Subsistence: Perspective for a Society Based on Commons

Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen

Subsistence is the sum total of everything that humans need to survive: food and drink, protection from cold and heat, caring and company. If subsistence needs are met, life can continue (Mies/Bennholdt-Thomsen 1999). Many aspects of subsistence – goods and activities – have been transformed into commodities, but by far not all of them. After all, not only children, but adults as well cannot exist without being directly nourished and cared for, without being attended to and given gifts. Certain vital elements of subsistence, the ones that signify humanity, so to speak, cannot practically be commercialized. Accordingly, subsistence is defined as the realm of life beyond payment in a society otherwise permeated by the market.1 Subsistence still belongs to modern human beings’ everyday life experience, even if the globalization of markets has driven this fact from people’s awareness. That applies to the commons, too, on which our society again still rests.

Neither subsistence nor commons are vestiges of bygone centuries; on the contrary, they continue to fulfill necessary functions and embody perspectives that point to the future. Yet the opposite view is propagated. The privatization (of land, water and other things) and the commercialization of commons (for example, air or genes), which restricts access or even eliminates them for many people, are actually considered serious solutions for global problems such as hunger and climate change. “To draw farmers from subsistence to commercial agriculture” has been the declared policy of the World Bank since the mid-1970s.

According to the World Trade Organization (WTO), the overall goal of globalized development policy lies in integrating as many areas relevant for daily existence as possible into the monetary and commodity-based economy. One example of this is the internationally promoted expansion of microcredit. The more needs are dealt with via money, the better and more developed a society supposedly is. The profound crisis of the growth-based economy, of which the ecological crises are a part, raises substantial doubts about this view.

What is taken for granted

Over the course of modernity, commons as societal institutions (Ostrom/Helfrich 2011) have increasingly been reified to being considered merely material objects. This is nothing less than a fundamentalist reinterpretation of the commons influenced by neoliberal thought. No longer do people perceive the purpose or the meaning of socially binding arrangements when it comes to commons; they mostly see only the object itself to which a societal convention refers. And where the material reality of the phenomena in question is immaterial and volatile – for example, the air or the knowledge about a plant’s healing properties – they are reified by privatizing them and assigning them a monetary value – through the establishment of carbon emissions trading rights, for instance, or through the patenting of knowledge according to the WTO’s regime for intellectual property rights.

Commons, however, reflect people’s understanding of the elemental conditions of nature and human life, not as tradeable commodities. They reflect a set of values and a worldview that is increasingly becoming lost in modernity. In light of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, it is becoming apparent where our arrogance in relation to the living environment has taken us. We act as if it were possible to technically produce and scientifically control nature in its entirety.

This “modern” mentality originated in the 19th century. But it is now considered obsolete, and not just in physics. Just as particles are not simply isolated bits of matter in quantum physics, commons are far more than the material of which they consist, and far more than the monetary value with which people attempt to capture their nature. They are part of a web of relationships, both concrete matter and a process in motion, all in one. But this understanding begins with the fact that they exist, just as we are given life, today just as hundreds of years ago.

In Latin, subsistere means “to endure in and of itself.” Subsistence is what is necessary for survival and what belongs to every life, as unquestioned as the air we need for breathing. In addition to food and other necessities of life, the concept also includes the process of reproduction, which takes place anew every day, and this process too is by its very existence self-understood. Even the early working class in England shared the worldview of the “moral economy.” That is the term which E.P. Thompson uses to describe the societal convention handed down over millennia by which it is never called into question that all human beings are to be provided with the conditions necessary for their lives to continue. It would be misleading to say that they have a “right” to these conditions, as this would imply the acceptance of a previous limitation.

Conceptualizing economic activity through the lens of subsistence – in other words, perceiving the subsistence perspective of economic activity – means to acknowledge that human life is part of natural processes.

The individual level and the societal level

The people in a society founded upon commons orient themselves toward what is necessary for a good life, and not toward using more and more consumer goods. They individually feel responsibility for what is common to all. Consumerism, in contrast, undermines the commons and finally society as well, as it undermines people’s feelings of belonging to one another. We are currently experiencing the effects of this problem in our epoch of multiple crises.

Economic, ecological and social crises are merging to form a single one, a crisis of civilization. In light of the catastrophes that they have triggered, the values that characterize our current civilization are proving to be destructive. We need a paradigm shift worldwide: a shift away from egocentric consumerism, away from a society’s structural imperative to maximize growth, and away from our arrogance with respect to the living environment. We, the people of our epoch, need new (old) societal institutions that are bound to a new (old) relationship of humans and nature.

We are not facing this situation empty-handed; starting points do exist in terms of the knowledge, cultural values and the natural conditions that are needed. At the individual level, every human being experiences the meaning and significance of subsistence via the unpaid and priceless care that is bestowed upon every child. Such types of experiential knowledge about commons provide us with means for reshaping life at the societal level.

The close connection between the individual level of experience and the sociocultural ability to comprehend commons as a gift of nature is formulated by Miguel D’Escoto and Leonardo Boff in Article 1 of their proposal for a Universal Declaration on the Common Good of the Earth and Humanity. “The supreme and universal Common Good, a condition for all other good, is the Earth itself which, being our Great Mother, must be loved, cared for, regenerated and revered as we do our own mothers.”2 It is taken for granted, that “our own mothers” are revered, just as it is taken for granted that every human being experiences the care necessary for subsistence and the corresponding means of subsistence, simply because he or she is born as a human being. The egalitarian condition of all human beings is recognized – as we all are born by “a mother”(Bloch 1961/1997). There is a correspondence between the ideas that food comes from the Earth and life comes from women. This mentality, which is firmly anchored in people’s personal sensory experience, supports the culturally binding worldview that all human beings are to be provided with conditions so that their lives can continue. That is why we need commons. They build an important bridge between the individual and the society on the way towards a socialization that teaches us to respect both what is given by nature on the one hand and our existential relationships with other people on the other, rather than destroying both.

Some, including Western gender feminists, reject the metaphor of “Mother Earth” because it ascribes a special significance to the human mother. They accuse those who recognize the birth-giving capacity of women as a natural given of being essentialists. Hence, gender theorists deny the existence of the human beings forming part of nature as they do not acknowledge mothering as a fact of nature.3 Nevertheless, I would say that whoever shares this accusation should feel free to replace the metaphor Mother Earth with a different image – because the only important things in our epoch are images that help to unlearn the destructive values of the society of maximization and to learn equality anew (because we all exist through the same process of human birth), so that people feel and understand that what is given by nature cannot be appropriated and privatized; they have been given to all of us, just as life has been given to us. We need images that support the insight that a commons-based society requires the individual, everyday practice of subsistence.

Money is the problem, not the solution

In keeping with the dominant understanding that the feasibility of any plan is dependent on funding, the question of money is often raised too quickly in discussions about the realization of alternatives to the growth-based economy. Even if some projects to strengthen the commons cannot do without money, this does not alter the fact that the logic of money as we know it is a fundamental built-in error of current-day socialization.

For the civilization based on the economy of maximization, monetary value becomes the touchstone of all value. When value and monetary value are simply equated, the moral error is rarely noticed; that is how normal this reversal is. Time and again, I realize how morally depraved the resulting value system is. When I reread the first UN Millennium Development Goal – “Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the number of people whose income is less than $1 a day. ...Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.”4 – I think, “And what about the other half?” The morals of the money-based world are light-years away from the humane moral standards that are taken for granted in the subsistence economy, namely that nobody should remain hungry as long as others, have enough to eat.

One dollar a day! That simulates concreteness, relief that is allegedly material, tangible and reliable (“In God we trust”). But you can’t eat money! The number, as well as the dates and the number of people, is intended to signal authentic commitment and determination. In truth, more people on this planet are hungry today than at the beginning of the millennium.

The logic of money is that of a mathematical equation, an exchange of equivalents. Order is supposedly achieved through the objectivity (or tangible quality of an object) of an invisible hand, which is supposed to be superior to the disorder of diversity given by nature. In the present, this is proving to be completely wrong. The logic of money is not suitable as a moral foundation for civilization.

The perspective of subsistence and the commons

“It’s your city. Dig it up!” This motto from the urban gardening movement includes all the elements that characterize the cultural transformation shifting away from the paradigm of growth and toward a society founded upon commons.5

  • The public space, that is, the city and its open spaces, are considered to be commons.
  • The motto addresses the individual, the person defining him/herself as part of the commons community, by politically empowering him/herself beyond a superordinate, disciplining, possibly state-organized power.
  • It includes an understanding of direct communal capacity to act, as is distinctive of grassroots movements.
  • It is not about money, but straightforwardly about subsistence. If we desire to create a society based on commons today, we need to take a subsistence-based perspective. And a prerequisite for action oriented toward what is required for a good life is consolidation of the institutions of the commons. Subsistence and commons strengthen each other.


  • Bloch, Ernst. 1961. Naturrecht und menschliche Würde. Suhrkamp. Frankfurt.
  • Bloch, Ernst. 1997. Natural Law and Human DignityCambridge, MA. MIT Press.
  • Mies, Maria and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen. 1999. The Subsistence Perspective. Beyond the Globalised EconomyLondon, UK. Zed Books.
  • Ostrom, Elinor and Silke Helfrich, editor and translator. 2011. Was mehr wird, wenn wir teilen, oekom. München.
  • Thompson, E.P. 1980. The Making of the English Working Class. Hammonds­worth, UK. Penguin.
  • 1. “Subsistence production or production of life includes all work that is expended in the creation, re-creation and maintenance of immediate life and which has no other purpose. Subsistence production therefore stands in contrast to commodity and surplus value production. For subsistence production the aim is ‘life’, for commodity production it is ‘money’ which ‘produces’ ever more is, so to speak, only a coincidental side-effect.” (Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen 1999, p. 20)
  • 2.
  • 3. According to gender theory, the sexual existence of the human being is exclusively a social phenomenon.
  • 4.
  • 5. On the rediscovery of communal gardening in cities, see the essay by Christa Müller.