Space,Subjectivity, Enclosure and the Commons

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  • Article: Rethinking Enclosure: Space, Subjectivity and the Commons. Alex Jeffrey, Colin McFarlane, et al.


"While concepts of “enclosure” and the “commons” are becoming increasingly popular in critical geography, there have been few attempts to think them together. This paper sets out a dialectic of enclosure–commons as a means for thinking through contemporary processes of exclusion, violence and alterity. We examine what is at stake through a geographical reading of enclosure, that is, the processes through which neoliberalism works through—and summons into existence—certain forms of spatiality and subjectivity. In doing so we confront the spatialities of enclosure’s “other”: strategies and practices of commoning which assemble more inclusive, just and sustainable spaces. We examine the materiality of enclosure across a range of sites, from processes of walling to a more substantial assessment of the diverse assemblage of materials and subjectivities drawn into modalities of enclosure. We go on to explore the inscription of enclosure on the human body through an examination of, first, law, and second, biopolitics. In conclusion, we explore the implications of this argument for critical geographical scholarship."



"Our project is motivated by a desire to expose and counter the materialisations of enclosure. We are interested in how the seizure of the commons is actively assembled through porous, sociomaterial and distanciated forms of enclosure—through relations of stability and flux, fixity and movement. In doing so, we are equally concerned with how we might think enclosure’s other: strategies and practices of commoning that do not necessarily avoid walling, but which assemble more inclusive, just and sustainable spaces. While recent years have seen an increase in debates on both enclosure and the commons in Geography and critical social science more generally, there have been few attempts to think them together.


The paper sets out three approaches to the dialectic of enclosure–commons that draw upon our respective research projects, and which we believe are particularly important in the current moment: materiality, law and biopolitics."


"As Graham and Marvin (2001) argue in their seminal Splintering Urbanism, global neoliberalism has served to intensify the fragmentation of the urban landscape as new privatised, secessionary enclaves of infrastructure and services splinter from the city and, in the process, sever any contemporary possibility of modern, uniformly networked urbanism."

Insurgent Citizenship, the Law, and the Production of Enclosure vs. the Commons

"In order to understand law’s ambiguous position within the production of both enclosure and the commons, we need to explore the relationship between law and the practice of citizenship. The first step in this project requires detaching notions of citizenship from their historic connection with the nation-state. There is a wealth of literature that challenges Marshall’s (1992) teleological view of citizenship as an evolving set of political, civic and social rights unfolding within the territory of the nation-state (Painter and Jeffrey 2009). As Ong (2007:6) argues, there has been a disarticulation and rearticulation of the elements that constitute citizenship—rights, entitlements, territoriality, a nation—through neoliberalism.

Thus there are those mobile individuals who possess human capital and expertise who are able to “exercise citizenship like claims in diverse locations” (Ong 2007:7).

However, there are those who do not possess such “tradable competence” who are consequently vulnerable to “exclusionary practices” (Ong 2007:7). This new landscape of disarticulated citizenship poses three questions: first, how do conventional understandings of citizenship persist despite the fragmentation of rights claims and affiliations that are orientated beyond (or within) the boundaries of particular states? Second, how are these forms of citizenship reconstituted through processes of enclosure? And, third, to what extent is a new form of insurgent citizenship commensurate with alterity and resistance?

The answer to the first question provides the groundwork for an answer to the second and third. The presentation of citizenship as a form of legal membership to a specific state relies on a particular configuration of power and knowledge that privileges the state as the primary locus of authority. This assumption reflects the wider territorial-trap in legal geographies. There is symmetry at work here: just as law is presented as an abstract universal, so citizenship appears as a technical condition of affiliation to a particular territorial and bureaucratic unit: the nation- state. But the act of bundling citizenship into the state is neither innocent nor incidental, since it recasts the practice of discerning insiders and outsiders as a product of the territorial arrangement of states, and therefore somehow beyond politics. This image of citizenship is coherent with the broader presentation of neoliberal governmentality as a technical, as opposed to political or ideological, practice. It is this imaginary that allows the presentation of citizenship tests or metrics of desirability as technical solutions to the “problem” of identifying who constitutes a legitimate citizen.

Countering these narratives, Engin Isin (2002) has produced a genealogy of citizenship that elevates the outsider, the stranger and the alien as formative figures in the production of notions of citizenship. This work moves away from an instrumental account of how citizenship rights are conferred, to pay attention instead to the governmental role of producing citizenship knowledge, arguing “dominant views on citizenship derive not from those who questioned and attempted to overturn its values, but from those who were its benefactors and inheritors” (Isin 2002:276).

Therefore the power of conventional understandings of citizenship has been their ability to present an abstract and highly politicised idea (the constitution of “us” and “them”) as a simple apparatus of state membership. In order to unsettle this view of citizenship scholars have examined the production of differentiated forms of citizenship under conditions of neoliberalism. This approach has involved developing alternative rubrics of citizenship that illustrate the qualitative differences between different claims to rights or solidarity. Miraftab and Wills (2007) provide a useful exploration of the power of labelling such new styles of citizenship. The authors examine the effects of the privatisation of water and electricity services on the urban poor in Cape Town, South Africa. Examining the practices of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, they focus in particular on what they term “insurgent citizenship”, political practices that seek to destabilise the unjust outcomes of the privatisation of utilities through direct action (re-connecting water and electricity), protests (in the streets and outside government buildings) and physically halting the eviction of residents (blocking the path of the police).

They explain:

- As neoliberal practices privatise the city, its infrastructure, and its life spaces, and increasingly exclude urban citizens who are not deemed “good-paying customers”, insurgent citizenship challenges the hypocrisy of neoliberalism: an ideology that claims to equalize through the promotion of formal political and civil rights yet, through its privatisation of life spaces, criminalises citizens on the basis of their consumption abilities (Miraftab and Wills 2007:202).

There are two observations that stem from Miraftab and Wills’s work. The first, and perhaps most evidently, the processes of enclosure outlined through the privatisation of public services are themselves provoking new styles of citizenship participation and new claims to rights. Here we see a vivid articulation of the dialectic between enclosure and the commons, where these two phenomena are not separate parallel entities but entangled socio-political practices that are dynamic and unfolding.

The second—and interlinked—observation relates to the shifting locus of citizenship and law in the practices of insurgency outlined by Miraftab and Wills. It would be simplistic to argue that insurgent citizenship looks merely beyond the state as the primary locus of rights, embracing instead more cosmopolitan impulses of social justice and human rights. This would suggest a clean delineation between state-based and insurgent practices of citizenship. Rather, insurgent citizenship flexibly appropriates aspects of state citizenship while denying or resisting others. At the heart of this dynamic is the flexible and arbitrary nature of law within practices of enclosure (see Roy 2009). We are particularly drawn to the work of James Holston (2008) and his illustration of the differentiated legal processes within planning and construction in urban Brazil.

For Holston the use of law requires grounding in specific social and spatial practices of exclusion, which involve the subversion of mainstream understandings of the universal and immutable character of law:

- Far from “having no law” or a law that “doesn’t work,” as one frequently hears from Brazilians and foreigners alike . . . elites have used the law brilliantly—particularly land law—to sustain conflicts and illegalities in their favor, force disputes into extralegal resolution where other forms of power triumph, maintain their privilege and immunity, and deny most Brazilians access to basic social and economic resources (Holston 2008:19).

Holston, a key source for Miraftab and Wills, also evokes a language of “insurgency”, drawing attention to practices of auto-construction of housing on the periphery of S ̃o Paulo. This account illustrates how citizens illicitly appropriated land and then subsequently attempted to formalise these appropriations through legal recognition, a process that Holston (2008:25) describes as “legalising the illegal”.

In certain cases the courts performed redress and granted legal ownership rights to the inhabitants of auto-constructed houses. However, in drawing attention to the opportunities posed for legal redress, Holston simultaneously examines the barriers posed by the institutions and practices of the Brazilian legal system. This work highlights law as a social process, rather than an abstract universal norm that functions in a mechanistic and egalitarian fashion. Holston’s arresting account of the slow and crisis-ridden attempts by residents of the Jardim das Camelias district to establish legal recognition for houses they had formerly purchased from what was later declared to be an illegitimate vendor draws attention to the arbitrary way in which certain cases meet with success. The socialised nature of law is evident in both the different ways in which members of the Brazilian judiciary handled the cases and the influence of wider practices of protest (outside the space of the court room and frequently in the media) on the outcome of the cases. This account of legal struggle, coupled with that of Miraftab and Wills, allows us to draw out two aspects of enclosure’s subject.

The first is that law represents a contradictory resource for forms of resistance to enclosure. While legal redress may challenge particular elite-driven neoliberalising strategies, legal settlements can lend legitimacy to the wider spatial practices under legal scrutiny. In Holston’s case this led to the dispossession of residents of urban peripheries who had been duped into purchasing “illegal” land deeds, only to have these removed by the court decades later.

More Information

  1. To be published by Antipode, copy via co-author [email protected]
  2. Cited: The City and the Grassroots. Manuel Castells, 1983

See also:

  • Graham S and Marvin S (2001) Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition. London: Routledge