in which critique and resistance have the potential to develop (Caffentzis, 2010: 36). These forms of resistance rely on the social relations, bonds and engagements that sustain social and political practices that are not (yet) readily subsumed under a neoliberal order of investment and competition, and the normalising and disciplining effects of the markets (De Angelis, 2007: 85; also Foucault, 1982, 2008). Within the commons, continuous movements are constructed and organised that can run counter to the attempts to instrumentalise, commodify and capitalise on social invention, integration, mutuality and creative and cooperative forms of labour. However, as the commons are currently used in various ways, we ‘can never guarantee a good outcome’ (Deleuze, 1995: 32). We can never know in advance if the struggles of the commons’ movements create cracks in the capitalistic accumulation process, are stifled by it or even used in the name and interests of recent, philantropy- and collaboration-oriented, capitalism (Caffentzis, 2010: 40). Much work is therefore needed to create an affirmative politics and embodied ethical practices of (re)constructing the commons and common wealth and, in this vein, more actual participation, democracy, equality – and justice (Hardt and Negri, 2000: 300ff.; Hardt and Negri, 2009).