Where Does the Theory of the Commons Meet the Theory of Municipalism?

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Iolanda Bianchi:

"Firstly, both theories emerge from distrust in the action of the state, especially following the implementation of neoliberal policies that, despite the 2007-8 crisis, seem unstoppable. The Commons arise from a lack of confidence in all the state apparatus and all its scales of government. Their goal is to create a path of emancipation without seizing the state and autonomously from it. Municipalism arises from distrust of the nation-state that, being wholly immersed in the neoliberal governance and having ceded decision-making power to other institutional scales, does not seem to be able to produce a alternative to the dominant policies. Secondly, both theories aim to reclaim the control of crucial aspects that directly influence citizens’ lives and that, currently, seem to have been pulled away from their control to end up in the hands of politicalor economic elites. The Commons seek to reclaim to citizen control fundamental resources, such aswater, housing, community facilities, but also information and data. Municipalism seeks to take back the whole space of the government of the city and its institutions. Reclaiming the control of these crucial aspects - resources and local institutions - responds to the necessity to be part of their managementand government.Thirdly, both theories transform cooperation into a necessary working principle against the atomization of lives within globalised individualism. The Commons do it by re-articulating the relations among the social group’s members that manage the resource.

Municipalism does it by re-articulating the relation between citizens and public institutions. Cooperation between the two is fundamental to strengthen their mutual trust and to enhance participatory public planning and policies. This cooperation, based on reciprocity and solidarity, allows the social group to strengthen collective identities and struggles .Fourthly, both theories establish a specific territory of action, which is the territory of proximity, againstthe imposed global interdependency. The Commons set it at the community scale with the aim to create new community-based institutions hinged on reciprocity and non-commodified relations. Municipalism sets it at the city scale with the aim to create political institutions open to social actor participation and engagement. In both cases, the proximity of the community and of the city become the space to movebeyond the paradigm of representative democracy and experiment new self-governing forms. In other words, both concepts focus on the construction of new institutionalities by creating new ones at the margin of the traditional ones, in the case of the Commons, and by reshaping the old traditional ones, in the case of Municipalism. In both cases, the two institutionalities are based on the principles of cooperation, proximity and self-government. However, if the concept of the Commons and Municipalism are built on a shared ground that helps to redefine the relation with the possible and outline processe of emancipation, some limits can be found on the same shared ground. Indeed, the first shared limit is represented by their socio-spatial finitude. Focusing on the socio-spatialunit of the community, in the case of the Commons, and focusing on the socio-spatial unit of the city, in the case of Municipalism, may foster a form of unequal emancipation, based on the social homogeneity and limited within the boundaries of the corresponding unit. In this sense, both the Commons and the Municipalism could become a new form of elitist enclosure, outside which the production and reproduction of the inequalities given by the neoliberal capitalist regime could increase rather than decrease (Harvey, 2012). An example of the elitism of the Commons is demonstrated by the results of a research study that has cross-checked the map of social innovation practices with that of urban segregation, in the Catalan region. From the data, it has emerged that most of these initiatives are located in middle-income areas with significant levels of social mix and with a strong tradition of social mobilisation (Cruz, Martínez Moreno and Blanco, 2017). An example of municipal elitism is shown by the electoral results in different Western political contexts. Trump's victory and the Leave vote of the Brexit referendum are the expression of the electoral will of the non-urban areas that in this way mark their distance with respect to the urban ones (Rossi, 2018). From a theoretical perspective, this finitude has been taken into consideration and attempts have beenmade in order to overcome it. In the case of the Commons it has been said that in order to be truly emancipatory, these initiatives should be porous and overstep the boundaries of their community (Stavrides, 2016); in the case of Municipalism it has been said that urban policies cannot be only local and that have to incorporate multilevel dimensions and logics (Subirats, 2016). Certainly, even though providing theoretical responses to this limit is fundamental, from an empirical perspective, the question of how to operationalise the breakup of the socio-spatial finitude still deserve further discussion. The second limit is represented by the temporal finitude. The temporality of the Commons is linked to the fact that these community-based initiatives are extremely precarious. They often develop on themargins of legality and formality, like the different housing and cultural occupations, and therefore their existence depends on the owners and local administrations' decision to tolerate them; often they cannotrely on self-sufficient economic models, they are based on precarious funding and they rely on thevoluntary work of the members of the social group; they often do not own the spaces where they are located, finding themselves at the mercy of real estate speculation (Bianchi, 2018). The temporality of Municipalism depends on the fact that this political project is linked to political cycles whose continuity is not guaranteed. Firstly, it is linked to a precise historical conjuncture, the current one, in which cities seem to acquire a leading role compared to other government scales, especially the national one (LeGalès, 2006). Secondly, it is linked to the protest cycle represented by the post-crisis urban uprising that has found in the urban space a form of institutionalisation through the creation of different citizen-based political platforms, such as in the Spanish cases (Mayer, Thörn and Thörn, 2016). However, although the temporal finitude of both Commons and Municipalism is a significant issue, there is still a scarcity of contribution that reflects on it from the theoretical and empirical terms. To summarise, in the last few years, the theory of Commons and Municipalism have emerged as twourban alternatives for antagonist political actors. By reclaiming the management of crucial resources,in the case of the Commons, and the space of the government of the city, in the case of Municipalism, with the aim of creating new hybrid and participatory institutions, both concepts are contributing forpolitics to occur. According to Ranciere, “politics occurs because, or when, the natural order of the shepherd kings, the warlords, or property owners is interrupted by a freedom that crops up and makes real the ultimate equality on which any social order rests”. However, for this interruption to not be contingent and not to become a double-edged sword, both these theories must come to terms with their own limits, that is, the socio-spatial and temporal finitude. Only through the theoretical and empirical questioning of these concepts, they would be able to re-signify the vocabulary of urban alternatives." (https://www.academia.edu/38848160/Urban_alternatives_to_what_degree_Parallelisms_between_Commons_and_Municipalism)


  • Article: Urban alternatives, to what degree? Parallelisms between Commons and Municipalism. By Iolanda Bianchi. [forthcoming in “Spatial Justice and the Commons”, Center for Spatial Justice: Istanbul], 2019

URL = https://www.academia.edu/38848160/Urban_alternatives_to_what_degree_Parallelisms_between_Commons_and_Municipalism