Review: Re-enchanting the world: feminism and the politics of the commons by Silvia Federici

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Federici, Silvia (2018): Re-enchanting the world: feminism and the politics of the commons (foreword by Peter Linebaugh), Kairos, Oakland, CA: PM Press.

federici book

This book is a collection of essays by Federici, with a new forward by Linebaugh. The majority of the essays is from the last 10 years, but a few date back to the early 1990s. The early essays have a new introduction to provide context and perspective.

In the following, I will not to review the essays per se, but read them with a focus on the definition of the commons itself and the role digital technology plays in creating new commons. This is slightly unfair because both of these issues are not really her concerns, but coming to terms with the role of technology strikes me as critical in any discussion of contemporary issues.

Federici uses the term commons quite loosely, or, as Linebaugh puts it, she “eschews an essentialist answer, her essays dance around on two points, collective re-appropriation and collective struggle against the ways we have been divided.” (p. xvi) Throughout the book she uses the term to denote two distinct things. First, there is the notion of “earthly” or “natural” commons, resources on which we are all dependent and that are produced by nature, rain forest, the ozone layer, the air, the seas, and the beaches, along with the living spaces and so on: “the gift of billions of years of laborless transformation” (p.30). Second, there is the notion of the “social” commons as collective forms of (re)production and decision-making. The latter point is important to distinguish between commons that exclusive (for example, exclude women from decision-making) and those that are inclusive. In most inclusive cases, these practices are tied to the land and the central relationship structuring these practices is that of “care”. It does not expressively state what a relationship of care entails, but one assume them to be rather different from relationships based on, say, possession, exploitation, resource maximization, etc.

Only in the text co-authored with George Caffentzis, “Commons against and beyond Capitalism”, there is an attempt to provide a systematic definition of the commons. First, there is a distinction between true commons that can be seen as forming a systemic alternative and forms of commons that are “co-opted”, “gated” or “commodity-producing” and are thus, in one way or the other, subsumed under, and contributing to, the dominant system of exploitation.

Commons outside of capitalism are defined along five lines:

  1. As “autonomous spaces [which] aim to overcome the divisions existing among us and build the skills necessary for self-government.”
  2. “Not things but social relations.”
  3. “A shared property, in the form of a shared natural or social wealth—lands, waters, forests, systems of knowledge, capacities for care—to be used by all commoners, without any distinction, but which are not for sale. Equal access to the necessary means of (re)production must be the foundation of life in the commons.”
  4. As “function[ing] on the basis of established regulations, stipulating how the commonwealth is to be used and cared for, that is, what the commoners’ entitlements and obligations should be.
  5. By the existence of a “community. This is why we cannot speak of ‘global commons,’ a concept that presumes the existence of a global collectivity.” (This is in slight contradiction to the dual use of the term elsewhere).

Commons, in Federici’s view, are almost always tied to the land, as the foundational resource for reproduction. Even in her contribution to a conference on the university as a knowledge commons, she quickly focuses on the land on which the university building is located and speculates on the destruction of a native commons once located there. This brings a keen awareness of forms of exclusion, but otherwise barely engages the topic.

Federici’s notion of care relationships within and through the commons are almost entirely unmediated and technology plays almost no role in them. There is only one essay “Re-enchanting the World: Technology, the Body, and the Construction of the Commons” in which she addresses modern communication technology directly. Here, technology is primarily a force of alienation. “The seduction that technology exerts on us is the effect of the impoverishment—economic, ecological, cultural—that five centuries of capitalist development have produced in our lives, even—or above all—in the countries in which it has climaxed.” (p.189) First, by being destructive and wasteful in the process production and, second, by contributing “the loss produced by the long history of capitalist assault on our autonomous powers. I refer here to that complex of needs, desires, and capacities that millions of years of evolutionary development in close relation with nature have sedimented in us, which constitute one of the main sources of our resistance to exploitation. I refer to our need for the sun, the wind, the sky, the need for touching, smelling, sleeping, making love, and being in the open air.” (p.190).

But technology is not only a tool of alienation but also of domination, because “computerization has also increased the military capacity of the capitalist class and its surveillance of our work and lives—all developments compared to which the benefits we can draw from the use of personal computers pale.” (p.192)

So, technology is seen as one element of capitalism’s assault on the body, whose very limitations are for Federici an important source of resistance to the drive to subsume everything under a reductionist logic. The problem with this view is not so much that it’s entirely wrong – who could argue against the notion of digital technology being used as tools for surveillance. The problem is more that it is so one-sided that it leaves no room for agency in the contemporary world constituted on the basis of digital information flows. But this is the world we live in, and for good reasons, many commoners do not want to digital technology, because it allows scaling commons beyond the small scale and the local. This leaves the question if we can think of digital technology outside the paradigm of (surveillance) capitalism when so much of it is produced by it? The work of techno-feminists, open-source activists, and others suggests that it is possible, precisely by embedding it into alternative forms of social organization. So, technology will not save us, and commercial technologies, particularly those of subsidized by data-extraction, can be very problematic. But it’s possible to think of different technologies and built them on the basis of existing ones.

But by ignoring, or rejecting technology in such general terms, Federici reduces the notion of the commons to small, local and mainly rural community practices, and the degree that commons are located in cities, they focus on aspects (say, gardening, child care) that could easily fit within the rural context.