Crises, Capital and Co-optation: Does Capital Need a Commons Fix?

Massimo De Angelis

Today economic crisis is a capitalist crisis of social stability, not a simple recession—that is, a crisis that requires a realignment of class/power relations and new systems of governance in order to re-establish growth and accumulation.1 The last two times in which a real change in capital’s governance occurred (in the post-World War II period with the embrace of “Keynesianism” and in the late 1970s with the shift to neoliberalism) followed periods of intense social struggles that helped social movements imagine alternative socio-economic arrangements. Capital, fearing that “ideas gripping the masses” might propel a radical transformation, was suddenly willing to shift its “governance” paradigm to accommodate some social demands while cutting deals with some segments of the movement and displacing the cost of doing the new paradigm onto other communities and environments across the globe. Pitting one sector of the social body against others has always been a strategy of capital development.2 But this time, things are getting a bit more complicated. My first thesis is that in facing this crisis of social stability, capital faces an impasse. By “impasse” I mean that vital support for the growth of the social system is no longer forthcoming in sufficient degree, especially from the environment in which the capitalist system operates.

Capital, understood as a social force organizing social cooperation for the purpose of accumulation, has a twofold environment. The first is constituted by social systems that reproduce the various facets of life in non-commodified ways. Access to money is, at most, only a means through which needs are satisfied and not an end in itself, as it is for capital. When the purchased commodities exit the market sphere and enter the spheres of social cooperation (households, associations, networks, etc.), they often enter the complex, culturally and politically diverse and variegated sphere of the commons. It is here that the cultural and physical reproduction of labor power, the value-creating commodity so critically important for capital, occurs – outside the control of capital but, of course, strictly coupled to it.

The other system that capital depends upon is the ecological systems upon which all life and social organization depends. The impasse that capital faces consists of the devastation of systems of social reproduction through reductions of wages and welfare over the past 30 years as work has become more atomized, flexible and precarious as well the increasing inability of natural ecosystems to support capital in its endless quest for greater resource extraction and cost-shifting externalities, such as the free use of the atmosphere as a waste dump.

In this sense, capitalism has reached an impasse, the overcoming of which, if done in its own terms, will produce a social and ecological apocalypse at worst, and an intensification of social conflict at best.

How can capital overcome this impasse? The difficulty lies in the fact that if the system has to survive it will have to continue to push for strategies of growth, i.e., accumulation. Capital’s systemic necessity for growth derives not only from its elemental need for accumulation through a cost-cutting and cost-externalizing process of competition. Growth is also necessary as a way to reconcile a profit-maximizing mode of production with hierarchical modes of distribution. If “all boats are lifted by a rising tide,” there will be less pressure to address inequality and redis­tribution called upon by struggles for social justice.

Yet today, all the strategies and fixes available for capital to pursue growth in the world system will only intensify the crisis of social and ecological reproduction, amplifying and widening the range of resistance even if there is no focal, program­matic point.3 Capital is therefore pressed to shift the mode of governance of social relations, or at least to fine-tune neoliberal governance in such a way to contain the costs associated with the crisis of social reproduction and limit public expenditures necessary to police and control the rebellions generated by the crisis. In either case, capital needs other systems and forms of sociability to fortify its agenda.

This leads me to my second thesis: to solve or at least to address this impasse, capital needs the commons, or at least specific, domesticated versions of them. It needs a commons fix. Since neoliberalism is not about to give up its management of the world, it will likely have to ask the commons to help manage the devastation. And if the commons are not there, capital will have to promote them somehow.

On the other hand, commons are also systems that could do the opposite: they could create a social basis for alternative ways of articulating social production, independent from capital and its prerogatives. Indeed, it is difficult today to conceive emancipation from capital–and achieving new solutions to the demand of buen vivir, social and ecological justice–without at the same time organizing on the terrain of commons, the non-commodified systems of social production. Commons are not just a “third way” beyond state and market failures; they are a vehicle for claiming ownership in the conditions needed for life and its reproduction. The demands for greater democracy since the 1970s, now exploding worldwide in the face of the social and economic crisis, are really grassroots democratic demands to control the means of social reproduction. Democratic freedoms imply personal investments and responsibilities, and commons are vehicles for negotiating these responsibilities and corresponding social relations and modes of production. That is what Peter Linebough calls “commoning.”

Hence, there is in fact a double impasse, for both capital and the social movements. Capital needs the commons to deal with the crisis as much as social movements need to confront capital’s enclosures of the commons in order to construct serious alternatives and prevent capital’s attempts to co-opt the commons. Hence, it is crucial not only to defend existing commons from enclosures, but also to shape new commons as they become a crucial terrain of struggle. This value struggle lies at the heart of the commons’ potential as a social system and force that might overcome the hegemony of capital. This struggle between the value-generating logic of the two systems has not been sufficiently addressed in commons literature.

Commons and capital as social systems

Commons operate within social spaces that are not occupied by capital, whether these spaces are outside or inside capital’s organizations. Thus we find commons in community organizations and associations, social centers, neighbor associations, indigenous practices, households, peer-to-peer networks in cyberspace, and in the reproduction of community activities that are organized within faith communities. We also find commons on the shop floor of factories and in the canteens of offices among co-workers supporting one another, sharing their lunch and developing forms of solidarity and mutual aid. We find commons and commoning in the “pores” of social labor that capital cannot control in spite of its always “revolutionary” management strategies.

These commons practices are possible to the degree they fill spaces not occupied by capitalist practices. For this reason, whenever the value-struggle between the two different ways of giving value to human activity reaches a structural limit – and there is no social space left for capital or the commons to develop without contesting the other – a frontline is established. Reaching this frontline is, from the situation of commons, the opportunity to mobilize against the capitalist logic, or to capitulate to it, depending upon a given situation of social powers.

The fact that a frontline is or can be reached between commons and capital is because commons are a special type of social system. Within its realm, there lies the possibility that its labor activity, organization and patterns of social relations will not succumb to external pressures, but instead organize its own reproduction autonomously, following criteria of equity and justice as defined by the commoners themselves. This possibility depends on the contingent power relations within the commons; on the power of networked commons; and on forces outside the commons, such as capital. The commons therefore represents a field of possibilities in the struggle against capital.

Of course, the capitalist organization of production seeks to limit these possibilities as much as possible, both at the level of a particular capitalist enterprise and at the level of their articulation through the market. For example, labor must succumb to the bottom line of capitalist development; it is profit–not the actual contributions of social labor to well-being or buen vivir–that defines whether the social labor mobilized in production and reproduction will be considered viable. This implies that struggles within capital for better conditions of work and life can bring about positive emancipatory change for some. However, to the extent these struggles are channeled into profit-seeking capitalist development, these changes also imply higher costs of social reproduction for capital and therefore the need to shift these costs onto other nodes of social production and on the environment, if capital as a system is to survive. The last wave of capitalist globalization is a vivid example of this dynamic.

Commons and capital

The relation between commons and capital is necessarily ambiguous, since their codependence and co-evolution makes it difficult to point out which of the two systems uses the other. This ambiguity can best be illustrated by looking at the paradigmatic role that the “village commons” has in relation to capital. In a classic study, the anthropologist Claude Meillassoux argued that the work of reproduction and subsistence going on in the village commons in South Africa (mostly carried out by women) allows male laborers to migrate and be available for employment for cash crop or other types of waged work. The work in the village commons reduced the cost of reproduction of these male workers since capitalists who hired them did not have to pay for the cost of their upbringing, or contribute to any social security in case of illness, unemployment or old age retirement (Meillassoux 1981). But Meillassoux also recognized the ambiguous character of the contemporary village commons. If the subsistence-producing commons is too “unproductive,” capital loses important aspects of the “free gift” of labor power, while if it is too “productive,” fewer workers would migrate out of the village commons, pushing wages up (Caffentzis 2004).

In other words, the relation between the commons and capital is a relation between two autopoietic social systems of production whose mutual interlocking and metabolic flows are regulated by the internal dynamic in each system.

This ambiguity at the heart of the relation between commons and capital means that questions of social power (understood as access to resources and the sense-orientation of the commoners vis-à-vis capital) can be pivotal. The social contingencies of this struggle means that questions of whether a commons can be co-opted cannot be addressed ideologically. The question of co-optation is a strategic field of possibilities, one that requires situated judgments based on context and scale. For example, many would argue that access by commons to markets to meet some of their needs is by definition evidence of their co-optation, while in fact it could be a contingent strategy of survival and a precondition for their reproduction.

One key variable in defining the outcome of this ambiguity is the wage rate, in both its “private” and social component. A lower wage rate reduces, among other things, the ability of people to spend time and pool social resources in the commons – to engage in commoning.

Some current examples of commons co-optation

The increasing dependence by capital on the commons does not curb its desire to enclose commons, however, as we see in the recent international land grabs now underway.4 Rather, it is likely that, in addition to enclosures, capital will also attempt to use commons to fix many social problems created by the crisis and co-opt the commons as a possible challenge to capital’s management. Enclosures and commons co-optation seem to be the two complementary coordinates of a new capitalist strategy.

This can be seen in the World Bank’s approach to development in the global South. For years it has emphasized the importance of some aspects of commons management, such as pooled resources, community participation, and “trust” as social capital, among others. Whereas communities may create credit associations to pool savingsand self-govern their distribution through “financial money commons” (Podlashuc 2009), development agencies rely on the same principles to tie communities to banks and microcredit institutions and so promote their dependence on global market circuits. In this fashion, bonds of solidarity and cooperation that are nurtured in commons are turned into mutual control and the threat of shame to serve market interests (Karim 2008).

In Britain, a coalition government of conservatives and liberal/democrats has overseeen massive cuts in public spending since 2010, and now are promoting a vision of “Big Society” that claims to support community empowerment to address social upheavals. The agenda of the neoliberal era is continuing apace, as if no crisis has happened, even as the ruling class clearly recognizes the social and environ­mental problems caused by this agenda. Unlike Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, who said that society “does not exist,” the conservative prime minister Cameron wants to turn it into a “Big Society” – continuing a strategy of community involve­ment already pursued by New Labour in the UK, as well as by governments in the US and Canada (De Filippis et al 2010). According to Cameron, governments needs to “open up public services to new providers like charities, social enterprises and private companies so we get more innovation, diversity and responsiveness to public need” and to “create communities with oomph.”

But this approach requires recognizing that resources are not simply financial, but that resources lie dormant in fragmented and atomized communities, and need to be activated through some form of commoning. People need to take matters into their own hands by, for example, connecting diabetes patients, the elderly or the marginalized youth into self-help groups.5There is of course nothing new about the idea of mobilizing communities to clean up their neighborhoods. But what seems to be emerging in discourses such as the “Big Society” is a commitment to a faster speed and scale of change, since, as is widely recognized, social innovation can take a long time to be adopted.

Another discourse pioneered by capital to use the commons to serve its interests is the idea of “sustainable communities,” a term used in urban planning and design circles when proposing new financial centers, shopping malls or mega-venues like the Olympics. The basic idea of “sustainable communities” is that they “can stand on their own feet and adapt to the changing demands of modern life” (Sustainable Communities 2003). In other words, they do not decline facing the ongoing transformations that the relentless, ever-changing g requirements of the global economy impose. But this idea – with its emphasis on education, training, environment, governance, participation, and, of course, sustainability – amounts to an oxymoronic utopia. It is a vision in which communities never seem to tire of playing competitive games with other communities somewhere else in the world in order to overcome the disruptions and inequalities of wealth and income inflicted by competitive markets. In this way “commoning” is annexed to a divisive, competitive process in order to keep the whole game going. This oxymoronic ontology of our condition seems to be the key to the reproduction of capital (De Angelis 2007b).

In all these cases, commoning is turned into something for a purpose outside the commons themseves. The purpose is not to provide alternatives to capital, but to make a particular node of capital – a region or a city – more competitive, while somehow addressing the problems of reproduction at the same time. But we must take heart in the fact that, in spite of capital’s strategies to use a commons fix to the problems it creates while never really solving them, commons may well be part of a different historical development.


Writing in prison at a time of the consolidation of fascism in Italy, Antonio Gramsci wrote in an often quoted passage: “The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth: now is the time of monsters” (Gramsci 1971). A monster is an imaginary or legendary creature that combines parts from various animal or human forms. Fascism and Nazism were one type of this monster. Stalinism was another. Today, the articulation between capital, a system that recognizes no limit in its boundless accumulation, and a system that must recognize limits because it is only from within limits that it can reproduce life, love, affects, care and sustainability, may well give way to another monstrous social construction...or not.

Much will depend on us. Whether the avenue ahead is one of commons co-optation or emancipation is not a given. It will depend on political processes that have yet to be developed. Although a critical analysis of capital is necessary, it is not sufficient. The “cell” form of the social force that is responsible for establishing and reproducing life (or alternatively, failing to sustain life, depending upon the power relations), and by this to abolish capital, we call today “the commons.” By cell form I mean the general social form upon which this movement can be generated, the sine qua non without which no weaving of cells into a new social fabric without oppression, exploitation and injustice is possible. The commons is the cell form within which social cooperation for life-reproduction generates powers-to – the onlybasis by which people can multiply their powers to the nth degree through networked commons that overcome the boundaries of locality and challenge the power-over the commons established by different forms by capital.

There are at least two things that need to be taken into consideration in order to develop powers-to as an effective force. First, we should not romanticize commons. Actual commons can be distorted, oppressive or emancipatory. When we enter the system-like loops of an established commons, we immediately notice what’s at odds with our best-held values, beliefs and cultural mores. Too often, however, we decide to judge the commons on the basis of the values they express in relation to ours. Some activists tend to build communities based on political affinity, other on the basis of religious faith.

In these identity-based commons, a clear boundary is established around the commons that prevent it from expanding unless the outside embraces the values of the inside. “Conversion” here is the main mechanism of commons development – a mechanism, however, inadequate from the perspective of the challenges of building an alternative to capital in the midst of an emergent crisis of social reproduction. I have run across radical social centers that refused to engage with the local community on the terrain of reproduction because the cultural marks of that community did not match with the principles of the activists. Thus, instead of triggering a process in which these cultural marks could be engaged on the terrain of practice, a clear identity boundary is embedded in the commons, thus ensuring its insularity and vulnerability. Identity politics here is a barrier to the development of new emancipatory identities through commoning.

Second, capital can be confronted only to the extent that commons of social reproduction, and of everyday life reproduction in particular (Federici 2011), are developed as key sources of powers-to. The social reproduction commons are those commons developed out of the needs of its participants to reproduce some basic aspects of their own lives: health, food, water, education, housing, care, energy. The development of these commons is strategically crucial in developing emancipatory and progressive alternatives. Such commons must address people’s basic needs and empower them to refuse the demands of capital by offering access to alternative means of life.


  • Caffentzis, G. 2004. “A Tale of Two Conferences. Globalization, the Crisis of Neoliberalism and Question of the Commons.” In The Commoner.
  • De Angelis, M. 2000. Keynesianism, Social Conflict and Political Economy. London. Macmillan.
  • —————. 2007a. The Beginning of History. Value Struggles and Global Capital. London. Pluto.
  • —————. 2007b. “Oxymoronic Creatures along the River Thames: Reflections on ‘Sustainable Communities,’ Neoliberal Governance and Capital’s Globalisation.” The Commoner. Other articles in commons,
  • De Filippis, J., Fisher, R., & Shragge, E. 2010. Contesting Communities. The Limits and Potential of Local Organizing. London. RutgerUniversity Press.
  • Federici, S. 2011. Feminism and the Politics of the Commons. The Commoner.
  • Gramsci, A. 1971. Selection from The Prison Notebooks. New York. International Publishers.
  • Harvey, D. 2007. The Limits to CapitalLondon. Verso.
  • Karim, L. 2008. “Demystifying Micro-Credit: The Grameen Bank, NGOs, and Neoliberalism in Bangladesh. Cultural Dynamics, (20)1: 5–29.
  • Meillassoux, C. 1981. Maidens, Meal and Money: Capitalism and the Domestic CommunityCambridge, UK. CambridgeUniversity Press.
  • Midnight Notes Collective and Friends. 2009. “From Crisis to Commons.”
  • Podlashuc, L. 2009. “Saving Women: Saving the Commons.” In Eco-Sufficiency and Global Justice, Ariel Salleh, ed.New York, London. Macmillan Palgrave.
  • “Sustainable Communities. Building for the Future.” 2003. Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, London. Available at http://www.communities.
  • 1. For a discussion of crisis of social stability as opposed to other forms of crisis, see De Angelis, 2007a.
  • 2. For a historical and theoretical discussion of how Keynesianism was founded on particular deals with sections of the working class, see De Angelis, 2000. For a theoretical discussion of the relation between capitalist development and social stratification, see the interventions in The Commoner, No. 12, Spring/Summer 2007. For a discussion of the current crisis along the lines proposed here, see Midnight Notes and Friends, 2009.
  • 3. David Harvey (2007) uses the term “fix” to discuss different capitalist strategies to deal with crises.
  • 4. See Liz Alden Wily’s essay in Part 2.
  • 5. In the UK, this type of approach taps into the work of social entrepreneurs such as Hilary Cottam and Charles Leadbeater of