In the years 2011 to 2012, history appeared to be ‘born again’ in the Arab Spring, the ‘squares movement’, and the global Occupy. Several years later, a gloomy picture has re-emerged throughout the world. The global hegemony of neoliberalism remains firmly in place, while reactionary right- wing politics is on the rise. The scenes of democratic uprisings and the glimpses of egalitarian democracy and popular aspirations to progressive change in countries such as Spain and Greece seem to be consigned to a remote past. A gradual normalisation of the crisis has taken hold in many countries. But the looming ecological catastrophe, the popular disaffection with elitist politics, and the devastating consequences of neoliberalism for equality and democracy remain our historical horizon. More than ever, it is time to act. But it is also time to take a step back, to rethink, and refigure our strategies for social change.
In tune with several activists and advocates across the world, the present argument holds that the ‘commons’ outlines a horizon of historical transformation which is already in motion, in fits and starts. Since the dawn of the new millennium, from the Bolivian Andes (for example, in the water war in Cochabamba from 1999 to 2000) to the US (for example, in the case of Creative Commons licences) and Southern Europe (for example, in the Italian city regulations for urban self-management) the commons have arisen as a historical alternative to both neoliberal capitalism and defunct socialism or Leninist communism.
Crucially, a commons-based politics could counter the rise of nationalist populism by advancing a progressive way of tackling social dislocation and alienation, restoring solidarity, collective ties, and common welfare. Moreover, alternative commons harbour a radical emancipatory ideal, a visionary pragmatism, and an accent on massive, bottom-up participation, which hold out the promise of overcoming the political frailty, the vertical hierarchies, the personalism, and the impoverished imagination of leftist populist parties in Europe, from Podemos to Syriza and Mélenchon.
The following discussion attempts to sketch out the new paradigm as well as indicate the lack of an adequate political strategy of transition and counter-hegemonic struggle for the commons. To start plotting such a strategy, we will draw on the 2011 cycle of mobilisations and the latest pro-commons politics in Spanish municipalities. The aim is to explore how powerful counter-hegemonic praxis could be pursued in ways which recast hegemonic politics in the direction of alternative commons – horizontal self-government, equality, sustainability, plurality, openness, and sharing.
The commons comprise goods and resources that are collectively used and produced, and fairly shared. There are actually many different genres of common goods across the world, from natural common-pool resources (fishing grounds, land, irrigation canals, etc.) to common productive assets, such as workers’ cooperatives and digital goods, open source software, and Wikipedia. All of them, however, involve shared resources, which are managed, produced, and distributed through collective participation in ways that contest the logic of both private/corporate and state/public property.
Could the dispersed practices and communities that are currently formed around a diversity of commons add up to a world-changing force? Some enthusiastic champions of the digital commons have asserted that this is already happening. Other, more politically-minded thinkers, such as Hardt and Negri, have laid out political conceptions of the commons which map pathways towards a global transformation. But in all these cases the shallowness of strategic thought is conspicuous.
To begin with, over the last decade or so, a large body of thought and action has shifted attention from the ‘commons of nature’ to the ‘immaterial’ commons of culture, information and digital networks. Technological change has given rise to new modes of production, which reinvent and expand the commons as a culture of co-creation and sharing outside their traditional bounds of fisheries, forests, and grazing grounds. Digital commons remake a wide variety of fields in their image, from music to business, law, education, and science, following the logic of the open, plural, creative, and participatory commons for mutual benefit. Thus, already in 2005, Michel Bauwens envisioned a new form of society, ‘based on the centrality of the commons, and within a reformed state and market’.
Prominent champions of the digital commons, such as David Bollier, Yochai Benkler, and Michel Bauwens, share a techno-legal and economic fix when they consider transitions in the direction of the commons. Technology, economic practices, and the law are the main themes in their scenario of epochal change. In recent years, an awareness that the techno-economic and legal paths come up against overpowering obstacles has been significantly growing among their ranks. Hence, they place increasing emphasis on the ‘partner state,’ on social movements, and on assembling counter-power by crafting parallel institutions of the commons, such as the ‘Chambers of Commons.’ Still, the techno-economic and legal steps are accorded pride of place, and the political comes second. However, working on the regulatory framework is not enough if we lack the political agents and the political practices which could reconstruct state structures and economics in the face of neoliberal elite opposition and bureaucratic resistance.
Pro-commons political theory has not done much better in working out a political strategy for social change. To give just one example, Hardt and Negri have devoted their 2012 Declaration to thinking about historical transition, political strategy, and the forging of counter-hegemonic alliances for the commons. They now argue that a democratic society grounded in open sharing and the self-management of the ‘commons’ will have to knit together coalitions between the defenders of such a project and a variety of groups in struggle – workers, unemployed, the poor, and students – in which autonomous singularities interact with each other, transform, and recognise themselves as ‘part of a common project’.
Moreover, Hardt and Negri have foregrounded a certain dialectic between movements and ‘progressive governments’ in Latin America as an exemplary instance of the ‘institutionality of the common’. Democratic decision-making unfolds here in plural processes of transparent and flexible governance, which ally effective counterpowers with autonomous, long-term political developments. In an apparatus of open and plural self-government, radical movements hold on to their organisational and ideological autonomy. They maintain co-operative and antagonistic relations with governments, which programmatically sponsor the same project. They wage common battles against various hierarchies. But they turn against their allies in state administration and the ruling parties when the latter regress into old practices of domination. This relation between movements and parties/governments thus enacts a type of disjunctive conjunction which marks a rupture with the hegemonic subsumption of social movements under a centralised party.
Finally, in their latest book, Assembly, Hardt and Negri identify three roadmaps for the transformation of ruling structures: ‘exodus,’ which withdraws from dominant institutions and creates miniature new ones; antagonistic reformism, which grapples with existing institutions in order to modify them from within; and hegemony, which seeks to take power in order to directly install a new society by ‘overthrowing the existing institutions and creating new ones’. They point to the limits of each and argue for their combination: taking power should serve to carve out space for autonomous practices and for the slow, long-term transfiguration of the dominant institutions.
Yet, their propositions involving ‘disjunctive conjunction’ and how this might avoid the bureaucratisation of movements and the failure of leftist governmentality, as well as their reflections on a ‘three-faced’ political strategy, remain sketchy and underdeveloped. Their weakness here is not new, for they have held on to a leitmotif of their political theory ever since the Multitude (2004): for them, the key is to be found in the actual ability of the multitude to organise their productive lives and their forms of cooperation in ‘immaterial’, i.e., social, networked, and affective labour. What crucially matters, in their view, and directs political developments, is the economic basis of labour and transformations that occur within it. Immaterial labour today ‘demonstrates the necessary political capacities. And in the biopolitical context, social organisation always spills over into political organization’.
Thepolitical thrust of a Gramscian take onthecommons wouldhave a different emphasis: The principles of the commons could reorder dominant structures only if social renewal on the ground – communities of the commons, new, open technologies, and so on – is embedded in a larger political movement contesting hegemony: in a historical bloc. A comprehensive historical bloc brings together a multiplicity of social resistances and political struggles, economic projects, and productive activities that attend to social needs, and a new collective identity, a common political programme, values and critical ideas. All these elements are organised through the cohesive force of a committed political organisation.
To put together such a popular front, political actors need to weave organic bonds with social sectors in their everyday life, seeking popular outreach and conducting a sustained ‘war of position’ in civil society and the state, in a way that bridges micro- and macro-politics. Political activity immerses itself in the micro-level of everyday social activities and groups, engaging directly with social relations and subjectivities so that they morph into a new collective identity and political orientation. At the same time, a common political platform connects the multiplicity of micro-political processes, draws up a coherent political plan adapted to an entire social formation, and wrestles with macro-structures of the state, the economy, culture and so on.
However, to harness a Gramscian strategy of hegemony for commons- oriented reform in our times, core elements of Gramsci’s thought should be critically revisited, beginning with his centralising party and moving on to working class politics.
Class inequalities have skyrocketed in our epoch of neoliberal hegemony. The middle classes are being increasingly impoverished, while the global expelled population – poor, workers, unemployed, precarious, dwellers of shanty towns – counts in the billions. Still, the ‘working class’ today does not constitute a unified mass that can furnish the basis for majoritiarian political identities and mobilisation. Social differentiation and fragmentation, the pervasiveness of individualist values, the decline of industrial labour in developed countries, and the growth of precarious labour and the service sector are some of the factors which account for the actual failure of the majority of working people across the globe to become politically articulated as the ‘working class,’ to bond together and strike back as ‘workers.’ Moreover, the politics of democratic commons needs to devise new patterns of effective organisation that break with the centralised party, and are attuned to the horizontalist, pluralist, and egalitarian spirit of the commons.
Recent democratic activism, such as the 2011 squares movement and the ‘municipalist’ politics from 2015 onwards, provide important insights, which can help us to reimagine counter-hegemonic politics around a commons vision.
Let us begin with leadership, which is synonymous with hegemony. Historically, it has carried a connotation of top-down direction of the ‘masses’ by individual leaders, authoritarianism, and paternalism. Contemporary collective action has addressed issues of asymmetrical power by, first, recognising its presence and, second, by seeking to institute forms of explicit leadership which do not entail domination but contribute to the collective sharing of skills, knowledge, and responsibility. Developing ‘another leadership’ implies essentially a ‘growing attempt to be clear, conscious, and collective about leadership’. It involves an endeavour to wrestle reflectively with power and command, to mitigate their authoritarian implications as far as possible, and to experiment with diverse schemes of collective ‘leadership from below.’ Contemporary communities and movements often also opt for ‘differentiated leadership’, which is based on differing intellectual qualities, capacities, and interests. Crucially, they tend to rotate the tasks which need to be allocated, such as public speaking duties or coordinating roles, in order to transform them into power- and knowledge-sharing experiences.
Second, representation lies historically at the core of Gramsci’s hegemonic politics, which elevates the Party to the modern Hegemon. In contrast, the 2011 democratic mobilisations, from the Arab Spring to the Spanish Indignados, tended to oppose political representation, along with party partisanship, fixed hierarchies and ideologies, and professional politicians. The Indignados and the Occupy assemblies indeed claimed representation by speaking in the name of the people. But they challenged the sovereign forms of political representation in liberal democracies, which establish a ‘permanent and institutionalised power base’ releasing political representatives from the immediate pressures of their constituencies. The ‘square movements’ of 2011 took aim precisely at this institutionalised separation and the sovereign rule of representatives. They set out, instead, to open up the political representation of the people to ordinary citizens. The very choice of public squares and streets to organise popular assemblies highlights the will to publicity, transparency, and free accessibility of political power to all. Moreover, in order to preclude the monopolisation of authority by any individual or group, the assemblies in 2011-2012 enforced binding mandates and alternation in the functions of spokespersons, moderators, and special working groups. They set strict time limits for speakers, and they used rotation and choice by lot to decide who is to speak in public.
Participatory democracies eliminate fixed divisions between rulers and ruled, enabling anyone who so wishes to take part in political deliberation, law-making, and administration involving collective affairs. Collective governance and representation become in principle common, an affair of common citizens. As distinct from Rousseauean democracy, however, sovereign power is not exercised by the assembled demos in its unified totality. Institutional devices such as lot, rotation, limited tenure, increased accountability, and the casual alternation of participants in collective assemblies work against the consolidation of lasting divides between rulers and ruled, experts and lay people.
Finally, unity, the formation of a collective identity, and concentration of force make up the backbone of hegemonic politics. In recent years, egalitarian movements have also made such hegemonic interventions in order to alter the balance of forces. This, again, is illustrated by Occupy Wall Street and by the Spanish and Greek Indignados. They converged around common ends, practices, and signifiers (such as ‘the 99%’ and ‘the people’). They centralised the co-ordination of action in certain ‘hubs’ (such as Puerta del Sol in Madrid). They sought to reach out to broader sectors of the population affected by neoliberal governance. They voiced aspirations to deep socio-political change (for example, ‘real democracy’), and they confronted dominant structures of power with vast collections of human bodies and networks.
However, these civic politics combined hegemony with horizontalism, and effectively gestured beyond hegemony insofar as they turned the scales in favour of plurality, egalitarianism, and decentralisation through new modes of unification. To begin with, diversity and openness became themselves the principle of unity in horizontalist mobilisations such as Occupy Wall Street. ‘We are trying to build a movement where individuals and groups have the autonomy to do what they need to do and pick the battles they need to pick’.
Open pluralism has been persistently pursued through a multiplicity of norms, practices, and organisational choices. The construction of open spaces of convergence for collective deliberation and coordination stands out among them. Openness and plurality are further nurtured by a certain political culture which dismisses dogmatic ideologies and strict programmatic definitions in order to appeal to all citizens in their diversity. This culture elicits tolerance, critical respect for differences, civility, generosity, a relaxed atmosphere of debate, and an affective politics. It nourishes relations of care and love among diverse people who struggle in common despite their differences.
The network form, widespread in democratic action today, is also crucial. ‘Distributed’ networks enable a loose coordination among different groups and individuals, which need not subordinate their distinct identities to an overarching collective identity or a hegemonic agent; yet they are nested in the same web of communication and they act in concert. New organisations, such as the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca in Spain, illustrate how a more coherent organising core can link up with a loose group of diverse agents who participate to different degrees, constituting an open ‘network system’ that allows for plurality and resists strong centralisation and fixed hierarchies.
Finally, pragmatism facilitates modes of convergence and common identity which sustain diversity and openness. A heterogeneous assemblage of agents and practices can more easily cohere around practical objectives rather than around group identities and definite programmes or ideologies. In this way, collective action can avoid the fragmentation of ‘identity politics.’ Acceptance of empirical ‘messiness’ and hybridity, a flexible approach oriented to concrete problem-solving, an open mind and reluctance to take universal, dogmatic positions constitute a pragmatic outlook that can ‘depolarise’ strategic choices, supporting broad pluralist assemblages in the interest of the many.
However, massive civic engagement that sought to reconfigure counter- hegemonic politics along these lines in the years of the crisis has failed to reshuffle the decks of power. Spain and Greece are just two dramatic examples.
Any effective politics for expansive commons would need to powerfully engage state and market forces in order to relax their daily control on social majorities, but also in order to halt environment degradation and defend or recover public goods for the commons. Strategies of exit and prefiguration, through which civic initiatives devise their own alternative institutions in the interstices, or ‘outside’, of dominant systems, can only be one part of the larger equation. For a vast range of resources and infrastructure, from energy grids to internet, transport, water, health, and education, or large-scale means of production, it is either infeasible or unreasonable and environmentally disastrous to put in place other, parallel structures. The vexing challenge thus remains to put major social resources under collective control for the common benefit and for the sake of our planet, reclaiming them from neoliberal governments, predatory private interests, and state bureaucracies. It was precisely in order to get leverage on the centres of political and financial power that democratic unrest turned towards existing or new parties of the left, such as Syriza and Podemos. These promised to operate as conveyor belts of popular demands in an oligarchic political system. By ‘occupying representation’, such political agencies could facilitate social mobilisations, making the state apparatus amenable to their influence and cancelling repressive policies.
A fundamental insight to be drawn from the failures of leftist governmentality in recent years is that the sustained mobilisation of popular forces is one of the few potent weapons that progressive governments can enlist in counteracting the concerted powers of neoliberal elites. In addition, there are two crucial corollary lessons. First, that effective bottom-up control of political leaderships is necessary to prevent the potential autonomisation of leaderships that yield to neoliberal elite pressures and systemic constraints. Second, that a self-directed and extensive popular participation in decision- making is the way to advance the real democratisation of (un)representative regimes, which otherwise remain in the hands of old and new elites. The expansion of popular self-government should be primarily an effect of autonomous grassroots processes rather than of top-down initiatives, which typically result in popular indifference or clientelist relations.
It is within this constellation of problems and challenges that we need to situate several citizens’ initiatives and platforms that were convened from 2014 onwards in Spain (and, in different ways, in Italy) and aimed at wresting control of institutional power at the city level. They all opted for hybrid schemes in order to sustain grassroots activity on the one hand, and to pursue centralised coordination, electoral politics, and institutional intervention on the other. By contesting municipal elections in 2015, they aspired to promote commoning and participatory self-governance in the city.
Realising that social change was effectively blocked by established institutions and the elites commanding them, a multitude of social movements and political actors in Barcelona, Madrid, Zaragoza, Valencia, and several other cities in Spain that had occupied the squares and organised social networks in recent years, set out to ‘take back’ the institutions. Their objective was to advance a new, participatory model of local government and to initiate redistributive and sustainable policies. It is the crucial proximity of local government to the citizens that enables collective municipal platforms to take social change from the streets to state institutions. Although the autonomy of municipal authorities was curtailed in the years of crisis, city institutions are still the closest to citizens and their demands. At the same time, they maintain varying degrees of control over important social goods, from land to transport, housing, the health system, education, energy, and water, which they have come under increasing pressure to privatise, commodify, or subject to austerity cuts. The city is therefore a central site of struggle around common goods.
The ‘confluencias’ cobbled together in 2014-2015 were broad alliances of movements, parties, and ordinary people, who collaborated as individuals converging on common objectives beyond ideological differences, fostering open collective participation. They established a city-wide platform of political interaction, in which citizens from all walks of life could join the process in open assemblies and have a say in the nomination of candidates and the drafting of a commons-centred political programme. The new scheme of political organisation was based on a network of different spaces of decision-making and participation, both online and offline, coordinated by a common group of elected members and an executive board. The aim was to expand civic initiative and involvement beyond electoral campaigns to include the implementation of policies on the municipal level.
In sum, the political strategy of ‘democratic municipalism’ today consists in enhancing direct citizens’ participation in municipal government, where civic engagement can be most meaningful and effective, by supporting candidacies and city administrations that are directed by the grassroots. It is also intended as a project that will replace corrupt political elites, reduce top-down rule from national or regional centres, challenge neoliberal policies, reclaim common goods, and combat class, gender, ethnic, and racial domination.
The politics of contemporary municipalism intends to keep one foot in established institutions and one in the streets. But in its more radical version it has claimed to fundamentally be a politics of ongoing civic activity, which would generate new demands and projects, partake in the creation of policies, monitor institutional practice, demand full transparency in public management, and even enter into confrontation with municipal governments. Furthermore, the municipalist approach seeks to ‘feminise politics’, not only by insisting on the political parity of the genders but also by promoting the symmetrical distribution of power away from specific individuals and groups. Feminisation moreover involves a politics of concern with everyday problems, which are addressed by ordinary, non-expert citizens in their neighbourhoods, as well as a politics of sharing responsibilities, human fragility and care for other people and the environment. Finally, the new municipalism seeks to forge a world-wide network of municipalist movements for local and global (‘glocal’) change, with a view to establishing federal structures in which power would emanate from grassroot self-government.
Now, three years later, the balance sheet of ‘municipalismo’ in Spain is a mixed one. In Barcelona, the landscape remains more open, dynamic, and promising, with social movements directly lobbying the Ada Colau administration while also promoting autonomous activities throughout the city, which likewise exert political pressure. By contrast, in Madrid, the new mayor championed by the coalition of ‘Ahora Madrid’ refused to recognise it as a legitimate collective actor, splitting it into contending factions and pushing activist sectors into direct conflict with the municipal government (FC 2018: 46-47).
In general, a process of institutional adaptation and incorporation has set in, blunting the original radicalism of municipalist programmes. New bureaucracies and media figures have emerged, isolating the ‘new governments of change’ from the main pillar of their ‘new politics,’ the civic grassroots of municipalismo which could serve as a counterweight to institutional domestication. In all cities, the ‘municipalist wager’ has faced several hurdles. First, local power still depends on the vertical power of the state, leaving little room for a real self-organisation of the people. Second, the complexities of local administration and power relations were not analysed in detail. As a result, the attitude towards them was often determined by a binary logic of ‘inside’ or ‘outside,’ which assumed that the institutional is omnipotent and that those outside it are ‘pure.’ What appears now to be more useful and constructive is the development of hybrid spaces, which challenge the model of the market-state.
For the most radical democratic sectors of ‘municipalismo’, the main objective remains to revive the political culture of 15 M and to reconstruct municipal administration through plural and inclusive processes of popular self-government, which could open up cracks in the dominant institutions. Two different approaches to municipalist politics have thus crystallised: one fostering practices of ‘counterpower’ and ‘real democracy,’ and another seeking mainly to better ‘manage’ the local institutions. The current failures of the urban strategy in Spain can be traced back to the very structure of representative institutions, which enable elected representatives to exercise power independently of their bases, and to the absence of a real ‘municipalist movement’ with an autonomous organisation. Lacking this, and powerful broader coalitions, the institutions and existing party organisations are bound to absorb and vitiate grassroots initiatives.
In a time of neofascist abberations, imperial neoliberalism, and apparent impasse, the commons have gained salience as the nodal point of an emergent political imaginary and constellation of forces. The commons uphold and renew what is best in the egalitarian traditions of modernity: social self- government, collective property, freedom in equality, solidarity, inclusion, openness and creativity, and care for the environment. At the same time, they can resonate beyond the historical left, unencumbered as the commons are by the darkest pages of radical politics in modernity.
Since the turn of the century, diverse proponents of democratic agency have outlined an alternative counter-hegemonic strategy which is akin to the commons and seeks to achieve the necessary aggregation of forces, cohesion, leadership, and universal agency, without succumbing to the logic of fusion, top-down leadership, and ‘realist’ power games. Grounded in prefiguration and in bottom-up power, counter-hegemonic politics could guide the whole process of transformation from below, advancing the political logic of the commons: horizontal participation, sharing, diversity, openness, sustainability, and care. Such strategies of ‘another politics’ mix horizontalism and verticalism with a clear emphasis on the former, combining heterogeneous spatialities and temporalities. They are anchored in the here and now of this world with its urgent needs and its ordinary people. Yet they are also oriented to new horizons of freedom, plurality, openness, and equality, which relate to the long term and require arduous processes of reflection, struggle, and invention.
Cities, for the reasons we have pointed out, are a central site for these alternative strategies.
Recent experience from the new ‘municipalist politics’ in Spain and Italy suggests the need to sustain new schemes of ‘dual power’ or ‘disjunctive conjunction,’ not only between grassroots participation and political platforms with representatives in city governments, but also within each pole. To build autonomous foundations of collective power, people should construct alternative institutions of the commons, wherever this is meaningful, and they should self-organise and multiply civic initiatives of social reconstruction and empowerment. But without losing their primary focus on independent self-activity, actors in these processes should also partake in political alliances which can open up dominant institutions to people’s power, democratise the political management of public goods and divert resources to the commons.
Parallel to this disjunctive conjunction in the grassroots, the political platforms themselves should be likewise split into two, between representatives in formal structures of government, on the one hand, and the majority of participants, on the other hand. Ordinary members should remain intent on keeping alive the connection with social majorities outside institutions, and they should uphold the decisive function of collective decision-making in the municipal assemblages. They should closely monitor representatives, keeping them firmly in check and aligned with the collective will arising from the plenary assemblies of the municipal coalitions. Without offering any foolproof guarantee, this double split at the bottom and the top is designed to anchor real power in popular participation and creativity at every level and to construct effective relays of bottom-up influence through which the popular will can direct decision-making in the political system and push successfully for its wider opening to social majorities, enacting a strategy of inside/outside and against institutions.
Such city-based politics can scale up to address national and international power by federating and networking municipalities and movements in order to exercise strong pressure on higher scales, while maintaining a solid anchorage in local participation.
All this is already occurring at an incipient stage both in Europe and across the world. It is up to us to refashion hegemonic politics along these lines, which could foster a progressive egalitarian populism for the common good(s) where traditional and new left parties have failed. If large numbers of people actually get involved, city politics re-organised in disjunctive conjunctions and broader networks could help to aggregate and amplify the power of the many against the entrenched rule of the few, and thus promote the common good by toppling neoliberal hegemonies.