Reopening the Commons: Reversing the Enclosure

Nowadays, almost everybody is forced to sell their labor power in order to survive (or, at least, to avoid hardship and official harassment). This necessity seems so natural to us that we seldom think about why it exists and how it came about.

Yet, historically the situation that (almost) everybody has to sell their labor power is rather new—it only emerged with capitalism. Wage labor and capitalism depend on each other: Without capitalist companies, there would be nobody (by and large) to sell your labor power to, so wage labor could only be an occasional phenomenon (as it was before capitalism). And without wage workers, capital accumulation would be impossible, since their surplus labor is the source of profit (and of its derived forms, interest and rent).

That wage workers are forced to sell their labor power (due to a lack of alternatives) is just one side of the coin. The other side is that they are allowed to do so—in contrast to slaves, who cannot sell their labor power since they themselves have already been sold by others.

Karl Marx therefore coined the term “doppelt freie Lohnarbeiter” (“doubly free wage workers”) for the situation we (most of us) find ourselves in: On the one hand, we’re free human beings who have the legal right to sell our labor power (not slaves or serfs). On the other hand, we’re “free” of the means of production, i.e. we generally don’t have access to tools and resources that would allow us to produce for ourselves, without having to sell our labor power or the results of our labor—otherwise we wouldn’t be forced to sell our labor power, thus creating a surplus for a capitalist.

The creation of the doubly free wage worker was a historical process that accompanied and enabled the emergence of capitalism (described by Marx in his chapter(s) on the “so-called primitive accumulation” in Capital I [German original]). One aspect of this process was the liberation of slaves/serfs (introducing the legal possibility to sell your labor power); the other aspect was the “enclosure of the commons,” the privatization of land and other resources which had formerly belonged to all (introducing the factual necessity to sell your labor power). Both these aspects had to come together to create the specific status of the “doubly free wage worker”—which nowadays is so widespread that is seems “natural” to us, though it isn’t.

The emergence of the necessity and possibility to sell your labor power was thus the result of specific historic conditions. Apparently, there must be other historic conditions which would make them disappear again.

Since the workers (or would-be workers) are “free” in a double sense, there are two ways in which they can lose their wage worker status:

  1. They can lose their right to sell their labor power, reverting from legally free human beings to serfs or dependents of some sorts. Losing the option to switch employers (provided they can find a new one), they would be bound permanently to a single master.
  2. They can lose the necessity to sell their labor power, gaining access to a sufficient share of the means of production to be able to live without the need to earn money.

In the modern world, the former tendency can already be observed in areas where warlordism or gang activity become widespread. If you work for a warlord or a gang, you are bound to an organization which cares for you, but which you cannot leave without risking your life.

The latter option would require a reversal of the historical process of the “enclosure of the commons”: a reopening, recreation, and restoration of the commons. And indeed we can see many traces of such recreations and reopenings already taking place, as new commons are created (free software, Wikipedia etc.) and struggles for old, or former commons (land, water etc.) are increasing.

So we’re still faced with two very different futures, which Rosa Luxemburg contrasted as “socialism or barbarism” almost hundred years ago. Though nowadays, seeing that the reopening of the commons is an essential precondition for the positive alternative to appear, we might prefer to call it commonism instead.

On the practical side, this means that we should do everything we can to support the reopening and recreation of the commons, whether by contributing to open manufacturing projects, by struggling for the general and free access to resources, by supporting projects based on sharing and joint production, or in some other suitable way. Endeavors that just try to modify and “improve” the logic of capitalism and money making—whether alternative currencies, capital-less money making schemes, or struggles for copyright reform without questioning the logic of capitalism [de] —are a waste of time. The important thing is to strengthen the commons and the logic of commoning.

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