Perhaps the biggest threat to the commons comes not from venal politicians, self-serving corporations and dangerously disinterested voters, but rather, from all of us — from citizens who have internalised market norms and see themselves in an endless competition, blind to the common good and un-quantifiable virtues. Fearful of this future shortly beforedeath, Jane Jacobs prophesied‘ The Dark Age Ahead’ while Tony Judt apocalyptically declared that ‘Ill Fares the Land’ shortly before he died. In 2011 Canadian essayist Flora Michaels won the Orwell prize for her book Monoculture (Flora S. Michaels, Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything (Red Clover, 2011), which argues that an ‘economistic’ way of seeing ourselves has become dangerously pervasive. Economics, as she sees it, is no longer a social scientific discipline but an all pervasive dogma that frames our everyday lives. “It’s not that the economic story has no place in the world,” she argues. “But without … otherstories 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.”
These sentiments are echoed by the popular philosopher Michael Sandel, who laments a social shift from “having a market economy to being a market society” and the detrimental impact that this has on the discussion of competing values. If it is possible to sum up the desires of the post-2008 protesters across Europe it is perhaps that they want to live in something other than an economy (my emphasis – S.H.). They too have come to see economics as a kind of dogma that needs to be overthrown —ironically in much the same way as the forefathers of economics saw the Church during the Enlightenment. One dogma for another.
For the commons!
Across Europe there are hundreds of organisations, networks and individuals that are passionate about these issues and campaign for the commons. What distinguishes these groups from other civil society groups is that they are arguing for and trying to create new kinds of common space. They are interested in reclaiming institutions, communities and buildings through agreements, rules and other devices to make them more accessible, democratic and useable. This, perhaps, is why Occupy has been such a powerful idea. It is metaphor for what these groups wish to achieve in other areas of public life—groups committed to reclaiming space.
That’s not of course to say that they aren’t concerned about fighting for rights and threatened class groups. But the desire to claim, demarcate and create new rules for space (my emphasis S.H.) is perhaps a new way of voicing these concerns and expresses a desire to engage with the means of making new space rather than simply making demands. The great symbolic, theatrical struggles for power used to take place at factory gates —now they take place in space. David Harvey calls it a fight for the ‘Right to the City’. Teatro Valle call it a spatial struggle. In Spain the municipalist parties are demanding a right to decide.
Reclaiming the political party
Europe has a new, ‘new left’ and it is animated by the desire to ‘reclaim democracy’. A group of new political parties has emerged with an aspiration to reclaim collective decision making from what they see as a corrupt and broken political system. They aim to make a new kind of political party. Spain has Podemos, Partido X, Procés Constituent and across the country there are municipal parties that performed particularly well in municipal elections. Barcelona has Barcelona en Comu; Madrid has Ahora Madrid. They are all committed to ‘bottom-up’ decision making and challenging the old order. For many involved in these parties, new forms of participation are an end in itself. Elsewhere in Europe attempts to reinvent the political party are less evolved but the appetite is clear. Denmark has the Alternative founded by Denmark’s only independent MP Uffe Elbaek. Alternative describes itself as an ‘international, environmental and entrepreneurial party’ and took around 5% of the vote during recent elections. Scotland’s movement for independence is headed up by the Scottish Nationalist Party, which includes the ‘against the lot of them’ vote. But on their fringes are groups like Common Weal and Bella Caledonia, which may yet produce a new Podemos style political party. In Poland 36-year-old Slawomir Sierakowski leads Poland’s Krytyka Polityczna — or Political Critique movement (a magazine, cultural centre and think tank). It is not a political party, but may become one in the future. To be consistent with Sierakowski’s ideas, it would need to be markedly different from what the other parties offer.
Further afield the Net Party in Buenos Aires recently contested municipal elections on the pledge that they would pass all their voting decisions back directly to their members. Although Argentina is far from Europe, the Net Party’s Democracy OS operating system for ‘liquid democracy’ is proving popular with social groups in Europe. On their Wikispace, they provide a list of 20 affiliated parties from across the world.
Have a look at the table of content of the book: