Tallulah Fontaine
Image: Tallulah Fontaine


November 9, 2015
by Alison Hugill


This time … it is women who must build the new commons so that they do not remain transient spaces, temporary autonomous zones, but become the foundation of new forms of social reproduction.

— Silvia Federici, “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons”

In the last decade, the idea of the “commons” has taken root in new territory. The commons refers to a moment when the distinction between public and private property was both challenged and defined, and today, in the face of widespread austerity measures, urban studies, architecture, and planning, in particular, have revisited the term in the pursuit of a radical spatial politics.

The recent “Make City” festival in Berlin, and its corollary ideas competition “Designing the Urban Commons” in London this spring, interrogated strategies for collective self-management and invited participants to challenge established ideas of property and ownership. The events began from the premise that the distinction between private and public property is a false binary that ignores the possibility of land and resources beyond the purview of the state or market. Whether evidenced in local community gardening initiatives like the “Agrocité” project in the Paris suburb of Colombes, initiated by collective Atelier d’Architecture Autogerée (AAA), or in the theoretical underpinning of critical educational forum “Campus in Camps” in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, led by members of the “Decolonizing Architecture” research group, the commons has presented a refreshing alternative for understanding the politics of space.

Additionally, we’ve seen a worldwide proliferation of discussions about the urban commons cropping up in response to crises: unprecedented examples of spatial commons resulting from protest movements or cases of extreme need such as the current refugee crisis, community farming initiatives, and efforts to safeguard the digital commons. Whether material or immaterial, the topic seems to quench a contemporary social drought brought on by the so-called “retreat of the public.” With this in mind, the question of how to scale the politics of the commons beyond local, spatial, or resource-based definitions is an ongoing concern.

The commons has historical roots in the English peasant revolts of the Industrial Revolution, a time period which entailed the seizure and enclosure of commonly held land. Residents and subsistence farmers were violently expelled and land was released into the privatized mainstream of capital accumulation, creating a landless proletariat. Karl Marx called this the moment of “primitive accumulation” from which capitalism as we know it was born.

Commons are intimately connected to a moment of loss and, if understood as a singular historical event, threaten to solidify the reign of capitalism and create a nostalgic political outlook. Contemporary theories around the commons insist, instead, that primitive accumulation is a constantly recurring cyclical phenomenon, through which capital seeks boundless expansion. New commons are constantly to be found and enclosures ceaselessly follow. Rather than a foundational moment, capitalist accumulation and the dispossession of commoners is seen as a dynamic process that demands a more structural challenge if it is to be curbed.

A recent turn away from the term as denoting a site or resource, and towards its understanding as a social process, has resulted in the active verb “commoning”: the creation of a community that shares political values concerning the common ownership of food, land, and knowledge resources. Importantly, as Greek academic Stavros Stavrides points out, commoning is about difference not commonality, and the ideal commons would constantly expand the scope of its participants. Beyond a purely resource-based definition of the term, this social pact entails a focus on immaterial forms of work, communication, self-management, and knowledge exchange.

If we think of the commons only in terms of spaces or resources, we risk missing the deeper structural problems inherent in capitalist ideology. A useful challenge to stagnation is found in Italian autonomist feminist Silvia Federici’s short essay “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons,” wherein she points to the feminist and Indigenous roots of commoning. In this piece she makes the important, and contentious, claim that a revaluation of traditionally feminized reproductive labour is crucial to any understanding of commoning as a future anti-capitalist political program. Reproductive labour sets the initial conditions for production to occur: it involves sexual reproduction, care, nourishment, and shelter. Without aiming to essentialize present-day instances of reproductive labour, it has historically been understood as women’s work. Federici proposes that we need to collectivize reproductive labour in order to make commoning a social reality, and argues that women are historically poised to lead the transition.

As noted above, the idea of the commons as a historical alternative to the state and market has gained renewed critical relevance in contemporary urban studies discourses for the way in which it addresses ever-increasing privatization of land and natural resources, as well as agricultural practices. Federici, who has been approaching the topic from a feminist perspective for decades, warns of the dangers inherent in the concept’s misappropriation, citing the ways in which the term “commons” has been hijacked by the UN and the World Bank to allow “a crisis-ridden capitalist class to revive itself as guardians of the planet.” Additionally, the promise of the internet as a commons has been increasingly debunked, as every corner of cyberspace becomes subject to privatization and surveillance.

Federici asserts the importance of considering the feminist roots of the commons and commoning, in order to present a structurally more cohesive alternative political project. In her well-known book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, she traces the countless ways in which women’s bodies have been persecuted and policed—particularly as medieval heretics and, shortly after, as witches—by the church and state in the transition to capitalism. She lays out the systematic quashing of women’s social power and its inextricable ties to collective subsistence and reproductive health. It’s no coincidence that heresy flourished amongst the rural proletariat, particularly among poor women who took control over their own reproduction, creating powerful “sterility potions” to avoid further economic ruin. Heresy became increasingly associated with reproductive crimes and a prototypical women’s movement emerged within heretic groups.

Federici pinpoints the witch hunts as a direct response to the kind of social life and gender relations that prevailed in the communal living situations of rural peasants and serfs in the Middle Ages. Medieval serfs had relative autonomy over common lands—meadows, forests, lakes, wild pastures—and direct access to the means of their subsistence. No social separation existed between the production of goods and the reproduction of the workforce: “women worked in the fields, in addition to raising children, cooking, washing, spinning, and keeping an herb garden; their domestic activities were not devalued and did not involve different social relations from those of men, as they would later, in a money-economy, when housework would cease to be viewed as real work.” Though Federici is certainly not advocating a return to serfdom, nor glorifying the conditions of servitude, she does note certain social benefits that resulted from unfettered access to common lands and collective food resources.

In contrast, capitalist societies have since organized economic life in such a way that there is cooperation at the point of production, and separation and isolation at the point of reproduction. To combat this atomization in family units, Federici cites examples of urban gardens as playing a significant role in the production of food for local or neighbourhood communities. They have, however, largely remained spontaneous grassroots initiatives and the question of how to scale the idea of commoning, without ultimate subsumption in the capitalist market, remains largely unanswered. Foregrounding a number of contemporary examples—including the African tontines (autonomous, self-managed, women-made banking systems) and the ollas communes (common cooking pots) of Chile and Peru—Federici shows the ways in which women have been and continue to be the “subsistence farmers of the world.” Her insistence on the gendered nature of this struggle comes from a historical study of the role of women in struggles against land enclosures. Federici predicts critical feminist responses to her argument within the text, aware that many feminists would find her argument, that reproductive labour is intimately related to women’s lived experience, essentializing. She writes:

Arguing that women should take the lead in the collectivization of reproductive work and housing is not to naturalize housework as a female vocation. It is refusing to obliterate the collective experiences, the knowledge and the struggles that women have accumulated concerning reproductive work, whose history has been an essential part of our resistance to capitalism. Reconnecting with this history is a crucial step for women and men today both to undo the gendered architecture of our lives and to reconstruct our homes and lives as commons.

Many of the current examples of this kind of collectivization are taken from Indigenous communities in the Americas, including women in the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico. The enactment of the Women’s Revolutionary Law in that context strived to combat patriarchal domination by addressing women’s grievances with regard to political representation, labour, reproduction, and domestic violence. Indigenous feminisms in revolutionary movements have positioned women as intimately involved in the political and social struggles of the community. These movements have managed to avoid situations where Indigenous men and women are forced to enter the globalized capitalist economic system, which has reduced women’s power within the family. Under capitalism, paid economic labour has simultaneously been positioned over and against unpaid subsistence labour, while paradoxically depending on it.

A more recent example of feminist commoning is visible in the Kurdish Women’s Defense Force (YPJ) currently operating in the Rojava cantons (Afrin, Cizire, and Kobani) in the liberated region of Northern Syria, or western Kurdistan. Since 2012, the region has been largely governed by Kurdish militia, who have been in more or less constant battle with the surrounding Assad regime. The autonomous region has set up a series of district people’s councils, which collectively decide on matters of administration such as garbage collection, heating, land ownership, and cooperative enterprise. Women make up at least 40 percent of these councils, and autonomous women’s bodies have been additionally set up at each level in an effort to revolutionize the gender imbalance. In cases of internal conflict over issues directly concerning women (marriage, reproduction, polygamy, domestic violence), the women’s council has the right to overrule the mixed councils.

This particular effort to reverse gender imbalances and collectivize reproductive labour does not necessarily lead to a situation where women are isolated or pigeon-holed in domestic duties. Even in local examples of commoning, the importance of reproductive labour becomes clear as soon as efforts to cooperate emerge: questions of subsistence precede production and are its undeniable backbone. As feminist sociologist Maria Mies observes: “The way in which women’s subsistence work and the contribution of the commons to the concrete survival of local people are both made invisible … have common roots.… In a way women are treated like commons and commons are treated like women.”

The task, then, is to recognize and reverse this devaluation of reproductive labour and its inextricable relation to land and natural resources. A recent symposium in Berlin as part of the “Make City” festival attempted to tackle questions of how the commons can become a transnational project, beyond isolated local initiatives, and whether—from the perspective of architecture and urban planning in particular—it was possible to design the commons. What emerged, above all, was a sense that the topic concerned primarily social relations. Commons do not simply mean open and free access to land and natural resources, but rely on a deeper set of socio-political values that must be rooted in anti-colonial and feminist struggles.


Alison Hugill has a Master’s in Art Theory from Goldsmiths College, University of London (2011). Her research focuses on marxist-feminist politics and aesthetic theories of community, communication and communism. Alison is the editor of Berlin Art Link magazine, and a writer and curator based in Berlin. www.alisonhugill.com.

“Feminism and the Commons” is from our FOOD/LAND Issue (fall 2015)

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