The (market-) state of the “public”: reappropriating the urban as common(s)
– Melissa Harrison

Over the past decades, intensified following the 2008 financial crisis, we have witnessed geographically and qualitatively diverse assaults on the “public” realm. These offensives have coincided with the contemporary entrenchment of neoliberal ideologies, political-economic processes, socialities and subjectivities, manifest across varying terrains: privatisations of previously state-owned and governed public goods1; brutal austerity programs; the capture and capitalist instrumentalization of newly produced commonwealth, whether knowledge, information, or technologies; and the subsumption of “life itself” (Rossi, 2012: 351). As such, “micro-practices of bio-political exploitation” and “macro-practices of urban enclosure” work as processual reciprocals, producing enclosed subjects and spatialities which effectively immunise “the body politic from alternative forms of shared sociality” (Jeffery, McFarlane, and Vasudevan, 2011: 15; Massumi, 2009). In this context, the demand for “the right to the city” (Lefebvre, 1968) and the right to the space and time of collective life is becoming increasingly acute and variously articulated.

Critically, the very notion of the “public” itself is highly contested: When these spaces and goods are not yet annexed to—and placed under the dictates and restructurings of—finance capitalism, they are often subject to technocratic and unjust state tutelage that is entangled with gendered, racialised, and ableist exclusions and oppressions. The dichotomy of market and state can obfuscate any real sense of public life which, as Dewey (2014: 6) eloquently asserts, is where “actuality and reality, in all their plurality, diversity, and factuality could be sensed and decided, on our terms, for our benefit”. The majority of inhabitants who comprise this “public” realm are largely denied agency in collectively negotiating and convening their common, shared worlds. Power, instead, is constituted externally as “power-over”—or, oftentimes, in diffuse and subject-producing forms (Burchell, Davidson, & Foucault 2008), burying our indignation, stifling our social imaginaries—rather than grounded and held between us as a collective and constituent “power-to-do” otherwise (Hardt and Negri, 2009; Holloway, 2010).

However, we may present these forms of enclosure, subsumption, repressive and productive power as, what Holloway terms, “form-processes” and subsequently situate an emancipatory politics in the here-and-now; as a prefigurative2 practice of other spaces, other times, and other relationships, in which the means are not temporally dislocated from the ends. Holloway (2010: 166-167) introduces the term “form-process” to elaborate Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation, something that he suggests cannot be considered a historically circumscribed concept. Rather, enclosure and accumulation “is a phenomenon constitutive of capitalist relations at all times, eternally recurrent” (Federici, 2019: 15). This enclosure of common land and the natural world—even property enclosed centuries ago—as well as the conversion of our collective action into abstract labour, is a constant process of separation: of multi-species beings from their habitats; of the public from the real space of public life; of producers from their own products; from that which we interdependently produce and sustain through negotiation, cooperation, and care (Holloway, 2010: 167; Harrison, 2019: 92).

The concept of form-processes aligns closely with Stavrides (2015: 10) reading of urban spatiotemporal ordering and the normalisation of behaviour in the contemporary metropolis, by which he takes reference from Soja’s “archipelago of normalized enclosures” (2000: 299). Further, Stavrides (2016, 75) clarifies, that normalisation “is not simply homogenization” but the deliberate processes of configuring behaviour according to operations of power. Nor is it an ossified fact, but a qualitatively evolving process that safeguards the continued reproduction of capital and, necessarily, the iterated reproduction of each and every one of us as atomised and competitive economic subjects, homo economicus:

    Order, social or urban, is a project rather than an accomplished state. Therefore it is important that we locate the mechanisms through which the project of urban ordering is being shaped and implemented if we want to discover the forces that resist or overturn this ordering….Urban ordering, the metropolis itself, is a process, a stake, much in the same way that dominant social relations need to be reproduced every day. (Stavrides 2015, 9)

Reflecting the claim that urban space is always being made and unmade by agonistic social forces “oriented, respectively, towards the exchange-value (profit-oriented) and use-value (everyday life) dimensions of urban sociospatial configurations” (Brenner, Marcuse & Mayer 2012, p. 3), this situates a present, everyday struggle: a “live antagonism” (Holloway, 2010: 171). It is here, in the live antagonism that demands for the right to the city are translated into on-the-ground practices of different spaces, times and relationships, where the common experiences, happenings and procedures of the cities’ inhabitants are claimed as the prerogative not of dominant institutions and market policies that uphold inequalities but those of the inhabitants themselves. As Marcuse (2012) suggests, Lefebvre’s “right to the city” embodies this duality: It asserts a requirement for access to that which sustains life in the city inasmuch as it is an active project expressing the right to claim the future, the right to another city. It demands the right to provisions that ensure our reproduction and, also, the “right to change ourselves by changing the city” (Harvey 2012, 4). This is a demand that has, in recent years, been developed and reinforced by the praxis of the urban common(s).
The Common(s)

The urban common(s) offer an alternative social imaginary beyond the nominal “public”, a realm which is almost solely in the hands of authorities and governments, and beyond the private, a realm that is the exclusive domain of individuals or economic entities. Here, it is crucial to reiterate that “public space” and “public goods” do not inherently “a commons make” (Harvey, 2012: 72). In fact, Harvey further outlines, that state administration of public goods have historically been, and to this day continue to be, a mechanism for the continued development of capital and the cementing of normative orders (ibid., 67-88). The demand for the urban commons is two-fold: against the expropriation of “public spaces” and “public goods” by private interests; but, also for their appropriation from below, not as concessions, nor as tools and infrastructures for the reproduction of human labour and therefore capital, but as real common spaces and common goods shaped “on our terms, for our benefit”. The notion of the commons as an in(ter)dependent social praxis—from the grassroots up—provides a powerful antidote to neoliberalism: It “promises a form of decentralized political and economic collectivity beyond the welfare state based on—and generative of—autonomy and solidarity” (Haiven 2016: 276). And, as Federici foregrounds, reappropriations and collectivisations of our everyday spaces and lives—far from a substitute to broader mobilisations against capital’s encroachment—are essential components in the prefiguration of communal relations and collective government (Federici, 2019; 110).

Elinor Ostrom’s (1990) seminal work was undoubtedly significant in shining a spotlight on the commons as a new paradigm, both disputing Hardin’s (1968) thesis on “the tragedy of the commons”, as well as setting out principles for the successful collective governance of natural resources. However, when applied to the context of the contemporary metropolis, it is difficult to imagine that these principals alone would avoid producing, as Stavrides (2016) argues, urban enclaves—even if the enclaves themselves strive for egalitarian relationships and governance. Here, in the city, Ostrom’s work has received elaboration, contestation, and further developments. As Haiven outlines, for Ostrom and her neo-institutionalist cohort, the commons were never situated in a “revolutionary frame”: Whilst this scholarship elevated the commons as a remedy to the short falls of the market and state, it at worst provided a buttress and at best “an equal partner with the state and market in the reproduction of modern economic life” (Haiven 2016: 277). Additionally, as Sauvêtre (2018: 79, 80) has critically highlighted, the “Ostromian developmentalist policy of the commons” cannot be divorced from “their inscription within international development policies” which promoted “community-based management of resources in the Global South”, alongside withdrawal of public intervention from the state, in efforts to entrench the market economy.

However, a different wave of discourse and practice pertaining to the urban common(s) has emerged since the 2000s that has directly challenged the deepening of the market economy and concurrent waves of neoliberal advances (Sauvêtre 2018). Concurrently, the discourse on the urban commons has moved beyond the collective governance of natural resources to include the co-production and governance of newly produced common wealth; beyond material resources defined by scarcity to incorporate non-excludable immaterial resources; and, beyond the boundaries of closed communities defined by an “inside” and “outside” towards a porous threshold socio-spatiality (Stavrides, 2016). Here, we can mark a conceptual shift from “commons as resources” to “commons as relational social frameworks” (Ruivenkamp and Hilton 2017: 1). Linebaugh first introduced the term commoning in 2008, cautioning against the danger of delimiting the commons as natural resources: “the commons is an activity and, if anything, it expresses relationships in society that are inseparable from relations to nature”, therefore, “it might be better to keep the word as a verb, an activity, rather than as a noun, a substantive” (2008: 279).

We can also mark a challenge posed against the relegation of the commons as “folk politics”. Beyond parochial and exclusionary conceptions of the local, the framework of the common(s) has been employed, particularly in urban contexts, as an opening to a wholly transformative and emancipatory project—one that pursues the collective (re)production of our cities and ourselves, of common space and common life, across various scales and mediums, and, crucially, beyond identitarian or demarcated coming togethers. As Rancière (2006: 11) asserts, a “common world” is more than a “shared ethos” and a “shared abode”; rather, it “is always a polemical distribution of modes of being and “occupations” in a space of possibilities”. In these emergent socio-political imaginaries of common(s) praxis, we find Dewey’s notion of public life emerging as a real plurality in all its difference, agonism, sharing, mediation, and translation—not as the nebulous and inert “public” that has been rendered the subject of state and market, or the market-state.

In recent years, claims to the common(s) have emerged across various contexts as forms of resistance to the command of capital over our lives, to the sanitisation and securitisation of our cities by the expanding frontiers of commodified spaces, expunging the marginalised, encroaching on the impurities, encounters, and collectivity of the city. But, also as resistance to the “war on interdependency”—crucially, the war on forms of in(ter)dependence that exceed instrumentalization by capital—or the war on “the social network of hands that seek to minimize the unlivability of lives” (Butler, 2015: 67)3. As public institutions and market mechanisms increasingly fail to serve inhabitants needs, people are reclaiming collective agency to transform their everyday lives and neighbourhoods in, against, and beyond state or market tutelage, carving out different spaces and different times, prefiguring alternative modes of belonging and inhabiting, in the here-and-now. These practices of “negation-and-creation” (Holloway, 2010: 10) manifest in various forms: from symbolic expressions of public space occupation and intervention to more durable spatial reappropriations in the form of squatted social-centres or community gardens; and from online networks for democratic organising or neighbourhood sharing, to self-managed health clinics or collective kitchens. People are coming together in all their plurality to not only provide their basic needs—when institutions fail them—but also realise their desires in their neighbourhoods and cities in, against, and beyond capitalism.
Common(ing) Space: From the Squares to the Neighbourhoods

The reappropriations of the squares—from Zuccotti Park to Syntagma, from the Arab Spring to the 15M movement—demonstrated transient forms of commoning that temporarily transformed symbolic public spaces into common spaces. As Stavrides (2016) outlines, these reappropriations engendered emergent common spaces through the collective action, cooperation, and negotiation of the various people involved. He highlights the distinctly different phenomena of these emerging communities, which contrast both “neocommunitarian neoconservative” ideologies as well as the cultural regime of individualised, competitive market actors (Stavrides, 2016: 161). Dissolving the boundaries of hypostatised community identities, heterotopic constellations emerged within and against the controls and powers of the normalised, financialised city. In, what Stavrides (2016: 164) terms, urban “threshold spaces”, malleable and dynamic social relationships form between a plurality of people as they come together in all their difference and, through encounter, collaboration and negotiation, form a “community in movement”. These communities are not defined, contained and classified, but are communities that reclaim the “movement of doing” against abstract labour, who refuse atomisation without distinguishing difference (Stavrides, 2016; Holloway, 2002: 63). As Stavrides (2016: 175) eloquently asserts, the “we” of the squares is “a multi-faceted ‘we’, a kaleidoscopic ‘we’ full of refractions and open to ever-new arrangements of differences”.

The immanent “we” of the squares may indeed have embodied heterotopias, demanding and performing a decommodification of urban space and urban life whilst articulating affinities and collectivity amongst heterogeneous groups. However, as Alves dos Santos Junior (2014, 151) emphasises, Lefebvre’s “urban revolution” is not to be understood “as a specific moment in time disconnected from the present heterotopic practices”. Rather, as Harvey (2012, xvii) suggests:

    Lefebvre’s theory of a revolutionary movement is the other way around: The spontaneous coming together in a moment of “irruption,” when disparate heterotopic groups suddenly see, if only for a fleeting moment, the possibilities of collective action to create something radically different.

Stavrides (2019: 85) echoes this view, suggesting that if the occupation of Syntagma square came as a surprise, it was not because it emerged ex nihilo but, rather, because we often fail to be attentive to “minor events of discontent, to molecular acts of resistance, and to aspirations for a more just society that often punctuate people’s everyday lives”. Furthermore, he suggests that in order to “trace the potentialities released by the squares movement” we need to transcend the dipole of “dissent” and “normality”. He argues, drawing on Foucault (2009), that such moments of dissent certainly challenged and subverted normalising processes that are connected to the operations of power; however, beyond that, they have done “something which is less easily traceable” by showing “that our lives can be otherwise, that collaboration may produce humane relations and joy”; and, importantly, that “we are many and those who destroy our lives are very few” (Stavrides, 2019: 85-86).

1. 15M mind map: mutations, projections, alternatives and confluences. Source: Created by

But, what happened to this dynamic and multifarious “we” when the squares emptied? It has become evident that these temporary microcosms of democratic and egalitarian organising, of real common life, did not simply die when the occupiers dispersed. Not only did these highly symbolic occupations secrete new and enduring meanings across the cities and in the minds of their inhabitants, many of the alliances and initiatives dispersed in suit, proliferating and imbricating in various neighbourhoods and cities. Perhaps, this posits a de- and re-centralisation dialectic: a dynamic oscillation between dispersal—often operating below the radar of grand narratives, tacitly prefiguring change—and moments of condensed, collective insubordination. This suggests that “multitudinous practices of commoning” may emerge alongside a common horizon whereby “the cumulative effect is not just one of complete rupture or escape, but rather an ongoing development, including and incorporating ruptures and expanding free spaces along the way” (Ruivenkamp and Hilton, 2017: 11). As such, practices of commoning are certainly not limited to temporary occupations of symbolic spaces. In neighbourhoods and cities around the world, inhabitants are both claiming and practicing Lefebvre’s (1991: 26) assertion that “(social) space is a (social) product”.

Reflecting on the 15M movement, Casas-Cortes, Cobarrubias, and Pickles (2014: 459) note that, throughout 2011, an extensive network of local “popular assemblies” emerged across Spain with more than one hundred in Madrid alone. This was directly connected with the transformations of public space into transient common spaces which became sites for the “production of relationality and consensus making…leading to new codes of conviviality…and re-imagining citizenship” (Corsin and Estalella, 2014: 15). Thus not only was it “a defensive statement against the management of crisis” but it was also “a propositional enactment of a different kind of politics and an alternative mode of organizing resources” (Casas‐Cortés, Cobarrubias, and Pickles, 2014: 459). Many of these “popular assemblies” also developed from local initiatives into phases of coordination with political institutions at the local level, attempting to forge transeuropean municipal networks of “rebel cities”.4

2. Navarinou Park, 2018. Source: authors own.

3. Esta Es Una Plaza, 2018. Source: authors own.

Furthermore, take for example, Lambidona, a social centre located in a disused municipal building in Athens, originating in 2011 during the broader anti-austerity mobilisations. One year later, they successfully prevented the privatisation of the building and community members continue to organise solidarity-based classes and workshops, a social kitchen, a seed-exchange, a lending library, film screenings and discursive formats. Even prior to the broader movement of the squares, micro-political articulations were germinating the “seeds beneath the snow”. From Navarinou Park in Exarchia, Athens, where residents re-appropriated a parking lot, transforming it into an urban garden and community event space without sanction from local authorities, to “Esta Es Una Plaza” in Madrid, a state-provisioned space that operates as a self-governed neighbourhood garden where decisions are taken in monthly open assemblies. The 2008 request for the transfer of the plot to local inhabitants, where “Esta Es Una Plaza” has its home, preceded the 15M movement, as the emergence of Navarinou Park in 2009 did the squares movement.5

As the public realm recedes further into the workings of the market, practices of the city are emerging as “negation-and-creation”. In, against, and beyond the intensifying assaults on the city and our lives, enduring and burgeoning practices of commoning are not only resisting the financialised capitalist economy; ensuing austerity policies; and accumulations by dispossession, surveillance and securitisation; they are also opening up new social imaginaries that transcend resistance and survival to make a claim to—as Lefebvre introduced it—the city as our “oeuvre“, the collective artwork of its inhabitants and users (Lefebvre, 1996). The city as oeuvre points beyond mere enclaves of alterity: It is an over spilling, an imbricating, an opening, a crossing; it is a wholly transformative project of the city and ourselves. The normalised city, moulding passive subjects of political bodies that primarily serve the reproduction of capital, is cracked open as commoners, through collective praxis, refuse the fixed taxonomies and geometries of power that are inscribed from above. These collective reappropriations, by inhabitants, from below and continued (re)productions of common spaces—sometimes with, and sometimes without, support and co-operation from local governing bodies—refuse the dominant spatial orderings of the city and the silent economic controls it wields to, instead, through collaborative action, reveal new social and spatial imaginaries and infinite possibilities. As Chatterton and Pusey (2019) have highlighted “commoning can create a political imaginary which can, at the same time, be anti (against), despite (in) and post (beyond) life under capitalism”.

1. Silvia Federici (2019, 26-33) has highlighted how the new enclosures instrumentalised national debt to seize and enclose land throughout South America and the African continent. We are now seeing similar neo-colonial measures being adopted by the European “core” to usurp the public goods of “periphery” countries.
2. As Van de Sande (2017: 25) states, prefiguration is “experimental political practice in which the ends of one’s actions are mirrored in the means applied in their realisation”.
3. No more pertinent is this, than in the violent evictions—currently orchestrated by the new ruling government—of housing squats in Exarchia, Athens, that are inhabited and (re)produced through solidarity between locals and refugees.
4. Notwithstanding critique (See Bianchi 2018), many European cities have exhibited public-commons collaborations and policy developments: in Barcelona, pro-commons policies were put forward by the En Comú coalition; the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of the Urban Commons has been adopted by a number of other Italian Cities; in Lille, an Assembly of the Commons has given visibility and audibility to local commons; and Michel Bauen’s commons transition plan was commissioned and financed by the city of Ghent.
5. Perhaps, critical to note is that the occupation and transformation of Navarinou park was connected to a wider context of dissent following the killing of Alexandros Grigoropoulos by police in December 2008. In much the same way as the square movements, this context of dissent engendered the prefiguration of a number of enduring self-managed spaces and solidarity structures.

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— Ruivenkamp, G. and Hilton A., eds. (2013). Perspectives on Commoning: Autonomist Principles and Practices. London: Zed Books.
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— Stavrides, S. (2019). Common Spaces of Urban Emancipation. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
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Melissa Harrison is a Berlin-based PhD candidate in the School of Architecture at the National Technical University of Athens, under the supervision of Stavros Stavrides. Working transversally across socio-political urban issues, critical spatial practice, and transformative pedagogies, her research and practice explore common(ing) space: sharing, (un)making and (un)learning the city. She is a co-initiator and organiser of the project Common(s)Lab: Nachbarschaftslabor in Berlin-Neukölln; and a member of the Common Grounds association and corresponding Commons Evening School, associated with Prinzessinnengarten, Berlin-Kreuzberg.


Volume 3, No. 1 February 2020