Facing mass unempoyment, precarisation, evictions and cuts in social services, more and more people in the US and other parts of the world are reconquering public spaces beyond in order to create new forms of production and reproduction: the Commons. In cities like Detroit and New York urban gardening is flourishing. This is not only about food, according to Silvia Federici, but also about reconstructing the social fabric and reclaiming control of our lives. These "communities of resistance" could become - when they join into networks - a vital force of social and ecological transformation.
Silvia Federici, professor emerita for Political Philosophy at Hofstra University, Long Island, NY; political activist and author of several books, including "Caliban and the Witch"
Kontext TV: Since the financial crisis in 2008 capitalism has become more and more unpopular in Europe and also in the U.S. According to polls, 80% of Germans would like to have a different economic system. Capitalism seems not only unable to solve the global ecological crisis or the growing gap between rich and poor but to be the driving force behind these crises. However an alternative system is not at hand with state socialism being largely discredited. In this situation you and other activists and scholars have proposed the idea and the concept of Commons or the Common to overcome ecological devastation and the social crisis. Explain the concept and also the practice of Commons or the Common.
Federici: Yes, I think the idea of the Commons the principle of the Commons has come back. Since the 90s actually you know in our political discourse, our political practice, precisely in response to the incredible devastation that this new drive of these advances of capitalist relations across the world has produced and particularly in the forms of our social reproduction. There are now millions of people across the world for whom the possibility to reproduce themselves on a day to day basis is in question because we have been witnesses of massive land expropriation, precarisation of income jobs and income cuts in social services. First of all Commons means a politics of survival, you know it means the ability and the need for many people to pull their resources together and to create, to construct alternative forms of existence and reproduction because we don't have access, less and less to the market or less access to income. So this is a very important consideration and we see that for instance one inspiration comes from Latin America. Many many communities in Latin America where for example women have been the forefront of creating these new forms of reproduction, for example popular kitchen, urban gardens and many of those forms of reproduction have also been imported by immigrants in our community in the United States for example the urban garden movement is a movement that has been inspired by immigrants in particular. But Commons are also something more, than means to cater to our reproduction. They are also a way for us to first of all begin to reconstruct a social fabric which has been destroyed by years and years of industrial relocation, of high events that have basically forced, expelled many people out of our cities and basically policies that have lead to determination of the forms of organization that workers have created over centuries of struggle. So commons are also a way to recreate not only mutual aid but to recreate bonds of solidarity we now often have a vacuum and that's why we speak of communities, of resistance. And equally important, the principle of the commons it really a principle of reclaiming control of our life. Of basically beginning to reappropriate the decision making that controls, decides about our everyday life, which now we do not have. And so creating from the beginning forms of existence that are organized according to a different logic than the logic of the market. Until 30-40 years ago, people did not think of the idea of growing your own food, in a town, it was unconceivable but now its beginning to take roots and now we know a city like Detroit that used to be the industrial capital of the world now has large areas that are devoted to farming and in the process even if those experiments are still relatively small, I think that much has been gained in the process of engaging in them. Not only new forms of cooperation but also a whole reflection and knowledge production about food. The realization that it's important that we know when we have access to food we do not poison ourselves. The realization that if we want to control our life we should be able to control first of all the basic forms of our nourishment. And the garden have not only been places where food has been produced they have also been places where knowledge has been produced a lot of knowledge about growing cultivating, preserving. Some of the urban gardens in New York for instance have connections with schools where the children may go there and also be taught, that for example food does not come in a plastic bag, you know the process of growing and learning to establish a contact with the land that normally they would not be able to have. Now the challenge of course is how to connect the gardens but not only how to connect the gardens - for example to connect the garden with the other experiments that are being made. The free university, the knowledge commons. To connect the gardens with the struggles that are taking place for higher wages, against the cuts in education, so for example the garden could connect and provide food to the people on strike so I think that this is the terrain on which a lot of possibilities are opening up and I think that this is the terrain that we need to explore, that we need to occupy.
Kontext TV: It is often argued that commons cannot work because once people commonly use resources they do not own, they will necessarily overexploit them. If nobody owns things, nobody cares in the end. As Garret Hardin famously argued in the tragedy of the commons. What would you reply?
Federici: Garret Hardin has been so contested and so disproven Garret Hardin really was speaking of commons as open access realities you know open access meaning everything goes anybody can take. And first of all we have to challenge this idea of this inner drive that human beings have to self-interest, not caring for others. Actually quite the opposite can let to themselves and not living in an exploitative system human beings are equally motivated by the desire for mutual aid and empathy. As Kropotkin for example has so often insisted. But in the case of Garret Hardin historically Commons have never been open access, have always involved communities always involved regulations and they have decided how much to use of the resources they provide. So that argument is really unfounded.
Kontext TV: Karl Marx has famously described the process of what he called primitive accumulation as a precondition for capitalism. The violent expropriation of the commons by private interests. However in your book Caliban and the witch you argue that primitive accumulation has not only taken place once in the past but is since then going on all over the world. Explain what primitive accumulation is and why you think it is still going on and give examples.
Federici: Marx was absolutely right, I mean primitive accumulation is the system that started... the event that started capitalist systems because it deprives millions of people of the basic means of subsistence and therefore makes them vulnerable, opens them up to process of exploitation. And now because the have nothing to support themselves they have to accept any form of labor any form of exploitation. Now what we are witnessing, one of the arguments I make and I'm not alone now I think this is becoming a common view, I think that the globalization is a new face, that actually all through the history of capitalist relations, capitalist societies, capitalism has resorted to forms of primitive accumulation in those moments of crisis when in need to regain the command over the labor force. And the primitive accumulation is the moment, is that strategy that basically attacks basic means of subsistence for example through land appropriation of land grabbing. War is also a means of primitive accumulation because war expels entire populations from certain territories and opens up those territories to expropriation. We see them today, every day we see that process. So I am arguing that globalization has been fundamentally... in essence has been a massive assault on people's means of reproduction.
Kontext TV: Which role do women play in the Commons movement?
Federici: I've been in Mexico and I have contact with women in other parts of Latin America. You can see that women are on the forefront of many struggles against the construction of dams, against deforestation against, the contamination of rivers when companies want to build buildings, firms that are polluting, factories that are polluting a river. These beautiful politics that are developing those women in Mexico who are struggling for the commons... they use this language; they are speaking of the fact that there is a continuity between the lands and the body so we shouldn't put in the land what we don't want to put in our bodies. And they speak also about the fact the land or the territory in which we live are not just material physical things -that they have histories. The land at every turn reminds us of the people who struggled there, the people who have been buried there the people whose blood was spilled to prevent injustice. So they are very interested for example in re-creating a certain collective memory with the idea that this is important for building the commons for building the common interest. To place our struggle in something bigger than us. So there also is a lot of work that women are doing in creating more collective forms of housework because we know how much... what's the price women have paid and men for the isolating way in which house work is being organized the family the home. This division, these walls this has been a political decision by capitalism. United workers, concentrated them in the factories and disaggregated them in the community. So the place of reproduction has been a place of division. Very very planned by the way urban planning has been organized. Like the Levittown model of community that was launched in the United States in the 40s and 50s is typical of that and just so you know they say actually it's not a new interest it's an interest that many families have had since the 19th century. For example women in the Fullerist movement, in many Utopian socialist movements they were very interested about how changing the family, changing the home the collective kitchen, connecting the home to the neighborhood. Well today that in parts is there and is growing and we need to find a different way of reproducing ourselves.