I’ve wondered about this before. Last time Eli suggested I look at this book. I know the writer and I’m not into the book so I’m trying to be circumspect (is that the word?).

I read the book. I’m not any clearer on what ‘the common’ is. Here’s what I think is going on. The book quotes Deleuze and Guattari’s book What is Philosophy?, saying “concepts are connected to problems without which they have no meaning” (p7 in the book), which is I think not strictly true but still useful for thinking about the common here. Basically what I don’t get is what the problem is with the common (pardon the pun). That is, I don’t see what the problem is that this concept (alleged concept!) is supposedly connected to. That’s fine, different folk have different problems and by all means I certainly want people to find what they need for the problems they have. But I don’t think I have any problem(s) that ‘the common’ speaks to, and I don’t understand what other people’s problems are, that they need ‘the common.’ (Ha! I slay me!) But again, you know, if folks think they need it then that’s their business. Jokes aside, I would like to know what the problem is or problems are that ‘the common’ speaks to.

Here are two guesses.

1. Talk of ‘the common’ speaks to a need to have some evidence that … stuff … is, like, possible. Good stuff I mean. Like struggles and people running our own lives. That kind of stuff.

2. Talk of ‘the common’ speaks to an interest in being awed by the fact of the possibility of the aforementioned stuff. This is tied to the philosophical register that the discussion of ‘the common’ in the book and related books takes place in. It’s like … did you ever have an experience like this…? You’re a teenager and you’re at a social event outdoors involving a bonfire and you’re laying on your back next to someone you care a lot about and the stars are out and they’re just so pretty and you start to think about how pretty they are and how far away they are and how you heard that its takes years and years for the light of those stars to reach the earth and you’re there right then when that light hits your eyes and it’s like “fuckin’ A, that’s amazing.”

Or it’s like in this Streets song, “On the Edge of Cliff,” which goes “For billions of years, since the outset of time, every single one of your ancestors survived, every single person on your mum’s and dad’s side, successfully looked after and passed onto you life. What are the chances of that like?” Again, fuckin’ A, that’s amazing. That may be a need this stuff fills, a need to appreciate deeply.

With regard to 1, that’s important. But to me it’s self-evident. It’s also not a recommendation of this sort of talk as a way to get to that evidence. Another way to get to that kind of evidence is to hear a bit about actual stuff – because actual stuff is always possible (by which I mean, anything that actually is must also be possible, logically speaking – there are no actually existing things which are impossible). So if one needs affirmation of the potential for important social change then one way to get it may be to read this book reflecting on the meaning of potentiality as a philosophical category. Another may be to read a bit about workers’ struggles and other struggles (or otherwise experience them in ways aside from reading, ideally by participating.)

With regard to 2, I’m not being flippant though I probably sound like it. Option2 is also important. I think there’s a degree to which this satisfaction in saying and desire to say “fuckin’ A, that’s amazing” is one of the main impulses that propels people into philosophy (and art and religion). I’m all for that. I think this essay “Logic and Conversation” by Grice can provide a similar sensation, it’s like wow conversations are really complicated and people have conversations all the time without having an analytical grasp of all this stuff, people are doing this amazing complex thing without even really knowing it (it can be similarly mind blowing to think about your autonomic nervous system or to think about the physiology involved in playing sports – holy shit it must take a lot of electrical and chemical stuff happening like all at once, plus a ton of different physical movements, when someone catches a ball). So I’m into that sensation. It’s pretty awesome (fuckin’ A, isn’t it amazing how satisfying it is to be all like “fuckin’ A, that’s amazing?”). What that sensation is not, however is an analysis. It’s an aesthetic or even spiritual appreciation. It may have uses but one of them is not to provide a useful guide to action (perhaps for some people it can feed motivations to act, maybe, I dunno).


Here’s a quote from the book. Negri says “it’s fine to flirt and play around with Leninism a little bit once in a while! It’s fine to say that we need to go and take a dip in Leninism so as to reinvigorate our sense of insurrection and sabotage, so as to give their due to the small groups that march united and rebuild the world one small thing at a time, etc. But all of these are elements that specifically concern militancy rather than the ontology of liberation.” (165.)

I think militancy is the really important stuff, politically. I don’t mean just being intense, being effective is even more important. (One person shouting at an army recruiter may be thought of as militant in a way that 20 people leafletting quietly is not. If the shouter goes to jail with no impact on recruitment while the 20 leafletters actually hamper recruitment then the leafletters are the ones with the right idea. The degree to which the lone shouter appears ‘more militant’ is the degree to which one has a bad idea of militancy.) Beyond the utility of the options I suggested above (1 and 2) in militancy, which I can imagine but which isn’t guaranteed, and beyond those options as ends in themselves (which I respect quite a bit but which is no recommendation to people who don’t already agree, since an end in itself is something someone takes as an end in itself, something anyone can do with anything), I don’t see any point to ‘the ontology of liberation.’

And now I need to talk my dog and go to bed. I haven’t actually gotten to the common. I’ll have to come back to that later. In a nutshell, I think the concept has no temporal specificity at all as presented in the book. That’s not a bad thing per se, I think that it applies to all movements as such could be a strength. But it does mean that I find no real link between talk of ‘the common’ and the periodization in terms of real subsumption that Negri et al hang on to. (I mean, there’s *some* link, because “the common” applies anywhere anytime, but there’s not the sort of special link between the common and the present that these folk posit.)


Note to self, not really returning to the subject at hand yet. Personally, what I prefer as way to get that sense of possibility I mentioned in 1 is to read stuff that provides a bit more of practical knowhow, or at least a more easily imaginable sense of people actually doing some of this sort of stuff. Like the workplace activities described in different documents here and here.

Additional thought, fumbling toward another objection: I prefer the stuff on ‘the commons’ (and enclosure) to stuff on ‘the common’, it’s more historical and so on. Even with that though, in context, I think much of this amounts to mutualism (on which the wikipedia entry is good and has more links to follow up; I sometimes use the term cooperativism interchangeably with mutualism, I’m not sure if that’s accurate or no… on cooperativism see another wikipedia entry and this thing). This has been one of my complaints re: edufactory. This is not to say mutualism is a bad idea (though I’m not keen on it), but rather that this should be addressed and debated directly in comparison to other options (which reminds me, I want to re-read Engels on utopian socialism), preferably in a way that’s informed by various attempts or types of approaches over the many years of radical and working class movements, and preferably with attention to matters of organization.

I was about to get in the bath (cuz damn I like to read in the tub) and all this rushed into my head. Let me try to put it down into words.

To sum up my previous complaints with this stuff…
1. There’s a claim that objective conditions are different in some really dramatic way. That claim is false. What’s more, it misunderstands objective conditions in the past. (I’ve said all this before at tedious length; none of this means that I think nothing has changed, I just disagree with the particular claims about changes made by Negri et al.)

2. There’s a claim about subjective novelty in the present – new potentials and so on as well as an outmodedness of older political approaches – because of the objective stuff. This relies on a bad concept of the relationship between objective and subjective, technical composition and political composition. That is, even if the objective conditions were as described, they would not entail what they’re said to entail. (So, I think there’s a factually inaccurate claim plus an inference made which would not be valid even if the factual claim was accurate.)

3. The somewhat more recent complaint for me, that the political content of this stuff as it actually plays out is akin to older political ideas including mutualism.

Okay so here’s what struck me. Re: #3, I think this stuff dresses an older politics up in a new vocabulary. I have no problem with that, I think this could be really cool actually. What I object to is the sense of unprecedentedness and the lack of historical awareness.

Furthermore, there’s a way that folk use the claims (in #1 and to a lesser degree #2 and the faux unprecedentedness of their politics without history) to say that other ideas are old hat and outmoded. This is particularly annoying because, as I just said, what I think they actually do without admitting it, is suggest forms of political practice which are no more novel than any of the alternative. They just consider those ideas in a new light. Which, as I said, could be great if they’d admit that. If they did, they would then have to admit that it is also possible to consider other political approaches with in a new light as well.

All of which is to say, the profound sounding philosophical stuff, the talk that helps produce the “fuckin’ a, that’s awesome” feeling, could also be applied to other political approaches – like the syndicalism I’m a fan of – and what’s more, I’m not convinced that the political approaches that these folk put forward are actually *derived* from the theoretical stuff that these folk talk about. Maybe the theory is how they arrived at the political content, but that theory does not have to amount to that political content. The theory functions as cover for the politics, it doesn’t determine (or at most, it underdetermines) the practice.

(Note to self, compare w/ law as written vs law as actually practiced. Next step: show how other political approaches could be described with this framework.)