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The commons, property, and ownership

Suggestions for further discussion

Katharina Bodirsky

In response to the theme section on commoning in the December 2017 issue of Focaal, this article raises further questions for discussion and proposes an analytics of the commons that grasps it through the lens of property regimes. The key question concerns how we might best envision the relation of the commons/ commoning to the state, capitalism, and commonality in a way that does justice to both a broadly Leftist politics of the commons and an analysis of really existing commons that might deviate from this ideal. The conceptual lens of property regimes proposed here focuses empirical attention on relations of production and the organization of membership and ownership in the commons without including a particular politics into the definition as such.

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Conceiving the Health Commons

Operationalizing a 'Right' to Health

Sandy Smith-Nonini

In a perusal of literature on ‘the commons’, it is striking how rarely medicine and health services are mentioned as potential commons. Nor is the concept of the commons discussed in medical and health journals, where database searches turn up only the odd article using the term in a title or abstract. This essay evolved as an inquiry into what benefit might be gained from conceiving of a health commons.

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Benjamin Junge

Donald M. Nonini, ed., The global idea of “the commons.”New York: Berghahn Books, 2007, 138 pp., ISBN: 1-845-45485-5.

Jeffrey Juris, Networking futures: The movements against corporate globalization. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008, 400 pp., ISBN: 0822342693.

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The Genetic Commons

Resisting the Neo-liberal Enclosure of Life

Stephen B. Scharper and Hilary Cunningham

The notion of a ‘genetic commons’ is a broad-based, multi-faceted response to a particular constellation of technological, cultural, economic, political, ethical, and legal developments of the past three decades. Prompted principally by advances in biotechnology and the heretofore unprecedented patenting of life forms, the genetic commons movement seeks to critique and resist the commodification and commercialization of ‘nature’ and to establish a cosmological and political space outside of, and protected from, neo-liberal capitalist processes.

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Don Nonini

This article theorizes the making and unmaking of the urban housing commons in Amsterdam. The article reviews the literature on the urban housing commons, sets out the analytics of use values and exchange values for housing, and situates these analytics within the transition from dominance of industrial to finance capital in the Netherlands during neoliberalization from the mid-1970s to the present. A vibrant housing commons in Amsterdam came into existence by the 1980s because of two social movements that pressed the Dutch state to institutionalize this commons—the New Left movement within the Dutch Labor Party, and the squatters’ movement in Amsterdam. The subsequent shift in dominance from industrial to finance capital has led to the decline of both movements and the erosion of the housing commons.

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Donald M. Nonini

Marilyn Strathern, in her collection of essays, Commons and Borderlands (2004: 39–40), reflects on interdisciplinary research collaboration and its products in the contemporary British university setting. She points to two opposed pressures on such research. One, seeking “undivided outcomes,” comes from those engaged in interdisciplinary research who see “an object held in common, the joint product, multi-authored, of diverse efforts.” The other comes from those determined to attribute “ownership” as a matter of “undivided origins” to an individual “owner” of the object—its presumed creator—who can be uniquely identified and appropriately awarded, often with legal intellectual property rights in the form of patents or copyrights. While the perspective of researchers connected to the former impetus is one in which several researchers see themselves as bringing their complementary knowledges to bear in an “orientation to a joint project (‘problem solving’, etc.) [which] takes precedence” (ibid.: 48n4), that of the latter requires that they parse out origins to specify how “collaboration can be unpicked to identify the individual person, or the individual team, with whom the origin rests undivided” (ibid.: 40). Both pressures are, in the case of the British academy, very recent. Calls for interdisciplinary research have been articulated over the same period of the past two decades during which new property claims have been made—by universities, by ‘society’, and by for-profit corporations—on intellectual creations in the university milieu.

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Introduction

For or against commoning?

Ida Susser

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.

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Incipient “commoning” in defense of the public?

Competing varieties of fiscal citizenship in tax- and spending-related direct democracy

Sandra Morgen and Jennifer Erickson

This article examines the development of competing forms of fiscal citizenship in Oregon tax-related ballot initiative campaigns between 1970 and 2010. Antitax advocates constructed a “taxpayer identity politics” that positioned a privatized “taxpayer” against representatives of the state, recipients of public services, and public sector unions. In response, a progressive coalition produced an alternative citizen—the “Oregonian,” a socially responsible taxpayer/citizen who supports and defends public services and values a “common good.” “Incipient commoning” emerges as support for “the common good” through discourse about community and belonging that is more and other than, though in relation to, the state. Attention to how “publics” conceive of themselves suggests that concepts like the “the commons” already circulate in the imaginaries and vocabularies of advocates resisting neoliberal policies.

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Transformative cities

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.

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The urban public sector as commons

Response to Susser and Tonnelat

Jane Collins

Susser and Tonnelat’s article on the three urban commons is both visionary and heartening. Its counterpastoral polemic glorifies urban modes of sociality and the forms of common property fostered by urban life. The authors find in cities communities of experience that cross class lines and create inadvertent coalitions around shared problems. They argue that specific components of what has been called “the right to the city” need to be understood as “commons”—collective property that is neither fully public nor private but shared by individuals as they go about everyday life in urban settings.