Democracy is all about sharing | kulturpunkt

English Interview


Democracy is all about sharing

Sociologist Pascal Gielen talks about creative cities and the ideology of commonism that he sees as an alternative to neoliberal market-oriented relations.

by: Luka Ostojić

PHOTO: Nouveaux commanditaires / Vimeo

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Pascal Gielen is a professor of sociology of culture and politics at the Antwerp Research Institute for the Arts where he leads the Culture Commons Quest Office. He is the editor of the international book series Antennae - Arts in Society (Valiz). His research focuses on creative labor, the common, urban and cultural politics. 

Gielen was preparing a lecture Commonism – Organizing Artistic Life Beyond Creative Industry Policies organized by Pogon in collaboration with Zagreb Architects Society. The lecture was based on the book Commonism: A New Aesthetics of the Real (ed. Gielen and Nico Dockx, Valiz, 2018). Unfortunately, the lecture was canceled because of coronavirus safety measures, but we still managed to catch up with Gielen, talk about the book and discuss his ideas on modern-day creative working conditions, concept of commons and ideology of commonism that provides an alternative to the neoliberal capitalist market relations.


KP: When you talk about creative labor, you say that it takes place in the "creative city". That sounds like a beautiful urban space, but it is actually something quite different and problematic. What is the creative city? 

The whole idea of creative city started in the mid-1990s as a part of the shift from cultural policies to creative industry policies. I have a joke that it started when Tony Blair embraced Bono Vox in front of TV cameras, but that was a symbolic moment when it was accepted that we need this kind of creativity for economical reasons. Then the culture stopped being supported for its intrinsic value or as a part of Bildung, but it became an economical tool. 

Creative city is a means to keep creativity in the city for economical reasons. It is defined by the influential book The Rise of Creative Class (2002) by Richard Florida. In the Netherlands in 2009 we analyzed cultural policy plans of all the communities, in cities and in the countryside. Of all communities, only two of them did not include Florida’s name in their policy plan! We can discuss and criticize Florida – which I also did – but his theories are nuanced. The problem is that his theories were interpreted by policy makers in a very simplistic way. 

So you might think this is a beautiful time for creative workers to live in because they are supported by politics. But you can also see this as a manoeuvre to cut the public budget for culture because creative workers can make their living on the market. However, that is not sustainable.

KP: Why is it not sustainable?

The research that we made and that we read shows that creative industries are not sustainable at all, which can be seen on three levels. 

 On the macro level, it leads to cultural homogenization: everywhere around the world you have the same biennales, artists and practices, from Brussels to Tokyo and New York. The sociologist Patricia Thornton describes it as the "competitive isomorphism": people and cities are competing with each other so they try to differentiate, to do something different than others. But they are only looking at each other, mirroring each other, so in effect they all do the same things. That is why now we have hipsters everywhere, for example. The cultural homogenization happened because of competition and that is a serious problem. 

On the mezzo level we see investments (often by governments, by the way) in creative industries, in start-ups. But investors only provide funding for the first couple of years, and after that period a lot of small businesses by creative entrepreneurs go bankrupt because this model is not economically viable. 

On the micro-level you can see the growing precarization of freelancers jumping from project to project. There is economical precarization, but also political precarization (as freelancers are mostly not union members), social precarization (artists often have to move places, becoming unable to form lasting friendship or family ties, becoming isolated because of this networked life) and mental precarization. There is an enormous pressure that you need to be creative, that you always have to come up with something new. This social pressure makes younger and younger people suffer from burn-outs. We interviewed 1800 creatives from all over Europe, at least 10% of them had burn-outs. They talked about feeling empty, tired, saying they still have good ideas in their mind (and people in their social environment support them by telling them they are creative), but they remain unable to get these ideas out of their mind, which is mentally killing them. 

So, the creative city is marked by this collective pressure which is based on the free market as it runs all over Europe. I am not against the market as such, we need a market for exchange, but the way it is organized now is inefficient and its strong competitiveness is unsustainable (ecologically and socially). That is a flipside of the creative city. 

There is another flipside. You see short-term investments in the creative field, but at the same time you see the deconstruction of the welfare state (especially in Western Europe). So creative cities are also marked by growing poverty. People live outside of cities in precarious, even proletarian conditions, and the gap between rich and poor is becoming bigger. The result is that every few years in big cities (such as London or Paris, but also Antwerp where I live) you have enormous outbursts of massive violence. People come on the streets and destroy everything in their sight. This is what politicians call "senseless violence". This is symptomatic for creative cities: growing gap between richer and poorer, the precarization of creative workers, the deconstruction of the middle class. And, when the gap between rich and poor grows, also this so-called "senseless violence" will grow. 

KP: Creative workers and artists live in precarious conditions all over Europe. Do they manage to find some spaces of resistance to this market pressure?

We interviewed artists, but also creatives from the commercial field: architects, designers, people from the fashion industry… They often said that they are missing something to develop a sustainable practice. For example, they enormously miss relationships of trust. In order to have new ideas or to share ideas, they need relations with their peers without feeling that they are in a competition. But in neoliberal system peers are competing (even when applying for public subsidies) so they often don’t share their best ideas with each other or they don’t exchange opinions. People also say we need spaces we can share. Life is too expensive in the city. We need cheap or shared studios and working spaces. 

So, we thought about an umbrella-concept for this hunger for sharing things. We found it back in the 15th century concept of commons, the common ground where people used to share goods. It was regulated, it wasn’t based on money but on the concept of reciprocity: I give you something, you give me something back. Then we started researching and discovered hundreds of organizations who work nowadays on that principle (many organizations and articles on commons can be found on the website by Peer 2 Peer Foundation). 

So, you can use a studio for free, you can be its communal owner, but after using it you can leave something back for the community. Money can be involved, but only as a means of exchange, not for making profit. There are many organizations like Recetas Urbanas from Seville or Splendor from Amsterdam. Splendor is a venue that is owned and governed by the collective of fifty musicians. There is only one rule: every member has the same time per year to organize concerts that they want. No money is involved, everybody has equal rights. And they never discuss the artistic quality – they only share the building and anyone of them can use it for any kind of music.

KP: It reminds me of Kinoklub Zagreb which rents film equipment for free to all its members, regardless of the artistic quality of films being made. 

That is different because Kinoklub is publicly funded. Commons is the third space in a way, between the market and the state, although they actually overlap. 

You have a beautiful example in Naples, a large theater venue called l’Asilo. Its artistic director is in fact an assembly. People meet every Monday afternoon to decide on the programming, and anybody can join in. You can come, propose something, ask if you can use the venue and discuss it with other people. So, it is possible that you have a very famous film director who wants to use the venue, but he has to argue and settle with the local carnival group that wants to use it at the same time. 

KP: Commons are a well-known concept that is present in our everyday life even if we are not aware of it. However, you introduce a new concept of commonism as an ideology. How did you make a leap from commons to commonism?

I differentiate four things: commons, commoners, commoning and commonism. 

Commons are actually based on Elinor Ostrom’s book Governing the Commons (1990). She is an economist who won the Nobel prize in 2009 (right after the global economic crisis began) because she described this whole idea of commons. From the economical point of view, commons are a common pool of resources, either immaterial (culture) and material. Then you have commoners, people who want to share something, without paying, without a contract obligation. Thirdly, you have commoning, a kind of implicit or explicit regulation of sharing. One very important rule of this relation is reciprocity.

Now we come to the fourth element, commonism. All these practices can really happen only if you believe in social relations, just as neoliberalism believes that the free market is the best. Commonists don’t see economy as the base of the society – like Marx did, but also like neoliberals did – but they see culture as the base. In this context culture is a huge bath of signs out of which you can take signs to signify yourself and your social context. It is a huge tool of giving meaning to yourself and the society. That means everything is involved in the signification, and economy is also a meaning giving process, based on the culture. When you understand this, you can try to give meanings in another way, to ask what economics are and what are other possible economic relations. I have nothing against the economy, but the culture enables us to question it and to come up with alternative economies. 

Commonism is an ideology that proposes different social relations. I think that the only thing that can give you a drive to act or want something is belief. You need ideology. I certainly see problematic sides of ideologies, but at the same time I am aware you need them. You have to believe and you have to know that you believe. It should also be noted that these belief systems are self-fulfilling prophecies. If we all believe that social relations should be regulated by the free market, that will become true. And commonism is a belief that social relations based on reciprocity and free exchange are better than neoliberal relations. As we believe in this and start acting like this, reality starts to change in that direction as in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ideology is a performative thing. It makes you act! 

KP: When explaining why culture is in the base of the society, in your book you mention Gramsci’s work. He also claimed that belief systems are not fixed to a certain class, but they are distributed through discourse or culture. Do you believe that commonism can be spread among the wider population, or maybe even is being spread while we talk?

Commons have become very trendy, they are booming everywhere. But it is interesting that it doesn’t belong solely to the political left, but also to the right. The first Belgian political party that organized the conference on the commons was the liberal party (because liberal capitalism also needs and cherishes resources produced by commons). The hunger for social relationships which are not defined by the market is now popping up everywhere, also in conservative and Christian circles. The whole boom of commons has to do with the feeling that something important was destroyed by competitive market relations. Some are responding to it very reactionary, wanting to go back to the community of the past, while others react in a progressive way. Commons is a part of that. 

Apart from the market, European politics have become a management of distrust and people want relations based on trust. For example, if you are funded by the Creative Europe program, you have to write an enormous amount of reports because you are not trusted to do your job. I have to write how much time as a professor I spend on a certain project, which makes no sense. This is very costly: 10% of the Creative Europe funding is spent only on reporting. You have this same trend in education, culture, health care, even in surgery. It happens also on national and city levels. Of course reporting is important, but this is a wrong kind of reporting because it only encourages distrust. We have to counterbalance it because it blocks everything. People don’t dare to take risks anymore because they are afraid their reports would not be accepted. You have a schizophrenic situation where you do one thing, but articulate it in another way to make the report acceptable.

KP: In the foreword of your book on commonism you openly make a stance: "We are sick of neoliberalism and its perverse mechanisms, and we believe that the proposals of the 'commoners' are much better aligned to the contemporary global reality, and to the human condition in general". That is quite unusual for an academic book as mostly scientists tend to present themselves as neutral. 

I’ve been criticizing neoliberalism for nearly 15 years, I came to the point in my life where I said that I have to look for alternatives. I was quite tired and depressed of constant criticizing that doesn’t lead to a better alternative. So, in 2014, after I wrote a small book Creativity and Other Fundamentalisms, I decided that the critique is done (I stay critical, of course) and I have to focus on solutions. I have to put my energy into finding positive sides, future, maybe even utopia. That’s where commonism comes in. 

Also, I made this statement because I am frustrated with sociology as a discipline. When sociologists write for A1 journals, they have to thoroughly define their methodology, but what they forget to do (and suppress even) is to be honest about their own ideological position as a researcher. That is always avoided, but I think that in order to make objective scientific work, it is very important to state your position. For example, if you say that you are approaching a certain topic from the left-wing position, you are more objective than if you pretend to be neutral. That’s why we radically said straight at the beginning that we believe in this system of commoning. 

KP: Although you believe in this system, you are not naive and you discuss threats to commonism. External threats are quite obvious – threats from the market and the state – but what are threats from the within?

While researching different organizations we discovered several internal threats. For example, as I said, the program of l’Asilo is decided by the assembly which is open for everyone. But who is actually sitting there in the assembly circle? All white, middle-class people. So even though it’s open, it is in fact exclusive. It has to do with many reasons, but first of all it has to do with time. Who has time to sit there and discuss the program? People who have enough money and free time. Also, the assembly discussion is dominated by people who are verbally strong. Those are mostly middle-class, educated people. 

Commons can be dangerously similar to the mafia. Reciprocity is also a mafia principle. Mafia is also an informal economy. And there is always the famiglia: nepotism can become a huge problem in the commons group. 

So, organizations of commoners can easily become closed communities. For example, Splendor in Amsterdam is open only for 50 musicians because the venue is not big enough for more members. Most organizations have 50 members max. Open source and immaterial resources can be available to bigger groups, but when we talk about physical sites such as a building, it is restricted. 

There is also an important difference between commons and community. Community is always based on an identity, on shared norms and values, which makes it closed to outsiders. If commoners become a closed community, they become the same as a private owner, it’s just a collective private ownership. For that reason it’s very important that Splendor doesn’t have a common artistic identity which would limit its members. It’s important that commons is not based on identity, but on the will to share resources. That way it can be open to different identities. 

KP: It is a polarizing topic, though. Commons are open to everyone, but do we really want to share our resources with everybody, even our opponents?

Yes, commonism is about sharing with everybody, but there are fights and endless discussions in many assemblies on this topic. I think that, as left-wing activists and intellectuals, we need to stay open to other sides. Of course, that kind of a relation needs to be regulated by some principles, but it is important to keep a dialogue open. We need to talk to them, to keep the discussion alive. That can become interesting because nationalists also share some values that can be linked to commons. Of course, I think they use it in the wrong way, but there is an overlap in this idea that we miss social relations.

I believe you can partially convince your opponents, but to do that, you have to take them seriously. I really believe in this agonistic model of democracy where you always have to try, again and again, to convince people and keep the discussion open. But I am also influenced by Julia Kristeva who says that the Other is always inside of you, it is a part of you. 

Also, I think it is not sustainable to have commons organizations only with artists or people with the same identity, the same values and norms. You need to include people from other fields and other ideologies: lawyers, economists, conservative and progressive politicians, etc. 

KP: Maybe an even bigger problem is how to include people who might not come to commons by themselves. In other words, how to keep it inclusive, not only reserved for the white middle class?

We are currently looking at strategies to do that, to include lower-class, uneducated, refugees etc. 

In our societies you see at least three basic principles that define democracy. You have classical representative democracy on one level. On another level you have Habermas’ deliberative democracy that is about talking. I think a lot of commons organisations are based on deliberative democracy: on talking, convincing, dissenting, arguing etc. That is very important, but to make commons open, we need to look at the agonistic principle (as defined by Chantal Mouffe). 

I am not convinced by Mouffe that the whole democracy should be agonistic, I believe that we need all three aspects: representative, deliberative and agonistic. By agonistic I mean that you always need to be aware that the consensus reached by deliberative democracy is always a consensus by people who share the same values. You need to be aware that there are always people who don’t speak, who cannot participate in the discussion, but who can express themselves in other ways. It’s a role for artists to look at ways how you can express opinions and thoughts without speaking (for example, visual ways). 

You have a great example of Recetas Urbanas in Sevilla. They started with very beautiful, intellectual discussions, but they also built physical spaces (such as schools). You had people who didn’t want to discuss anything, but they wanted to build. Their democratic inclusion was simply building, so you simply had to give them a chance to build. We need to look at a lot of different, equally valuable ways of participating. Building a school can even be more important than intellectuals talking about why you need the school in the first place. Because of this practice, commons can engage and involve people who want to build and care for space. 

For me, agonistic democracy is all about sharing with people you don’t necessarily share values, ideology or culture with. It is about living next to each other. You can live in the same city, but you never talk to each other. Fine by me! But you can live next to each other. And it is also about enabling people to become a part of the system through their practice, not only through their talking or giving convincing rational arguments. That’s how we can keep the commons open. 


The interview was published as part of the project MediActivism – Courageous young citizens test new ways to reclaim their cities, co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union. The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union.

Objavio/la ivana [at] 29.04.2020