The Production of Commons and the “Explosion” of the Middle Class
Commoning and Value Struggles
In the last few decades, a theoretical stalemate has developed between Marxism, post-structuralism and neoliberalism, which coincided with what has been termed “the end of history”, that is the idea that capitalist markets and Western democracy are the bliss point of human evolution1. In the book The Beginning of History (De Angelis 2007) I argue that the diverse struggles for commons and dignity around the planet, which developed in the last few decades across the wage hierarchy, reveal a different reality: that of the “beginning of history”, of the positing of modes of producing in commons other than those promoted by profit-seeking capital.
By beginning from and ending in the problematic of the commons, I seek to offer a different perspective on social conflict than traditional Marxists and post-structuralist authors. On one hand, I wish to de-fetishize the objectified concepts of orthodox Marxism like value, primitive accumulation and capital, and uncover their living “essence” rooted in what I call value struggles. In this sense, following the basic approach of what has been termed Autonomist Marxism (Cleaver 1979), social conflict in the form of class struggle is not regarded as a variable among many (such as economic, cultural, social etc), but constituent themselves of social practices. On the other hand, I also rejected Foucauldian nominalism and the associated dissolution of social conflict into an embroilment of resistances without clear class “frontline”, arguing instead that the traditional class struggle is over the modes of producing values.2 This interpretation of social conflict also allows the development of a theoretical framework that brings together concepts like commons, enclosure, autonomy, discipline, and social reproduction to illuminate how global capital survives and accumulates in the face of the social conflict it generates. I thus argue that the market functions as a force of enclosure and discipline (of subjectivities and commons/communities) and not as a source of liberation as the neoliberals believe. Hence, it follows that the slogan of the alter-globalization movement, “another world is possible”, must also be subjected to our engaged critique since not only are beyond-capital worlds already in existence, but the issue of the commoning across these alternatives becomes paramount. This is in order to sustain, reproduce and extend the organizational reach of other-than capital forms of (re)production in common of livelihoods and at the same time keep at bay and push back the capitalist form of production in common. Here is the problematic of the “frontline”: a way to reproduce livelihoods in common versus another way to reproduce livelihoods in commons, a form of commoning versus another form of commoning, or a “value struggle”.
Commoning, a term encountered by Peter Linebaugh (2008) in one of his frequent travels in the living history of commoners’ struggles, is about the (re)production of/through commons3. To turn a noun into a verb is not a little step and requires some daring. Especially if in doing so we do not want to obscure the importance of the noun, but simply ground it on what is, after all, life flow: there are no commons without incessant activities of commoning, of (re)producing in common. But it is through (re)production in common that communities of producers decide for themselves the norms, values and measures of things. Let us put the “tragedy of the commons” to rest then, the basis of the economists’ argument for enclosures: there is no commons without commoning, there is no commons without communities of producers and particular flows and modes of relations.4 Hence, what lies behind the “tragedy of the commons” is really the tragedy of the destruction of commoning through all sorts of structural adjustments, whether militarized or not.5
It is because this organic relation between the activity of the commoners and the commons that “commons” rights differ, in their constitution, from legal rights such as “human”, “political” or “social” rights. In the latter sense, a “right” is a legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way. A title deed constitutes evidence of such a right. For the medieval English commoners instead:
common rights are embedded in a particular ecology with its local husbandry … Commoners first think not of title deeds, but human deeds: how will this land be tilled? Does it require manuring? What grows there? They begin to explore. One might call it a natural attitude. Second, commoning is embedded in a labor process; it inheres in a particular praxis of field, upland, forest, marsh, coast. Common rights are entered into by labor. Third, commoning is collective. Fourth, commoning, being independent of the state, is independent also of the temporality of the law and state. It goes deep into human history (Linebaugh 2008:44–45).
The positing for today of the question of what form of commoning, of (re)producing in common, and the field of common rights as distinct from legal rights, means therefore that we cannot separate the question of autonomy, community, life flow, and ecology, but must assert them all at once while struggling for livelihoods. This implies that we must seek and advance new critical perspectives, which make the problematic of transforming our world, of constituting new social relations of production beyond those imposed by capitalist processes, their central preoccupation. Not perspectives that reduce every single problematic of struggle to the question of new forms of commoning. On the contrary, perspectives that expand every single problematic of struggle as carried by singular subjects within a stratified planetary wage hierarchy so as to pose the political question (and express it in organizational means) of our production in common across stratification, and therefore, beyond it.
Here the challenge is how to engage in a constituent process of new social relations, which can only be a process of commoning, able to keep at bay and push back the form of commoning predicated on capitalist relations, and therefore, capitalist value practices. One basic condition for meeting this challenge is that we face the hard reality of what we are up against, that is, capital as a social force and field of social relations that seeks to reproduce itself through boundless expansion. This means, first, that struggle is both necessary for the subjects and ubiquitous across the social fields inhabited by capitalist relations. However, it also implies that struggle is the life-blood of the system's dynamism.6 Second, this dynamism is predicated upon and produces a new vertical segmentation of the condition of reproduction of labor power. The “working class” is divided into a wage hierarchy and no ideological call for unity will ever bring the different segments to work together in the direction of a radical transformation of their production in common beyond capital, and therefore beyond their hierarchy. Struggle, therefore, is also divided across a wage hierarchy, which implies that the possibility of its capitalist governance, predicated on division and exclusion at a point of crisis, are quite broad.
In The Beginning of History, I discussed at length this organic link between capital's dynamism and struggle, the role of enclosures, disciplinary markets and governance, that must be viewed as different but complementary strategic coordinates for the reproduction of that social force we call capital. The question open for us is, how do we articulate this analysis of capital with that of the organization alternatives that is a condition of today's globalization; that is, within, against and beyond capital in the context of today's class composition, today's particular configuration of subjectivities, particular planetary configurations and hierarchy of social cooperation of labor (waged and unwaged)?
As a contribution to this debate, I want to return to the problematic of political subjectivity vis-à-vis these processes of separation (enclosures), systemic recuperation (disciplinary markets) and cooptation (governance) of the social body that struggle in their daily reproduction of their livelihoods. I want to return to the subjects and problematize the question of a political recomposition that not only has the possibility to engage in a Deleuzian “line of flight” by rupturing the system, but can do this without at the same time having to return—albeit in new social forms—to the commoning of capital that has been shown historically and geographically to be so flexible in adapting to new struggles. In other words, I am talking about lines of flight, without capitalist landing. This is of course a crucial question for all those whose perspective is the sustainability of the “beginning of history”, the persistence and development in time of new forms of commoning, of producing in commons that push back those compatible with the self-preservation of capital.
From the point of view of the subjects, the clash of value practices implies first of all a “refusal”, a “no” to indignity, as Holloway (2002) so clearly put it. However, we have an immediate problem on our hand. How can we refuse capital's measure without actively and self-consciously participating in the constitution of other common measures? And how can we participate in this commonality without at the same time setting a limit, refusing capital's measure of things and its drive to separate, subsume and co-opt?7 The setting of a limit to the “beast” and the problematic of how to constitute and sustain the “outside”, which is brought to life by the many struggles, are two inescapable strategic coordinates of the beginning of history.
One of the problems we face when dealing with this issue is that often, when pushed to provide “alternatives”, thinkers and writers in social movements trouble themselves to provide models. To simplify to the limit, from “utopian” visions of confederated spaces to “socialist” and “progressive” left-wing pundits’ proclamation of what “proper” policies should be instead of the current, the pressure is to provide imaginaries of alternatives that appear—in one sense or in another—to be reasonable. In our illustrative spectrum above, the classic proposals of self-managing confederated utopias have nothing to tell us about the imageries and configuration of powers of the current particular class composition, on how such a multitude would in any way reach utopia or whether they would consider “reasonable” such a utopia, once combined as a social force for change. What is reasonable here is measured in ideological terms, not in terms of concrete bodies, reproducing their livelihoods in concrete and specific situations, and whose common “beginning of history” can only have as a presupposition these concrete and specific situations. The vacuum is filled with an ideological struggle that seeks the converted. In a Western urban environment this might be expressed in this way: capital wants you to eat meat, you must become vegan; capital wants you to earn money, you build a life-style without money; capital wants you to compete, you proclaim “solidarity”; and so on. However expressive of real desires and processes of identities production that seek disengagement from capital's value practices, an ideological struggle of this type can only produce, precisely, singular identities, individuals and groups whose value system is pre-defined as ethical choice. But commoning is not only based on pre-existent values, pre-existent “ethical” choices. The commoning we seek is also and most importantlya field of production of values, and the precondition for this production is that a wide range of different ethics, different cultures, different life-styles, and as we will see, different power positions within the planetary wage hierarchy participate in the co-production of new systems of values, of producing what is of common value together.
On the other side of the spectrum, the left-wing pundits’ proposals for “progressive” laws to solve the “problems”, created by the current laws or current government, is to appear reasonable to the middle class (which we will define below). Here, from the perspective of the beginning of history, the problem is specular. While for the utopian proposals an ethical choice is defined as the precondition of the establishment of an identity separated from capital, here the ethic of capital is the precondition for a proposal that aims at addressing and solving a problem created by the working of capitalist relations themselves. Is financial capital mobility deemed “excessive”? Introduce some capital control. Is there “too much” free trade? Introduce some protectionism. Is the middle class battered after 30 years of restructuring? Voice some populism in the next electoral campaign and call for tax reduction “not only for the rich”. Are migrants needed and are we “a country of migrants after all”? Introduce some “humane” form of detention and regulation since “we do not want them to be a burden on our cash-strapped public services”. And there is going to be a recession anyway, hence we had better tighten up regulation. Is ecological disaster looming? Encourage the use of energy-saving technologies without ever questioning the social premises associated with the supreme value of “economic” growth and the correspondent increase in total energy requirement. Is there a major risk of systemic meltdown through a wave of financial bankruptcies at the heart of the planetary financial centers? Put on hold your free market beliefs and bail the system out with public money so that the system can start again with the next wave of cuts in social spending. From the perspective of the beginning of history, not only the way these problems are constructed, but also the policies this construction gives rise to, are problematic. If implemented, these policies are not a step towards a general overcoming of the current forms of production in common, as if capital was not able to use and manage, in its 300 year history, some forms of capital control, lower taxes, protectionism, “humane” forms of detention of the marginalized and “alternative” energy sources such as wind and water mills powering earlier sweatshops of the industrial era. The problem we must face is that the ethic of capital can absorb even what appear to be the most radical aspects of these proposals, since they present themselves as alternative modes of regulation of the same-sameness, of our capitalistproduction in common. In this sense, as experience has taught us, and theoretical work can help us to elucidate, these proposals might address some genuine preoccupation that emerges from below and from struggle, but in a way that takes these struggles back inside the problematic of the end of history, not for the creation of an “outside”, a “beginning of history”.8
The bottom line of the discussion so far is that the minimum condition for alternatives to be able to both reproduce themselves and set a limit to capital is that they constitute processes of commoning through which cooperating subjects seek, establish, represent, and communicate a field of value production which is not only opposed to that of capital, but also propositive and constituent of new social relations at every occasion of struggle. In this sense, the process of commoning beyond capital is a process of destructive creation as opposed to the process of creative destruction of Schumpeterian memory. While for the latter the creation of the new and the correspondent destruction of the old is concerned with the mutation of the forms of capitalist social relations9, we can understand the concern of destructive creation, the destruction of these very capitalist relations and the correspondent creation of new forms of commoning predicated on different value productions. Here the emphasis is on the constituent processes of commoning other than capital, rather than on mutated forms of capitalist commoning.
I can now put forward my hypothesis: to launch an offensive for a new commoning; and new commons understood in the general terms outlined above, implies very concretely to contribute to the explosion of the “middle class”, both in the global North and in the global South. In the following section I will make my argument by discussing what I mean by the middle class, and then by its “explosion”.
The Middle Class as a Type of Laboring Subjectivity10
The Middle Class is a daily preoccupation that haunts politicians seeking votes, marketing agencies seeking sales, banks seeking debtors, and pension fund managers seeking savings to invest in global markets and capitalize on planetary enclosures. In this sense, I understand the middle class not as a homogeneous social group with a given level of income, but as a stratified field of subjectivity disciplined to a large degree to the norms of behavior of a modern society in which capital has a fundamental role in organizing social production through disciplinary markets, enclosures, governance and its profit seeking enterprises.11
This definition allows us to account for a sort of oscillation between the definition of middle class as a social “norm” and its use as a descriptive analytical tool. On one hand, as a field of subjectivity disciplined to a degree in the sense here defined, the middle class is the social subject that social practices produce normalization to the system and therefore is a condition for the reproduction of the system itself. On the other hand, at any given time, the middle class presupposes specific material conditions of social reproduction and the existence of subjects who are bound to be excluded from the middle class.
In this sense, the middle class is a ghost haunting any single one of us along a vertical wage hierarchy, subjects who operate daily, in a myriad of forms, for the reproduction of their own bodies, communities, families, labor powers, and livelihoods, within the boundaries of the system and in such a way as to reproduce, through their money and market-mediated interaction, the boundaries of the system. Subjects who, depending on their position in the wage hierarchy within a spatially defined reproduction field (De Angelis 2007:73–75), have access to cash and/or credit to reproduce their livelihoods, and who, to varying degrees depending on the amount of cash and/or credit they can access, reproduce these livelihoods by outsourcing the labor of their own reproduction to an alien other in the market. The condition of the middle class is generated by the medium of their reproduction in common: capitalist markets.
Two things follow from this. First, we cannot hate the middle class without hating ourselves, as we endure many of our practices once they are understood as interconnected fields of capitalist relations of production. “Middle class guilt” has a material basis after all, although we should not be seduced into wanting to change the world through forms that are compatible with the reproduction of the middle class and, therefore, the basis for its guilt. “Charity”— the main receptive of this guilt—is an industry that reproduces the current social relations of production, not a vehicle for the beginning of history. Second, to act as middle class is not simply a question of following a mainstream ideology, a hegemonic culture in which the values of the ruling elites become common sense values for all. This classic Gramscian approach must be modified with the consideration that the forms of commoning through which we produce and reproduce ourselves areforms of value production. The waves of marketization and precarization of the last two decades, together with the evolution of what is called the “knowledge economy” eliciting social creativity and innovation, is making increasingly clear the implication of this: these forms of capitalist commoning demand from individual singularities that they deploy modes of measurement and evaluations that both keep them inside the social process of exchange value production (missing this, they are simply under the threat of non-reproduction) and push for continuous outsides in the forms of “use value” production. Here it is again, Schumpeter's creative destruction. To the extent middle class culture is a hegemonic culture, therefore, it is the hegemony of the holding together of this contradiction, a contradiction that Marx sees grounded on the commodity form (Marx 1976 : chapter 1) and in the capitalist social processes of reproduction.
The middle class is a laboring subjectivity. Middle class pilots and air hostesses run aviation, middle class drivers run trains, while middle class ticket inspectors make sure we all act as middle class and pay for our ticket. Middle class copy-editors write new messages to sell commodities to middle class “ethical” consumers. Middle class brokers seek profitable ways to invest the pension funds of middle class radical sociology teachers. The middle class is responsible for running many Western factories, social services, police, courts, schools, universities, science labs, insurance companies, army, state and government bureaucracy, and political parties. Or better, this is the case if one excludes the non-citizens from this calculation, that is, the invisible migrants. Indeed, even the most “progressive” representatives of the middle class, when in power, do not count these, as they are outside the boundaries of what constitutes citizenshipby the letter of the law, which, as we will see, helps define the middle class.12 Again, we are not assuming a level of income, but a field of subjectivity normalized to the boundaries of the system. And we are not necessarily discussing individual attitudes within a group. We are discussing the rules governing the group.
There are wage hierarchies within the middle class. There is impoverishment within the middle class. Yet, there is a deep-rooted illusion that “betterment” will come through individual action, such as effort, education, and so on. Or better, this is an illusion to the extent we reason from the perspective of the whole. For the individual, betterment of course might well arise through one's readiness and equipment to fight the ongoing civil war through which we reproduce our livelihoods, competition. Or it might not. The point is that the middle class is precisely one with an ideology of betterment through individual effort—a practical ideology, as it provides a compass for individual action—and the market is the social mechanism through which the fruits of these efforts are reaped (or not). Unfortunately, what the middle class interactive subjectivities do not realize is that one of the products of such competitive interaction is the continuous movement of the goal-posts by which everybody's “effort” is measured, making it harder to reap benefit and contributing to the creation of divisions and hierarchy within the middle class itself.13
Middle class communities are thus necessarily—to a variety of degrees depending on context—gated communities. CCTV cameras, security guards, detention camps and prisons surround these. Depending on their relative size, these gated communities are clearly visible to our eyes, or not. In many areas of the global South, in Johannesburg or Rio de Janeiro for example, we can see them clearly as we walk around residential areas and they appear to us as small enclaves, homes or entire neighborhoods to prevent the poor, the not-middle-class-yet, from coming in. In the global North, the gates are perhaps less visible to daily life, as we are more normalized to them, or they are more pervasive, as indicated by the 10,000 CCTV cameras costing £200 million in a city like London (Davenport 2007). Or perhaps we should consider the entire national or supranational territory14 as an example of a large gated community, as detention camps and custom officers strive to keep the poorer, the not-middle-class-yet, from coming in on their own terms.15 Just as the poor are allowed in the gated communities of the global cities to attend to its needs—as security guards, cleaners, domestic laborers, builders etc—so here custom officers are patrolling the borders of a field of capitalist busy-ness, a reproduction field, which necessitates careful control as tensions in the labor markets are accumulated and the management of migration contributes to de-compression (Mezzadra and Neilson 2003).
As laboring subjectivity, the middle class is, after all, an empirical term to describe a subset of what we would theoretically call working class, the name of a social and political subject that we understand reproduces its livelihoods in opposition to and as part of capital, a term that for us includes both the waged and the unwaged, it is segmented and divided in a wage hierarchy, and it is planetary in character. The middle class for us is working class minus a firm presence—aspirational, symbolical, or concrete—in the outside of capital.
Thus, it is important to understand that the middle class also struggles, but it struggles as middle class. The middle class, as any class, has its range of modalities and oscillations16 among strategic coordinates, that is, the pillars which allow its survival and reproduction qua Middle Class.17 One of these pillars is “order”. The middle class ultimately wants “order”. This is increasingly so and with good reason. “Order” is a necessary condition of the capitalist form of production in common, especially as experienced by the middle class with a high degree of responsibilization and normalization. The reproduction of middle class livelihoods increasingly depends on order. It would take a major social reckoning to explode this need for order and give space to the desire of other orders, that is, other social and spatial dimensions of cyclical time through which values are created (De Angelis 2007), which are not functional to the incessant and pressing need to get money into the family budget. Take, for example, the American middle class, of which all the candidates in any presidential election claim to be the true representatives. In the last few decades middle class families, even with two pay checks, have developed quite stretched finances, leaving them insecure, with less and less room for error, and therefore unable to consider any alternative but running the competitive race. In the last few decades, the only increase in income for a family has come from a second pay check, as the median income of a full-employed male has dropped in real terms and women's struggle for autonomy in the 1960s and 1970s has been co-opted by capital into intensified competition in the labor market and market outsourcing of reproduction labor. This has raised the household income by about 70% since the 1970s, but has at the same time increased the amount spent on essentials for the reproduction of the household and increased enormously family financial risk. Today's “average” middle class families have budgeted to the limits of their cash potential. This financial risk has increased for a variety of reasons. First, unlike the case of a generation ago, incomes are less dependent now due to a few decades of neoliberal reforms with outsourcing, threat of precarity, and cuts in welfare entitlements. Second, due to the increased reliance on two incomes, families have lost flexibility in compensating for a loss in income due to sickness or layoffs. Any change in family fortunes today cannot be compensated by another family member going into waged employment; (s)he is already doing it. Third, despite the fall in the cost of manufacturing goods—due to the millions of poorly paid workers in China and in other export processing zones around the world sweating it all out—which contributed to keeping real wages from falling more drastically, about 75% of family outgoings are now essential fixed costs—mortgage, car payments, health and insurance, childcare. These are costs that cannot be cut back unless the basic structure of a family unit is restructured: a home, a car, an education or health coverage is foregone (Warren 2006). It is obvious, therefore, that in this context, middle class families grow in debt and are increasingly allured into the possibility of becoming rentiers, that is, of making money out of the ups and downs of financial markets. It goes without saying that the systemic limitations of such an avenue for “betterment” have become tragically obvious once again in the financial meltdown of 2008.
The other strategic pillar of the middle class is “betterment” of its conditions of living. But since its horizon is the end of history, middle class “betterment” is constructed within a world dominated by capital, its enclosures and its forced separation from commons, disciplinary markets and its competitive pitting of livelihoods against one another, and governance and its techniques of division and exclusion. This implies that “betterment” can ultimately only be actualized through a wage hierarchy. The middle class as such cannot stare in the face the simple fact that 6 billion of us cannot be middle class, for two reasons. First, even through recycling and energy efficient light bulbs, it would require several planets to accommodate such a way of life.18 Second, since this way of life would be produced through capitalist “commoning”, it would be predicated on hierarchy and exclusion. In other words, from the perspective of the whole, middle class “betterment” is an illusion constructed in between the Scylla of ecological disaster, and the Charybdis of poverty and detritus. Yet, the middle class keeps seeking “betterment” in its own terms. Its plans (for “better” government, for “nicer” environment, for “less” poverty, for “improved” public services, for “better” wages) appear at first to be opposing something, to offer a plan B with respect to the one that is being implemented. The party of “order” and the party of “betterment” are often opposed in political elections, as these are the moments in which the steering wheel needs to be moved more in one direction or in another in order to reproduce the whole. The truth is that each of the counterpoising parties, once in government, are both a party of “order” and a party of “betterment”, since both will seek middle class votes in the next round. Therefore, for the middle class, there is no true plan B that would move us into a radically different form of commoning. For the middle class there are only different modulations and orientations of plan A, the capitalist “commoning”.
The boundaries of the system in which the middle class operates among other social actors include, and especially seek to include, the conflict that is either generated therein or from the outside of the system itself. Examples of the first are classic labor struggles, contained by and large within bureaucratic procedures and codified systems of representation; pressure groups to reform a law within the institutional procedures; voting for opposition parties for forming new governments; social movements contained within ritual manifestations of social power (demos etc) for becoming a visible identity and pressing for the recognition through a bill of rights. It must be clear here that I am not passing value judgment on these conflicts. As “worker”, “concerned citizen”, “father”, “husband”, “neighbor” and “friend” I am an engaged actor in many of them. Yet, it is also clear that the transformative power of these struggles singularly taken has a very limited impact on control and disciplinary mechanisms of capitalist processes. Bureaucratic maneuvering, monetary or migration policies, capital mobility and disciplinary markets can displace labor struggles. New government parties structure their difference in such a way to make it compatible with the general system of laws and priorities of global capital. New social subjects can gain visibility and march from the margin into the mainstream, without questioning the processes that create marginalization, and therefore, a new generation of marginalized. Once we dispose of the idea of a linear progress, no “reform” can delude us that we are “on the right track”. Instead, we must be alert to the fact that a reform, precisely and literally, might well contribute to re-form again the same processes and structures of dominations.
The world of banking and finance up till the crisis of 2008 can serve as an example of how the middle class, that is, a laboring subjectivity that operates within the system of capital's valuing process, recreates itself and the common context of its interaction. Take the stock market operators who are said to have a memory span of 24 hours in their field of activity, and who divide themselves into two parties: the bear and the bull, those who bet on an asset's value going down, and those who believe and bet it will go up. The betting strategies follow these beliefs. In between, the swing voters will join one or the other parties depending on band-wagon processes. Now, the value of any assets in a given moment of time will be the net result of these forces, whoever has put down more money to push the market in one direction or the other. But once bears or bulls find their expectations confirmed by the events, there is a point that the bears will start to turn into bulls, and will buy the deflated assets at a “bargain price”, in the expectation now that it will rebound. Is it conceivable that the systemic end of its operations follows a collapse of the stock market and this market might occur on its own terms, that is, without an outside intervention? I believe not. For the simple reason that a crisis will simply imply a reconfiguration of the debits and the credits, at which point the game can continue. The working of the system is based on the expectations that bears follow bulls, and rapid growth periods are followed by recessions and slumps. In different historical times there might be—for good historical reasons—a difference in the timing, intensity and wavelength of these phenomena. At one point, state authorities might even need to suspend the working of stock markets for a while in order to limit the damage brought by the system by the presence of too many bulls or bears and bring in some reforms to appease operators. Yet, the point is that the inner working of these forces produces fluctuation. The middle class subjectivities operating on a daily basis in these trades know this. They know that independently from the fact that today they may lose or gain, tomorrow will be another trading day, if not for them because they got bankrupt, at least for those with liquid capital who will shop for bargains. The systemproduces ups and downs as a breathing mechanism and it is itself produced by the laboring of middle class traders who expect the system will be there tomorrow. And once we are talking about financial markets in which bonds, futures and options extend expectations of profitability quite a few years ahead (and base their current value by discounting this flow of future income), we are also talking about expectations of a capitalist future. The middle class reproduces its livelihood expecting that tomorrow production in common will be like today. The middle class is the political subject of the end of history.
Things could be a bit different if, outside the stock market, someone was playing the drum and refusing the restructuring, rationalization, cuts, flexibilization, dispossessions, enclosures with all their planetary ramifications that were suited necessary to “rationalize the economy”, “revitalize growth” and improve “confidence” after the financial cracks or following the movements of financial swings. And things would certainly be different if they were to refuse this by, at the same time, seeking to seize the means of existence while reconstituting their social cooperation through new commons and new commoning. Things would be much different. Back in the offices of traders, the number of “good bargains” available on computer screens would start to drop by the hour, before disappearing completely to give space to a flashing window deposited by a hacker saying: “the world is no longer for sale”. Suddenly, there would no longer be a middle class, either on the trading floor or on the streets.
The point illustrated by this little vignette can be rehearsed at a broader social scale. Let us ask the original question: is it conceivable that a systemic collapse and end of the capitalist market might occur on its own terms, that is, without an outside intervention? To reiterate my earlier answer, now applied on a larger scale: I believe not. For the simple reason that any of the many possible systemic crises will simply imply a reconfiguration of ownership and control of the social means of existence and production, at which point capital's commoning game can continue. The working of the system of the capitalist “commoning” (which includes market and state/political processes) is based on the expectations that rapid growth periods are followed by recessions and slumps. In different historical times there might be—for good historical reasons—a difference in the timing, intensity and wavelength of these phenomena. Or even a geographic articulation between growth and slumps. Yet, their inner working produces fluctuation. The middle class subjectivities operating on a daily basis across the division of labor and types of contract know this. They know that independently from the fact that today they may lose or gain, get sacked or hired, tomorrow will be another market day or election day, or working day. If not for them at least for those who are “active participants” in the labor market, “engaged” citizens, and “happy shoppers”. The system and its subsystem produce ups and downs as a breathing mechanism and it is itself produced by the laboring of middle class subjects who precisely expectthe system will be there tomorrow. And since we are talking about the intertwining of states, markets and livelihoods, there are expectations that project quite a few decades if not centuries down the line. These expectations and their material basis—the power of capital to be constituted as a social force with the bodies of middle class policemen and/or with the bodies of middle class pundits who call for reforms and/or the bodies of middle class workers who “don't have much time for politics” because of the pressing needs to reproduce their livelihoods and those of their communities—do not leave much space for any hope different from wishful thinking. Also in this case we are talking about expectations of a capitalist future. The middle class reproduces its livelihood expecting that tomorrow's production in common will be like today's will be predicated on the same “laws” of interaction, given shape by the pursuit in common of the same value, that of more money. This is the reason why the middle class seek to send their children to “better” schools, and to “better” universities, measured in terms of the competitive potentials of their degree. They conceive their children's future to be dominated by the same broad rules of the games that they have been playing. To repeat: the middle class is the political subject of the end of history.
There appears to be no threatening drumming outside here, apart from the ritual dance in some contract renewal. It will soon be put to silence by a loss or a victory, for one or the other—but this is only to trigger a reconfiguration of winners and losers across the planetary system.
The “Explosion” of the Middle Class and the Outside
We must face and recognize a deep political truth, which historically got confused in the long debate between reform and revolution—a false polarity that has tragically crossed the twentieth century. Neither the middle class, qua middle class, nor its representatives and “service providers” (political parties within a system of bourgeois democracy, marketing agencies within a system of competing corporations, job agencies within a system of competing laborers) will ever be able to contribute to bringing about a fundamental change of the system that emerges out of our daily activity within the system. The production in common centered on middle class values—however historically and culturally specific they are—is always production in common within the system. Our common action as middle class action, whether as consumers, workers, or citizens, reproduces the system of value and value hierarchy that is the benchmark, the referent point for our cooperation.
The problem we face is therefore this: there will be no beginning of history without the middle class, nor will there be one with the middle class (ie with the system that reproduces laboring subjectivity as middle class). We must therefore seek an outside from which to stand on new ground and wage our struggle! If the middle class will have to force itself beyond itself, outside itself, how else could it do it but through an explosion? And how else could this explosion be triggered but by the impact with what is already outside itself?
I of course mean explosion only and uniquely metaphorically, how else would it be possible without undermining the perspective of the beginning of history? This is for two reasons. First, our understanding of middle class—which I repeat is stratified within a wage hierarchy—coincides with mainstream life in the global North, and with increasing sizeable pockets in the global South worshipped by global developers as the benchmark of human civilization.19 To seek its physical elimination cannot therefore coincide with the project of thebeginning of history. Second, real, indiscriminate or targeted explosions of real middle class bodies might have found their social, political or religious condemnation or justification, but are utter nonsense as strategic assets for the beginning of new forms of commoning beyond capital. The physical explosion of the middle class and its media representation creates fear, and fear creates prisons for the many, not the few. It therefore creates opportunities to channel that fear of “security” to feed the fear of staying behind the race, by getting rid of all “troublemakers” or those perceived as such who did not have anything to do with those explosions in the first place, by erecting more gated communities.
That modern oracle of commons Wikipedia defines an explosion as “a sudden increase in volume and release of energy in an extreme manner, usually with the generation of high temperatures and the release of gases. An explosion creates a shock wave” (accessed 6 February 2008). The explosion of the middle class we seek, therefore, is a sudden increase in the volume of social cooperation and correspondent release of playful energies, in such a way as to create a socio-cultural shockwave. Now, this is what I would call, with an understatement, a proper movement. So, again, how else could this explosion be triggered but by the impact with what is already outside itself? And what is outside the middle class?
There are three outsides to the middle class as we have defined it. The first one passes through middle class subjects themselves, through all, to varying degrees, and is expressed in atomic re-appropriations of labor time and its products, and space away from capital, or in molecular communities reproducing commons and their defense in factories, offices, neighborhoods, homes, streets, and cyberspace. It is the frontline of value struggle passing through the bodies of laboring subjects. It's the hint that what we are doing in common, and how we are doing it, is crazy. It's the daily apprehension of reality beyond the fetish. It's the guy responsible for purchasing chicken in a supermarket chain, abhorring for an instant the idea that he may be responsible for the appalling ways that chicken is produced. Or the woman taking up a job in a development NGO and hating the fact that most of her time has to be spent fine-tuning projects to the requirements of donors. Or the precarious call center worker who hates repeating stupid marketing questions to rude and uninterested respondents.
These outsides, if given an organizational form, might then well be later co-opted and made to work for capital when articulated to its reproduction, but they nevertheless spark light when they appear. The middle class subjects, with all the dangers of generalization, are divided subjects, a division which is an expression of their separation from the commons. They face their commoning, their social production in common, as an alien force posited outside them, as money, as “the economy”, and hence they face one another within this social cooperation as “other” and “foreigner”. On the other hand, they also face one another directly, as colleagues, friends, mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts, friends or enemies, sons or daughters, mates or companions, neighbors and so on, in a variety of modalities, social roles and forms of social intercourse. In this way, they often combine and recombine communities of struggle in which they discover new communal dimensions for their power through commoning at the frontline.
There is a second outside to the middle class. It is the political subjectivity that might be created as a result of the change in composition: suddenly, the middle class finds that among itself there is an increasing section which either does not want to or cannot sustain its livelihoods as middle class. In the first case, we are talking, for example, of the period of the student movements in the 1960s, in which middle class youth battled against the authorities of fathers, police, university professors and politicians, refusing with lifestyle choices and mass gatherings, the lifestyle of its class. The beginning of history however is not about individual's lifestyle; it is about the production in common of life. Capital was able to capture the playful-sexual energies liberated by those movements and channel them into newlifestyles, filling creative jobs with many middle class children who had to move on with their lives after the season of protests. It was thus able to turn the struggle for freedom of this movement into a coherent neoliberal project in which individual's pursuit of their “freedom” could occur within commons shaped by disciplinary markets.
In the second case, we are talking about temporary work, casualization, precarity in a world of drastically reduced social entitlements and skyrocketing personal debt. The specter is given voice in the news: for the first time in the history of capitalism, the middle class children of middle class families might have to do with less than their parents. The “American dream”—the illusion according to which “more” isalways better and possible for all—seems to have reached an impasse (Garfinkle, 2006). Precarity seems to be the condition of the age. The middle class precariat is often highly educated, the expression of a mass intellectuality brought about by generations of schooling. Yet, many are in low-paid jobs that do not have anything to do with their education and the aspirations they invested in them. They are the children of that moving goalpost that the interacting subjectivities within the market always create. Aspirations are often frustrated. The precarious subjects are often conditioned to sell a type of labor power for living (say, working as a security guard or as a hamburger flipper) and offer another type of labor power as a “gift” in order to add a line of “experience” on their CV (say as a “creative” type in the job advertisement). Needs and desires are here held in check, one against the other. Ins and outs of one segment of the labor market create, amplify or soften cycles of depression and exhilaration in subjects. The precariat is thus being in a condition of limbo; its presence and imaginary is both outside and inside the middle class.20 This is a dangerous situation for capital, as we might be in the presence of a potential social detonator. Needless to say, this situation, which has coincided with some of the trends in the labor market in Western economies in the last 30 years, is now aggravated by the incumbent economic crisis in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
Finally, there is a third outside to the middle class, an outside that reminds us of the social constitution itself of the middle class, and indeed, of capitalist production. As we have seen, the social constitution of the middle class is predicated on a particular social production of “order” and “betterment”. These are both predicated on the construction of “the other”: the other as a foreign alien or the other as thepoor, the unwaged, the waged at the bottom of the scale (who cannot access “our” rights and entitlements, but who can be forced into migration by “our” rights to capital movements seeking valorization; who can clean “our” office toilets and subways, but who cannot speak to the world about the conditions and remuneration of this because of the threat of detention; who cannot follow the swings of their existential needs and desires, but who must endure the swings of pervasive and never ending capitalist restructuring; who can mind our children so that we can concentrate on the intensity demanded by waged employment, but whose children are minded through an intensification process of unwaged labor of reproduction of sisters and grandparents in the home countries21).
In the presence of this outside, and its struggles, the middle class is truly confronted with its social constitution, the elements defining the invariant character of the middle class, which remains the same through consumer fashion, changes in governments, TV comedy seasons, and structures of labor markets. What remains the same is that the existence of the middle class qua middle class, even when it moves and struggles, is predicated upon the order of gated communities, identity cards, national and supranational border control, which helps define the average social wage and the modality of deviation from this average in given reproduction fields. The gate and the management of the gate therefore contribute to a yardstick for measuring the singularities’ distance from “betterment”, to measure their progress through the wage hierarchy, whether in a lifetime or across generations. The policed gate in order to manage a wage hierarchy, and a wage hierarchy in order to legitimize and produce a policed gate: the dissipation of this double dimension involves the dissipation of the middle class itself. The emergence of commoning across borders is through the wage hierarchy in forms that are other than the commoning of capital reproducing borders and the wage hierarchy is a commoning through which both borders and wage hierarchy are problematized, and their dissipation sought. But since both borders and wage hierarchy are pillars of the capitalist form of production in commons, to problematize them implies to constitute new forms of production in common.
The explosion of the middle class, therefore, coincides with a liberation of playful energies that reappropriates resources and rearranges social relations. Here are the times of revolution: the double crossing of the web of borders, the national borders policed by the army of the state, and the borders of the wage hierarchy policed by the army of prejudice, patriarchy and racism. How this explosion will be brought about, I do not know. But it is clear that if it comes at all, it will be through the creation of an outside of capital which is far greater than the sum of the three outsides I have discussed. And this is because it is an outside constituted through the creation of commons across these three outsides. Here the explosion of the middle class corresponds to a process of political recomposition across subjects that connect the frontline struggles of capital across the wage hierarchy and national borders, resulting in new forms of value production. Seeking commons across these actors is certainly difficult organizational work, but what other ways are there to create the conditions for the explosion of the middle class and open the ground for the constitution of new commoning beyond that of capital. When we struggle across the wage hierarchy and/or across national borders, we problematize the existing modalities of accessing social wealth created in common in the global factory. When we do this, we cannot avoid transforming ourselves. But this is a transformation of the self of a different nature to that planned out in the “me me me” survival manuals of the busy urban middle class. It is this process of transformation associated with a commoning, of both the subjects involved in co-production and their relation. The other is no longer alien but a co-producer of life in commons. The explosion of the middle class seems to be truly our only hope to save ourselves from alienation, poverty and ecological disaster.
I wish to thank the anonymous referees for their helpful comments and the editors for their patience.
Francis Fukuyama was the original proponent of the thesis according to which liberal democracy marked the “end point of mankind's ideological evolution” and the “final form of human government” (Fukuyama 1992:xi). Obviously, in so far as liberal democracy is a political institutional form of capitalist markets, the end of history is the modern ideological expression of capitalist ideology. It is interesting to note the paradox of this statement: this is the ideological conviction that the end of history coincides with the “end of ideologies”.
For a broad discussion of the problematic of value and its central place in revolutionary projects, see Graeber (2001), especially chapter 3 in which the author discusses value as the “importance given to action”. A version of the argument in this chapter is in Graeber (2005).McMurthy (1998) offers an important contribution towards the deconstruction of the market and its associated discourses as “ethical system” and implying a “value war”. In De Angelis (2007), especially chapters 2–4, 12 and 13, I build on these and other contributions to reformulate Marx's value theoretical concepts in terms of value struggles.
Peter Linebaugh (2008) discusses how the Magna Carta, issued in 1215 and developed as a treaty among contending forces in a civil war, tried to put to rest, among others, the conflict between commons and private property.
See the discussion in De Angelis (2003).
For an analysis of the relation between enclosures, war and neoliberal globalization, see for example Federici (2002). For a review of different forms of enclosures, see De Angelis (2007:142–148). The so-called “tragedy of the commons” is the economist view of the world which is preoccupied not with commons, but with promoting their enclosures. The recent version of the “tragedy of the commons” argument was put forward by Garret Hardin (1968) in the journal Science. The core of the argument is that commons are incentive and distribution arrangements that inevitably result in environmental degradation and generally resource depletion. This is because the commons are understood as resources for which there is “free” and “unmanaged” access. In this framework, no one has an obligation to take care of commons. In societies in which commons are prevalent, Hardin argues, people live by the principle: “to each according to his needs” formulated by Marx in his critique of the Gotha program. By assuming that commons are a free for all space from which competing and atomized “economic men” take as much as they can, Hardin has engineered a justification for privatization of the commons space rooted in an alleged natural necessity. There is a major problem with Hardin's formulation. He forgets that there is no common without community within which the modalities of access to common resources are negotiated. Incidentally, this implies that there is no enclosure of commons without at the same time the destruction and fragmentation of communities. However, the “tragedy of the commons” argument is not simply “wrong”. Its problem concerns the fact that its players are casted in a rationality and measuring process that is uniquely the type of subject portrayed by capital: homo economicus. We can uncover the “apologetics” and “vulgarity” of this argument, only by reclaiming different types of measures for ourselves, different modes of commoning. Without wanting to romanticize any of them, there are several examples of “sustainable” traditional commons, in which community decisions set the boundaries of what is “sustainable”. Princen (2005:23), for instance, reports how for the last 500 years Swiss farmers have avoided overgrazing through collective decisions, or fishing people in the Lofoten Islands in the far north of Norway whose decision to use “inefficient” management and technologies allow them to preserve their fishing stock.
The idea of struggle at the basis of the capital's dynamism comes from the early Italian workerism, and still constitutes one of the basic insights allowing a non-dogmatic interpretation of Marxian categories. See, for example, Tronti (1971), Cleaver (1979), De Angelis (2007).
In De Angelis (2005) I engage with Holloway's argument and argue how the “no” always implies a “yes”, and the latter is the ground for the social organizational work necessary in a process of constitution beyond capital.
A classic example of this strategic recuperation is the contraposition between different models of economic management and their historical evolution, their becoming new orthodoxy at a moment of impasse of capitalist relation of production because of widespread struggles. Thus, post-war Keynesianism (promoting active government intervention for the promotion of “full employment”, a welfare state, and the principle of increasing social wages tied to productivity) is opposed to neoliberalism [calling for austerity, (wage)-inflation fighting, and trickle down tax policy and an ideological anti-authoritarianism]. See De Angelis (2000) for an account of this. Various studies also enable us to explain the formation of the wage hierarchy (Federici 2004), the coexistence of relative and absolute surplus value strategies and the inter-complementarities of “high” and “low” points of capitalist production (Federici and Caffentzis 2007; Tomba 2007), the coexistence of enclosure processes and disciplinary markets at various levels of capitalist development (De Angelis 2007).Moulier Boutang (1998) makes a very broad historical discussion of the history of the capitalist system, and argues that forms of enslaved labour have always played a fundamental role in capitalist accumulation, at whatever level of historical development.
“The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as US Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation … that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in” (Shumpeter 1975:82).
Warning: if you read this section and think I am talking about you, well you may be right. You are probably middle class. But the good news is this: at the same time you also are probably not. This is the frontline of value struggle passing through you and me.
We must clarify this statement in two senses. First, the “fundamental role” is not an exhaustive role. As I argue in De Angelis (2007), capital must be understood as a relation of struggle, hence the production of value for capital is occurring through a clash among different value practices. Second, this implies that the important aspect of “control society” emphasized by post-workerist authors (Hardt and Negri 2000) following post-structuralist ones (Deleuze 1990) is the fact that disciplinary mechanisms are pervading the social field through the market, and are not only confined within specific architectural spaces (the factory, the prison etc). But since disciplinary mechanisms constitute the production of capitalist values, then it follows that, contrary to the claims of the same authors, capital as a social force still has a fundamental role in organizing social production.
For example, in London, the living wage is set by the Mayor, and used as a campaign tool by trade unions of low-paid workers. Its calculation is based on the assumption that people who work have full access to all entitlements that citizens do. Unfortunately, many low-paid workers are illegal immigrants who cannot access these benefits. The living wage so constructed therefore caps the wage demands at a level below the one required for “living” in London by a large chunk of London's low-paid workers (see Greater London Authority 2007).
For a discussion of how the current graduate market is reaching saturation and hence putting downward pressure on graduate wages, see Taylor (2006).
We must be careful to avoid simple linear correspondence between a national territory of a nation state and a field of exercise of sovereign power. Things are of course more complicated than this. For example, Rigo (2007) shows that the Europe of migratory flows is a global political space, since agreements for expulsion between EU nations and so-called “safe third countries” are in turn supplemented by agreements between these and non-European nations. When we conceptualize modern borders, therefore, it is important to keep this “flow of expulsion” and regulation in mind. Yet, for our purposes, whether the gates are provided by post-modern interlaced “smart fencing” or cold war types of big thick walls, the metaphor of a gated community is still relevant here.
To assert this autonomy of the migrating subjects is to move away from a discourse that regards them simply as victims, while emphasizing that decisions to migrate might involve a search for liberty and emancipation from unfavorable conditions in particular places, as much as existential and “banal” reasons rooted in daily life. For a discussion, see Mezzadra and Neilson (2003).
The idea that the middle class is “oscillating” among different positions has a long pedigree, and was emphasized in different modalities since the very earlier Marxists and socialist thinkers were debating the virtues and defects of “reform” compared with “revolution”. In Marx and Engels, the term took different meanings, at times referring to the bourgeoisie; at times referring to the middle strata living off revenue (rather than wages) and standing between workers on the one hand and capitalists and landlords on the other; at times referring to the waged functionaries of capital replacing capitalists in their managerial and supervisory functions. In the early twentieth century, the classic position that the middle class was seen as a vestige of the old feudal mode of production (as in György Lucacks), was starting to crack. Hence, whether the middle class was seen as a new middle class created by the desire of capitalists to “outsource” their work of administration and under the continuous danger of proletarization (Kautsky), or as a result of the need to create markets for increased capitalist production (Bernstein), the middle social position of the middle class gave it a peculiar strategic potential for the revolutionary or reformist dreams of a generation of socialists. Bernstein, for example, saw a potential unification of “interests” that would have been achieved by the dual process of proletarianization of parts of the new middle class and embourgeoisement of the working class. These combined processes, together with the “intermarriage” of the two classes, opened the reformist road to socialism. For a review of these early debates, see Carter (1985).
It is clear that “class” in general “is never of one mind” (Ehrenreich 1989:11). Barbara Ehrenreich puts it this way with respect to the 20% of American people that she classifies as professional middle class (from school teachers, to lawyers, academics, nurses and doctors and middle-high ranking managers): “Its only ‘capital’ is knowledge and skill, or at least the credentials imputing skill and knowledge. And unlike real capital, these cannot be hoarded against hard times, preserved beyond the lifetime of an individual, or, of course, bequeathed. The ‘capital’ belonging to the Middle Class is far more evanescent than wealth, and must be renewed in each individual through fresh effort and commitment. In this class, no one escapes the requirements of self-discipline and self-directed labor; they are visited, in each generation, upon the young as they were upon the parents. If this is an elite, then, it is an insecure and deeply anxious one. It is afraid, like any class below the most securely wealthy, of misfortunes that might lead to a downward slide. But in the Middle Class there is another anxiety: a fear of inner weakness, of growing soft, of failing to strive, of losing discipline and will. Even the affluence that is so often the goal of all this striving becomes a threat, for it holds out the possibility of hedonism and self-indulgence. Whether the Middle Class looks down towards the realm of less, or up toward the realm of more, there is the fear, always, of falling.” These might therefore be considered the psychological reasons for which alternatively the middle class is the party of “order” and of “betterment” through the wage hierarchy, and in particular moments it oscillates towards one or the other political spectrum: “So there is not, ultimately, an objective answer to the question of whether the Middle Class is an elite or something less exalted—an extension, perhaps, of the working class. And hence there is no easy answer to the much harder question of whether it is ‘naturally’ inclined to the left or to the right. Is the Middle Class, by nature, generous or selfish? Overindulged or aggrieved? Committed to equality or defensive of privilege? These are not only possible answers, but choices to be made” (Ehrenreich 1989:15). But these choices are contingent to a particular phase of capital accumulation, a particular global political economy within which whatever the right or left leaning, the middle class strives to reproduce itself as middle class. The point of the end of history, therefore, is this oscillation between “right” and “left” within the boundaries of systemic parameters.
According to some estimates, as for 2003, the ecological footprint has already “exceeded the earth biocapacity by about 25%” (WWF 2006:2). The ecological footprint is the accounting tool measuring how much bioproductive land and sea resources is appropriated for human use in relation to how much is available on Earth. “A moderate business-as-usual scenario, based on United Nations projections showing slow, steady growth of economies and populations, suggests that by mid-century, humanity's demand on nature will be twice the biosphere's productive capacity. At this level of ecological deficit, exhaustion of ecological assets and large-scale ecosystem collapse become increasingly likely” (WWF 2006:2–3). On the other hand, if we were to take the extrapolation of the middle class American dream seriously, and project for the world the current US level of bioproductive land and sea appropriation, we would require about 4.3 planets (WWF 2006:3; computation from data supplied in table 1). For a review of the current methodologies used for the computation of the ecological footprint, see Kitzes et al (2007).
It is interesting to note how strategies of international development such as reforms of international financial architecture can be conceived as “middle-class-oriented development” since “access to reasonably priced, long-term credit is the single most important element in the formation of the middle-class”. This in turn can be seen to serve a stabilizing function over the social system: “extending the system of mass affluence found in the industrial economies into the developing world as rapidly as possible is the key to global political stability and economic growth” (Mead and Schwenninger 2003:3–4, my emphasis).
On this last point see, for example, Ehrenreich and Hochschild (2002).
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