A Struggle Called Commoning
In contrast to the more general debates surrounding the commons, this project asserts that the promise of the commons does not imply that coming together will be free from friction. On the contrary, commons are made against, as well as within, a multiplicity of existing fields of power, so that power relations may be negotiated rather than simply reproduced. As different dimensions of power organise the overdetermined terrain of the social, social movements are often caught between competing agendas, as well as in the gap between their declared aims and the complexity of everyday life. In our research, we called this struggle commoning. This understanding of commoning is based on the premise that commons are most productively considered a triad: as shared resources, as a community of commoners, and finally as a process of actively engaging in the negotiation of rules of access2 and use. As Peter Linebaugh argues, commoning is a verb, a social practice: commons are not yet made but always in the making; they are a product of continuous negotiation and reclamation.3
For two years, members of the research group spent many days sitting around a table discussing commons and their manifold potentialities and limitations. We organised a wide range of events, including an international summer school called “Commoning the City”4, where we tried to collect and debate the experiences of commoning in different geographic, cultural and political settings, while at the same time engaging in a process of coming together. In the context of these projects, we tried to counter an often-too-cerebral approach to commoning by bringing affective experience and our bodies into contact with our thoughts and ideas. To this end, we embarked on collective journeys that included walking forward and backward, listening in common, joining guided tours, building fragile stick constructions, experimenting with reading, making zines, cooking, learning and unlearning. Soon after this event, thousands of people seeking refuge from war, persecution and poverty started to arrive in or near to the city of Vienna. In the public perception, an ostentatious ’culture of welcoming’ slowly turned into a decisive anti-immigration stance supported by a political system that thrived on populism and racism. Our theoretical and artistic reflections on commoning were now forced to confront the effects of aggressive un-commoning. As global economic discrepancies accelerated in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, and as the city of Vienna, itself deeply implicated in the growing divide between the Global North and South, East and West, we had to face disturbing questions about the relationship between our privileges, the rhetoric of commoning and the persistent conditions of colonality. What was the meaning of a study on commoning in the light of such aggressive forces of division, violence and domination?
Once these questions were raised, many of the tensions shaking the constituency of the world around us also began intruding upon the everyday of our research. Who were we as a group? The project was supported by public funding from the City of Vienna (WWTF) and was situated in a public art university, the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. How could we possibly engage in a debate on commoning from this position of privilege, relying on benefits which fed visibly and invisibly on the distress of others? How could we deal with the uneven distribution of resources and privileges within our group, the anger and frustration with the precarity of some and the affluence of others, different immigration statuses and abled versus disabled bodies?
We steered our study discussing the commons as a pool of shared resources, having in mind Marx’s account of primitive accumulation and the massive waves of enclosure in the woods of London, as well as David Harvey’s contemporary variation poignanty called “accumulation through dispossession”5. We discussed Silvia Federici’s manifesto 'Wages Against Housework’. ('They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work')6 co-published in the 1970s. The essay questions the Marxist basis of political economy and insisted on the necessity to expand the concept of primitive accumulation to include not just the appropriation of land but also of women’s bodies and their reproductive labor.7 We recognized the necessity of linking discussions on commoning to the long history of colonised lands and bodies, as well as how accumulation in global capitalism has always relied on the social production of race.8 Just as important, we agreed that the commons cannot be reduced to a physical space, and that establishing the commons as a viable discourse and form of living means embracing the day-to-day negotiation of social relations. Building on these premises, we wanted to explore what it means to common; in other words, to come together as an equivocal, nonessentialist, and highly unstable ‘we’.