About absence of barter-logics, feminist commons and ‘basic material caring’

Friederike Habermann (born 1967) is a trained historian and economist. Amongst others, she has written the books ‚Peninsulas against the stream‘, ‚Homo Oeconomicus‘, and ‚Ecommony – Turn to Togetherness‘. She is active in a variety of movements such as MOVE UTOPIA, living utopia, BUKO and the alter-globalisation movement and lives in a quite particular community project nearby Berlin. On a midsummer day in July 2017, we met to talk about her motivation, ideas and personal development towards looking at the economy from a total different perspective.

Friederike, could you tell me some more about the story behind what you do today? 

I was already interested in possible other economies, particularly with a feminist perspective, both in my two degree courses, history and economics, as well as in autonomist contexts and seminars. The fact that many people die because of this economic system was crucial to my politicisation from the very beginning. This was my biggest impulse – in this respect, the questions that occupy me today have accompanied me for a long time. I discovered and understood the commons only very late. I think they are an exciting concept that can really help us going forward.

Depending on local conditions, there are many different ways of understanding the commons. What is your approach?

To begin with, commons are characterised by the absence of property. Instead, there are ownership rights for the users which are created through grassroots democracy. To care for the commons is also known as commoning. But in case of not natural commons, you can also call commoning creating commons through peer-production.

What made you discover the commons?

It was very banal – because the debate started to gain traction around me, I started to get engaged with it myself. On the other hand, I realised only in retrospect that I had already cross-checked a paper for Massimo de Angelis in 2002 for the European Social Forum, which was about the commons. With his website http://www.commoner.org.uk he might be the one who pushed the international debate on commons most in the beginning. But back then, I did not even realise that I didn‘t grasp the concept it was about.

How did you experience studying economics being fully aware of not complying with the existing system? Was this a motivating factor for your studies from the very beginning?

Since I was 12, it was clear to me that I wanted to be involved in politics somehow. Pretty early on, I decided to study economics and history. Being immersed in the neoliberal discourse of the early 90s surely has had an impact on me: not that it made me neoliberal myself, but to think beyond capitalism was impossible for me during that time.

In the aftermath, being shaped by other contexts, I would not take this same path willingly again, because I would not be able to stand it any more. But nevertheless, I am glad I did then. And yes, it had been a conscious decision to follow this through and to not choose a leftist degree programme. Acquiring the ‘normal’ economic knowledge makes me confident neoliberals do not know anything more than me.

How is it today, as you also teach and give courses at universities – did anything change?

I don‘t teach mainstream economics. These days, critical students organise themselves in the network Plural Economics. This way, I receive quite a lot of invitations in the context of lecture series at different universities to talk about feminist or critical economics in general; including at the brand-new study programme Plural Economics in Duisburg-Essen. The fact that heterodox approaches to economics have a chance are really new developments.

You mentioned that you are and were part of the global grassroots movement Peoples’ Global Action, which started with Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico – can you tell me some more about them?

Even back then one spoke of the first rebellion of the 21. century. This was in 1994. On the day when the North-American free trade area was declared the insurgence started. Their very style of doing politics, which was not based on winning power by force of arms, but rather on building democracy and justice by themselves, looking at existing power relationships within their own structures. The Zapatistas garnered great fascination. In particular, the words by subcomandante Marcos had a world-wide reach amongst the left-oriented public: the books were lying around in my shared flat. Then, in 1996, they announced an open invitation for a global meeting in Chiapas. Since I didn‘t really know what to do at that moment (I had just been kicked out of my job as coordinator for economics in the daily Junge Welt, as they said I was not Marxist enough), and I knew someone who was going, I spontaneously joined the trip. Also, because – even as a kid – I was always fascinated with American Indian cultures (laughs).

We were divided in different locations in the jungle: I was in the economic division. I got to know people that have accompanied me until today, such as Ulrich Brand. Yet, while there, I somehow never had the feeling that this was really going somewhere. Actually, I was thinking: this is it? What was happening there was not really exciting content-wise. Well, there is a movie by the autonomous video collective AV Kraak called ‘Un paso más’ (1996), translate as ‘one step further’ – and that was it. But a year later, there was a follow-up meeting, again with 3000 people, this time in the Spanish state. Peoples’ Global Action emerged out of that and from that the globalisation movement. I believe this had a great impact on everything, even until today.

What happened during that first meeting in the jungle?

The beginning and the end took place in common. It was a lot of driving around in the jungle during the 10 days we were there. At the end, there was a so-called ‘Second declaration of La Realidad‘, calling for a network that unites all struggles of resistance. In the beginning, Peoples’ Global Action was bringing together all the different struggles of indigenous people, fishers, the landless, farmers, post-unionists, maquiladora workers etc. world-wide, saying right from the start that it’s not about round tables with the powerful: it’s about challenging power structures to advocate something different – not for development aids, but for a world without capitalism, without sexism, and without power relationships generally.

You had an early interest in feminist theories and economies – how come? 

My feminist interest clearly stems from my mother who was very feminist. She got married in the 50s and had to live her life under the gender discourse at that time. Therefore, the first political group I got involved with was a feminist coffee party I co-founded (laughs). At the same time, I was quite strongly embedded in the North-South problematics, the anti-nuclear and the peace movements. These were the topics I was very occupied with, but the other has always been a part of me.

At the end of the 80s, I discovered a fascinating group in Hamburg concerned with international economics and feminism. I couldn’t get in though as it was a closed group. This was the topic that really excited me when I read anything about it. Then there were the books by Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, which I devoured.

What is your feminist position?

They (Mies & Thomsen) advocated a life of dissident subsistence, beyond market and state. This has been misunderstood numerous times as a call to move to the countryside to grow our own potatoes. But the subsistence approach is nothing else than what the commons are today, even if nobody termed it like this back then – not until Silvia Federici made this connection in the past years.

At the same time, post-structural feminism emerged with Judith Butler in 1990. This was essential for me as I had had my personal struggles with the 80s‘ feminism of difference. On the one hand, because it implied women to be the better human beings (I didn‘t find that very emancipatory!) (laughs); on the other hand, it suggested very strict parameters of what a woman had to be. I never fit in this scheme being rather male in certain aspects of my identity; contrariwise, I never really felt at ease in the female-lesbian scene. I was also looked at askance as a bisexual woman, so I kept sitting on the fence.

How did your mother put her feminism to practice in the 50s?

By telling me constantly ever since I was able to think, speak and listen how bad my dad was! (laughs). I first had to grow up to realise my dad was actually quite a nice guy. He struggled himself with the gender roles assigned to him. In Hitler Youth and in his two years as anti-aircraft auxiliary, he was presumed to be a wimp, and was also never happy in his family role. I think it was really formative for me to witness this unhappiness in my closest environment: not caused by material poverty, but by identity standards.

In your latest book you write about the concept of ‘ecommony‘ – could you explain what it means exactly?

The term ‘ecommony‘ is a play on the words commons and economy to describe a holistic view of the whole economy. I synthesised the principles delineated in my book – most notably ‘possession instead of ownership’ and ‘contributing instead of exchanging’ – from approaches of other economies such as small initiatives or projects that I knew through discussions about free software.

I reveal this through the separate examples, trying to think of every economic area and every type of commodity as a commons. This brought me to the level of society as a whole. I had been doing that in public lectures for a few years, when the books by Jeremy Rifkin and Paul Mason about ‘The Zero-Marginal-Cost-Society’ and ‘Postcapitalism’ came out, which similarly claim such principles to make a different kind of economy possible.

What do you mean exactly when you speak of ‘barter-free’?

Back in the days, I used the term ‘money-free’, similar to the network ‘living utopia’ – but the term ‚barter-free’ now increasingly makes its way in. On the one hand, because the given system simply requires the use of money, on the other hand, because the problem only starts when money is being used within the logic of exchange. It doesn’t become money until then. Inside our projects this means that within our operating spaces we try to move without exchange logic and therefore without money, but the money that is donated in conjunction, or collected otherwise, might be needed for resources being bought. Therefore, ‘barter-free’ is more precise than the term money-free. Beyond that, it creates a more distinct differentiation to barter schemes that think of themselves as money-free. Effectively, however, barter is nothing other than an alternative currency.

What is your main criticism of barter?

That it is an ostensible equality being exchanged. Of course, situations where two persons feel like it‘s an equal exchange are always possible. But, in the moment when an allegedly objective measure for this equality comes into play, it is like money. History shows that before the introduction of money there were no such barter relations between members of the same society. There were very hierarchical and egalitarian systems, but there was no barter. Also, because it was clear that if one person has a surplus of something that another person needs, why generate artificial scarcity by not giving it away?

If we talk about an equivalent exchange, then we talk about money. This implies a logic of competition, meaning that in order for what one offers on the market to be sold, one needs to try to offer it as cheap as possible. This creates the whole cycle of commons being exploited, of care work coming in without being paid. That is, it creates the structural attempt to achieve a competitive advantage by integrating unpaid realms wherever possible.

Historically, there has always been the tendency of constructing human beings as slaves, lower class, housewives or whatsoever to resume these kinds of activities. This is an essential driver for the existence of identity categories.

Furthermore, I criticise barter for the problematic of alienation: that people are not active out of their own conviction, but because they have to be in order to make a livelihood. Experiments show that intrinsic motivation gets lost through money or rewards in general, robbing people of the joy they once had for an activity, or making them less considerate and responsible for others. If somebody is getting paid for cleaning, why not just throw out the garbage? You see, there is a whole range of reasons.

You brought in the aspect of care, also in the subtitle of your book. What is the connection?

Care and commons are very closely connected. Most notably, the feminist image of the iceberg (where capitalist economy looms out of the water while the rest of it is swallowed up in the hidden) is both valid for the commons and for care activities as unpaid realm. This is what I just indicated. Besides, both don‘t fit into the prevailing economic logic. I have just read a book by Beatrice Müller, where she provides empirical evidence through present quality controls of executed care activities, showing that the relational element, as in the relationships, remains unseen.

Moreover, care activities, in that they are about individual-related services, are difficult to streamline in the same ways as productive activities. Therefore, they are always going to come off badly within the competitive logic and the existing value in society, as it is difficult to make much profit from them. The wages paid are lower, which again creates this certain division: between who does these jobs, and who does the others. Even if it is taken into the economic realm, the same phenomena continues to exist: there are the valuable jobs and those less valuable, which are structurally passed on to allegedly different human categories.

That which is impossible to be seen is also the moment that could be coined ‘care logic’, these aspects that functions according to entirely different mechanisms than profit logic does. That is why it could serve as a role model for a different kind of economy that is more caring. That again brings us back to the commons – if land is not being exploited for maximum profit, e.g. instead of getting the maximum out of it for the next 20 years through soy cultivation, employing a caring approach which allows following generations to go on with it. Or simply, to respect the land and its vegetation in an understanding of give-and-take. Thus, there are many parallels between care and the commons.

You currently work on a resolution paper for the care revolution in a group. What are your next steps?

It is almost done. It came into being during the annual idea workshop of the Care Revolution network. A group of people emerged from it and produced this paper, which is about revealing the fact that the problematic of care can neither be resolved with neoliberalism, capitalism, nor exchange logic. We are not designing a new society, but devising principles towards the direction to take.

To what extent do you translate theory into concrete practical projects?

I actually understand it the other way around. When I applied for a doctoral grant sometime in the past, I had to declare what I wanted to become one day. I wrote ‘organic intellectual’, a term coined by Antonio Gramsci. Organic intellectuals stand in contrast to the traditional ones that do nothing other than transfer existing knowledge regimes. As an organic intellectual, you don‘t even have to be intellectual, anyone could be one. It‘s about crystallising and formulating the knowledge that emerges in the movements. That‘s how I understand my role and how I see my writing. Surely, another motivation for doing this is also about creating consciousness. I think that people reading about such things might be less likely to fall back on barter logics – be it within sharing-approaches or something similar – simply because they have reflected on things once more. I have certainly also learned a lot through the project in which I live; even though hardly anyone here knows what commons are, there is no theoretical superstructure, but we are practising commoning to a large extent. Nevertheless, I am happy about younger approaches putting this to practice more consciously, and I am excited to take part in it a little.

Could you elaborate a little on the project in which you live?

It is a site that is basically also a commons, as it has been bought with anonymously donated money and is owned by an association consisting of basically everyone who lives on the ground. In principle, everybody is welcome. Of course it is possible to be thrown out after three days, which just happened last week. There was a guy who was told straight away it wouldn‘t work. You can be told to leave the site after three days or also after 13 years, which also just happened. Well, in any other project he would have had to go years before!

We are certainly not an agglomeration of the white middle class – in case of necessity, it is possible to survive here without any money. Those are aspects I appreciate a lot. This way, enabling a kind of ‘basic livelihood’. As I mentioned, debates about alternative economies are not a daily occurrence, but I think it is going in the right direction.

When we talk about living without money, there is a recurring point of criticism: barter-free projects often have difficulties to survive in the current system. What is your position towards the existing tension between freedom of barter and the system we live in?

In order to avoid becoming a project for the elite, the aspect of money-free living needs to be a part of it. Otherwise, you quickly have such high demands making it impossible for many to join. I think most younger barter-free projects set the standard that people can participate without financial barriers, but certainly it attracts a certain kind of crowd. But in virtually all other projects the question arises to what extent a certain human capital is necessary in order to participate. I‘d say in our project, it works out pretty well to keep costs low enough to be as open as we are.

From your point of view, what structures and conditions would be necessary to get elsewhere, to reach our utopia? Are we on the right track or is it too late altogether anyway?

I became politically active in the 80s, when everything was already too late with nuclear rockets being started – therefore, we are doing quite well (laughs). Since we survived this, I can sense a basic optimism in myself that it could work out once more. Yet I believe we really have to be attentive now: with the newest repressions after the G20 protests in Hamburg, where democracy is at stake, with the growing right-wing parties, and in sight of the changes to our economy in the next year and the high probability that it will result in a huge economic crisis. Considering this, it does make sense to cherish the many possibilities we still have in many areas – to become politically active as well as being materially secure. I believe it is important to put as many practices for a better life as possible out in the world, in order to be able to fall back on them if things are different. This is my view rather than thinking there will be a smooth transition.

Is the apocalypse coming?

Even if the apocalypse is not coming, half of the jobs will cease to exist in the next 20 years; and even if everything goes really, really well, possibly with the unconditional income being introduced, it is still about expanding the non-monetary structures. It is always important to keep evolving these thoughts to have as much of it as possible around in society, and to change the common understanding of what is seen as normal, of what is considered a good life, and of what is possible to change.

What is your opinion about the unconditional income and how does it relate to freedom of barter?

In reference to my project I have already used the term ‘basic livelihood’, a term that has existed for about 10 years in the value-critical debate: suggesting that it is more about a ‘basic livelihood’ (‘Grundauskommen’) than a basic income (‘Grundeinkommen’), because the basic income is, in the end, again all about money. There are the few people who have to work for others and what the others are doing is actually not worth anything. A basic livelihood is more about the fulfilment of needs, which suggests that there are also other solutions than just money which would strengthen the areas of subsistence. I believe it is not much different from what others call ‘social infrastructure’. I also find the 70s-term by Gunnar Adler-Karlsson, ‘basic material caring’ (whatever the Swedish original, in German translated ‘materielle Grundgeborgenheit’) suitable for this.

What a beautiful term.

What I really like about it is that it is not only the aspect of caring that is beautiful, but that it always needs other people for it – this dependent relational element.

Nice closing terms – thanks for the inspiring conversation, Friederike!