Two different ways of thinking go under the banner of the commons, today. One speaks of the management of shared resources; the other struggles to remember a form of social relations in which the world is not seen as made up of resources. The law of the commons was unwritten, according to Ivan Illich, because it protected ‘a reality much too complex to fit into paragraphs.’ In our commodity-intensive societies, where do we find the traces of that unwritten reality?
Out of my conversations with Gustavo Esteva in Oaxaca in late 2012, there was one thread that wouldn’t be left alone. Two or three times over those afternoons, Gustavo had returned to the theme of friendship: as the starting point for the new commons, the category for the reconstruction of society.
The following spring I was invited at a few days’ notice to speak at the Commoning the City conference at Stockholm’s Architecture Museum. It was a chance to pull on that loose thread, to try to make sense of why friendship might be a good starting point from which to think about the commons and about political possibility today.
I went on to write about the experience of the conference and the thoughts it prompted in an article for STIR magazine – and I still have unfinished business with this tangle of themes. Until I find another way back to them, though, here’s the video of that talk.
The starting point for this article was the Commoning the City conference held at the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design in April 2013. It ran as the cover story for the summer issue of STIR magazine – and the full text is now available on their site.
Of everything I hear during these two days, the answer that most impresses me comes from Stavros Stavrides: ‘commons’ has become useful, he argues, because of a change in attitude to the state, a disillusionment with the ‘public’ and a need for another term to takes its place. The public sphere, public values, the public sector: all of these things might once have promised some counterweight to the destructive force of the market, but this no longer seems to be the case.
We are not witnessing a turn towards anarchism, exactly, but something more pragmatic: a shift in the general mood, reflecting the reality of people’s experience after five years of this unending crisis, itself coming after decades of neoliberalism. It is the attitude that underlies the Squares Movement, from Tahrir to Syntagma, the Puerta del Sol and Zuccotti Park. If those camping out in cities across three continents were reluctant to distill their discontent into a set of demands on government, this was not simply a utopian refusal to engage with the compromises of political reality; it was also a conviction that to put hope in government is now the most utopian position of all. This is also the attitude that has driven the rise of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, and it has all the uncomfortable ambiguities such an example suggests.
Into this vacuum, the commons enters as an alternative to both public and private. I find myself wanting to push this further, to suggest that it indicates a significant historical rupture, in at least two senses: a breaking of the frame of politics as a tug of war between the forces of state and market; and the failure of the project of the public, the promise of liberal modernity to construct a neutral space in which we could meet each other as individuals with certain universal rights. This latter point is particularly uncomfortable, we discover during our conversations in Stockholm, since many of our ideas of social justice are founded on that framework. Yet if it is true that the rise of the commons reflects the failure of the public, it is not clear that we can simply expect to borrow its assumptions…
Read the rest of the article here.
Image: German Gullon