Urban researcher Nikos Vrantsis interviews Yavor Tarinski, author of Common Futures: Social Transformation and Political Ecology [co-authored with Alexandros Schismenos] (Black Rose Books, 2021), on the current bureaucratic state of cities and the democratic perspectives offered by autonomous urban movements.
Nikos Vrantsis: Day by day, state oppression turns into the new normal. Governmemts invested in widepread policing and the securatisation of urban space. What would you say that is the State vision of the city and how does this vision contradict the vision autonomous movements have?
Yavor Tarinski: The State with its bureaucratic imaginary envisions the city as a hierarchically organized, homogenous entity. This is in line with the big-scale ideals of modernity, like the well-defined zoning of huge swaths of urban land that was so typical for the so-called socialist states. They were dominated by the idea that we will have a neighborhood with workers’ barracks where the workers will go to get some sleep after work, and then another neighborhood with factories, where workers will go for work, a neighborhood for leisure time where they will go for a drink, and so on.
And although it is not so evident nowadays, zoning is still here. There are, for example, neighborhoods reserved for the more well off, other areas are left for marginalized elements, and then there are the trendy neighborhoods dedicated to the industry of tourism etc.
When autonomous movements try to interact with the urban space, what they do goes in the opposite direction of what the state imagines and tries to impose. They go against this homogenization. So, the State tries to imagine traditionally rebellious neighborhoods as trendy areas where one can go to drink an alternative cooperatively crafted beer, smoke some weed or buy a St. Pauli t-shirt. And then you have these commons spaces that pop up and they suddenly offer a kindergarten service for the local community, they offer bookstores, other amenities, and they become hubs for political organization too. This defies the idea that certain places should serve a single purpose only.
These autonomous movements that act in their neighborhoods openly defy the vision of the rulers. In quiet neighborhoods, intended to be mainly places where the workforce can get rest, such movements establish political assemblies where everyone can see what is going on, or they start creating community centers. They organize festivals. They create things that are not supposed to be there. They offer a radically different vision of the city. A revolutionary one. One supported by people like Bookchin and Jane Jacobs: a city where in every part of it you can find a mixture of activities. Like what the situationists suggested: you have a constantly changing and vibrant city.
I think these are the two conflicting urban visions today: the one is about a top-down enforced homogenization and zoning of the city, and then there is the possibility for the citizens themselves to engage autonomously in morphing their urban environment.
NV: And how do you perceive the State in all this? As something uniform or more like an assemblage of different actors?
YT: I disagree with this concept of the State that tends to view it as a machinery that can be driven towards the Left or towards the Right. Instead, I have concluded that the State is a certain bureaucratic mechanism that has a mind of its own. Rudolf Rocker has already said it a long time ago in his magnum opus “Nationalism and Culture”: For the machine [Nation-State], because of the way it is built, can work only in a given direction, no matter who pulls its levers. We have seen this all too many times, when radical left-wing parties take over the State but are unable to implement their initial agendas because the State machinery cannot be used as they initially thought. This led to rupture, for example, between Althusser and some of his students, like Jacque Ranciere, during the rebellious events of May ’68, when many came to the conclusion that every form of bureaucracy must be refused.
Technocrats tend to say that the knife in the hands of the surgeon saves lives but in the hands of the criminal takes lives. I don’t think that this applies to the State. It has a specific structure. Its very design creates power discrepancies within societies, it operates like cancer cells. It expands itself. William S. Burroughs has suggested that bureaucracy is always parasitic and is a cell multiplying itself until it kills the host:
A bureau takes root anywhere in the state, turns malignant like the Narcotic Bureau, and grows and grows, always reproducing more of its own kind, until it chokes the host if not controlled or excised. Bureaus cannot live without a host, being true parasitic organisms.
So, I do see it as a specific type of structure, which as a result of modernity and globalization, has copied itself all over the world. It tries to get into the heads of its opponents, and to penetrate the antagonistic social movements and reproduce there as well. This formalized bureaucratic ideal that has been imposed by the State, is gradually attempting to integrate the demands of different communities in struggle.
NV: What are commons spaces and how they differ from other spaces created by political movements?
YT: Although we are used to place all types of liberated-from-State spaces under the same label, calling them either anarchist, autonomous or whatever other name, the truth is that there is no single imaginary behind them. There are the more ideological and sectarian ones, which although managed horizontally without hierarchy among participants, maintain a political orientation that is not only indifferent to what’s going on with society, but often is even hostile towards the surrounding social environment. They tend to see society as a mass of conformists, as allies of the State. They unconsciously buy on the propaganda of the State. The latter tries to label such spaces as enemy of society and the former take this role on themselves and start seeing society in a hostile manner as well. This often comes as a result of their idea of ideological purity. They don’t want to put dirt on their ideas by messing with local people who are not as well read or as radical as themselves.
On the other hand, there are other spaces that are viewed as commons that should belong to all people from given neighborhood. People that participate in the creation of such commons spaces (might be in the form of social centers, squats, occupied parks etc.) often have a certain know-how, but their goal is not the making of what author Jonathan Matthew Smucker calls shabby little activist clubhouses, but instead the opening of spaces to wider communal participation. Such spaces are turned into something that is very much absent from contemporary urban landscape: community hubs. Places where the community can interact. So, this is a very different approach. It is not as conspiratorial as a closed group that operates and plans its activity against the State and the reactionary sections of society but it is actually an effort by society itself to self-organize and create what municipalists call urban villages. And this is why they are much more difficult to be rooted out by the government – there is often a strong repercussion from local communities, because they actually see themselves in these spaces.
NV: Do you think that commons spaces can benefit from particular Statist responses? And if yes, how?
YT: These statist responses are usually a result from pressure exercised by social movements. So, when these movements are non-existent or in a very passive state, then governments tend to strengthen their grip on society and increase the bureaucratization of everyday life. The emergence and activity of such movements work as a response to this bureaucratization (the expansion of the State in all fields). So as much as the State increases its attempts at complete control of society, there will also be this resistance from below.
Of course, we have places like Еastern Europe where their experiences of authoritarian socialism and communism have created a monstrous cynicism whose repercussions we see today because people have become extremely cynical politically. They have fallen into a state of disbelief towards the possibility of change and when you have such a level of political cynicism you descend to a level of very primal xenophobia, chauvinism, a state of collective narcissism. So instead of resisting the crawling bureaucratization of everyday life, they cannibalize each other. This is what we see today in Poland where huge swaths of society support the efforts of the State to ban abortion, which left Polish women to lead one very uneven but heroic fight to retain certain autonomy over their own bodies. And there are many other countries like Russia, Bulgaria, Belarus where you see that governing oligarchies can do pretty much whatever they want and the populations there take all their anger on disempowered and marginalized communities like Roma, LGBT, refugees etc.
NV: You conceptualize the State as something given and unified, that is opposed to the social movements. Do you think having such a force against them, movements can provide a long-term sustainable alternative?<
YT: It is necessary for the autonomous movements to avoid the State. To try, like Nietzsche would say, not to turn themselves into monsters and to work beyond the State and with their actions to force the latter to do certain things. Like in Greece, the introduction of certain legislation that allowed more easily cooperatives to be formed was influenced not because of any progressive politician came into office, but because society itself acted, started exchanging products without intermediates etc. It was the autonomous activity of society that moved things towards that direction.
Also, in Western Europe and in other countries, squatted spaces were legalized because of certain social struggles. Much like human rights, as Castoriadis has suggested, which were not introduced willingly by governments, rulers, monarchs, but it was the masses of disempowered people that resisted centralized and absolute authority, and as a result those at the top were forced to make concessions on their hold on power. If you remember, the universal suffrage was also once a revolutionary idea that the Levellers pushed forward. You had many other such limitations challenged. So, there is always this autonomous activity of society, sometimes more latent, sometimes more expressed through practice. But it is always this force that counterbalances the policies of the State and other forms of exploitation.
What for me should be in the top of our agenda today is to strengthen local self-governance and find ways to confederate such emancipatory localities. It is the only level of power —municipalities — where I think that some kind of community-oriented policy can be introduced but always directed by local self-governing structures like public assemblies, communal councils etc. We must learn from groups like Barcelona En Comu and Ahora Madrid, which tried to do something like that in major Spanish cities, but their activity was much limited due to their choice to act through the structures of official municipal bureaucracies (local governments), which function like caricatures of the State. Their experience comes to show that the radical democratization of society cannot be channeled through bureaucratic and hierarchical mechanisms.
The other is that as participants in these autonomous movements, we must not see ourselves as some kind of avant-garde. Instead, it is of great importance to try to map the autonomous activities of society, of different actors who do not necessarily consider themselves part of any movement but nonetheless their activity goes contrary to the vision of the state and they actually try to produce something completely different, something socially empowering and transformative.
One such mapping is not limited only to observation, but also to actively nurturing their transformative and revolutionary character. Not in the sense of taking over these activities and pinning a black and red banner on them, but to actually participate in them and to maintain their vibrancy as well.
This is very important to try to recognize what society does beyond and antagonistically to the State and to capitalism. We must also keep in mind that capitalism without the State is something impossible. And also, we must abandon ideological purity and the idea that we can somehow develop a monolithic analysis, which will remain untouched by time, space and local contexts.
In short, the only way to make an alternative is to work beyond the State, because if the social movements and their struggles become entrapped in its imaginary and processes, they tend to be annihilated.
NV: What can we learn from the commons spaces?
YT: Well, as I said before, they become hubs for the creation of communal bonds. They produce a feeling of community and creativity within the urban space. Because, it is like what Bookchin has said, in his important book “Urbanization Without Cities”: What we have today is not cities, but sprawling urbanization which increases alienation and dissolution of old communal ties. So what we see with the creation of these communal spaces is the reestablishment of humane relations but on a more universalistic democratic base, resting on secularism and universal equality. And I think this is what’s most important. Because what we are being offered as a vision of the future from those that control the world today – i.e. the capitalist elites, the national governments and the transnational technocratic structures that they create – is a vision of society as fragmented into separate individual units which are on their own, supervised by authorities beyond their control, and people generally feel helpless because of this alienation.
And we see this in the way that current governments have framed the pandemic not only in Greece but in other countries as well. They speak solely of individual responsibility, while a pandemic is something that needs a systemic response. You cannot deal with a pandemic on individual level alone. You either have the State as some sort of organized response or, as we have seen from the Zapatistas and the people of Rojava, there can be collective solutions that stem from the grassroots of society. Forms of non-statist, anti=capitalist democratic confederations. We cannot deal with a threat, such as global pandemic that spreads so rapidly within society, as mere individuals. The most unsuccessful examples unfortunately are the ones we see in the West, where the states refuse to step in because they see any investment in public health or mass testing as a waste of resources which they prefer to pour instead into the engines of infinite economic growth. Alison Pullen & Carl Rhodes: Bits of Organization, Copenhagen, Copenhagen Business School Press 148.  https://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/whats-wrong-with-activism/  W. Dennis Keating (2020) Villages in cities: Community land ownership, cooperative housing, and the Milton Parc story, edited by Joshua Hawley and Dimitrios Roussopoulos, Journal of Urban Affairs, 42:6, 946-948, DOI: 10.1080/07352166.2020.1726668