Common Conflict

The Ontologized Commons

Joost de Bloois

February 1, 2016essay,

In his contribution to the Common Conflict virtual roundtable, Joost de Bloois elaborates on his critique of the ‘ontologized commons,’ arguing that it functions as a cover-up for the absence of effective leftist political action. Furthermore, he asserts that focusing on the commons and the practice of commoning – in art as elsewhere – in fact plays into the neoliberal dismantling of public institutions and infrastructure.

Whether it is the work of Antonio Negri, or his fiercest critics such as the Invisible Committee, or more outspokenly philosophical approaches to ‘being-in-common’ (i.e., Jean-Luc Nancy and Judith Butler), it seems to me that there is always a tendency, and in the case of Nancy et al., the intention, to ‘ontologize’ the commons. In fact, in the current debates concerning the commons, ‘being-in-common’ and the commons as a political practice (or even a political concept) appear to be inextricably bound. As if, somehow, the ‘ontological commons’ serve as the archè – the ontological grounding, or even safeguard – of the political use and practice of the commons, or ‘commoning.’ Commoning thus becomes the activity that confirms, and is even necessitated by, the commons as a state of being, to the extent that ‘commoning’ becomes the original political gesture: a politics that taps directly into (biological) existence itself (‘commoning’ becomes the form that life itself adopts). This ontological side of the commons evokes a specific constellation that consists of early Marx (the commons as our Gattungswesen or ‘species-being’), Heidegger’s Mitsein or ‘being-with,’ Foucauldian biopolitics, Agambenian ‘forms-of-life’ and Deleuzian vitalism.

For example, in a key passage of The Coming Insurrection, the Invisible Committee cites the Reebok ad ‘I Am What I Am’ to illustrate the political ontology of neoliberal capitalism: ‘I Am What I Am’ commands us to be exclusively ourselves as atomized, subjectified individuals. To this, the Invisible Committee then opposes its own counter-ontology – not of separation and isolation, but of ‘being-between’ and ‘being-in-common’ – which will serve as the fundament for their politics. Or better still, what they end up proposing is a politicization of being itself: living existence itself will always have been a form of communing. ‘What am I?’ they ask. ‘Everything that attaches me to the world, all the links that constitute me, all the forces that compose me don’t form an identity, a thing displayable on cue, but a singular, shared, living existence, from which emerges – at certain times and places – that being which says “I”’1 Being equals sharing, being entangled, being in common. Even in Tiqqun’s appraisal of the ‘ethics of civil war,’ we find a similar assertion: being is always relational, even if this means that these relations are relations of enmity, discordant attachments.2

The ontological commons posit an originary ‘being-in-common’: being-with-a-capital and life itself as fundamentally relational, as collectively shaped forms-of-life, as fundamental exposure or vulnerability. In any case, ‘common’ here becomes (quasi-)synonymous with ‘being.’ It is this ontologized notion of the commons that is then taken as a matrix for the political practice of commoning. There are obvious dangers to this: the ontologized commons become a placeholder of sorts for actual practices of commoning, as in Negri’s insistence on the ‘ontological leap’ that the multitude needs to take to seize itself as multitude.3 We then end up with a ‘purified’ vocabulary that obscures the prosaic reality of the intended practices of commoning, as becomes manifest in the Invisible Committee’s reliance on vitalistic metaphors to imagine a political practice that is totally mundane (organic farming) and has many failed antecedents (autonomism, the imagery of the urban guerilla).

With these cases, we see how the ontologized commons supposedly make up for the de facto absence or marginality of practices of commoning. In this sense, ontologizing or essentializing the commons is not so much tantamount to depoliticization as it is to a wishful ‘overpoliticization’ of being: the political is delegated to the realm of the ontological, as a means of compensating for the absence of effective political practice. Being and life itself are politicized and in fact end up incarnating the political program of the commons (being together, working together, sharing, enjoying, etc.). The fact of being becomes the ersatz for political facts: this leads to a politics that is exempt from any historical responsibility and self-reflection (or rather: it’s the excess of self-reflection that leads to seeking refuge in ontology). What this leads to, is a perverse logic (that we also see in a different kind of political ontology such as that of Alain Badiou); politically speaking, we are but a small minority, the remainder of the failed project of emancipation, but ontologically speaking we have always been right. No small comfort, but simultaneously a fabulous obstacle to any effective politics. This is not to say that ‘commoning’ should exclusively resort to pragmatism – ontological issues remain absolutely vital to reformulating politics today – but that ontology should not become the last (or first) resort of politics, thereby running the risk of turning the latter into empty gesturing, however tempting that may be intellectually. The tacit complicity of the resurgence of the commons with the withering of the public sector is a good illustration of how the ontological commons function as an ersatz. To focus on being-in-common, to a large extent, means to turn your back on the struggle over the public domain (the state and its institutions, the welfare state, participatory citizenship, etc.). To a certain degree this goes for initiatives of commoning as well: the struggle over the public good has already been given up, if only because its imaginary has been replaced by that of the common good. The obvious risk here is that thinking and practicing ‘the commons’ perfectly fits the neoliberal agenda, that is to say the neoliberal attempt to appropriate the state in order to all the more effectively dismantle its public institutions (i.e., universally accessible healthcare, education and ultimately the welfare state as such). In the case of the art world, there is a cruel irony here: it is precisely those institutions whose lifeline is the state – mid-sized spaces for experimental, ostentatiously contemporary art – that are promoting the commons (through projects on ‘autonomous living,’ self-sustaining biotopias, time banks, etc.); is their commonist dreaming of the withering away of the state anything but a suicidal fantasy? 

The neoliberal project is first and foremost an attack on the project of political modernity, an attack on the very idea of emancipation and the institutions that guarantee the preconditions, if only minimally, for (social, cultural and political) emancipation: the university, healthcare, social services, arts and culture. In a sense, our moment is a repetition and intensification of the late 1970s/1980s: we are witnessing the dismantling of public institutions, partly because neoliberalism does not want them, partly because neoliberal capitalism (with its burgeoning financial sector) simply no longer needs the institutions of bourgeois society (including the institutions of the art world, or the university) – at least, not in their public form: neoliberalism only allows for private institutions to exist (private insofar as they exist in the service of maximized capital accumulation). Neoliberalism is profoundly anti-egalitarian; it is essentially an anti-universalism and therefore an anti-humanism. In the context of the (near-)hegemony of neoliberal capitalism, ‘the commons,’ despite good intentions, appear only to reinforce the neoliberal agenda (obviously, without sharing it).

Currently, as a practice and political philosophy, ‘commonism’ is marginal: at best, it can hope to create a ‘shadow economy.’ I find this highly problematic: a shadow economy is parasitical, secondary and keeps the ‘official’ economy, and all of its economic violence, social exclusion and political pathologies (such as populism) perfectly intact. To be frank, I also do not see how commonism will become a viable alternative to the neoliberal hegemony: Is commonism capable of generating a critical mass that would be able to face neoliberalism head-on? I fear commonism may prove to be a euphemism for giving up on the modern public domain and the emancipatory project that gave birth to it. For now, in practice, commonism remains inscribed in the growing socio-economic inequality under neoliberalism; the majority of practices of commoning remain accessible only to very specific segments of society, the art world in particular. In that sense, they exclude rather than include and tend to confirm existing disparities between the art world and an increasingly precarized population, and within the art world between young, precarious artists and curators and state-employed art officials. What is especially problematic in this context, is that ‘commonism’ presupposes that the effects of increasing neoliberalization and precarization are somehow shared (between, say, an increasingly casual workforce and the precarious segments of the art world). I doubt whether precarity can be seen as the great equalizer in this manner. If anything, the neoliberal project of privatization, generalized competition and precarization erects ever-increasing barriers between segments of society struggling over scarce resources. The effect, more likely, is the reinforcement of existing socio-cultural divides: practices of commoning in the art world rarely spill over into the world of labour (and unemployment) in general, despite the (perfectly correct) manifold conceptualizations of art-as-(precarious)-labour. In this light, precisely, against the dreams of a politics purified of the state (which, intellectually, may indeed seem attractive), a politics beyond the emancipatory impetus of political modernity (and the assorted assumption of the latter being in ruins anyway), we should not let go too easily of the public good and its main guardian, the state.

As to the question of whether commonist struggles should relate to more general antagonisms and embrace a wider autonomist horizon or that they simply serve as reminders of the bankruptcy of the more ‘orthodox’ leftist positions, I think that there are several pitfalls here that need to be avoided.

Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, the tradition from which ‘commonism’ heralds, autonomism, has a (well-documented) history that is far from being unproblematic. From Italian operaismo to the Dutch squatters’ movement, however sympathetic, these movements were defeated, have imploded, were born in the vacuum left by communist utopia in the first place and never managed to replace the latter as a historical force (however problematic). Why compulsively repeat what already backfired more than once? Sure, dialectical leftism will not be resurrected, but autonomism hasn’t been in good shape either for some time now. Commonism-autonomism versus dialectics seems a false opposition to me: a remainder of intra-leftist struggles that perhaps made sense decades ago, but that today are little more than intellectual exercises (whatever: Tiqqun versus Badiou versus Negri versus Žižek).

Secondly, and this ties in with the concerns I expressed earlier regarding ‘ontologizing’ the commons: commonism seems to hinge on a constellation of metaphors that are all too performative: convergence, resonance, event, etc. These metaphors translate (understandably perhaps) a certain allergy to subjective agency, to universalizing forms of organization, but at the same time play all of their money on (apparently self-directed) processes: struggles converge, lives resonate, events occur. For all their anti-dialecticism, these notions strangely echo the most atavistic dialectical philosophies (of the impersonal dialectical agency of history or nature themselves). Further, this peculiar vocabulary translates an irresolvable tension or paradox in commonism and autonomism: that of bringing together struggles and forms-of-life, while refusing a common banner, trying to establish a convergence of singularities (the inoperative community, the part of no part, etc.). While perhaps ethically laudable (perhaps!), in the current political context of neoliberal hegemony, this tension can only turn against itself. In this respect, it is telling that, with Tiqqun, we still end up with a gruesome depiction of a sectarian, apocalyptic ‘final struggle’ between forms-of-life. There is no point in absolutizing deterritorialization: What if there is a territory (the public good) that needs defending?

This doesn’t necessarily imply being subjected to some sort of of authoritarian, all-encompassing subjectivity. To a large extent it means acknowledging just how much we owe to the institutions of political modernity (whether it’s the art world or academia), not in the least in terms of the forms-of-life these have molded, and what we would like to salvage from these. Lastly, speaking of ‘compromised’ day-to-day commonist practices makes little sense: if (recent) history teaches us anything, then it is that autonomous/commonist practices always remain asymmetrical in relation to the (neoliberal) capitalist hegemony, and in fact derived from the latter, and therefore always remain ‘compromised.’ There is no alleged ‘pure’ commoning, unless as a philosophical folly.

Finally, with regard to the relation between the success of the commons discourse and the aestheticization of the social that Benjamin warned against, I would like to argue that the ‘commonist turn’ in the art world – and perhaps more generally the ‘political turn’ of contemporary art – testifies to the fact that, under neoliberal rule, art, as one of the key institutions of bourgeois capitalism and the subsequent project of political modernity, is steadily losing its (central, or at least vital) social and political significance. As part of the public good, art is now subjected to the logic of privatization, is now being lead by the not-so-invisible hand of the market. The more art gets marginalized, the less it receives recognition as a sociopolitical factor, the louder it claims its political credentials. Commonism and the political turn are perhaps best understood as compensatory mechanisms, a work of mourning: the compulsive repetition of something long lost (art’s centrality – whether alleged or real – within the project of political modernity). The de facto political impotence of art today makes the aestheticization of the commons and the social inevitable (any politicization of art today ends up being an aestheticization of sorts), the latter only reinforcing the disappearance of art as a significant oppositional force. Perhaps there is no other choice, perhaps commonism is the only form of opposition we may currently dream of, but to acknowledge this, it seems to me, demands a different (slightly less upbeat…) tone, a different vocabulary…

1. Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007), 31–32.

2. See Tiqqun, Introduction to Civil War (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2010).

3. See Antonio Negri, Time for Revolution (New York: Continuum, 2003).

Joost de Bloois is an assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam, department of Comparative Literature and Cultural Analysis. He has published extensively on the nexus between culture and the political. For an overview of his publications see:

Common Conflict
Common Conflict
‘Hot Winter Press’ zines at We Are the Time Machines: Time and Tools for Commoning at Casco by Cooperativa Cráter Invertido (Jazael Olguinzapata), 2015. – Photo: Sven Lütticken

From its inception, Open! and Casco’s series Commonist Aesthetics was meant neither as a celebration nor as a debunking exercise, but as a critical inquiry. The commons certainly is not lacking in those who hype the cause, nor in vehement detractors. For the Invisible Committee, an example, ‘commonism’ is identified with Ostromite liberal managerialism:

Governing the Commons is the title of the recent bestseller by Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, who has defined eight principles for ‘managing the commons.’ Understanding there is a place for them in an ‘administration of the commons’ that remains to be invented, [Antonio] Negri and associates have embraced this theory, which is perfectly liberal at its core…

…[They] are inclined to make the ‘commons’ into the latest metaphysical principle to come out of the West’s magical hat. An arche, they say, in the sense of that which ‘organizes, commands, and rules all political activity,’ a new ‘beginning’ that will give birth to new institutions and a new world government.1

And is the excitement in some art world circles (however marginal they may be) for forms of commoning, or at least the rhetoric of commoning, not deeply suspicious? In her essay for Commonist Aesthetics, Marina Vishmidt suggested that a ‘structural and ideological affinity already holds between “commonist” politics and the field of art practices’; both, she argues, ‘are committed to change in the here and now through the means available, often interstices and spare capacities, “making do” as in the “sharing economy.”’ Making changes in the here and now sounds good when the alternative is waiting for a phantasmagorical revolution. But is the exclusive privileging of ‘making do’ under current conditions not equally problematical – especially if connected to the hope that enough cute grass-rootsy commonizing activity will attain such critical mass that capitalism will, after all, disappear or morph beyond recognition? Vishmidt states in the aforementioned text: ‘The centrality of J.K. Gibson-Graham’s The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It) (1996) and A Postcapitalist Politics (2006) to several of a number of cultural scenes of inquiry into “the commons” would seem to point to the voluntaristic roots of this attitude as they cut across art and politics, present and past, performance and mobilisation.’

Nonetheless, we would not have pursued Commonist Aesthetics if we agreed that commons discourse is completely bankrupt and utterly irredeemable. In a passage recently evoked by Katharine Gibson during a lecture at Casco, Massimo de Angelis acknowledges that commoning is often instrumentalized not in order ‘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.’ However, he maintains 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.’2

This ‘may well be’ continues to hover over the debate, a debate that we wish to develop and intensify with this ‘virtual roundtable’ titled Common Conflict, mirrored by a public forum at Casco on 12 March. Later this year, the whole Commonist Aesthetics project will be rounded off by a book publication.

For Common Conflict, we have confronted a number of authors with a series of questions, some or many of which may be leading questions. The authors were free to pick and choose, or ignore, as they saw fit; to rephrase and reroute a line of questioning; and to examine their own as well as others’ practices and theoretical presuppositions.

Is the notion of the commons subject to an ontological essentialization? Is dehistoricization tantamount to depoliticization?

The resurgence of the commons is clearly linked to the decline of the public sector, at least in Europe. Is commonism tacitly complicit with the ever further dismantling of the state and the public? Does the state need to be reclaimed?

Does the commonist discourse have a potential depoliticizing effect, being compatible with hazy visions of the ‘sharing economy’ and an Ostrom-style governance? What are the consequences of the division between ‘Ostromites’ interested in governing the commons and autonomists eager to prefigure a coming insurrection or a coming community?

How does, or should, commonist self-organization around specific issues relate to more general antagonisms and struggles? Is commonism in need of a wider autonomist horizon and bona-fide leftist strategy – or are ‘actually existing’ commonist tactics, however compromised, a daily reminder of the bankruptcy of more fundamental, more rigorous, more dialectically canny leftist positions?

What is the relation between theories of the commons / commoning and specific practices? Does the theory lag behind the most cogent practices? Is it often a substitute for actual commoning practices at specific sites for struggles? Can problematic, partial or blocked attempts at commoning be as valid as seemingly successful and exemplary endeavours?

Is the commons’ rhetorical success in parts of the art world indicative of an aestheticization of the social – with aestheticization here being used in its negative Benjaminian sense? Does the all too familiar critique of art institutions need to be followed by an active commoning of institutions? How to proceed with this?

Does the art world focus overly on low-tech forms of commons and commoning, unduly neglecting the digital commons? How can and should online and offline impact each other?

Do we see the beginnings of a commonist aesthetic practice in a more fundamental sense, involving forms of sensuous activity that challenge and go beyond established notions of art and existing institutional forms? Does aesthetic practice allow us to refocus all of the above questions?