Commons as anti-neoliberal projects? Tracking a non-capitalist way of living.

The dissemination of neoliberal rationality across the world has resulted in a homogenous society manifesting the archaic economic archetype; homo economicus. Commons and commoning are contrary to this inclusive logic. Commons have been around for centuries providing subsistence to commoners through value practices. There still exist pre-capitalist commons providing subsistence to an estimated two billion people around the world. For the purposes of our discussion, I focus on commons as systems of social formation that transcend neoliberal mentality, in the hope to create an emerging society of equals.

What is Neo-liberalism? 

‘Neoliberalism increasingly appears as an omnipresent and often omnipotent phenomenon, a presumed force or zeitgeist, which potentially envelops everything’. This effectual stretching, gives neoliberalism a ‘troubled’ analytical status’. To unpick neoliberalism’s deleterious ways, one must look to the logic behind this normative system.

The logic is fuelled by a common belief amongst neoliberals, in the power of the ‘self-regulating’ free market; the ideal weapon in allocating resources amongst the state. Neoliberal theory turned itself into a reality and touched the world in a personal way in the 1980s, when its three manifestations: privatisation, deregulation, and liberalisation became the economic and political agenda for the next century. Turning the abstract, ‘ism’ into a reality would not have been possible without strong government action, however.


It has been part of the genius of neoliberal personality to validate government regulation, exorbitant public spending, and high tariff barriers to international trade; the exposition behind high inflation and meagre economic growth in the 1970s.

Such accepted truths ‘provide a benevolent mask full of wonderful-sounding words like freedom, liberty, choice, and rights, to hide the grim realities’ of capitalism. Anti-neoliberalism seeks to unmask these truths through the creation of another type of reality, the commons, that is not only a theoretically counter, but it is an everyday life counter.

Through this new counter-personality (the commons), we see the discrediation of the Scottish Enlightenment image of Homo-economicus (the view that people are isolated individuals whose actions reflect mostly their material self-interests). It is particularly through our discussion of what a commons project means, to be truly anti-neoliberal, that we uncover the extent to which the recuperation of the commons can replace neoliberal order and abolish capitalism.

What are the Commons? 

Aristotle’s common constitutes part of the matrix of my own conception of the common; ‘sharing in practice’ being the precondition for every common. Thus the commons are animated by an antagonist logic to the market whose ‘emphasis [is] on absolute individual rights, impersonal exchange, short-term profit, and constant economic growth’.

Yet this formulation does not tell us ‘anything about how we produce and reproduce what needs to be shared in different contexts’. Massimo De Angelis poses a response to these questions with the conceptualisation of the commons as social systems. Angleis, Federici and Caffentzis stipulate that the commons as social systems ‘comprise of two sets of elements: ‘first the material and immaterial elements that constitute commons-wealth, what is shared; and second, the social relations among the people within these commons communities, the rules and norms, both formal and informal, they use to coordinate their actions and social relations’.

Situating the commons in a framework of social systems allows us to understand the internal dynamics of the commons; ‘autopoiesis’, the fact coupled together, the elements are reproduced through the activity of commoning (to be defined in this discourse).

Within this reproductive process of commoning, it would not be a ‘stretch to conjecture that through a commons, we can find the means to reinvigorate vibrant functional social ethics – something that the nation-state and market culture have been singularly unable to achieve’. The social formation of the commons are thus antithetical to the logic and pernicious effects of neoliberalism.

Theorizing the Commons as anti-neoliberal projects? 


Commons are truly anti-neoliberal in nature when they question the ‘very core of the logic of capital’ and ‘push for the abolition of the property form itself’ defining an anti-capitalist future. Caffentizis, Federici and De Angelis offer us a strategic bearing anti-capitalist and beyond capitalist commons.

The commons relationship vis a vis its own environment, specifically vis a vis state and capital, is rooted in a class struggle. Such a relationship is to be directed through resistance because we are living in a world where commons are subject to sustained attacks. A constituent ingredient of capitalism’s machinations is that workers have no access to the means of production and subsistence.

A reversal of that logic precipitates capitalism’s end; if you have access to the means of production and subsistence, one will not need to have to sell their labour. Whether a particular commons increases the power of workers to resist capital captures the extent of the existence or annihilation of a common property regime, and thus the extent to which a commons project is truly anti-neoliberal.

Commons as anti-neoliberal projects in practice

‘There is no commons without commoning’ – a powerful explication by Peter Linebaugh.

Viewing the commons through a practical lense shows the commons at work ‘across a range of contemporary political movements’ and ‘struggles’ that are opposing the hegemony of neoliberalism.

1. Globalisation Movement

Caffentizis locates the origins of the alter-globalisation movement in the protest against the Structural Adjustment Programmes in the 1980s and 90s. He notes how this intersubjectivity united people across the globe to identify commonality in their struggles.

This intersubjectivity was manifested at the World Social Forum in Brazil, where the activists produced an anti-neoliberal Charter of Principles anchored in the belief that ‘another world was possible’. ‘The emergent alter-globalization movement testified to the energies of a re-constructed and global anti-capitalist movement made up of ecological activism, traditional social movements, and a range of more specific grievances prompted by neoliberal policies’.

According to Noami Klein, these struggles contain a shared ‘spirit’ needed to ‘reclaim the commons’. What is especially attractive about Klein’s interpretation of the alter-globalization movement is that it is a veritable fusion of struggles premised on the notion of ‘a form of social organization based on principles of solidarity, sharing, and respect for the environment and biodiversity’.

The alter-globalisation movement does not constitute a truly anti-neoliberal commons project, however. We do distil from this activism ‘the essence of a broad based oppositional programme’. Yet as postulated by Harvey, the movement is made of ‘some who seek to de-link wholly or partially from the overwhelming power of neoliberal globalisation’.

The alter-globalization movement is not a project wholly focused towards the creation of new anti-capitalist commons. Yet, there is a strength within the alter-globalisation movement that must be appreciated. The movement is creating a space for the development of anti-capitalist commons by illuminating the commons invisibility; calling upon us to see the ‘multiplicity of rural and urban struggles against the state and against the capital’.

2. Zapatista Movement

commonsThe Zapatista movement can be described as a ‘social movement dedicated to tearing down the fences established by the neoliberal order and reclaiming the commons in an egalitarian manner’.

The creation of the Zapatista commons was a process of social formation preoccupied with procedures for conducting discussion and decision making. Through the creation of commons, they articulate alternative social relations in moral economy terms.

From the Zapatista’s point of view, their conception of the common is totally antithetical towards the notion that society can be made up of three sectors that can ‘cohabit and cooperate with each other, commons, state and capitalist sector’.

The Zapatistas are the apotheosis of the anti-capitalist commons project, building a commons project of resistance and ‘liberation from the categories imposed on them during 500 years of colonialism’. They have created another type of reality, that is an everyday life counter to the hegemonic logic of neoliberalism.

3. Reproductive Commoning

Silvia Federici, ‘locates reproduction as the strategic site from which to build and sustain power’. This strategic bearing feminist politics is developed through the creation of new emancipatory commons that are a product of women’s reproduction struggles around the world.

The endogenous social systems of reproduction commoning are social processes through which collective interest and solidarity is or are created. The exogenous element of the strategy of reproductive commoning ‘delinks reproduction from capital’s measures of things, from its values, from its line of command’.

Reproductive commoning is antithetical to ‘profit maximisation and cost externalisation’. Federici identifies that capital’s organisation has alienated reproductive work particularly in the USA. She states, ‘communities are serialised’ and there are ‘separate households’. Such isolation makes reproductive commoning, ‘the first line of resistance against a life of enslavement’.

Federici evidences networks that mobilise these collective energies; communal gardens in urban spaces, ‘communal clinics, creches and kitchens’ (as in numerous parts of Latin America and Argentina) and ‘movements that reclaim houses from foreclosing banks (as in Barcelona)’.

These women have created new autonomous relationships of reproduction. Federici points to a particular slum in Argentina; where there seems to be ‘the most utopian’ model of reproductive commons. Such projects show the current and potential forms of building reproduction that exist outside of the state and capital. State and capital is slowly being confronted with an independence from wage labour.

Such confrontation prompts ‘a profound transformation in our everyday life, in order to recombine what social division of labor in capitalism has separated’. Here lies the production and capacity of reproductive commoning to produce truly anti-capitalist commons that are tasked with ‘preventing capital from capturing their wealth’. ‘Silva provides us with a political ground on which to base our strategies of emancipation from capital’.

3.1 Water War

Marcela Olivera and Alexander Dwinell locate the strength of the rejection of the privatisation of water in Cochabamba, (Bolivia in 2000) in women. Such a perspective is not common in the discussion of the Water War where ‘people project a state-centered view in which the Water War is described as a struggle for citizen rights, where people took to the streets to demand the right to water’.

However, according to Olivera and Dwinell, ‘this is not how it felt on the ground’. Illuminating the struggle of women makes visible neoliberalism’s pernicious ways, while simultaneously exemplifying how reproductive commoning is ‘ongoing and everyday work needed to reproduce a shared social sphere’ that is truly anti-capitalist/anti-neoliberal in nature.

Betchel privatising the water’s region, confronted social reproductive labour that had developed in women’s use of water. ‘We see how women previously had been able to use water domestically to grow food in small garden plots to feed their family and neighbours; in food preparation; in cleaning; and in other ways that maintained the household and allowed for social reproduction’.

The commodification of water offered a possibility for the power of commoning; injecting a new life into reproductive commoning. It was the resistance against privatisation, ‘that spurred many women, who in turn inspired their partners to resist privatisation’.  It is important to note that women make up more than fifty per cent of the population in Cochabamba.

In accessing existing support networks and mobilising as a collective force, women were central to the struggle against privatising water in the region, as a result of their ‘central relationship to water and their role in the reproduction of daily life’. Neoliberalism thus provides grounds for reproductive commoning to grow. Without the creation of a shared social sphere, there is no way of exiting neoliberalism.

Reproductive commoning in the form of truly anti-capitalist commons offers us hope.

4. Commoning in Greece

Greece is a key victim of neoliberalism’s nocuous ways; suffering from ‘austerity politics, aggressive ways of privatization, and growing poverty and joblessness’. The state’s withdrawal of guarantees of survival, precipitated ‘organized networks of sharing and exchange economies’.

4.1 Commoning in the Realm of Health

It is important to look to the fragile experiences of commoning to make visible existing and current forms of social relations that are contrary to the egotism of capitalism.

Reduced public funding in the health system in Greece, coupled with high rates of unemployment, meant people could not afford to pay their contribution to social security funds, resulting in a collapse of the welfare-state system. ‘People have to use public hospitals that are in really bad condition and not as well equipped as they should be because of severe austerity cuts.

There are fewer and fewer who can go to private clinics. So lots of people are being excluded from important health services and support’. This isolation has created ‘self- managed health medical centers’ where volunteer doctors and nurses self-organise to provide health services.

These networks are processes of social formation; they are recuperation of the commons as a result of the destruction by neoliberalism. Within these processes of social formation, the sharing of power takes place. Stravros Stavrides clarifies this sharing of power as opposed to the state like forms of organising societies. He postulates that ‘no matter how willing the doctors in existing hospitals are, there is a hierarchy, a protocol, etcetera.

So to know that the doctor in front of you is a volunteer and that he works for you is an experience of potentiality: the dominant geometry of power relations in the health service market is in practice challenged’. This is a willing commoning initiative in the realm of health; in the form of organised action of collaboration and sharing against austerity politics.

Some of these networks constitute truly anti-neoliberal commons projects developed in fierce opposition to the state and capital.

4.2 The Syntagma Square Occupation

The Syntagma Square occupation can be considered a form of public space commoning. This emancipating form of commoning wascommons constructed in the coming together, in the physical taking over of Athens central square in response to neoliberalism’s takeover of Greece.

Such a struggle connects to the aforementioned alter-globalisation movement, and the poignant proverb coined by Klein of ‘reclaiming the commons’. What started as a protest, developed into forms of democracy through political assemblies constituting ‘a rich set of practices of self-management and sharing’.

It is through the translation of these struggles into grassroot movements that produces ‘real community and thus real social and political strength’. Such strength produced a rupture challenging existing social formations, illuminating that commoning initiatives have emancipatory potential. Whilst the Syntagma Occupation stood, it reflected a truly anti-neoliberal/anti-capitalist commons.

Concluding remarks 

Examples of truly anti-capitalist commons in which ‘important ruptures in existing forms of social organization have taken place’ are limited. The ‘closest’ example of a ‘future society’ of a truly anti-capitalist common as located in the theory of Caffentizis, Federici and De Angelis, is the Zapatistas.

Nevertheless, the practices examined sustain the potential of scalability; ‘when commoning of this form manages to spread and support various actions inside capitalist societies, then I think commoning will really develop toward an emancipating social organization’. It is important to note that there exist many commoning initiatives around the world.

These particular examples were selected for their ability to convey that ‘different commons have different ways they create space for themselves. Some of them are through invisibility [i.e., reproductive commoning evident in the Water War and commoning in the realm of health in Greece] and the other side has been able to expand for example the Zapatistas’.  All commoning initiatives described ‘expand the cracks of the current capitalist crisis’.