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What is the Lifeblood of a Commons?

We have so internalized the logic of neoliberal economics and modernity, even those of us who would like to think otherwise, that we don’t really appreciate how deeply our minds have been colonized.  It is easy to see homo economicus as silly.  Certainly we are not selfish, utility-maximizing rationalists, not us!  And yet, the proper role of our emotions and affect in imagining a new order remains a murky topic. 

That’s why I was excited to run across a fascinating paper by Neera M. Singh, an academic who studies forestry at the University of Toronto.  Her paper, “The Affective Labor of Growing Forests and the Becoming of Environmental Subjects” focuses on “rethinking environmentality” in the Odisha region of India.  (Unfortunately, the article, published in Geoforum (vol. 47, pp. 189-198, in 2013) is behind a paywall.) 

How do people become “environmental subjects” – that is, people who are willing to apply their subjective human talents, imagination and commitments and become stewards of some element of nature?

Singh wanted to investigate why villagers were willing to regenerate degraded state-owned forests through community-based forest conservation efforts.  She found that “affective labor” is critical in managing a forest.  The term comes from Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, who use it to describe the role that reciprocity, empathy and affect play in shaping human behavior and action. Indeed, other people’s affect influences what kind of “self” we construct for ourselves. 

This whole topic is important because standard economics has its own crudely reductionist idea of who human beings are.  We are “rational, self-interested” economic actors, of course, and most public policy is based on this (erroneous, limited) notion.  Most economists frankly have no interest in exploring how people come to formulate their “self-interest.”  They simply take those interests as given. 

But what if participating in commons produced a very different sort of human perception and subjectivity, and indeed, produced human beings as self-aware subjects/agents?  What if this process could be shown to be essential in integrating human culture with a specific ecological landscape?

Singh’s piece tries to better understand how people’s sense of self and subjectivity are intertwined with their biophysical environment, and “the forms of human cooperation that emerge in response to changes in this environment.”  The lesson that I draw from Singh’s paper is that our acts of commoning changes how we perceive ourselves, our relationships to others, and our connection to the environment.  In Singh’s words:  “Affective labor transforms local subjectivities.” 

I admire Singh for tackling the ontological issues head-on.  So much pivots on them.  She notes that the philosopher Spinoza saw the human body as something that learns by doing.  Through action, human identity and knowledge are “constantly open and renewed.” 

As a result, human beings are not fixed and “closed-in” (as economics sees them), but constantly unfolding and “opened-out.”  Human beings are best understood “not in terms of eternal and immutable essence but in terms of relations and affect,” writes Singh. They are formed through “active engagement with other human and non-human bodies.” 

Thus a core ontological insight about commoning:  subjectivity emerges from doing – just as a commons itself can emerge only through commoning. It is an unfolding of affective labor.

So instead of presuming that individuals are “coherent, enduring and individualized” as the modern worldview (including economics) holds, we must regard humans as a hybrid mix of individual propensities and the environment.  Or as Singh puts it, “the boundaries between the ‘self’ and the environment are porous….human subjectivity is shaped by a human being’s engagement with its total environment, not just its social environment.”

That’s why we must engage with subjectivity and the commons:  When we engage with nature – and with each other through commons – we are changing our subjectivity in the process.  And this subjectivity is a life-force of its own.

Singh illustrates this process by studying villagers in Odisha, India, who did not participate in a classic "market solution" by which the state would pay peple to act as conservators of state-owned forests. Instead, villagers were allowed to provide their own self-managed community-based conservation.  They could apply their own “affective labor.”

While Singh doesn’t use the language of the commons, she is clearly describing commoning:  People patrol the forest as part of their everyday activities.  They pick berries, pull out weeds and check for any signs of pilferage or violations of rules of the commons.  They develop “affective ties with the growing plants, trees, birds and animals,” and in so doing, “forests are transformed from nature out there and become a part of the self that is nurtured through care.” 

The forest becomes a place of social life and collective memory.  People take pride in their relationships to “their forest.”  They write songs about the “cool, lovely shade of trees” and describe it in terms one might use to talk about one’s family.  A whole range of “intimate environmental care practices” help maintain and “grow” the forest. 

Villagers developed an identity as “forest people” and “forest care-givers” – quite a reversal of the standard market/state logic that regards a forest as a raw product to be sold, an object of bureaucratic control or empty wilderness.  A commons brings into being a different ontology!

Singh writes:

One village leader simply described the collective action to protect forests as “Samaste samaste ko bandhi ke achanti,” that is, ‘each and every ‘one’ holds the other together.”  I think he was also referring to the affective capacities of all bodies, human and nonhuman, to come together and get entangled in relations of affect and accountability.  Through forest protection, villagers have built and strengthened communities, with the forest being a part of the affective community.”

The state was not especially happy about these outcomes, Singh writes.  Why?  Because commons initiatives are “not simply a struggle over resources but also a struggle over meanings.”  The state wishes to insist upon the authority to define any forest resource as a market resource, and not acknowledge the meanings and subjectivities of villagers.

One villager who has fought with a local mining company to protect the forest was asked what he hoped to “gain” from his resistance:  “After some thought [Singh reports], he haltingly replied, ‘We live by the forest.  The forest provides us with many things – tubers, herbs, fruits like Mahua and Char, and also dead wood and branches, which I can sell in the future.”  When asked if he will cut the trees to sell, he retorted, ‘No. Never.’  He went on to say, ‘The cool breeze coming from the forest feels nice.  It feels good to have protected this forest.’  The connections between joy, empowerment and the production of new subjectivities could not have been more clearly expressed.”

Singh acknowledges the difficulties that often occur within forest commons, such as conflicts over resources and the exclusion of marginalized groups.  But she notes:   

“...it is remarkable that millions of people in thousands of villages in Odisha who are involved in forest protection think of themselves as forest conservators, and their actions and discourses are informed by this subject position.  My point is that we need to understand and engage with the processes through which new subjectivities are formed, and new ways of relating to nature emerge, and appreciate their potential to challenge dominant visions about nature conservation.”   

Singh’s wonderful article reminds us that at bottom the commons is about developing and protecting some very different subjectivities than those currently allowed by neoliberalism. 

For more on this topic, check out Tim Jensen in the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest “On the Emotional Terrain of Neoliberalism.”  Jensen writes:

“Just as with the exploitative extraction and reshaping of our natural environment, our collective emotional and affective environment is being shaped—violently, systematically—to serve the interests of capital. Derrick Jensen rightly notes, “It would be a mistake to think this culture clearcuts only forests. It clearcuts our psyche as well. It would be a mistake to think it dams only rivers. We ourselves are dammed (and damned) by it as well. It would be a mistake to think it creates dead zones only in the ocean. It creates dead zones in our hearts and minds. It would be a mistake to think it fragments only our habitat. We, too, are fragmented, split off, shredded, rent, torn.” When these territories of desire and imagination are stolen, ravaged, and toxified it becomes that much easier for the theft and destruction of natural landscapes to go uncontested, unnoticed.

“Premise:  Affect and emotion are foundational.”

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