This article analyzes the emergence of the squares movement—such as Occupy Wall Street in New York City, the 15 May in Barcelona, and Nuit Debout in Paris—as a new form of “commoning.” The argument is that this commoning, characterized by an occupation over several months and a broad-based horizontalist consensus, creates a new cultural language and a political community of solidarity. Even when there are no specific demands, the occupations provide a place, out of space and time, in which protestors reconfigure political discourse. Such events represent the prelude to the formation of a new political bloc in which protesters from different grassroots movements come together and begin to recognize common cause. As we shall see, in each situation, these movements precipitate structural political changes in the cities and nations in which they occur.
Under the contemporary regime of capital accumulation in Europe and the United States, cultural workers and laborers, service workers, and community activists have all participated in urban movements (Castells 2012; Juris 2012; Nonini 2007; Rakopoulos 2014; Susser 2006). Since cities have become so central in the global economy, the development of urban commons is a central aspect of contemporary social movements (Harvey 2012; Kalb 2014a; Schneider and Susser 2003). As I have argued elsewhere (Susser 2016; Susser and Tonnelat 2013), drawing on Henri Lefebvre (2003), we can understand such collective action, generated in the crucible of urban life, as a reflection of three urban commons: labor, consumption, and public services; public space (including mass communications and the virtual); and art, including all forms of creative expression. The emerging urban commons are not necessarily perceived everywhere, but as they momentarily come together in cities around Europe and the United States, they provide a glimpse of an alternative future, the city built on the social needs of a population, rather than the private profit of the 1 percent. This can perhaps be understood as the performance of an emerging form of solidarity.
Based on fieldwork among activists in New York City, Barcelona, and Paris1 over the past few years, I explore the recent squares movements and the ways in which these might represent the development of a new commoning consciousness. Commoning here is viewed as an ongoing and contested struggle to claim a commons while in the process building an open form of sharing relations rather than a concrete closed place or shared goods. Massimo De Angelis and Stavros Stavrides (2010) among others have argued that the verb “commoning” gives a sense of process to the battle for the commons. The commons is constantly being enclosed by the state or corporate interests and equally consistently, people are fighting to create new public spaces. Stavrides suggests that commoning can be understood as the act of crossing a threshold into a different way of relating and stresses the idea of the public. A discussion of the public rather than community emphasizes the openness of the commons. Stavrides portrays the commons as a set of linked networks in contrast to a closed community. Thresholds emphasize the ways in which people enter through open doors to link with a wider public rather than a set of closed doors within a shared community (Stavrides 2015).
Here I have taken commoning to be represented in the squares movements since 2011. On 15 May 2011, we see the takeovers of squares in Madrid, in Barcelona, and throughout Spain by groups often called the indignados, following, although not necessarily similar to, the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt in January 2011 (Van de Velde 2011). Greece followed soon after in the takeover of Syntagma Square. Occupy Wall Street began on 31 August 2011, and Nuit Debout occupied Paris’s Place de la République on 31 March 2016. These movements involve the takeover of public space for an extended period of time, primarily Lefebvre’s (2003) second urban commons, but also coordinate with battles over production and reproduction (first commons), and the imaginative development of creative expression (third commons).
One of the crucial aspects to consider in the analysis of this emerging form of protest are the divisions by class, race, and sex represented by the participants, as well as which specific interests take priority. Each site discussed here varies in the representation of class and minority interests and how gender is addressed (for analysis of contemporary class issues, see Carrier and Kalb 2015). The movements follow the changing employment patterns of capitalism, with leading activists among men, women, and minorities reflecting a young, educated group who see their futures as insecure and their options in the job market limited (Milkman et al. 2013; Van de Velde 2011). However, the issues of class, race, gender, and immigration were confronted in a variety of different ways in each of the sites, and many of the occupations became multigenerational.
The construction and sustaining of a progressive commoning consciousness is particularly critical at this moment as right-wing forces are raising the specter of a turn toward fascism. However, just as austerity has set the stage for reactionary forces uniting in nationalist movements (Kalb and Halmai 2011; Maskovsky and Susser 2009, 2016) it has also precipitated a fragmentary consciousness of a broader working class or political bloc (Crehan 2016; Gramsci 1971; Harvey 2012; Kalb 2014b).
The Squares: New York City, Barcelona, Paris
Here I explore the emergence of commoning in New York City, Barcelona, and Paris. Although each movement is described from a different perspective, they each pass through three stages. The first stage is an occupation involving a crucible for cultural reconfiguration and the development of a wider political expression or political bloc. Second, the development of a wide array of grassroots movements that trace their inspiration to the occupation, and third, we see a new party or a revitalized progressive political movement and the precipitation of structural political changes such as new legislation.
Since I have been studying and living in New York City for many decades, Occupy Wall Street is described as it developed over time in the context of the city. I was not in Barcelona on 15 May 2011 but conducted fieldwork there for several periods in May and June 2015, and over several months in both 2016 and 2017. My description traces the development of multiple grassroots movements whose members attribute their activities to their experiences in the squares movement of 2011. In both Barcelona and New York City, the six years since the 2011 occupations allow for the analysis of changes that may have taken place as a result.
The occupation that began in Paris’s Place de La République on 31 March 2016 became known as Nuit Debout. I was able to participate in Nuit Debout in May and June 2016. I also conducted ethnography in Paris among grassroots movements before Nuit Debout in June and July 2015, and later, in February and May 2017. Thus, the description of Nuit Debout is much more detailed in its discussion of the actual experience of participation. We do not yet know the long-term consequences of the 2016 Nuit Debout, but in April 2017 there was a surprising upsurge in the political campaign of Jean-Luc Melenchon, a leftist who abandoned the French Socialist Party in the early 2000s to lead his own new party La France Insoumise (Unbowed France). The three ethnographic moments described in the three global cities open different windows on commoning and together provide the material for a more comprehensive analysis.
For New York City, as for Barcelona and Paris, I argue that the long-term occupation of the squares movement served to bring together in an urban commons many members of diverse and fragmented progressive groups, centered on housing, health care, environment, and other issues. This unifying experience of commoning allowed for the emergence of a political bloc that challenged the hegemonic control of the business interests in the city, represented by the Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg (for a discussion of Bloomberg and New York City real estate, see Brash 2010; Susser 2012, 2014b), and, in fact, precipitated transformative political changes. In this section documenting the changes in New York City over three decades, we can see both the gentrification and growing inequality that led up to Occupy and the structural changes in electoral politics that followed.2
The assault on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 marked the massive development of a securitization regime in New York City that dampened movements in the streets for the next decade. From the moment Bloomberg took office in January 2002, he inaugurated a heightened security regime that stayed in place throughout his 12 years in office. The World Economic Forum was scheduled to meet at the Waldorf Astoria from 31 January to 4 February 2002. Because of 9/11 and the heightened tension and security, alter-globalization protests scheduled to correspond with the World Economic Forum were heavily guarded and poorly attended.
The attack on 9/11 marked the fading of the massive alter-globalization protests in the United States and the emergence of an antiwar movement. In February 2003, three hundred thousand demonstrators, who were against the threatened war in Iraq, were pinned in pens between police barricades, unable to walk in any direction or to stay in touch with protesters on the next block. In August 2004, outside the Republican Convention for the nomination of George W. Bush once again as the Republican presidential candidate, hundreds of protesters were arrested and detained over several days. Ten years later, the courts found these detentions illegal. Heavily armed police on motorbikes with protective visors on their helmets lined the streets alongside the most peaceful demonstrations throughout those years. It was not until Bill de Blasio became mayor in 2014 that participants in the massive demonstration for environmental sustainability were able to walk down the streets of Manhattan without accompanying police blockades or an intrusive armed guard.
Nevertheless, the cumulative experience of the alter-globalization movements, the squares movement, and the 2011 Wisconsin protests against its governor (Collins 2012) contributed to the organizing of Occupy Wall Street in September 2011 in New York City (Milkman et al. 2013). The movements around neighborhood, social services, employment, health, and housing coalesced in Occupy. Activists from all these different groups held meetings in Zuccotti Park, ironically previously known as Liberty Plaza Park, which had actually been damaged in 2001 by the assaults on the World Trade Center and was named after an investor when it was rebuilt as Zuccotti Park. The square served as a centralizing force for mobilization. In relation to the occupation in Zuccotti Park, health activists held weekly meetings about efforts to keep a hospital open. Feminists held general assemblies to address women’s subordination. Students took over the Hunter College lobby and collected book donations to form a library in solidarity. The City University of New York faculty union and other unions marched over the Brooklyn Bridge in support of the protests against inequality.
The influence of the occupation of Zuccotti Park was like a ripple effect all over New York City and beyond. Many groups did not meet at the square but arranged meeting places in rooms elsewhere. In the spring of 2012, the Left Forum, which had been an annual Left conference in New York City in one form or another for more than 30 years, was revitalized by young people from upstate New York and all over the country, energized by their experiences with Occupy. A year later, when Hurricane Sandy occurred, Occupy Sandy groups worked with the stranded poor in the outlying areas of the city, echoing and continuing the protests against inequality. Multiple publications, written by groups and individuals, including posters, were produced by Occupy activists. As others have also pointed out (Milkman et al. 2013), Occupy Wall Street represented much more than the youth and others who marched in the streets or appeared in Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011; it had lasting effects on the structure of New York City and how people thought about inequality and social change.
In New York City, by the elections of 2013, partly as a consequence of Occupy Wall Street and the ensuing organizing, we see the emergence of a different political bloc over time (Susser 2014b). An outlier, Bill de Blasio, was elected mayor based on a campaign against police harassment, specifically the racial targeting implied in the stop-and-frisk program. His campaign slogan was a recognition of the “99 percent” intervention of Occupy Wall Street—“A Tale of Two Cities”—and his campaign promises involved a priority for affordable housing and universal kindergarten. In other words, middle- and working-class New Yorkers were voting for a candidate who directly confronted the unprecedented inequality in the city, the ongoing racial targeting and repression by the police, and the shortage of housing for the middle and working classes. This election represented an alternate vision of the city, precipitated by issues of racial targeting, and set priorities for a new coalition of residents who in fact, understood themselves as the 99 percent, perhaps a new class formation in this increasingly unequal world.
Occupy Wall Street and the election of de Blasio were the backdrop to the Black Lives Matter movement, starting near the end of 2013 in New York City. As part of a national movement of outrage at the murder of black men by the police, protesters ran through the main streets of Manhattan such as 34th Street and 42nd Street, disrupting traffic, shouting slogans, and lying in the street for momentary flashes. They also occupied Grand Central Station and other venues for several hours at a time. Police were present but much less invasive and brutal than under the Bloomberg administration. Black Lives Matter was active throughout the country, with local organizations and a national leadership group with a strong women’s presence.
Since that time, the 2016 presidential campaign of the independent Vermont senator Bernie Sanders was built on the resonance of Occupy with the clear delineation of the problems of inequality and in opposition to the banks and the 1 percent. This too echoes the commons—the multiple movements around housing, health, fracking, nuclear reactors, and student debt. Black Lives Matter has stayed somewhat separate, although many African American youth supported Sanders. Sanders’s demand for free higher education was adopted by the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, although in a somewhat narrow version. Once in office, de Blasio had created a citywide ID that did not require a proof of citizenship and later declared New York City a sanctuary city in relation to the immigration orders of the newly elected president, Donald Trump.
The argument here is not that Sanders or de Blasio were actually able to bring about revolutionary transformation. Rather, the point of discussing these elections is to highlight the ways in which the newly elected officials did in fact make some legislative changes and how they may indicate a recognition of a unifying political bloc opposed to massive inequality and for shared public resources and social justice.
The next case focuses on the connections of grassroots movements in Barcelona with Podemos, the rapidly emerging progressive national party in Spain. Here again, I would argue that a vision of the commons, or maybe commoning consciousness, has allowed for the mobilization of new social movements and the ongoing challenge and transformation of corporate political hegemony. As we shall see, these movements have precipitated structural changes in both electoral politics and legislation including the emergence of Podemos as a national leftist political party.
In Spain, alternative visions of collective responsibility and reinterpretations of profit and debt can be traced historically through anarchism, communism, and the resistance to Franco. Spanish cities have a long history of grassroots movements (Castells 1983). However, most immediately, the recent rise of a national progressive party, Podemos, and other groups can be related to the squares movement of 15 May 2011, also known as the Indignados Movement or the 15-M Movement. As noted above, this uprising followed the January 2011 protests in Tunisia and Egypt but prefigured Occupy Wall Street in September 2011. After the financial crash of 2008, as a result of the numerous foreclosures, the discourse of debt and social responsibility in Barcelona became as central as wages and was expressed in the movements for housing. The social movements in Barcelona—most notably, PAH (Platform for People Affected by Mortgages), an anti-eviction movement founded in 2009; five years later, the newly formed citywide party Barcelona en Comù; and the newly emerging national political party Podemos—fought for the collective needs of the public as taking priority over the losses of their creditors.
All these movements have been shown to emerge from or be revitalized by the squares occupation on 15 May 2011 (15-M). Almost everyone I spoke with, whether in Podemos, PAH, Barcelona en Comù, or the cooperative housing movements, traced their active political engagement to 15-M. Analyses of social media have demonstrated that the connections made at 15-M in Madrid and Barcelona provided the fundamental support not only for the following protests in Spain but also as encouragement for the Greek squares, the US Occupy Wall Street, and other movements elsewhere (Monterde et al. 2015). While such virtual links are crucial, I would argue that actually appearing in the squares or other places is the foundation of commoning. In fact, I found representatives from 15-M working with activists in Paris at Nuit Debout, and there was much travel between Spain and Occupy Wall Street.
The brilliant feminist mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, elected in May 2015, was a founding member of PAH, which had been working to redefine the rights of homeowners in relation to bank foreclosures and was particularly energized by Indignados. In 2015, Colau led the formation of a political party, Barcelona en Comù, to run for municipal office. Recently, Colau and others have made a concerted effort to expand their work to a Catalonia-wide political party.
The progressive party, Podemos, emerged in Spain in 2014 to challenge the policies of austerity required within the eurozone. Podemos was originally founded among scholars in political science whose popular base grew in response to media exposure. Podemos almost declares itself political theater, as Pablo Iglesias, its political leader, built his constituency through debates on television, and the party self-consciously styles itself after Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (2001) as developing a language for the media. Although this has been much negotiated and adjusted over time, the original idea was to avoid left-identifying language while addressing the growing inequality and building a constituency through a more accessible direct conversation about inequality and the problems of capitalism. The rise of Podemos depended on the grassroots movements in many cities, such as Barcelona en Comù, and represents an opportunity to analyze the significance of the urban commons in the emergence of a progressive national party.
At the scale of the nation-state, Podemos, which cooperated with citywide movements such as Barcelona en Comù and many other regional groups to win a large following in 2015, adopted a similar vision. Podemos demanded a collective restructuring of the economy at the national level with respect to the provision of public goods, education, and health care. At the same time, they saw many of these goals as limited by the regulations of the eurozone and were attempting to redefine the obligations of the eurozone to the poorer nations of southern Europe. Members of Podemos and of the grassroots movements against housing evictions (like PAH) linked the issues of the immigrant poor who were losing their housing and the political questions of the management of debt in housing foreclosures not only with the banks but also with the policies of the EU and the crisis in Greece.
A partial inventory of the varied community organizations and social movements in Barcelona demonstrates the widespread growth of the urban commons, especially after 15 May 2011. For example, there were ongoing assemblies of different political sects, leftist groups for Catalonian independence, and other leanings that also saw themselves in a coalition with PAH. Most of the assemblies met several nights a week and involved scholar activists (many only casually employed), the cognitariat (Casas-Cortés et al. 2014), working-class people, and immigrants from Latin America and Africa. There was an organization of sex workers, men and women, who elected a transgender woman sex worker as a district council person as part of Barcelona en Comù. There were members of a cooperative, based in a working-class neighborhood, which organized publications on the history of squatting in Barcelona and ran a leftist bookstore. There was an anarchist magazine store that seemed to sell a mixture of punk memorabilia and T-shirts and was the node for a local housing movement. In 2011, immediately before 15 May, a group of activists had occupied an immense swath of abandoned warehouses and factory buildings. They created working craft shops, gyms, and climbing facilities; organized theater performances; and opened a café as a central meeting spot for the community and the various workshops. In 2015, the municipal council approved the formation of a carefully planned housing cooperative (with apartments that cannot be commodified) in the occupied brown space, which used to house industrial manufacturing, and the cooperative has since raised the funds to begin renovation of the buildings into affordable apartments. They have meanwhile negotiated with the administration of Ada Colau to take over eight more public plots for the construction of similar affordable cooperatives. Each of these groups saw themselves as autonomous from the national political parties but most originally supported the new progressive representatives of Podemos.
In Barcelona, these myriad groups were historically layered. Long-term squatters, who had been occupying buildings for more than 20 years and now had jobs and families, interacted with the newer PAH to address the foreclosures of the current economic crisis. Women, feminists for decades, joined with the organized sex workers. Internet installers on a wildcat strike in Barcelona were supported by the PAH assemblies. Members of all these groups tended to support Podemos as the latest manifestation of a progressive voice in Barcelona and on the national scale.
Other major social movements, which developed after the 15 May movement, were Mareas Verdes (Green Tides)—teachers and others opposed to the commoditization of education—and Mareas Blancas (White Tides)—doctors and health workers marching in the streets to protest the commoditization of the national health system. These groups, unlike 15-M (Fishman 2012) and more like the demonstrations in Paris, worked extensively with unions. Multigenerational groups, the established teachers, doctors, and health workers were inspired by and joining with the youth who had participated in the 15 May movement and formed a base for the emergence of Podemos.
These multilayered historical threads all contributed to the battle for the urban commons in Barcelona. The 15 May occupations of public squares helped to bring these groups together to build a progressive, if diverse, political bloc. This movement defined new forms of commoning consciousness, creating institutional changes, and fought for new forms of legislation around housing and debt. Although the relationship between local grassroots organizations and national parties was much contested, the ongoing commoning also built the groundwork for a new party, Podemos, the emerging progressive party in Spain.
An analysis of the events around Nuit Debout and the occupation of Place de République in Paris demonstrates clearly the ways in which such occupations helped to crystallize a fragmented Left and the many diverse grassroots movements around homelessness, race, immigration, ecology, and other issues into a progressive political bloc. In addition, even since Nuit Debout, over the past year, there is evidence of structural changes following the occupation such as a reconfiguration of the Left and the emergence of a new progressive party. Before 2016, despite or because of the election of a socialist president, there was a marked absence of a strong progressive movement. In contrast, after Nuit Debout, in the French elections of 2017, strong support emerged for the independent left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
There is a seesaw effect of issues of security in relation to issues of inequality. In each nation studied, the occupations are contingent. As in New York City after 9/11, we see a different trajectory in Paris following the terrorist attacks of 2015 and 2016 and the growing strength of the extreme-right National Front led by Marine Le Pen. Even so, we can trace Nuit Debout and the subsequent transformations over time.
In Paris, in 2006, a student struggle combined with unions succeeded in leading to the abandonment of a labor law that would have made it easier to fire workers under 26 years of age. In 2010, a French writer, Stéphane Hessel (2011), wrote a critical book—Indignez-vous!— about outrage at finance capitalism that later generated the name indignados when the Spanish students occupied city squares. This was followed by six years of quiescence in Paris and the growth of the far right. In between were the Charlie Hebdo assassinations of 7 January 2015 and the assaults and murders in the cafes and coliseums of 13 November 2015. Nevertheless, following several union and other demonstrations opposed to a new labor law in France, on 31 March 2016 the Nuit Debout protests erupted amid general amazement at the Place de la République. In May 2016, a doctoral student in her twenties, who had been part of Nuit Debout since the first night, said to me, “It was very new in Paris.… It was very new and unexpected—especially because of the two attacks in Paris and also because of the emergency state, which does not allow large demonstrations.”
As the activists recount the events, they were mobilized initially by a film, Merci Patron, directed by the journalist François Ruffin. Ruffin and others sent out a call online, and as a result, thousands of people participated in a massive demonstration during the day on 31 March. As the protest ended, demonstrators did not want to go home and talked about needing a place to continue their conversations and publicly voice their anger at the corporate elite. They agreed to meet at the Place de la République that evening and returned the next few days. By the first Sunday, they planned to stay all night, but in the early hours of the morning the police removed the few remaining protesters. After much debate, the activists continued to meet every evening until midnight for the ensuing months. For a survey of the participants and much crucial information about the events, see the work done by a group of sociologists in Paris (Baciocchi et al. 2016) With the help of more established political groups, Nuit Debout obtained a permit to occupy the square, although there were many clashes with the police over the months. Nuit Debout square movements in affiliation with the Place de la République were created throughout the towns and villages of France. When I returned to Paris in February 2017, Nuit Debout was still represented at the Place de la République, and many members were active around issues throughout Paris, such as police violence and women’s rights.
Nuit Debout formed 80 commissions of groups with specific interests and a central planning committee to coordinate rather than to make policy decisions. Groups ranged from those addressing housing, battered women, ecology, and economics to groups addressing Africa, vegan and organic foods, and other issues. A general assembly was scheduled most evenings, and smaller assemblies for students and others. Among the more spectacular groups was a group of musicians. A concert was announced on Facebook, and hundreds of musicians showed up with their instruments to play music in the Place de la République. Food was offered for free (or with a donation) most evenings. Tents were erected for the homeless. Some of the destitute people who arrived did disturb the assemblies, but I observed various strategies of inclusion and limits, which kept the meetings from disintegrating.
Multiple groups helped to keep Nuit Debout in operation, including, among others, strong movements for housing justice, undocumented immigrants, and union organizing among women and immigrants. Marches were organized in the suburbs, as well as from the Place de la République to outlying areas. On these marches, demonstrators stopped at each stage to hear from the particular groups they were visiting. One such march of about two hundred people that I participated in began and ended at the margins of Paris and the suburbs. Activists whom I recognized from the Place de la République were joined by more and more undocumented workers, nearly all African immigrants, as we visited the migrant organizations where such men were sleeping on mattresses on the floors.
By the end of the march through the suburbs described above, an undocumented worker of African descent was actually giving speeches under the eyes of the city police, surrounded by about 50 other probably undocumented men and women and about a hundred other activists and neighborhood supporters. I observed more than 20 women dressed in hijabs walking with the demonstrators and listening to the speeches. A second stop along the way was to support cleaning women trying to unionize, and here, too, many immigrants and undocumented workers participated in the protest. Nuit Debout was involved in many efforts to support refugees and immigrants. Every morning at 6:00 a.m. activists met at the Place de la République to discuss unions or other organizations that they planned to support that day.
One evening, the Parisian police suddenly evicted the refugees from a park in an immigrant district where they had been living in tents (for a description of the neighborhood and immigrant activism that created this park, see Newman 2015). The evictions became national news as the refugees were accused of unsanitary conditions and the potential to spread tuberculosis. Nuit Debout was there that night and the next morning demonstrating its support for the refugees. When I walked there the next day, many African refugees were sleeping on mattresses on the sidewalk opposite the park. About 50 yards away, their tents were being destroyed by a bulldozer that was shoveling their possessions from the site.
Since early March, unions had been protesting the new labor law introduced by the socialist party in power, and from March to June, unions, Nuit Debout, and other activists managed a fragile and contentious parallel movement. The CGT (General Confederation of Labor), the French communist union, fought alongside the activists while simultaneously distancing themselves from the violence of the casseurs (breakers). On 14 June, the largest demonstration in decades, some claimed since 1968, brought together the temporarily unified union movement (dominated by the CGT) with all varieties of activists, from feminists, anarchists, environmentalists, and antifascist movements in a march that took at least five hours to pass by and for which police estimates were 70,000 demonstrators while union estimates were one million. Another similar demonstration scheduled two weeks later was temporarily banned by the socialist government led by François Hollande but finally took place legally. These protests involved students, precarious workers, and unions and, in a time of fear of refugees and terrorism across Europe, consciously included the rights of immigrants and refugees in their rhetoric.
Over the course of several weeks of participant observation with Nuit Debout and the union demonstrators in May and June 2016, I observed multiple instances of the inclusion of immigrants and refugees in the protests, as well as efforts to build links with the immigrant suburbs of Paris. In light of the centrality of immigrants and refugee status to the current explosive debates in the EU, the rise of the National Front under Marine Le Pen, and Nigel Farage and the British exit (Brexit), these efforts are particularly significant.
Nuit Debout worked in parallel with the unions as “one work stoppage after another across the nation succeeded the violent demonstrations,” a quote about 1968 (Ross 2008). Although France was not paralyzed in 2016 as it had been in 1968, the demonstrations led to several lockdowns of the city of Paris. But, perhaps closer to the point, one Nuit Debout activist in his late twenties said to me, “It reminds of us things we haven’t known—such as 1968, which seems like antiquity.”
Nuit Debout at the Place de la République and across France was perhaps a momentary phenomenon. However, it changed many people’s views of possibility. An activist said to me, “People are completely alone; people are tired. People are alone in their lives. They come to République to rebuild themselves … it goes beyond identity.”
One organizer of a political economy commission, who had been at Nuit Debout from the first night, said to me, “I am a Marxist who believes in horizontalism. We just came to horizontalism in order to engage people in text—they have to write it—it’s a form of education; it doesn’t work to impose ideas.” He went on to say, “It was a natural political strategy for the development of ideas and we have to do something. … Horizontalism was originally a pragmatic decision.” He explaied, as many others whom I interviewed also argued, “Political parties don’t represent us. Unions don’t represent us. The CGT [doesn’t] care—we need them, we support them as the most left union in France. But I never felt like a worker; they do not represent me. We need them and fight for them … but unions and parties are not enough.”
Interestingly, in 2016 I saw Jean-Luc Mélenchon walking alone from the front toward the back of the massive 14 June demonstration, talking with participants all the way. His engagement with such demonstrations might have supported his emergence as a viable political candidate in 2017. Participants in Nuit Debout did not mention any pronounced preference for Mélenchon in June 2016 (when I asked about him, I was told he was part of “the old traditional Left”). However, many of those who claimed to hardly believe in the electoral process voiced strong and emotional support for him by May 2017. The particular ways in which the demise of the socialist party in France and the growth of the party created by Mélenchon will further affect the structuring of French politics remain to be seen. This is especially true as the newly elected neoliberal president Emmanuel Macron (who also came out of the centrist socialist party) confronts labor regulation as he pursues his electoral claims.
In the cases described above, commoning is represented by the performance of mass marches and occupations with horizontalist aspirations combining multiple allegiances with broad goals. They also demonstrate how this experience provides the basis for a broad progressive coalition that actually transforms the political structure in the ensuing years. The next section explores the ways in which participants learn to see themselves as a political bloc and how their collaboration in an occupation develops new forms of practical sense that counteract the prevailing hegemony (Crehan 2016; Gramsci 1971). It outlines the ways in which commoning is a form of popular education (Gramsci 1971) that transforms space, time, and language.
The creation of a political bloc
As Lance Jay Brown and Ron Shiffman (2012: xxi) wrote about Occupy Wall Street, public places “allow us not only to express our needs but also to form what and who we are. These are spaces of social interaction that enable us to organize, learn, and share with one another; the spaces in which we can confront our fears and craft the political agendas that will enable us to be a better people.” The squares movement took over key symbolic public spaces and occupied them long-term. This in itself marked the second urban commons, a public space where many fragmented groups could meet, negotiate, and develop new languages of public communication, virtual communication, and representation.
The embodied demand for a public forum provided the space for participants to educate one another and to recognize large numbers of people with similar needs. People lived the experience of a public forum and negotiated among multiple groups in terms of the common space. New forms of communication were created through a common sign language for sharing and public conversations. Starting with the alter-globalization movements, activists had begun to invent a new sign language and ways of relaying conversations across masses of people. Participants now have signs not only for agreement and disagreement but also for “racism” and “sexism” and much else. At Nuit Debout, these signs were introduced at the beginning of each seminar or assembly to provide a common frame for all participants. Rules were developed for including participants in a public conversation and allowing but containing speakers who might be disruptive or off point. Thus, in the process of commoning, participants had found ways to negotiate in open space with a public that did not all share the same goals. Since 2011, new patterns of representation have emerged in which people covered their faces with signs or wore masks so that their ideas rather than their identities were highlighted. At Nuit Debout, one woman said, “We wear masks to protect ourselves from the police, even if we are innocent.” She told me the police take videos of the protests and that her friend had been arrested several weeks after a sit-in demonstration on the basis of police photographs. Thus, the signs and masks that covered their faces also protected activists from individual retaliation and incrimination. In such common spaces, new forms of communication and alternate forms of representation were created.
We can recognize a new concept of time in contemporary social movements. Commoning can be related to the communitas that Victor Turner (1979: 471) defines as “the mutual confrontation of human beings stripped of status role characteristics.” Communitas can take place at moments of political crisis and include a critical reflection of society. Under such conditions of liminality, a group sees itself in the moment—there is no planning for the future; time is embodied in the event and immediate. Similarly, people take over squares and set up egalitarian relationships (as Graeber  has argued, such movements owe a great deal to the anarchist tradition). In the process, they are rejecting future time orientation along with the concept that time is money. They are emphasizing living in the moment. When asked what happens next, as one participant of Nuit Debout in Paris said to me with astonishment in June 2016, “How can you talk about January? We can tell you about today and possibly plan for tomorrow. That’s as far as we go.” This is partly transformative but also partly a result of the fact that, as one young person told me, many activists see “no future” or a “sad future … not only because of the political economy but also because of ecological issues.”
Nuit Debout makes its own calendar. As I was told, “We started on March 31 and so we count from there—March 32, March 33. It’s an alternative calendar—the 10th of April becomes the 11th day of the République.” Nuit Debout celebrated 100 March with much fanfare. Certainly, they saw themselves as building on historical events such as the Paris Commune and the alternative calendar of the French Revolution.
Old hierarchies are rejected. Statuses from gender roles to bureaucratic offices are challenged. Stavrides (2015) has also referred to commoning as a liminal condition—people are entering the threshold of something new, although it is not clear what it might be. Normal rules do not apply and methods of relating need to be reinvented. In the squares movement, we might see moments of communitas as providing the vision and experiences for creating new forms of society and new, less repressive structures, as among the Diggers and Levelers in seventeenth-century Britain who presaged demands for democracy (Hill 1972).
Taking Turner’s emphasis on drama and performance, we can see the squares as political theater. Guy Debord (2011) talks of the spectacle as the pacification of society through a media that presents illusory escapist images rather than the everyday conditions in which people live. Consequently, Debord sees the “staging of the visibility of the working class” as a revolutionary event (2011: locs. 133–136). In conversation with Debord, in a framework developed in response to the movements of the 1960s, Jacques Ranciere talks of the active spectator: “What is required is a theatre without spectators, where those in attendance learn from as opposed to being seduced by images; where they become active participants as opposed to passive voyeurs” (2014: locs. 63–71).
Each moment of commoning resonates as an active drama in which the participants perform their displeasure, frame their critiques of society, and recognize the power of their united actions in the process. Commoning and the squares movement engage in political theater that allows the participants themselves to rethink hegemonic ideas as a collective community and it makes this community visible. As one activist at Nuit Debout in June 2016 commented to me, “It has become a school for people to learn politics—not only thematically but just by taking part in a commission [the organized groups around a theme that people work on together] … I feel more political than before. … This is the case for anyone who spends enough time here—after a few days it changes you.”
The participants of Nuit Debout and other squares are taking public space, slowing down time, and educating themselves through political drama, assemblies, and social forums.
It is complicated because the movement is composed of very different people from me—we have a place to talk about these issues in a public space … to be stronger. … We are experimenting with what it is to organize a group horizontally. Coordination is really difficult. People making decisions without asking anyone. I was really impressed. I didn’t really believe in that when I arrived here. They don’t want an executive—but every day they supply food, tents, organize different commission discussions, have discussions in assemblies.… I’m really glad to have been in this movement. I have a network to call. I have changed a bit. I believe in autonomy.
The squares are a form of learning through political drama in which people act on their political goals and in the process change themselves and others. As one young man who was a science student in an elite French college told me, “It’s exciting—we are not just talking and not just acting. It’s a mix—a working group of people are talking about stuff and teaching people at the same time.” He mentioned joining with other Nuit Debout activists who rose at 4:00 a.m. the day before to support the bus drivers’ strike by blocking the parking garage. When the buses left this particular parking lot at 6:30 a.m., “we didn’t stop all the buses but there was perturbation in the bus system.” Thus, protesters perform a political drama that may change their own minds about their own efficacy and possibly the minds of others through spectacle. They simultaneously act in ways designed to exert political pressure for change.
A major area of debate among activists in Nuit Debout has been the role of violence. The special riot police who have been called out for the demonstrations in Paris in 2016 have been perceived by many as particularly brutal. As one activist said to me, “Years ago I was in many protests—I didn’t think they were dangerous. Now I am always ready—jeans, long sleeves. I just want to protest peacefully, but I can be injured or arrested.” In France (as well as Germany, Greece, and elsewhere), demonstrations have intermittently included groups known as the Black Block or the casseurs (breakers) in Paris who can perhaps be seen as the collective embodiment of rage. They run through the streets breaking windows of banks and certain stores and defacing advertising, sometimes confronting lines of armed police. However, in Spain, although there had been a history of such violence, commoning since 2011 has explicitly opposed such manifestations.
In Paris, all nearby protesters, casseurs or not, were teargassed and brutally arrested by riot police in full protective armor. To quote a participant, “When riot police charge, they beat everyone—they launch grenades, they fire soft little bullets. People are hurt and injured.” One young woman activist told me she was opposed to violence but had been teargassed five times over the past month and that, consequently, she always came prepared with a small bottle of eye drops to protect her eyes from gas. I was also given such a bottle and warned to take it with me everywhere. I was still shocked to see a crowd teargassed 20 yards from me at an assembly at the Place de la République. Several marchers told me they were upset and frightened by the police, but they continued in the demonstration.
Despite ongoing debates and divided opinion among the protesters, the casseurs were protected by Nuit Debout, as well as some unions, and antifascist organizations, who walked with them. Although they did not participate in the violence, members of these accompanying groups told me they felt that the casseurs should not be singled out and that they too were casseurs. In this spirit of support, all demonstrators, casseurs or not, were assisted by the lawyers assembled and paid by supporters of Nuit Debout and were looked after by the medical team organized for the demonstrations.
Activists repeatedly point out that violence is perpetrated by the police and that the casseurs only respond to that violence. Clearly, even this response represents but a small proportion of the activists and is not approved by most. However, there is no doubt that the casseurs represent the anger many feel not only at austerity but at the lack of political response—even from socialist governments whom they elected. Just as with suffragists and other groups who have adopted violent disruptive demonstrations, mostly it is the demonstrators themselves that get hurt and end up in prison. Activists in unarmed confrontation against well-trained riot police may also build communitas. They represent the extent of sacrifice, and pain protesters are willing to endure and may be an important part of creating communitas through suffering, emotions, and excitement. Whether or not it is an effective message in the wider political scene, the experience of being willing to break the law together, just as with Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, creates a form of loyalty and solidarity among participants. It also represents a political drama, displaying anger and making the rage visible both to the demonstrators and the wider public. The overall problem may be, as historically in Spain (Preston 2007) and elsewhere, that such violent street protests provide the justification for right-wing violence and military interventions, which are much more bloody and destructive than such unarmed performances.
Conclusion: The creation of a new political bloc and the transformation of politics
Although clearly reflective of historical experiences (Federici 2012; Linebaugh 2008; Susser 2016; Thompson 1963), commoning can be seen here as the embodiment of a newly significant form of protest that helps to create and make visible the development of a new political bloc, such as described by Antonio Gramsci (1971). This research suggests that this bloc is emerging in opposition to neoliberalism and the increasing inequality and in the search for a more egalitarian ecological future.
The preponderance of commoning in Europe and the United States in the twenty-first century can be seen as a product, among other developments, of the decline of unions and the creation of a temporary and insecure workforce among many different categories of workers in both laboring and professional classes, which might be called a precariat (Casas-Cortés et al. 2014). Under these conditions, such movements reflect a response to the need to develop different approaches to power and transformation, incorporating traditional political forms of organizing but also transcending them (Susser 2016). Nuit Debout and the squares movement in general represent transformative spaces in which people in the neoliberal era are struggling to work out new strategies.
Following Stavrides’s (2015) concept of an open commons connecting a network of publics, recent events suggest that commoning overcomes the fragmentation of identity politics so powerful in the 1980s and 1990s and allows different groups, at least momentarily, to be incorporated in the umbrella mobilization in the squares. Rather than the end of identity politics, we see a melding of specific struggles, and the establishment in the moment of alliances leading to mutual trust. Since neoliberalism is broad based in its assaults on the public welfare, I suggest the commons has evolved to address multiple assaults together. It is crucial to look for the connections between these movements and other protests and demands. Each demand may represent a specific need such as Black Lives Matter and racism or police violence, antinuclear or anti-fracking, or Planned Parenthood and women’s issues. We see movements to protect the National Health Service in the United Kingdom and government health services in Spain and even in the United States.
In each of the cities described above, commoning pulls in many different groups to generate a shared cultural discourse and broader mobilization. This moment of inclusion provides a platform for further possibilities that, nevertheless, depend on another set of contingencies. There is nothing determining in these opportunities, but it seems that in parts of Europe and North America, the Indignados and Occupy movements have generated a new form of class recognition based on the restructuring of space and time for social movements. This begins to represent a political bloc that includes immigrants, unemployed and employed workers and feminists and professionals such as doctors and nurses losing their class position because of neoliberal policies. In France, we see traditional trade unions reaching out to the Nuit Debout demonstrators.
Commoning may be as fleeting and episodic as the squares, but such commoning episodes are indicative of a new recognition of growing inequality. E. P. Thompson (1963) takes the appearance of “working class” in the working man’s newspapers of 1813 as indicative of the emergence of a class for itself. Perhaps the slogan “the 99 percent” can be seen in the same light. If the tendency toward such a broad coalition of interests among the displaced middle and working classes is recognized, perhaps it will become the baseline on which to advocate for progressive policies under neoliberalism. In fact, we can see structural changes precipitated by the 15 May demonstrations in Spain in the formation of Barcelona en Comù, the election of Ada Colau as mayor, and the formation of the national political party of Podemos. In New York City, following Occupy Wall Street, a progressive mayor was also elected, and changes in policing and the rights of the undocumented were set in motion (Susser 2014a, 2014b). It is not yet evident what structural changes will be precipitated as a consequence of Nuit Debout. However, the unexpected rapid emergence of the independent left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the 2017 electoral campaign follows a similar trajectory to Podemos and Barcelona en Comù in Spain and, in addition, the emergence of the national progressive party of Syriza in Greece (although not specifically included in this article, my interviews suggested that this party gained major impetus from the 2011 occupations of Syntagma Square in Greece).
In comparing the three cases—New York City, Paris, and Barcelona and the complex urban politics that supported the election of Podemos—we can clearly see people occupying squares and in their performance of the occupation, reflecting their situation as a political bloc consigned to a precarious living in conditions of growing inequality. Over time, this recognition and the creation of a commoning culture and networks have also precipitated major political changes, including the formation of new political parties and legislative changes with respect to debt, housing, and policing.
I would like to acknowledge the Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS) at Durham University for the IAS fellowship and my colleagues there for the supportive environment and lively seminar in which I was able to work on this article. In addition, I am grateful to the participants at the Anthropology Seminar at Cambridge University, as well as to the reviewers for Focaal for helpful and thoughtful comments. Finally, I would like to thank generous and insightful informants in Paris and Barcelona who read and commented on versions of the article.
I conducted fieldwork among social movements in New York City from 2003 to 2012 and in Barcelona and Paris in June and July 2015 and in 2016. I interviewed activists and public intellectuals, and conducted participant observation at rallies and protests in the different cities.
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