A rough guide to the commons

There are a raft of major challenges that complicate the creation of the commons today. The researcher and writer Charlie Tims considers some of the most pressing of these challenges – in combination with landmark efforts to regain control over domestic and international modes of governance, as well as to reclaim resources, public space and housing. The following text is based on his September 2015 talk at the ECF’s annual Idea Camp.

The commons is a way of describing resources that belong equally to a community, be that community an organization, a locality or a state. Resources can refer to “natural resources” like air, water and land or resources created by people like language, culture and tradition. They cannot be controlled by a single party – be they public or private. The International Association for the Study of the Commons emphasizes that the commons are forms of “governance for resources which are created and owned collectively”. In other words, a resource cannot be considered to be held in common unless there is a statute, a license or an agreement establishing it as part of the commons. So when we talk about the commons, we are really talking about the governance arrangements that make something common Creative Commons Licenses, national parks, blood banks and so on.

But this is all very cold and mechanical. The commons is a spirit as much as it is a technical concept. Evoking the idea of the commons is one of the best ways we have of expressing a commitment to a shared life and a belief that better, more interesting, healthy, cohesive places are those that are accessible and used and shaped by a range of different people. You can hear it in Woodie Guthrie’s song This Land is Your Land, and in The Kinks’ song God Save The Village Green Preservation Society:

We are the Village Green Preservation Society.
God save Donald Duck, vaudeville and variety.
We are the Desperate Dan Appreciation Society.
God save strawberry jam and all the different varieties.

The point to grasp here is that the commons is not fixed – it is a contested concept in culture, policy and law. At different times in the past, governments have legislated and communities have organized to extend commons, and arguably to reduce it. But for many today, the commons – possibly even the very idea of the commons – is under threat from a variety of sources. Here are some threats to the commons in Europe that have been in the news recently.

Investor-State Dispute Settlements

Investor-State Dispute Settlements (ISDSs) are mechanisms that indemnify a private corporation investing across borders against future losses, which can be recouped at the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes in Washington. It is currently reviewing 501 cases. Originally these agreements were designed to encourage corporations to make long-term investments in new countries. But according to a recent article in The Economist, “multinationals have exploited woolly definitions of expropriation to claim compensation for changes in government policy that happen to have harmed their business”.1

Charlie Tims delivering his talk at the ECF’s Idea Camp in Botkyrka, Sweden, in September 2015. Photo: Julio Albarran.

Campaigners and activists have come to see ISDSs as a way of cementing corporate, private interests over democratic will. The Swedish energy giant Vattenfall is currently suing the German government for six billion dollars because, after the Fukushima disaster in 2011, the German government decided to shut down its nuclear energy industry; the Canadian government is being sued by a pharmaceutical company for increasing drug prices; Egypt has been successfully sued by waste disposal and maintenance constructor Veolia for introducing a minimum wage; and Argentina was successfully sued for more than a billion dollars for legislating to reduce energy prices in 2001.

ISDS’s have received plenty of publicity recently because the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – a major EU/US free trade deal currently being negotiated – controversially includes ISDS clauses. Three hundred organizations are signed up to a pan-European campaign against TTIP. For these campaigners, TTIP goes far beyond facilitating free trade, but rather entrenches the role of corporations, effectively giving them a veto on future government policies. The World Democracy Movement likes to call TTIP “the end of democracy as we know it”.

Privatizing public space

Campaigners see TTIP as one of many frontlines in a war to defend public resources from private enclosure and exploitation. There are many others – for example, Italy’s 2011 referendum on water privatization and Ireland’s current struggle to keep water in public hands; in the UK there’s a growing campaign to renationalize railways, or at least not to reprivatize previously failing privatized parts that had been nationalized;2 and in Germany and France there are spirited campaigns to reverse the privatization of city services; while there are campaigns against the selling off of municipal housing in Prague and Art House Cinemas in Budapest.

Another struggle is constantly waged over the control of public spaces in towns and cities.

The issue is almost spiritual. Public space – as some of the most iconic photography of the twentieth century demonstrates – has a funny way of showing societies for what they really are. For the hopeful, public space doesn’t just symbolize the kind of society we want to live in, or provide a useful canvas for news photographers. It plays a functional role in making democracy. It follows that, if public space is passed into private hands, it will have a detrimental effect on who can use the space and what can happen in it and how well a democracy can function.

It is hard to establish who owns public spaces but the signs of private control are present in most European cities. You don’t have to look hard to find gated communities, private security firms, surveillance systems and districts with special local laws that support the needs of shops and businesses. These measures disperse homeless people and protesters, and the quietly regulate what kind of activity can happen. None of this is that noticeable, but the cumulative effect can be very bland cities. The issue is also hard to document, as it is hard to find out and collate information about who owns what. In the UK at least, the task is far from simple. Since 2012, The Guardian newspaper has been trying to map privately owned space that people might “reasonably expect” to be in public ownership, with limited results. Attempts by protesters in London to “occupy” financial districts were hampered by the amount of land in private control in the City of London and Canary Wharf. The journalist Anna Minton has chronicled the rise of privately owned public space. She says, “The places we create reflect the social and economic realities of the time and provide a litmus test for the health of society and democracy. That fact that we are setting out to create undemocratic places is simply a reflection of the times we live in”.


An openly-illiberal authoritarianism that claims the sun has set on the western liberal way is on the rise across Europe and at its fringes. This may not necessarily gate off public streets, or sell off public services but it attacks the commons by narrowing free channels for the circulation of ideas, sometimes by force.

Two-term prime minister and now president of Turkey Recep Erdogan has combined repression of dissent with a gradual incorporation of Islamic values into Turkish society (head scarves at university, no drinking after lights out) with a particularly aggressive form of urban development. The documentary Ekumenopolis makes Istanbul look as though it is in an almost permanent state of preparation for an Olympic Games.3 Residents and shopkeepers are priced out, bought out or forced out of their homes to make way for huge infrastructure projects and apartment complexes backed by an unstoppable armada of overlapping government, corporate and media power. It was, of course, a plan to turn a city centre park into a shopping mall (in the style of an Ottoman fortress) that provoked the Gezi Park protests in 2013. The plans for the removal of the park still appear to be on the drawing board. According to Newsweek, there are currently 100 billion dollars of construction projects slated for the city, including a road tunnel that will divert traffic into the historic centre of the city, an artificial Bosphorus canal and the world’s largest airport – seven times the size of London’s Heathrow.4 The government claims the projects are part of an effort to turn Istanbul into a “global city”. So ruthless is Erdogan’s regeneration programme that it has actually led to reports of paramilitary organizations that fight the police and “defend” areas of the city from “gentrification”.

Erdogan has admirers inside the European Union. The prime minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán recently declared his interest in creating an illiberal state in Turkey’s image. Since he was re-elected in 2010, he has eroded independent institutions, the judiciary and the media, entrenching his own position and that of his party Fidesz. In April 2011, he passed a constitutional reform, gagging the constitutional court, effectively allowing the government to pass any legislation it wishes. He has also purged state broadcasters and tried to drive the RTL out of the country. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in receipt of funding from international foundations have been blacklisted and it is becoming harder for them to operate. He has also proposed a tax on the internet and incredibly, is trying to introduce mandatory drug testing for all children, journalists and politicians.

This dismantling and erosion of the country’s constitutional checks and balances has led the director of European Alternatives, Lorenzo Marsili, to call for the European Union to place sanctions on Orbán, which could include suspension of voting rights in the European Council, withdrawal of structural funds or even suspension from the EU itself. Moreover, Péter Krekó – director of the Political Capital Institute, a Hungarian think-tank –, had already begun to argue in 2014 that Orbán’s example has powerful admirers across eastern Europe.5

Gold mines

The simplest of all commons is the air that we breathe. It may not be possible to enclose or privatize air, but it is possible to threaten it.

Poor regulation of heavy industry and mining has left Romania with a legacy of some of Europe’s most polluted towns and villages, for example. In the year 2000, millions of gallons of poisonous metals and cyanide poured out of a holding pond into the Danube and Tuzla rivers, killing 200 tons of fish and spreading a toxic tide across three countries. In Copsa Mica – a town dominated by smelting works for several generations – 96 per cent of children aged from two to 14 have chronic bronchitis and respiratory problems.

Despite widespread poverty and unemployment, new mining projects in Romania are hugely controversial. For the last 15 years a Canadian-owned company Gabriel Resources has been trying to open Europe’s largest open cast mine in Rosia Montana – an area of Western Transylvania in the Apuseni mountains. Local residents have refused to sell their houses to make way for it.

In recent years the campaign has assumed great importance. Between 2012 and 2013 it became an animating issue in some of the biggest protests Romania has seen since 1990. Rosia Montana has become a symbol for Romanian’s concern at the proposed privatization of their health service, the cosy relationship between politicians and the media, and the continuing impact of austerity policies. Public outrage has managed to hold back parliament from granting Gabriel Resources the permits it needs for compulsory purchase orders. However, with suggestions that mining companies are starting to construct mines without permits the struggle seems likely to continue.

Election failure

Democracy is the mother of all commons. Democratic values and the principle of self-government may be very much alive, but it is impossible to avoid the fact that its procedural moments – elections – are not.

Only five countries in the EU27 managed a turnout of more than 50 per cent in the 2014 elections for the European Parliament, which saw the lowest turnouts on record. In Slovakia the turnout was just 17 per cent. Political parties that reject the very institutions they were being elected to did better than ever.

Turnouts for domestic parliamentary and presidential elections are greater, but with only a handful topping 66 per cent, many countries are governed by parties, presidents and coalitions who have only received a mandate from a very small proportion of the population. Or at least, a much smaller proportion than the period between the end of the Second World War and the end of the century when most countries in Europe averaged turnouts of more than 80 per cent. Whether you blame politicians, voters, the nefarious hand of elites or a more subtle set of long-term social changes – if elections can’t command people’s confidence, then an important part of the commons will go ungoverned.


Perhaps the biggest threat to the commons comes not from venal politicians, self-serving corporations and dangerously disinterested voters, but rather, from all of us – from citizens who have internalized market norms and see themselves in an endless competition, blind to the common good and unquantifiable virtues. Fearful of this future, Jane Jacobs prophesied “the dark age ahead”, while Tony Judt apocalyptically declared that “ill fares the land” shortly before he died.

In 2011, Canadian essayist Flora Michaels won the Orwell prize for her book Monoculture, which argues that an “economistic” way of seeing ourselves has become dangerously pervasive.6 Economics, as she sees it, is no longer a social scientific discipline but, an all-pervasive dogma that frames our everyday lives. “It’s not that the economic story has no place in the world”, she argues. “But without […] other stories we have found essential throughout history, we imprison ourselves. When the languages of other stories begin to be lost, we lose the value of diversity and creativity that keeps our society viable. We’re left trying to translate something vitally important to us into economic terms so we can justify even talking about it […] we end up missing what it means to be human”.

These sentiments are echoed by the popular philosopher Michael Sandel, who laments a social shift from “having a market economy to being a market society” and the detrimental impact that this has on the discussion of competing values. If it is possible to sum up the desires of the post-2008 protesters across Europe it is perhaps that they want to live in something other than an economy. They too have come to see economics as a kind of dogma that needs to be overthrown – ironically in much the same way as the forefathers of economics saw the Church during the Enlightenment. One dogma for another.

For the commons!

Across Europe there are hundreds of organizations, networks and individuals that are passionate about these issues and campaign for the commons. What distinguishes these groups from other civil society groups is that they are arguing for and trying to create new kinds of common space. They are interested in reclaiming institutions, communities and buildings through agreements, rules and other devices to make them more accessible, democratic and useable. This, perhaps, is why Occupy has been such a powerful idea. It is metaphor for what these groups wish to achieve in other areas of public life – groups committed to reclaiming space.

That’s not of course to say that they aren’t concerned about fighting for rights and threatened class groups. But the desire to claim, demarcate and create new rules for space is perhaps a new way of voicing these concerns and expresses a desire to engage with the means of making new space rather than simply making demands.

The great symbolic, theatrical struggles for power used to take place at factory gates – now they take place in space. David Harvey calls it a fight for the Right to the City. Teatro Valle call it a spatial struggle. In Spain the municipalist parties are demanding a right to decide.

Reclaiming the political party

Europe has a new, “new left” and it is animated by the desire to “reclaim democracy”. A group of new political parties has emerged with an aspiration to reclaim collective decision making from what they see as a corrupt and broken political system. They aim to make a new kind of political party. Spain has Podemos, Partido X, Procés Constituent and across the country there are municipal parties that performed particularly well in municipal elections. Barcelona has Barcelona en Comu; Madrid has Ahora Madrid. They are all committed to “bottom-up” decision making and challenging the old order. For many involved in these parties, new forms of participation are an end in itself.

Elsewhere in Europe attempts to reinvent the political party are less evolved but the appetite is clear. Denmark has the Alternative founded by Denmark’s only independent MP Uffe Elbaek. Alternative describes itself as an “international, environmental and entrepreneurial party” and took around 5 per cent of the vote during recent elections. Scotland’s movement for independence is headed up by the Scottish Nationalist Party, which includes the “against the lot of them” vote. But on their fringes are groups like Common Weal and Bella Caledonia, which may yet produce a new “Podemos” style political party. In Poland, 36-year-old Slawomir Sierakowski leads the “Krytyka Polityczna” – or “Political Critique” movement (a magazine, cultural centre and think-tank). It is not a political party, but may become one in the future. To be consistent with Sierakowski’s ideas, it would need to be markedly different from what the other parties offer.

In 2013 and 2014, there were mass protests in Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria and Bosnia – the latter opened its own self-organized, democratic “plenums” across the country. It remains to be seen whether these countries will found parties like those in Spain and Greece and try to construct an alternative way of doing politics.

Italy of course has the Five Star Movement started by the Italian comedian Beppe Grillo in 2008. Five Star is committed to opposing and disrupting the institutions of representative democracy, passing decisions, via opinion polls, back to voters. The party finished third in last year’s parliamentary elections. Its MEPs signed a contract that could make them liable for a 250,000 euro fine if they are found to have broken the party’s code of conduct. The party is controversial and some critics suggest that passing votes back to party members is a vehicle for Grillo to exercise more control over his party rather than less. The Economist (smugly) calls it “simultaneously the most and least democratic of Italy’s political movements. And that theory, everything from the choice of election candidates to the removal of elected representatives, is decided online by the party rank-and-file. In practice, what Mr Grillo and Mr Casaleggio say goes, and neither was chosen by anyone”.7

Further afield the Net Party in Buenos Aires recently contested municipal elections on the pledge that they would pass all their voting decisions back directly to their members. Although Argentina is far from Europe, the Net Party’s Democracy OS operating system for “liquid democracy” is proving popular with social groups in Europe. On their Wikispace, they provide a list of 20 affiliated parties from across the world.

Reclaiming public space

The movement to reclaim public space across Europe includes a huge range of actors and approaches. Street artists, performers and free-runners who play with the social conventions of public space. Squatters, occupiers and campaigners who defend, occupy and reanimate neglected parks and buildings. Violent protest movements who fight the police and forcibly claim the streets as theirs. Most of the organizations and artists ECF supports fit in somewhere here.

These are not new strategies but they produce symbolically important events for movements preoccupied with reclaiming space. According to Igor Stiks of the University of Edinburgh, reclaiming public space has been particularly important for activists in the Balkans:

The Right to the City movement in 2009/2010 in Zagreb mobilized thousands in defence of a square in downtown Zagreb; in Dubrovnik citizens organized to defend a nearby hill from being turned into a golf resort; in Bosnia’s second largest city, Banja Luka, citizens tried to defend one of the few public parks; in Belgrade smaller mobilizations were triggered by cutting down old trees in one of the main streets, so as to obtain more parking space, or by destruction of a neighbourhood park; in Bulgaria in 2012 people demonstrated against the privatization of forests; in Romania in 2012 against the privatization of emergency services, and again against an ecologically disastrous gold mine project in Rosia Montana.8

In Poland, reclaiming public space and control of urban life is exercising a new generation. Civil society groups like The Right to the City, The Inhabitants Forum and the Housing Movement, operating under nationwide Urban Movements Congress, have successfully campaigned for participatory budgeting for planning consultations and against Krakow’s bid to host the Olympic Games. In recent elections the Urban Movement, which ran for the first time in elections as a nationwide coalition of city activists, won the mayoral seat in Gorzow Wielkopolski, in western Poland, and a number of city council seats in cities like Warsaw, Poznan and Torun.
The struggle for public space takes place indoors too. In recent years both at Embros in Athens and Teatro Valle in Rome, groups of activists have come together to occupy theatres and keep their work alive. At Teatro Valle, occupiers rallied under the slogan, “Like air and water, culture is a commons” and “Teatro Valle is a commons”. They set about creating transparent and democratic ways to run the theatre. These occupations are symbolic and real interventions in keeping the gift-economy of culture alive when its value isn’t recognized by the state or possible within a purely market-based approach. In a similar but less direct way, Liberate Tate in London has been periodically occupying Tate Modern to embarrass it into divesting itself of oil sponsorship.

2014 also saw protests sparked across Spain in response to an attempt by the Barcelona government to shut down the Centro Social Autogestionado Can Vies, a social centre in Barcelona that had been occupied since 1997. In the wake of protests in Barcelona, Valencia and Majorca, the municipal authorities agreed to suspend the demolition. At the time of writing this, at the end of May 2015, there are seven social centres in Barcelona in former bank buildings that are under eviction orders and many other struggles to defend other social centres in Spain – like the campaign to save Casa Grande del Pumarejo in Seville. In Bologna in Italy, street artist Blu recently painted a mural on the side of XM24, a social centre that has had to fight several battles against demolition.

Reclaiming housing

Europe has a growing housing movement that seeks to defend tenants from landlords, campaigns to stop people being priced out of their homes and argues for housing at an affordable price. Housing is a commons issue because people in precarious accommodation are restricted from having a place in the commons. Few in it would argue for all housing everywhere to be placed in common ownership, but the movement is committed to stopping housing becoming a tradable commodity – ensuring that it can be accessed by all people without fear of being exploited. We may not all want to live in an intentional community, but that doesn’t mean that a house should be treated as an exclusively private commodity. Interestingly though, the outrage at the #poordoor – separate entrances for people living in lower value housing in luxury developments – illustrates that many people feel there should be “a commons” of sorts in private buildings.

Since 2006 in Paris a group of artist-activists Jeudi Noir (Black Thursday Collective) have been campaigning and launching direct actions on housing issues. Among many demands they ask for a cessation in increases to rent controls and pressurize politicians to honour commitments to affordable housing. Their direct actions have included occupying an apartment near former President Sarkozy’s Paris home as well as staging parties in, and occupying show-flats in luxury housing developments. These tactics have been copied in London, which has a rapidly growing network of small groups campaigning on housing issues. In Scotland there is a new campaign to control rents. Most cities across Europe are affected by evictions, foreclosures, unscrupulous landlords and the lack of affordable or public housing – especially in the south and in the most unequal cities.

MIPIM – a massive international conference for the regeneration industry held in Cannes every March –has become a target for all these groups.

What passes for common sense

So there you have it. Some threats to the commons and the rearguard to shore them up. As I mentioned before, Erdogan still hopes to see Gezi Park in Istanbul turned into a shopping centre. Making sure it gets built is clearly about more than creating somewhere for people to go shopping. Maybe that’s because these kinds of disputes aren’t just about claiming a commons, they are also an attempt by those with power and those without it to determine what passes as common sense …

Further resources

For further resources on the commons, cities and culture assembled by Charlie Tims during the ECF’s 2015 Idea Camp, see here.

Gwyn Topham, "East Coast rail line returns to private hands", The Guardian, 1 March 2015, www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/mar/01/east-coast-rail-line-returns-to-private-hands

Alexander Christie-Miller, "Erdogan's grand construction projects are tearing Istanbul apart", Newsweek, 31 July 2014,

Péter Krekó, "More Hungarys in eastern Europe?", openDemocracy, 27 August 2014, www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/p%C3%A9ter-krek%C3%B3/more-hungarys-in-eastern-europe

Flora S. Michaels, Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything, Red Clover, 2011

Igor Stiks and Srecko Horvat, "The new Balkan revolts: From protests to plenums and beyond", openDemocracy, 12 March 2014, www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/igor-%C5%A1tiks-sre%C4%87ko-horvat/new-balkan-revolts-from-protests-to-plenums-and-beyond

Published 26 April 2016
Original in English
First published by ECF / Krytyka Polityczna (eds.), Build the City: Perspectives on Commons and Culture, 2015

Contributed by European Cultural Foundation © Charlie Tims / European Cultural Foundation / Eurozine



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