“To open my space, my home – my house, my language, my culture, my nation, my state, and myself…this unconditionality is a frightening thing, it’s scary.”
Jacques Derrida on Politics and Friendship in Europe. 1997
Experiences of solidarity and edges of reason
On Wednesday 16th November, the second day of the inaugural European Commons Assembly, about 100 commoners were swarming outside the doors of the European Parliament. We appeared as an unusually large and colourful mob of visitors, speaking, amongst other languages, Portuguese, Greek, Spanish, Italian, French, Dutch, German, Croatian, and English. We were an assortment of highly ambitious, independent and deep thinking activists, all with our own twist on what we anticipated from the day. I was there out of curiosity but also conviction; I believe the actions and perception that commoning requires can assist with democratic and environmental changes needed to avert even bigger human global crises.
These self-nominating commoners are diverse; working in urban commons, self-organising housing, in food commons, in open architecture, in mapping and knowledge commons, in helping artists at risk, linking artists, in taking spaces that are at risk of enclosure; or with traditional land that has been in commoners hands for hundreds of years. We might also work in social enterprise and in academia.
Within the group it felt festive and chaotic as we milled, unclear on our formation and vague about our approach. Despite being well organised, this was no regular meeting. It seemed our nature was to constantly form and un-form smaller groups before we funnelled our way inside to the queue for the Parliamentary security. Outside we had been connecting; literally thronging outside the formal boundaries of Parliament. It felt like trying to shake liquid mercury into the shape of a square. The hard edges of official infrastructure were not those we recognised as a group, even though many individuals were probably familiar with the social codes of the institution.
I’m writing about the affect as well as the effect, of the Assembly. It would have been easier to leap into a focus on political structures and policy priorities of the Commons. Whilst interesting and important, these abstractions are not the basis on which trust is formed. Derrida often talked about friendship and hospitality going hand in hand with true politics. How do we know if we want to stay with one particular movement when the world is in such flux? It’s not because the theory of the group fits firmly with our rational ideologies. No, we recall our experience with emotion and warmth or diffidence and are then attracted or repelled by our experiences of being together, as a tribe.
Many of us there in the Parliament may have been tools of government or business within Brussels or other government cities. We know the feeling of representation which comes with strong limits and self-censorship. Instead our experience of the Commons Assembly was distinguished by the coming together with open-minded strangers; people who were united by their experience in self organising. The feeling of the group was one that embodied generosity, emotional intelligence, boundary riding and self-determination. These are people who have stopped waiting for permission, who are passionate about their local and global environments; people who generate more than they extract; are living their lives for the sake of the whole; who are affective labourers.
Johannes Euler from Commons-Institut wrote later about the event “…seeing all these very different and at the same time very interesting and engaged people there made me realise something emotionally. No, it is not only me. And yes, these people -we-, together with all the other people we are connected with “at home”… we can achieve something once we have actually come together.”
Structures of Power
For every person there I imagine thousands of others who might have been there as well. Networks of trust and relations of goodwill were continued and begun by this meeting in Brussels. It is out of these relationships that a movement can develop. Abstract political ideas and ideals alone are not enough. Trusted connections are the movement’s wealth.
Although this year’s working party of the Commons Assembly event had justifiably focussed on the Parliamentary session, room for other gathering was made. We heard about many inspiring projects through the three days. On Tuesday night we heard about the work of local project Commons Josaphat, Straddle3 in Barcelona and about Community Chartering work in England. We also met as a very large group with the political movement DIEM25. I didn’t find a clear line of enquiry in the DIEM25 meeting but my ears did pick up at an intriguing social analysis that we had been captured by the “trance inducement of nationalism.” The encounter was, however, considered a fruitful first date.
At the opening of our Parliamentary session on Wednesday, civil society advocate David Hammerstein, (with five years experience as MEP), linked the social role and political context of our gathering. “The Assembly is a process – of solidarity – and an intersection with institutions…we want to create cohesion, a bonding, a good feeling between all of you. This is open, loose, unstructured process…. We are in a desperate social and ecological situation that needs to be addressed in a positive democratic way.”
Once inside the Parliament there was a moment of revelling in the seats of well-recognised formal power. It felt exciting, historic, even fun. But as the afternoon wore on, energy was flagging. Facilitator Elizabeth Hunt mentioned a reference to the “structural violence” of the architecture of the Parliament: static seating all facing one central spot but not facing each other.
To have this autonomous movement interface with such visible institutional power was a first step in scaffolding deeper change in formal government. Congratulations to the MEPs who hosted the Assembly (through an intergroup on Common Goods and Public Services) including Marisa Matias, Dario Tamburrano, Ernest Urtasun, Sergio Cofferati. In addition the friendly support of MEP Julie Ward was appreciated when she joined us for a drink later on Wednesday and urged us all to make bridges with Union movement. Other people in the Assembly urged connection with the solidarity economy and sustainability movements. This bridging seems to only be a matter of time. Food commons activist Jose Luis Vivero Pol also urged for the reclaiming of the legitimacy of the commons within the European Commission as well as the European Parliament. Natalia Avlona called on the Assembly to find a common language -“commons” does not apparently not translate well in Greek, for example.
Many commoners are highly skilled relationship-makers, happy in this liminal space as they enact bridges between communities; between those with differing needs; or those with those with excess and those with less. The well-educated middle class dominates, and Portuguese academic Ana Margarida Esteves challenged the Assembly to find ways to create more than replications of our own values and behaviours. Many who act as agents or brokers could recognise their ‘middleness’ as the perfect space to start the negotiations between those on the ‘ground’ and systematised power. It’s vital to see this stage in the Commons movement as just the beginning of development and bridging with formal power; one that others can join and must participate in regularly “renovating” the co-ordination committee, as Hammerstein suggested.
Formally, the stated aims of the Assembly; to establish new synergies, to show solidarity, to reclaim Europe from the bottom-up and, overall, to start a visible commons movement with a European focus were well met. Many discussions and documents were compiled online before the November gathering: topics included renewable energy, internet infrastructures, open research and citizen participation, copyright reform, direct citizen participation, financing urban commons, sustainable management and cultural commons. Three proposals: on renewable energy, recognition of physical commons sites and improved democratic process were put to the Parliament after several weeks of online collaboration. They were not complete but an indication of commitment and will be published shortly. The lack of individual grandstanding was impressive; we had managed to prioritise experience over opinion, thanks so much to the extensive time and effort of the working group and online contributors.
Worth considering for the future is the architecture and design of our meetings and site. I have noted the restrictions of the formal European Parliament. The creative community site of Zinneke in Brussels felt cosy and familiar to those who work in reclaimed urban space, but didn’t have rooms large enough to hold all 150 of us – we really needed space to regard the group as a whole. We also required intentional connecting with each other before moving outward into Parliament. In New Zealand the idea of manaakitanga – hosting people with food, warmth and unconditionality, and also holding the space for deeper enquiry is an important aspect of social movement building. There are people in the network involved in the Art of Hosting who no doubt could assist with this deepening.. Johannes Euler suggests “we need an actual bottom-up movement, one that is built on self-organization and togetherness. A commons movement […] can only function if it follows as many commons principles as possible. If it fosters commoning or even more – if it is built and maintained by commoning. This would make it a commons in itself and this is exactly what I believe is needed.”
Where do we go from here?
From lots of post-event discussion, I’ve attempted to synthesise some questions to inform the next few months’ work:
- How can we best enact and demonstrate commoning with the movement itself?
- What would happen if we primarily focused on relationships rather than politics?
- How might we reconsider commons other than in resource terms?
- What invitation or language is needed to attract indigenous activists?
- Also more Eastern European activists?
- How do we recognise and welcome those who have similar aspirations even if they are not identifying as ‘commoners?’
The European Assembly was an exciting turning point for the Commons movement. The international (or ‘mondial’ ) movement will certainly follow; several offers for hosting the next meeting were made but not confirmed as yet. How fast the movement will grow and in what direction depends on how we manage, as in all commons projects, the permeability of the group. As I write various people in the network are designing ways to manage multiple voices. It was a terrific privilege to be at the first Commons Assembly; in a short number of years I hope will be a rite of passage for anyone in this movement. With our collective experience in fast growing movements we are perfectly capable of contributing to the meta-narrative about this open/closedness, to build the “sovereignty and power” of the movement. You too can contribute to the discussion via the Commons Assembly site and Loomio group.
The formal presentations, examples and proposals can be seen online in video form below:
About the author
Sophie Jerram is from Wellington New Zealand and runs projects in urban, suburban and artistic commons. She was a founding director of the Loomio company and has been researching the transcriptions of commoning practice, based for six months based at the University of Copenhagen.