Capitalism devours the Commons

SUBHEAD: Capitalism accumulates profit by feeding off the common, and can be cut from its life-source in the interest of the common-good.

By Andrea Brower on 11 March 2014 in Resilience -

Image above: Aerial view of the Fenway Victory Garden, a commons in the heart of Boston. Photo by Frank Siteman, 2008. From (

What are we to make of Monsanto’s sponsoring of organic school gardens? Of local food bike tours made possible by Pepsi? Of unprecedented land grabs, global hunger and corporate consolidation everywhere in the food chain ‘co-existing’ (a favoured word of the GMO industry) perfectly fine alongside a supposedly thriving alternative food movement?

Though food activism in wealthy countries is becoming more widespread – witnessed by a resurgence of home and community gardening, a proliferation of schemes linking consumers with local farmers, organics rising to the fastest growing food sector in the world, and a flood of films and books alerting the public to Food Matters – the global capitalist food system appears unthreatened in its capacities to enclose, appropriate, exploit and accumulate.

Much mainstream food activism reproduces the capitalist logics that sustain the very system wreaking the devastation it opposes. Most notably, the idea of ‘voting with your fork’ has become the primary common-sense action of the movement.

After 90 minutes of critique of corporate control, subsidy policy, marketing deception, exploitation of workers, environmental pollution and threats to democracy, the popular documentary Food Inc. leaves us with predictable recommendations about what to buy, assuming without question that our buying will force the industry to behave more responsibly.

In general, the food movement reproduces the neoliberal narrative that turning human fate over to the mechanical and objective market is the most effective and efficient way to realise human potential. Individuals are encouraged to modify their lifestyles and perhaps, if they are really dutiful, to press leaders (read politicians and entrepreneurs) to lead.

Saving the world from the environmental and social catastrophes of the food system is believed to hinge upon individual preferences best expressed through the market.

Is this really the best that we can do? How is it that collective political struggle for structural change is aberrant in a movement that seeks justice, sustainability and democracy in the food system? The choices of food activism are situated in a broader context of severely limited imaginations of the possible. Similar to much other progressive activism today, it is believed that the most we can aspire towards is a greener or more ethical version of consumer capitalism, what Slavoj Žižek has called ‘capitalism with a human face’.

Capitalism itself has become a given, a non-ideological truism to which there is no alternative. When considering options for social change, there is a coding of the possible and impossible, where what is typically disavowed are the very structures that create that which is being challenged in the first place.

This devastation of the imagination underlies the greatest threats we face today, from climate change to militarisation. A world that manufactures extreme deprivation amongst abundance is made and re-made by our lack of belief that we are capable of something better.

As Chan and Sharma brilliantly observe of their experimental guerrilla planting on public lands, ‘the enclosure of common lands has been accompanied by the enclosure of our imaginations’ (184). It is ordinary to accept apocalypse and more ‘realistic’ to believe in our ability to commit collective suicide than our ability to build systems based on sharing, equality and sustainability.

A most important task, for food movements and all who are committed to a more just future, is the expansion of our imaginations of what is possible. This is not to suggest that we must dream up utopian visions that are not grounded in the material conditions of the present, or to lay out templates to be followed at some unspecified time in the future. Instead, we need to start paying more attention to what is already going on all around us, all the time, and use what we already have to change the social logic in ways that open the possibility of new possibilities.

David Graeber has argued that the very condition of possibility in human society is a ‘baseline communism’, or a giving according to abilities and receiving according to needs. Graeber theorises that in all societies, including in advanced capitalism, if people have any kind of amiable relations, there is an assumption that if the need is great enough or the cost small enough, communistic principles apply.

In other words, the most fundamental aspects of sociality are based in ethics that are the very antithesis of capitalist apologias of self-interest, greed and competitiveness.

Liberatory visions spring from recognizing cooperative dependencies and their boundless potentials. By acknowledging our human impulses towards mutual-aid and sharing, we might ‘intensify them, by making them more interesting, more compelling, more seductive, more of a lure for feeling or action’ (De Acosta 27).

Locating possibility in what exists, but is perhaps denied, negated or invisibilised by the dominant order of things, how might we affirm and amplify commons possibilities immanent in food activism? While much mainstream food activism produces and reproduces neoliberalism’s common-sense that there is no alternative, the movement is also largely underpinned by liberatory visions that refuse those logics that make capitalism the only thinkable possibility. In response to capitalist processes of separation, fragmentation and de-linking, food movements are working to build connections between people and planet.

An emphasis on knowing where food comes from, including the resources and people involved in production, expresses an aspiration to de-fetishise commodity production. A rejection of the industrial food system expresses a desire to escape global chains of capitalist exploitation – an aspiration for a food system that is about meeting human needs rather than about the accumulation of profit.

In striving to get beyond the ‘profit motive’ and ‘drop-out’ of a ‘broken’ system (words frequently invoked by food activists), people are attempting to claim modes of agency that capitalism works to do away with.

Sometimes initiatives are as basic as growing a sweet potato rather than purchasing imported pasta, while other times they are as ambitious as attempting to build systems of production and exchange that are also structurally accountable to logics that may not be fully alternative to capitalism’s but also include people and land. There is an emphasis on valuing ways of being that run counter to neoliberalism’s configuring of the human being as homo economicus.

This includes an ethic of care for the earth and each other that goes beyond personal gain, attention to slowing down on the treadmill of consumption, and a regard for food in terms of sacredness and nourishment rather than simple commodity.

We might locate in some of these ambitions space for reclaiming and widening imagination of the possible. Spaces for seeding dreams and allowing them to ‘percolate and mature, in common’ (Goldstein 33); for dream-making that unveils new horizons.

This is not to be overly-romantic about desire as resistance, but to emphasise the ‘clearings, fissures, openings’ that are made when worlds that do not fit within the current one are imagined (Latimer and Skeggs 407). There is potential for collective recognition of values, desires and already present practices that are oppositional to capitalist logics – a recognition that itself ruptures the ideological veil of capitalism, revealing there is no alternative to be inconsistent and untenable.

Rupturing the facade of a system that privatises everything for the profit and power of the few is about amplifying and expanding, scaling up and out, the alternatively commons possibilities that are already being enacted in the present.

Just a few food-related examples include: indigenous epistemologies and modes of organisation, workers cooperatives, public distribution systems that affirm food as a fundamental human right, radical land reform and communal land models, open source principles and technologies applied to food, community food sharing ranging from public food orchards to Food Not Bombs, public seed-bank initiatives, and food sovereignty practices and discourses.

 Examples of what we are capable of abound in past and present practices and institutions, as well as ordinary interactions and values, and recognising these is critical to inspiring ‘at the root’ change.

There are choices to be made by those who are concerned with the possibility of a more just and sustainable food future. More capitalism will not create lasting and large-scale commons possibilities. The history of capitalism itself is the history of enclosure of the commons – the right and ability to exclude are the foundations of capital accumulation, and capital relies on its capacity to exclude from ever-new domains, be they air and water or ideas and images.

Capitalism accumulates profit by feeding off the common, and can be cut from its life-source in the interest of the common-good. Truly alternative food system(s) for all will only be made by (re)claiming the common, ‘the shared substance of our social being’ (Žižek 213), from that which would expropriate it.

This does not mean waiting for capitalism to be entirely disappeared and replaced, but struggling against its processes and logics while struggling for institutions and logics that take us in the direction of cooperation, sharing, equality, openness, participation, democracy – in the direction of the common.

Possibilities that capital negates – of, for the common – exist all around us, and by exposing and energizing these we might reclaim the collective imagination of the world we are capable of.

Chan, G. and Sharma, N. ‘Eating in public’. Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations // Collective Theorization. Eds. D. Graeber and S. Shukaitis. Oakland: AK Press, 2007. 180-188.
De Acosta, A. ‘Two undecidable questions for thinking in which anything goes’. Contemporary Anarchist Studies. Eds. R. Amster, A. DeLeon., L. Fernandez, A. Nocella and D. Shannon. New York: Routledge, 2009. 26-34.  
Goldstein, J. ‘Appropriate technocracies? Green capitalist discourses and post capitalist desires’. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 24.1 (2013): 26-34.  
Graeber, D. ‘Capitalism is just a really bad way of organizing communism’. Conversation with Neal Rockwell. Palimpsest, 2011.  
Latimer, J. & Skeggs, B. ‘The politics of imagination: keeping open and critical’. Sociological Review, 59.3 (2011): 393-410.
Žižek, S. ‘How to Begin from the Beginning’. The Idea of Communism. Eds. C. Douzinas and S. Zizek. London: Verso, 2010. 209-227.


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