Rebulding the Commons: A Global Network of Rebel Cities Takes Place

October 7, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

The city vs. the state. The Cities of the Commons vs. global neoliberalism. These are more than phrases – they could be understood as slogans or horizons of a new global order.

Take, as some examples, when Conil de la Frontera, a town in southern Spain, officially declared that it stood against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Or when Madrid’s new local government declared the city a GMO-free zone, joining a network of 200 European regions and 4,500 local authorities banning the production of genetically modified food. Or when the #RefugeesWelcome network inspired by new Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau Ballano grew from a viral Facebook post into a national movement. Powers on certain matters exceed the city. But cities can, and increasingly do, activate new narratives of local resistance and common action.

In 2003’s City of Fears, City of Hope, Zygmunt Bauman reflects on mixophobia (fear of using public space) and mixofilia (human and cultural coalescence in cities). Interestingly, the main conclusion of the study is that nation states are in decline and that cities are the main political space for our era. States and institutions often deploy legal barriers that exacerbate mixophobia. However, cities can promote mixofilia from the “inside," through municipal action, and from the “outside,” through citizens acting autonomously. Cities, championing causes that exceed their powers, are now opening up new policies, laws, practices and tools.

In addition, the new political narrative of cities is serving to counteract prevailing neoliberal narratives. Antón Fernández de la Rota, in Commons Atlantida, identifies three neoliberal cities: “The Smart City of technological control, the Creative City of cognitive capitalism and the Brand City of territories in competition.” A fourth neoliberal city could be the Public-Private City, which limits the use of public space and almost exclusively encourages market-oriented exchange.

On Sept. 4, 18 local governments in Spain that are now ruled by citizen fronts – among them Madrid, Barcelona and Santiago de Compostela – met in Barcelona to take the first collective step against broader state control and the "four neoliberal cities." The self-proclaimed Cities of the Commons promoted the narrative that another city and another politics is possible – with unprecedented evidence, citing the merger that occurred when the “outside” power of the 15M-Indignados movement of 2011 became the “inside” authority when new parties won local elections across Spain in May.

Image Removed

The Global Urban Rage-Out

The municipalist bet book, which is partly responsible for the citizens confluences that has won in many municipalities in Spain, shifted efforts toward “the politics of the nearby.” The book presented the “outside” that has existed since the global uprisings of 2011, and looked at the city as the shift lever. The concept of Right to the City, developed by Henri Lefebvre in 1968, has been in vogue for some years. In the book Rebel Cities, David Harvey masterfully built on the concept, by transforming the right to the city into a “right to modify the city collectively” and “change ourselves” in the process.

The global movements of 2011 reconfigured urban space as a new interface of collective action and policy creation. Even Saskia Sassen, who coined the paradigm of the “global city,” adapted her own theory after the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo, when she started talking about the Global Street: a “hard space” where "the powerless” do “the politics.” Today, the Global Street – both physical and semantic space – and the rebel cities have become new narrative horizons of the “outside.” Some recent urban protests serve as examples: from the Gezi Park revolt in Turkey, to Movimento Passe Livre in Brazil, and Gamonal in Spain.

The city also represents a place of continuity for many revolts, as demonstrated by Augusta Park in São Paulo, Can Batlló in Barcelona, and the communitarian management of Embros Theater in Athens. The city has become the battle space of movements fighting neoliberalism. “Fighting for a livable city is a form of dissent,” asserts the Temblor project, a Spanish arm of Radical Democracy: Reclaiming the Commons.

The strength of global urban struggles – the networked “outside” – is now reaching a new level of intensity. The Polish urban movement, besides defeating the Winter Olympics bid in Krakow, is generating processes of self-organization in Lodz, Poznań and Warsaw. In Turkey, the collective Bizim Sokak (“the streets belong to us”) is successfully fighting urban gentrification. In Carpenters Estate in East London and elsewhere, housing movements are occupying public buildings. In Rio de Janeiro, Occupy Golf, which is battling a golf course planned for an environmental reserve, has seized the symbolic heart of the 2016 Olympics. And in the suburbs of South Africa, the Abahlali baseMjondolo (Shack Dwellers) movement uses the Right to the City as a tool. The combative global “outside” has assumed fresh powers, with clear scopes and goals.

Image Removed

The Common Good "Extitutions"

In Spain, after the camps of the 15M-Indignados movement, citizen self-organization experiences went viral. At the same time, most institutions turned their backs on formal state citizenship. Meanwhile, Jara Rocha and Evangelina Guerra reshaped the concept through extitutions, or “former institutions," burring the "inside-outside" dynamic of power “that can be assembled by a multitude of agents.” The Spanish municipalities now governed by “confluences” pose an organizational hope for people and the planet. The intent: place the citizen from "outside," through a commons-oriented approach, on the institutional inside. And this “extitutional” movement is occurring in many cities and regions of the world.

The “Icelandic revolution” won the city of Reykjavík, already a reference point for participatory platforms worldwide. Despite the macroeconomic disappointment of Syriza in Greece, that coalition is ruling entire regions (including Attica and Greater Athens), as well as nine municipalities in the metropolitan belt of Athens and Larisa, the country’s fifth largest city. (Meanwhile, a peculiar citizen front called Allazoume Tin Poli is governing the suburb of Agios Dimitrios in southern Athens). In Poland, the urban movement won the city of Gorzów Wielkopolski. And in Mexico, a Citizen Movement won elections in 24 cities.

In Portugal, the nonpartisan citizen front Rui Moreira snatched power from the center-right government of Porto, and the city of Bologna, Italy, launched Collaborare è Bologna “to protect the urban commons.” In general, the global "outside" is beginning to open the “inside” to citizenship. At the same time, the success of the political confluences in Spain is now inspiring new laboratories and municipal experiments. In Belo Horizonte, a Brazilian city of 4 million people, social movements have inaugurated a “municipalismo” movement with Muitxs, Cidade que queremos (City we Want) for the 2016 elections.

The case of Kobane and the region of Rojava in Syrian Kurdistan deserves special attention as well. In Kobane, the local government features a cooperative, communitarian and freshly assembled mix of transnational actors, and the Kurdish Kobane confederation now plays an influential role in the Turkish Peoples Democratic Party (HPD) since emerging as a key factor in the country’s new politics.

This is the first installment in a two-part series. Read the second installment on Thursday. Follow the author, @bernardosampa.

Image Removed

Bernardo Gutierrez

Bernardo Gutiérrez (@bernardosampa on Twitter) is a Spanish-Brazilian journalist, writer and researcher living in Madrid. He writes about politics, society, technopolitics and participation technologies. He has published the books Calle Amazonas (Altaïr, 2010), collaborated in collective books such as 'Amanhã vai ser maior' (Anna Blume, 2014) and was one of the editors of 'JUNHO: power of streets and networks' (Friedrich Ebert Siftung , 2014). He has just released "The day after tomorrow. Journey to the Spain of change" (ARPA editors, 2017). He works at the MediaLab Prado in Madrid.

Tags: the commons