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US Capitalism Was Born in the Destruction of the Commons

The commons is more than a place of redistribution and resources, it’s a place of resistance.

A truck loaded with coal makes its way from a coal mine on top of Kayford Mountain in West Virginia, on June 12, 2008. The mountain top has been demolished to extract coal.

So writes [feminist] Silvia Federici. But how can we get there from here? The practice of commoning, and the idea that we might hold and manage land and assets together in common, holds a lot of appeal these days. To help us think forward as we do on this show, we have two world-renowned experts on commoning in the house. Federici’s latest book is Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons. Its foreword is written by historian and “Laura Flanders Show” regular, Peter Linebaugh, who is the author of, among other classics, The Magna Carta Manifesto. In this interview, Federici and Linebaugh discuss the history of the commons and how we might apply some of the ideas central to commoning to rebuilding our communities.

Laura Flanders: Let’s talk about the role of the commons in American history. I spent some time during election season in Appalachia and heard a lot about the Appalachian commons, about which I knew very little. It’s often told, the story of the commons, as if it was in just medieval England, but that’s not the case. Peter, you’ve looked at this history. What’s American about it?

Peter Linebaugh: What’s American about it is, unlike Europe, American capitalism was born in destruction of the commons. In Europe, we used to be taught European capitalism was born on the destruction of feudalism. Actually, as we go further, we see that this destruction of the commons is all over. But in Appalachia in particular, this has been a zone of freedom, and the latest to be privatized with the mountain top removals. The destruction of mountains and the removals of rivers have produced the opposite in ideological terms. That is, this was the zone that elected JFK, if you remember, in 1960. This is where poverty was discovered. What’s actually happening in Appalachia are communities, over many generations, that have been multiethnic, Native American, African American, runaway slaves; it’s freedom land. It’s no accident that John Brown centered the struggle for abolition in Appalachia, in the mountains.

But it’s not the land of monoculture; huge land owners, coal-mining companies that have very little concern for the community or the planet. We’ve got an urban tradition of commoning here in the United States, too. What does that look like to you, and how do we bring this picture together as something alive today?

Silvia Federici: I think what is alive today is that more and more people have been displaced. They have been displaced from the valley and from the mountains that have been destroyed. But at the same time, to the extent that they have been forced to urbanize, they also bring to the urban space the need to reconstitute a community. We’ve seen it in the United States, I think, in the last three full decades in particular…. And so we have seen, for example, the phenomenon of the urban garden, agricultural farming, which are much more than sources of food, and they have really become centers of sociality and also places for a new production of knowledge. Children from school can go there and see how vegetables are grown. And so they’re fulfilling now many different functions.

So urban gardens are part of the “re-enchanting” of the title of your book. Give us some background — you mentioned it in the foreword — what that word, that phrase, is about.

Linebaugh: The phrase comes from French for chanté, meaning “to sing.” So, to enchant is an action of joy, and it’s an action of hope, of the imagination. That’s enchantment. It’s not just for Halloween or for a senior prom. It’s not just dressing up. It’s to reconceive of what we are on the planet. Our planet is not real estate. Our planet is not a jail to throw people off of. It’s not a wilderness. It can be a home. As Silvia just said in this great book, Re-enchanting the World, we have to make a home with one another, and practice principles of reciprocity, redistribution, obligation and respect. To enchant is to sing into community once again.

So, what has feminism got to do with all of this, Silvia?

Federici: I think a lot, because today, women are really on the front line in terms of recreating the commons. In particular, one of the things that have been happening is the commoning of reproductive activities. I just came back from a 40-day trip through Latin America, and that’s a place where you can really see it in the most intense form. I visited a number of what they call villa miserias. These are encampments that people displaced from rural areas have created, open territory in the periphery, and they’ve all been built by people’s hands. When I’m saying reproduction, for example, I’ve been in communities where now women are doing a lot of reconstruction of the day-to-day activities that are producing people’s lives, with the popular kitchen, collective kitchen, urban gardens. Also organizing network[s] of activities in a cooperative way. For example, I was in a place called Villa 21-24, in Buenos Aires, where, amazingly, women are organizing to take care of bringing the children to school, bringing them back to school, because they’re afraid they may be run over by a car. Where the state is totally absent, so they take care of the garbage, they take care of making sure people have some food if they’re extremely poor. So, there’s a whole network.

But how do we not all, Silvia, fall into the trap of having women do the same old traditional, low-paid, low-respected work?

Federici: You may say that. On the other hand, what is happening is it’s not an attempt to replace the state, but it’s a way of providing for the most immediate need in a cooperative way, but in the process, also something new is being created. New forms of solidarity are being created. New ways of imagining how reproduction could be organized. Because of the solidarity that is generated, women are also gaining the power to confront the state, to negotiate with a different level of power.

Linebaugh: The commons is not only a place of redistribution and resources, it’s also a place of resistance. This is the lesson of Standing Rock, in just thinking of North America. The kitchens in Standing Rock, the care of the children, the care of the elderly, those who provided clothes, those who enchanted the land with their notions of its sacredness and the purity of the water. The Water Protectors were led by women, young women. A new generation.

So there’s new leadership, and there’s perhaps new appreciation of certain kinds of work. Is there also a shift in our sites of struggle? A hundred years ago, 200 years ago, it was the factory floor, the physical production of stuff, was the place of struggle. Now, many of us work nowhere near a factory floor, and these issues of our lives seem to me increasingly the places of our struggle.

Federici: Absolutely, this is where in fact most of the feminists, particularly and more generally, women’s activity is now engaging. The reconstitution of the social fabric, with centering on the reorganization of reproduction, in a way that does not isolate us any longer.

Linebaugh: I was just thinking of Michelle Obama and her gardens. This is a signal. She’s responding to needs that are being felt all over the world. Water and food. And then housing. We have to find ways of working with one another, not to replace the state or instead of the state. The commons is neither the market nor the state. It’s a way of survival…

Because it requires us to talk to one another, among other things.

Linebaugh: Occupy did. Standing Rock does.

I’m also looking at what’s happening in Argentina, what’s happening in Brazil, what’s happening in [the U.S.], and we’re seeing the rejection of all things common. The increasing isolation and clinging to private industry, the begging of Amazon, “Please, please, please come, we’ll give you public money.” So, what’s happening here? Not everyone’s as impressed as we are, perhaps.

Federici: My view is that this is a move to the right, and it’s very much a response to the level [of] intensity of struggle that people are making. Again, when you look particularly in today’s South American continent, you’ll see there is almost no place where people are not fighting to defend what they have, to defend their territory, to defend their land. I think the move to the Bolsonaros, the Macris, are a response to that. And right now, you have a new women’s movement — a new, very powerful women’s movement — which is in the street, not only for the struggle over abortion, or against violence against women, but more and more moving around, mobilizing around, the broader program that connects violence against women to the politics of extractivism, to the destruction by mining companies of the land and the waters. And who sees very much the question of producing your commons, rebuilding the commons.

Linebaugh: You don’t need just to go to Latin America, though; here in New York, one thinks of the longhouse and the Haudenosaunee people as a source of inspiration. These are the people who built New York, after all, the Mohawk High Iron folks. But I was also thinking of the so-called birthplace of democracy, in Greece, and the Greek common. The Greek commoning has been on the forefront, the edge, of the massacres of our basis of reproduction of health, of education, of housing, with the neoliberal onslaught that paved the way for Trump, that paved the way for the rise of fascist creatures in the halls of power.

What would you say that we should keep our eyes on? What are you watching as you look at the landscape out there? For green shoots, for bright sparks, for commoning?

Linebaugh: There’s so many. The young people especially, that’s what I look to. And I see new attitudes, no longer formed by the Cold War, but formed by these experiences, which to you and me may seem new, but to them are natural. Again, Standing Rock, the Zapatistas — these are places where attempts have been made, and defeats have occurred, but with defeat the memory keepers keep it alive.

I’ll ask you the same question Silvia, but I will throw out the thought that I didn’t mention at the beginning, which is that we’ve just seen a midterm election, where it seemed to me ironic that you have kind of the bastion of capital, the U.S. electoral system, running its operations off a project of commoning, with people in the election campaigns that I saw all across this country working together, sharing resources, sharing lists, sharing information, giving car rides, helping people to the polls. It’s not your typical commoning project, but it is one-of-a-kind, isn’t it?

Federici: I think it’s an understanding. It’s the understanding I was referring to and Peter was referring to, that commoning is not only a reorganization of production, it’s also the building of a ground of resistance. Every struggle, every form of mobilization, requires its own forms of reproduction that sustains it, and the coming together of people, building new ties of solidarity, this is what allows — gives continuity — to a struggle. This is what allows it to really intensify.

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