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hat we call “the commons” is the practice of collectively governing the resources necessary for life. The individuals involved in commons governance may have different ideas and even different politics; in the diverse urban context, these differences may ring out more sharply, but difference exists even in seemingly homogenous “traditional” communities. The commons is, therefore, largely made up of a long series of arguments about how to govern. When the commons works, it’s because the arguing is grounded in love — or at least in some sort of mutual sense that we are all in this together, and there is no escape, so we better do the best we can by each other. It seems to be in this spirit that these eight thinkers have written their responses to my book, Carving out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, D.C. And for that I am grateful. Here, I try to tease out just a few of the points these thoughtful writers have made, and think about how this work — the collective work of documenting, theorizing, and enacting the commons — could be extended.
All of these respondents have ideas that could take the book in new directions. Yvonne Yen Liu, for instance, who writes of commoning struggles in California, emphasizes the importance of recognizing the “half-life” of commoning — that seeming failures can inform future struggles. As she writes, both sociologist Jessica Gordon Nembhard and organizer Harvey Dong emphasize that experiences with cooperatives can help people see that there are different ways of organizing life. While I wrote about the failure of the commons in my book, I did not follow erstwhile commoners to see what they did next, and how their experiences with failure may have informed the next stages of their lives. This would have been an important project to pursue. Following these seeming “failures” more closely may have been one way to address Nate Gabriel’s thoughtful critique: that I did not do enough in the book to deconstruct what is glossed as “capitalism.” As he puts it, capitalism in my book becomes the taken-for-granted background on which the struggle for housing is waged. Nate’s right: though I am consistently intrigued by the diverse economies approach to understanding the world, and I’ve found much of this work, particularly the work of J.K.Gibson-Graham, to be incredibly compelling, I continue to struggle with the how to take apart capitalism theoretically, especially in the face of the brutal realities of the capitalist real estate markets I see operating in D.C. and in cities around the world. This is something I look forward to continuing to wrestle with. Ultimately I side-stepped the question of theorizing capitalism differently in the book, because I was more interested in focusing on the lives and work of the co-ops and their members. But much more could be done to investigate the relationship between the practices of capitalism and of commoning. Perhaps focusing on the half-life of commoning, the ways failures and success radiate out into other practices, could be one way to get at this.
I was particularly grateful to see how Heather McLean and Dominic Moulden read the book, as they both seemed to think it would be useful for the research and organizing projects in which they are currently involved, in Glasgow, East London, Baltimore, and D.C. I appreciate how Heather highlights the sometimes contradictory spaces of the commons, as in the example of the KPC Social Centre, as I think it’s important to get away from some idea of “purity” in the commons, and to recognize that commons are — for now! — inevitably bound up in capitalist relations. And I’m so glad Heather raises the critical question of how settler colonialism interacts with the commons. This is not a question I addressed at all in the book, and it’s ripe for discussion. And while I’m gratified Heather found my feminist analysis useful, I still think there is a lot more to be done in terms of developing a feminist theory of the commons. For instance, I could have done more to take up the feminist literature on “care work” to theorize what I saw taking place in D.C.’s housing co-ops. Or I could have used Karen Brodkin Sacks’ concept of “centerwomen” in my work: Sacks studied black women’s relationships with another in their organizing work, and theorized the most socially connected of these women, who held together networks, as “centerwomen.” I could have used this concept in my work. This, in fact, is Dominic’s critique of the book: he thinks I don’t do enough to theorize the commons from a feminist perspective. I agree, and I’m really curious to see how other scholars continue to develop a feminist theory of the commons.
This book clearly also could have been written as a black feminist text. In some ways the subject matter is crying out for a black feminist analysis. Heather suggests this, and Lisa Bates really digs into it. As Lisa points out in her thoughtful and generous critique, the theory of the commons is to large degree a white theory — and Whiteness, she argues, is the very antithesis of the commons. So why choose the framework of the commons to theorize these (mostly black, mostly female) experiences? I heard this argument more than once in the public talks at universities and bookstores I did across the country over the spring of 2018, where other activists and scholars were invited to discuss the book with me. Chaun Webster made a version of this argument at the talk in Minneapolis, and Matt Hern and Anthonia Ogundele both raised the issue, in somewhat different ways, at the talk in Vancouver. These are critical questions: why not use a black feminist framework instead of the commons framework — a theory that has (mostly) been developed in Whiteness? I thought about this quite a bit while writing the book. Ultimately, I used the theoretical framework of the commons because a) the theory seemed to describe very well what I saw in the work of claiming and maintaining mostly decommodified, collectively governed housing in the midst of a capitalist city, and b) because I wanted to push back against the way the commons seemed to be thought of as a “white” thing. Though thousands of historical and contemporary case studies document commoning efforts all over the world, the commons are most famously — at least for critical scholars — associated with historical England, and with the writings of first Marx, then Thompson, and now Linebaugh. Even though the most famous scholars of the commons, as well as the most famously studied commoners, have been white, the commons is — I believe — too rich of a concept to be relegated to Whiteness generally, or historical England specifically. I wanted to try it in an urban, contemporary, western, mostly non-white context.
Now, what I could have done would have been to come up with a black feminist theory of the commons. I spent some time attempting this. But ultimately I decided against it: I already had too much going on in the book in terms of trying to theorize the urban commons, and I wanted to maintain a certain simplicity and clarity of theoretical throughline. I realized, finally, that the book did not need to do everything. As Lisa also points out, the book is clearly and accessibly written, and that’s something I worked hard to do. In the end, I’d like to see this book as provoking someone else to theorize the black feminist commons. Of course, many people are already working along these lines. Lisa, for instance, references Shana M. griffin, whose analysis of displacement, land, housing, cities, and blackness I find both trenchant and creative. Among many other things, Shana is the co-founder of Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, the first community land trust in New Orleans, which co-hosted my book talk in New Orleans, at which Shana and I discussed cooperatives and commons, and how they applied in the context of New Orleans housing struggles. Theorizing the black feminist commons is a critical task for this moment, and a book on the subject would I think be of keen interest to people around the world. I hope my book can help inspire such a work.
Stephen Healy adds a number of compelling thoughts, including a discussion of Giorgio Agamben’s work on the monastery as a commons. I’m quite interested in the relationship between the commons and spiritual community, so I find Agamben’s work intriguing here. Based on what I witnessed in my research and my own experience participating in the commons, I’m convinced that the ability to participate in the commons is greatly aided by an approach to collective work that is grounded in traditions of contemplation — be they prayer, mediation, music, or some other way of grounding the activities of life in a deeper, collective, perhaps even spiritual experience. Relatedly, I’m fascinated by the dialectic of “inner” and “outer” experiences — of how our internal worlds relate to the external struggles in which we engage. One of my colleagues at the University of the District of Columbia, Michelle Chatman, is currently leading a major research project studying the effects of incorporating contemplative practices into a restorative justice program at a public high school in one of our city’s poorest neighborhoods. Those of us interested in commoning could, I think, learn a tremendous amount from the work Michelle is doing, in terms of thinking about using contemplative practices to create environments in which people — even teenagers — can collectively make difficult decisions about how to live together.
Finally, James Tracy really brings it home for me when he writes about what is ultimately the banality of the commons. The commons is about spirited argument, but it’s also about doing boring paperwork, and filling out all the necessary forms. There is a bureaucracy to keeping a thing alive over the long term. And it’s slow-going: I appreciated James’ wish that I had spent more time grappling with the very slow pace of forging urban commons vis a vis the hyper speed of capitalist real estate development. There can be romance and excitement in commoning, yes: as Heather and James both point out, there can be real joy in collective work. But how do we maintain this work, in the midst of the pressures of the individualizing capitalist environment — be that in the form of real estate, or a system of academic rating that values single-authored articles over collectively-written pieces, as Heather points out? This was in part why I so appreciated Camila D’Ottaviano’s piece, which she begins and ends beautifully, with lines of literature. Art, as Heather also clearly believes, can help carry us through. Camila, who applies the ideas in my book to struggles for housing in Brazil, also notes that she and I both teach in universities with similar mandates: public schools in which we must, as she writes, “think, teach and work beyond our universities’ walls, in the city, with its inhabitants.” I understand this as a call for us to engage in practicing commoning in the context of the university — which can also include the city outside the university. Indeed, this is something Dominic and I have discussed at length. How do we use the city’s public university as a place to teach and learn commoning? It’s something we have to do together, erasing borders between “professor” and “student.” The Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, and the U.S. black freedom organizer Ella Jo Baker, have a lot to teach us here, about how we can work together to learn to work together to create new ways of being together in the world, and become more free. Because ultimately, we work for the commons because they can be the ground of freedom.