21 Jul 2011

Do you know... what the trees say when the axe comes into the forest?

some stuff I am thinking about, comment welcome! Not finished yet, pure process!

How do we fight the crab?

“Formerly, when animals were people, a giant crab, called Ugkaju, commanded an army composed of ants and fish that killed the strongest warriors, than were the tigers, vixens and birds as the paujil and the pava of the mount. Ugkaju struck the water with its clamp forming floods that drowned the people. The warriors could not defeat it. Finally, the weakest animal met to plan an attack. They were the armadillos and some small birds that make their nests in earth holes. According to the plan, they were digging tunnels that arrived at the house of Ugkaju. The next time that the giant crab struck the water, the little animals opened the tunnels and all the water ran by them and he was in dry. Then the paucar took its lance and killed him.”

The story of Ugkaju is used explicitly by the Awajun, a Peruvian indigenous group from the Amazon, to illustrate their fight for the commons. The Awajun defeated Inca and Spanish attempts to take their territory. Using non violent direct action, legal challenges and the world wide web, they are currently fighting the incursions of multinational companies and the central government of Peru. While much ink has been spilt on the viability of the commons, the elephant or one might say the giant crab crouched in the room is the violent destruction of the commons.

As we have seen time after time, commons has been enclosed with the threat of violence and commoners disposed. The key set of questions we need to ask of a sustainable future is not whether the commons works but how to defend, deepen and extend the commons in the face of violent attacks. Global capitalism is the crab, always seeking to expropriate the commons, to extend its reach in alliance with state violence.

Much work on commons assumes that commons are shaped largely by local factors and discuss the functionalism or otherwise of commons. Commons, however, is a question in history over whelming of assault and defence. The debates over functionalism play their part but must be seen as a part and not the key moment. For example, the enclosure of the commons has been legitimated by the 'tragedy of the commons' thesis; in turn Ostrom's work has been used to defend the commons. However the efficiency or otherwise of commons is not the key factor determining the likely survival of commons, commons are almost constantly under attack.

Marx studied this question, its a thread the runs through his entire life's work. One of his earliest pieces of journalism looked at the fight by peasants to continued to gather fallen wood in German forest commons,

Joe Craig citing Hal Draper notes:

Marx began to deal with social issues in an article on wood theft, which may appear a minor issue today but which accounted for a staggering 97 percent of thefts in the period 1830 to 1836 in and around Marx’s home town of Trier. The new law was designed assist landowners stop the traditional right of collection of dead wood on their land by peasants in severe economic distress.
In dealing with the issue he came up against the question of private property:
‘If every violation of property, without distinction or closer determination, is theft, then would not all private property be theft? By my private property, do I not exclude every other person from this property? Do I not therefore violate this right of property?’(Quoted in Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Vol. 1)
Customary law which allowed the collection of wood or berry picking in the forest had been displaced by liberal law which sanctioned private property. For Marx, as a Hegelian, the state, which should ideally represent the common interest, had been ‘prostituted’ by the influence of purely private interests:
‘Everything that is particular, like landed property, is limited in itself. Therefore it must be dealt with as something limited, that is, by a general power standing above it, but it cannot deal with this general power in accordance with its own needs.’ Instead however:
’All organs of the state [have] become ears, eyes, arms, and legs with which the interests of the forest owners hear, evaluate, detect, protect, grab, and run.’
The significance of the issue of the wood theft law lay not just in its intrinsic contemporary importance. Marx’s close friend and comrade Frederick Engels later wrote
‘I heard Marx say again and again that it was precisely through concerning himself with the wood-theft law and with the situation of the Moselle peasants that he was shunted from pure politics over to economic conditions, and thus came to socialism.’ (Draper) http://www.socialistdemocracy.org/History/HistoryKarlMarxDemocratAndRepublican.htm

Marx obsessively worked on his ethnographic notes in the years before he died; commons was a central part of the quest to understand indigenous society http://www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=299. He toyed with the idea that in Russia the peasant Mir would allow for the recreation of commons. His must important work Capital has as we noted catalogues how the commons was enclosed to create the capitalist system.

Marx, to simplify, argued that commons was eroded by capitalism, capitalism creates via accumulation a raising of the productive forces and the birth of a political agency the working class who could restore common property democratically owned as the basis of a new society.

In a similar vein the philosophers Deleuze and Guttari have described the destruction of the commons as part of a process of deterritorialization. Deterritorialization occurs where a political territory is invaded, its rules and norms destroyed and replace by new rules and norms in a process of reterritorialization. Property rights can be seen as the codes or dna of society, deterritorialization involves removing them and replacing via reterritorialization with new rules. Or to be more exact removing codes from their context and re-articulating them. They explicitly cite this process in regard to the destruction of the European commons and the commons of empires like those of the Inca's and Aztec by the Spanish. The process of primitive accumulation identified by Marx is linked to these concepts of Deleuze and Guttari.

The coding point is illuminating. They have argued that a club is a deterritorialized branch.

For me, the concept was really driven home when, somewhere in A Thousand Plateaus, I came across Deleuze and Guattari’s remark that “a club is a deterritorialized branch.” The territory of a branch, is, of course, a tree. The branch serves the function of extending leaves across an area so as to capture sunlight. Perhaps the best definition of deterritorialization is the decontextualization of something or a theft of a bit of code that then resituates that thing elsewhere. Here “code” is to be understood as formed matter that serves a particular function. When code is stolen it is separated and isolated from its original milieu or territory, liberated from its original function, and then resituated in a new territory. When the branch is separated from the tree it becomes something else, it takes on different functions, such that it has been deterritorialized from its original territory (the function of gathering sunlight in the process of photosynthesis) and reterritorialized elsewhere (the function of warfare or violence). Deterritorialization thus proceeds through subtraction. As Deleuze and Guattari remark in their famous rhizome essay, deterritorialization “…begins by selecting or isolating…” (13). http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2011/07/02/deterritorialization/

The novelist John Berger wrote 'Do you know... what the trees say when the axe comes into the forest? ... When the axe comes into the forest, the trees say: 'Look! The handle is one of us!' Berger Once in Europa 1983: 69 cited in Neeson 1983.

Can such theoretical approaches help us understand how commons can be defended, extended and deepened?

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