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I reviewed Amanda Huron’s book Carving Out the Commons at just the right time. I have just spent a year engaged in participatory action research with three artist-run organisations that support marginalised communities in disinvested Glasgow and East London neighbourhoods. An intersectional feminist project, my research investigates how arts-based community organisations are negotiating cut back public funding, the raced, classed and gendered politics of gentrification, and cultural policies encouraging artists to forge entrepreneurial, public-private-third sector partnerships, as well as create work that fits with restrictive evaluation criteria. I am also exploring the potentials and pitfalls of collectivist spaces of commoning that emerge within these neoliberal enclosures, especially projects that support feminist, queer, trans, and decolonial artists and activists in a time when post-Brexit xenophobia is amplifying racist and colonial politics in the UK.
Huron’s research of commoning practices in Washington D.C provides nuanced feminist analysis that I can draw from in my work. As Curran (2018), Parker (2017) and Isoke (2014) and other queer and feminist researchers point out, critical analyses of urban politics and activism informed by political economy approaches often sideline any engagement with difference. However, Huron addresses this erasure by engaging in intersectional feminist research into the gendered and raced politics of cooperative housing. For instance, in chapter one, “What is the Commons?” she draws from Sylvia Federici’s feminist critique of activists’ commoning efforts that can sometime invisibilize gendered labour. Echoing Federici, Huron asserts that any call to “reclaim the commons” should also be a call to create new gender politics, not reproduce the same hegemonic hierarchies. Huron also engages Gibson-Graham’s hopeful and reparative feminist diverse economies approach that unsettles capitalocentrism or masculinist understandings of neoliberal capitalism as all-consuming, ever-present, and coherent. Approaching housing co-ops as multiple, heterogenous and offering possibilities within constraining contexts, Huron investigates the contradictions, tensions and possibilities of working with state and not-for-profit organisations to make projects happen. To do this, she carefully documents examples where assemblages of housing officials, planners, policy makers, and cooperative members have worked collectively to build affordable housing. These accounts shine a light on where such projects have come across bureaucratic and financial roadblocks and, in some cases, failed. But she also provides examples that offer glimmers of hope for residents forging collaborations to facilitate commoning in increasingly expensive and privatized cities.
For my work, Huron’s feminist analysis of commoning provides a lens to make sense of the diverse and contradictory politics shaping the community organisations that I am currently investigating. For instance, once a week I work with volunteers and staff at Kinning Park Complex or KPC, a Glasgow-based community-run social centre that provides important recreation space for low income seniors, refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, as well queer and feminist community organising in Glasgow. In order to generate operating funding, KPC rents studio spaces to artists, as well as halls for dance classes, film screenings and arts events. It also receives grants from public sector neighbourhood regeneration initiatives. One could argue that KPC isn’t exactly a radical site of commoning because, in some ways, it follows an arts-led, or “creative city” model of renting arts studios to generate revenue. It also receives grants from mainstream public granting bodies. However, KPC staff constantly re-direct funding to offer pay-what-you-can community meals for isolated seniors and low-income residents from throughout Glasgow three times a week. KPC also provides affordable meeting space for a diverse range of migrant justice, anti-racist and anti-sectarian groups and activist groups that rent the affordable halls to screen films, hold workshops, and host dance parties. In the space I have watched independently made documentaries about women freedom fighters in Kobane, danced to Algerian music in a North African Women’s Day community meal, and attended Repeal the Eight organising meetings to fight for women’s reproductive health in Ireland. Overall, KPC is a contradictory social centre where activists and community organisers find ways to practice commoning, carving out spaces of play, politics and imagination in world pressured by market-oriented values, loneliness, competition and precarious work.
Importantly, Carving Out the Commons also brings feminist criticality to commoning research by broadening what counts as activism. Huron critiques the romanticism of some strands of research on commoning that celebrate these practices as radical activist interventions, not everyday community efforts to provide recreation and activities for seniors, families and single workers struggling to survive in a time of precarious work and cut back social safety nets. Her detailed empirical accounts also uncover the diverse mix of activist strategies existing in autonomous and community-driven cooperative projects. Many of these activities are not heroic, masculinist forms of activism in public spaces or the radical occupy-type projects that attract attention. Rather, many of these interventions are humble activities: people collectively creating and maintaining social spaces in their co-ops; board members establishing curfews so that working people can sleep restfully; and residents advocating for broader affordable housing policies that support low income families, aging residents, single parents, and single people who want to feel connected to a larger community. Because of these practices, cooperative residents report less stress and a sense of connection to their communities.
Huron’s analysis of these diverse activist practices prompts me to consider the wealth of activities that sustain commoning at KPC. Some volunteers take on leadership roles on steering committees. Others regularly volunteer in the Complex’s Social Sunday gatherings where moms and kids attend upcycling and arts projects. Meanwhile, a diverse mix of residents, activists and artists support migrants and refugees caught in the limbo of the violent and exclusionary UK asylum seeking process by organising rallies at detention centres and writing letters to the Home Office.
As Huron continues her research on commoning, I look forward to reading more of her thoughts about the racialized tensions and decolonial politics of efforts to claim collective space in cities and institutions with violent histories of settler colonialism. Reflecting on the migrant justice activism I have engaged in as part of my research, I question the limits and decolonial possibilities of commoning spaces in Glasgow, a city just recently coming to terms with its complicity in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I also think about the need for ongoing critical and reflexive research on the fraught race and class politics that emerge in strategies to create collective spaces. Furthermore, as I am pressured to compete with my colleagues with 4-star research papers about commoning in the metric-oriented and corporatized UK university system, my brain keeps getting stuck in tangle of cognitive dissonance. However, Huron’s call for ongoing research, collective study and practice on this topic is a flicker of hope. The practical, pragmatic and hopeful tactics she provides throughout the book encourage prefigurative politics, strategies for getting on with and making new worlds in the always-fraught, but always presenting possibilities here and now.