Wildcat 88, Winter 2010

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Biedermeier Idyll or Eve of Revolution!?1

The current global crisis marks the end of a constellation which emerged during the ’long depression‘ of the last quarter of the 19th century and was gravely shaken during the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s of the 20th century. How do we experience the current situation: as Biedermeier or Vormaerz? As a historical period after a defeated revolution, or as a pre-revolutionary stage?

Are there relations between the expansion of precarious work, the struggles within all those ’new working conditions‘ or against company closures, on the on hand, and the projects and discussions around the commons on the other? Or rather: what do these relations look like?

Perhaps a retrospective view will help to understand the question: without the ’hippie‘ critique of consumerism the re-composition of the mass worker in the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s would not have happened in the way it did. The struggle against work would have had less clout without the vision (and lived practice) of a ’different way of life‘ - as portrayed by the ’hippies‘. The criticism of the hippies – as it was delivered by FJ Degenhardt2 , the German Communist Party and every Maoist or Leninst splinter group at the time, and which implied that the hippies would only care about their ’painted navel‘ – missed this class ’content‘ of the movement.

To understand the current situation, we intend to do the following:

* to look more closely at what exactly constitutes this movement and what it actually does

* to clarify its historical references

* to engage in the theoretical debate around the subject

Joerg van Essen, the parliamentary chief executive of the German Liberal Party (FDP), tried to attack the protests against ’Stuttgart21‘3 by way of a historical comparison: »Many people don‘t know that the process towards the first railway was an incredibly difficult one, given that at the time the citizens felt disturbed in their Biedermeier idyll«, (Sueddeutsche Zeitung, 2./3. October 2010). Biedermeier was a period in the first half of the 19th century, after the victory of reaction over the French Revolution, during which the bourgeoisie retreated into their private idyll. From the perspective of the 1848 March revolution the very same period becomes the (absolutely interesting!) »Vormaerz«. Who is in the right here? Are all those people who are currently in the streets - be it in Berlin, Stuttgart or in the Wendland region during the recent anti-nuclear protests4 - only defending their niches? Or do these struggles against privatisation and energy policy contain new seeds, which crack open and go beyond private (sphere) and state (political) confinement. And if so: does the debate about ’the commons‘ nourish these new seeds, or does it re-integrate them?

Sticking to the topic of the movement in Stuttgart: it will only be possible to avoid the attempts at state recuperation if, instead of focusing on elections and votes, the movement aims at social expansion; if the general discontent against ’those above‘ can be transformed into a common practice against the extension of precarious working conditions, the intensification of labour and so on.


…the open-source-activists commit a classic error when differentiating information from other commodities: they presume that ownership of material goods corresponds essentially to the nature of these goods, instead of being a social relation external to the goods. But Property is a relation between human beings, not between objects and human beings. Property has the same exclusive character, no matter whether the goods are material or immaterial. The question is whether this misconception is a cardinal error: if so, it could almost be the explanation for the ’success‘ of the open source movement. In any case, the open-source movement blends in perfectly with the wider IT sector, which still operates according to the well-known principles of private utilisation of inventions. Or are we dealing with a marginal error - given that in the open source movement, too, activists, theoreticians and ’the movement‘ are not identical? Some ’do it‘, and others ’theorise‘, without a clear-cut borderline, but also without explicitly referring to each other.

Although there aren‘t any standard theoretical references, the theoretical discourse about the commons, which has emerged from post-Operaismo during the last decade, is surely of significance. In their book review, the comrades of the English magazine Aufheben reveal the political shortcomings of the concept of ’the commons‘: capitalism is conceptualised as a market society; one‘s own political activity is therefore perceived as practical involvement on the market. In this case even Negri&Hardt are more radical and talk about the ’common‘, but once more their optimism overshoots the mark: the ’common‘ is supposed already to contain a social wealth, a common practice, which we have only to liberate.

In this way the debate separates already over the choice of words: common or commons? Commons is a general container for all sorts of resistance and struggle against the law of the market. Historical references, e.g. to the common property5 of old, are supposed to prove continuity and potential alternatives to market and state. But it is at this point that the debates and practical initiatives are most contradictory. The reasons for this are outlined in Aufheben‘s criticism of De Angelis (see below). Others refer to the common - instead of the commons - in order to escape from these contradictions. They stress that essentially ’the common‘ is a class concept and class practice and they presume to develop it conceptually from the notion of labour (Negri&Hardt are the best known representatives). ’Immaterial labour‘, i.e. the production of communication and social relations (’affects‘), are grasped as result of the last decades of class struggle and as current historical tendency of the common, as a ’communist tendency‘.

Criticism and theoretical engagement is therefore necessary in order to prevent these theories from neutralizing the tension within the emerging new seeds through a focus on political parties, state and the EU (as in the case of Negri). We want to start this debate by publishing a summary of the Aufheben article in German and a critical review of Commonwealth below.

Historical references…

…are supposed to fill the political gaps. The idealisation of the medieval common property or of the South American Ayllu are meant to demonstrate the ’alternative‘ of a different kind of socialisation - without having to reflect too much on a theoretical level. Once one‘s own niches are pimped as ’alternatives to the existing system‘, the actual social relations and even human beings are soon to be left out of the picture. Common property, the Ayllu etc. emerged from completely different conditions of production and social relations, and they were only half as ’social‘ as they are often thought to be (see the following article on common property).

Social references…

…we should be able to demonstrate these by starting from ’actual social practice‘. Do people in these movements actually ’come together‘? Do previously separated strands of debates fuse under the impact of the dynamic of the current crisis? Do people look for and experiment with ideas which reach beyond the boundaries of the left scene? Can the concept of the commons contribute to this process? Do the commons reveal a new dynamic between (class) struggles and ’intervening‘ groups; a dynamic which goes beyond ’conveying consciousness‘? Are the commons infrastructure for the struggle - or ’alternative space‘ for the retreat? Are they projects of a privileged left which, in the end, serve only the left itself? Are they new forms of a massification of social reproduction or signs of a new ’alternative economy‘? Are the current experiences kept private, or is it possible to communicate and ’massify‘ them?

A lot of questions. A good reason for us to have the next issue‘s main focus on the subject.


[1] Biedermeier »refers to the middle-class sensibilities of the historical period between 1815, the year of the Congress of Vienna at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and 1848, the year of the European revolutions.« (Wikipedia) There was a concentration on the domestic and the non-political, writers primarily concerned themselves with non-political subjects, like historical fiction and country life. The opposed movement towards political, revolutionary change is called Vormärz (pre-march)

[2] Famous protest singer of the 60s, allied with the German Communist Party.

[3] Stuttgart 21 is a project that has been planned for 20 years to put the main station in Stuttgart underground and to commercialise the vast area above. From the beginning there had been protests, and when construction works got nearer, hundreds of thousands of people were mobilised for demonstrations and other forms of protest in the second half of 2010. In Stuttgart and the whole region, S21 was a topic of permanent debate. The destruction of parts of the old station and of old trees in the adjacent park was put through in a rather violent fashion by the police against »citizens« and students, causing even greater outrage. Construction works were interrupted for a public mediation, during which the government had to justify the whole project. Parts of the protesting groups proposed an alternative model for the reconstruction of the station, worked out with expertise and in detail.

[4] There have been protests against the permanent storage of nuclear waste near a village called Gorleben in the North of Germany for many years. Each transport of waste is accompanied by lots of protesters blocking (rail-)roads and by tens of thousands of policemen and -women protecting it. This year in November, following a government decision to prolong the lifetime of nuclear plants, the number of demonstrators was larger than ever, local farmers were particularly angry, making the whole somewhat ritualised situation more dynamic than in recent years.

[5] The German word Allmende describes medieval practices, land and resources used in ways often referred to as cooperative or common. See What was Common Property? on the subject.

[go to series on Commons, Common Wealth, Commonism…]

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