Thinking about the common with Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval

Best known outside of France for their important book on neo-liberal governance, Dardot and Laval have more recently (2014) added another important work to their output, a work whose breadth and ambition is clearly indicated by its title, Commun: essai sur la revolution au XXIème siècle (Common: An Essay on Revolution in the 21st Century). The use of common in the singular also casts light on one of the main thrusts of their argument. When one talks of ‘the commons’ in the plural one tends to view contemporary initiatives through the frame provided by the agricultural commons. At the same time, one tends to see the common(s) as a thing rather than as a set of practices. Both tendencies lead us in unhelpful directions for reasons that should become clear below. At the same time, and as the authors also note, we currently find ourselves in a political impasse and desperately need to find ways to move forward. While neo-liberal capitalism is seen to work more and more nakedly in the service of the few, alternatives, whether in the shape of a return to the old Welfarist, post-1945 model, or the authoritarian state socialism of the old Communist bloc, are either condemned to the past or radically undesirable, or both. At the same time, the self-governance and occupation of public spaces practiced by a range of recent protests (Occupy, the Gezi park protests in Turkey) shows a real hunger for more direct forms of democracy and a deep mistrust of traditional, state-centred, representative models.  Yet the fact that none of these protests were able to generate more durable or more widespread modes of action also points towards some of their limitations. This is what Dardot and Laval’s important book seeks to address.

The authors begin by noting that our understanding of the common tends to be shaped (and hindered) by a tripartite set of traditions: an essentially theological one that sees the goal of religious and political institutions as the ‘common good’: a juridical or legal one that associates the common(s) with a category of things (as mobilized, for example, by counter-globalisers when they defend the global ‘commons’ of atmosphere, the water or knowledge; finally, a philosophical one that tends to connect the common to the universal (as in our ‘common humanity’ or our shared access to ‘common sense’.)  Each of these understandings is problematic for reasons that can only be sketched out here: the first model essentially because it attributes the monopoly of the definition or defence of the good to church or state; the second, as already implied, because of the way in which it tends to reify, naturalize and restrict the common(s), only those things being deemed common that by their (inexhaustible or uncapturable) nature cannot or should not be appropriated by private interests; the third, due to its tendency to either associate the common with the lowly or, more importantly, with that which all people a priori have in common and which is therefore of very little political use. Against these understandings, Dardot and Laval defend a sense of the commons rooted in praxis. As they note,  ‘it is only the practical activity of people which can make things common, in the same way as it is only this practical activity that can produce a new collective subject.’ They go on to affirm, ‘The common is not a thing … It is the political principle on the basis of which we must construct commons and return to them to defend them, to extend them and to make them live.’ So, if it is to be politically productive, the common fundamentally relates not to having things in common, nor to the sharing of common things, but to the shared activity through which people shape their relationship to the material world but also themselves in ways which they themselves must decide.

Discussion of the common of course takes us back to the communist legacy, something which recent discussion of the communist ‘hypothesis’ by such as Alain Badiou has tended to bracket or by-pass (through reference to communism as a Platonic idea or as a regulatory norm) but something which Dardot and Laval feel must be confronted head-on if we are to learn from it. Here they come up with another tripartite typology as a way of mapping how communism has been understood. Firstly, they evoke the kind of religious community typified by the monastery and its underpinning belief that, because we receive everything from God, we can only begin to pay him back by renouncing all individual goods and giving ourselves over to communal life. This tradition found its prolongation in the valorization of utopian communities by early socialism. Secondly, they evoke the nineteenth century socialist and communist traditions which, rather than aspiring to some retreat from the social, saw modern society, and its complex division of labour, as the main source of human productivity: in this case, what was central was not a sharing of goods but a more productive and egalitarian organization of social energy that would liberate oppressed social forces from capitalist alienation and exploitation,  thereby permitting the free flowering of social activity. In this second understanding, particularly its Marxist variant, capitalism itself was seen as the necessary pre-condition for the association of the producers assembled in factories and workshops. From this position, it was all too easy to imagine that, once assembled by capital, the real productive forces could simply be detached from it. This fallacy still haunts some strands of leftist thought today (Hardt and Negri, for example). It allows us to think that capitalism will somehow create for us the commons of, say, cognitive labour without the need for thought and action on our part or a profound restructuring of social behaviours, roles and hierarchies. Thirdly, Dardot and Laval note, comes the Communist party-state, with its top-down, bureaucratized productivism and its intense subordination of society to party discipline. Of most interest to them perhaps in this latter context is the Hungarian revolution of 1956 which, through its creation of worker councils, its turn to forms of direct democracy that reached beyond factory walls to broader communities, and its belief in co-decision making and not simply co-execution anticipated many of the essential elements of what a contemporary praxis of the common might involve.

As they move to address the current period, Dardot and Laval note that the predominant contemporary mobilization of the common(s) has been defensive but also federative, the latter perhaps only in a superficial way.  To the extent that neo-liberal capitalism is framed as predatory on social activity, services and resources, a defensive appeal to the commons can apparently connect mobilisations around the natural world, the intellectual ‘commons’, or public service. This is its seeming strength. But, apart from repeating the error of assuming that capital functions essentially through capture (rather than actively structuring production), it also fails to develop the productive dimension of the common. To engage with the latter, Dardot and Laval turn to economist Ellinor Ostrom and her famous work. What Ostrom’s work brings out, says the pair, is the institutional functioning of the common(s) and the way that the effective sharing of certain resources calls for participatory modes of governance and co-responsibility: the common is thus not simply a thing but a set of practices and the agreed rules and decision taking procedures associated with them. The limitation of Ostrom’s work however, as Dardot and Laval see it, is that it still fails to question the broader set of assumptions that see capitalist and state control and acquisitive individualism as the norm and the common as something suited only for specific and rather marginal areas of co-activity typically associated with the use of natural resources. The lessons of Ostrom’s work nonetheless help to correct certain techno-optimist understandings of the internet, for example, as a space of spontaneous sharing or automatic network formation. On the contrary, Dardot and Laval note, internet networks, of hackers, say, or free software developers, are engendered by co-produced systems of rules, including technical ones, which favour sharing, collective creation and playfulness. At the same time, of course, capitalist corporations find their own ways to assemble and govern the productive activity of internet users and on-line consumers. The internet is anything but an unstructured place of spontaneous free exchange.

This focus on the co-elaboration of rules and institutional forms and the critique of historical or techno-optimism and spontaneism repeatedly bring Dardot and Laval back to Marx and Proudhon. If Proudhon is taken to task for his belief that true productivity comes from a society upon which capital is essentially predatory, he is praised for paying far more serious attention to the workers’ capacity to create their own non-capitalist and non-statist institutions than his German contemporary. In this, he was part of a subsequently marginalized socialist tradition which also embraced figures such as Marcel Mauss and which saw a way forward in mutualism, cooperatives and unions and their capacity to develop their own autonomous rules, rites and norms. At a time when statist solutions have been discredited for one reason or another, and when oppositional movements have repeatedly found themselves unable to develop durable alternative organisations and procedures, this historical capacity to build counter institutions and socially generated (rather than state driven) rules and frameworks is surely one worth returning to and learning from.

One part of Proudhon’s legacy to which Dardot and Laval are particularly drawn is his juridical thought and his attempt to reconcile socialism and the rule of law. But the law to which Proudhon refers is what one might call social law (customs, rules) not state law. Needing to navigate between state despotism and liberal individualism, Proudhon turns to society and its complex system of relationships and asks what institutional forms and rules can be found to organize its interaction in a way that emerges organically rather than needing to be imposed from outside and above. It is this form of questioning that makes him emphasize autonomous workers’ institutions as sites where they will be able to develop their own law-making capacity.

Because it is so central to their argument, this discussion of laws and institutions is developed at great length by Dardot and Laval. In terms of law, and especially property law, perhaps the most interesting parts of their discussion are those where they explore the great diversity of historical forms and practices and particularly the way in which different forms of rights of access to the same property could and did co-exist as when, for example, a lord might have ownership to a forest when it came to hunting while his peasants might have customary access to the forest to gather wood. While this familiar form of custom should not be idealized – it clearly reflected highly unequal social structures – it does show us how a right of co-use, one based in practice, can show ways beyond property rights based on the exclusive ownership of things. With respect to institutions, Dardot and Laval are keen to maintain the tension implicit in the word itself between the institution, as the body created, and institution, as the collective act of creation. While institutions are necessary to maintain norms and practices over lengthy periods of time, they run the clear risk of fossilization. Their instituted dimension thus needs to be held in tension with the collective capacity to create new institutional forms. In contrast to traditional ways of thinking about the constituent assembly which presumes a subject (the people) which pre-exists its action (the creation of a constitution) and only directly accomplishes this one foundational act (before passing power to other hands), the institution needs to be seen as an ongoing praxis whereby the group creates itself through its co-activity even as it creates and continuously recreates institutions and rules. This tension between the instituted and the act of instituting is also essential if the institution is to be prevented from exercising tyrannical power over the group. If the institution is allowed to solidify and its power is located in some higher instance, it can quickly become oppressive. Similarly, the power of the group, its power to limit the action of its members, must not become monolithic or concentrated. The power of the individuals must be limited by all the other individuals so that no individual, or collective instance, can be set up over others. This mode of governance is, of course, familiar to anyone who has knowledge of movements such as Occupy.

At this stage, a lot of the theoretical ground has been cleared, although I have necessarily expressed it in rather sketchy form. What remains, and what Dardot and Laval do in the final section of the book, is to come up with some detailed proposals and to explain how their understanding of the common can help us see, not simply the way towards isolated, local or short-lived social experiments but a real, widespread and durable transformation of our modes of social, economic and political organization by and around the common. That will be the subject of my next post (now located here).

Martin O’Shaughnessy





This entry was posted in Morality, philosophy, theory, Protest and mobilisation, the common(s). Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Thinking about the common with Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval

  1. Pingback: Building the Common: nine political propositions from Dardot and Laval | La France et la Crise

  2. Pingback: Some reading notes on the book, "Commun", published in France | P2P Foundation

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