Geography: Posts

Space, Power and the Commons

Samuel Kirwan, co-editor of Space, Power and the Commons, discusses some of the debates around spatial control.

Putting together the book Space, Power and the Commons: The Struggle for Alternative Futures, rather than present a manifesto on ‘the commons’, we sought a diverse range of critical perspectives on property, land, resources, community and public space, all of which held ‘the commons’, and the concept of ‘commoning’, as an animating, if contested, concept. The book encompasses: the commons in its traditional/historical understanding as the intertwined organisation of land and practice that became segmented and privatised under regimes of enclosure; approaches to resources held ‘in common’ and their management and cultivation; and alternative arrangements and articulations of community emphasising sharing and unboundedness. Two themes shared by the papers are a critique of commons as the reverse of neoliberalism, an argument that silently affirms the dominance of the latter, and to emphasise, as does Peter Linebaugh (2008), the practices that compose, animate and shape commons – practices of commoning.

Through these contributions we hope to begin a renewed engagement with this concept, the necessity of which, writing at the start of 2016, is starkly presented in two areas of current political concern.

The first are urgent debates around flood prevention, and the role therein of current arrangements for property ownership with regard upland land management (see Quinn et al for a breakdown of the respective bundles of rights and their arrangement under different regimes). Leaving to one side ongoing debates as to the causal role of land management practices proper to sheep farming and grouse moors, it is clear that any debate is significantly restricted by the sanctity afforded to rights conferred by certain forms of property ownership, and the proximity of those interests to political decision making. What the commons enables, in this respect, need not be restricted to an atavistic overhauling of post-enclosure property regimes, but rather a set of practical concerns for how land management practices, both up- and down-stream, can be brought together.

The second, which I’d like to focus on in more detail, is the ‘housing crisis’, and specifically the steady movement towards a divided system where housing security is only available through property ownership; where tenancies of all forms are characterised by precarity. Again, placing to one side the mild enhancements afforded by the Deregulation Act (what would, despite some inspired filibustering, have been introduced as part of a Tenancies (Reform) Act) following significant work by Shelter in particular, it is clear from the introduction of, and amendments to, the Housing and Planning Bill that the security afforded by the Secure Tenancy, and the size of Housing Stock available to Local Authorities and Housing Associations, will be significantly diminished in the coming decade. Precarity of tenancy is, it seems, a desired political situation.

What has become clear in my current work with advice agencies is first that problems are always intertwined – a family problem is often a debt problem, and so forth – and second that security in the home is the condition for being able to deal with these intertwined problems. From this perspective, the experience of the secure household is a shared concern; if we consider the transformative and productive potentiality of home spaces, it is clear that our own commoning is something shaped and framed by household security. The stable home, as somewhere to return to, think things over – to breathe – is a holding space to deal with the manifold problems that are tied, in particular, to rising debt problems.

The disruption that the commons allows need not be a disruption of security; we do not need to evoke the commons as a breaking down of these spaces and a re-composition of household to include known and unknown others. Rather, it is a disruption in two ways: first of the separation of the home from other issues, i.e. that eviction from the home will not impact upon the other issues that the tenant is facing. Second, of the strict separation of landlord and tenant, rooted in the conception of property-as-investment, and enacted in the proprietary right to determine a tenancy contract with no connection to the broader situation of that household.

From these seemingly un-related areas, the potential of the commons emerges both an emphasis upon the practices through which we share the world and an indication of the structures of power through which those practices are delimited and constrained; it is an indication of how we might live, and where we push and struggle to enable that life.

Quinn, C.H., Fraser, E.D.G., Hubacek, K., Reed, M.S. “Property rights in the UK uplands and the implications for policy and management.” Ecological Economics.Vol.69(6) pp1355-1363.

Linebaugh, P. (2008) The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All. Berkeley: University of California Press.