The Commonist Horizon: Urban Futures Beyond Capitalist Urbanization

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    Mary N. Taylor, Noah Brehmer (eds.)

    Publisher: Common Notions

    Year: 2023

    Format: Paperback

    Size: 192 pages

    ISBN: 9781942173717

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How do we move from defensive tactics that respond to the latest stages of capitalist urbanization, to transformative, strategic revolts, attacking the root causes and putting into practice alternative forms of urban life? One proposal for such a revolutionary alternative to capital's organization of our lived environment has been the commons, wherein inhabitants communally control the multi-faceted conditions that make up their daily reproduction.

As a district behind the train station in the post-socialist city of Vilnius Lithuania faces gentrification, an autonomous community center there has sought to use commoning to resist. Taken up in the former state-socialist Eastern Block, commoning practices are embraced as a method for criticising the vicious wave of enclosures that began after the fall of state-socialism while at the same time not relying on the heavily stigmatized politics of state-socialism.

Emerging from a process of thinking together, The Commonist Horizon features five interventions by movement thinkers. Beginning in the post-Soviet city of Vilnius, the dialogical process stretches outward to two other formerly state-socialist countries, and then beyond. Speaking from their experiences in social movement formations, the authors take up the lived experience of building what might be called urban commons, offering insights on the conceptual and political potentials and limitations of this terminology and associated practices.

Read an Excerpt

“London is a razor, an inflamed calm has settled, we’re trapped outside on its rim. […] [It's] hard to concentrate what with all the police raids, the punishment beatings, the retaliatory fires. It’d be too much to say the city’s geometry has changed, but its getting into some fairly wild buckling. Its gained in dimension, certain things are impossible to recognise, others are all too clear." – Sean Bonney, 'Letter on Silence: Tuesday, 30 August, 2011'

Sean Bonney's poem offers us a terrifying vision of the city in which its very form is being broken and reshaped by the forces bearing upon it. 'We' are relegated to the periphery, 'we’re trapped outside on its rim'. From this position of marginality recognition is proving difficult, our familiar coordinates are becoming estranged to us, yet this perpetual marginality and vulnerability is a common experience. This article then is an attempt to restore historicity and therefore the potential for change to this common experience of psychic and social estrangement, physical and social displacement, from the cities in which we live.

The experience of the common, and what prevents it, is very much a man-made process in London and the UK. Gentrification was first identified and named by London-based urban geographer Ruth Glass, and culture-led regeneration – a form of state-led urban development – was pioneered here in Tony Blair's 90s Britain and agressively exported by elements of his policy team worldwide.[1] Whilst widely criticised, the creative city model has far from completely collapsed. However, practical and theoretical opposition to it has become a substantial force, and as I argue here, in this process art has been made both the alibi and internal antagonist of urban regeneration projects. Art has also become a key placeholder for the common, and discourses of the commons have increasingly been taken up within the arts, as well as in activism globally. In this text I try to analyse some recent shifts and developments in the language used to describe state-led or developer-led urban transformation projects in the UK; Developing connections between concepts and practices, I will conclude by returning to the looser and historically aleatory concept of the 'commons' as holding open an arena of struggle and agency – of accessible everyday practices – in the face of excessive capitalisations of space, language and subjectivity.

My own direct experience with commons has spanned supporting the defense by local groups of 'marsh users' of a small area of 'Lammas Land' a surviving commons with associated use rights pertaining to grazing animals, gathering of wood and water use in Waltham Forest, East London; generating and circulating critical writing about the mega-project of the London 2012 Olympics (which impinged on the historical commons mentioned above as well as purpose-built cooperatively-owned social housing; several travellers' sites, allotments and other crucial amenities).[2] (Notably, each of these amenities, prior to their destruction, found aspects of their consistency and coherence in anomaly to dominant property relations, or norms of habitation). This work was extended in a both journalistic and theoretical vein in my role as an editor at Mute following critically the development of discourses and practices of urban regeneration in the UK. The critique of a 'digital commons' advanced by Mute whereby enthusiasm for an emergent 'commons' was shown in fact to be based on the invention of new legal norms, privation and monetisation of 'free' activity can also be thought in relation to my maintenance of an online library of digitised texts (e.g. a Midnight Notes Collection). Throughout these experiences I have attempted to communicate, as I continue to do here, a conception of commons which ensures it is a living, antagonistic and not idealised or affirmative concept.[3]

Mute was one of the key sites of development of the concept of the New Enclosures in the UK through diverse writing published in the magazine and website between the late-1990s and early-2000s.[4] Though this milieu was mostly unaware at the time, there was an earlier take up, at the end of the 1980s, of Midnight Notes' concepts of the commons and new enclosures in relationship to housing, class, land and gentrification struggles in the UK.[5] Another route into discussions of the commons was via the long tradition of 'history from below',[6] its concentration and politicisation by the post-war new left (E.P. Thompson, Dorothy Thompson, A.L. Morton, Christopher Hill and others) and the connections between their studies of historical enclosure in the UK and the activities of the peace movement in the 1950s through to the late-1980s.[7] Mute picked up on the class-oriented and alter globalist/internationalist writing of Midnight Notes and the work of the New Left historians (of whom, Peter Linebaugh is a key mediating figure) and sought to use it to bridge and correct a certain smoothness around the use of commons as a metaphor as it was then, in the late-1990s to early-2000s, being used by Italian Marxists, Paolo Virno, Antonio Negri and others; social movements oriented towards the alter-globalisation movement, and rapidly being ported into the realm of digital rights and privacy.[8] The commons first appears as a problem here, because, in the face of a concrete resource: a swimming pool, a local library, a local law centre... a looser, positive discourse of commons can lead us to understand that the disciplinary encoding of local institutions is best left behind for something lighter on its feet, more mutable—supposedly more open to transformation by its users, temporary, etc. But lurking behind these loose forms are indeed harder forms of ownership, law and cryptohierarchy (hierarchical organisations which dissimulate as non-hierarchical forms). Now that the commons has become a global concept used critically by social movements as well as uncritically and vaguely by all sorts of other actors and formations, I hope to continue here the work of renewing it as a critical concept by positioning it in relation to others.”

About the Editors

Mary N. Taylor is a militant researcher whose praxis is grounded in anthropology, urbanism and dialogical art. She works with the internationalist East European platform LeftEast, and the affiliated roving summer school hosted by different social movement formations in the ‘post-socialist’ region; Brooklyn Laundry Social Club, and KnowWastelands Community Garden.

Noah Brehmer is a political theorist, cultural organizer and founding member of Luna6. He cofounded the Lithuanian critical media platform Life is Too Expensive. He’s published in Blind Field Journal, LeftEast, Mute Magazine, Metropolis M and OpenDemocracy.

Tags: activism ....... autonomist and left communist ....... eastern europe ....... europe .......