A People’s Redfinition of the Economy: Why the Commoning of Work and Labor is a Political Struggle

Social movements across the globe mobilize the commons as non-capitalist economies that are rooted in social relationships and that are motivated by community needs and not by markets. But when we speak of non-capitalist economies, or when we speak of the economy at all, we need to expand our definition, especially as it relates to work and labour. Social justice activist Harsha Walia reflects upon a people’s redefinition of the economy by focusing on the struggles of people that are criminalized in our societies.


Neoliberalism is bound up in the flexibilization of labour, and bound up in the idea of getting people, particularly in the digital economy, to say that they are motivated by their passion. This means that people do not see what they produce as work. But this is very dangerous, and has led to the undermining of labour rights. While I think the tradtional definition of labour is inadequate, I do want to hold on to it. I think what we need instead is an expanded notion of the economy. So instead of dropping the notion of labour, let’s expand what we mean by labour. We need not think of the economy just as the manufacturing sector, the service sector or the material economy, but also as the immaterial economy: Reproductive labour, care labour, and care work.

Thinking about generative economies

And here I think we need to move away from thinking about “productive economies,” because productivity is so linked to capitalism, which is contingent on the idea of labour extraction and production. Instead we need to think of generative economies: the economy is that which generates, not just produces. And that can include a vast array of generation of knowledge, of the generation of future generations, or of how we steward the land.

I want to push back a little against the accusations that pastoral economies are only nostalgic and irrelevant to the struggle for the commons. Today there are entire economies which continue to subsist and survive on the land. This is true where I come from in Canada, in indigenous nations. It’s true for entire swaths of the global south. We may all live in a global capitalist economy, but we don’t live in an industrial economy.

There are entire communities who continue to survive and subsist on the land, where the land is not just something to be extracted, but is an economic source of food, of medicine, of cultural assests. And so I think the idea of stewardship and of generative economy need to be something we need to think through when we think about what we’re defending in the context of the commons.

Let’s imagine the commons differently

I don’t just mean this at a meta level. This isn’t just theory. I think when we start to imagine the commons and economies differently, then we start to see that those who are commoning – which I think is the most important part of fighting for the commons: focusing on those actually fighting for them – then I think we start to centre certain communities, who have traditionally been marginalized or made invisible in our discussions. So let’s look at, for example, the struggle of sex workers, the struggle of drug users, the struggle of migrant workers, the struggle of single mothers, the struggles of seniors, and the struggles of land defenders. These people, who are made disposable by the capitalist economy, are in fact central to the struggle for the commons.

Commoning is a political struggle, and one where the process is as important as the goal: the process of how we engage with each other, the process of how we struggle together, the social engagements, the social relationships, and the political struggles, these are key in fighting for the commons. This is a lesson we can learn from Indigenous struggles.

Mel Bazil, a land defender from the Unist’ot’en camp, doesn’t use the language of the commons, but talks about the importance of fighting for an understanding of responsibility and not rights. I think this is a profound question: how do we invigorate and empower an understanding of collective responsability and not individual rights? The commons cannot simply be the protection of rights as determined by the state or bureaucracies, it’s has to be about collective responsibility. This is the emancipatory struggle for the human condition, not dictated by the state.

People not being present does not mean they are not engaged in the struggle

So de facto the process of commoning is rooted in direct democracy, the engagement of people, the engagement of communities. Now that’s easy enough to say, but one of the challenges, especially when it comes to struggle and political struggle in social movements, is how do we not reproduce those very same relationships of power that we are fighting against? How do we overcome social relationships that are based on hierarchies of race and class and gender and more?

It is tempting to frame this as a question of participation and involvement, of how to ensure everyone can participate in the commons. But I think that’s the wrong question. When people are not present it does not mean that they are not engaged in struggle. It means that perhaps they are engaged in struggles that we can’t see, and that we don’t identify as a process of commoning in our conventional understanding. It’s important not to just apply abstract theory onto people’s movements, but to look at how struggle is emerging. There are a lot of people who are engaged in struggle to defend the commons and in commoning, who don’t identify as commoners, who don’t identify struggling in the process of commoning, but who are doing just that.

I want to talk about that a bit more concretely. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that communities that are the most criminalized are the ones engaged in the most direct, potent, inspiring fights to defend the commons. They do not have the state for protection. So the very struggles for survival have to practice direct democracy. I’m thinking here of peasant movements, sex worker movements, pan-handler unions. But I want to talk about two very briefly, both of which I have been involved with over the years.

Criminalized communities and their processes of commoning

The first is struggles, particularly in inner cities, of homeless communities, based around tent cities. In Vancouver where I live, there has been a long history of tent cities, which has a lot in common with squatting movements in Europe and elsewhere. I think tent cities are fundamentally struggles for the commons and to defend the commons in a multitude of ways. It is illegal in Vancouver, for example, to sleep on the street at all. There are bylaws in almost every city in Canada, certainly in Vancouver, where it is a criminal act and/or a municipal bylaw infraction to sleep on the street.

So first of all, to set up a tent city is in itself an illegal act, but at the same time it is very much in itself an act in defense of the commons, it is to say that, actually, this land cannot be privatized, the street is not the domain of the state, it is certainly not the domain of capital or private interest. Rather, it must be expropriated and used by communities who are forced to live on the street. If we’re forced to live on the street, at least we have a right to the street. So tent cities have been a really inspiring example of communities coming together to defend the commons.

Again here’s where I think the process is so pivotal: the process of setting up tent cities means establishing communities that come together to provide for everyday life for one another, to provide meals for communities on the street, to take care of each other, to do child care, to have safe needle exchanges, all of the kinds of social relationships that need to be tended to and cared for and provided for. I think an incredible example of commoning. I mean both the act of setting up a tent city in defiance of state and capital interests, and the practice of being in a tent city, or participating in a tent city, of participating in direct democracy every single night to decide how are we going to live together, how we are going to govern the shared space.

The struggles of migrants and refugees

The other struggle I want to talk about, and that I’m most familiar with, is that of migrants and refugees. First, I want to say that borders are the most salient example of the enclosure of the commons. They are the most violent form of exclusion that exists on this planet today. I would argue that citizenship is one of the most profound examples of apartheid in our world: borders decide who has the right to dignity and who doesn’t, they create categories of desirable and undesirable, and they perpetuate the divisions of labour and the patterns of imperialist production, expropriation and exploitation between the global north and the global south. So for me, any struggle against the border, and anyone who is self-determining and defies the border, is acting as a commoner and in defense of the commons.

So in Berlin and elsewhere refugee struggles have been central to this defence of the commons. An recent example from Vancouver was a significant victory around a campaign called “Transportation Not Deportation”. Our public transportation system was privatized, which was the predictable outcome of austerity and neoliberalism. But to top it off, public spending has been put into a public police force to militarize the privatized transit system, basically ensure that company’s profits. Here is another example of the collusion of the state and capital.

We found out that this single bureaucracy, the transit police, was responsible for turning over the greatest number of immigrants and refugees and non-status people – so, people without full immigration status – to Canada’s border patrol. We know that precarious workers and low-income people rely heavily on “public transit” and are also those who are most criminalized, surveilled and racially profiled on our public transit system.

So our group developed a campaign, led by immigrants and refugees and their allies, to say that public transit should not be a border checkpoint. This affirmed several things. First, that transit ought to be a public good. Second, the idea that the border cannot keep shifting inwards. Borders of exclusion are forming in so many places. For instance the new refugee camp system seems to be its own enforcement of a border within the nation. So our campaign was against the production of more borders and checkpoints within society.

Within a year we won this campaign as a result of social movements and social struggle. The transit police were forced to cancel their contract and their Memorandum of Understanding with border police. It isn’t a complete victory, but it does mean that people who are precarious workers, who are low-income workers, people who are most invisible in our society, are able to access that which we assume is the commons: public transportation.

We have to make sure that the fight for the commons is inclusive

This goes back to an earlier point: when we’re fighting for the commons, we have to ensure that the fight is inclusive and accessible to everybody. The fight for the commons cannot be a fight for the so-called common good that excludes people without status, that excludes people who are seen to not be producing, or that excludes people who fit all these categories of undesirables within our society. It is imperative that the fight for the commons is one that takes into account access at its core.

I want to end with is my favourite quote from Eduardo Galeano: “The world was born yearning to be a home for everyone.” When I think about fighting for the commons, I think about a fight against the state, a fight against capital. I’m uncompromising in that I’m against the state, and I’m against capital. I’m opposed to all forms of oppression. So for me, the commons is ultimately a fight against the state and capital and oppression. Because if we want to build a home for everyone – as Eduardo Galeano says – we cannot co-exist with these systems.

Audio file: Harsha Walia’s talk

Click on the button to load the content from Soundcloud.

Load Soundcloud

Editor’s note: This text is a transcription of Harsha Walias talk at the UN|COMMONS conference in Berlin. More documents from the conference please find here. Thanks to the Radical Imagination Project for the transcription. The photograph was taken by julietinparis and commented upon in her blog as follows.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.