Beyond Ownership: notes on Commoning

True wealth is an expression of what “we do together” rather than what “I have myself.”

For what “I have myself”, or what one has in possession, are inert things separated from the flow of life, susceptible to destruction by time or contingency, which is why this expression of wealth tends to be “stored” or hoarded from others, in order to protect it from natural decay or from being stolen.

But what “we do together”, or what we share in common, is an active process of embodied practical activity in which we participate in each others lived experiences. What we share is creativity—not as the product but the very process of creation itself. Thus this expression of wealth can never be lost or stolen, for it is a truth that we hold in common with the ultimate nature of reality itself. Creativity is, to quote A.N. Whitehead,

the universal of universals characterizing the ultimate matter of fact. It is that ultimate principle by which the many, which are the universe disjunctively, become the one actual occasion, which is the universe conjunctively¹

While what “we do together” is the true expression of wealth, what “I have myself” is a falsity that can only be sustained by a form of practical delusion; a kind of “pretend play” where you act as if you can own wealth independently of the network of relationships that make its existence possible—a network of which you are only a part.

Capitalism is that mode of life where the pretend play of ownership is raised to the level of natural right in the form of private property law. This apparently secular order has its roots in a more ancient theological notion where God as the divine creator “owns” us, the product of his creation. Just as God was understood to exercise his sovereign will over his property as he freely pleased, so too this apparently secular age defers collective responsibility to the individual owner of private property. That this secular age attempts to obscure its theological roots under the guise of techno-scientific instrumentality is the basis of why Marx considered capitalism to be founded on mystification and fetishism, and why Adorno and Horkheimer considered the “Age of Reason” to be founded on an unacknowledged myth of progress.² What the modern age of reason and the older age of faith have in common are their shared roots in an ancient Greek fascination with the idea of a primary “substance”, which functioned to ground the world of everyday appearances on some “more real” ground or substratum. 

But following Whitehead and Buddhism, the fundamental basis of reality is not a thingly substance, but a living process— the process of coming into being togetherwhat Buddhism calls “Pratītyasamutpāda” or dependent co-arising: all dharmas (phenomena) come into being in dependence on all other dharmas; everything connects to and influences everything else, there is nothing behind or beneath phenomena that exists independently of them. This inter-dependent relationship of togetherness is the “transcendental condition” or the condition that makes possible, of the creative advance into novelty:

‘Together’ is a generic term covering the various special ways in which various sorts of entities are ‘together’ in any one actual occasion.  Thus ‘together’ presupposes the notions ‘creativity,’ ‘many,’ ‘one,’ ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’…the novel entity is at once the togetherness of the ‘many’ which it finds, and also it is one among the disjunctive ‘many’ which it leaves.

…The many become one, and are increased by one. In their natures, entities are disjunctively ‘many’ in the process of passage into conjunctive unity.

This Category of the Ultimate replaces Aristotle’s category of ‘primary substance’.³

To establish Commoning is to actually establish the truth of interdependent creativity as lived dynamic process, rather than a finished product as dead inert substance. Capitalism’s existence is only possible as a symbiont which parasitically takes advantage of the primordial truth that wealth is engendered through the socially interactive, mutual participation between all active agents. Capitalism’s symbiotic relationship to socialized creative-production is not one of mutual enhancement (as the typical bourgeoise economist may claim), but of an asymmetrical, parasitic relationship of exploitation that enhances one (the owners of capital) at the expense of the other (the dispossessed masses). As Marx clearly states:

Capital, therefore, is not only the command over labour, as Adam Smith thought. It is essentially the command over unpaid labour. All surplus-value, whatever particular form (profit, interest or rent) it may subsequently crystallize into, is in substance the materialization of unpaid labour-time. The secret of the self-valorization of capital resolves itself into the fact that it has at its disposal a definite quantity of the unpaid labor of other people.

This conception of Capitalism as a parasitic symbiont that operates derivatively from a more primary true basis runs counter to a vulgar orthodox Marxist conception of history that conceives of the relationship between Capitalism and Communism in terms of linear causation, in which one succeeds the other. It is not that Communism, or for us Commoning, comes “after” Capitalism, as if Capitalism fulfills some kind of inevitable and necessary historical function, but rather Capitalism is but one expression of an ancient form of power grounded on absent or alien ownership, that has always existed through a parasitic relationship to the primary ground which we can call our “repressed” commons. Communism as traditionally imagined by Marxism is just Capitalism in drag, imitating but never actual being an unrepressed and liberated commons—for it only replaced private, individual ownership by public, state ownership rather than relinquishing alien ownership itself. The phallic self-consciousness of I, Me and Mine actively represses the feminine matrix of interdependent creativity, even (especially) when it dresses itself up in a simulacrum of its garb. 

In order to establish the liberation and free development of Commoning, and to realize the emancipation of the repressed feminine in actual practice, we need to fundamentally reevaluate what it means to Be. To Be is to be supported by active participation with all others—Being is Becoming. The question is not, “to be or not to be”, but rather: what can we become? And since Being is only possible as an abstracted part of the Becoming of the concrete whole, there is no real basis by which something can exist independently of everything else in order to be endowed with the property of ownership, whether that be an independent thing that is owned or an independent agent who can own.

By relinquishing I, Me and Mine, through a process of the revolutionary upending of the capitalist mode of production, we open ourselves up to the interdependent matrix of creativity that sustains and raises life to its maximum potential. At last we return to our original nature brought up to a higher level of development, as commoners commoning in common. 

From the pacification of the self and what belongs to it,
One abstains from grasping onto “I” and “mine.”⁵

Because there is no object without an agent,
There is no mine without a self.⁶


¹ Process and Reality: An Essay on Cosmology, Alfred North Whitehead, p. 21

² Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno

³ Process and Reality: An Essay on Cosmology, Alfred North Whitehead, p. 21

⁴ Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, Karl Marx, Penguin Edition p. 672

Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Nagarjuna, trans. Garfield, XVIII:2

⁶ Madhyamakāvatāra, Candrakirti, as quoted in Wilson’s Candrakirti’s Sevenfold Reasoning

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