Le Temps des Communs in Paris: Urban Commons


The Commons Network‘s David Hammerstein summarizes his intervention at the recent Temps des Communs festival in Paris

On October 10th Commons Network’s David Hammerstein talked about urban commons  at the festival ‘Temps des Communs’ in Paris. Here are some notes from his talk.


Some basic commons principles and some possible contradictions for considering the urban commons

 AIR: “the simplest of all commons is the air we breathe” While historically and socially, the air of the city made you free in an individual sense, today the air of the city (specially in the days of volkswagen style diesel) can make you sick. The need to defend our common clean air is not a principle that needs to be reconsidered in assembly. Ecological sustainability such as clean air and fightting climate change are basic “previous principles”, something that generally should not be subject to negotiation, just like racism, sexism or policies of social inequity. Of course, what this means in practice is open to democratic debate.

CRAZY SCARCITY VS. ABUNDANCE: We live in a totally irrational situation in our official economy where we act as if our increasingly scarce natural resources were limitless, while our states (like they are attempting in TPP and TTIP trade agreements) are building higher and higher artificial walls of IPR around what is really abundant: our immaterial sphere of culture, science, imagination and creativity. One of the objectives of the knowledge commons is to substitute intense individual over-consumption of the biophysical world with greater access and relationships with immaterial productions inside and outside the digital sphere.

HEALTH VS. ECONOMY: Paraphrasing Aldo Leopold: Our societies are like a hypochondriacs, so obsessed with their macro-economic health that they end up losing their health altogether. The commons is about recovering our social and environmental health with new indicators of participation, inclusiveness and fruitful relationships.

PUT THINGS TOGETHER, OPEN UP CONTAINERS: Bauwens: The main transformative ideas that are penetrating the economy are open economy, solidarity economy and ecology. But they are being applied independently from each other. We need these ideas to converge for the birth of an Open Source Circular Economy. Eg. community based software and internet access, co-housing, food cooperatives, credit unions, time banks, Faircoops, hackerspace cooperatives, crowdfunding , open science, open access policies..

PEDAGOGY OF CATASTROPHE: We need to urgently expand commons initiatives to confront the growing social and ecological crisis (for example present refugee crisis) to be able to respond to social-ecological crisis with flexibility and resilience. The EU and states in general are showing their unwillingness and incapacity to play this role with solidarity and foresight. The coming crisis, worsened by the combined force of climate wars, stark inequality and ethnic nationalism, will put us to test sooner than we think.

COMMONS WITH SUBSTANTIVE VALUES NOT JUST COMMUNICATIVE ONES: Commons link individuals, communities and ecosystems. Ugo Mattei: “The Commons must question the domains of private property(and its ideological apparatuses such as self-determination and the market) and the state. Not a third way but an ecologically legitimized competitor or foe of the alliance of private property and the state.” In other words, the Commons should represent substantive values not just communicative ones involving participation and horizontal organization.

URBAN COMMONS AS A STRATEGY FOR SURVIVAL: We are not just for dealing with “the left overs”, or in urban terms the “terrain vague”, the peripheral undefined edges of the city, We need to transcend the Market-property-State dualism that dominates our society based on individualism and competitiveness. The Commons is incompatible with simply a rights-based individual autonomy idea as developed today. Beyond Western liberal thought, we need to move to the idea that each individual´s survival depends on its relationship with the community, with the environment.

QUALITATIVE VS. ONLY QUANTITATIVE. The commons are an ecological qualitative category based on connection, inclusion and access, whereas property and state sovereignty exclusively use quantitative economical/economicist categories based on exclusion and artificially produced scarcity (especially of immaterial goods) through the violent concentration of power into a few hands. The Commons, unlike private or public goods, are not commodities and cannot be reduced to the language of ownership. They express a qualitative relationship.

THE COMMONS NEEDS STRUCTURAL AND POLITICAL CHANGE. We need the commons to have an institutional structure reflecting long-term ecological sustainability and social inclusion. It is admirable and exemplary but it is not enough to have scattered, small examples of urban commons.

CHANGING OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH “THINGS”. As opposed to the subject-object relationship that produces commodification, We are the commons to the extent we are part of a concrete environment, a rural or urban ecosystem, where the subject is part of the object. Today there is an absolute domination of the subject (state or individual property owner) over the object (territory or more generally the environment) while the commons focuses on socially broadening and improving the complementary relationship and mediation between the two (subject-nature).

Some potential contradictions of urban commons and possible responses

We cannot ask the commons to solve all problems, to be an all encompassing model. It is an important strategy, among others, that can help point the way out of some of our present quagmires of inequity, ecological demise and alienation. We don´t have all of the answers, only some forms and principles of alternative urban action and organization that could help build a counter-narrative with on-the-ground realities.

MARGINAL LAND AND POLITICALLY: Are we only able to act with the left overs of the city, the “terrain vague”, the peripheral borders? How can we avoid becoming marginal tokens? It is important for commoners to complement practical commoning with broader structural political challenges of the irrational and unsustainable present management of our cities; to be both a real example of alternatives and a platform for commons ideas.

ONLY SMALL SCALE?  Are the commons initiatives only valid for small scale urban or rural projects? One possible response is to “confederate” commons initiatives in regional, national and European “Assemblies of the Commons” and “Chambers of the Commons” that could extend, facilitate and promote commons values and actions in the institutional and broader economic and social spheres.

ARE WE “PROCESS FREAKS”? Can the process of negotiation and communication of commons initiatives become a very tiresome, entropic end in itself, substituting political substance with democratic communication. Or can sometimes the stress on consensus in broad negotiations avoid necessary conflicts of interests and positively promote small, slow reforms but even weaken more radical alternatives for the city?

KNOWLEDGE PARASITES Knowledge is Power: Can our successful open knowledge economy be subject to parasitical extraction by big commercial interests? Open access for whom and for what? We are in the need to develop new methods and/or licensing strategies to make sure that knowledge in the commons benefits the common good of equity, sustainability and democracy

DIE FROM SUCCESS Can our physical success (even on a small-scale of commons projects such as urban agriculture or culture) in a neighborhood be motive of gentrification, creating new exclusive borders in a diverse area? How can we avoid becoming a “variation on a theme park”? We must place stress on the principles and practice of integration of diversity, social inclusion, long and permeable borders and liminality, as expressed by Richiard Sennett.

COMMONS CANNOT SUBSTITUTE STATE OR NOT? How can we not be an expression of the substitution of the state or even worse the “Great Society” as an option to a withering state? State social guarantees and social facilitation are always a crucial part of the urban commons.

VOLUNTEERISM,STABLE STRUCTURES AND BURN OUT. Stable structures or voluntarist “burn out”. Voluntarism can lead to unsustainability of projects. Can we have professionalization without greater hierarchy? Some professionalism and hierarchy is obviously necessary for the stability of projects over time.

ENEMIES OF OUR ENEMIES ARE NOT ALWAYS OUR FRIENDS: Can we overcome the productivism and economicism or keynsian pro-growth ideas of our left allies in or outside of power? It is not at all a given that our anti-austerity allies or new left party allies share or lend any priority to our work. It is very important for urban commons to retain their political pluralism and independence while exercising political commitment.

BRING THINGS TO THE SURFACE: Can we contribute to visibilize hidden ecological and social processes of the city? Water, immigration, energy, soil, gender, religious and ethnic differences, .. can evidently become more visible and socially appreciated and valued by means of urban commons projects.

Defending what it means to be human:

Flora Michaels in Monocultures: “It is not that the economic story has no place in the world. But without other stories..we have found essential throughout history, we imprison ourselves. When the languages of other stories begin to be lost, we lose the value of diversity and creativity that keep our society viable. We´re left trying to translate something vitally important to us into economic terms so we can justify even talking about it… we end up missing what it means to be human.”

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