Common Conflict

Encountering the Commoner within (Us)


March 9, 2016essay,

In their contribution to the virtual roundtable Common Conflict Ana Džokić and Marc Neelen of the arts and spatial practice STEALTH.unlimited say that in order to achieve some form of social and economic endurance, we have to establish solidary structures and forms of organization that emerge from within our own networks. With that, the commons is becoming a way to work and live, rather than a subject of work or research. The commons thus shifts from an external, to an internalized subject – it becomes a verb.

It was a revelation of sorts, when in the summer of 2012 the notion of ‘commons’ exposed itself to us to its full extent. On the island of Vis, Croatia, over 100 people – environmental activists, syndicalists, open source wizards, and proponents of direct democracy and of the right to the city – came together to explore the commons as an umbrella concept.1 In contributing to a series of dense and exhausting discussions, it became evident that our search for more robust and enduring communities that would take the future, commonly, into their own hands, was firmly part of this larger commons narrative.2 And with that, we might have finally found the term to capture our search. So far, so good.

In the context of former Yugoslavia these discussions have a specific grounding, based as it is on a system of socialist self-management that until the end of 1980s held many characteristics of what is now understood as a ‘proto-commons.’ During our discussions it therefore quickly proved insufficient to speak only about contemporary small-scale communities managing their resources in a self-organized manner. Take for example the remnants of workers’ resorts that dot this side of the Adriatic coast. Once you understand that millions of working people financed them to provide affordable leisure for themselves and their families, the expectation of what scale commons and commonism might have becomes much larger – and more political. Today, and not just among those convened at Vis, commons and commonism have become a sort of safe haven for those in search of a future closer to our failed past than our collapsing present.

Evidently, commons find themselves at odds with ‘the public.’ Although the last is an over-present and likely ‘overrated’ notion in contemporary arts and spatial practices (quite often assumed as an unquestionable positive adjective for whatever it is attached to: public art, public space, public discussion, etc.), the recent commons debate has brought forward the impossibility of commons to ‘simply’ replace public structures or infrastructures. Commons inherently tie to a group, and even ‘porous’ or liminal commons as proposed by Stavros Stavrides, 3 do not provide the universal access that the public should guarantee. 4 While this leaves us first of all with the rather obvious conclusion that commons should not be seen as a substitute for the public, it also brings into consideration whether commons should replace parts of it: take for example the history of public housing in Europe, which in many countries resulted from a collective struggle, rooted in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century co-operative movement. Although the legitimacy of this struggle was adopted by public housing programs (mainly from the end of the 1950s till the end of the 1980s across Europe), providing unprecedented access to affordable housing, today, pressured by a neoliberal turn, this entrusted task has ceased to be performed. We are left as scattered individuals, our ability to act as a community incapacitated. With this the circle has been closed, and we seem back where it all started well over a century ago.

There may be a point to the current striving toward commons actually undermining public structures that are still in place. Yet we have come to understand that simply insisting on their necessity will most likely not only end in our defeat, but also keep us from building a collective capacity for contemporary struggle to arrive at structures to rearticulate those public ones that meanwhile have withered away.

This discussion is increasingly surpassed by the reality in which we find ourselves, and those with whom we share the persistence of pushing for a socially fair, economically sustainable, ecologically viable future – despite these currently not being visible political options. More and more of us, belonging to the contemporary precariat, have come to find that in order to achieve some form of social and economic endurance (like retirement, which for our generation will not come automatically), we have to establish solidary structures and forms of organization that emerge from within our own networks. With that, the commons is becoming a way to work and live, rather than a subject of work or research. The commons thus shifts from an external, to an internalized subject – it becomes a verb.

The verb commoning, coined by Peter Linebaugh, apart from constituting the community and the ‘formation’ of its resource, also stands for the exploration of appropriate forms of governance (or management) for the commons. It responds to the search for more dynamic, less enclosed, less productivity-driven understandings of the commons. As we recently wrote,5 the geographer Dean Bavington, following the semantic roots of the word ‘management,’ critically explores its shifts over time from management as control, to management as careful use, and finally management as coping:

When we utilize management in these ways we are referring to situations far removed from that of a controlling authority and from being in a position to map, plan, simplify, direct, husband or steward reality to serve our wishes. When we manage as coping we are the ones being controlled or carefully used by someone or something. Managing, in the sense of dealing with and coping with uncertainty and complexity is now a dominant theme in resource and environmental management and in contemporary life in general.6

The print of this article has hardly been given a year to dry, and we feel some of the implication of ‘coping’ in our own activities. Since 2013, we have ourselves engaged with a group of friends and colleagues in two decade-long endeavours in Rotterdam and Belgrade. Even if these two contexts are in many respects vastly different (in terms of the urgency to through commons arrive at existential ‘endurance’ for one, but also the degree to which trust exists among people), they both take the direct work and living environment as the core of exploring what commoning our existence in the urban context requires. In Belgrade, the towering cost of (entirely privatized) housing stands in sharp contrast to falling income levels. Entire generations find themselves excluded from independent living. Within the Who Builds the City platform,7 we are setting up a collective housing model that not only ‘revolutionizes’ affordability, but brings about models for economic and social endurance. In Rotterdam, with the City in the Making initiative,8 we have gained access to a set of defunct buildings: the ‘toxic assets’ of social housing corporations. Moving beyond activating stalled real estate, these are becoming a preparatory ground, a base for new collectives, not just rooted in resolving their housing needs, but becoming solidary communities to empower our currently precarious lives.

In both contexts, ‘coping’ seems to be the starting condition. It may not come as a surprise that reinventing such different ‘existential’ and professional realities to a large degree entails working on their (different) economic groundings, structures and self-institutions. Imagining, practicing and constructing them would not only set us free from ‘coping,’ but also (hopefully) contribute to the formation of broader social struggles.

1. The occasion was the Green Academy 2020: Common Future of Europe – Future of the Commons in Europe, organized by Heinrich Böll Foundation, 28 August – 2 September 2012, Vis, Croatia.

2. Around that time, commons had snuck into our search for a citizens-driven future fiction for the city of Bordeaux. It became pivotal to understanding the post-Socialist challenges in the city of Novi Pazar in Serbia, and became the core issue in a year-long search for common ground, finalized at the conference Commoning the City, 11 April 2013, with Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm.

3. ‘We have to rethink the commons as a flexible condition through which communities define themselves in a process of being open to other also emerging communities. This might produce a new form of coordination between people and organised communities that does not exist as differentiated entities but as entities in the process of finding and negotiating with one and another.’ Stavros Stavrides, excerpt from talk at Commoning the City.

4. It is worthwhile to keep in mind that the heritage (or increasingly remote memory) of a beneficial public is not shared equally: a number of southern European countries (Spain, Portugal, Greece, for example) experienced severe repressions in the time of the junta – exactly the time during which other countries experienced the strongest construction of public welfare infrastructures.

5 .‘Instituting Commoning,’ in Commoning as Differentiated Publicness, FOOTPRINT, no. 16 (Spring 2015): 21–34,

6. Dean Bavington, Environments 30, no. 3 (2002): 11.

7. Who Builds the City [Ko gradi grad] platform was set up in 2010 as a response to conflicting developments of Belgrade and other cities in the region, characterized by non-transparent and corrupt practices of real-estate driven and often clientelistic behaviour of monopolistic players. In 2012 Who Builds the City took the landmark decision to become active in shaping one of the region’s most pressing unresolved social issues: access to housing. With Smarter Building, the platform has created a series of workshops and working groups to discuss, (self-)organize and construct a prototype model for a collective housing solution that can resolve these issues and serve as an example.

8. Since the 2008 crisis impacted cities in The Netherlands, many houses and buildings have become what in economic terms are considered ‘toxic assets.’ One particular pool of stranded buildings stands out: the former public housing stock. In Rotterdam alone several hundreds of buildings and apartments have been retracted and threatened with getting boarded-up or brought into long-term hibernation. In 2014 City in the Making [Stad in de maak] started ‘coping’ with a growing number of buildings that were remainders of this former public housing program.

Ana Džokić and Marc Neelen work together as STEALTH.unlimited (Belgrade / Rotterdam). Initially trained as architects, for over fifteen years their work is equally based in the context of contemporary art, urban research and spatial activism. Džokić is a Practice-based Researcher at the Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm. Neelen is a Visiting Professor at the Sheffield School of Architecture. They are among the founders of Who Builds the City [Ko gradi grad] platform in Belgrade since 2010. In 2013, they co-initiated City in the Making [Stad in de maak] in Rotterdam.

Common Conflict
Common Conflict
‘Hot Winter Press’ zines at We Are the Time Machines: Time and Tools for Commoning at Casco by Cooperativa Cráter Invertido (Jazael Olguinzapata), 2015. – Photo: Sven Lütticken

From its inception, Open! and Casco’s series Commonist Aesthetics was meant neither as a celebration nor as a debunking exercise, but as a critical inquiry. The commons certainly is not lacking in those who hype the cause, nor in vehement detractors. For the Invisible Committee, an example, ‘commonism’ is identified with Ostromite liberal managerialism:

Governing the Commons is the title of the recent bestseller by Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, who has defined eight principles for ‘managing the commons.’ Understanding there is a place for them in an ‘administration of the commons’ that remains to be invented, [Antonio] Negri and associates have embraced this theory, which is perfectly liberal at its core…

…[They] are inclined to make the ‘commons’ into the latest metaphysical principle to come out of the West’s magical hat. An arche, they say, in the sense of that which ‘organizes, commands, and rules all political activity,’ a new ‘beginning’ that will give birth to new institutions and a new world government.1

And is the excitement in some art world circles (however marginal they may be) for forms of commoning, or at least the rhetoric of commoning, not deeply suspicious? In her essay for Commonist Aesthetics, Marina Vishmidt suggested that a ‘structural and ideological affinity already holds between “commonist” politics and the field of art practices’; both, she argues, ‘are committed to change in the here and now through the means available, often interstices and spare capacities, “making do” as in the “sharing economy.”’ Making changes in the here and now sounds good when the alternative is waiting for a phantasmagorical revolution. But is the exclusive privileging of ‘making do’ under current conditions not equally problematical – especially if connected to the hope that enough cute grass-rootsy commonizing activity will attain such critical mass that capitalism will, after all, disappear or morph beyond recognition? Vishmidt states in the aforementioned text: ‘The centrality of J.K. Gibson-Graham’s The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It) (1996) and A Postcapitalist Politics (2006) to several of a number of cultural scenes of inquiry into “the commons” would seem to point to the voluntaristic roots of this attitude as they cut across art and politics, present and past, performance and mobilisation.’

Nonetheless, we would not have pursued Commonist Aesthetics if we agreed that commons discourse is completely bankrupt and utterly irredeemable. In a passage recently evoked by Katharine Gibson during a lecture at Casco, Massimo de Angelis acknowledges that commoning is often instrumentalized not in order ‘to provide alternatives to capital, but to make a particular node of capital – a region or a city – more competitive, while somehow addressing the problems of reproduction at the same time.’ However, he maintains that ‘in spite of capital’s strategies to use a commons fix to the problems it creates while never really solving them, commons may well be part of a different historical development.’2

This ‘may well be’ continues to hover over the debate, a debate that we wish to develop and intensify with this ‘virtual roundtable’ titled Common Conflict, mirrored by a public forum at Casco on 12 March. Later this year, the whole Commonist Aesthetics project will be rounded off by a book publication.

For Common Conflict, we have confronted a number of authors with a series of questions, some or many of which may be leading questions. The authors were free to pick and choose, or ignore, as they saw fit; to rephrase and reroute a line of questioning; and to examine their own as well as others’ practices and theoretical presuppositions.

Is the notion of the commons subject to an ontological essentialization? Is dehistoricization tantamount to depoliticization?

The resurgence of the commons is clearly linked to the decline of the public sector, at least in Europe. Is commonism tacitly complicit with the ever further dismantling of the state and the public? Does the state need to be reclaimed?

Does the commonist discourse have a potential depoliticizing effect, being compatible with hazy visions of the ‘sharing economy’ and an Ostrom-style governance? What are the consequences of the division between ‘Ostromites’ interested in governing the commons and autonomists eager to prefigure a coming insurrection or a coming community?

How does, or should, commonist self-organization around specific issues relate to more general antagonisms and struggles? Is commonism in need of a wider autonomist horizon and bona-fide leftist strategy – or are ‘actually existing’ commonist tactics, however compromised, a daily reminder of the bankruptcy of more fundamental, more rigorous, more dialectically canny leftist positions?

What is the relation between theories of the commons / commoning and specific practices? Does the theory lag behind the most cogent practices? Is it often a substitute for actual commoning practices at specific sites for struggles? Can problematic, partial or blocked attempts at commoning be as valid as seemingly successful and exemplary endeavours?

Is the commons’ rhetorical success in parts of the art world indicative of an aestheticization of the social – with aestheticization here being used in its negative Benjaminian sense? Does the all too familiar critique of art institutions need to be followed by an active commoning of institutions? How to proceed with this?

Does the art world focus overly on low-tech forms of commons and commoning, unduly neglecting the digital commons? How can and should online and offline impact each other?

Do we see the beginnings of a commonist aesthetic practice in a more fundamental sense, involving forms of sensuous activity that challenge and go beyond established notions of art and existing institutional forms? Does aesthetic practice allow us to refocus all of the above questions?