Privatizing the Common Good: The 21st-Century Enclosures Are Here

Ashley Dawson on the Endless Commoditizing of American Energy

Fossil capital has been granted immense power, producing life-giving heat and light but also plunging communities into darkness when they fail to return outsize profits. In 2011, DTE Energy, the investor-owned utility (IOU) that controls southeast Michigan’s energy infrastructure, repossessed one thousand streetlights from Highland Park, a city in the larger metropolis of Detroit. The city was left in the dark. Like many other Black-majority cities across Michigan, Highland Park was struggling at the time with capital flight and spiraling levels of austerity. Once home to Ford and Chrysler auto assembly plants and the well-paying jobs that they generated, Highland Park had seen its fortunes crash in the 1990s and the 2000s as the automakers shipped jobs abroad.

Now, half of the residents of Highland Park had trouble paying their monthly electric bills, and a quarter had experienced a shutoff of gas or electricity—often during Michigan’s cold winter months. When DTE took the lights, Highland Park owed $4 million in electricity bills, a situation likely to be aggravated by the rate hikes the utility wanted to impose to support its existing coal-fired power plants, to build new fossil fuel plants, and to pay the utility’s chief executive his $5.4-million annual salary. The repossession of Highland Park’s streetlights was part of a broader crisis of public assets: across Michigan, communities struggled as control of key public infrastructure like the water department and the school system was stripped from them by undemocratic emergency-management czars.

The taking of the light in Highland Park is part of a new, global round of enclosures in which common assets are stripped from the public. For radical critics of capitalism such as the historians Silvia Federici and Peter Linebaugh and the geographer David Harvey, enclosures are one of the dominant forms of contemporary capital accumulation. According to these activist scholars, critics of capitalism have mistakenly followed Marx’s analysis of what he famously termed “primitive accumulation,” which sees enclosure as a kind of original violence that kick-started the capitalist system. Enclosure, Marx argued, was foundational to capitalism since it allowed powerful landlords to accumulate wealth by dispossessing the peasantry of the land they farmed collectively, replacing such feudal social relations with more lucrative forms of enterprise such as the production of wool.

As the 16th-century English philosopher and statesman Sir Thomas Moore put it, “sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns.” The accumulated capital produced by enclosure of common lands was used to support expansion of industrial production domestically and of the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism abroad. Enclosure thus refers to a global process of violent extraction. But the key thing is that enclosure did not cease once common lands in Britain had all been opened up and capitalism had been established as an economic and political system.

Contrary to what Marx argued, the predatory stripping of common assets around the world never stopped. In fact, it has intensified. The neoliberal era that began in the 1980s has seen a massive expansion of attacks on the commons, both in the form of the shifting of formerly public assets such as school systems into the private sphere in rich countries, and through extensive land grabs in areas hitherto relatively autonomous from the capitalist world system such as parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Resistance to the new enclosures has become a central feature of social struggles over the last few decades. For instance, in 2000, the people of the city of Cochabamba in Bolivia rose up after the World Bank insisted that the government hand over control of municipal water supplies to Aguas del Tunari, a conglomerate controlled by the US-based multinational Bechtel Corporation. The new owner of Cochabamba’s water demanded steep and sudden rate increases of double or more for poor consumers in order to finance the double-digit profits demanded by the companies. The conglomerate even proposed to tax water that people caught in barrels as the rain flowed off their roofs.

A just transition to renewable energy will require a shift away from today’s energy-as-commodity regime.

The people of Cochabamba rose up in protest, occupying the center of the city and forming a grassroots participatory organization called the Coordinator for the Defense of Water and Life that shut the city down and demanded a rollback of the water privatization measures. Under pressure from the water conglomerate and international authorities, the Bolivian government declared martial law and tried to suppress the protests with riot troops, measures leading to mass arrests, hundreds of injuries, and the death of a teenage boy as conflicts erupted on the barricades the citizens had set up around the city. Protesters held fast in the face of state repression, however, and on April 10, 2000, the Bolivian government reached an agreement with the Coordinadora that ultimately not only reversed the privatization of the city’s water but also catapulted Evo Morales and his Movement for Socialism (MAS) into power in the country.

This victory for popular mobilization in Bolivia was a key moment in resistance to the new round of capitalist enclosures carried out during the age of neoliberal hyper-capitalism. The defense of the commons through new forms of participatory organizing resonated around the globe in the following years. In 2013, for instance, Turkish activists protesting government plans to pave over Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park described the park itself and various other urban spaces that the government’s neoliberal policies tried to confiscate for private profit as a “commons.” The Turkish activists called the form of self-government developed during their occupation of Gezi a “commune,” one that involved not just a sit-in but also food distribution, a medical center, and an autonomous media collective.

Grounded in a determination to defend common space from enclosure, the Gezi protest shared a commoning ethos not just with the Cochabamba Water Wars but also with similar movements around the world, from the resistance of the Zapatistas to the neoliberal tenets of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in Mexico beginning in 1994, to the Occupy movement that began in New York and spread across the United States, and to the Indignados movement in Madrid in 2011. In addition to resisting enclosure, these movements also experimented with new forms of popular sovereignty, animated by a fierce critique of the blindness to inequality that characterizes liberal democracy and the regime of private property rights on which it is founded. New structures of governance were developed in global movements founded on the idea of the people as an egalitarian collective with a mandate to rule in order to bring about social transformation.

These experiments reached their highest point with the emergence of what might be termed the social movement party in countries such as Bolivia and Brazil, but the effort to develop egalitarian, non-bureaucratic ways of organizing societies has been a key feature of the Left in recent decades. And, as feminist scholars such as Silvia Federici have documented, contemporary commoning movements crucially include the fight for communal, egalitarian control over material needs linked to social reproduction such as housing, food preparation, child rearing, sex and procreation, and even the reproduction of collective memories.

These radical experiments have exciting implications for the struggle for energy democracy. For example, when the power company came to strip them of their light, the residents of Highland Park took power into their own hands in ways that built on the logic of popular sovereignty developed in global commoning movements. DTE Energy had consistently used political donations (based on those elevated rates) and lobbying to stymie efforts to establish local ownership of clean energy in Michigan. Now it was taking away the power supplied by dirty coal plants.

Faced with this threat, citizens of Highland Park established Soulardarity, a community-based organization that fights for collectively owned streetlights, energy production, and equitable development. Soulardarity not only brings light back to Highland Park, it generates the power to run streetlights from the sun. Soulardarity produces what one observer calls “visionary infrastructure.” And it provides local folks with jobs building and maintaining this new solar infrastructure. Through the organization’s PowerUP program, the community is able to purchase solar power in bulk and at reasonable rates, and to deploy tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of solar infrastructure in the community. But this is not just about transformation of the community’s physical infrastructure: it is also about broader social transformation in Highland Park.

Soulardarity is a democratic, community-governed membership organization that aims to educate Highland Park residents about what autonomous control of power or energy democracy should look like, and to advocate for community ownership, transparency, and environmental sustainability across the region. Soulardarity advocates for a Community Ownership Power Administration (COPA) as a vital element of a Green New Deal in the United States. Like the Rural Electrification Administration that brought electricity to farms across the country during the New Deal in the 1930s, COPA would provide finance and technical capacity to help local communities across the country make the transition to renewable energy. As Jackson Koeppel of Soulardarity explains, COPA would give municipalities, counties, states, and tribal authorities the legal authority and the funding mechanisms that would allow them to “terminate their contacts with investor-owned utilities, buy back the energy grid to form a public or cooperative utility, and invest in a resilient, renewable system.”

In the introduction to their collection of essays on the US movement for energy democracy, Denise Fairchild and Al Weinrub contrast corporate models of decarbonization with the forms of renewable energy being fought for by organizations like Soulardarity. For Fairchild and Weinrub, the former are oriented around the growth imperative of capitalism and are characterized by “a transition to industrial-scale, carbon-free resources without challenging the growth of energy consumption, material consumption, rates of capital accumulation, and concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few.”

The centralized nature of power generation and distribution in the era of fossil capitalism has not only led to significant waste, with average losses of 8 to 15 percent of power generated as a result of far-flung transmission lines. It has also helped to make energy invisible and unconscious for many ratepayers, while subjecting others to heightened environmental and health damages, harms that track closely along lines of residential segregation and racialized inequality in the United States. Corporate-owned renewable energy is not likely to challenge this history.

By contrast, Fairchild and Weinrub argue, the decentralized renewable energy model fosters community-based renewable energy development that “allows for the new economic and ecologically sound relationships needed to address the current economic and climate crisis.” Such decentralization of power, they suggest, is facilitated by the distributed nature of renewable resources: “solar energy, wind, geothermal energy, energy conservation, energy efficiency, energy storage, and demand response systems are resources that can be found in all communities,” and consequently provide a foundation for “community-based development of energy resources at the local level through popular initiatives.”

Fairchild and Weinrub’s advocacy of decentralized renewable energy is thus predicated on both the material characteristics of renewable energies and the forms of radical democracy that they hope will facilitate and result from a just transition. For them, transition is about community empowerment rather than simply decarbonization of the grid, as important as the latter may be in the struggle to avoid climate meltdown.

The question of the energy commons is fundamental to the fight for a collective future.

Writing in Fairchild and Weinrub’s collection of essays, Cecilia Martinez, director of the Center for Earth, Energy, and Democracy, argues that a just transition to renewable energy will require a shift away from today’s energy-as-commodity regime. Martinez suggests that energy democracy requires the construction of an energy commons. What models exist to support the institution and collective governance of such an energy commons, one that diverges radically from today’s private property–based regimes of energy control and ownership? For Martinez, the first step is to recognize that energy is not so much a physical object, but rather a “vast array of natural interactions and phenomena for societal use.”

While energy might derive from natural phenomena all ultimately grounded in the harnessing of solar power, it is inescapably rooted in the social forms and infrastructures developed by humans to exploit solar energy. It is about forms of collective power that are active: in other words, about commoning rather than about some pre-given and static commons. How might energy be regulated in a more egalitarian manner? Martinez alludes briefly in her essay to the legal structures created over the last few decades to establish a global commons outside the control of any particular nation: founded on centuries-old legal paradigms governing the high seas, today’s global commons also includes the atmosphere, Antarctica, and outer space.

Martinez also draws on the pioneering economist Elinor Ostrom to argue that diverse cultures around the world and across history have established institutions resembling neither the bourgeois nation-state nor capitalist markets to govern resource systems. Martinez points to indigenous governance models of commoning founded on reciprocity, cooperation, and respect not only between humans but also among humans and the more-than-human world.

What are the conditions for the creation of a new world based on the energy commons? The egalitarian governance systems and legal paradigms discussed by Cecilia Martinez are helpful here. The particular material characteristics of modern renewables such as solar and wind power distinguish them from fossil fuels like coal and oil, but to what extent do these specific material forms, which derive directly from solar power and its effect on atmospheric systems, make for a new, commons-based energy regime that might be termed “Solarity”? What forms of collective, egalitarian governance can the movement for energy democracy draw on as it seeks to challenge the centralized paradigms of energy generation and ownership of the fossil capitalist regime? Do legal paradigms already exist to help community-based organizations like Soulardarity escape from the clutches of fossil capital and adopt solar power on a mass basis? What are the limits of these legal paradigms and what juridical innovations might address these limits?

These questions all relate to much broader struggles to establish new, revolutionary forms of popular sovereignty to defend and extend the commons, but they have a particular import for the fight for energy democracy. The struggle for a rapid and just energy transition is at the core of broader struggles for an exit from today’s trajectory toward social degradation and planetary ecocide. The question of the energy commons is therefore fundamental to the fight for a collective future.

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people's power

People’s Power by Ashley Dawson is available from OR Books.

Ashley Dawson
Ashley Dawson
Ashley Dawson is Professor of Postcolonial Studies at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His previous books include Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change and Extinction: A Radical History. A member of the Social Text Collective and the founder of the CUNY Climate Action Lab, he is a long-time climate justice activist.





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