Intro to Reclaiming the Commons

This a talk I gave in Seville at the Caring for the City Reclaiming the Commons Hackcamp at Zemos98 in April. The aim was to explain the idea of the commons using film, video & audio visual media. It splits into three parts – the meaning of the commons, who the commons needs to be reclaimed from and how the idea of ‘reclaiming the commons’ has been expressed in Doc Next Network’s Radical Democracy project so far. It’s broad brush stuff.

This is the BBC’s most watched piece of fictional media. It had its 30th anniversary this year. It’s based on the ups and downs of people in working class East London. Much of day-to-day life is organised around a pub called The Queen Vic – it’s where people fall in love, fight, celebrate, give birth and where stories about who is doing what with who are overheard.

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This is a story about what happened to real life pub on the other side of London last week.

Things like this don’t happen in Eastenders – which is funny because alot of implausible things do. Although popular, Eastenders isn’t a particularly accurate representation of life in London today. Communities in London are more fragmented, more ethnically diverse. They don’t speak as much English as they do on Eastenders. And they’re probably less violent too. Apart from anything else the real Eastenders wouldn’t be able to afford to live in houses like those in Albert Square, or if they did they would probably be sharing bedrooms and on insecure tenancies.

London’s favourite television programme tells us more about ourselves and our need for community and common space (possibly in a time in which it is threatened) than it does about the reality of life in London.

So what really are the Commons?

This is the page from the Oxford English Dictionary of Sociology where the entry for the commons should be.

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Without a definition to hand, I have put together some clips from youtube of thinkers explaining the commons. First comes Elinor Ostrom – the first woman to win the Nobel prize for economics, explaining the difference between ‘common pool resources’ and the ‘commons’.

This is Jay Walljasper an American writer and commons evangelist, listing resources which could be included in the commons.

And this is post-marxist political philosopher Michael Hardt.

Maybe for our purposes this is the important point to gather here. That the commons are resources which are not controlled by a monopoly of state or private power. And they have to be accessible too. This is a more concrete definition of the commons from the International Association for the Study of the Commons.

But this is all very cold and mechanical.  ‘Reclaiming the commons’ refers to a ‘spirit’ as much as it does to a technical concept. Commons are one of the best words we have for the shared life and a belief that better, more interesting, healthy, cohesive places are those which are accessible and used and shaped by a range of different people. That the presence and ideas of people, of all kinds are what make for great places.

To express this I have made a video using the The Kinks’ God Save The Village Green Preservation Society. The lyrics are a homage to English customs and habits which reflect a certain idea of what it means to be British – a national cultural commons of a kind. I haven’t been able to include the video here, but a similar effect can be achieved by watching this video of speakers corner 30 years ago with the volume turned down, while playing the song below.

God save Donald Duck, vaudeville and variety.

We are the Desperate Dan Appreciation Society.

God save strawberry jam and all the different varieties.

Preserving the old ways from being abused.

Protecting the new ways, for me and for you.

So there’s the Commons as a concept and also as a spirit, but since this is about reclaiming the Commons I thought we should look at whom it might need to be reclaimed from.

Reclaimed: From Whom?

This is Garrett Hardin who wrote a famous paper in 1968 called the Tragedy of the Commons. Here he is.

Perhaps the first enemy of the commons is a way of thinking – a pessimistic view of human nature that sees people as fundamentally self-interested actors, incapable of cooperating – weighing up costs, maximising benefits accumulating as much as they can, for themselves.

These assumptions are similar to those that form rational economic man – an enlightened response to 17th century church dogma, which today has become a kind of dogma of its own. Flora Michaels recently wrote about the proliferation of rational economic man into all areas of day-today life in her book Monoculture.

‘It’s 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 keeps 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.’

This is a video from a T-Mobile flash-mob advert. Although the slogan says that life’s for sharing – it’s not entirely clear whether these people know that they are part of an advert or what they are really complicit in. Best watched with the sound off.


But some enemies of the commons are a bit more obvious to identify than an idea.

This is Recep Erdogan’s Turkey.

In Istanbul he has formed an unstoppable armada of government, corporate and media power to push development projects through across the city. In the next ten years there are 100bn of construction projects on the slate which will displace huge numbers of people, trees and buildings.

They include a new artificial bosphorus canal, a road tunnel and an airport which will use six times as much space as Heathrow. Despite the protests in 2013, a shopping centre in the style of an Ottoman fortress is still planned for Taksim square.


But the enclosure of the commons is often a more subtle business. It may include enterprise zones, business improvement districts, the quiet handing over of land to private interests. CCTV cameras,  subtle coding of public behaviours.

In isolated cases it may not seem so bad, but across a whole city, it can have a deadening effect.

Impatience with/Failure of Political Institutions

Whether you blame people or the politicians, parliaments and elected governments – the institutions of democracy – have never been in worse health. And this matters because democracy is the mother of all commons. Only 5 countries in the EU 27 produced a turnout of more than 50% in the 2014 elections – in Slovakia it was just 17% – political parties that reject the very institutions they were being elected to, did better than ever. Only a handful of turnouts in domestic parliamentary and presidential elections top 2/3rds of the electorate. Most countries are ruled by presidents, coalitions and parties that have a mandate from a very small proportion of the population.

Reclaiming the commons now

Symbolic power struggles – rather than being fought at the gates of factories or supranational organisations – are being waged over who controls housing developments, social centres and theatres. The act of reclaiming space seems to animate people across Europe – be that public space, space for decision making or just a space to call home.

Here are 8 examples of acts of reclaiming the commons, taken from videos submitted to Doc Next Network’s Radical Democracy Media Challenge.

The Sarajevo Plenum/2014

Artistic intervention reclaiming public space in Prague

A bicycle knowledge sharing commons in Budapest.

Paris Hope Area

A tenant struggle in Seville

Strike in support of free and open media in Hungary

A communal co-housing initiative for retirees outside Madrid

Gezi Park

As I mentioned before, Erdogan still plans to turn Gezi Park into a shopping centre. Making sure it gets built is clearly about more than creating somewhere for people to go shopping. Maybe that’s because these kinds of disputes (and maybe there’s a link to be made here to London’s New Era Estate) aren’t just about claiming a commons, they are also an attempt by those with power and those without it, to determine what passes as common sense.


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