Philosophy as Resistance: Commons for All

Thinking of philosophy as resistance, one might think first of the philosophical activities of Marxists, feminists, and environmentalists.  I would add process philosophers to that list.  For Bergson, for instance, philosophizing is a violent inversion of the status quo.

The mind has to do violence to itself, has to reverse the direction of the operation by which it habitually thinks, has perpetually to revise, or rather recast, all its categories.  But in this way it will attain to fluid concepts, capable of following reality in all its sinuosities and of adopting the very movement of the inward life of things.  Only thus will a progressive philosophy be built up, freed from the disputes which arise between the various schools, and able to solve its problems naturally, because it will be released from the artificial expression in terms of which such problems are posited.  To philosophize, therefore, is to invert the habitual direction of the work of thought. (Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics [trans. T. E. Hulme. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912], p. 51).

That’s not very different from Whitehead’s claim that philosophy “reverses the slow descent of accepted thought towards the inactive commonplace” (Modes of Thought, p. 174).  The question I’m left with is to what extent Bergson and Whitehead can facilitate resistance to a particularly obstinate habit that pervades late modernity: the enclosure of the commons (the becoming-inactive of the commonplace).  For Bergson, resistance to enclosures might have something to do with love, reminiscent of his famous saying, “The motive power of democracy is love.”  In Whitehead, maybe the notion of conformation provides a sense of the commons.  Consider a few quotes from Process and Reality:

The philosophy of organism holds that, in order to understand “power,” we must have a correct notion of how each individual actual entity contributes to the datum from which its successors arise and to which they must conform. (p. 56)

The pragmatic use of the actual entity, constituting its static life, lies in the future. The creature perishes and is immortal. The actual entities beyond it can say, “It is mine.” But the possession imposes conformation. (p. 82)

..and from Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, “Time in the concrete is the conformation of state to state” (35).

Some discussion of the DeleuzoGuattarian concepts of Hardt/Negri would help elaborate on the role of process thought in resisting enclosures and recuperating the commons, as would a discussion of Anne Pomeroy’s work on Marx and Whitehead and the anthology Bergson, Politics, and Religion, edited by Alexandre Lefebvre and Melanie White.  I’ll have more to say about this later.  In the meantime, I’m enjoying the essays in The Wealth of the Commons, edited by two wonderful defenders of the commons, David Bollier and Silke Helfrich.

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2 responses to “Philosophy as Resistance: Commons for All

  • Matthew David Segall

    Thanks for your reflections on the commons, Sam. I found myself reflecting on similar concerns these past weeks. I spent time in plant ceremony with a Huni Kuin shaman recently. He shared his concerns for the Amazonian commons where his people (numbering about 7,000 now) are struggling to survive amidst the corporate loggers, farmers, oil drillers, and ranchers, and more recently, the drug cartels. Each group represents another aspect of the privatizing power of global capitalism carving up the face of Gaia, saying “This is mine” without at all considering the need to conform with what is already present there, with what already lives on the land. It hardly matters who is already there; all that matters in our present hyper-capitalist economic state of emergency is that transnational corporations are invested with the political and technological power to steal, to enslave, and ultimately to kill anyone who stands in their way.

    But then here is this indigenous shaman sharing his alchemical plant medicines with we white folks up in Northern California. Here he is inviting us to let the rainforest inhabit our thoughts and feelings, to remind us of what has always been common sense. Maybe the plants have something to teach us about resisting the enclosure of the commons, too. They seem to have gone to the trouble of traveling to us all the way from the Amazon. There’s got to be a reason (even if its an inverted reason) for it. But perhaps their displacement wasn’t by choice. It’s like China invading Tibet, forcing Vajrayana Buddhism from its mountain retreat so it could seed the world with its wisdom: global capitalism’s invasion of the Amazon is pushing the plant teachers out of the jungle and into our living rooms, shaking us awake out of our screen-dazed submission to the self-incarcerating prison system known as consumerism.

    Anyways, thanks for insisting on resistance.

    • sam

      What a wonderful example! Thanks for sharing your experience, Matt. Plant medicines definitely have a lot to teach us humans about resisting enclosures. It reminds me of Jeremy Narby’s work. The role of shamanism and plant medicines in protecting the Amazonian commons is basically the premise of The Cosmic Serpent.

      I like your point about how neoliberal enclosures of the Amazon have been sowing the seeds of their own undoing, opening up alternatives to capitalism. In the Amazon, privatization has been stirring up shamanic migrations that are reuniting the eagle and the condor and facilitating communal alliances and healing experiences for growing numbers of people across a vast spectrum of race, class, age, gender, ability…. I’m not sure about the Tibet example: it wasn’t neoliberalism that caused the Tibetan diaspora, and furthermore, Vajrayana came to Tibet from India, so it was itself a colonial venture with a complex relationship with an indigenous culture. In any case, I catch your drift that imperial efforts sometimes have beneficial and even counter-imperial consequences.

      If capitalism generates its own overcoming, then our task (as commoners) is to push it to its own limits. Although capitalism feeds off its own limits (thriving at the edge of chaos, making a mess out of the commons), it never crosses the limit of its propertarian materialism and accompanying consumer subjectivity. The question is how to push capitalism beyond that limit, releasing it into a transformative event that would undo consumer subjectivity and recuperate the community of locus. The question is how to make a mess out of the mess made by enclosures, how to liberate the neoliberal subject, how to free “free trade.” As D&G say, we need to scale the schizophrenic wall–the wall preventing us from undoing the neoliberal subject, the wall preventing us from becoming cosmic. According to one of their plateaus, what is needed is the undoing of the subject, which is nothing else than the non-doing practiced by Carlos Castaneda’s warrior-shaman, which brings us back again not just to process philosophers (experts at undoing the subject) but also to the possibility that shamanic plants have a lot to teach us about recuperating the commons.

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