Criminalising the Commons

by nineteensixtyseven

The most recent episode of Laurie Taylor’s ‘Thinking Allowed‘ contained a segment on ‘skipping’, the practice of removing for use food and other items which have been thrown out by individuals or retailers.  Attending the British Society of Criminology Conference at Leicester University, Taylor learnt from ethnographer Jeff Ferrell (who spent a year skipping) how the practise was becoming illegal as part of the general criminalisation of people at the margins of society.

Much of the ‘zero tolerance’ rhetoric emanating from New York, which has transferred to a degree across the Atlantic, focuses on crime and public safety.  However, it also complements the logic of capitalism in leading to the erosion of the commons, and the destruction of collective space and property for common use; everything must be commodified, even if it has been thrown in the garbage.  In a similar vein, it was as a journalist for the Rheinische Zeitung, writing on the 1842 debates in the Provincial Assembly to criminalise the theft of wood from previously commonly-held forests, that a young Karl Marx first became interested in political economy.  Marx wrote caustically about the proposed law that:

“It would be impossible to find a more elegant and at the same time more simple method of making the right of human beings give way to that of young trees. On the one hand, after the adoption of the paragraph, it is inevitable that many people not of a criminal disposition are cut off from the green tree of morality and cast like fallen wood into the hell of crime, infamy and misery. On the other hand, after rejection of the paragraph, there is the possibility that some young trees may be damaged, and it needs hardly be said that the wooden idols triumph and human beings are sacrificed!”

Examining similar recent legislation, an interesting think-piece by Antonio Tosi in the European Journal of Homelessness examines how, for instance:

“Regardless of the extent to which they are directly targeted at the homeless, the new practices of controlling public spaces have severe consequences for the homeless. The regulation of public space further restricts the life spaces of homeless people in that it deprives marginal groups which spend most of their day in public space of ‘ a location for basic human functioning ’ ; of ‘ spaces to congregate for social interaction ’ ; of ‘ places where they can claim some degree of personal comfort in keeping (relatively) warm and dry ’ (Doherty et al, 2006 : 12) and also paradoxically ‘ places where one may feel safe and somehow protected ’ (Giannoni, 2007 : 9).”

He also notes that:

“The dominant view in recent years is that the use of public space has become increasingly restrictive, with a raft of regulations prohibiting certain acts, resulting in the criminalisation of the homeless. The logic underpinning these punitive regulations are to safeguard and protect the public from the predatory actions of those inhabiting public space, which in turn can cleanse city centres and attract capital.”

The radio programme also raises the issue of retailers destroying the goods that they throw out in order to render them unusable.  As Ferrell says, there is a market logic to this.  This of course ensures that the commodities do not exchange hands without being paid for; capitalist production is by its very nature orientated wholly towards the pursuit of profit rather than meeting social need so producers would rather see mountains of food than a nourished population.

 As Marx says in Chapter 24 of Capital:

“It is not use-values and their enjoyment, but exchange-value and its increase, that spur [the capitalist] into action.  Fanatically intent on making value expand itself, he ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production’s sake.”

And elsewhere, “Use-values are produced by capitalists only because, and insofar as, they are… depositaries of exchange-values.”

 Indeed, a UN report last February found that if the world’s largest companies had to pay for their own environmental destruction it would wipe out a third of their profits.  Their behaviour can only be considered ‘rational’ in a purely monetary sense because they are led by the need to create shareholder profits, and these can only be attained by passing on the costs to the rest of us.  Individuality rationality breeds collective madness.

This state of affairs has become so normalised that, at least until before 2008, to question it was akin to a sort of madness.  Butter mountains and milk lakes, however, are not rational in any objective definition of the word.  Only when production is democratically-controlled and orientated around actual need can rationality be achieved.
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5 Comments

Filed under Marxism, Sociology

5 responses to “Criminalising the Commons

  1. The butter mountains and milk lakes were the result of farming subsidies IIRC – very much not a product of the unbridled free market – but in general I pretty much agree with the thrust of this piece. Have you ever read ‘Homelessness and the issue of freedom’ by Jeremy Waldron? He covers a lot of the same themes to argue that under a negative conception of liberty homeless people are seriously unfree in many ways. It’s pretty cool.

  2. “The butter mountains and milk lakes were the result of farming subsidies IIRC – very much not a product of the unbridled free market ”

    This is an interesting point, actually. Obviously milk lakes etc. are obscene; but more than that, they are the product of capitalist society. It makes a certain sense for capitalism to iron out the contradictions caused by over-production and under-consumption by making mountains and lakes of goods.

    But it is a state-organised solution. It’s a *capitalist* state-organised solution, which responds to the needs of capital.

    It’s popular to think that somehow the free market is ‘more capitalist’ than a state-operated market system. It’s not. The capitalist state is not ‘more socialist’ than the market. States have a class character, and capitalist states are political props for the market.

  3. I really like the way you’re using the idea of the commons to make links between food, public space, and pricing environmental destruction.

    I think with skipping, for me its a continuation of keeping the food as commodity, even when it’s also ‘waste’. The pollution of the food (eg supermarkets pouring bleach over it) is in a sense a violent attempt to close down that ambiguity – this CANNOT be consumed, it MUST be destroyed – and then of course legislating over that ‘waste’ becomes especially interesting, because by criminalising the eating of the food, the state acknowledges that it is food, that it can be eaten, but it’s not allowed, because, as you say, money can’t be made from it once it’s in the bin.

    I’m interested in taking these ideas into housing (esp the whole squat/anti-squat issue) as well…

  4. Thanks, Gloria. I think the example of skipping really does, as you say, expose the ambiguity or, putting it another way, the two-fold character of a commodity: as something to use (eat) or merely as a depository of value.

    I agree with Ed on the subsidies and the state. Even more than that, the subsidies were a reaction to the extreme instability of food prices on the market. When prices for farmers were crashing the margins for grocers and supermarkets were growing massively which is a disproportionality of sorts.

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