Raúl Zibechi: Can the State Be the Commons?

Can the State Be the Commons?

By: Raúl Zibechi

Rigorous and committed reflections and analyses are essential in this turbulent and chaotic period, in which the anti-systemic forces have difficulties orienting themselves and defining a direction. Some of those analyses have played an outstanding role in the debates that the movements carry out, because they illuminate the themes most important for being oriented in the long run.

The works of the geographer David Harvey, in particular those that permit comprehending better the modes of capital accumulation, have been incorporated by numerous movements for analyzing the reality that they wish to transform. The concept of “accumulation by dispossession,” formulated in his book The New Imperialism (Akal, 2004), is one of the force-ideas accepted by those who belong to anti-systemic organizations.

In other works Harvey persists in comprehending in more depth the movements of capital and its imprint on geographical spaces and territories, emphasizing how they have reconfigured the urban scheme in recent decades. In The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism (Akal, 2012), he established the strict relationship between urbanization, capital accumulation capital and sudden appearance of crisis. Since the postwar (1945), he points out; suburbanization played an important role in the absorption of surplus capital and labor.

Consumption explains 70 percent of the US la economy (compared to the 20 percent that it represented in the 19th Century), which leads him to conclude that: “the organization of consumption through urbanization has been converted into something absolutely decisive for the dynamic of capitalism” (p. 147). Consequent with his previous works, he puts the creation of new spaces and territories in a central place, and considers them the fundamental aspect of the reproduction of capitalism, emphasizing the categories of “rental of land” and “price of land” as the hinges between capital and geography.

The analysis of the “territorial logic” of capitalism, complementary and convergent with the flows of capital that cross spaces with “a logic more systematic and molecular than territorial” (p. 171), leads Harvey to approach power, states and the resistances, remembering that in this period: “the State ands capital are more strictly interwoven than ever” (p. 182). Here he enters into a much more delicate terrain. Although he may seem contradictory with that assertion, he defends “the utilization of the State as the principal instrument of counter-power in the face of capital” (p. 173).

Anyhow, Harvey recognizes the Zapatista Good Government Juntas as territorial organizations capable of creating a new social order. At this point he does not establish any difference between territorial and State organization, or between instituted power and counter-powers. Although he does not work in that direction, the debate about whether all territorial power is synonymous with State remains open and we have still not advanced much in that respect.

I don’t believe that it’s most appropriate to continue a debate of an ideological character about the State –although we know Marx’s position on that, he always held to the need for destroying the State apparatus–, without previously bringing up the paths for leaving capitalism and traveling towards a different world. In his most recent work, Rebel cities, Harvey dedicates a chapter to “The creation of urban communes,” where he criticizes frontally the centralized organization of Leninist inspiration as “horizontalism,” which he accuses of centering on practices of small groups that turn out to be impossible on larger scales and on a global scale.

Harvey also questions the “local autonomies” as spaces adequate for protecting the common good, because in fact “they demand some kind of approach” (enclosure, p. 71). Harvey’s reasoning is anchored in the  “scales”: having a community garden in your barrio is something good, he says, but to resolve global warming, water and air quality or problems on a global scale, we cannot appeal to assemblies or to the forms of organization that the movements have today. For that there is no other path than appealing to the State, on a national, regional or municipal scale.

There are three considerations in that regard. What Harvey proposes is inscribed in a profound historic tendency that has regained vigor in recent years. Although the writer does not share it, the bulk of the Latin American movements migrated from autonomous positions to statist and electoral practices. To not recognize this tendency does not contribute to deepening the debates.

The second has to do with the character of the State: can the State, which is not the commons but rather the expression of a social class, have any usefulness for protecting the commons? The community, the true expression of the commons, is the human organization most adequate for protecting the common wealth. It is not accidental that there where that wealth has been preserved is where communitarian ways predominate in their most diverse forms.

In third place, it is necessary to undo a misunderstanding that has earned enormous esteem in recent years: assuming the administration of the State, the government, became for many activists the path for traveling toward a new world. Beyond how the efforts of the progressive governments are evaluated, there does not exist anywhere in the world any experience with construction of new social relations from the State inherited by capitalism.

“The working class cannot be limited simply to taking possession of the State machine such as it is and using it for its own purposes,” Marx wrote in 1872, upon making of the Paris Commune. That we still don’t have the material force to do what Marx recommended is not saying that our horizon ought to limit itself to struggling by administering what exists, because we will never overcome capitalism that way.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Friday, March 22, 2013

En español:  http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2013/03/22/opinion/031a1pol

English translation: Chiapas Support Committee

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