Commoning in the City (STIR magazine)

IssueNo2cover-723x1024I’ve written the cover story for the second issue of STIR, a new quarterly magazine, based in the UK. Most publications with a purpose are shaped by the moment in which they were first dreamed up: in this case, I’d say, the moment of Transition Towns and Occupy.
‘ANGER. ANALYSIS. ACTION.’ says the slogan on their website, and I guess my contribution belongs to the second stage in that process. Prompted by the conversations at the Commoning the City event in Stockholm (see my last post), it’s a reflection on the way that ‘commons’ is becoming a charged word, a banner under which an increasing variety of people and organisations want to place themselves, often with conflicting ideas of what they mean by it.

The following extract should give you some sense – but I encourage you to subscribe to STIR itself, not just to read the rest of this, but because it has the potential to be a valuable platform for all of us who are trying to make sense of the mess we’re in and what kinds of action are worth putting our efforts into.

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.

A politics that has abandoned the public might justly be called a post-modern politics. We have already seen the cynical form of such a politics in the hands of Bush, Blair and Berlusconi: the reliance on controlling the narrative, the disdain for ‘the reality-based community’. Against this, the appeal to older public values looks sadly nostalgic. (Think of Aaron Sorkin’s latest series for HBO, The Newsroom: its opening titles, a montage of a nobler age of American journalism, the series itself offers a kind of liberal wish-fulfilment, while Obama presides over drone wars and assassination lists.) The attraction of the commons, then, may be that it promises the emergence of a non-cynical form of post-modern politics…

Read the rest of this article in Issue 2 of STIR, which also features the stories of the Birmingham Students Housing Co-operative and the campaign against the Housing Market Renewal Initiative, articles from David Bollier and my Dark Mountain co-conspirator Paul Kingsnorth, and an interview with George Monbiot by STIR editor Jonny Gordon-Farleigh.