The commons: assessment and direction

A couple of new opportunities to discuss the commons. (1) One is a call for an upcoming special issue of the Review of Radical Political Economics, the other (2) is an upcoming workshop flagged here by Stuart Elden.

(1)        The Commons (or the common) is of interest to radicals on the left for many reasons. Most obvious at present is the condition of the earth we share—everyone’s common. Global warming and environmental degradation threaten human existence and that of other living creatures and things. Yet agreement on how to better treat planet Earth has proven elusive. Another reason for interest in the commons is the left’s fight against privatization, for decades now a hallmark of neoliberal- ism. Enclosure of common space and resources was part of the development of the capitalist system, and it continues today. Can this process be stopped; reversed?

The terms commons and common do not simply refer to open access resources (res nullins). This category of common resource is the air we breathe, or the ocean. Another category of the commons is res communis, a commonly held resource. It has figured prominently in projects and aspirations of socialists, anarchists, feminists, and communists. Privatization can be associated with a world of scarcity, and the common with abundance. In addition, more than property is held in common. Language, stories, images, humor, culture and other aspects of communal interaction share this root. How can a clearer sense of the commons help inform a renewal of left trajectories: a more egalitarian and sustainable world?

Read the full Call for Papers here (PDF) the deadline for papers is December 31, 2013.

(2)      Please contact with any inquiries

One-day workshop for PhD and early career researchers organised by Open Space at the University of Manchester and sponsored by cities@manchester

Date: Thursday 20th June 2013

This one-day workshop specifically for PhD and early career researchers across the UK aims to explore the nature, relevance, and value of the ‘commons’ for us today. In the context of the global financial crisis spawning resistance movements to the austerity urbanism imposed in its wake a new political narrative of the ‘commons’ appears to emerge as the signifier of radical alternatives to neoliberalization. But what do we mean by the ‘commons’ and how can we make theoretical sense and political use out of the concept?

Intensified neoliberal enclosure is constructing walls to produce what Žižek (2009) describes as “social apartheid”. This ‘walling’ is at work at multiple scales (Jeffrey, McFarlane, & Vasudevan, 2011): from the global scale of the biosphere; to geopolitical state spaces; to increasingly polarised and ‘splintered’ urban spaces of elite privatopias gated off from disinvested marginality; through new forms of (il)legality and citizenship generated by uneven access and property rights; scaling right down to the ‘endless enclosure’ of the human body and the biopolitics that attempts to capture biopower (Hardt & Negri, 2001). It is through the struggles against these various processes of what Harvey (2003) calls ‘accumulation by dispossession’ that the shape of the ‘commons’ comes into view.

Yet the ‘commons’ remains an unstable and contested concept. A genealogy reveals roots in pre-capitalist acts of ‘commoning’ and rights to common land laid down in the Magna Carta (Linebaugh, 2009); an emphasis on common access to resources which can be traced to contemporary Common Property Regime (CPR) discourses and environmental management of common pool resources (Ostrom, 1990). The CPR focus on economic institutions is perhaps seemingly irreconcilable with neo-Marxist perspectives that privilege the ‘common’ as a new form of sovereignty and emancipatory citizenship, entailing a radically democratic and egalitarian ‘being-in-common’ or ‘being-together’ (Agamben, 1993; Hardt & Negri, 2004; Nancy, 1991). We are interested in exploring the relationship between the ‘commons’ and related discourses around the ‘right to the city’ and ‘the political’ (Harvey, 2012; Marchart, 2007). These ontologies point us toward the recent revolutionary spaces unfolding in the ‘Occupy’ movement, Spain’s ‘Indignados’, the Greek urban protests, and the ‘Arab Spring’ (Swyngedouw, 2011).

We invite discussion on how to bridge the gap between radical politics and institutional processes. The gap contains the progressive potential for everyday social practices and institutional designs to foster more cooperative forms of social life and spaces of communal belonging. How can the ‘commons’ be enacted out, performed and embodied through various lived practices? In what ways can architecture help materialise the commons? How does community self-government connect with the ‘commons’? Does institutionalisation always necessarily dissolve the ‘commons’ in producing new forms of enclosure? How far do common property rights challenge or reproduce capitalist property relations? Is the ‘commons’ ultimately a tantalising imaginary only realisable in ephemeral moments of revolutionary tumult?

We invite theoretical and empirical contributions that address the following indicative themes:

  • Political economy of enclosure and the commons;
  • Political philosophy, rights-based discourses, theories of social justice;
  • Revolutionary moments of ‘being-in-common’, ‘the political’;
  • Practices of ‘commoning’, performative spaces of collective life;
  • Urban commons, ‘right to the city’, community self-government;
  • Common land, public space, land trusts, land reform;
  • Global commons; environmental enclosure, common pool resources;
  • Governing the commons, CPR institutions;
  • Architectures, spatial designs for the commons;
  • Digital commons, open source publishing, intellectual property rights;
  • Biopolitics, new governmentalities of enclosure.

Participants will be given 15 minutes to present, followed by questions and discussion from the audience led by a panel of leading academics from the School of Environment and Development at the University of Manchester. Confirmed so far are Prof. Maria Kaika, Prof. Erik Swyngedouw, and Prof. Diana Mitlin. The focus of the workshop is on providing the space for interdisciplinary debate and engagement with the issues as well feedback for particular presentations.

If you would like to present, please send a title and abstract of 200 words to Matthew Thompson ( by Friday 31st May 2013.

The event is hosted by Open Space:

And sponsored by Cities@manchester:

Agamben, G. (1993). The Coming Community (Theory Out of Bounds). University of Minnesota Press.

Hardt, M., & Negri, A. (2001). Empire. Harvard University Press.

Hardt, M., & Negri, A. (2004). Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. Penguin Press.

Harvey, D. (2003). The New Imperialism. Oxford University Press.

Harvey, D. (2012). Rebel Cities: from the right to the city to the urban revolution. Verso.

Jeffrey, A., McFarlane, C., & Vasudevan, A. (2011). Rethinking Enclosure: Space, Subjectivity and the Commons. Antipode, 00(00),

Linebaugh, P. (2009). The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All (p. 376). University of California Press.

Marchart, O. (2007). Post-Foundational Political Thought: Political Difference in Nancy, Lefort, Badiou and Laclau (Taking on the Political). Edinburgh University Press.

Nancy, J.-L. (1991). An Inoperative Community. University of Minnesota Press.

Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions). Cambridge University Press.

Swyngedouw, E. (2011). Interrogating post-democratization: Reclaiming egalitarian political spaces. Political Geography, 30(7), 370–380.

Žižek, S. (2009). First as Tragedy, then as Farce. Verso.

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