January’s readings

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We’ll try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

Uneven Earth updates

We’ve launched our series on sci-fi, near-futures, utopias, and dystopias, Not afraid of the ruins. The first three stories are now online! Expect a new piece every Friday.

Borne on a damaged planet | Link | Two books that do the hard work of thinking through the Anthropocene

Library | Link | A climate change poem

The naked eyes | Link | “Keith’s livelihood was sandwiched between an ocean of algorithms and a ceiling of decision-making programs.”

Why the left needs Elinor Ostrom |  Link | An interview with Derek Wall, author of Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals, on the need to think beyond market and state.

Our printing press’ first paperback, In defense of degrowth, is hot off the press! You can order it at indefenseofdegrowth.com.

   

You might have missed…

Defend Afrin!

Turkey, commanding the second-largest NATO army, has attacked the predominantly Kurdish region in Syria building a feminist & democratic governance system. The region under attack, Afrin, has gone the furthest in institutionalizing women’s liberation. You can follow any updates or find local protests via #DefendAfrin.

More and more environmental activists are getting killed

The “Environmental Warriors” series from the LA Times chronicles stories from around the world, showing why and how increasingly more environmental activists are faced with repression and violence.

Indigenous occupation of oil platforms in the Amazon

“This is not a symbolic action.” An investigative piece from The Intercept.

In India, women are fed up and starting their own agricultural collectives

“The movement is led by educated Dalit youth, who know they have been cheated of land that is rightfully theirs.”

Brazil announces end to Amazon mega-dam building policy

While many threats to the Amazon remain, indigenous and environmental groups celebrated this victory which can be partly attributed to their resistance.

The World Bank admits it botched Chile’s competitiveness ranking, charged with political manipulation

This is important. The International Organisation’s dealings often don’t get much scrutiny, but their reports can make or break a country. An informative Twitter thread here.

A victory for the movement against airports?

The Zone à défendre (ZAD) achieved a victory this month: France announced that it would no longer build the airport in Notre-Dame-des-Landes. But for ZADistas, it is a half-victory: “While we are trying to prevent the construction of an airport, more than 400 others are being planned or built around the world.”

Where we’re at: analysis

Happy new year! Essays on loneliness, happiness, and an accelerating world

We’re more lonely now than ever: an article on the science of loneliness. To ramble: an ode to the stroll and loitering. An investigation into the new culture of mindfulness in the corporate world. A New Yorker article on the happiness industry. And a Jacobin piece on ‘neoliberal perfectionism’ and how it stands in the way of solidarity and a collective agency.

Maria Kaika on the falsehoods of urban sustainability

Smart cities, green urbanism, livable cities. The catchy terms keep proliferating, but does it come with better policies? Maria Kaika, foremost theorist on cities, opens up a bag of worms in this interview.

The globalisation of slums

An essay by urban geographer Pushpa Arabindoo on the increasing ubiquity of slums—and conversation about them—around the world.

A memo to Canada: acknowledge Indigenous right to self-determination

A striking essay on Canada’s broken relationship with Indigenous people.

The case against GMOs: it’s the industry, stupid

Charles Eisenstein widens the frame on the GMO discussion. “If you believe that society’s main institutions are basically sound, then it is indeed irrational to oppose GMOs.”

Seven cheap things

Last month we shared an interview with Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore about their new book: A history of the world in seven cheap things. This is a critical review by Ian Angus at Climate and Capitalism.

The book that incited a worldwide fear of overpopulation

How The Population Bomb triggered a wave of repression around the world.

Leading Marxist scholar David Harvey on Trump, Wall Street and debt peonage

“often current events are analyzed in a vacuum that almost never includes the context or history necessary to understand what is new, what is old and how we got to where we are.”

New politics

Two years of radical municipalism in Barcelona

A documentary about what happened in Barcelona and why it matters, including resources for discussing the video with your local group. An inspiring interview on the new politics in Spain, and how people have used the internet in creative ways. Eight lessons from the last two years of radical municipalism. A report on the first Fearless Cities conference last year held in Barcelona, and another report on the Catalan Integral Cooperative, which is experimenting with a new economic system in the shell of the old.

New strategies to organize tenants

“Today’s tenant organizers confront a highly fragmented and individualized rental sector. The challenge, then, is not just to mobilize tenants but to create a shared sense of being a tenant.”

Living through the catastrophe

Editorial from the seventh issue of ROAR magazine, which examines the social and political nature of climate change. The issue also features an explainer on the relevance of Murray Bookchin’s work for today’s climate crisis.

Climate change and the humanities: a historical perspective

“If we can resist the age-old impulse to define binary oppositions between ways of knowing—scientific versus humanistic, expert versus popular—we will be in a better position to join forces across those divides towards understanding and action”, argues Deborah Cohen.

Atlantic freedoms

“Haiti, not the US or France, was where the assertion of human rights reached its defining climax in the Age of Revolution.” In light of President Trump’s recent ‘shithole’ comments, this article from 2016 on Haiti’s revolutionary history is worth revisiting.

The shitty new communist futurism

Aaron kicks off a new series of articles on the ENTITLE blog which questions the foundations of ‘eco-modernist socialism’ and ‘communist futurism’ as proposed in Jacobin’s climate change issue Earth, Wind, and Fire.

Resources

A reading list on Indigenous climate justice

How to get new activists to stay engaged for the long haul

There’s been upsurge in activism since the Trump election, but how do we keep people engaged? A nice how-to from Waging Nonviolence.

A critical framework for a just recovery

With increasing natural disasters and the retreat of the state, more and more people are getting involved with grassroots disaster response movements. Movement Generation has put out a document with a guiding framework for how to do people-based recovery. PDF here.

What’s happening in Puerto Rico?

A thorough syllabus on the island’s history and its not-so-natural catastrophes.

Sci-fi and the near future

Ursula K. Le Guin on the need to end the narrative of the triumphant hero

“It is with a certain feeling of urgency that I seek the nature, subject, words of the other story, the untold one, the life story.” Ursula K. Le Guin has died, and there are so many more worlds to explore. We’ll build them with her in our hearts. This is one of our favorite pieces by her, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.”

Luxury home developments of the future will include patented ecosystems

“Entire landscapes, replete with designer insects and subscription seed stock, will have the potential to be recognised as protected intellectual property. The proprietary ecosystem will emerge, financially and biologically controlled by a particular hotel chain, property developer or private homeowner.”

Climate gentrification?

Welcome to the future: climate change will mean a new math for real estate investment.

Solarpunk wants to save the world

Move over cyberpunk. Say hello the new kid on the sci-fi block, solarpunk.

The world is full of monsters

We like our stories filled with weird creatures. A collection of shorts by Jeff VanderMeer.

Welcome to the wasteland

Ok, this isn’t sci-fi, but it certainly feels like it. A graphic illustration of a post-apocalyptic festival.

A strategy for ruination

An interview with China Miéville about the limits of utopia.

Carbon omissions

“with looming climate change and the decline of cheap oil, I couldn’t shake the question of what would power all these gadgets, and none of the futurists seemed to bring it up.”

Writing

On seeing and beeing seen: Writing about Indigenous issues with love

“To truly write from another experience in an authentic way, you need more than empathy. You need to write with love.” By Alice Elliott.

Women writing about the wild: 25 essential authors

A primer on some of the best nature writing you probably haven’t read yet.

 

These newsletters are put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

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Why the left needs Elinor Ostrom

Image: WikiCommons

By Aaron Vansintjan

At some point during the Quebec student strike of 2012, I found myself in an enormous protest in downtown Montreal. We took up the street as far as the eye could see. All of a sudden, a mass of people dressed in black stormed down the other half of the road. The anarchist contingent, going the wrong way.

The effect was incredible: here we were, in the thousands, all walking together in one direction to demand tuition subsidized by the state, and simultaneously, thousands of others were calling for an end to the state, walking the other way. I climbed onto the concrete divider in the center of the street separating the two lanes, unsure of which side I should join.

One protest, two directions: a neat metaphor for the tension in the Left today. We are trying to choose between supporting welfare programs and rejecting the top-down nature of the state itself. Just as education, health insurance, and welfare need to be protected, the state plays a key role in environmental destruction, securitization and policing, and international wars. How can we resolve this tension?

If you try to figure out what role the state should have, you’ll inevitably be led to a list of great thinkers: Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, and, for a more contemporary twist, Thomas Piketty or Amartya Sen.

Her work sought to think political economy beyond both the state and the market.

Rarely does Elinor Ostrom appear on that list—but she certainly deserves to be included. Ostrom spent much of her life trying to figure out how people solve problems of distribution amongst themselves, and why some communities are able to share resources while others are not. Her work sought to think political economy beyond both the state and the market—something that many of those giants of political theory had not, thus far, been able to do very well. In other words, she could think in two directions, at the same time.

I’ve always thought that, for people interested in social progress, engaging with Ostrom’s work is crucial. Unfortunately, she’s not very well known. It’s not that Elinor Ostrom’s work is hard to get hold of; her relative obscurity is probably more related to the fact that it’s not that easy to figure out the wider implications of her research. Her work can help us think about austerity, state welfare, the market, local democracy, and environmental issues. But how it would do so is rarely made explicit.

Luckily, this gap has now been rectified in the new book, Elinor Ostrom’s rules for radicals: Cooperative alternatives beyond markets and states, by Derek Wall and published by Pluto Press. Wall is a politician (as a Green Party candidate he stood against Theresa May in the 2017 General Elections) and activist who spends much of his time writing about radical politics, social movements, political theory, and left strategy.

As its title suggests, the book is directed at people on the left (‘radicals’). Wall describes this book as a bite-size take on his more serious and dry PhD-thesis-length tome, The Sustainable economics of Elinor Ostrom: Commons, contestation, and craft. There is little dryness here, though, as Wall peppers the book with little detours and passionate reflections on subjects as diverse as Occupy Wall Street, Rojava, and the TV show The Wire.

Throughout the book the main sense I got was a wholehearted excitement about and admiration for Elinor Ostrom’s work. Apart from its very necessary contribution to leftist strategy and thought, it is this enthusiasm that propels the book forward, making it an enjoyable and light read.

With a nod to Saul Alinsky, Wall starts the book with 13 very short ‘rules for radicals’, which include ‘be specific’, ‘collective ownership can work’, ‘map power’, and ‘no panaceas’. These may not make much sense at first, but as you read the book, they form the basic threads of his argument and help to create a coherent picture of Ostrom’s work and how it can inform the left.

I was able to attend the book launch in London this past November, and we had agreed that I could ask some questions after. During the talk, Wall—wearing a Kurdish scarf and expressing solidarity with his friend Mehmet Aksoy who has recently passed away—talked more about the stories he knew about Ostrom than the contents of his book itself. He referred to her as ‘Elinor’, as if talking about a dear friend, and the audience laughed along as he told us about her meeting with the political economist Garrett Hardin, and Wall’s own encounter with her shortly before she passed away.

Later, over drinks at the pub across the street, we huddled together to talk about Rojava, Marxism, ecosocialism, and today’s new social movements—not at all in the right state for a serious interview. So we decided to leave it to an email later. The following is the result of our email exchange, edited lightly for brevity and flow.

 

Say I’m a socialist unfamiliar with Ostrom’s work. What’s your 1-minute pitch? Why should I care?

Socialism, someone said, is about sharing.  Marxists argue that means of production need to be owned by the whole community.  Elinor gives us the tools to do the job, a hard-nosed, flexible approach to communal ownership based on science, research, and pragmatism.  Her insight that collective ownership is possible makes the apparently radical reasonable.

What kind of person was Elinor Ostrom? How do you think that shows in her work?

She was a fun open human being, she would talk to anybody, and was known to take care to answer questions that came in emails from across the planet. She was interested in practical problem solving and opposed any kind of dogma.  She was not that kind of elitist ivory tower academic but respected others and sought to learn from the grassroots.

In the beginning of the book you have a list of 13 rules for radicals. One of them is ‘pose social change as problem solving’? What do you mean by this?

In politics we tend to think in terms of conspiracies and slogans.  Politics is too often seen as replacing an elite with an alternative set of leaders. This is at best insufficient. I am not fundamentally against electoral politics in a liberal context but they are limited.  The Ostrom approach is about participation, creating a deeply democratic society instead of replacing ‘bad people’ with ‘good people’ at the top of a structure.

Politics is too often seen as replacing an elite with an alternative set of leaders. This is at best insufficient.

In turn, we too often have a kind of magical and ideological thinking where we are for ‘good things’ and against ‘bad things’, promoting broad slogans or writing manifestos with sets of demands.  Instead we need to view the good things we would like to achieve such as ecology, equality, and freedom as challenges to meet.  The history of the left shows that whether we are talking about reform or revolution, practical problems and entrenched power structures can transform good intentions into restoration of oppression.

Specifically, Elinor Ostrom looked at ‘commons’ as a matter of problem solving.  She didn’t believe that commons were either doomed to failure (the so-called tragedy of the commons) or a universal solution. Instead she noted that some things were inevitably held in common—for example, its difficult for an individual to own a river or the seas—and then looked at how to solve the problem of overuse.  I think this is a good approach!

What do you think explains the paucity of awareness about Elinor Ostrom’s work?

Ostrom’s approach is difficult to place, she was often inspired by thinkers on the free market right like James Buchanan and Hayek but in doing so challenged market based notions of purely private property and the market.  Her uncanny ability to upset those who seek to summarise her ideas as simple slogans means her ideas can be challenging.  However interest in the left is growing, for example, the Indigenous leader and revolutionary Hugo Blanco cites her and her approach seems to describe much of what the Kurds and their allies are trying to achieve in Rojava.

How do you think Ostrom’s work relates to Marxism?

For a start, Marxism has stressed class struggle and macro change. Marxists have argued that revolution will transform society and provide a break from old oppressive structures with the introduction of communism.  Ostrom’s micro analysis about how you build practical institutional structures to promote more ecological, equal and diverse societies, can be rejected as irrelevant by the left.  Constructing these structures is a waste of time in capitalism because Marxists might argue capitalist systems will destroy them.  Indeed it is good to be critical of Ostrom from this perspective because she didn’t focus on the real tragedy of the commons, the fact that commons were enclosed and commoners expelled by the rich and powerful. However if you don’t think about the nuts and bolts of governance in a post capitalist society, revolution, in my opinion, will fail to produce institutions that genuinely promote liberation.

When we talked the other night you mentioned that the left often thinks in terms of revolution, but has little plan of how to set up resource management and governance systems afterwards. Could you explain what you mean by this? How do you think Ostrom’s work can be helpful in that regard?

Ostrom was fascinated by the practice of participation and looked in some detail at how to build alternative structures.

Getting there by destroying repressive power structures is the task of revolutionaries and remains essential.  However revolutions can only be the start. Any post-revolutionary society is in danger of reproducing the previous ways of doing things. Therefore thinking carefully about institutional decisions to make sure that post-revolutionary structures work to promote participation and genuine democratic control is essential but too often forgotten.  Ostrom was fascinated by the practice of participation and looked in some detail at how to build alternative structures, in doing so she provides both radical inspiration and practical suggestions.  You can see how the best of the Latin American lefts thinkers, for example, Marta Harnecker, both advocate commons and a more nuanced understanding of institutional factors if we are to transform society in a direction which is sustainable (in both ecological and social terms).

You mention the Kurdish struggle in Rojava. How do you think Ostrom’s work can help us understand the situation there? Have you had any conversations with Kurdish activists about her work?

Yes many times. The Kurds and their allies in Rojava are putting forward the ideas of Ocalan and Bookchin, based on ecology, feminism, diversity, and self-management. Ostrom’s work fits with this and I often talked to Kurdish activists about her work. Sadly my friend Mehmet Aksoy was killed by ISIS in Raqqa in September, Mehmet was a journalist and filmmaker from North London.  His loss is huge to all who knew him.  He commissioned me to write an article about Elinor Ostrom and Rojava, you can find it here.

You seem excited about the new book you’re writing, a biography of the Indigenous leader, Hugo Blanco. Could you tell me a bit about it?

Hugo is perhaps the most important ecosocialist leader on the planet.  In 1962 he led an uprising for Indigenous land rights, when he was a member of the Fourth International in Peru. This was successful and brought land reform but he was imprisoned until 1970. Aged 83, he is still an active militant and publishes the newspaper Lucha Indigena (Indigenous struggle). I am in the happy position of getting emails from him nearly every day. Elinor Ostrom was about cooperation rather than political militancy and revolution, and yet they are very similar individuals—committed to ecological matters and friends to Indigenous people.  He has lived through prison, exile, being a Senator, and is still very busy. In recent years he has been supporting communities opposing destructive mining projects in the North of Peru. The Zapatistas in Mexico have been a big influence on his thinking, which has shifted from more traditional Leninism to a more horizontal and anarchist approach. He is a very inspiring person and astute political thinker, so I want to spread both his words and wisdom and Elinor’s.

This is a question for the New Year. You’re a Marxist, a Green Party candidate, you ascribe to Zen Buddhism, and your work now is focusing on Hugo Blanco, Elinor Ostrom, and Louis Althusser. What are some common questions, concerns, ideas, or passions that will drive you in the next year?

I am not a believer in one political organisation being ‘correct’ to the exclusion of all others.

Its sounds quite disparate when you put it like that.  My key focus is how to challenge the ecological crisis that threatens both humanity and other species.  This is a crisis of economic growth, we can’t produce, consume, and waste at increasing levels without challenging basic biological cycles on planet Earth.  So Marx’s analysis of Capitalism remains to me vital to understanding the cause of ecological crisis in terms of an entire social and economic system based on growth. Marx once noted, ‘Accumulate, accumulate is Moses and the Prophets’— the secular religion of capitalism puts economic expansion and profit at the centre of everything. Louis Althusser, a highly controversial figure, remains to my mind the most sophisticated reader of Marx. So, yes, I have a passion for thinking about green politics and acting to further green politics but I am keen to be flexible in what I do. While from Trump and climate change the outlook seems bleak, there is an upsurge of enthusiasm for radical politics, so in the coming year I hope to support and empower the emergence of political alternatives. I am not a believer in one political organisation being ‘correct’ to the exclusion of all others, so amongst other things I am excited, on the one hand, by efforts to green Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and on the other within the Green Party work of a new generation of activists, for example, Aimee Challenor in promoting LGBTIQ politics.

Politics is endless struggle. Both Elinor Ostrom and Hugo Blanco have made me rethink how I do politics, making it more radical and practical, so spreading the word about their work will continue to be significant to me. And, yes, once I have finished writing the Hugo Blanco book, I will start writing Althusser for Revolutionaries.

 

Aaron Vansintjan is a PhD student researching food and cities, and a co-editor of Uneven Earth. He recently edited the book by Giorgos Kallis, In defense of degrowth, which is now available in print.

Elinor Ostrom’s rules for radicals: Cooperative alternatives beyond markets and states by Derek Wall is available from Pluto Press

Opening a crack in history

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Barceloneta residents at the demonstration reclaiming El Segle XX building, January 11 2014. Photo by Pedro Mata, Fotomovimiento.

by Santiago Gorostiza

When Aymara people in South-America look ahead they are facing the past. Literally. Researchers who investigated Aymara language and gestures have established that, unlike all the studied cultures and languages of the world, they refer to the past by gesturing ahead, while the future is situated behind oneself. The example of the Aymara indigenous people, when reflecting on how history can be useful for activists participating in socio-environmental conflicts, challenges our preconditioned views. We can put history into the foreground, not just as the background or the context of present events but as a central resource for the present and the future.

“All history is contemporary history”—Benedetto Croce.

But it is not only that we all write and research within the context of our own time. It is also that the stories and narrations that we unveil impact us now. They can affect how we look at the past—but especially, when it involves social movements, they can also shape how we look at the present and at the future, at what is conceived as possible and impossible today and tomorrow.

As the Zapatistas claim, it is necessary to “open a crack” in history. On January 1st 1994, the very same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force, the Zapatistas launched their revolt in the mountains of Southeast Mexico. From their very First Declaration, they emphasised they were the result of 500 years of resistance to colonialism.

A crack also disrupts the idea of unidirectional, non-linear history, opening a loophole that challenges views of what is in front of us and what in our backs. Once the past is reclaimed, the door to reclaim the future swings open.

One of the expressions of such resistance is precisely their critique of how history has been written. A history that tells the story of the elites just makes the present state of things seem natural, leaves aside the subalterns and silences their past. Against this type of historical appropriation, Zapatistas claim the need to “open a crack”– to write the history of the exploited. A crack that also disrupts the idea of unidirectional, non-linear history, opening a loophole that challenges views of what is in front of us and what in our backs. A crack that permits us to look to the past ahead—like the Aymara—as memories of the alternative non-disposable future. Once the past is reclaimed, the door to reclaim the future swings open.

Reclaiming silenced pasts is a task to be done both in the archives and the streets, both in libraries and mountains, listening to stories and reading dusty records. It can be about how a revolution was silenced and obliterated from history, as shown in the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot on the late 18th century in Haiti. And also about how dictatorships try to wipe out the memory and heritage of those who opposed them. When, like in Spain, elites have succeeded to remain in power for decades, the stories of disappeared workers and activists and their emancipatory projects frustrated by a 40-year long dictatorship risk being left aside and silenced forever.

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Poet and Barceloneta neighbour Paco Jover, who passed away in 2015, at the demonstration for El Segle XX, January 11, 2014. Source: Photo by Pedro Mata, Fotomovimiento.

The Case of the Segle XX building in Barceloneta

In December 2013, residents of La Barceloneta (Barcelona, Spain) announced a demonstration to reclaim the empty building of the El Segle XX (“The Twentieth Century”) cooperative for its public use. El Segle XX had been founded in 1901, but after years of decline during the Francoist dictatorship, the cooperative was dissolved in the late 1980s and the building was later abandoned.

The importance of several cooperatives—El Segle XX among them—as spaces of socialization, consumption, and culture  since the late Nineteenth century soon emerged as a central aspect of the residents’ memories.

At least since 2008, the neighbourhood association La Òstia began collecting information about the history of the neighbourhood and interviewing veteran residents. The importance of several cooperatives—El Segle XX among them—as spaces of socialization, consumption, and culture  since the late Nineteenth century soon emerged as a central aspect of the residents’ memories. Later, the Barceloneta Cooperative Memory Research Group (Grup de Recerca de la Memòria Cooperativa de la Barceloneta) continued the work of the association by diving into archives, recording interviews, organising guided tours, and other activities.Similar projects in other neighbourhoods of the city, such as Sants or Poblenou, supported by the cooperative La Ciutat Invisible, greatly contributed to the impulse of the project.

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Poster “El Segle XX és pel barri” (“The Twentieth Century is for the neighbourhood”). Source: Grup de Recerca de la Memòria Cooperativa de la Barceloneta.

Barceloneta is historically a working-class neighbourhood with low salaries and few public and social facilities, but is now under high touristic pressure. And so the use of the El Segle XX building became a symbolic claim to the municipality.

Since the last decades of the nineteenth century, as part of a wider international movement, cooperatives grew in importance in Barcelona. In Catalonia, cooperatives had their heyday during the democratic period of the Second Republic (1931-1939) when thousands of families became members. Very often, they had their own theatres, bars, and shops. Consumption cooperatives allowed the avoidance of intermediaries between consumers and producers and thus brought urban space closer to the surrounding agricultural environment that fed it.

However, following the military coup that unleashed the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and with the victory of Franco over the Republicans, cooperatives never regained the activity hey had had before. In fact, during the conflict, Barcelona was on the Republican side and Barceloneta was bombed so heavily that it had to be evacuated. El Segle XX was hit by Fascist bombings and reduced to ashes. Although the building was rebuilt after the war, its activity languished during the dictatorship, and most cooperatives were dissolved and their buildings sold. After the cooperative slowly dissolved, the El Segle XX building passed to private hands in the 1990s.

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Leaflet of Barceloneta’s Deleted Geography. Source: Geografia Esborrada de la Barceloneta.

Although the land on which the building is built was categorised by the City Council as a public facility, rumours of private commercial projects for the building started circulating. Already feeling increased pressure from gentrification and tourism, residents were getting uneasy.

In the final days of 2013, two weeks before a scheduled demonstration, an apparently fortuitous fire damaged part of the building. This event fostered a united front of the associations and residents of the quarter, and just a few weeks later, more than 30 organisations signed a statement asking the District to either expropriate or buy the Segle XX building. They also demanded a transparent investigation of the fire and the legal state of the building property, as well as the commitment of the City Council to keep the building categorized as a public facility.

Recording memories, collecting scans of old pictures and newspapers, finding old records or mapping places that have disappeared, residents have found a way to narrate their own story.

At the end of the demonstration in front of the El Segle XX building, several residents intervened by emphasising the historical role of the cooperative in Barceloneta. The march ended with two posters plastered on the wall of the building. One vindicated the historical memory of cooperativism with a quote from 1899; the other was a blank poster to be filled by participants with their ideas for the future uses of the space, under the title “What do we want for El Segle XX?” (“Què volem per al Segle XX?”). In the same fashion, the website of the Barceloneta Cooperative Memory Research Group, whose members had an active role in the march, stated clearly their views on the uses of the memory of cooperativism:

“More than an exercise of historical memory, it comes to us as a memory of the future: the practices of cooperation give us a powerful tool to face a present of cutbacks in social services and to build a shared future”.

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Residents of Barceloneta in front of the El Segle XX building at the end of a demonstration, January 11, 2014. Source: El Periódico.

 

Unearthing stories of the past, reconnecting struggles for the future

In a rapidly changing barri (neighbourhood), with growing pressure from luxury tourism stimulating higher rents and pushing former residents out, associations have resorted to historical research to enhance their struggles. Recording memories, collecting scans of old pictures and newspapers, finding old records or mapping places that have disappeared, residents have found a way to narrate their own story.

As highlighted by activist researcher Emma Alari, participatory mapping has been an essential tool in the neighbourhood’s struggles. Maps were used by Barceloneta’s residents to display the different threats suffered by the neighbourhood. The collaboration with mapping activists Iconoclasistas, who illustrated the dangers faced by the neighbourhood by creating a map for the residents, is a good example of this.

But mapping can also be a historical project. By mapping both long- and recently-disappeared places in “Geografia Esborrada de la Barceloneta” (“Barceloneta’s Deleted Geography”), residents not only narrate their history but configure an emotional geography of the barri, which binds together the stories of squatted houses already demolished with the story of buildings like El Segle XX or the Escola del Mar, a wood-constructed school on the seaside, which was burnt by Fascist bombings during the Spanish Civil War.

Such stories are disseminated by walking and talking together with residents (on organised guided tours), and through making audio recordings available online. These stories weave new connections between the past, the present, and the imagined futures. The guided tours in particular provide chances for interaction between those researching the history of the neighbourhood and their inhabitants, confronting and enriching each other’s stories. Residents’ relations to the space are connected with historical research about its uses by past social movements.

After years of actions and campaigns in the neighbourhood, the Barcelona City Council has finally committed to starting the process of expropriation of the El Segle XX building to give it back to the barri. The struggle, however, is far from over. As the recuperation of the building is close to becoming a reality, the neighbourhood association/assembly  is designing  its own project for the uses of the building through a grassroots process. In a major open meeting in the square, residents wrote their ideas for the future uses of the cooperative building on several large-size copies of the 1939 project drawings to rebuild the cooperative after the war, which had been located in the archives.

Nostalgia, often dismissed as over-romanticization, can also be an emotion connected to transformation and even revolution. Past experiences are opportunities for reinvention, possibilities for alliances across time.

This wasn’t just a practical way to collect all the ideas for the different floors of the building and a reminder of the building’s past. It was also a symbolic gesture: the maps of the project to rebuild El Segle XX after the Fascist bombings and the occupation of Barcelona in 1939 were recycled 76 years later to discuss an alternative future with the barri’s residents. The past can be a resource for imagining alternative futures—in a very material way.

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Planning the future of the El Segle XX cooperative on the base of the 1939 maps located in the municipal archive. Photo by Santiago Gorostiza.

While some would see a gloomy and nostalgic flavour in this struggle, activists explicitly state that they don’t intend to idealise, nor to romanticise, a return to a static lost past. They want to learn lessons about past experiences tried and failed, understand past hopes for imagined futures, explore the daily life and the problems of the neighbourhood in the past and its connections to today. Michael Löwy has suggested that Walter Benjamin used “nostalgia for the past as a revolutionary method for the critique of the present”. Nostalgia, often dismissed as over-romanticization, can also be an emotion connected to transformation and even revolution. Past experiences are opportunities for reinvention, possibilities for alliances across time. Stories like the one told by the El Segle XX building can be, as Italian authors Wu Ming and Vitaliano Ravagli have asserted, “axes of war to be unearthed”.

A version of the article appeared previously on the Entitle Blog. This post is also part of a series sharing chapters from the edited volume Political Ecology for Civil Society. Santiago Gorostiza’s contribution is included in the chapter on social movements. We are eager to receive comments from readers and especially from activists and civil actors themselves, on how this work could be improved, both in terms of useful content, richness of examples, format, presentation and overall accessibility.

Santiago Gorostiza is a PhD candidate trained both as an Environmental Scientist and as a Historian. He investigates socioenvironmental conflicts during the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship. His research interests include urban geography, the environmental history of war and the role of historical research in political ecology.


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In defense of common space

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Photo: La Directa

by Marina Rubio Herranz and Sam Bliss

The Banc Expropiat is an assembly-based project that has made the political decision not to delegate its communication task to any kind of media in order to keep its message accurate. First hand declarations and statements can only be found in the Banc’s twitter account and blog. Our views are our own.

On Monday May 23rd, the Catalan police evicted a beloved community space in Barcelona called the Banc Expropiat. Activists first occupied the abandoned former branch of the bank Caixa Catalunya in 2011, and during the last 5 years it has become a social center for the neighborhood of Gràcia.

The Banc serves as a shared space for organizing free activities open to all—from English and Catalan classes to tai chi sessions, from film screenings to meetings of the neighborhood assembly, from groups working on housing accessibility to sewing and drawing workshops. The Banc has a play area for kids, a free shop filled with donated clothes, and computers with internet for public use. It provides a place to share empowering skills and ideas outside the world of hierarchies, markets, political parties, or other formalized institutions. The property now belongs to a real estate speculator, Manuel Bravo Solano, who asked for the eviction.

With some of our closest friends, we participate in a group called the Xarxa d’Aliments, in which we ‘recycle’ leftover and unsellable food from local businesses to feed ourselves. In return, we help out the bakeries, market stalls, and fruit-and-veggie shops from which we collect when they need a hand, building a network of mutual support.

We would meet in the Banc once a week to discuss local food politics, organize big, free community meals, and part out the rescued fruits, veggies, bread and other tasty things to take home, always making decisions by consensus. The group also publishes articles in a neighborhood magazine and makes presentations to students at Barcelona high schools to spread knowledge about local and international food waste and the issue of food sovereignty. We’ve been so grateful to have a supportive space like the Banc where we can create an alternative vision of nourishment: food as a shared bounty rather than a commodity.

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Photo: La Directa

During the eviction that Monday, two courageous people resisted for more than 8 hours until police finally managed to remove them from the vault of the former bank. Many community members spent the day in the nearest square showing their support but unable to intervene directly because the police had blocked off streets all around the building. A helicopter materialized overhead. The chopping blades would become a soundtrack for the following days of dissent.

In the evening, after the police had sealed the façade with sheet metal and left, nearly two thousand people gathered and marched through the neighborhood, decrying the forceful seizure in various chants—“The Banc Expropiat stays in Gràcia!” “Our best weapon: solidarity!” The massive group ended up in front of the Banc, protesting with a thunderous roar created by rapping on the metal sheets and yelling.

As soon as hooded squatting activists began their attempt to cut open the entrance with a circular saw, swarms of police vans arrived and heavily armed officers spilled out, their faces, bodies, and nameplates covered in black. Demonstrators threw whatever they could get their hands on at the cops and made barricades with containers on fire. Chaos and destruction ensued. Encouragement from shop owners and neighbors on their balconies quickly turned to closed shutters as foam-tipped rubber bullets from the baton-wielding police chased stampedes of protesters through the narrow streets. By the end of the night, Gràcia was covered in smoldering overturned dumpsters and broken glass.

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Photo: Víctor Serri

Tuesday, we demonstrated again. This time some 2,400 marching, chanting protesters returned to the site unobstructed and a small group of activists held up a banner at the entrance as others hidden behind it went to work cutting open the metal sheets. Moments after the Banc was reopened, dozens of police vans again appeared from all sides. Cops poured out and attacked unprovoked, swinging their nightsticks at everyone in a vicious charge to retake the space and then disperse the crowd. Rather than stopping the officers from exercising their right to strike, putting one’s hands in the air exposed vital organs to being whacked by a baton.

We had lost our right to assemble completely. Militarized police broke up any gathering of people in the neighborhood up to a kilometer from the contested area. At the end of the night, they had re-sealed the Banc with a much stronger steel plate where the ephemeral door had stood.

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Photo: El Punt Avui

Wednesday concluded three consecutive nights of protest with a march that circled the Banc, which 580 police officers had been deployed to defend. Thursday was a day of reflection and planning for a weekend full of gathering support and momentum toward returning to our locale. On Friday, in front of the sealed space, we provided passersby with first-hand information and bread with chocolate. On Saturday, we set up the activities that used to take place at the Banc in the nearby square for all to participate: an improvised free shop of newly donated clothes, screen printing pro-Banc flags and T-shirts, all-level language classes, a gigantic meal of recycled food, an open mic for inspired poetry and music, and more. Sunday, police again thwarted plans to return to the Banc. About three dozen vans and the helicopter were already patrolling Gràcia before the mid-day demo. In the afternoon, reinforcements showed up. Tension remained high all day as demonstrators yelled at the police to get out of their neighborhood, their streets.

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Photo: El Punt Avui
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Photo: Víctor Serri

Today, two weeks after the eviction, the site remains sealed. The day-to-day meetings and classes of the Banc continue in the street. Supporters periodically stick flowers in the perforations of the metal sheets. Neighborhood associations, independent publishers, labor unions, feminist groups, and other social collectives from all over Barcelona and beyond show their support by spreading the word, raising funds for the anti-eviction campaign, and persistently bringing their energy to Gràcia for events and demonstrations. The mainstream media spins yarns about chaos-creating anarchists wreaking havoc on the neighborhood. Surely the authorities keep a close eye on the area.

‘Anti-disturbance’ squads and undercover cops injured 67 people during those first two days of resistance. The Catalan government pays these police officers to forcefully prevent us from reopening a social center, because the right of a real estate speculator to determine the fate of a privately owned property he will never directly use is legitimate, and the right of citizens to gather in unused space to create community-led projects for social transformation is apparently illegitimate. The Banc is a commons—a resource collaboratively managed by everyone, for everyone. Together we will continue to resist and reclaim the Banc Expropiat as a shared space, not a commodity for profit.

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Photo: David Airob

Update

The morning of Saturday, June 4th, the twitter account of the Banc Expropiat unexpectedly announced that five people had re-entered the space. No demonstration or event had been announced publicly or discussed digitally. Dozens of Gràcia residents began to gather around the Banc and the police soon followed, of course. With the brown, sheet-metal façade perfectly intact and purposefully confusing rumors swirling in the twittersphere, neither the police nor anyone else knew for certain if the news of reoccupation was real or fake. After clearing the area by force and hesitantly lingering outside the Banc for several minutes, the police officers sliced open one of the sheets, broke the glass, and clambered in. By late afternoon, the five occupants had been detained and more than one thousand demonstrators marched once more—“If they evict us today, we will be back tomorrow.”

 

Born and raised in Barcelona, Marina Rubio Herranz is working toward building harmonious and empowering ways of inhabiting this world through rehabilitation, permaculture, participation and mutual support.

Sam Bliss rode his bicycle from his parents’ house in Seattle to Catalunya to study ecological economics and degrowth at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, and quickly got involved with several local groups and collectives.

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