How to write about these things? I'm blogging, so I express insecurities, and throw in gonzo bits and cracks. I don't have to make sense of it all. I want it to be interesting... This writing now is about these meetings, encounters, conferences. Everyone there is doing something. They are not on their personal path of best advantage. These events are evidence that folks are moving towards and in a generalized positive human future. It is, I truly hope, the drifting vector of the 'general intellect,' be that political or social or, well, only art.
During my weekly short eviction for flat-cleaning, I sit in the Centro Centro of Madrid, the exhibition and workplace of the city hall. From time to time, I hear the groaning sounds of the “Charivari” exhibition on political noise as the show disgorges a group of visitors. I feel so lucky to be here in this ample public building with beautiful light and internet for free. I wonder what to write, of my experiences here in participation city. With Transeuropa festival, I am moving decisively into NGO-land. So this isn't about squatting – or urban development from below, gentrification and the like, which is what this “Occupations & Properties” blog has been about for eight years. And it isn't about artists' collectives, which is what another long-neglected blog based on my 2012 book “Art Gangs” is about.
The Municipalist Submarine Rises from the Sea
I was so psyched for the Transeuropa 2017 festival! I burbled on about it at the English happy hour at the La Ingobernable squat. The newsprint publication, which appeared a couple of weeks in advance, was wonderful, shot through with enticing formulations and revelatory ideas.
The introductory text by the director declared that the festival was to be about “going beyond the nation state.” At the same time, this “can mean renewed autonomy at local levels.” That's the strategy – the “bet,” in Pablo Carmona's formulation – of the municipalist movement.
The three themes of the festival, in addition to understanding a transnationalism advanced by flying in folks from around Europe (including one of our SqEK colleagues), were “Europe as a refuge,” i.e., engaging the crises of refugee and migrant flows into Europe; “the Commons,” exploring ideas and practices of this powerful emergent political and social paradigm; and third, “cities of change” – the new municipalism. That's my meat, as I've been blogging the MAC 3 conference of Spanish municipal platforms on this blog for a month now.
Their newspaper promised a kind of wedding cake of artistic and political futurism. As it turned out we were delivered a tray of cookies and some piles of crumbs. But there were some tasty bits in there!
At one point during the opening session I ran into Georg from Hablarenarte who said the TE people had wanted to hold the conference in Barcelona. Maybe that would have been better, he said. God no!, I cried. That place is a political tire fire now. You're much better off in Madrid, where at least the municipalist program is running fairly smoothly (if invisibly).
The festival kickoff saw a rather despairing intro talk by a German quite traumatized by the rise of the nationalist right in the east, the “illiberal” democracies – and a short video showing handfuls of people waving at the camera in a plethora of European cities large and mostly smaller. Argh, sez me. This isn't how you start a conference! You don't 'share your concerns.' You just intro the big cheese, who tells you what you should be thinking about and working on. I ran away.
Madrid is a Democracy Lab
But I came back the next day... But first, to return to the newspaper – it included an abridged version of Bernardo Gutiérrez' text published on the Open Democracy media platform “Madrid as a democracy lab” (July '17). He has just released a book, Pasado mañana. Viaje a la España del cambio (Arpa Editores), which I am trudging through, full of accounts of the interesting things that are being done in Spain now.
Now Bernardo is working at Medialab, a radical city-funded media center which was a partner in the festival, and the site of the somewhat concurrent European Commons Assembly. Some TE Fest action was happening in the Medialab, and a lot more across the plaza in La Ingobernable. (This partnering of adjacent places, one city-funded, the other an illegal occupation is in itself somewhat jaw-dropping.) The Commons Assembly is a recently formed grojup. There's more about it in the newspaper, but I did attend one brief session. People were sitting in a circle talking about their concerns, then they stepped back and let others come up and talk. All of it was thought-provoking, very orderly and well-behaved – a serious and intelligent group of folks. I'd no idea this was happening, and couldn't really open up to it all, since I was already booked into the TE Fest. But I digress.
Bernardo's text introduces Pablo Soto's concept of disintermediation, which is the political process of “removing intermediaries from representative politics” and “getting citizens to make their own decisions.” That this is a technical question is what concerns Medialab. Soto, a longtime hacker with the peer-to-peer movement, now works for the city government of Madrid, precariously controlled by an alliance of municipalist political parties. (It was for years in the hands of the right-wing PP, which resulted in some spectacular corruption trials.) Soto is managing the Decide Madrid citizen participation e-platform, which is already being used for “binding urban planning consultations.” This means in effect citizens get to vote on fully articulated proposals.
The Imagina Madrid program at another TE Fest partner, Intermediae, opened the proposal process to the public. (In fact, to make a fully articulated architectural development proposal is specialists' business, so “public” means merely an expanded field of experts; but that's something different than a closed bid process, for sure.)
Bernardo's text goes on to describe the “forceful decentralization policy” of the Madrid city government. This started some years ago, even under the PP mayoralty, as Intermediae took over cultural budgets in the city's peripheral barrios, and started to hire architecture collectives like Basurama, Zuloark and Todo por la Praxis to do citizen activation projects.
The city also handed out empty buildings to citizen groups to self-organize as social centers, thus in effect officializing a long-time current of “citizen protagonism” – Madrid's squatting movement.
The one squatting collective that was disappointed in its desire for a social center was the Patio Maravillas (covered numerous times in this blog in years past). They wanted a space in the center, and the city hall just wouldn't allow that. Finally they took one: La Ingobernable. And it fits right in.
Time of Monsters
Back to the paper. The article, written by two “advocacy coordinators,” Troncoso and Utratel called “Commons in the Time of Monsters: How P2P Politics Can Change the World, One City at a Time,” is the best rundown of the city-hacking change machine that is commons-based municipalism.
“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.” (May be Gramsci.) This time, a century later, we can zap them with our rayguns – “commons enabling, aka P2P (peer-to-peer, person-to-person, people-to-people) technologies... [which] enable small group dynamics at higher levels of complexity, and enable the reclamation of power.”
Yes, “power concedes nothing without a demand,” and the plan here is to weaponize demand, an unanswerable RFS attack on the power structure as it is, with its mazes of bureaucratic offices and blizzards of paperwork. “RFS” – that's a Request for Services attack/demand, to signal this new kind of online activism. (Not the negative disruptive DDoS or Distributed Denial of Service attack, which is what the current state bureaucracy sadly amounts to in much of its day-to-day operation.)
The beast fights back. The “activists-turned-political representatives” of Spain's municipalist platforms, write Troncoso and Utratel, “face an unwaveringly hostile media environment, which exaggerates their blunders (or invents them when convenient) while burying their achievements.”
They go on to discuss the “Partner State” idea, which includes the “promotion of real, needs-oriented entrepreneurship... bottom-up productive infrastructures” like coops and renewables, and – here's the key, which puts this all squarely into “Occupations & Properties” territory – programs to “allow commoners to repurpose or take over unused or underutilized public buildings for social ends, which giving legal recognition ot the act of commoning, whether through copyleft-inspired property-law hacks or through a longer process of gradually institutionalising commons practices.”
So squatting has a new name – commonsing. And as I learned at MAC3, there are already developed protocols for the process of evaluating and legally recognizing squatted spaces. And they are not only the idealized protocols evolved by artist Adelita Husni-Bey. They are being put into practice in Naples, as we shall see below.
“Renewed Political Force”
A text from the muckamucks in the European Commons Assembly outlines the “why” and the “what.” While the municipalists don't seem to focus much now on citizens assemblies, and the U.S. ones for sure don't care – this recently-formed bunch is all about that. And “that” is where popular power begins. “On the streets,” okay, but with thoughtful, civil citizens deliberating together on the matters that concern them. It's from there to action, personal, collective, and political.
Bloeman and Leonard write, in “For a Renewed Political Force in Europe,” that relentless markets, growth, comoodification, “extractive relationship with nature” blah blah blah have broken down social cohesion. That's what they start with. They applaud and support local initiatives to make community wifi, co-housing, community land trusts, and workers' co-ops. Their brief in the Madrid meeting was to go “beyond ideational affiliation,” and grow their movement. The emphasis was on “production” – political production around the commons. What could that mean? I don't know, 'cause I didn't make any of the breakouts. I was busy with the TE Fest.
The newspaper foregrounded migrant rights – “The Cities Want Them In!” came from the book Shifting Baselines of Europe. (That title's actually a creepy concept; the example is fishermen who don't notice that the fish are getting smaller and less numerous since they are invested in a “baseline shift”; it's a fancy name for gettinig used to the unfolding disaster.) While I didn't follow this line closely, we had a breakout (which I'll describe) wherein I met a refugee from conflict Africa. I realized that there is a difference in advocating for refugees and for economic migrants. They are mixed together in the waves trying to get into Europe, but the bureaucracy favors one over the other. (I'll be addressing these questions in a forthcoming essay on the union of manteros – blanket-sellers from Senegal – in Madrid.)
It's a theme struck strongly by the radical mayor of Naples, Luigi de Magistris. “Naples was the first Italian city to establish a 'Department of the Commons' and the first to change the municipal statute by inserting the commons as one of the interests to be protected and recognised as the functional exercise of fundamental rights of the person.” (That's from another interview, “In Naples we are all illegal or no-one is.”)
The Naples protocol for legalizing occupied social centers as “social commons” was studied in A Coruna at MAC3 in a late session which I haven't gotten around to blogging yet!
De Magistris describes the “absolute novelty” of a new way of working together between city government and social movements. “How does this happen? Through direct contact, open meetings, popular assemblies in the neighborhoods, observatories, and by keeping a direct relation with social centres and spaces of activism and active citizenship.”
Naples is a refuge city – in “the vanguard of a new 'diplomacy from below' working for a Mediterranean of peace and not war.”
Theory of Nomadism
There is another interview in there with Roi Braidotti “On Nomadism.” It's always great to hear academics wrap up all the politics into conceptual categories. Because that's really the job with municipalist politics, and post-nationalism of course, is to think all sorts of things that before have been only peacenik hippie dreams into place as government policy.
She has written three books on recent subjective transformations, and finally proposes post-identitarian nomadic subjects who are delinked from ethnicity. This breaks down to a proposal for “flexible citizenship,” a “temporary, interim citizenship.” Immigrants denied papers in Spain certainly need this. How do we do it if the government won't?
How can we “postulate citizenship on participation, on belonging, on taxation, on being there... allowing people without countries, stateless people, to be citizens”? Legal minds are working on this.
Finally, on the climate crisis she notes: “We need to be able to think for future generations who cannot do anything for us. The future per definition, cannot be reciprocal, so we should exit the Kantian morality” – which governs modern political arrangements since the 18th century – “'I do that for you, you do that for me'... No! You do that for the love of humanity, because if we don't do that, there is not going to be a humanity!” We must give up the idea of reciprocity, the soul of compromise, as the engine of our politics.
Easy to say, but harder to say clearly.
The TE Fest put great store in culture as a vehicle to “break walls and create bridges from the ruins of xenophobia and hate spaeeches.” Indeed. How to escape from our political habits? From what Reich called the “emotional contagion” encoded even in our bodily behaviors of anger, frustration, and the social media escape from an actual public sphere already in tatters?
There's a good deal more in this little newspaper – on Turkey, Syrian refugees, feminism in politics. But that's a good start.
NEXT: Well, we'll just have to see.
Transeuropa 2017 – Convergent Spaces
European Commons Assembly
“Charivari” exhibition on political noise as the show disgorges a group of visitors.
La Ingobernable – Centro Social de Comunes Urbanos
The texts under discussion are all in these PDFs:
The journal of the Transeuropa Festival in English and in Spanish, La revista de Transeuropa Festival
Bernardo Gutiérrez , ?Madrid as a democracy lab,” 10 July 2017
An exuberant ecosystem of citizen practices and self-managed spaces has turned Madrid into an international reference of the urban commons. (also in Español y Português)
Stacco Troncoso andAnn Marie Utratel . "Commons in the Time of Monsters: How P2P Politics Can Change the World, One City at a Time,” June, 2017 at:
This article expands on themes showcased on Commons Transition and P2P: a Primer, a short publication from the P2P Foundation and the Transnational Institute examining the potential of commons-based peer production to radically re-imagine our economies, politics and relationship with nature. (Download.)