Commons as contentless

From an essay by Evan Calder Williams called “A Fire to the Commons,” a critique of (among other things) “the thought that ‘the commons’ constitute a rupture in the reproduction and circulation of value (that is, that they are disruptive or ‘unthinkable’ for capital)”.

The crucial point is that even that which can’t be capital isn’t so because of an essence or property of its own, because of a fundamentally “uncapitalizable” content: if it had anything so unique, capital would be sure to find a way to make use of it. It is what simply doesn’t compute in this relation, the material of the contradiction thrown to the side, the slag of the dialectic, what Adorno would call the “non-identical.”

The implication seems to be that “commons” are not an alternative to capital but are already implicated in reproducing capital as a social relation, in letting capitalism’s organization of work and efficiency and precarity and so on persist. It doesn’t do away with the abstractions involved with a capitalistic conception of work. So there is no going backward to pre-capitalist commons; instead, we must go through the different sort of common that capitalism generates — that of “general equivalence” without specific content: “The full subsumption of experience to the law of equivalence, accelerated all the more during a period of the ‘socialization of labor,’ therefore produces with it a hollow identity that defines man, an echo chamber of value with itself.” Subjectivity is conditioned as “labor capacity” — we have in common the reduction to flexible employability, blank potentiality, something analogous to floating signifers.

What is common across us, the reserve of common ground to which those “without-reserves” could turn, the site on which the universal class begins, is nothing but the rendering of all things as formally common to each other (belonging to none, able to be endlessly circulated and reproduced) and of ourselves as the grounding unit of that dissolution of particular content.

I’m still not sure what to make of this, but for some reason it was bound up in my mind with critiques of meritocracy and various versions of the “crisis in value.” The “value” of capital is not in its objective usefulness but in the social relations in reproduces — the division of society’s resources it sanctions. It enables an organization of work as exploitation under the ideology that not nearly as much would get done otherwise.

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