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Movement of the Day: New Cross Commoners

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
2nd July 2013


“To understand what is commoning in New Cross we’ll read and discuss texts together, and at the same time we’ll explore the neighbourhood to find out what processes of commoning are already part of the life of New Cross (we’ll start with communal gardens, housing associations, youth and community centres, and the New Cross library). We would like not only to understand the commoning already produced in New Cross, but also to produce new commoning here: to share and organize skills and resources in such a way that this sharing can become more and more autonomous from private / public interests, from the market, from interests that are not those of the people using them.”

Here is an interview with co-founder, of this urban commons movement, conducted by European Alternatives:

“How did New Cross Commoners come about?

We came together through a desire of engaging more deeply with our neighbourhood: many of us study at Goldsmiths, which is located in New Cross, and the New Cross Commoners is also a way to break the separation between the university and the neighbourhood.

There are more motivations for the New Cross Commoners, it is not just the discontent with academia and its privatization, but also the desire to learn differently, and to experiment ways of living / making a live together that can provide an alternative to the option of competing individually as part of a job market.

What do you mean by the commons?

The meaning of commons and commoning is something that we are trying to understand together, and in relation with the life of New Cross, the neighbourhood where many of us live, work, study, and in relation with our experiences, and with the coming together of the New Cross Commoners itself. For us is important not so much to come up with abstract definitions of commons, but to understand their effects, the potential for social and political emancipation the commons can have.

To answer more precisely, we could say that the commons imply

* a collective resource, either material or immaterial,

* a process of commoning, which means that people have to come together to make use of the resource by organizing together and struggling with the state and the market

* a non-homogenous community: the coming together of people has to disrupt the social separations based on classes, ages and so on

What’s unique about the commons in an urban context?

We are not sure how to answer this question, partly because we consider problematic the opposition between rural and urban, partly because we don’t have direct experience of commons and commoning outside urban contexts. Perhaps we could say that in the context of London / New Cross the term commons is usually associated with land and with something that used to be juridically defined and it has disappeared a long time ago.

To explain the commons we sometimes use the example of a square: a public square is controlled and regulated from above, from the municipality, which cleans it and also legally exercises restrictions to its use. A public square gets privatized if, for example, it is sold to a company as part of an estate, and in this case the control is often more strict, the enclosure might become physical as well.

The same square becomes a common when people start using it collectively and organize themselves despite and against the control the municipality or the private estate exercise on it. What is the importance of the commons for a neighbourhood like New Cross? New Cross is one of the neighbourhood in London where the cuts to public services are hitting harder: many public library are closed already, now the hospital and the fire station are under threat, council flats are also privatized despite of long waiting list of people and families without a house.

The government is selling off what is public and at the same time encourages citizens to get together and help each other through the rhetoric of the “big society”. An example of a “big society” project is the new type of free schools encouraged by the government, where “free” is such as in neoliberal “freedom”: those schools are “free” to compete, they are not organized by parents, teachers and students, but entrusted by parents to managers whose job is ultimately to guarantee their competitiveness as businesses.

This is a complex issue, and it has to do with the commons, inasmuch commons can be produced in the interstices between “cuts” and “big society”, and against them.

To help young people understand how they could set up similar activities where they live across Europe, what were the different steps you took since the idea of New Cross Commoners came about and where you are now?

The New Cross Commoners has a website where its process is recorded: the website is also intended to be a toolbox available for everybody to be used. We have started this New Cross Commoners not long ago and we have to consolidate the process before coming up with other kind of engagements with people across Europe, but we are already thinking the possibility of organizing exchanges with people operating in similar ways in Europe in order to learn from each other.

What are the methods you use to find commons in New Cross and stimulate their circulation?

If we talk about methods, in practical terms, when we meet we try to combine different things: reading and discussing, walking and visiting places, making and doing (making maps and models, cooking food, digging and planting… we even do physical exercises together!). This is also a way of learning to collectivize different things and aspects of our lives. And it is an attempt to do things differently also by questioning the separation between needs and desires.

An example: reading and discussing theory becomes different from the kind of readings and discussions we do at the university: we read to learn something practical, something that directly applies to the places we visit, to the life in the neighbourhood, to our experiences of sharing and helping each other. This is different from discussing theory in academia, where you are led by the figure of the teacher, where you have to comply with an academic properness of expression, where you are asked to understand theory rather than make a practical use of it, and where competition is always shaping relationships.

With the New Cross Commoners we learn a different way of using theory also thanks to those commoners who are not students and who bring a different approach to our discussions. Theory can become a weapon we can use in very practical terms.

Could these methods also be used to help young people understand how they can make a living?

That’s partly the aim of the New Cross Commoners, but we are still away from it: if we talk about the commons we talk not just about desires (the desire to get to know the neighbourhood, to get together, to discuss important issues affecting our lives etc.) but also about needs.

In this first phase of the New Cross Commoners we are exploring the neighbourhood also to understand which resources could we collectivize and use as commons. It will be a matter of gradually shifting from an individual to a collective approach when coping with needs and using skills and resources.

What types of commons have you found that could help people cope with making a living?

As said above, to make a living as New Cross Commoners is a goal that at some point will have to happen, but we see this happening gradually, and we like to take the time for this to happen according to the energy we have and can produce to avoid burnouts.

Rather than deciding one day to set up a worker coop, we’ll probably come up with something of the sort, but something that would still allow us to read texts together, to engage with the life of the neighbourhood and with local struggles, to produce pleasure when getting together – outside the prescriptions of the entertainment industry.

What has surprised you about the types of commons you’ve discovered in New Cross?

Their complexity, and the complexity of the struggles they involve. From libraries which were public and now are run by volunteers, to housing coops, to communal gardens, all the places we come across show us that a common is never “pure”, it is always somehow antagonistic to both the public of the state and the private of the market.

Commons have to be antagonistic to be emancipatory, to produce emancipation from capitalism, the dominant system which is causing the collapse of this planet, of our societies, of ourselves.

What would you say to people who feel scared or excluded because they can’t find a job?

Get together, join a collective, join a campaign in your neighbourhood. Don’t spend your days in front of the computer, get out and meet people who organize things together. Read on commons and commoning with your friends (there are good texts available on our website). The good thing of starting from the commons, as people like Massimo De Angelis and Silvia Federici define them (people who don’t just theorize but also have experience as activists of struggles for the commons), is that commoning is potentially everywhere, every time we get together and help each other.

This happens already at work or inside our families, and this means that we somehow know already how to cooperate. So, it’s a matter of starting from the middle, from where we are, to emancipate the commons from their hierarchical organization, from the market, from capitalism.”

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