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.
Suggestions for further discussion
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.
After the commons—commoning!
Commoning over time generates customs in common and therefore commonalities. The political mobilizations of the past years may well be understood as a form of urban commoning. However, while such mobilizations may sometimes understand themselves as anticapitalist, one should resist the apparently logical idea (1) that the use values off ered by an urban commons are inevitably the opposite of surplus value, (2) that the urban commons will not just in theory but in practice be “open for everyone,” (3) and that such commons are necessarily horizontalist and universalist, as the Left might claim. Historical fascism and the rise of the new Right in Europe and the United States show that there is an exclusivist and hierarchical commons against the market too.
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.
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.
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.
The Global Idea of 'the Commons'
Donald M. Nonini
What is now at stake at this point in world history is control over ‘the commons’—the great variety of natural, physical, social, intellectual, and cultural resources that make human survival possible. By ‘the commons’ I mean those assemblages and ensembles of resources that human beings hold in common or in trust to use on behalf of themselves, other living human beings, and past and future generations of human beings, and which are essential to their biological, cultural, and social reproduction.
Operationalizing a 'Right' to Health
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.
Ida Susser and Stéphane Tonnelat are right to view the question of the urban commons in global cities as a crucial issue. It has precipitated massive urban and often violent struggles. We know that the ideological basis of these fights is very similar from one continent to another. Within the global space there is a global repertory of urban mobilizations and urban riots. Global cities can also be analyzed through the clashes that occur there. Where is this car burning? Beijing, Dakar, Buenos Aires, Tunis, or Mumbai? Where is the "southern world" and where is the "northern one"? When the riot erupts, who can distinguish the political regimes of the country? Against which government is this Molotov cocktail thrown? Against a democratic power or against a dictatorship? All that remains are the national peculiarities of the urban context. Why? First, because residents of global cities are faced with national states, national laws, national polices, in historical contexts. Second, because urban residents are in charge of the question of the people as a nation, as a collective subject in the heart of the cities.
The tropical rainforest houses a wealth of both ecological and cultural diversity, and the species richness, ecosystem services, genetic wealth, and repository of indigenous and local environmental knowledge stored in this endangered region represent a global commons at risk. As articulated by Donald Nonini in the introduction to this forum, ‘the commons’ refers to those assemblages and ensembles of resources that human beings hold in common or in trust on behalf of themselves, other living human beings, and past and future generations of human beings, and that are essential to their biological, cultural, and social reproduction. In the Amazon, many ecological resources lend themselves to being held in a commons because of practical reasons, such as the difficulty of dividing it into smaller pieces (e.g., due to resource unpredictability, mobility, or the loss of ecological functioning if broken into pieces), and/or the costliness of excluding potential users. But social reasons and values foster the communal management of resources as well: various commons exemplify shared identity, provide economic buffering, mitigate subsistence risk, foster cooperation and conflict resolution, and serve as a pillar in the edifice of societies supporting socialization and social reproduction.