Ready to Rebel, Open to Negotiate
The final part of the feature on the commons examines whether physical spaces – primarily those for culture and youth – can operate outside the usual market and political framework.
FOTO: l'Asilo / Facebook
Whenever we start to reflect or revel over changes in the political system, some conservative character comes up and tries to stuff us back into our four walls. Clean your room!, shouts Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist and intellectual celebrity of the right, who apparently takes both his adherents and opponents for adolescents. You’re not my real dad!, we may reply, this time around reluctantly stopping to examine the topic that Peterson proposed (albeit inadvertently). The spaces in which we live, work, socialize and learn are also conditioned and determined by politics, of both the formal and the informal sort, such as we have dealt with in the previous parts of the feature on the commons. In the first essay, we tackled the broader question of whether the commons can be an alternative to capitalism, in the next one we looked at how the commons work in the digital context, and now we will consider whether physical spaces – primarily those for culture and youth – can be managed on the principle of commons.
A brief reminder of the previous "instalments": the notion of commons was championed by economist Elinor Ostrom who wrote about the small communities that manage a particular good independently, without state or market intervention. What matters for such communities are self-regulation, as it is community members themselves who adopt and implement management rules without external intervention, and the principle of reciprocity, as the goods are fully accessible to all community members who "repay their debt" by working in the community. These examples served as inspiration to various theorists and activists who tried with more or less success to translate these principles to other levels. This way of managing resources proved particularly advantageous in the digital context – first because the basic software and internet architecture emerged in a kind of "hacker" commons, and later because pirates managed to disrupt the unfair capitalist exchange through the principle of free distribution of academic and cultural works.
Indeed, the idea of commons works more easily in the digital field, where goods are easily multiplied, and an internet connection is enough to establish a contact. In the physical space, however, we come across particular physical obstacles. Here, the community is much more exposed to outside intervention and limited by the actual spatial facilities, thus being more dependent on the internal group dynamics of its users. But, as we have learned during the pandemic, life without shared physical spaces for culture and socializing is pretty poor. It is therefore worth to examine the initiatives that create and maintain such spaces while attempting to escape the constraints imposed by the market logic and political manoeuvring.
Within and/or without institutions
Space management policies are increasingly coming into focus. On the one hand, decades of deindustrialization and economic liberalization in Europe have considerably altered and endangered the status of many non-commercial spaces, while current economic and political regimes fail to protect citizens from losing their common and very own spaces. On the other hand, there are a number of mostly informal initiatives that battle for the use of space, focusing on solidarity and sustainable development. There is a lack of space (pun intended) in this text to cover all these topics, but the dramatic situation can be evidenced by the fact that we are in the midst of a global housing crisis, which indicates how much the real estate market is at odds with the needs of citizens. During the 2010s, due to rising rental prices, the number of homeless people, evictions but also vacant apartments that no one uses, has drastically increased. Former UN rapporteur Leilani Farha stated last year that 1.8 billion people worldwide live in unsuitable housing conditions or on the street, as the current housing crisis "is not caused by a decline in resources or an economic downturn but rather by economic growth and expansion". "The right to housing must be implemented in a manner that shifts the way housing is currently conceived, valued, produced and regulated", she added. Her appeal was also addressed at EU countries that continue to ignore the problem, exacerbated by the wave of refugees seeking shelter in Europe. Not only have countries failed to protect vulnerable people on time or prevent the dizzying rise in rental prices, but during the 2010s they also began closing down squats that represented informal efforts at resolving these same crises.
In the area of common spaces for culture and youth, things do seem more favourable on the formal level. The EU systematically revitalizes abandoned military and industrial spaces by subsidizing their transformation into social and cultural centres and by letting them be used by NGOs. In Croatia, this model is developing somewhat more slowly: Sitni vez društvene promjene (Kurziv, 2019) is a publication that maps and describes attempts of this type, with Zagreb’s Pogon standing out as the first realized case of civil-public partnership, in addition to the Karlo Rojc Social Centre in Pula, a former military school in which over a hundred associations work and implement their programmes. In terms of self-regulation, we might be tempted to distinguish between such examples – those that function within the public system’s framework and those initiatives which, in search of autonomy, elude the legal and public systems (e.g. squats). However, all those that have managed to survive a bit longer (in Croatia and elsewhere) prove this relationship to be a dynamic and complex one. On the one hand, in the field of culture, there are no "proper" squats that work in the long run. Some form of agreement with local authorities is necessary for collectives to be able to make plans about using the space without fear of being thrown out into the street by the police. On the other hand, an agreement between such initiatives and local authorities can rarely be considered an equal partnership, as their relations are almost as a rule strained, ambivalent and unstable. Spatial commons therefore cannot function entirely outside of public institutions, nor can they fully fit within these frameworks, and this tension can be both productive and destructive, as we can clearly observe from two similar but fundamentally different examples: Naples’s l’Asilo and Zagreb’s Medika.
From civic action to political implementation
In the spring of 2012, a group of cultural workers occupied Ex Asilo Filangieri, a 16th-century three-story building located in the centre of Naples. The building was at once a pride of the Italian government – having just been renovated to host the Universal Forum of Cultures – and a subject of controversy – as the municipal right-wing government managed the renovation (and the building in general) in a non-transparent and suspicious way. To occupy the building, however, was no mere symbolic gesture, as the group opened up the space for everyone who needed it for cultural activities. The informal institution took on the new name of l’Asilo and has continued to operate as an autonomous space to this day.
To understand how l’Asilo originated and survived, one needs to consider the wider context which is, admittedly, quite complicated, contradictory and intense. Italy has been hit hard by the financial crisis and austerity measures introduced by the Berlusconi government. In the early 2010s, Italian publicists Roberto Ciccarelli and Giusepe Allegri developed the concept of the "fifth state" (quinto stato) to denote a wide range of workers without permanent jobs, social rights or existential stability – an estimated at least eight million Italian citizens, in addition to five million stateless foreigners. Members of the "fifth state", the authors claim, began to occupy different spaces and experiment with various forms of self-management and the economy of exchange, primarily out of sheer necessity, and this is how occupied autonomous zones began to emerge.
As early as the 1990s, various "occupied centres" were operating in Naples, later to be referenced as a kind of tradition of rebellion for the next generation of activists. The most spectacular occupation was the one by the Italian branch of the global Occupy movement, who took over Rome’s Teatro Valle in 2011 and began to talk explicitly about the commons. This example also encouraged Naples’s cultural workers to occupy l’Asilo a year later and – in the absence of open spaces and safe working conditions – organize it according to the principles of commons. They quickly adopted and began to implement their own rules of operation. A fully open council decides transparently on how the space is managed, the work is voluntary, and the right to use the space is awarded not according to aesthetic or commercial criteria, but is given to everyone as long as they don’t discriminate against others. Other, legit, organisations were initially frustrated by the fact that l’Asilo operated in their field without any legal obligations, but their anger blew off when they realized that they themselves were free to use these resources. In five years, l’Asilo was used by 2,400 subjects for 7,800 programs, and the total number of users exceeded 260,000. Despite the heterogeneous structure of its users and an excessive number of requests for a limited space, l’Asilo has managed to thrive and become relevant thanks to its principled openness and a clear set of rules.
Surprisingly, the political context was to the advantage of these activists. Although Berlusconi’s government was in power at both the regional and state level, since 2011 the mayor of Naples has been Luigi de Magistris, a former justice who based his campaign on increasing civic participation and promoting the commons. Such a policy sounds progressive but also pragmatic, at a time when citizens have extremely low trust in the institutions and seek greater opportunities to participate in public life. This generated a favourable framework for l’Asilo activists to strike a cooperation with the local authorities (who agreed to pay for the maintenance of space), and also an opportunity for a formal recognition of the commons. In 2012, a wider circle of activists issued the Constitution of the Commons (Costituennte dei beni comuni) which served as a starting point in their struggle for legal recognition. It also allowed l’Asilo to work continuously, even acquire membership in EU networks despite their lack of formal status.
Can legal recognition protect the commons from a potential change of government, liberal policies or further economic crises? Does legislation hamper the commons by placing them in the grips of legally prescribed frameworks? Will their initial initiative be institutionalized over time and become identical to NGOs? There are no final answers, but the formalization of l’Asilo does seem inevitable (and not necessarily a negative thing). It is also encouraging that by 2016 l’Asilo had become a direct model for seven other occupied spaces in Naples. Although we cannot tell the outcome of such initiatives and what the future of l’Asilo will be, taking over the space from below and making it available to the public seems like a good start for a different kind of policy, especially at a time when Naples and all of Italy are facing a further economic crisis and potential collapse of public services.
Space is (not) necessary
The l’Asilo collective managed to secure premises and institutional recognition despite its informal status. Conversely, Attack, a Zagreb association which has been implementing youth culture projects for more than 15 years, has failed to secure a stable position even with its NGO status. Their book, Our Story: 15 Years of ATTACK!, can be read as a picaresque tale about a group which has spent its whole existence seeking a suitable space and some recognition, but was never met with goodwill or trust from the local government. Attack was established in 1997 as an organisation for alternative culture, and they got their first permanent space in November 1999, following their "March for Unity" action. This is how they describe these events: "After months of tensions with the City of Zagreb, Attackers decided to seize i.e. squat the Jedinstvo [unity] factory. Some months later, Attack was officially allotted premises in the basement. Some premises in the factory that were designated for cultural purposes had already been awarded to Močvara, i.e. URK – Association for the Development of Culture – but Attack was overlooked. As it later turned out, what was Attack’s initial success – the conquest of space – proved to be a major problem".
Once again we can see that squatting was in fact a precondition to get the attention of city authorities. Finally allocating the basement of the Jedinstvo factory seemed to be a sign of recognition and good will. But as it would turn out, it was a cynical gesture by the city authorities: the space was in poor condition, without water or sanitation and exposed to frequent flooding. To renovate the space required an investment that the organisation couldn’t afford and the City wouldn’t pay. Eventually, the sanitary inspectorate closed down the club in 2003 and Attack was left without a permanent space, revealing a cynical paradox of the local politics: the city authorities allocate inappropriate premises to an organisation only to later evict it at any time, as the space is inadequate.
Attack operated without permanent premises for the next five years, but eventually decided to use the old method to secure a new space. By the end of 2007, they first occupied the Lapidarij night club, which they failed to hold permanently due to unsettled property relations, and then, together with other collectives and individuals, they entered the former Medika pharmaceutical factory and got to work. "It all happened casually and spontaneously, without mutual agreements and long-term plans", recalls Attack’s Sanja Burlović in the book, adding: "The tacit decision was not to go for legalization at all, as the faction that believed in the possibility of long-term illegal survival in Medika prevailed".
Nevertheless, the city authorities decided to evict the users, and the latter responded with a press conference and an attempt to legalize their stay in Medika. On the one hand, they were aided by the fact that on the eve of local elections, mayor Milan Bandić wanted to avoid negative publicity and decided to sign a contract with Attack. But negotiations with the City were not well conducted. The campaign was very chaotic, with no unity of opinion among Medika users and poor communication, and the mayor knew how to use this to his advantage. "Our mistake was that at the time we didn’t have defined requirements we would insist on in the negotiations. The only thing that mattered to us was to get the contract for the space, at all cost", admits Burlović, adding: "It all unfolded very quickly and Bandić was hurrying us with the contract. Our mistake was again that we didn’t consult lawyers, but accepted the contract as it was handed to us. In such a situation, on December 28, 2008, Attack regained a legit space after five years of homelessness".
Unsurprisingly, the contract terms were disastrous: Attack has to pay rent to the City, cover utility costs, maintain the (again inadequate) space, and pay music royalties. The City in fact gave Attack only the permission to use Medika until 2011 or before the building is demolished for the Zagreb Congress Centre to be constructed. Ever since the contract expired in 2011, the City has ignored the possibility of extending it, and can evict users from the premises at almost any time. Medika’s status has basically not changed since. Neither after the earthquake nor during the pandemic; the City didn’t help repair the damaged building or abolish the payment of rent (which it did for other affected subjects).
Consistency of principles and flexibility of form
Attack’s example shows how much more adverse the context is in Zagreb than in Naples: the local authorities had no intention of cooperating with the "squatters" and the political climate was far less favourable for greater civil participation and non-institutional political entities. The coexistence in Medika further revealed the complexity of collective self-management. Jere Kuzmanić, an urban planner and a former member of Attack, argues in Naša priča that it is difficult to distinguish when the conflict between different users is part of the necessary negotiation about the principles and interests of Medika, and when it is a battleground in the fight for dominance. "If you wish to remain in a space, you must be willing to negotiate. At the same time, if you wish to retain autonomy within the space, you have to locate your interests in that space as a concrete means to an end. This sets the will to negotiate against the interest of space. It is here that we can pinpoint the potential source of many conflicts in and around the space." Kuzmanić identifies this basic tension in the discrepancy between the informal DIY approach and the more formal NGO principle in managing the space.
In this case it is difficult to draw a simple conclusion to the dilemma – some kind of formalization does seem inevitable if the collective wants to use the space permanently. To own a space and have financial support increases the freedom of action but imposes frameworks and reduces autonomy, all the more so as negotiations between that organisation and the public donor often involve a struggle for dominance. But internal dynamics prove to be an equally important and underestimated component. The desire to create an open common space is an important prerequisite, but the self-regulation of space and an organized opening up to the community also call for unity, in terms of having some joint principles, as well as the willingness to negotiate and have discipline in the managing of space (let’s leave it at that and not end up cleaning the room again).
Yet there does seem to be room for improvement in the domestic context. Local organisations have gathered experience in their struggles for spaces and the self-management of those spaces. In Zagreb especially there is hope in sight, as the administration that ran the city for 20 years is coming to an end and there is a new political option that would be more open to cooperating with civil initiatives on equal terms. Optimists will recall Naples in the early 2010s. On the other hand, the economic crisis, existential insecurity, the growing presence of conservative groups and the enmity of the right towards civil society make the future of Zagreb and Naples equally uncertain.
In such circumstances, both locally and globally, the commons are often proposed as a potential alternative to outdated and inadequate political models. Although the history of commons offers a handful of interesting and useful examples, in the end it appears that their potential lies not in the form but in the principles of openness, solidarity and responsibility to the community that can and should be realized in different political formats. The consistency of principles and flexibility of form seem to be the best pledge in the fight for fairer communities, be it at the level of the planet, the state, digital networks, local communities or clubs where such or similar political debates would be deafened by that darling, awkward microphony of a young punk bend.