Colonial commons and the decolonisation of the left

Among the new commons left, a number of contradictions have begun to emerge leading some indigenous intellectuals to state that a “colonial commons” exists. This colonial commons adheres to the modern western ideal of a historical continuity that presents western communities as the most “advanced” in the world. This article points out two ways in which the commons reproduce colonialism.

The paradigm of “the commons” has had a place in contemporary politics to varying degrees for decades. From neighbourhood assemblies to collectivised communities, cultural centres, museums and even institutions like mayors’ offices, city halls and political parties, the idea of the commons draws connections between different experiences in social organisation and creatively rejuvenates the political landscape. Having taken form in universities, the commons has ended up bringing together intellectuals and activists of all kinds, individuals previously engaged in different traditions from Marxism and social democracy to anarchism, autonomism, municipalism and even the Occupy movement. In short, the commons seem to entail a kind of revamping of the left that is perfectly captured in the words offered by philosopher Marina Garcés in the title of one of her publications: “Común (sin ismo)” (roughly translated, “Commons, not communism”).

But what are the commons? Myriad books have been written on the topic in recent decades and simply summarising these works would run the risk of distorting the basic idea. Nevertheless, we will make an attempt. The commons essentially make the claim that capitalist society has been divided into two spheres, public and private, erasing any trace of community togetherness. The individual thus appears as an estranged subject who must single-handedly confront the corporate world and the State, both of which define the framework of her existence. Therefore she aims to regain community-based connections in every aspect of her life—in her neighbourhood or among coworkers in a factory or company. This approach has the potential to revolutionise politics and even the very meaning of life, by returning people’s agency restoring them to their true nature as social beings, thus helping them regain control of their existence in community settings.

Out of this great idea emerge two basic positions, one liberal and one critical. The first would suggest that the commons could communalise and humanise capitalism, proposing that the idea of commons property (resources and means of production) be added to public and private property and be protected. The most well-known advocate of this line of thinking was political scientist Elinor Ostrom, who studied many kinds of collective resource management throughout the world and showed that these practices entailed more efficient and more human ways of producing goods. On the other hand, the critical perspective sees the expansion of the commons as a way to confront and transform capitalism in a new civilising system whereby the collective management of resources and means of production is indicated not only to collectively manage the production of goods in an efficient way but also to bring an end to exploitative systems on a global level. This line of thinking was developed by many intellectuals in the sphere of heterodox Marxism, with a focus on authors such as Silvia Federici, Raquel Gutiérrez, David Harvey, Antonio Negri, Peter Linebaugh and Raúl Zibechi.

“The commons”, having been coined as such in Europe, present a historical genealogy centred on the struggles against the plundering of common goods in Medieval Europe, particularly land enclosures. This did not stop the idea of the commons from being received and reshaped in other contexts such as Latin America, where it was emphasised that the community-based ways of life of indigenous peoples and their struggles against colonialism are also an important part of this global struggle for the commons. In fact, it is an important current tendency in commons theory to focus our reflections away from the European experience and to attempt to show how the commons have been used in different regions and cultures to speak out against the worldwide system of capitalism. Works such as The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker or Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici show a kind of “unity” in the struggles of different groups around the world against capitalism during the centuries of its global expansion and the transition from feudal production to a capitalist system. Pirates, enslaved people from Africa, indigenous peoples and peasants from Europe, organised in their own ways and institutions, outside of the state or bourgeois commercialism, are revealed in these works as a heterogenous “first international commons community” against capitalism. 

We do not deny that these connections and words are interesting and attractive, but this is exactly where a series of contradictions began to arise that led some indigenous intellectuals to suggest the existence of “colonial commons”. As we know, the left has not been exempt from colonialism throughout its history. It has generally remained loyal to the modern Western idea of a historical continuity that aims to showcase Western communities as the most “advanced” in the world. The idea of “colonial commons” proposes that the new commons left is still dragging around this old problem inherited from the old left. Below, we will point out two ways in which the commons reproduce colonialism:


A debate has recently begun around the eurocentric focus of the commons in the context of Latin America. In 2015, Raquel Gutiérrez and her University of Puebla team conducting research on “community networks” gathered for the “International Conference on Comunalidad” in Mexico and attempted to initiate a dialogue between different traditions of thought and activism that deal with the commons. However, when the time came to start the discussion, it became clear that the term comunalidad, a new iteration of the word for “commons” or “commoning” coined by indigenous intellectuals from Oaxaca to reflect on “indigenous ways of life”, had little to do with the commons that most of the event’s attendees were talking about. These conference-goers were more engaged in the critical trajectory of the Commons, developed in Europe, as indicated by Zapotecan scholar Carlos Manzo. Authors such as Raquel Gutiérrez, Raúl Zibechi, Mina Navarro and Lucía Linsalata had managed to “Latin-Americanise” the European tradition of the commons by integrating case studies from the region and illustrating the tradition with the theoretical work of intellectuals such as the Ecuadorian Marxist critic Bolívar Echeverría. Ultimately, however, they continued to maintain a Eurocentric epistemological framework rooted in the European historical experience of the medieval plundering of common goods. 

Working with a Eurocentric idea of the commons effectively erases the profound differences between traditions. A European peasant experiencing plundering due to a process of transformation in social relationships of production is not the same as experiencing it as a peasant of indigenous, African or other non-Western origin at the hands of a civilisation that is completely alien to them. In the latter, the plundering includes the destruction not only of the means of production and lifestyle but also of the culture itself, including spiritual, religious and existential dimensions of the utmost importance as well as aspects of social and economic life. An example of how problematic this focus can be is evident in the lack of distinction made when defining the commons in each separate context. The politics of enclosing communal property and witch hunts shaped centuries of European history—excellently told by Federici—and aimed to destroy community relations in order to isolate the individual who was forced to sell his labour to the capital. In the case of the Americas, however, let us not forget that indigenous communities were often manipulated and supported in a controlled way so that, aside from paying the resulting spice tariffs to the Crown, they would be kept as sources of cheap labour and reserve armies for the continent’s other wars of invasion against indigenous peoples. 

Meanwhile, this focus also obscures the colonial history at the core of the Western “commons” experience. This phenomenon has been pointed out relentlessly by authors such as Allan Green, who refers to the existence of historical “colonial commons”, in this case alluding to communal traditions of the North American colonists who drove the indigenous people from their lands and used them communally for themselves. The author, thus, confronts the rather idealistic visions of writers such as Kēhaulani Kauanui, who suggests that Nathaniel Bacon’s rebellion of 1675 set the scene for crossovers and intersections between the white, Black and native working class people. However, the alliance between the white working class and the colonial elite would only strengthen racial domination with the enactment of the Virginia Slave Codes, which can be interpreted as the origin of the white supremacy that prevails in modern societies today, whether commons-based or not. 

This “commons-oriented racism” can be traced to other historical experiences of the commons that are claimed by the contemporary commons. For example, commons on the Iberian Peninsula were not exempt from racism against Gitano, Jewish and Muslim collectives. The anti-Moorish character of the Revolt of the Brotherhoods in Valencia and Mallorca and their continued assault on Moorish settlements are part of the Spanish colonial occupation of the territory—the artisan guilds sided with the imperial authoritarianism to which they themselves were subject. In short, these were racist and exclusive commons, an issue that has not been discussed in recent important works such as “Las vecindades vitorianas: una experiencia histórica de comunidad popular preñada de futuro” (Ayllu Egin, 2014) (Victorian neighbourhoods: a historical experience of popular community fraught with the future) or “El comú català: la història dels que no surten a la història” (David Segarra, 2015) (The Catalan commons: the history of those who do not escape history). These works present historical instances of self-organisation and collective labour on the Iberian Peninsula as a springboard for reimagining processes of community reproduction in the present time. However, this exercise remains incomplete if we do not also reflect on the way in which enclosures and primitive processes of stockpiling used a race-based division of labour to shape our current forms of labour organisation, the privileges of citizenship through migration policies, and centres of concentrated wealth accumulation.  

In short, this Eurocentric focus affects at least two issues regarding the vision of the commons. On the one hand, there is an issue with the very notion of what a commons is, i.e. there is no distinction between commons economic policy within “central” or “peripheral” societies. And on the other hand, there is the issue of obscuring the racism that exists at the heart of commons history in the West. 


Having looked at the theoretical Eurocentrism and colonialism of the commons, it is easier to understand their political colonial tendencies in current times. We can identify at least three:

First is the problem of cooptation. This issue has been pointed out by indigenous North American intellectuals who have warned about the existence of “colonial commons” that try to include their own struggles in a narrative that is alien to them. In this sense, authors such as Glen Sean Couthard (Yellowknives Dene) and J. Kēhaulani Kauanui (Kanaka maoli/Hawaiian native) point to a cooptation of indigenous movements starting with the paradigm of the commons. This issue is historically connected with the long colonial tradition of integrating non-Western commons-based societies under imperialism. However, in this case it refers much more directly to the experience of integrating indigenous struggles into the Western left narrative. For a long time, indigenous movements were forced into class-based categories and political struggles, and now they find themselves in a similar situation, being claimed by the commons. 

Second, there is the problem of oppression. This has been a topic of heated debate in Europe in relation to the racialised and migrant communities that live there. For example, the “commons” government led by Ada Colau in Barcelona has had intense conflicts with the city’s street vendors’ union, an organisation of mostly migrant and racialised people who accuse the government of inspiring racist policies against their means of subsistence and way of life. These actions have a direct connection to the historical racism of the commons on the Iberian Peninsula. The result is that exclusionary commons are proposed that suppress the crucial survival strategies of migrant groups who have been dragged into the territory by global imperialism. Such proposals clearly echo the racism present in public discourse. 

Third, there is the problem of aligning with imperialism. This issue is currently very relevant in light of the political situation in Venezuela. Many leftist intellectuals from around the world inspired a manifesto “by and for the Venezuelan people to stop the war and imperialism”, including important figures of the new global commons left, both European and Latin American. Following “commons” logic, they propose to not align themselves with US imperialism nor with the authoritarian government of Venezualan president Nicolás Maduro, but rather with the people themselves who should be able to decide their own path beyond partisan and imperialistic ways of thinking, whether left or right. Some have even come to join opposition leader Juan Guaidó, the recently self-appointed president of the country backed by the US and Western powers. Even though it may sound interesting to go beyond party politics and solve the conflict using the communal powers of the people themselves, this so-called “middle way” in Venezuela’s current moment of political crisis does nothing more than support the opposition’s coup and the entry of imperialism and Western neocolonialism into the country. Unfortunately, in this case we can also see the workings of this colonial commons logic, in which the commons continues to centre around colonialistic thinking. This example is historically connected to established alliances between communally organised white working classes and the imperial elite, as happened in North America. 

It seems that the new commons left has inherited an unresolved problem from the old left: the problem of colonialism. The paradigm of the commons has a lot of interesting ideas to contribute to contemporary politics, and pointing out its inherent colonialism is meant to be taken as constructive criticism. Analysing this dark colonial side of the theory, lineage and political practice of the commons may help in the important task of decolonising the left and constructing a new, non-colonial paradigm of the commons on both sides of the Atlantic. After all, as we have seen, the commons are not immune to the evils of colonialism.


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