Covid and the Commons pt 1

As we start a slow, although not guaranteed return to life as the pandemic recedes (in the UK at least), I thought I would start connecting some dots in my research interests with what I started in the last blog post. Following on from that one, which was back in June, nearly a year ago now, it seems important to mark what might be learned from the pandemic, even if there is a desire to get back to ‘normal’ as quickly as possible. Of course, this depends how crises and disasters are viewed in relation to the ‘normallity’ of neoliberal capitalism, but I will therefore try and use the next few blog posts to include ideas which might help to think about how we might use the opportunities and struggles presented by the pandemic in relation to organisations and organising practices.

I have a short book review in the forthcoming issue of New Formations, so for this blog post, I thought I would write about this and some of the ideas that come from it. The book is The Common and Counter-Hegemonic Politics: Rethinking Social Change, by Alexandros Kioupkiolis. You can find the full review here.

Kioupkiolis’ book is ostensibly a theoretical exploration in which he brings together work on the commons and commoning with post-hegemonic political theory. The stakes in doing this revolve around the question of how disparate, horizontally organised social movements and grassroots initiatives might produce widespread, sustainable and long lasting social and political change. This has been a key question for many social movements particularly since the alter-globalisation movement in the 90s and in relation to movements like Occupy and 15M that emerged in response to the 2008 financial crash. One of the fundamental features of the social and political movements since the 90s has been a move away from state power as a focus. Theorist and philosopher John Holloway has characterised this perspective, that ‘the attempts to transform society through the state have not just failed to achieve that end. The fixation on the state has tended to destroy the movements pushing for radical change’[i].

A general critique of these movements is that while they may have worked on the level of tactics they have left a strategic gap. Kioupkiolis tries to address this gap by bringing together two theoretical strands of what can be said to be broadly speaking post-Marxist theory: theories of the commons, the common and commoning and post-hegemonic political theory. Both of these strands of thought have been very influential in the political landscape over the last 20 years, particularly in terms of grassroots social movements and their relationship to mainstream politics. Kioupkiolis mostly concentrates on Hardt and Negri’s work in terms of work on the idea of the common, although other theorists and aspects of this idea are explored at the beginning of the book, and in terms of post-hegemonic political theory, Mouffe and Laclau’s work is mostly focussed on, although Gramsci is also cited.

Kioupkiolis’ main proposal is for a tentative, careful or qualified combination of the politics of hegemony which includes ideas of representation, the aggregation of forces and collective convergence, with the more horizontal politics of the alternative commons which includes self-organisation, openness and diversity. Kioupkiolis argues that whilst recent thinking on the common has offered much, it has failed to think through power relations and conflict as well as how collective subjects and communities of struggle might be created.

It is perhaps worth here just spelling out what Kioupkiolis and others mean by the common and how organisations run on these principles might operate. Kioupkiolis uses the common as a kind of shorthand for different definitions and terms such as the commons, common pool resources, commons-based peer production and others. Historically, the term commons has its roots land set aside for common use which were destroyed through processes of enclosure that started in the 17th Century. More recently however, the term has been used as a way to challenge the logic of both private and state public property. While it encompasses resources that are collectively owned and/or collectively produced, the common should not be confused with just shared resources per se. The common or commons also encompass the community of people who share that resource and the way it is managed and distributed through collective and egalitarian participation. Governance is therefore particularly important. In her ground breaking work on the commons, Elinor Ostrom asserted that commons always implies some form of communal governance. In addition, historian Peter Linebaugh coined the term ‘commoning,’ turning the noun into a verb and therefore emphasising it as a practice.[ii] Rather than merely being a fixed resource, the common therefore also includes the practice of commoning, as the collective care of that resource by the community that uses it.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a short proposal for a cultural think tank on how the commons could relate to cultural organisations and I used the idea of the fallow year (a concept drawn from medieval rural common land ownership), as a metaphor for an ‘unproductive’ period that could be used as time for social maintenance. This was before the term furlough came into public parlance, and of course, while a lot of organisations have found themselves having to have a forced hiatus in response to the pandemic, the reality is that many organisations are facing huge cuts and difficulties as they come back to life.  

Kioupkiolis’ focus in terms of these ideas, is on Hardt and Negri’s use of the concept. For Hardt and Negri, the common is the central concept of the organisation of society and a political strategy that extends collective self-management and commoning across society. The common is interlinked with their concept of the multitude, their term for an immanent or latent, if submerged, collective subject of democratic struggle against the neoliberal ‘empire’. For Hardt and Negri, ‘the multitude is grounded in the common and gives rise to the common’[iii]. I will go into this and the autonomist Marxist tradition of which Negri is part, in a future blog post.

While Kioupkiolis’ book is ostensibly a theoretical exploration of strands of post-Marxist thinking and how they might be combined to create a hegemonic bloc to affect change, there are also some specific concrete proposals. Kioupkiolis’ critique of commons-based initiatives is that most horizontalist initiatives and mobilisations remain weak, tentative and dispersed, and when confronted with entrenched state institutions or other systemic centres of power they can easily be overwhelmed or be co-opted. Nevertheless, Kioupkiolis proposes a major social transition through a process of commoning. Social self-governance, he suggests, could issue mainly from the bottom up through civic initiatives such as a social economy of collectively self-managed enterprises and community services, or the lowest tier of state administrations on the local level.

This idea of transition to a commons based society, echoes that which has been suggested by the P2P Foundation. Over 10 years ago, I wrote about the P2P Foundation and what was termed the contribution economy. At that time, web 2.0 was relatively new and there was an emphasis on the much vaunted changes that peer production and digital participation might produce. Now, while peer production and platform technology have been absorbed into the mainstream, the P2P Foundation has broadened its remit, and embraced the concept of the commons. It has developed a program for what it calls a commons transition and now has also embraced cooperatives as playing a role in their vision for a commons-based society.

Kioupkiolis’ vision of transition is of the development of polycentric social governance which would include a complex mix of multiple levels and scales of diverse types of organisations and governing authorities. He suggests that alongside new organisational and institutional spaces, state apparatuses would also need to be engaged with in some way, through for example, a process of ‘colonisation’ rather than pure withdrawal (which is generally the position of social movement activists and theorists such as Holloway and Hardt and Negri). Kioupkiolis also posits the possibilities technology for civic engagement.  While I find Kioupkiolis’s vision a really interesting and appealing one to think about, the suggestion of engagement with the state is more difficult. For many grassroots movements, their absorption into more mainstream political forms or governance structures has been quite problematic, for example, with Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece or even in relation to how grassroots Covid related mutual aid has purportedly been treated by local government [iv]. Kioupkiolis, however, does temper this call with the necessity to skew relations against hierarchical centralisation. He suggests that this could be done through hybrid forms such as participatory budgets, local assemblies, mechanisms of rotation and alternative kinds of leadership.

In terms of organisational forms and modes of operating, Kioupkiolis suggests that they should include collective ownership and local participative democracy. For organisations to operate as anti-authoritarian, they would need to lay down rules roles and processes through which they seek to promote collective and consensual decision-making, in order to reduce asymmetries of power. Tasks could be rotated in order to transform them into power and knowledge sharing experiences, and leadership could be cultivated in a way that takes as its ethos the Zapatista formula of ‘leading we obey’.

There are existing organisations which do these things, including some co-ops, but it is certainly not easy. As well as formal mechanisms to promote collective and consensual decision-making, cooperative and collaborative cultures also need to be nurtured and maintained. If we are to expand our democratic culture from the bottom up, there are many places, such as most workplaces, in which democracy does not currently thrive, which will need radical change. And as Kioupkiolis has suggested, tensions are also likely to break out between top-down and bottom-up power and decision-making. Processes of transition and emergence can be messy.  Indeed, many radical activists are of the opinion that top-down power will always either repress or recuperate any bottom-up initiatives.

As I wrote in my last blog post, Covid-19 might offer an opportunity to rethink how we are organised, to rethink our interconnectedness with each other and the nonhuman world, and to place care and the common good more centrally. Covid-19 Mutual Aid Groups could encourage further ‘micro-democratic organising’, or the development of other local structures such as community councils. However, we have also seen a tendency for the pandemic and the measures put in by government to protect people, to take on an authoritarian and controlling nature that may well continue afterwards. There is therefore plenty to do, and plenty to struggle against, through and beyond. Visions for how social change might occur are therefore needed more than ever.


[i] John Holloway, The Concept of Power and the Zapatistas, [https://libcom.org/library/concept-power-zapatistas-john-holloway]

[ii] Peter Linebaugh, 2009, The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All, Berkeley, Calif.; London: University of California Press.

[iii] Alexandros Kioupkiolis, 2019, The Common and Counter-Hegemonic Politics: Rethinking Social Change, Edinburgh, UK, Edinburgh University Press, p. 78

[iv] Rhiannon Firth, 2020, ‘Mutual Aid, Anarchist Preparedness and Covid-19’, in Preston & Firth, Coronavirus, Class and Mutual Aid in the United Kingdom, London: Palgrave Macmillan

The Covid Post

I chose this image for my last post but it also seems relevant now.

It’s now many months since I wrote my first blog post. I had been hoping to write at least one per month but not only found myself very busy in February and March but by the end of March had contracted (almost definitely) Covid-19 and while I was only severely ill for a short period of time, I have since then been suffering from what has been called the ‘long tail’ form of the virus.

As Paul Garner, a professor at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, recently wrote: ‘Symptoms come and go, are strange and frightening. The exhaustion is severe, real, and part of the illness.’ Thankfully, I am now more or less over it and am relieved to find that I am not the only one for whom it has dragged on for so long.

So, I have a bit of catching up to do. I started this blog as an attempt to work through some of my research interests and connect the dots. The pandemic has thrown up some interesting ways for this to happen and there is lots I could write about. For one thing, it is amazing how a tiny thing, a thing smaller than an individual cell or bacterium (viruses are generally about 100 nanometers in length) could cause so many enormous changes. The virus is an entity on the boundary of what counts as being alive because it commandeers the host’s cells to produce multiple copies of itself, and has initiated enormous changes in human behaviour and governmental action including shutting down large sections of the economy.  It has shown our interdependency on each other, and the planet’s ecosystem. Not only that but it has made visible inequalities and structures of governance that we knew were there but couldn’t see so clearly.  Changes that we deemed impossible before the pandemic, especially in relation to carbon emissions, happened incredibly quickly.

On the day I came down with Covid-19, philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour posted a series of questions for people to think about during lockdown. Latour asked people to think about the activities that have been suspended due to the pandemic and decide which ones should resume and which should not. His questions also ask us to think about how people who were engaged in the activities we don’t want to resume should be helped to transition to do other things. These are great questions and ones that can get us to think about transitions, connections and relationships, that we really are part of an ecosystem with chains of consequences. However, something that perhaps they miss are things that have emerged during the crisis that we might want to continue in some way or at least to exert an influence on how we resume. This is about continuing or developing something that has emerged rather than just encouraging or discouraging something that has been stopped. I’m thinking about the rise in altruism, goodwill and neighbourliness during the pandemic and in particular the appearance of Covid-19 mutual aid groups which happened very quickly as lockdown was taking place. There is currently a network of small groups across the UK that is loosely affiliated but not centrally coordinated in any way. This is echoed in other countries such as Spain where there are also groups all over the country. Anna Kleist, who set up one of the first in Lewisham, recounts how they very quickly ‘went viral’.  The obvious pun here might be too much of a cliché given the severity of the pandemic, however, Covid has perhaps ‘given us a model of contamination’ in which the personal and the collective are not totally distinct or discrete. Ideas, knowledge and organising models can also move quickly.

Mutual aid practices are nothing new. The concept stems from a 1902 series of essays by anarchist-communist philosopher Peter Kropotkin and it has been widely practiced by radical and marginalised communities to provide for their everyday needs, especially in circumstances in which state provision has not been forthcoming or deemed prejudicial. The fact that these groups have appeared perhaps does point to something that has not been forthcoming even if the anarchist roots of the practice become obscured. Crises can prompt paradigm shifts precisely by highlighting the limitations of existing norms, beliefs and practices. They can provide opportunities for the re-evaluation and reappraisal of dominant values. Years of austerity and neoliberalism have placed more and more burden on the individual to look after themselves as the state withdraws. The pandemic has not only highlighted this but the deep inequalities that underpin much of society.

The groups themselves may not directly challenge the status quo or see themselves as political, although many of them were set up precisely to deal with some of these inequalities. The assistance they offer such as picking up someone’s shopping, is not antagonistic to the logic of capital, and may ultimately act as a sticking plaster especially if the groups develop along more charity based lines. However, they challenge the limits of commodity exchange through the development of social solidarity.

What might emerge from this mass organising, whether the groups do just develop into neighbourhood charities or entities that have more radical potential, remains to be seen. Deborah Grayson has argued that they could promote a kind of ‘radical neighbourliness‘, entailing a long term commitment and an increasing willingness to tackle injustice.  Certainly, from reports, it seems some of them have already resisted evictions that should not have been happening because of the lockdown laws, even as others are being heavily policed for anything ‘political’.  They could also encourage more micro-democratic organising: that is, the development of local structures such as community councils that allow people in a given area to hold decision-makers to account.

Even if they don’t develop further as organisations as such, the fact is that an increase in social solidarity could help to rewrite our social and political imaginary with a shift in focus towards a more caring idea of the common good. Coupled with a hopefully wider acknowledgement of the existence and effects of racism that the Black Lives Matter protests have encouraged (and an increasing commitment to do something about it), this could create a real shift in values. Watch this space.

Connecting the dots…..

Five-thousand-randomly-located-individuals-dots-on-a-landscape-surface-of_W640I have decided to start blogging in order to try to bring together and connect the dots between my various research interests. I am hoping that as I write, some of these will come together to form either a coherent body of writing or identifiable strands that I can develop further in my research.

For this post, I want to focus on a particular gap or interface in our political culture. This seems especially important in the aftermath of the 2019 UK election and the continued rise of various kinds of contemporary fascisms. Writing as I am now in early January 2020, one of the things I want to do is to reflect on what kinds of theory and practice might be needed in order to counter these, to develop grassroots capacity, solidarity and counter-power.

Living as I do in a housing co-op, I am interested in alternative and ‘autonomous’ forms of organisation and practices of grassroots democracy. By autonomous, I mean non-hierarchical, de-centralised organisational structures and counter-institutions on the edges of mainstream culture and political economy. There have been several waves of these kinds of organisations. The housing co-operative I live in comes out of a wave during the 1970s. There was a previous wave during the 1930s, and a more recent one around 2011 with the square and Occupy movements. These kinds of alternative organisations have coincided with experiments in different modes of democracy. One question I could ask is what the relationship of these micro-democratic practices have to democracy as a whole. Is it a mistake to link the two?

Increasing democracy in the widest possible sense seems to be vital in order to respond to the current erosion of democratic culture. However, it can come with its own challenges because the areas of life that become contestable increase. Mark E. Warren writes that an increase in democratic decision making can put a strain on the social fabric in ways that we are not used to.

Most social interactions we can take for granted – not because they do not involve risks, but rather because the risks are contained; they are governed by a myriad of intricate forms of shared social knowledge, such as the rules governing reciprocity when one gives and receives gifts. Politics emerges when these forms of shared knowledgeability fray and become contestable so that the risks of social interactions are no longer predictable.[i]

Earlier in December, I was involved in a project with the School for Civic Action, an experiment in alternative urban pedagogy run by Public Works, a critical design practice.[ii] At one event in Blackfriars on community charters, there was an interesting discussion about the gap or disconnect between local councils and communities. I use the word communities advisedly here, as it has to be acknowledged that community is a catch-all phrase which belies complex realities. There are many different types of community-based in a geographical area or around particular interests. Also at the event was a worker from a managing agent for housing cooperatives. She talked about a similar disconnect between the organisation and the co-ops that they help to manage. In both cases, there seems to be the tension or clash between very different cultures, and particularly cultures with different ideas of structure and democracy. I’ve also come across similar tensions between activist groups and local government. This is perhaps not so surprising, as activist groups very often make a point of organising non-hierarchically and are set up in order to lobby organisations such as councils. While the machinery of local government is often, as cyberneticist Stafford Beer described it, a machine of inertia.[iii] Local councillors seem beleaguered and fearful. They seem to be continually in fear of being attacked. If councillors were open to admitting that the machinery they are a part of is in large part, a machinery of inertia, perhaps they could invite and accept activists’ role in lobbying them, in order to give them more momentum to change things or to apply pressure that they couldn’t otherwise.

I am also currently involved in the editorial team of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest (JOAAP). For the next issue, issue 11, JOAAP has invited groups to produce newsletters to circulate within their particular communities.[iv] These will then be collected together to produce the issue. The initial invitation asks how autonomous critical, creative and activist practices might create a commons while retaining their specific conditions/situations. In particular, those that are situated outside of cultural and political institutions. It suggests that ‘the gap between the radical imaginary built on actual social capacity, and formal politics’ might be reclaimed. This is another way of talking about the gap I already identified. Might there be something productive in thinking about or even dwelling in it?

 

[i] Mark E. Warren, What should we expect from more democracy? : Radically Democratic Responses to Politics, Political Theory , Vol. 24, No. 2 (May, 1996), pp. 241-270

[ii] https://www.publicworksgroup.net/projects/school-for-civic-action

[iii] Eden Medina, Cybernetic Revolutionaries: technology and politics in Allende’s Chile, (2011) MIT

[iv] http://www.joaap.org/issue11/issue11note.htm