Based on fieldwork in New York City, Barcelona, and Paris, this article explores recent Occupy events and how these represent a claim for an urban commons, and the building of a new political consciousness. The article analyzes commoning in the three cities as a form of popular education that transforms space, time, and language. The reemergence of commoning is seen as a response to neoliberal policies, the creation of a temporary and insecure workforce (or precariat), and the need to develop different approaches to power and transformation. Although clearly reflective of historical experiences, commoning can be seen as a newly significant form of protest that brings together and creates a shared culture among fragmented progressive groups often divided by issues of identity and topic.
Notes and observations from the field
For or against commoning?
It seems crucial to research the transformative aspects of progressive grassroots movements in the face of the troubling turn to the right in elections in the United States and parts of Europe. This theme section considers “commoning” as one way to understand the emergence of social movements in Europe and the United States. The articles analyze different protests from housing movements, to anti-antiblack insurgency, redefinitions of the tax code, and the squares movement. The articles consider how movements around the urban commons change over time, differ from more traditional social movements, and address or emerge from the specifics of contemporary regimes. The aim is to develop a theoretical perspective on commoning, which will provide a framework for comparison across societies at this juncture.
The three urban commons
Ida Susser and Stéphane Tonnelat
Drawing on Lefebvre and others, this article considers contemporary urban social movements with a selective review of urban research and suggestions for future ethnographic, cultural, and sociological questions. Under a generalized post-Fordist regime of capital accumulation, cultural workers and laborers, service workers, and community activists have all participated in urban movements. We consider 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. We suggest that the three urban commons outlined here are not necessarily perceived everywhere, but as they momentarily come together in cities around the world, they give us a glimpse of a city built on the social needs of a population. That is the point when cities become transformative.
A response to Narotzky, Collins, and Bertho
Ida Susser and Stéphane Tonnelat
When our article was first written, the Occupy movement was in full swing and we were clearly in optimistic mode. However, as all studies of social movements have shown, from the antiapartheid struggles of South Africa to the rebellious nineteenth century in France or Britain, the road of mobilization is never straightforward. Nor did we assume that “Occupy” in the United States or even the popular rebellions of the Arab Spring would lead to a blossoming of democratic nations. We take these understandings from writers such as Eric Hobsbawm (1996), who understood the French Revolution and the British industrial revolution as complementary processes that set the stage for the imperfect and unequal nation-states of France and Britain today. In South Africa (to pick one historic moment), after the high school students who took to the streets in protest in Soweto were mowed down by South African army tanks, the streets were virtually quiescent for a decade. However, over 40 years of fascism in South Africa, the 1950s bus boycotts, the 1960s Sharpeville massacre, the famous trials of Mandela and others, the Soweto school children, and finally the union mobilization in a United Front and international sanctions led to the end of apartheid. But, as we are all now aware, these battles did not end inequality or neoliberalism.