Commons, solidarity and emerging (infra)structures. A dialogue between Christos Giovanopoulos and Alexandros Kioupkiolis

Christos Giovanopoulos

Christos Giovanopoulos is a PhD candidate on Social & Cultural Anthropology at VU Amsterdam and researcher of the Infra-Demos project. His main focus is the relationship between solidarity (as concept and practice) and infra-structure. He is researching the participatory modes of infra-structure that occurred in Greece in the last decade. He has been a long-time grassroots solidarity activist, a founding member of Komvos (Hub) for Social Economy, Empowerment and Innovation, of the Commons’ Alliance and a key member of the People’s Assembly and the Communication team of the occupied Syntagma square (summer 2011). He holds an MA in Film & Cultural studies and he has taught Media and Critical Theory in the University of Westminster, London. He has several publications and articles on the grassroots movements, solidarity economies and the commons, novel forms of social organization and self-management in Greece. His books include “Democracy Under Construction: from the streets to the squares” (2011, A/synechia) and “Loaded Cameras: Cinema and 1968” (2008, A/synechia).

Alexandros Kioupkiolis

Alexandros Kioupkiolis is Associate Professor of Contemporary Political Theory at Aristotle University, Thessaloniki, Greece. He has studied Classics (BA, University of Athens), and Contemporary Political Theory (MA, Essex University, DPhil, Oxford University). His research focuses on radical democracy, the commons, social movements, and the philosophy of freedom. He has directed an ERC COG project on these topics (Heteropolitics, 2017-2020) and has published numerous books and papers, including the monograph Freedom after the critique of foundations (Palgrave Macmillan 2012), and the co-edited collective volumes Radical democracy and collective movements today (Ashgate 2014, with G. Katsambekis). Recent publications include the papers “Commoning the Political, Politicizing the Common” (Contemporary Political Theory 17.3. 2018), “Movements post-hegemony: how contemporary collective action transforms hegemonic politics” (Social Movement Studies, 17.1. 2018), the co-edited volume The Populist Radical Left in Europe (Routledge 2019, with G. Katsambekis), and the monograph Τhe Common and Counter-hegemonic Politics (Edinburgh University Press 2019).

“Exclusion from hospital kills” – Solidarity medical clinic

Gigi Argyropoulou: Perhaps we can start by asking you both to share thoughts and reflections about the multiple practices of commoning, self-organization and solidarity that emerged in the last decade mainly in South Europe. What do you think these practices constituted? what new ecologies did they create? and what mutations of such practices you think we might experience today?

Alexandros Kioupkiolis: In different, yet interconnected ways, the commons became a hinge point of critical discourse, democratic activism, contestation and self-organization in both Italy and Spain under the circumstances of system crisis instigated by the 2008-9 financial crisis. In Spain, the key event of massive mobilization and struggle against neoliberal austerity and hollowed-out democracy was, of course, the 15-M movement (known internationally also as “Indignados”) which erupted in May 2011, spread across Spain and had a strong popular resonance. The signal encampments of the movement were lifted in June 2011, but the movement crafted a new political culture. This inspired and infused a diverse ecology of particular mobilizations against evictions, privatizations etc., schemes of self-organization, including initiatives in the solidarity economy, and institutional interventions which ushered ultimate in the municipalist platforms and movements of 2015-2019.

The discourse and the practices of the commons, which were indeed diffused through all this plural civic engagement, must be situated in this context of the 15-M political culture. The core components of the 15-M political DNA consist in assembly-based decision-making, techno-political digital facilitation and networking, solidarity, diversity, openness and inclusivity beyond traditional ideological and party-political divides, pragmatism, a politics of care for others and the environment, and a feminist orientation. Movements and activities bearing the 15-M imprint tended to treat both material and immaterial goods, from digital infrastructure to health, care, enterprises and education, as collective goods which should be managed collectively for the common benefit.

But first and foremost, they set out to “common” political decision-making, government and action, establishing assemblies, ‘working groups’ and networks through which “ordinary people” could directly take part in political deliberation and activity. The municipalist “confluences,” exemplified by Barcelona en Comu platform in Barcelona, which contested local elections in 2015 and has been governing (in minority) the city since then, shaped this pro-commons activism into an institutional project which would feed off participatory democracy and grassroots activity to promote the commons at the city level. Today, more than five years after the eruption of the new municipalist politics, the record is mixed. Despite considerable political and institutional achievements in support of urban commoning and democratic empowerment of the people, the movement has largely subsided. Civic engagement and political participation in city government has decreased over time, while the constraints and hurdles of institutional politics absorbed the energies of activists involved in it.

The expansion of the commons or “bene commune” in Italy in recent years, in an attempt to renew democracy and foster the common use of collective goods in art, urban space, the economy, and so on, followed a different path with two branches, an institutionally-driven and a grassroots-driven one. Both strands relied on the creative use or the “hacking” of law to enact commons-enabling city regulations, advanced by a unique coalescence of city administrations, lawyers supporting the commons, activists and ordinary citizens. The “Bologna Model” of urban commons is anchored in a municipal regulation and the institutional direction of diverse processes through which citizens take care of urban resources. The “Neapolitan Way” is grounded in an alliance between social movements and the mayor and relies on the customary law of “civic use.” Here, urban movements and civic initiatives have assumed a leading role through collaboration and struggle with the municipality, avoiding a direct involvement in city administration. The “Bologna Model” has been endorsed by more than 200 Italian cities since 2014 and has instigated a diverse and extensive civic engagement with urban commons. The “Neapolitan Way” has led the creation of an activist network in Naples, nationally and internationally, fostering a bottom-up path to urban commoning.

Christos Giovanopoulos: The acuteness of the economic and political crisis in Greece throughout the last decade determined in great respect the occurred social responses and ecologies. The political stakes were extremely high and pressing, overshadowing other radical formative processes indeed. However, or rather because of that, the social, the economic and the political, the institutional and the grassroots, the resistive and the prefigurative elements were overlapping, at least between 2008-2015. Hence they created a once-in-a-generation chance for social change from below. In this context, processes of commoning appeared predominantly within the practices of self-organized solidarity. The latter has been the main grassroots’ experience and initiator of emergent subjectivities, sociality, political culture, and cooperative economies.

We can discern three and a half waves of grassroots movements since 2008 in Greece with transformative potential in multiple fields and scales. The first one can be seen following the December 2008 revolt and its empowering aftermaths for the social movements (rank and file syndicalism, neighborhood committees, social centers). The second one is connected to the squares’ occupation movement (2011) and the ensuing explosion of self-organized solidarity structures (in health, food, education, housing, legal help) and worker’s cooperatives (2012-2015). The third one, an extension of the second, concerns the grassroots refugee solidarity movement (2015-2016). The latest wave – short lived and hence only “half” a wave – consists of the mutual help networks during the first lockdown in spring 2020.

These consecutive waves share practices of self-organization and horizontalism, participatory forms of decision making, embeddedness in their localities and networked cooperation in various scales, from the local to the cross-national and also between fields of activity. However, as they unfolded in different moments of socio-political contestation, they reflect distinct stages of subject formation, political discourses, imaginings and practices of commoning.

The first wave consolidated relations, spaces and a vocabulary of radical practices among a growing number of activists, both older and mainly younger ones. While it set the examples for the next waves, its practices and expectations bear a strong ideological drive, which in many cases formed a barrier regarding the engagement of wider, non-politicized publics. Yet, when the boiling popular discontent flooded the Greek squares, a great number of people met and cross-fertilized with such practices.

The squares’ camps and people’s assemblies were among others a crash-course in grassroots democracy and self-organization. They provided the paradigm, experience and imagination that molded the unleashed social energies into concrete examples of social solidarity and cooperative schemes. Former practices were adjusted to the demands of countering the effects of the crisis and for consolidating the struggle against the political system and the Troika regime of supervision. This initial “interpretative act” was constitutive of the next, wider wave of self-managed social spaces, solidarity structures and economies. Embedded in everyday relations and habitats this movement exhibited transversal properties. In the midst of an economic crisis that turned into a political one, this grassroots activity was based on social needs, openness, caring and equality combining both protest and example-building. It re-negotiated thus former ideological and political affinities, while it weaved a new social fabric and a participatory and affective political culture.

A rough sketch of the network structure of the Syntagma Square Occupation, Athens Greece 2011, by Chr. Giovanopoulos: People’s Assembly, Working & Deliberation Groups, Days of deliberation, Days of action (among others).

Regarding grassroots solidarity each of the local (infra-)structures operates as a hub of diverse activities (on food, health, education, refuge, right to the city, etc.) and is part of wider networks based on spatial and sectoral commonalities. A solidarity school for example may also run a food-bank, an ongoing refugee solidarity campaign and host cultural activities. At the same time it may be part of the Solidarity Schools’ Network, and of a regional network of solidarity structures and other citizens-led local groups or self-organized spaces, and may be in constant collaborations with collectives from outside Greece. These social solidarity structures -and practices- manifest both intersectional and cross-scalar features, elements that grew further with the refugee solidarity movement. In the latter, refugee, migrant and local communities, as well as local and international activists mingled in informal and formal settings interweaving the multiple chronotopes that compose the relationalities and urban ecologies (Massey, 2005) of neoliberal globalisation.

The most essential lesson is that of solidarity and struggle

While technologically low-fi (often digitally illiterate) such people’s endeavors assimilate features of the ‘networked society’ (Castells, 2000 & 2012). They manifest on the physical space organizational logics typical of the internet: e.g. the networked and decentralized structures of both internal organization (working groups, assembly-decision making etc.) and co-operation with diverse groups, which occurs in various spatial scales and in the model of open cooperativism (Commons Transition, 2017). Such post-digital features occupied central position in the practices of mutual aid networks during the pandemic. Digital tools and global know-how were marred with the intimate relations of the vicinity and locally available skills, resources and connections. In this way those networks operated in the sphere of social reproduction by providing support through mutual-aid groups while they attempted a (3D, or, manual) cooperative production of protective gear e.g. for public hospitals.

Gigi Argyropoulou: Do you see them as processes of social improvisation that in a sense meant to remain incomplete? In what ways did they effect politics and existing sedimented practices?

Christos Giovanopoulos: It has been ten years since the last round of popular upheavals, the Arab spring, indignant squares, Occupy Wall Street and what followed, that fostered new ecologies from below. The prolonged character of the systemic crisis and the “Great Reset” (Schwab Kl. & Malleret Th. 2020) of neoliberal globalization belies any viewing of such ecologies as ephemeral. The discrepancies between the political, economic and social levels of power, of order and norm, continue to be active and explosive – albeit on different terms than ten years ago. To quote Lefebvre (1996:156), “the voids (created by the concurrent crises of capitalist relations, which the emergent ecologies address) are not there due to chance. They are the places of the possible. They contain the floating and dispersed elements of the possible, but not the power which could assemble them” (emphasis by C.G.). One critical question is whether the collective and grassroots practices and structures that form those new ecologies are able to consolidate such assembling power. In other words, if these practices contain features that might allow them to materialize, –metaphorically and actually – their transformative potential in a hegemonic and normative way, and not just remain “alternatives” in an unequal and unjust world.

Yet, beyond the prospect of consolidation and representation, there are different approaches to “incompleteness”, “ephemerality” and political “efficacy” of the emergent ecologies. Because these new ecologies are entangled and implicated in the production of new post-digital and post-global spatio-temporal regimes. They exemplify the fluidity of such novel conditions but they also engage with the physicality and concreteness of the social issues, relations and spaces created by them. To understand their politics and influence we must focus on the practices and relations they enable, rather than their representation on the institutional level of power. However, we should not ignore the impediments the latter raises on the prospect of social transformation. Nevertheless, such ecologies must be conceived – to paraphrase Massey on space this time – “as the sphere of relations, of conteporaneous multiplicity, and as always under construction” (2005:148). They share with space also “this essential character of itself as constantly becoming” (ibid.:77). Their incompleteness instead of marking the ephemerality of social improvisation, suggests a different kind of being (active). A different kind of open and participatory political culture that may indeed lack, so far, its institutional counterpart structures.

A post-capitalist view on the creative and prefigurative agencies of those grassroots ecologies should thus locate their constitutive potential in their integrative properties; on if and how they revitalize society’s capacities to re-assemble its multiple relationalities, fields and dynamics, and to mobilize its resources – in a meaningful, just, convivial and sustainable way. And at the same time how this process consolidates new – more equitable – forms and institutions, of political power. In other words, if they can perform an infrastructural function affirmative to the coevalness of the multiple historical chronotopes embodied in our personal, collective, material and technological habitats without reproducing – and hopefully by undermining – the dominant power relations and structures.

Concerning Greece, the aforementioned movements through their practices set aside certain ‘preconditions’ of/for collective action. Preconditions, that were based on an ideological critique of the dominant models in various fields and which had been formative of previous examples of building (or rather seeking) alternatives. For example, the solidarity clinics, in the context of crisis, offered for free quite conventional medical services. What was socially and politically critical, was to defend the right of access to the access to the public health-care system, instead of developing “alternative” medical practices. However, the self-managed structures of the solidarity clinics provided a frame through which tensions, shortcomings and importantly power relations within the dominant medical practice came to fore and was renegotiated. Hence, more holistic and social-centred approaches to health-care (critical of the dominant model) surfaced through the concreteness of praxis. As an activist of a solidarity clinic put it, “we focus on the patient (as social being) and not on the disease”. Furthermore, the collective management of solidarity clinics questioned the doctor-centered system and organization of health-care. While the medic’s specialist role was not disputed, it became evident that a communal health-care structure could be run equally by non-health-specialists. This increased the leverage for a social-centered approach to health care systems and infrastructure.

Removing ‘ideological’ preconceptions of what constitutes a radical praxis permitted thus the ‘uninitiated’ to politics to participate. By doing so hushed and overlooked knowledge, resources, subjects (e.g. without cultural capital or political experience) and social networks (e.g. professional, extended families) were engaged and activated in creative forms of resistance and solidarity building. Solidarity became a transformative act that combines the concreteness of the situation (need) with a utopia of post-capitalist imagining (vision) – even when it was not perceived as such. Thus such grassroots initiatives facilitated, and were the result of, a praxis of genuine social innovation that enlarged further their prefigurative potential.

Moreover, the networks among various people-run structures weaved a loose but multifarious fabric of a dynamic ecosystem: spanning from organizing protests and tangible solidarity to the fostering of new everydayness, habitats and economic practices. They functioned thus as (infra-)structure that both enabled participation in politics and, critically, transformed the notion and practice of the political itself. Their main infrastructural operation has been the interweaving of broken social bonds, political subjectivities and solidarity economies, together. In contrast to the separation of various fields of human action and life on which bourgeois (state and) capitalism is constituted, such integrative function constitutes their more radical aspect.

Mapping of self-organised solidarity structures and cooperatives in Athens, 2014.
(squares: food solidarity, circles: health-care solidarity, triangles: workers’ cooperatives)

And it occurred in many scales. Individual needs were addressed through collective efforts and community building. The everyday struggles merged with the political contestation for power, and the private sphere with the public one. Thus this ecosystem created conditions to overcome the dichotomy between grassroots social movements and (institutionalized) struggles for political power, as well as the one between protests/resistance and building prefigurative examples of socialized institutions – or extitutions (Spicer, 2010). By focusing on care, inclusivity and equal participation the people-run structures rebuilt social relations, expanded (and deepened) the exercise of democracy beyond the terrain of political representation, and unearthed and facilitated the operation of what Gibson-Graham (2008) call “diverse (non-market) economies”. Hence, the emergent solidarity and cooperative networks outlined a grassroots public sphere where the social, the political and the economic are reintegrated and co-constituted in novel ways.

Those networks nurture affinities beyond the traditional frames of belonging like family, nationhood, religion etc. (Cabot, 2016). They express a coevalness in par with the cosmo-local dimensionality of current urban ecologies and hence they manifest accommodating and anti-essentialist properties typical of the radical democracy, agonistic politics and political community Mouffe (2005) maintains. Similarly, the networked and open-source form of politics they employ integrates the physical and the digital spaces and tools they use. As (infra-)structures they expose phygital qualities that embody (and materialize) the socialized aspects (and transformative potential thereof) of the spatio-temporal landscapes of the digital age. In that manner the entailed grassroots ecologies, albeit oppositional to capital relations, partake in the reconfiguration of the wider dominant modalities of power(-relations), culture, identities and institutions.

Therefore we should rather view the emergent ecologies as processes of ongoing integration and infrastructuring that correspond to and represent a changing sense of time and space, than as an ‘end product’. The grassroots structures that compose them have shown an adaptability and capacity to re-articulate and re-form their practices according to imminent social needs and capacities alike. In an open feedback process they build upon previous experiences and knowledge, both locally and globally gained. In that sense they perform an act of (social and participatory) open design, able to incorporate inputs from multiple sources and origins in the same shared code (of solidarity, horizontalism, cooperation etc.). Such operation makes the resulting ecologies consistent with the “forever incomplete and in production” notion of space (Massey, 2005:100); and makes their dynamic and malleable character one of their most important transformative properties. It is what allows their inclusive and heterogenic form, or, in Massey’s words “the openended interweaving of a multiplicity of trajectories (themselves thereby in transformation)” (ibid.). Hence, their incompleteness is what enables a pre-figurative engagement with politics and what makes them “in the end so unamenable to a single totalizing project” (ibid.).

This setting seems to put the occurring ecologies in a constant condition of emergency and hence ephemerality. Yet, such view indicates the tensions and anxieties of transition from one spatio-temporal regime to another. It feels like our imagination and emotions are still bound and restrained to the morphology of time and space of industrial Modernity -its social contract, institutions and urbanism. Lefebvre, writing in another moment of social turmoil (the 1960s) has been more audacious when he wondered “Why not oppose ephemeral cities to the eternal city, and movable centrality to stable centres?”; and he suggested that “the forms of space and time (and hence the notions of ephemerality and incompleteness) will be invented and proposed to praxis” (Lefebvre, 1996:155).

The structures and networks that comprise the emergent ecologies perform exactly that. An integrative and infrastructural function that corresponds to more dynamic relations and forms of belonging, as those defined by the multiple spatio-temporalities of our cosmo-local and phygital environs. Even if they fall short (yet?) in consolidating the political power that will allow them to exercise their normative effect, those people’s structures enable “urban life (to) recover and strengthen its capacities of integration and participation of the city” (Lefebvre, 1996:146) and of democracy, I must add. Thus, we rather understand them as ecologies of becoming, in search of their own mode of openended institutions and infrastructures. As a grassroots ecosystem that exercises its “right to infrastructure”(Corsín Jimenez, 2014) the social and material forms of a more just, egalitarian and democratic world.

Alexandros Kioupkiolis: In Spain and Italy, recent commoning movements have charted new paths in the politics of democratic transformation and egalitarian self-direction from below. These are, indeed, bound to remain incomplete as fleeting or ongoing innovations. Significantly, however, they have consciously incorporated a sense of their incompleteness and constitutive imperfection insofar as they envisage social change as open-ended and they foreground the importance of ongoing self-reflection on the practices, the orientation and the progress of their interventions. At the same time, however, they are intent on building infrastructures of a commons-based society in their specific field of engagement and more broadly. Crucially, they have embarked on a process of constructing the infrastructure of another counter-hegemonic politics which pursues large-scale and extensive social transformation through sustained struggle with ruling elites and new social creation. This new counter-hegemonic agency can be as effective and transformative as the Gramscian strategy of hegemony, but it is informed by the radical egalitarian and pluralist spirit of emancipatory commons.

Unity, the formation of a collective identity, the concentration of force, and leadership make up the backbone of hegemonic politics (Gramsci 1971: 152-3, 181-2, 418). Likewise, in 2011, the Spanish 15 M (or ‘Indignados’) converged around common ends, practices and signifiers (such as ‘the 99%’ and ‘the people’). They centralized the co-ordination of action in certain ‘hubs’ (such as Puerta del Sol in Madrid). They sought to reach out to broader sectors of the population affected by neoliberal governance, and they strove to initiate processes of deeper democratic transformation. They voiced aspirations to deep socio-political change (‘real democracy’), and they confronted dominant structures of power with vast collections of human bodies and networks.

These civic politics combined ‘hegemony’ with horizontalism, that is, non-hierarchical grassroots power-with. The ‘square movements’ of 2011 took aim at the institutionalized separation of political leaders from the people and the sovereign rule of representatives. They set out, instead, to open up the political representation and leadership to ordinary citizens. The very choice of public squares and streets to set up popular assemblies highlights the will to publicity, transparency and free accessibility of political power to all (Nez 2012). Moreover, to preclude the monopolization of authority by any individual or group, the assemblies in 2011-2012 enforced binding mandates and alternation in the functions of spokespersons, moderators and special working-groups. Institutional devices such as lot, rotation, limited tenure, increased accountability and the casual alternation of participants in collective assemblies work against the consolidation of lasting divides between rulers and ruled, experts and lay people.

Moreover, diversity and openness became themselves the principle of unity in collective mobilizations such as 15M. Open pluralism has been persistently pursued through a multiplicity of norms, practices and organizational choices. The construction of open spaces of convergence for collective deliberation and coordination stands out among them (Nez 2012). Openness and plurality are further nurtured by a certain political culture, which dismisses dogmatic ideologies and strict programmatic definitions in order to appeal to all citizens in their diversity (Harcourt 2011). This culture fosters tolerance, inclusion, critical respect for differences, civility, generosity, a relaxed atmosphere of debate, and an affective politics of care and love among diverse people who struggle in common despite their differences (Dixon 2014).

The network form, which is widespread among democratic action today, is also pivotal. Distributed networks enable a loose coordination among different groups and individuals which need not subordinate their distinct identities to an overarching collective identity or a hegemonic agent, yet they are nested in the same web of communication and they act in concert. New organizations, such as the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca [platform for those affected by mortgage] in Spain, illustrate how a more coherent organizing core can tie up with a loose group of diverse agents who participate in different degrees, constituting an open ‘network system’ that allows for plurality and resists strong centralization and fixed hierarchies (Nunes 2014; Tormey 2015).

Finally, pragmatism facilitates modes of convergence and common identity, which sustain diversity and openness. A heterogeneous assemblage of agents and practices can more easily cohere around practical objectives rather than around group identities and definite programs or ideologies. Acceptance of empirical ‘messiness’ and hybridity, a flexible approach oriented to concrete problem-solving, an open mind and a reluctance to take universal, dogmatic positions, compose a pragmatic outlook which can “depolarize” strategic choices, supporting broad pluralist assemblages in the interests of the many.

After 2011, components of the pro-commons movement in Spain embraced another key dimension of counter-hegemonic politics: engagement with ruling institutions with a view to transforming them in a radical democratic direction. It was precisely to gain leverage on the centers of political and financial power that several citizens’ initiatives and platforms were convened from 2014 onwards in Spain in order to gain a grip on institutional power at the city level. They all opted for hybrid schemes to both uphold grassroots activity and to attain centralized co-ordination, successful electoral politics and institutional intervention. By contesting municipal elections in 2015, they aspired to propel commoning and participatory self-governance in the city (see Barcelona en Comú 2016).

Lighting upon the fact that social change was effectively blocked by established institutions and the elites commanding them, a multitude of social movements and political actors in Barcelona, Madrid, Zaragoza, Valencia and several other cities in Spain that had taken the squares and the social networks in recent years, set out to “take back” the institutions. Their objective was to advance a new, participatory model of local government and to initiate redistributive and sustainable policies. Crucially, the proximity of local government to the citizens enables collective municipal platforms to take social change from the streets to state institutions. Although the autonomy of municipal authorities has been curtailed in the years of crisis, the institutions of city government remain the closest to citizens and their demands. At the same time, they maintain varying degrees of control over important common goods, from land to transport, housing, the health system, education, energy and water, which they have come under increasing pressure to privatize, commodify or subject to austerity cuts (Observatorio Metropolitano 2014: 106-109, 135-137). The city is, therefore, a central site of struggle around common goods.

The “confluencias” which were cobbled together in 2014-2015 were broad alliances of movements, parties and ordinary people, who would collaborate as individuals converging on common objectives beyond ideological differences, and they would foster open collective participation. They canvassed a city-wide platform of political interaction, in which citizens from all walks of life could join the process in open assemblies and could have a say in the selection of candidates and the drafting of a commons-centered political program. The new scheme of political organization was based on a network of different spaces of decision-making and participation, both online and offline, which were co-ordinated by a common group of elected members and an executive direction (Ciudades Sin Miedo 2018: 47-51, 71-75). The aspiration was that civic initiative and involvement would not be confined to the electoral campaign but would extend also to the implementation of policies on the municipal level.

In sum, the political strategy of this “democratic municipalism” consists in enhancing direct citizens’ participation in municipal government, where civic engagement can be most meaningful and effective, by supporting candidacies and city administrations which are directed by the grassroots. This intended also to be a project which will displace corrupt political elites, will reduce top-down rule from national or regional centers, will challenge neoliberal policies, will reclaim common goods and will fight domination along class, gender, ethnic and racial lines.

In its more radical version, the politics of contemporary municipalism purported to be fundamentally a politics of ongoing civic activity, which would generate new demands and projects, would partake in the design of policies, would monitor institutional practice, would demand full transparency in public management, and could even enter into confrontation with municipal governments. Furthermore, the municipalist approach seeks to “feminize politics” not only by enhancing the political parity of the genders but also by promoting the symmetrical distribution of power away from specific individuals and groups. Feminization involves, moreover, a politics of concern with everyday problems, which are addressed by ordinary, non-expert citizens in their neighborhood, and a politics of sharing responsibilities, human fragility and care for other people and the environment. Finally, the new municipalism seeks to forge a world-wide network of municipalist movements for local and global – “glocal” – change, and it aspires to set up federal structures in which power would emanate from grassroots self-government (Ciudades Sin Miedo 2018: 6-11, 33-37, 113-115; Observatorio Metropolitano 2014: 143-155).

 From the meeting Commons & Cities, Naples, November 2017. L’Asilo, Naples
Photo Credit: Christos Giovanopoulos

What marks off the Italian “road” to urban commoning is the mobilization of law as an instrument of counter-hegemonic politics that could give to commons-movements purchase on institutions without involving them directly in city administration in the manner of Spanish new municipalism.From a legal and institutional standpoint, we can differentiate among two distinct pathways and legal-political frames: a public law school, which frames facilitating city regulations for urban commons with a constitutional anchor (the Bologna regulation, the Labsus and Labgov lawyers), and a more “rebel” experiment with “civic use” pioneered by movements and social centers in the city of Naples (Ex Asilo Filangieri, Miccarielli et al.). All in all, this is a strategy for advanced commoning in the city context, which hinges on synergies between legal experts, institutions and civic action. In the case of the “Bologna model,” the initiative is taken from above, from the city government which enacts the rules for city-citizens partnerships around specific urban resources. In the Neapolitan version, movements and civic actors assert their independence and partly direct the process, setting their own terms for the “civic use” of urban goods in collaboration with the city administration.

Across the board, the political wager of legal experts who propound the commons is that they can trace legal ways through the constitution and positive law to attain legal recognition for grassroots projects and even to bring city governments to sponsor urban commons. They fall back on established, but practically inert, constitutional provisions such as the principle of “subsidiarity” (the collaboration of citizens and administration) in the Bologna/Labsus scheme. They reclaim and strive to “twist” legal traditions, such as “civic use,” to put them in the service of contemporary urban self-management (the “Neapolitan way”). All in all, this is an idea of counter-hegemonic action in-against-beyond: it unfolds from within the rules of the system but can also stand up against the status quo and clear ways beyond it, towards a new ecological, more democratic and socially fair order.

The more top-down regulatory frameworks are more secure. They have triggered a wave of pro-commons institutional policies across Italian cities, and they have prompted groups of citizens to try commoning, to concern themselves with urban democracy and to practice a caring, active citizenship. No doubt, they are more directive and less supportive of autonomous citizens’ self-government. They can become vehicles of institutional co-optation, control and legitimization of professional politicians. Yet they put in place an institutional setting that can afford to political collectives ampler political opportunities for disruptive, radical democracy and social outreach as long as civic actors self-mobilize, gather forces, stand on their feet, fashion their own projects and orientations, and venture into counter-hegemonic politics.

The “Neapolitan way,” charted mainly by Ex-Asilo Filiangieri, tilts the balance decisively towards the bottom-up self-organization and creativity of citizens, who also converge with institutions and mobilize legal tools. The focus of activity in sites like “Ex Asilo Filangieri,” a former convent in the historical center of Naples which is managed as a commons since 2014, is the self-construction of an innovative, alter-political body of artistic and political community, which incubates new subjectivities, new forms of social relations and another type of participatory politics. This style of common politics is exploratory, non-violent, horizontalist, assembly-ruled, open, plural, sharing, creative and collaborative. A fluid and experimental community designs its own legal instruments, renewing, among others, the customary legal principle of “civic use” of public resources by groups of citizens. It drafts its own regulation for the use of its space, which keeps it under public ownership and stewardship by the city government. They try to pave the way, thus, for a radical institutional reform whereby citizens assume the direct self-administration of state resources, services and institutions. The community of l’Asilo works with the municipality, but it sets its own terms and guides its self-regulation from within.

Their counter-hegemonic politics ‘upwards’ – towards state institutions through the medium of law, collective pressure and collaboration – is coupled with a horizontal opening towards like-minded movements, social centers and political process. L’Asilo “leads” by example and by prototyping self-legislated city regulations for the commons. It also welds networks within Naples and across the borders of the city and the nation to disseminate the new social creations, to propagate a common narrative and to rally together movements, commons and cities into a massive force for change.

Hence, democratic movements in recent years have reconstituted counter-hegemonic leadership to attune it with their transformative political practices and aspirations. Alternative modes of effective leadership have been cultivated through the assembly-form, distributed leadership, technopolitics, institutional devices and another, feminized ethos of “leading by obeying.” Such schemes have surfaced in multiple sites of action and intervention, from digital networks to municipalist politics, sketching out the rudiments of another counter-hegemonic strategy for expanding radical democracy and the commons. They are still far from attaining this goal, but contemporary endeavors to make headway in this direction should linger on their achievements and failures.

Gigi Argyropoulou: How do you see such practices – in all their diversity across different situations – affecting existing political horizons and current practices? What models of “instituting otherwise” do they offer today?

Alexandros Kioupkiolis: Three years later, the balance sheet of the transformative politics of “municipalismo” in Spain is mixed. After the new local elections in 2019, the “municipalist cycle” seems to have come to an end. In Barcelona, the landscape remains more open, dynamic and promising, with social movements lobbying directly the administration of Ada Colau while also nurturing autonomous activities throughout the city, which likewise exert political pressures.

Overall, however, a process of institutional adaptation and incorporation set in, blunting the original radicalism of municipalist programs. New bureaucracies and mediatic figures emerged, isolating the ‘new governments of change’ from the civic grassroots which could work as a counterweight to institutional domestication (FC 2018: 37-39). In all cities, the “municipalist bet” faced, in effect, several hurdles. First, local power still depends on the vertical power of the state, leaving little room for a real self-organization of the people. Second, the complexities of local administration and power relations were not analyzed in detail.

For the most radical democratic sectors of “municipalismo,” the main objective remained to revive the political culture of 15 M and to reconstruct municipal administration through plural and inclusive processes of popular self-government, which could open rifts in the dominant institutions. Two different approaches to municipalist politics have thus crystallized: one fostering practices of “counterpower” and “real democracy,” and another seeking mainly to better “manage” the local institutions.

The recent failures of the urban strategy in Spain can be traced back to the very structure of representative institutions, which enable elected representatives to exercise power independently of their bases, and to the absence of a real ‘municipalist movement’ with an autonomous organization. Lacking this, and powerful broader coalitions, institutions and existing party organizations are bound to absorb grassroots initiatives.In Italy, the cases of l’Asilo and Làbas in Bologna have adumbrated a distinct counter-hegemonic strategy. Grassroots actors initiate self-transformation across the city and seek to engage large sectors of society. At the same time, they strive to reshuffle the decks of power in the city by seizing political opportunities supplied by institutions and by trying legal “hacks” in order to make inroads in the “war of position” with the status quo. In this political enterprise, they activate their will for resistance and change in combination with their pragmatism, their tactical intelligence, their reflexivity and creativity, safeguarding their contentious, partial independence from state and market forces. The emergent “political hegemony” that they body forth is not a new party or a revolutionary vanguard. It is, rather, a network of horizontalist hubs of political initiative, articulation, coordination, moral and intellectual reform. This is another promising strategy of counter-hegemony, which wrangles with institutions and the status quo setting out firmly from its own agency in order to marshal grassroots power for the commons and for profound democratic-egalitarian transformation. But it places constitutionally more weight on its self-activation, its creativity and its bottom-up, distributed leadership. Time will show if this incipient strategy can evolve into a substantial, massive power that alters the course of history. But perhaps this configuration, along with new municipalism in Spain, carries the core seeds which can grow, through committed efforts, collective will, inventiveness, planning and reflexivity, into a contemporary strategy that commands a real ability to deliver sustained transformation for the common good(s)

Christos Giovanopoulos: In Greece, the tipping point for such practices and structures had been SYRIZA’s ‘kolotoumpa’ (U-turn) in the summer of 2015. In that moment the loose front between transformative grassroots practices and political resistance – up to the echelons of state power – to the dictates of Troika (EU-IMF-ECB) broke down. As said earlier, the emergent ecologies were integral to the wider struggle against austerity, the Troika regime of supervision and the Greek political system. Despite their autonomy from party politics those people-run structures and networks felt the results of SYRIZA’s capitulation in their morals and future political potential. The challenge of carrying out the political struggle out-weighed their capacities. Those networks –actually in infancy despite their spread – had not established a distinct political process of power consolidation. However, the very same period the rootedness, influence and paradigm of those practices became evident in the mushrooming of grassroots solidarity to refugees, throughout Greece in the “summer of migration”. And more recently, in the mutual-aid groups formed during the corona-lockdowns.

What’s more, lifting our gaze outside Greece (or South Europe), we see that such practices appeared around the world in a stunning synchronicity. I do not mean that the Greek example led the way, but that what occurred in Greece must be conceived of in the wider perspective of new practices and ecologies emerging everywhere, pressing for change up to the level of state-institutions. The ambivalence of such grassroots ecologies towards institutions and power underline the tensions between thinking “instituting” within the existing power structures and as a process of constituting different forms of (non-state) power. This applies to Greece as much as to Spain, although the in-against-beyond strategy Alexandros mentioned took in each case different formats. However, we have to consider another dimension, too: the outside. I believe that despite the magnitude of the social movements which created fissures in and changed the configuration of the political systems in both countries, indeed, the imbalance between the “outside” (counter-powers) and the “inside” (dominant power-structures), on the benefit of the latter, was critical for the outcome of such contestations.

Far from believing that the dilemma is “to take or not take the power” I believe that we must pay attention to consolidating extitutions of material power. No less as counter-leverage when one finds itself in power. By “extitutions of material power” I mean that concrete examples and expanded networks of prefigurative kinds of sociality, economy and politics are a. connected with the immediate –shared- interests (including visions, Gilbert, 2018) of large sectors of society and b. integrate in infra-structural (and hence institutional) forms on all levels (from the everyday to that of power) before “taking power”. On this basis, one can talk about exercising hegemony, which takes something more than alliance building. It is in this process that, despite the drawbacks and given the asymmetries between social, economic and political power, I see the importance, influence and potential articulated by the emergent ecologies in Greece. Despite their nascent character, they merge together the levels of social reproduction, solidarity economies and political participation. Therefore, the emphasis on their integrative and infrastructural capacities. Despite the fact that their capacity to spill over on the level of “instituting” has received a blow, they still constitute spaces (generative) of possibility.


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