Some of the most interesting new commons are those that you don’t usually hear about, probably because they are so small or local. I recently stumbled across the New Cross Commoners and was quite impressed with their zeal and ingenuity in exploring the meaning of commoning in their district of South London. The “About” section of the New Cross Commoners website explains their mission quite nicely:
Capitalism is the term we can use to call the private / public system that dominates not only the economy but also our social relations and our lives. Our desires and efforts for a good life together get exploited by capitalism (see for example “Big Society”). Commoning can be a process of struggle to reclaim those efforts and desires for ourselves. A commoning that is worth of its name, one not entirely exploited by the private / public system, implies a degree of struggle against this private / public system. It also implies a negotiation amongst the people who produce it: we are “privatized” as well, we need to learn how to live together, how to take care of each other collectively.
To understand what is commoning in New Cross we’ll read and discuss texts together, and at the same time we’ll explore the neighbourhood to find out what processes of commoning are already part of the life of New Cross (we’ll start with communal gardens, housing associations, youth and community centres, and the New Cross library). We would like not only to understand the commoning already produced in New Cross, but also to produce new commoning here: to share and organize skills and resources in such a way that this sharing can become more and more autonomous from private / public interests, from the market, from interests that are not those of the people using them.
The New Cross Commoners website is an inspiration to other would-be commoners who may wish to rediscover commoning in their own neighborhoods and towns. The group has held meetings at which they discuss essays by the commons historians such as Peter Linebaugh; Massimo De Angelis, and Silvia Federici, for example. They have met together to brew beer and drink it when it was ready.
When the London city government closed the New Cross library in 2011 because of austerity cuts, some commoners [acting before New Cross Commoners was formed] negotiated with the city council to re-open the library as a commons – i.e., a library run by volunteers. In the process, the library has become much more than a library; it has become a place that welcomes people to organize their own activities according to their own rules. The commoners have liberated themselves from the kinds of arbitrary, inscrutable decisions of remote government institutions or the profit-making requirements of businesses.
But then there is that perennial question of how to support the commons. The New Cross Commoners ask: “….in the context of the commons and commoning, …is it fair for the people running the library not to get paid when they do such a brilliant job?” At some point, many commons must embark upon a negotiation with the state. The “public/commons” paradigm of commoners in Naples working with the municipal government is a model worth exploring.
The New Cross Commoners take history seriously because it helps explain so much about today’s problems. So, for example, they organized a radical history walk in nearby Deptford. The group walked through historic sites after reading Peter Linebaugh’s book, The London Hanged, which describes how many colonizing voyages and slave-hunting expeditions were launched in Deptford.
The New Cross Commoners also mapped their local resources and opportunities. Recently the group drew up a map that identified “abandoned spaces (pieces of wild land, empty buildings, shops closed….), natural or artificial public resources we should have more access to (the beach, parks, universities….) and places where some kinds of commoning are happening.” The mapping project brings to mind the effort by Hackitectura, “Mapping the Commons,” which superimposed videos of various commons sites on a Google Map.
Some of the places where commoning occur in New Cross include a weekly poetry workshop at the public library, the Sanford Housing Coop, and the Brockley Nature Reserve. The reserve is an amazing urban forest that a group of volunteers cut and trim to make it accessible. They combine this mission with efforts to educate people about the history of the site. It turns out that the forest was grossly over-exploited by corporations and the state, and has only regenerated itself after decades.
I’d love to hear of other such adventures in local commoning. If you know of any, please share them here in the comments section. We need to know more about these important experiments.